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.