Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cooking For Dad

Kalpana is moving to a nicer pad. Won't you please follow her there?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Behavior tips for my husband for the next 25 years of our married life

The minute I declared that I would write on this topic today, the day I completed 25 years of wedded bliss and wedded hiss (isn’t it interesting – bliss rhymes with hiss and kiss and wed rhymes with dead and bed), I got a ton of email from desperate women who want help in their married lives.

“Can you please write one for how a husband should behave for the first 25 years of our married life? It’ll come in really handy for me.”

Before I begin, I would like to say that my husband is a (mostly) good man with a (mostly) good heart and a (mostly) good head. His is a head that plays a mean, mean game of Scrabble even though he’s a computer scientist and you’d think he doesn’t have the rhythm on anything other than an algorithm. But this dude often slaps me with a bingo when I’m gloating over my own anemic wooden creations like “bill” and “sick”.

I found out recently–from Judith Thurman of the New Yorker–that computer scientists and mathematicians have a thing for Scrabble. Great. So now the only power I had vested in me, the power of the word, is now wrested from me. Thank you, Ms. Thurman. Of course, she then pacified me somewhat a little further in her story by disclosing that scrabble maniacs abound in India. If anyone of you thinks your vocabulary is earthshaking, please whimper and suck your thumb as you read about the characters in her story here.

Returning to the list that’s driving this blog entry, let me begin with the first thing my husband should not do for the next 25 years. He should not buy me a card at Safeway because that’s so ‘by the way’. Think about it, it’s a place where you get milk and butter mindlessly and it doesn’t have style as it would if he were to get me a card at Target or Kohl’s. On the other hand, Safeway is fine as long as the card isn’t on clearance. Then he must call me before he leaves work everyday because then I’ll be able to tell him what he must pick up on the way before he gets home. It’s the one thing the best husbands do, I hear. Then he should really “Talk” to me; I don’t want him to talk to me via Google Talk or Facebook. I want him to face me without an LCD screen between me and him. He should get rid of the phone from those UT Austin days that I’m hiding behind our fax machine. Is it too much to ask for an upgrade? He should really consider at last buying me a diamond necklace at Kadam & Kadam because, as you know, in our Tamilian culture others will wonder what he got me for our wedding anniversary and I won’t have an honest answer for them. And once in a while, he may want to interpret a “How about a getaway?” as a romantic getaway; I don’t understand, he seems to get away on his own every time I ask that question. Also, computer science logic works very well even in our kitchen and he should apply it everyday from now on. For example, “IF dishes pile up in the sink, THEN load the dishwasher OR ELSE wife will turn into Elvira, Mistress of the Dark”. See, there’s natural order and logic in the world that folks like Don Knuth and Dennis Ritchie applied in Computer Science to great success. He should also do his taxes every year by April 15th and not wait until October to do them or panic and go away on assignment so Price Waterhouse can do them. Also, no more asking “do you have the directions” whenever we go anywhere; twenty-five years of being asked the same question is showing up now in all my audiology reports. The California Ear Institute told me that there are some questions I just don’t hear anymore, whatever the frequency. So I’m considering getting these really fancy Oticon hearing aids to compensate for the hearing loss but I'm talking $3000 and insurance won’t cover it. So may be we’ll just live with my hearing loss even if it’s somewhat selective. There’s many more behavior tips coming up as I write but then he’ll yell at me later saying I told everyone he wears Hanes size 34 and Jockey (India brand) size 36 so I’m just going to be a good wife and shut up for once.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Change I Need

Right around January 20th, 2009, when Senator Obama becomes President Obama, a momentous transition of power is going to take place in my home. My husband of 25 years, the father of my two children, will return home after a two and a half year sabbatical from marriage and fatherhood.

For the first few weeks in the White House, President Obama will be groping in the dark as he waddles around in the White House in his jammies. My husband's situation exactly: he is going to be looking for the light to our bathroom outside the bathroom the way it has been in his Bangalore, India, home for the last 24 months.

