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.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Aladdin’s Perfect Genie

My father, my sister and I are all confused about Vinayagam’s place in our new, reorganized family of three. (Or four) We need him - at a moment’s notice - when we need him. But when we don’t want him around, we wish him to disappear into the lamp like Aladdin’s perfect genie.

Vinayagam looks nothing like Ganesha, the paunchy elephant-headed Hindu God of good luck, after whom his parents named him. On the contrary, Vinayagam is scrawny, skinnier even than Jesus Christ. This young bachelor of 26, our family chauffeur, rings the doorbell everyday at my father’s home in Chennai, India, at 7.30am. Outfitted typically in a recently ironed shirt inserted into a crisp dress pant, Vinayagam loves a hand-me-down from the men of our family, which he then alters to suit his puny frame. On his wrist he sports a $70 Skagen watch that I gifted him on one of my India visits. A broad black belt holds his pant in place but every half hour or so he tends to check and ensure that his privates are in place the way men often do in India.

In his hand Vinayagam holds a pink lotus, its petals still glistening with morning dew, that he picked up at a farm in the suburb of Porur where he shares an 800 square-foot low income housing apartment with his mother, father, brother, sister-in-law and a six-year-old nephew. He lays the flower down at the foot of an 8 by 11 photo of my mother in which she’s looking the way she always did when she liked something but not wholeheartedly, whatever it may be. He stares at her and reminisces about old times, shaking his head dismally. “She made sure I was never hungry. She fed me three meals a day. How can I ever forget that kindness?” He calls out to her via the photograph. “Mo.. Mo? How are you up there?”

Towards the end of my mother’s life, Vinayagam began to call her ‘Mo’, transgressing a mother-daughter territory that my sister and I had defined and cherished. We addressed our mother this way in our most tender moments and as she lay dying, our driver quietly adopted our term of endearment just because he was her gofer everyday for the last six years of her life. I saw her just once every year when I flew in from the San Francisco Bay Area; my sister, who was three hours away in Singapore, visited home every few months.

It’s funny how small things, like the usurping of a name, can peck and gnaw at your soul.

On a typical morning then, after greeting Mo, Vinayagam crosses our living room and saunters over to the dining area announcing his arrival with a ‘Saar...I’m here’. The ‘Saar’ or ‘Sir’ is my 82-year-old father. Nodding absently, dad continues whatever he’s doing - rinsing out his shaving brush in a bowl of water in the bathroom or writing yesterday’s accounts in a 1998 diary in his bedroom, or rereading the headlines in ‘The Hindu’ in the living room.

Vinayagam ambles into the kitchen wondering aloud if Saar is ready for his toast. He sneaks a peek at the top of the refrigerator. Whenever he notices that we’re short on bread, he says ‘Oh and by the way, Saar, I’ll have to stop later at Nilgiri’s to buy bread.’ He plugs in the toaster the way my father used to when mom was alive and well. Inserting a pencil into the top hole of the three hole power outlet, he thrusts in the two-pronged plug, drops into the toaster just two slices of Modern sweet bread and presses down the knob. He walks over to the fridge, pulls out the bottle of Maggi spicy ketchup and a slab of Amul butter. The bread slices toasted and buttered just so, Vinayagam calls out to my dad who then drops whatever he’s doing, walks over to sit at the dining table and promptly asks for the morning’s second cup of coffee or tea. If our cook hasn’t yet arrived for the day, it’s Vinayagam’s turn to make tea.

Nothing fazes Vinayagam though. Since our home began yoyoing under the weight of my mother’s ill health, he has figured out many things, not just the everyday running of the household. He has gleaned that orthodox caste-conscious Indian Brahmins who normally do not let non-Brahmins enter their kitchen, relax their rules when there are more pressing things like chemotherapy and radiation skewing their lives.

Vinayagam has had to take on my mother’s duties: every evening he boils a quart of milk for the next day’s homemade yogurt. When the cook is gone for the day, he steams hot idlis (rice and lentil cakes) for dad for dinner. By 9pm, he spruces up the kitchen for the night so the stone sink sparkles like it used to when my mother ruled the roost. Since her demise in July, Vinayagam is driver, bell-captain, errand-boy, barista, telephone operator, house cleaner, laundry machine operator, laundry folder, you name it. And, unfailingly, between all his odd jobs, he’ll stop, heave a sigh, and ask one of us how we’ll ever be able to forget about ‘our’ mother. These days dad’s siblings and all our extended family refer to him as my dad’s adopted son. Vinayagam is now part of our inner circle and when we have family and friends visiting, he doesn’t see anything wrong with sitting bang in the middle of all conversation. This doesn’t always work for my sister and me.

“Do you realize,” my sister asks me days after our mother’s cremation, “you and I don’t have a moment alone with anyone, not even dad, anymore?” We send Vinayagam out on odd jobs, just so we can get some time together with our father or an aunt or a friend.

“Vinayagam, can you go downstairs and wash the car?”

“Can you take these blouses to the tailor for alteration?

“Can you run upstairs to check if the laundry has dried on the clotheslines in the terrace?”

Perhaps Vinayagam will sense the vibes and keep a polite distance?

My sister and I don’t know exactly how and what we want him to be. There are days when he moves us to tears. Like the day I notice that someone has neatly hung a fresh pair of underwear and laid out a new towel prior to our dad’s morning shower.

“Vinayagam started doing this since life got complicated...when mother went back to the hospital,” my father says to me, choking on his words. “I never asked him to,” he says.

Then there are times when dad, my sister and I bristle as Vinayagam talks out of line, like the time he teases dad about his penny-pinching trait. It’s tough hearing things from Vinayagam - even though they may well be true.

“That fellow often crosses the line, you know,” my dad grumbles, observing that ‘this boy’ enters into the kitchen as he pleases and touches whatever he pleases. “So far,” dad mutters on, “Vinayagam hasn’t entered my prayer room but, god forbid, even that day may come.”

Over the years, the line separating us from Vinayagam has had to be broken, or dotted or, at the very least, zigzagged – especially as we began the countdown for my mother. While brain metastasis warped and zapped mother’s mental and motor skills, Vinayagam became her life support. He would grab every free moment to sit by her side massaging her forearm and calling out her name softly, a little tear glinting in the corner of his eyes.

“Can you believe it, him sitting on our mother’s bed like he owns this place?” my sister and I would gripe in private whenever we arrived in India to be with our mother, feeling somehow that this fellow who walked around and drove around in dust and grime had no right to pollute her bed. Yet when the female nurse we hired to help with our mother needed a hand to hoist her from the chair to the bed and back, guess who it was who came to her aid several times a day? Vinayagam would be at the door even before we hollered for help.

