Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Curse of the Red Dot*

KumKum a.k.a Kungumam a.k.a Theeka a.k.a Tilak

Kumkum: If you don’t know what this word means please go to the following
link before reading this post.

Ok, yours truly is a devout Hindu. So as soon as I take a bath, I
dutifully recite my shlokas (holy verses) and apply kungumam to my fore
head. If my mom gets to read this…she will say chamathu (which in English
roughly translates to ‘Good Boy’). It wasn’t that big a deal in India,
even though I was one among the very few guys in college who sported the
sacred red dot.

But once I landed in North Carolina, I started facing difficulties. People
thought I had some kind of a cut on my forehead. A guy on the bus even
went to the extent of saying that if the cut was towards the side instead
of being dead center it could have looked like the one Harry Potter had.
Well I really couldn’t blame him; the mark turned out like a diagonal N
that day. I decided to enlighten the guy about our customs and traditions.
So the poor guy had to endure a 20 minute discourse on the significance of
the DOT. Just as I was getting to how Hindus related kungumam to the
mystic third eye, I saw my listener hurriedly pulling the chain of the bus
and get down. His parting words were…..
”Dude, the next stop is the health center. You should seriously get your
third eye treated bro. It’s not normal you know.”

20 minutes wasted. Damn! So after that day, I never went into the details.
I came here to study not scare people with my 3rd eye, so I usually told
people that I had to wear it because of religious reasons. Normally,
people never bothered me after I gave them that explanation. But, my boss
is this inquisitive woman. She wasn’t satisfied with my explanation and
she began to bombard me with questions.

Boss: Coooohmaar (the number of o’s are directly proportional to how
excited she was), I only see Indian women wear the bindi. You are the
first guy I have ever seen wearing the bindi.

Me (wincing whenever she used the word bindi): Uh, Boss you are right.
Women wear the bindi, it comes in a lot of shapes and patterns. But what
I…uh…er.. what MEN wear is called a theeka.

Boss: I guess bindi and thee..thee..thee (looking at me to complete it for

Me: Theeka

Boss: Yeah aren’t they the same. But why are you the only Indian guy
wearing it?

I needed a paycheck every month so I really didn’t want to voice my
frustrations about how westerners thought that they knew everything there
is to know about India by watching one Bollywood movie (which in my boss’s
case was Lagaan).But, at the same time I wanted to let her know that I am
not the only weird Indian guy with the dot.

Me: Boss, don’t you remember the Hero had theeka on his forehead in the

Boss: Oh yeah. Now I remember Coooooohmaaar. But the one he wears is
vertical and not horizontal like the one you have.

I gave up and didn’t want to prolong the conversation any more. So I
emailed her a link which talked about the heritage behind the kungumam and
how it could be applied to the forehead by BOTH men and women.

During my second year at NC State I became wiser (yeah, I finally got to
know Ohm’s law) and rarely ventured out sporting the dot. I really didn’t
have the patience to explain about our culture and heritage every time
some stranger in the middle of the road spotted the dot. So I thought it
was better to rub it off before I got out of the house. But on Deepavali
(an Indian festival) my religious sentiments got the better of me. I
didn’t want God to wreak havoc (the semester was already looking bleak)
for my not wearing kungumam on such a holy day. On that particular day,
Susan, one of my American friends picked me up at my house. She and I were
working on a project that was due in a week. So in the car she quizzed me
about the red dot. For obvious reasons I wanted the topic to end as
quickly as possible and I knew it all hinged on my answer. So, I told her
that I usually wore the dot as soon as I took a bath. She didn’t ask me
any further questions and I was relieved. I was so happy that I
entertained hopes of using this as my default explanation if the topic was
ever breached again (only to be quashed the very next week).

The following week I applied kungumam on my forehead and made a conscious
decision to not rub it off as I stepped out of my house (how could I even
think of rubbing it off when I had my project presentation in an hour.
Lord is divine. Lord have mercy!) . I entered the class and sat next to
Susan. I was mentally going over the presentation slides and making note
of the places where I had to crack jokes to keep the audience awake. I
didn’t notice Peg and Elaine (two of my class mates who sat one row ahead
of me) staring at my forehead. Only when they started having an argument
did I realize that my red dot was the cause for it.

Peg: No he is not married.

Elaine: Peg, I have an Indian friend who told me that only married people
get to wear the red thing.

Peg: But, he didn’t wear it for the whole of last month.

Elaine: Maybe he got married yesterday.

I was furious. Enough was enough. Some body had to teach these people
about our traditions and values. I seriously didn’t care even if it
required me to take them through the mystic third eye. Just as I was about
to interrupt them I heard Susan’s sagely voice.

Susan: Girls, relax. Kumar took a bath today.

As Susan enlightened them about how the red mark signified that I was
clean, I was regretting my idiotic explanation to Susan the previous week.

I have truly become wise now. I never repeated that mistake. Whenever
someone has questions about the red dot, I take down their email address
and ask them to check their email inbox for an explanation.