While Obama's going to take calls in the 1000 square foot Oval Office, the new, upgraded love of my life will, once again, share a 100 square foot rectangular office with his First (and Only) Lady.

While our new commander-in-chief will not have to fret about where his next washed underwear comes from, my old commander-in-chief will soon be fuming when he's down to his last fruit from the loom. I hope my husband, like Mr. President, will not air his dirty linen in public after he debriefs home affairs? And while Rahm Emanuel's fixing things up around the White House, my improved husband, Version 2.5, will be meddling with our now somewhat rickety garage door - hopefully, with a User Manual in hand.

Days after his arrival in our house, we'll have a formal transfer of power: like the President, my husband will sign his name, again and again, on paper. In White House parlance, this is called signing the bills. But in our tight house, we call it being in charge of doing the bills.

Obama, lucky man, may have a Chief of Staff. My husband, on the other hand, is already showing how cheap of staff he is: the times are tough, he says. Downsize, honey, let our housekeeper come to clean once in two weeks. Hey, am I, like Michelle, asking for a whole Chef? Where's the justice, huh?

If you haven't lived with your husband for years, I tell you it's not that easy to live with one again. The problem is, just like Presidents, spouses change too. For once, darling, let's sit down and talk about the Change I Need.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Self-reverence, self-knowledge and self-control

In (almost) every phone call from my dad – who is yet to exercise the self-control to not call me long distance every time he emails me to tell me that he has emailed me - I hear the same pearl of wisdom from Lord Tennyson.

Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,

These three alone lead life to sovereign power

Dad cannot fathom why my husband hasn’t yet booked his return flight to the United States, considering he’s expected to fly back in about two weeks at the end of his two-year assignment.

“Just two weeks to go and he doesn’t have an itinerary yet? Utterly disorganized. Both you and your husband have yet to do one thing in a planned and systematic manner. You know, Lord Tennyson said, “Self-reverence, self-knowledge…”...”

Dad’s off on his Tennyson spiel again. Yes, these are the lines by which he walks every morning for an hour (in gear from Paris’ Avenue Montaigne). These are the very lines that inspire him to wake up at 4.45AM to the sound of an IKEA alarm on his dresser, and these, the powerful lines by which he is off to work, at the age of 85, by 10.43AM just when the house help ambles in late, as usual. (She, unfortunately, isn’t literate enough to understand the power of Lord Tennyson’s words and translating it into Tamil is like offering someone soggy ribbon pakoda.)

So this morning dad said he was disgusted with me and is not going to ever again ask me the question he has asked me for the last two years over every long-distance call.

“Have you filled out your US citizenship papers yet?”


“I’m telling you the situation in the US is not going to be peachy forever.”

“Okay, dad, I get it. I will.”

“You’re always saying ‘I will’. But every time I call you still haven’t.”

“Yes, dad. Understood.”

“What ‘understood’? One fine day, mark my words, young lady, you’ll be barred from entering the United States because you haven’t become a citizen. And your husband and your two children would have entered the country and they’ll be long past the passport counter on their way to Baggage Claim. And you? You’ll be left standing at the immigration counter. Mark my words, my dear girl. You don’t realize it now. You’ll realize it long after I’m gone.”

“Long after I’m gone.” Would these have been the most frequently uttered words since man first surfaced in East Africa? With the exception of the first man on earth–who would not have had a hint that he would go one day–has every man used emotional blackmail on his kid with the words “You won’t realize it now but you’ll realize it LONG AFTER I’m GONE"?

I have vivid memories of emotional blackmail since my birth in 1961. I grew up in a neat and orderly household–where all hand-set calendars showed the right date and all pencils were sharpened daily whether or not they were used and “each each thing was in each each’s place” (like dad would say with a fierce pride only evidenced in Lord Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur). My earliest memory involves the number “9-9-1989”. I suspect that when mom thrust a bottle into my mouth, dad may have said “Drink now, child, so you may survive the stormy night of 9-9-1989.”