On our mother’s five-month journey to death, Vinayagam led the march. For three years, he drove her in and out of the oncology building, holding her by the arm, then wheeling her in a chair and even carrying her in his arms the day she had a seizure. Yet, somehow, my sister and I were troubled that an outsider was comforting our mother, touching her and pushing a stray hair away from her glazed eyes. What really was our problem? Terminally ill patients needed all the love they could get. And who were we to decide whose love she deserved and whose love she didn’t? Perhaps we resented the fact that the one person who spent every day of her last years with her knew more about her than we did.

On the morning of the cremation, a close friend gently led my father and Vinayagam away from the roaring flames, comforting a husband who married at twenty and lost his wife after sixty-one years, comforting a driver who found his surrogate mother at twenty but lost her after only six. I never got to see my mother’s body on the funeral pyre. Vinayagam did.

One evening two weeks after my mother’s ashes have been scattered in the Bay of Bengal, my dad and Vinayagam are sitting side by side in what will become another daily evening ritual. Dad is resting on my mother’s favorite green and yellow cane chair. Vinayagam is sprawled on the cool mosaic floor. They’re watching World Cup Cricket live on television.

Between commercials, Vinayagam reminds my dad about an upcoming to-do.
“Saar, you have to have a hair-cut the day after. Why don’t we drive up to the hair salon and also stop by Amudha. You’re running out of coffee grounds, you know.”

My father nods, his shiny cheeks reflecting the light of a Nescafe commercial playing on the screen, the beginnings of a smile creeping into his eyes. He cannot begin his day without percolating freshly roasted and ground coffee beans.

The All-Knowing Vinayagam, the Remover of All Obstacles, turns towards me and grins.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Don't worry, there's also the Potty Pass

"Mom, don't worry," my son reassured me last night. "There's also the Potty Pass."

"YOU are DEPENDING on THAT to pull up your Biology grade in FRESHMAN year?" asks his sister, her jaw hitting our limestone floor. "Mom, your son won't graduate from high school and that's that!"

My daughter, the drama and dance queen, is back after her first quarter at Northwestern University. Her AP BIO grades in high school wouldn't have got her the Nobel but, wait a minute, we're talking about bombing freshman year.
She always refers only to her Freshman and Sophomore years.

"In Freshman year, you can't get anything but A's."
"In Freshman year, which idiot bombs Biology?"
"10th grade math, Trig Honors, is such a joke. It's for babies."
"Sophomore English? I slept through it."

But when I say, "Sweetie pie, come here, let's talk about 11th grade," she's nowhere to be seen. Has she apparated to Chicago? Because I've been looking and I can't find the broom.

In our home, subjects like grades spark spontaneous combustion and allergic reactions. Sometimes they bring on the flu–or, as in my daughter's case, the floo powder. And at most Indian-American homes–assuming we're talking about the sane, everyday-fare Indian–the day begins and ends with looking at something called THE ONLINE GRADING SYSTEM.

At most high schools, parents have access to their kid's grades through the school website. The access to the system is password protected. This is typically accessible to parents until 11th grade at which point your kid will go in and keep switching the password on you many times over exactly around the time the progress report is due to come out.

The online grading system is how I power up and end my day. My morning cup of French Roast from Cupertino's potent Roasted Coffee Bean in hand, I turn on THE SYSTEM. I don't need breathing exercises from my Art of Living workshop any more. My son's grades keep me in shape. I inhale sharply as I type in my password, hold for around 30 seconds and release when I see that the grades are on the other side of the B mountain.

Of all his numbers, his Biology grades give me the hot flashes month after month. The labs seem low on oxygen. When the marker for his labs points to zero again and again, I tell my son I'm feeling the onset of the Vaso-Vagal syndrome.

He's concerned, he's such a good boy. "Mom, don't worry. I forgot to put the date. You get a zero until you put the date back in. I'll handle it."

Another time he ponders the situation as if he were Gregor Mendel. " must be a technicality. I may have forgotten to write my name on the top right hand corner of the paper. So I'm sure my paper's in the "No-name" bin. I'll handle it right away."

Ye another time, he muses: "There's something wrong with the Scantron system. Look how I'm acing the essays."

And that's how, as we inch towards the end of the semester mark, our son has begun to bet on the proper functioning of his urethra: if he doesn't take a bathroom break, he will get an additional 10 points. (And that's not forgetting the Kleenex points: if you bring a box of tissues, add 10 more points to your Diffusion lab)

But look at the bright side, friends. When your biology grade depends on holding your bladder for eighteen straight weeks, you know your career choice likely lies in Economics, Chemistry, French, Music, Math, English or Physics. Or Driver's Ed.

High school is about finding what you want to do in your life. The potty pass is taking us closer than ever before to finding the truth.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Face-off over Facebook

In the real world, we have universal rules about friendships. Teens have teens for friends. They giggle and fess up secrets behind locked doors. Dads and moms may not enter the room either as participants or as hangers-on. But in the lounge called Facebook, friendships are redefined: the walls we’d normally put up–of age, attitude, relationship and unfamiliarity–crumble. Which is why a face-off is erupting in our living room.

“Dad, WHY are you still trying to friend me?” asks our 18-year-old, rolling her eyes. For the last year, dad’s been asking to be privy to her world and she has repeatedly been ignoring him. In the meantime, dad has forged over 989 friendships, reunited with classmates from 45 years ago, reconnected with retired company folks he hasn’t met in years, befriended third cousins once removed and chatted up women with whom, in real life, he’s only on “hi and bye” terms. For dad, Facebook has offered a level playing field. Somehow, our daughter can’t level with that.

“Dad, you don’t know that lady well. How can you, like, chat with her like you’re on chatty terms with her?” Her 53-year-old dad shrugs. He says he likes to know what others, including ladies he doesn’t meet that often, are up to. “And, hey, as I keep telling you, my company’s Senior VPs are on it too. This thing is huge. It’s the next wave!” he says.

Our daughter doesn’t disagree with that but, really, it’s quite uncool when your own dad’s trying to pry and poke into your playing field to see things you wouldn’t ever want him to see.

So Dad tried the back door to get to his daughter: he friended our daughter’s best friend who, gladly, friended him back. My husband thought that would finally convince his daughter that he was indeed "friendable". Nope.

A few weeks ago, our daughter pushes open the door to my room, her face a canvas of exasperation. “Now Grandpa’s trying to friend me. What’s the world coming to? Why’s he acting like his son?”