*The author has exaggerated parts of the story to make it seem a little
funnier than how the events originally transpired. But, the crux of the
story, sadly (for me), is true.


Blogger Radhika said...

You could have atleast sent me a wedding invitation... :-D

8:39 AM  
Blogger PS said...

Kumar, who's the guy?

8:48 AM  
Blogger Radhika said...

Oh..BTW this one person asked my friend once if I was the Indian with the feather or the dot...:-P and I was like..Hmm I don't think I wear either..:-)

8:53 AM  
Blogger karthik durvasula said...

3 points in this post.

1. You see to be surrounded by girls/ladies! ur boss is female, the one u sit next to is female, the only people in ur class that u discuss are female - in fact, the only male in the story is a guy u meant accidentally in a bus! where are u man? wouldn't mind coming there!

2. KumKum, Kungumam, Theeka, Tilak, as far as i know, don't mean the same thing. the first too are more specifically the material used, and the later too are the end product on ur head. It is the same difference between steel and cars;). Devout hindu, hmpppff! (waiting to get screwed for this;))

3. While on the topic of kumkum, I find the word 'kungumam' extremely funny, maybe cos i am not a tamilian. I laughed each time i saw the word in the post. I am forced to visualise one of two things: a guy with tonsilitis, forcing himself to say 'kumkum', or a horrible mallu accent. either way, hilarious is the word:).

Kungumam is the word of the day!

9:24 AM  
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9:25 AM  
Blogger karthik durvasula said...

What the hell was that??

Welcome to india where the cows eat hay,
and we drive autorickshaw everyday.

Blogging is a big thing amongst NRI's. I love ur blog, and think u are hot.

we are having water problems in india (read madras), and i think blogging will help solve the problem, so please visit my blog.

3:36 PM  
Blogger karthik durvasula said...

I have to tell u, i posted my last commetn about 6 minutes back. I am still laughing at that 'ceiling fan' comment. That is by far the funniest thing i saw in weeks!

3:40 PM  
Blogger pagala'k' said...

@Radhika: Now you know why I was able to comment about the emotional trauma men go through. Hmmm...feather meaning the pear shaped sticker pottu's.

@PS: I really didn't get to know the guy on a first name basis.

@Karthik: Thanks for taking the time (you seem to have a lot of this precious commodity offlate ;) ) to make fun of the word Kungumam. Well, being surrounded by women is one thing but taking advantage of it is something which I am trying to learn from you. Shrubs..bushes..herbs...grass...trees....you know what I am talking about. Anyway, one thing that caught my notice was that for a linguist you are making too many typos.

@Anonymous: I am more into air conditioners. Its 46 degrees where I live. Nice to know that China is opening up. Everything that I have in my house is Made in China.

3:41 PM  
Blogger majanx said...

i swear karthik!!! this ceiling fan sucker was the best!!! hahaha
and ur post after that was icing on cake. man. my belly aches and i still have tears in my eyes.

3:45 PM  
Blogger karthik durvasula said...

shrub.hmmm, damn!! wonder where it is right now!!

was a pleasant slight. properly pruned, and all.

3:52 PM  
Blogger PS said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:21 AM  
Blogger Kumari said...

Phew! Finally i get to post...past few days Blogger barred me :(
Anyways, Hilarious post :D And i can identify with it oh-so-much. I am not exactly the follower of traditions but i had done my puja so decided to keep kungumam on my forehead just like every other married Indian woman and the looks i got that day for that 'red dot' in my hair is enough to last a life time:(

11:23 AM  
Blogger pagala'k' said...

@Mayank: Thanks for dropping by. Looks like the chinese guy got more comments than the original post :(.

@PS: You didn't have to remove the post....I didn't find it offending :).The world is opening up...people are coming out of the you know what.
comment 14
@Karthik: I think shrub is working for CTS. Should be married by now.

@Kumari: Yeah, even the Indian women have seemed to abandoned the dot after coming here. Looks like I will be the only Indian to carry on the tradition.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Akshay said...

Dei kaka

U put us Desis to shame here at state day :P So they will think i havent taken a bath over a year now. Anyways nice and funny set of anecdotes dude...

7:47 PM  
Blogger Iyengar's Impetus said...

This issue about Kumkuma has plagued all of us for years. When I came here in 1974, most unexpected questions popped up and they have continued ever since. The only difference is that the curiosity has moderately reduced since then because India is cool now.
Like the author says, I too explained, wrote, and did shows in schools that dealt with Sari, Kumkuma etc. There were no e mails in those days. I got tired of explaining to these people. I drew comparisons to other cultural traditions and reminded them about other physical extensions people wear. It still did not suffice.
I finally felt this way. I may be wrong.
We are too different and these people can't figure it out. That is it.
So when I wear my western clothes, I try to downplay the color or size of the mark so I don't have to deal with the questions. But when I wear a Sari, I sport it the way I want.

7:40 PM  

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