See, “9-9-1989” was some number that dad pulled from the air but subsequently ascribed to an astrologer-savant. That, he warned us, would be the day he would be taken by force from the earth. So we listened, paid obeisance to his rules, behaved with a great deal of decorum, organized our lives to make him proud, always remembering that “9-9-1989” was just around the corner.

But 9-9-1989 came and went. Dad has gorged on many an appam since. He hasn' t been shy about feasting on morkuzhambu –with Lay's potato chips on the side, please–either. What’s more, 9-11 came and went. Now 11-26 just passed. But Dad ain’t batting an eyelid. His brow is presently deeply furrowed over who is going to make the clean sweep at the Australian Open this month: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray?

My old man has cried wolf forever, as you can see. I’m going to fill up my US citizenship papers all right. But I’m going to do it on my own time, not under dad’s, pardon the expression, deadline.

What dad needs to know is the following. If the guy at the Immigration counter in the US bars me from entry, I’ve always got a place to go back to: dad’s orderly home in Chennai. There I’ll have food, shelter and love, along with pungent reminders of the value of self-reverence, self-knowledge and self-control.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Inconvenient Truth about Conveniences

Glaciers are melting. Polar bears forage around human discards for food. Mr. Gore, if only you had looked to the third world for tips many years ago when countries like India didn’t know about conveniences.

The South India as I knew it forty years ago was a master recycler of old goods, a crusader for natural products. Outside our home in Chennai, the most popular form of transport was the cycle rickshaw, an ungainly bicycle carrying two passengers in a bucket seat. Everything we discarded was bound to be a treasure to someone else. A man came home monthly to collect papers and newspapers. Families made glue out of all-purpose flour. We lined our eyes with home made black kohl made from soot. Polyester fabrics still hadn’t gained yardage over cotton and silk. Few cars mowed the roads. We used only public transport. We knew only slow food; the only fast food I knew of was from roadside vendors who sold hot roasted peanuts in cones fashioned from old newsprint.

A wedding in the family? Water and coffee were served in reusable steel glasses. Long banana leaves were spliced in the rib, cut into sections about a foot long, washed and laid out on wooden or steel tables. Guests ate out of these banana leaves which imparted an earthy flavor to the meal; dessert was served in a cup made of lotus leaves stitched artistically by white cotton thread of likely poor thread count. But who cared? These were all perfectly biodegradable; used leaves were tossed into an open muddy trough where cows had a field day eating vegetarian leftovers from lush green banana leaves.

In the new, remodeled India, the bicycle and the banana leaf are phasing out. At wedding feasts today, banana leaves are laid out now on long rolls of paper for simpler clean-up; dessert is served in plastic cups. One-pint water bottles rule. The once liquid bindi (the Hindu dot on the forehead) is now sold as stickers on laminated packets. Local stores supply plastic bags when, years ago, my parents had to carry five cloth bags every time they went to the market or the grocery store. Looking for the milkman on a bicycle bringing slightly adulterated milk directly from his farm? Sorry, milk now comes in paper or plastic cartons at Foodworld supermarket. At 7AM at Chennai's famous Murugan Idli Shop in T. Nagar, waiters quickly snap cardboard boxes into shape for takeout idli orders; in the old days, we took out idlis in containers made from dried lotus leaves.

Welcome to the new India where modern conveniences now live in happy coexistence with age-old privileges. Where else can you find musty lending libraries with 1950 collections of Superman comics where reduce, reuse and recycle (at a paltry sum) is the order of the day? Contrast that with a stop at an upscale bookstore called Landmark in Chennai's Nungambakkam where the just-published hardback editions of Nandan Nilekani’s “Imagining India – Ideas for the New Century” are stacked up in a six-foot column to sell at Rs. 700 each. In just six months–from July to December 2008– Chennai has undergone massive changes. The city has fast built plaque with spanking new flyovers (overpasses) which, of course, do little to ease traffic. The main thoroughfare in Pondy Bazaar, Chennai’s shopping Mecca, which once was crossable just by flailing your arms madly at bus drivers, is now a manic bazaar choking with autos, buses, bicycles, stylish vast malls, juice shops, streetside vendors selling tissue boxes, flowers, bangles and night pyjamas, you name it.