Seconds later we hear a chuckle in the adjacent room. Dad, who has access to grandpa’s account, is down to his last trick in the book.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Flocking to Twitter

In my family, I'm always the last to migrate to new technology. The day before yesterday I made the mistake of allowing myself to get infatuated by Twitter's plumage.

And now I feel like a parked Peugeot in Paris in the leafy month of April. All the birds in the city collude with one another during this month. They eat all the chestnut buds and do their thing all over the cars - windshield, side-view mirrors, rear-view mirror, antenna, fender, you name it. Whichever way you look at it - from the inside looking out or the outside looking in - the elaborate spray painting looks like Monet's Waterlilies. It must have made such an impression, pardon the expression, on Monet so many years ago. For the last day or so, I'm feeling like a tu-tutting Peugeot.

The only reason I decided to flock to Twitter, like everyone else, was to stay abreast of what was going on around me by the second. It wasn't enough to subscribe to the print versions of New Yorker, US News & World Report, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, San Jose Mercury News and IEEE Spectrum. They were serving me news that was at least a day old. And the problem with print stuff is the labor. Just when I am trying to get to the gym, there's always the physical effort of walking down the driveway or walking over to the mailbox to get an update which is so many hours old.

I was drawn to twitter because of the nature of my work: every magazine I want to query is hot and bothered about the greenhouse effect. Parenting? Got green milk? Family Circle? Build a community garden. Now! Woman's Day? Ten cheap ways to buy green underwear!

I needed to get up-to-the-minute on everything green before my editors got to them, see? But I find now that the twitterer's road is twisted. Somewhere in my migratory path, I swooped down where I shouldn't have. For instance, I chased after Whole Foods' incessant cackle on Twitter. Now I know that clementines are on sale at the Cupertino location close to where I live. Then there was one tweet that set my straight heart aflutter: "Try Cate Matthews, 720-872-4970. She's the contact for our Santa Fe location on Cerrillos Road." Then my green mission took me on a path to a home where a blogger showed me how to reuse crayons. I also made the mistake of following my husband and my friends, one of whom sent me this bird feed: he was listening to (when he should be working).

I'm the last of the migratory birds every tech season but I suspect I was the wiser until now. Here's the catch in this net age: can I trust my homing instinct to get me back in tune with my bitter–but better–life before Twitter?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sweet Feet


I just received this charming two-year-old pair of feet in my inbox.

Don’t they talk to you? I see them fidget. They squirm. They stop and pull at the elastic bands. Pretty soon these feet walk up to mom, tug at her sleeve, point down and say “Mo…om”. The right leg is sore and stiff as the gold anklet lodges in the back between the shoe and skin, chafing the folds and burning a red welt.

In a few minutes, a little after they hear dad say “cheese”, the shoes go flying, one dropping inside a magazine rack, the other screeching to a halt by the fireplace, landing face down. Toes jump free from their black cage. Feet puff and fill out again. They mow through the carpet until bedtime. They pummel a rag-doll, squish a grape, kick a juice carton around the coffee table and trample a Sony remote. Larry King and his suspenders flash on to a screen, taking the feet by surprise. Shrieking with fear, they dash to mom in the kitchen and take cover behind her legs. The ratty old man can’t get us now, can he?

Sixteen years from now, these feet will peek at other feet, size up the pumps and wonder why someone would wear something that’s “SO NOT with the times and so 2000s.” They’ll scrape the floor at a college-prep place for an exam that has replaced what used to be called the SAT. They’ll drag and swagger around the bed when the same voice floats from the kitchen day after day: “Stop dragging your heels. Did you or did you not do the bed yet?”

If they’re lucky, these pretty twosomes will get a foot in the door of a good college where they’ll write a paper on how the country got back on its feet in 2009 just as President Obama was sworn into office. When they go for their first job interview, we’ll just hope they don’t get cold feet and, most of all, that they can think on their feet at all times. And we’ll pray that they don’t play footsie with the wrong kind. Who wants feet of clay?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Moving On

In March 2004, we moved from our home in sleepy Almaden Valley in San Jose to one in the town of Saratoga. I wrote this then. Moving is easy. Moving on, I find, is much harder.


Breathless, much like a kid snatching the last candy from a jar, I yank open the drawers in the kitchen for the last time. May be there’s a little something in there that the movers forgot? Yes.

Deep inside the bottom drawer two Power Ranger figurines lie in wait, one in yellow, his left arm missing, the other in red, all intact but for gray specks where our son dug into them with his nails the year he begged for a Power Ranger birthday with a Power Ranger cake, table cloth and napkins.

In a few hours, we will sign the documents that will transfer our home of fifteen years to its new owners. My mind drifts to another similar time not long ago when we bought a new van and gifted our decade-old one to charity.

That fall day, the leaves swirled listlessly around the driveway as the driver hoisted our blue 1994 Dodge Grand Caravan on to his trailer and hooked it under the body of his tow-truck. Little did he know that he was carting off ten years of memories along with 100,444 miles of sneaker odors and juice stains.

That day I resented the new van we had bought, the one fitted with automatic openers and power-everything, loved by my husband who luxuriated in the leather and adored by our kids who stood flicking at its remote opener from miles away.

We tiptoed around this new van like a child would tread around his forbidding school principal. In our beat-up old Caravan, jokes about dad’s belches cracked us all up. Too bad, banter didn’t bounce off nicely enough in our swanky machine. With DVD fittings, moon roofs and GPS things that talk, I guess you’ve to be on your guard, lest someone’s listening in and recording your thoughts.

Those old feelings about new things creep into my soul as we find ourselves once again in discomfort zone, hovering timidly between an imperfect past and an unknown future. In our on-escrow backyard, a little miniature rose that I planted last summer by the right fence still blooms. The potato vine preens, its leafy branches gushing through my kitchen window where I stand staring at the spectacular sight of our garden and the hills beyond. The white oleander has flowered shamelessly this September.

Last September - when my mind had wished for a bigger place in a nicer neighborhood - all I’d seen was the warped top of the fence to its right.

“You’re going to love the buyers,” our agent, Carol, is saying.

Memories. In the family room, my husband has just tucked our four-day old son in a blue receiving blanket and laid him out on a foam pad that’s sheathed in cotton fabric. Our latest arrival wriggles like a worm, squeezes his face into a shriek and gathers his hind. The noise he makes shocks his 20-inch frame and us. His lips melt into a smile and he sleeps. He likes his sun-drenched new home. It’s one he’ll love for the next ten years of his life.

“Their boys are so excited, you’ll not believe what a wonderful family this is!” Carol’s happy our bank account’s going to swell. But I deflate at the thought of two new boys in rooms that were really made for our daughter and our son.

My husband and I walk towards the sunken living room. “Look at that!” he says.
We’re still awestruck by the charm of an entryway and living room that drew us the day we saw it being built fifteen years ago. One year after we moved in, it waved a mylar for ‘It’s a girl!’. Five years later, our mantelpiece became the backdrop for our boy’s best photograph: his 18-month-old head crowned by a newly washed 32 oz. tub of Mountain High Yogurt.

I stand under the stairway straining to hear the old footsteps of a no-more toddler. A shaft of sunlight blankets the sale-pending, polished hardwood in the hallway, warming my neck. I rewind to the painful screech of my daughter’s bow grinding into the strings of her violin. I remember the panic on my husband’s face in the background: “Just how many years of this….cacophony?”

Behind the pillar of the dining room where a music stand stood sentinel for years, a double-pane window braved the seasons and the big Loma Prieta earthquake. It eavesdropped on the tears and frustrations of a little girl who grew and grew and morphed, in ten years, to a violinist who had now begun to bring tears into the eyes of her audience.

“We would like to start moving in are things this weekend,” the 6-year-old boy has scribbled in a note presented to us, when we go to the title company for the final transactions. Below it is his father’s signature, with a ‘thank you’ for our help and understanding.

“That boy’s such a cutie,” Carol says, fishing out another paper. With every new signature, we bury yet another noise-filled album from the past.

High up above the cabinets in our garage where only a ten-foot ladder will reach are boards my kids claim we forgot to transport to the new house.

Old class projects, why bother, I ask. But the kids shriek. “Oh, look at my photo in 2nd grade. My mold experiment - we still have it? I was GOOD.” “And this one on suspension bridges was the best ever.”

Odd, I think. Why is it when we are about to give up something because it is ‘old’, we begin looking at it with brand ‘new’ eyes?

“Kids,” I press weakly. “We’ve got to make place for the new stuff. Why don’t we recycle the project cardboard?”

“No way! And that’s final, mom.”

So we pack the projects into the van for reasons no one can explain.

In our new home, we look for a place to put them. The attic, the kids shout. We tug the string of the drop-down ladder. We load the boards up, one by one, into that endless attic where memories may go but never leave.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Rejection Day and Night Spa: Menu of Treatments

For years I’d led the double life, slogging as a cubicle slave by day, writing software for a huge company and devouring the Writer’s Market by night. My colleagues told me I needed to be in the writing world. They saved my emails. Even I could tell I was more gifted in the comments and documentation section than in the coding section.

But the programming job had its perks. The money was steady. And there was always something or someone to look forward to. Tall M wore his shorts so high that he’d never have got them wet in the throes of Katrina. Gold chain and Rolex sporting J – who’d mastered terms like ‘value-add’, ‘prototype’ and ‘revenue factor’ - couldn’t explain a project to himself or his bosses. Brilliant T was paid the highest in our group, yet he bought all his T-shirts at Goodwill. Tight-bottomed, thong-wearing S strutted her hips and sashayed her way rapidly to the top. Silent W worked hard from 9-5 (often behind closed doors) filling out medical insurance forms, paying her bills and catching up on romance novels.

You can see why it was hard to leave my colorful, soulless job. But I knew my heart lay elsewhere. When I jumped at a voluntary retirement package, I had no clue that my new writing career would have to be constructed and nurtured on a quicksand of rejection letters from magazines and newspapers.

The first time I got a rejection in the mail I was apoplectic.

I called my husband - who was in a conference with bosses and customers - howling as if someone had died in the house.

“Sorry to hear that,” he said, in his very-meeting voice. “I can’t talk now.” He wasn’t getting it. Our essay had been rejected.

“Remember how you and I almost died on that plane back for Australia? Woman’s Day says it’s thrilled to know we’re still alive but sorry to inform me that my essay doesn’t fit their needs,” I blubbered, between sniffles.

In response my husband mumbled something that guaranteed he got no conjugal dinner or conjugal anything for days.

Spurned by a publication.

Trashed by a husband.

I banged the phone and wailed like a banshee.

That was then.

Over the last eight years, I’ve amassed a slush-pile (a favorite editorial term for unsolicited pitches and manuscripts from writers) of electronic and hard copy rejections. I have now named a line of spa therapies based on the categories of rejection treatment I continue to receive - and embrace with that certain panache.


The cheapest of them all, the Black Hole is also the most popular.

I send out my fabulous pitch or series of story ideas to a publication that I have studied cover to cover. I have analyzed even the font sizes on the cover. I’ve memorized the layout, the ad pages, the content, the readership, checked and rechecked the editor’s names, read a year’s worth of the magazines, attached the best clips from my portfolio, printed out the perfect cover letter in HP Premium paper, located the stamp with a theme the editor is supposed to adore.

Then I wait.

My Writer’s Market guide gives me an idea of how long to wait. “Responds in 6 weeks.”

So I wait it out. 6 weeks. 6 months. A year.




In the time I’ve waited for a response from a thousand publications, I’ve fossilized by the mailbox. The twin towers have burned. Tsunamis have changed geographies. Wars have been waged. Mr. Trump has lost money and won it back again.

And Moi? I haven’t even begun my apprenticeship yet.


This treatment whacks you in the face exactly once.

I barely press send on my Yahoo! screen. Simultaneously, a response slams into my inbox. Does this editor’s main job description include the following: stare at the screen, refresh the inbox every second, shoot out a pre-written rejection letter, and not waste time on formalities?

The note says: “No, thanks. We’ll pass.”

No warm fuzzy ‘Dear So-n-so’. There’s no time for manners or massage here, see?

Sometimes, there’s a final icy-cold layer:
“Sorry, we’re selective.”


I call this one the black widow therapy. It licks before it pricks. It mates before it kills.

The editor sends me a long email back about the things she loves in my writing. But wait for the fangs. She doesn’t need it right now. ‘Try again later.’

Here are some pearls from my coveted collection.

‘I love your writing style, but it isn't quite right for us.’

‘Your essay was moving and I hope you’ll remember to send us more. But I’m sorry but your essay doesn’t fit our needs.’

(Your needs? What about my needs, huh?)

And here’s the classic automatically generated reply, sent to me after I send reminders over several months: ‘Our inventory is full at the moment so we aren’t taking any more essays at least for a year or two.’


If you’ve ever been on the table for this Brazilian torture, you’ll know what I mean. Bend over backwards. Spread yourself thin. Shear yourself like a lamb in Auckland to make your editor like your work.