In the side streets by Pondy Bazaar, I see an impoverished lady whose income depends on collecting all forms of plastic she sees discarded by the roadside. Like my fellow Indians, I turn a blind eye to the lady because I have more pressing matters at the moment. I'm tempted to buy an armload of bangles which the owner gingerly wraps in old newsprint and drops into my handbag. Just behind the bangle stall, I'm attracted to a cotton Kurta set on display at Krishna Collection, an air-conditioned store with a wide variety in fashionable Indian garments. Between the plastic-collecting lady, the bangle kiosk owner, Krishna Collections and I, we all want a piece of the action. And that's the new, inconvenient truth about conveniences.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Plane food that isn't so plain, after all

At 33,000 feet above sea level, we were–to borrow a line from Singapore Airlines–flying the friendly skies. I didn’t hear any comparisons to any other aunties’ culinary sleight of hand.

Six soft cubes of paneer snuggled in a bed of mildly spiced spinach gravy. We had the option of eating Saag Paneer with a flaky paratha or with vegetable Biriyani topped with toasted raisins, almond slivers and caramelized onion. Or I could dip the paratha in Panchratan dhal, a five-lentil staple of Mughal cuisine. To cool off, I’d finish with the raita in which cucumber had been diced into tapioca-sized pebbles and seasoned with kala namak.

Our children–who are still shopping around for the world’s best Gobi Manchurian–were seated to my right and tucking in fast. They didn’t have time to talk. The paneer critic of the family, our daughter, was digging into the white cubes with no cheesy comments about how underdone or overdone they were. Had this been a product of my kitchen it may have been creamed by her–even if I’d created it from scratch from a recipe by Tarla Dalal.

The way I sauté paneer cubes when I make Mutter Paneer never fails to bring on a saucy dig or two in my kitchen.

“You still haven’t figured it out,” she will say. Then, she will sharpen her knife. “See how Vanitha Aunty does it, she doesn’t toast or sauté the paneer.” Minutes later she will prick me with a poisoned fork. “Why don’t you just ask Vasanthi Aunty?”

Vasanthi Aunty, the mother of a close friend, is second only to Julia Child according to the ruthless Reichl that I gave birth to 18 years ago.

“Vasanthi Aunty makes the best pasta even if the sauce is out of a bottle from Safeway.”

“I guess I’ll just eat dinner at Vasanthi Aunty’s then.”

“Of course you can tell who made it, mom. Vasanthi Aunty.”

I don’t know how this Aunty does it but it seems when Vasanthi Aunty boils water, it always tastes just right.

For the next two weeks, I tell myself, I needn’t fret over critical appraisals of my cooking. The best part about vacation is that the whole family can unite in criticizing someone else’s food. Eating out on a vacation can be such a cementer of relationships.

“Any more coffee or tea, ma’am?” The Jet Airways attendant in a turmeric-colored coat on the San Francicso–Shanghai sector hovers around me, beaming down at my empty tray.

“No, just water for me, thanks!” I say, handing over my tray with a smile.

I tell my daughter to make sure she eats the gulab jamun on her plate. I didn’t believe she would praise it sky-high (surely, it couldn’t beat Vasanthi Aunty’s?) but I want to tell her it feels quite authentic–without making any unnecessary references to any other cook’s jamun. The best jamun tastes of khoya, sweetie, so try it, I say. When my teeth sank into the Jet jamun, I remembered the khoya I once bought at a street stall in Delhi’s Ajmal Khan Road.