You go off and execute on a given set of requirements and turn in the piece. In return, your piece is about to be pockmarked and jaundiced with editorial jabs.You SHALL put up with all the jostling with a smile even as your writing loses all form and shape and any resemblance to you, its creator.

Months later, the editor will roll in the punches. She will wax eloquent before she tweezes you clean.

“There’s good news and bad news,” she’ll drone - after you’ve sent in the story for which you worked a 100 hours and interviewed a dozen people (who are now bombing you with emails about when the story will run).

“Sorry,” she snaps, if you demur at the prospect of having to take home a sorry ‘kill’ (settlement) fee instead of the total amount. “The editor-in-chief canned it because it doesn’t work with the publication's new attitude.”


This one begins with a pat on your back from your editor.
You turn in your work. You get paid. You’re glowing. But not too fast.

Just wait until later into your relationship, when your work isn’t being published for some mysterious reason. Perhaps it was smarter not to be paid. Now your story is locked in contract and is languishing in a bin of unpublished slush. It will likely never see the light of day.

It's exactly like one of those body treatments that's supposed to make you feel better. You're not sure at the end of it as to how you really ought to feel.


In this deluxe line of treatment, you know you are in the best hands from the very first time you get in touch with your editorial therapist. In this relationship you get to discover, again, why you chose to write in the first place.

I've discovered that every time I turn in a story for publication, I lose a part of my soul. But I've also realized that every time my story is published - true to how I envisioned and wrote it – it nourishes my soul.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I have Mail....Bulk Mail

Whoever said email was ‘impersonal’? There’s someone out in cyberspace who knows not just my email address. HE knows my innermost fears, my darkest desires, my deepest complexes.

Is someone I know talking to me via bulk mail? Take this one from which arrives with the predictability of my morning paper.

Tone, Firm and Increase the Size of Your Breasts Naturally
Great for......
Firming and Uplifting
Smaller Breasted Women
Asian Women!!!

I’ve never made a clean breast of my breast complexes. But HE knows my cup size, that I’m from Asia and that I’m teetering on the edge of financial disaster. Look at the reminder I got from HIM via


* Tired of Calls From Bill Collectors?

I’d love to start living again. But if I do, I’d like to live life inside a slimmer, sexier chassis. And what do I know? HE has the solution to my problem - again. tells me how.

Lose 8-10 Inches of FAT in ONE Hour Guaranteed.

Breakthrough technology Helps you Lose INCHES,
Cleanses and Detoxifies your System!

Detoxify my system? just convinced me that detoxification was not all bad and that sex was good.

Indeed a HeavenSent Treasure of Pleasure!!
To entice your Passion!

Right now, like AT&T, I fear I’m going to have to reach out and touch someone - unless my joints deteriorate before then. But I know exactly where to go to regenerate that loss. suggests an unbelievable course of treatment at $37.95 per bottle of 120 tablets, plus $5.95 shipping and handling.

Joint Heal has chicken collagen in it as well as the famed glucosamine sulfate. It also has MSM in it along with
Chondroitin Sulfate.

He has the woman in me figured out. But an ambiguous note from makes me doubt the Omniscient One.

Men…..Stop being ashamed of your penis size!
Click here now to be amazed!
...And...women, get this for your boyfriend/husband. It really works!

Should I use the weapon I just found in that last message from

Internet Software Program for Online Investigations
Find out anything about Anyone Online
Click here for more information!

God help my bulk mail folder. Click.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Will we ever look at a deluxe hotel the same way again?

In the summer of 2008, at the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave, the vast marble floor of the lobby reflects our family’s weary, jetlagged faces. The exhaustion of a 24-hour journey notwithstanding, the interior–evocative of the Mughal era–stops us dead in our tracks.

“Guys, just wait until tomorrow morning,” dad says, taking in our sleepy faces. “The breakfast here is to die for.”

Considering how many innocent civilians died while eating at this hotel’s sister establishment in Mumbai last week, my recollection of a delightful dining experience at the Delhi Taj now leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I doubt that any of us has ever bothered to check around while checking into a top-flight hotel. In our family, we can’t always afford the five-star experience but we are bold gawkers in tony places. When visiting a new town, we dine, have coffee or hang out for an hour or two at a ritzy hotel; there’s wonderful (window) shopping, great dining and, almost always, artifacts and displays that speak to the history and the culture of the place. And, let’s admit it, there are those snazzy restrooms with extra-ply tissue.

The only time our family was ever denied entry to hang out at a deluxe hotel was at the Ritz in Paris; we’ve been licking our wounds ever since. Surely, the Queen of England was in town and that’s why?

Our family has been in countless travels to exotic locales. And over the years, we’ve been riddled by many setbacks: we were conned by taxi drivers in Bangkok, we dropped a green-card along with a wallet in Chennai, we almost got pick-pocketed in Madrid, we dodged an avalanche at Mont Blanc by several car-lengths, we endured harassment from gypsies around the Vatican, we were mobbed by Madrid’s noisy prostitutes, we fell direly ill in London and we fussed over an infant son hospitalized with pneumonia in Hong Kong. Still, travel has brought us excitement. It has instilled a sense of wonder. It has given us rest.

But this new unrest stirs synonyms of controversy for the word ‘travel’ in my head: Trouble, Terror, Tumult, Torture, Torment, Tension, Tyranny. Tranquility, you ask? That word is synonymous with staying home and pressing a remote to watch the travels of Michael Palin.

I don’t know if I see myself craving the deluxe hotel experience wholeheartedly anymore. Will a gentle knock on the door for “room service” be just that and no more? Is everyone on the hotel’s housekeeping staff really “in house”? All I know is that from now on, I won’t fret if I’m overcharged for a rollaway bed, not as long as I’m not rolled away from the hotel in a gurney. I never snack off of a mini-bar because of the maxi charges. But from here on (and hear this, husband), I will, because who knows how long these historic mega-hotels will be around?

I’m leery of the power of the Internet with respect to hotels: the mass of information, while a goldmine for potential visitors, is a quarry of resources for potential perpetrators of crime. Double click on any hotel’s website and you’ll see extensive charts and videos showing hotel and accommodation layouts. The event planning section of the website for Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace Hotel–directed at wedding and conference groups originally–certainly allowed one group to throw a one-of-a-kind bash with massive consequences. We can only pray and hope there won’t be any missile consequences.

“I don’t ever want to stay at a five-star hotel,” I say, as we watch the Taj ablaze on television. “It’s only Best Western or Comfort Inn for us.”

“Over my dead body, mom!” my daughter shoots back.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thinking too much never helped anyone get an A in English

My 14-year-old son is now confronting a new problem in high school. He is, according to his English teacher, “thinking too much”.

He came home last week with an 84 out of 100 in a vocabulary test because he, unfortunately, has been thinking too much about words and their contextual, non-contextual and metaphysical meanings.

Why won’t my son think straight? Does he want to be left behind at school?

And with this event blotting the joy from our November holidays, I offer the following points of advice for my son so he won’t languish in high school and embarrass his high-achieving Indian American parents who, like all other Indian American parents, have very specific dreams for where their son will be going to college in 2012 even though they themselves have attended questionable community colleges and state universities.

1. Don’t read between the lines. Stop wondering WHAT is in a name.

Did I ask you to plough through Kafka on the shore during the holidays?
Haruki Marukumi’s work is not for the wimpy and it does you little to tax your brains to solve riddles. Even though Wikipedia may offer some other explanations, "Kafka" is really just a proper noun. That's all.

2. Will you stop reading comics?

Yes, I know Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer winning Maus is wondrous but you shouldn’t read artwork and writings about the holocaust anyway because it’s amassing knowledge that, once again, will cause you to start thinking about things which is precisely what we’re trying to avoid doing. Ditto with your fondness for Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.

3. Consider your other media options, honey

I’d rather you spent some time in other media, sweetie. Too much reading is why you’re reading too much into everything and ending up with shameful grades like 84 on 100. Your ancestors never settled for anything other than a 100 on 100 and they often went after the extra-credit 4 points by demonstrating that they had memorized meanings word for word in the same order that they were given them. And, honey, I’d rather you arm yourself with some sleight of hand for the challenges of the next generation. Playing Halo may teach you to worm your way through a burning 5-star hotel, a priceless skill in these troubled times.

4. Stay left-brain-centric. Where did right-brain get us anyway?

Don’t trust everything Daniel Pink says in his work ‘A Whole New Mind’ about why right-brainers will rule the future. Mr. Pink says folks like your dad are passé. He says your mother will rule the future. We know who brought in the green in this family so far and who will bring more of it in the future. Let’s not kid ourselves here because I need to use our family credit card for that gorgeous pair of Blahniks that I'm buying at Nordstrom this Christmas season.

Keeping that in mind, make a decision by the end of 9th grade on whether you’ll concentrate on computer science or bio-medical engineering. Everything else is fluff, son, that won’t bring in the moola. No, not economics or investment banking, please.

5. Don’t look up the word

Are you looking up a word in the dictionary as you read? Yet again? Munchkins, I told you it’s such a waste of time because it interrupts the flow of your reading and it’ll get you thinking which, as you know, is risky. What did the teacher say was the meaning of that word? THAT is the meaning and nothing else. No, no, looking up “Rotogravure” in the dictionary is pointless. How many times are you going to encounter this word again anyway?

6. Sweetheart, the classics are overrated

You’re nuts to go through with this crazy plan of yours to finish all the classics of English and American literature before you’re done with high school. I’ve analyzed Canterbury Tales, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Mill on the Floss in the days when there were no Cliff Notes and Wikipedia. It hasn't helped me any. Why should you care what happens to Michael Henchard in Mayor of Casterbridge? Has it shaped anything in you other than, say, your resolve to not lie or drink? But, son, what am I here for? I could tell you that in one-tenth the time it takes you to read these books.

Finally, dear, I’ll leave you with this thought about which, again, I don’t want you to think too hard. Just remember that when English poet Alexander Pope wrote these famous lines in the 17th Century,
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”,
he didn’t have access to Google and Wikipedia.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thoughts about my late mother

I wrote the following a week after I spent time my mother in April 2005. She had been suffering from cancer for three years. In mid-April our family was told that she would most likely last only two or three months. She passed away on July 2, 2005.

In March 2005, in what was to be the last public outing of her life, she decked up. She draped herself in her best silk sari–a wedding anniversary gift from my sister. Around her neck, she wore a gold choker with a stunning peacock pendant that she had just got custom-made at her favorite jeweler's. She drove out with our driver for a wedding looking like a million dollars.

“Look at this woman? How dare she dress like that when her husband has just had a bad fall and is home alone in bed?” Tongues wagged. But my mother never did get tossed around by tongues.

In the weeks that followed, we'd discover that her disease had metastatized to her brain. Mother now had edema in the brain and she began spending most days in the hospital. When her oncologist visited her on his daily rounds, she perked up. Whenever he looked her up, she clung to his right hand like a drowning man might a wooden raft while thrashing about and coming up for air in the open sea.

“This is Dr. Ravi Kannan, you know, Dr. Ravi Kannan,” she muttered over and over again, looking down, saying it several times like a mantra. Perhaps if she said it enough times, her illness would disappear as mysteriously as it burrowed into her one evening three years ago?

“Yes, mother, of course I know Dr. Kannan very well,” I said gently, nudging her arm, hoping she would release his hand from the vice grip. She presently brought her other arm and cupped his palm in both hers. Her eyes darted to the clock on the wall in front of her bed.

“See that?” she said, addressing us all, pointing to the clock for the millionth time that day, “It’s 9pm. Doctor Ravi needs to go home. It’s 9pm.” The words often slipped, tripped, tumbled and crashed in her throat before they screeched to the tip of her tongue. Although most of her sentences were lost on us these days, all of us - my sister, my dad, our driver, the surgical oncologist, myself - understood her this time.

“I know it’s late, Aunty, but don’t you worry. So, tell me, what did you do today?” Dr. Kannan put his free arm around his 75-year-old patient, goading her to talk about anything that floated into her tumor-ripened, refried mind.

“I ate mangoes.” The ends of her mouth lifted up and, for a mere second, her eyes joined her mouth to felicitate a ripe, cloying mango born in a sultry Indian summer.

“Sweet, I take it?”

“Very,” my mother smiled now, looking down as she did lately when she talked to people until one of us reminded her to look up and into the eyes of the person she was addressing.

“What else?”

“And SHE came very late,” my mother now pointed an angry finger at my sister, her elder daughter, the only one she’d trust to do anything for her. “Very VERY late.”

She looked at the clock again and hurled a fist at it, thought and word colliding inside her head until her eyes pulled a glassy curtain shut. She curled into silence.

“Traffic, Aunty. You must understand that your daughter loves you very much. She’d do anything for you but there’s really nothing she or the driver can do in Chennai traffic. Don’t you remember, those buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws, traffic signals?”

“I wept. Into a bottle.”