You see how our family dinners are turbulent while on the ground and how this meal aboard a plane was an elevating experience.

And just so we can taxi everyone and everything down to the same plane, even the aunty whose name shall go unmentioned for a few weeks could learn a thing or two from Jet Airways’ chefs to heighten her cooking, couldn't she?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Life Lessons on Bad Wedgie Days

When the kids and I leave for India this Friday on a short holiday, I won’t have to lift a finger. The two children will grunt and heave and load the airport cart and unload it at the counter. And I will hover over the luggage proceedings, occasionally conducting the stressful affair with my fingers while shouting out a few commands for effect. “Put it here!” “Just lift it this way, not that!” Most of my suggestions will be met with a “Mom, please?” or a frosty glare or both.

Understand, they’re not just loading my luggage these days. They’re scanning all my bags. They’re picking my locks. They’re throwing open my lid and unpacking my layers. They’re rearranging me. I’m always at Insecurity Check.

When I was twenty, I was sure there really wasn’t much left in the world for me to learn. At thirty, I was pleased that I could teach my toddlers a whole lot about the world. But now that I’m way past forty (but nowhere within crying distance of 50) and my children are in their teens, I’m often reminded by my flesh and blood that my understanding of world affairs is not quite whole. Apparently, it has holes.

They are becoming my teachers. Let’s rewind to one of my earliest lessons: phonics taught the Challenger way. My son was seven and my daughter was 11. I had learned phonics by osmosis. My children taught it to me the right way.

“No, mom, candy has a short vowel, a ‘breve’, not a ‘macron’, don’t you see?” my seven-year-old pointed out when I peered over his shoulder at his homework. My daughter glared at me over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses, insisting that “these are just the rules of phonics and if you understand them, they’re really quite simple.”

“Does it really matter?” I’d said. “I speak well enough, who cares about short and long?”

Twenty-seven years after I got my college degree I still find myself defending, feebly, the way I learned something.

The kids and I never agree on how we add, subtract, divide and multiply. They wince at my old-fashioned way of doing math. But, they admit, grudgingly, that it works – even smarter than their way sometimes.

Over the last decade, I’ve also been primed on things that I’ve not particularly wanted to learn–like the ‘wedgie’.

“You don’t know what a ‘wedgie’ is?” my daughter shrieked one day around the time she began middle school, buckling into giggles at the way the word rolled out of my Indian tongue. At the debriefing session, I was informed that it was–and I quote the Webster’s here–the condition of having one’s clothing wedged between the buttocks. I told her that not knowing about it for the first 15 years of my life in America hadn’t affected my life–even on a bad Wedgie day.

But, last week, my newly minted college student told my virginal ears about the significance of a sock on the doorknob of a closed door in a college dorm room. “Did the roommate forget to wash a sock when she went out to do a load of laundry, may be?” I ventured. Then this Indian American parent was gently escorted to the sofa and talked to about the ways of the birds and the bees in college. I gathered that some college students needed the privacy of a dorm room and the collusion of a roommate to use a room. The sock in question, she said, is a state of high alert for a roommate to not walk into any hanky-panky.

I reached for my curried smelling salts. So much for a recent lesson from my Cosmo-girl.

Then there was another from my Wired boy. Just last weekend, my son’s ego took a big beating; he lost out at several tournaments, tripped up at school and got a bad rap from one of his teachers. On one of his worst evenings, he sat moping in his room, wondering why he was a monumental failure. A few minutes later, he walked back into the kitchen and got himself a glass of milk. He sat down at the counter, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions in hand.

“I’m going to be sad exactly for an hour,” he said. “After that, it’s time to move on and see how I can do better in everything.”

And just this morning he told me to stop overreacting because he refused to wear his sweatshirt. He suggested I lower my voice because, when I cursed, our good Korean neighbor would most definitely hear my expletives, especially with the garage door open and all.

So I picked up the debris of my scattered self, zipped up and turned the key in the ignition. He and I were on our way to school.