Then she proceeded to tell him how she thought the bottle was a cell-phone and how she wept into her ‘phone’ asking her daughter to come and stay by her side. Why couldn’t she come to be with her as quickly as she could after a swift shower and a swifter meal in her home?

And every so often, Dr. Kannan would chuckle and steal a look at us, adjusting his tie and he would nod and pat her on the back and tell her that it was just fine. But he’d plead with her, with a lilt, a little lisp, telling her she should try to remember that everyone loved her and wanted to take care of her, especially her 82-year-old husband who loved her so much he’d do anything for her. Didn’t she know that?

“Yes, I know,” she whispered. A furrow cleaved her brow, hurling a teardrop against her cheek. “I know. He loves me so much.”

And then Dr. Kannan, who had already worked a 16-hour day, would beam down at her, tell her that she was looking wonderful and that he looked forward to seeing her tomorrow at the same time after he was done with all his other patients.

“Yes, see, you must go, look at the time,” she’d say again to him. “Go home.” Then she’d tell us she wanted to lie down. Our driver would hoist her legs on to the bed, I’d pull the pillow forward a bit and my sister would rest her gently on the bare, thin foam with a clean pillow and a clean sheet in a simple air-conditioned room, one of the few private rooms available in a cancer center which sees over a thousand poor patients a day.

“Now cover me with that blanket,” she’d demand with the precision of a perfect sunset as she eased on to the bed, her glazed eyes wandering, perhaps, far into that jigsaw land of her mind’s eye where she dreamt about meeting the daughter she lost to small pox half a century ago. She would make that long-forgotten child her spongiest idlis and serve it with cilantro-coconut chutney. She’d marry her off to a man worthy of her and dress her up in peacock blue silk on her wedding morning. Strange that somewhere in the swelling corridors of her brain, a little live cell sang the same jingle: ‘Tomorrow, mango slivers for lunch’.

She fell asleep again, her chin bursting into cheer at this yellow season of tropical fruitfulness.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

In Security

I called my dad today after watching the 27-hour saga unfold at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and asked him how he still felt about his advice to me just before he left the United States in mid-November.

I recalled his enthusiasm on November 4th.

“Get your American passport NOW. Obama seems like a nice man,” he said to me while watching the acceptance speech by the president-elect in Chicago. “He’ll make sure things go smoothly for you if you send in your application for citizenship.”

At 85, dad gives off the impression that he understands how everything works simply because he has outlived almost everyone he meets. But really dad, I wanted to say, Obama has far more pressing issues on his mind than processing citizenship papers for a middle-aged mother of two whose only claim to fame is that she bakes a fabulous Eggless Banana Cake spiced up with cardamom and orange zest.

I told my dad that watching the Mumbai incident unravel confirmed my deepest discomfort over becoming an American citizen. I’m happy where I am - a cat on the wall, a green card holder. I told dad that my fears weren’t unfounded.

“Did you hear? Those terrorists were looking for American passport holders. I know I’m always under fire from you for something or other but, really, you want to feed me to these bad elements?” I asked. “Is this the way to treat a daughter who cooked for you for four straight months when you came to live with her – even if some of her cooking was not up to par?”

Dad fired back an answer, however vague, right away.

“No…no…don’t be silly…no connection between American citizenship and what’s happening.”

Did dad play golf with Bush’s National Security Advisor? What intelligence is my dad privy to that the FBI and others don’t know?

“No connection to Americans. The problem is the countries around us, you know. I don’t want you to mention names on these telephone lines. We don’t know how safe this is…”

I reminded dad that his doubts had just been broadcast on CNN every hour for the last 24 hours. Since the India-Pakistan face-off was being discussed on every news panel around the globe on live television, he really didn’t have to worry about being found out on a wiretap.

Still, I will admit dad knows a whole lot. My father is a well-read gentleman, an accidental intellectual, if you will. Between the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Forbes and Business Week, he has most of his news feeds covered. Fortunately for him, he’s a historian who was part of the ‘Quit India’ movement in 1942. I suppose when you’re 85 you acquire a halo simply because you’ve lived through most events. It becomes an unfair advantage for the rest of us for no fault of our own.

He can impress me sometimes. Take the time he called me last July in my Delhi hotel when he found out I was sightseeing the town alone with my kids for three days.

“Do you know how unsafe Delhi can be? A woman with two young children! Who knows who may be watching you? And one look at you, everyone in India knows you’re from abroad.”

I reassured dad that while the children were once in diapers and bottle-fed and all, one of them was a rising freshman in college and perfectly capable of taking care of herself.

“Dad, nothing can happen in a place like this. It’s the Taj Palace Hotel. It’s a Delhi landmark.” I said. “And it’s right on Safdarjung Enclave, Delhi’s diplomatic district.”

Dad caved in after hearing the last bullet point - just like anyone who has seen India in the days of the Raj. In retrospect, however, I’m compelled to applaud dad’s omniscience. Perhaps his fears were based on a deeper understanding of covert activities and secret service missions, after all. He did warn about not trusting so much. The best hotels are crawling with enemies. Taj Palace? So what? Five star hotels with high security? Who knows?

Dad hasn’t yet said “I told you so” yet but he will when the ashes of the latest incident cool.

For now he’s still firm in his resolve that my safest strategy is to become an American citizen. He’s now holding the gun to my head with a new, blunt point.

“I really don’t want you to wait in another line when you travel. You know, your children and your husband in one line. You in another. I don’t like it.”

Dad. At his age, he’s on all kinds of medications. It is indeed quite possible that he’s slowing down. Even though he can throw a verbal grenade or two.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Pasta Simba comes home a Roti Bambi (Or the Thanksgiving story of a bird caught with the tail between its legs)

This Thanksgiving, our family bird is coming home to roost.
But if you’d told me last August that after 2008 AD this bird would come home with its tail feathers between its legs, I’d have accused you of trying to sell me (a staunch Indian American vegetarian) a turkey.

In the BC [Before College] era, mother-daughter conversations around the kitchen stove went something like this.


“I know. And yes, it’s South Indian. Again.”

“So you’re telling me that, for the third day in a row, your wonderful daughter’s going to be eating that South Indian mishmash of rice and somethin’ else? NOT happening!” The bird would fly off the handle and sweep off to her room in dramatic disgust. Mother hen would languish by the steaming pot, her feathers ruffled again for the hundredth time since the birth of her nesting instinct, oh, so many years ago.

Over the years Indian food would be in plenty. Hot rotis rolled off the griddle and onto her plate. Crispy dosas made their way to her room, because, after all, she’d soon be in a dorm, the poor thing, and who was going to be fussing over her like this anymore.

In the old days, the hawk would open the fridge most evenings and soak in the chutneys, the powders and the liquids. Then she’d turn around, her eyebrows arched as she held the door open, one arm on the door and the other on a hip which had widened over the summer with all that rice-eating, I presume.

“And who, in this frickin’ world, eats rasam and sambar night after night except someone like…like Dad?” she’d demand to know, her pupils rolling over so high you worried they’d not know to come back home into their eye sockets.

That was then. Join me now on a wet, leaf-strewn day in the San Francisco Bay Area in November AD [After Death - the death of taste buds resulting from famine and drought caused by repeat appearances of doughy pizza and shriveled salad on a flesh-freezing college campus where to get to food you have to swipe a card, pick up a tray and wait in line while praying that you can still make class on time].

During most of this last month our telephone conversations have simmered solely around the topic of soul food.

“So what’re you making me for lunch the day I land?”

“What do you want? Want to go to Ravioli’s?”

Stony silence. Did Verizon just lose its satellite or what?

“Mom? Mom! NOT funny. What have I told you? I don’t want to see pasta or pizza for the rest of my life.”

So I get my South-Indian order. Capsicum Sambar cooked with freshly ground and roasted spices and coconut. Tomato Rasam. And potato curry. And I should take care to roast the potato so part of it is karum-burum.

“You know what I mean, the potato must be diced fine and sautéed over a long time and be nice and roasted and crunchy.”

“Okay, what else?” I ask.

“And I don’t exactly mind if you want to bring it to the airport when you come to receive me tomorrow morning.”

Hakuna Matata. As you can see, this Thanksgiving, our bird is coming home - to be roasted, grilled and skewered.

And to all of you out there, entertaining birds of the same feather, a very Happy Thanksgiving from our home to yours!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Late to school? AGAIN?

How do I explain to my son’s high school office that being marked tardy several times in a row for the same English class is really quite unfair to a family with exceptional values? Being one minute late to class shouldn’t really have to matter in the big scheme of things.

“Mr. So and So,” I would say, “Let’s look at the cultural issues at hand.”


“And look at what your own Evelyn Waugh said about this trait: punctuality is the virtue of the bored.”

“Are you trying to say I’m in a dead-end job?”

“No, just that Indian Americans and their children operate by a different clock.”

“Really? And what kind of clock is that? I bet it’s from Ikea.”

I don’t know how he knows that most Indian Americans shop at Ikea but I bought mine at Costco on clearance. I’m certainly not going to tell him that since it’s not in my culture and, certainly not to my advantage, to tell others about good deals. The early bird gets the worm and the rest simply squirm.

But what I would like to tell Mr. So and So is that like the Americans who seem to exercise their privilege to switch their clocks back and forth twice a year, Indian Americans like to change their clocks everyday. So if it’s school, we may be a few minutes behind. If it’s a daylong picnic, we will–likely–stroll in by lunchtime. If it’s a party, our clocks are running close to an hour late; for a 7PM party, do always invite us at 6PM, won’t you?

I will remind him about how much Indian Americans have accomplished here in the United States and gently urge him to look up the roster of past valedictorian and salutatorian names, many of which start or end in “Ram”. I will suggest that while punctuality may be considered a virtue on the North American continent, everywhere else, including Europe–except in Switzerland where their hands were tied to the hands of their clocks–it’s not even a concept for which, I’m sorry to have to use the dreadful word, the time has come. Now let’s look at just one of the things my ancestors in India have done, despite this one fetal flaw, Mr. So and So. In the 5th Century AD, an Indian invented the number Zero and also came up with an approximation for Pi. You must realize that had it not been for an Indian who lived many thousand years ago, you may not even have a school bell.

“So, given our background, would you forgive that one micro-chink in our armor, Mr. So and So, and reconsider dropping one of the tardies so my son doesn’t get Saturday detention before this semester ends?”

And, if Mr. So and So does, I promise to buy him a cuckoo clock from Switzerland for Teacher’s Day after setting it to five minutes behind the school bell.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fight or Flight? Pulling the plug on “Fight Club”

On occasion, our family watches R-rated movies together but one movie made me question the wisdom of that. In Indian American families like mine, “Meet the Fockers” isn’t considered a family movie: I was trashed by a friend or two for watching it with my teenage kids and squealing with delight over the crude humor.

But last week my 14-year-old insisted we rent “Fight Club”. His best friend (he’s 14 also) claimed it was really cool. “It’s supposedly one of the best movies of all time. I’m waiting to read the book. It’s a classic by Chuck Palahniuk, mom.”

So we sat down, he and I, to watch a cynical, smoke-filled movie about a young man and his misadventures with a strange misanthrope who builds bombs from soaps. Along the way, we discovered what young men who are unhappy do to fend off insomnia: sit in on testicular cancer support groups, commiserate with members of AA or like groups and seek raw satisfaction in listening to a terminal cancer patient tell her group that she’s looking for sex. “Fight Club” gave us more than we bargained for: many sentences which start with the letter ‘F’, candid references to and images of condoms and vibrators, casual romps with colorful vocalizations, and, of course, nocturnal trips to a liposuction clinic during which one of those fat-filled plastic bags snags on a barbed wire, leaking amber-colored liquid (which could pass off for thin pumpkin soup). Need I say more?

Anyway, less than half way through the movie, I yanked the plug. Then I left the brand new unread copy of my son’s book out for the vultures by purposefully striding over to the garage and dumping it next to all the things I’d set out for Goodwill. The video, I snapped to my son, was going to be returned “first thing tomorrow morning”.

“From now on,” I spat out, “I’m screening ALL your books too.”

Then my son began asking for a logical explanation about why I felt this movie wasn’t right for him. How was he in any way less mature than his 18-year-old sister (who I would have permitted to watch this movie)? “What makes you think that I can’t handle it as well as, say, any 18-year-old? I’m just about as mature as any adult out there, I think, mom,” he says to me, wondering aloud about why, at the same time, he’s tearing up over this silly incident.

All I did then was put this big, stubbly bear on my lap and tell him that sometimes parents simply want their kids to be kids and movies like this disillusion kids and may be that’s why I did it, not because I didn’t trust him with the material. The book by Chuck Palahniuk isn’t in the garage any more. Some time in the night it made its way back to the gargantuan bookshelf in the big bear’s room. I paid $13.95 for it. And my son won’t rest until he gets every cent’s worth out of every book - even if it’s going to be ten years from now when his mother may have no say at all in this matter. Or anything else, for that matter.