Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Sunday, January 18, 2009
The minute I declared that I would write on this topic today, the day I completed 25 years of wedded bliss and wedded hiss (isn’t it interesting – bliss rhymes with hiss and kiss and wed rhymes with dead and bed), I got a ton of email from desperate women who want help in their married lives.
“Can you please write one for how a husband should behave for the first 25 years of our married life? It’ll come in really handy for me.”
Before I begin, I would like to say that my husband is a (mostly) good man with a (mostly) good heart and a (mostly) good head. His is a head that plays a mean, mean game of Scrabble even though he’s a computer scientist and you’d think he doesn’t have the rhythm on anything other than an algorithm. But this dude often slaps me with a bingo when I’m gloating over my own anemic wooden creations like “bill” and “sick”.
I found out recently–from Judith Thurman of the New Yorker–that computer scientists and mathematicians have a thing for Scrabble. Great. So now the only power I had vested in me, the power of the word, is now wrested from me. Thank you, Ms. Thurman. Of course, she then pacified me somewhat a little further in her story by disclosing that scrabble maniacs abound in India. If anyone of you thinks your vocabulary is earthshaking, please whimper and suck your thumb as you read about the characters in her story here.
Returning to the list that’s driving this blog entry, let me begin with the first thing my husband should not do for the next 25 years. He should not buy me a card at Safeway because that’s so ‘by the way’. Think about it, it’s a place where you get milk and butter mindlessly and it doesn’t have style as it would if he were to get me a card at Target or Kohl’s. On the other hand, Safeway is fine as long as the card isn’t on clearance. Then he must call me before he leaves work everyday because then I’ll be able to tell him what he must pick up on the way before he gets home. It’s the one thing the best husbands do, I hear. Then he should really “Talk” to me; I don’t want him to talk to me via Google Talk or Facebook. I want him to face me without an LCD screen between me and him. He should get rid of the phone from those UT Austin days that I’m hiding behind our fax machine. Is it too much to ask for an upgrade? He should really consider at last buying me a diamond necklace at Kadam & Kadam because, as you know, in our Tamilian culture others will wonder what he got me for our wedding anniversary and I won’t have an honest answer for them. And once in a while, he may want to interpret a “How about a getaway?” as a romantic getaway; I don’t understand, he seems to get away on his own every time I ask that question. Also, computer science logic works very well even in our kitchen and he should apply it everyday from now on. For example, “IF dishes pile up in the sink, THEN load the dishwasher OR ELSE wife will turn into Elvira, Mistress of the Dark”. See, there’s natural order and logic in the world that folks like Don Knuth and Dennis Ritchie applied in Computer Science to great success. He should also do his taxes every year by April 15th and not wait until October to do them or panic and go away on assignment so Price Waterhouse can do them. Also, no more asking “do you have the directions” whenever we go anywhere; twenty-five years of being asked the same question is showing up now in all my audiology reports. The California Ear Institute told me that there are some questions I just don’t hear anymore, whatever the frequency. So I’m considering getting these really fancy Oticon hearing aids to compensate for the hearing loss but I'm talking $3000 and insurance won’t cover it. So may be we’ll just live with my hearing loss even if it’s somewhat selective. There’s many more behavior tips coming up as I write but then he’ll yell at me later saying I told everyone he wears Hanes size 34 and Jockey (India brand) size 36 so I’m just going to be a good wife and shut up for once.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Right around January 20th, 2009, when Senator Obama becomes President Obama, a momentous transition of power is going to take place in my home. My husband of 25 years, the father of my two children, will return home after a two and a half year sabbatical from marriage and fatherhood.
For the first few weeks in the White House, President Obama will be groping in the dark as he waddles around in the White House in his jammies. My husband's situation exactly: he is going to be looking for the light to our bathroom outside the bathroom the way it has been in his Bangalore, India, home for the last 24 months.
While Obama's going to take calls in the 1000 square foot Oval Office, the new, upgraded love of my life will, once again, share a 100 square foot rectangular office with his First (and Only) Lady.
While our new commander-in-chief will not have to fret about where his next washed underwear comes from, my old commander-in-chief will soon be fuming when he's down to his last fruit from the loom. I hope my husband, like Mr. President, will not air his dirty linen in public after he debriefs home affairs? And while Rahm Emanuel's fixing things up around the White House, my improved husband, Version 2.5, will be meddling with our now somewhat rickety garage door - hopefully, with a User Manual in hand.
Days after his arrival in our house, we'll have a formal transfer of power: like the President, my husband will sign his name, again and again, on paper. In White House parlance, this is called signing the bills. But in our tight house, we call it being in charge of doing the bills.
Obama, lucky man, may have a Chief of Staff. My husband, on the other hand, is already showing how cheap of staff he is: the times are tough, he says. Downsize, honey, let our housekeeper come to clean once in two weeks. Hey, am I, like Michelle, asking for a whole Chef? Where's the justice, huh?
If you haven't lived with your husband for years, I tell you it's not that easy to live with one again. The problem is, just like Presidents, spouses change too. For once, darling, let's sit down and talk about the Change I Need.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
In (almost) every phone call from my dad – who is yet to exercise the self-control to not call me long distance every time he emails me to tell me that he has emailed me - I hear the same pearl of wisdom from Lord Tennyson.
Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lead life to sovereign power
Dad cannot fathom why my husband hasn’t yet booked his return flight to the United States, considering he’s expected to fly back in about two weeks at the end of his two-year assignment.
“Just two weeks to go and he doesn’t have an itinerary yet? Utterly disorganized. Both you and your husband have yet to do one thing in a planned and systematic manner. You know, Lord Tennyson said, “Self-reverence, self-knowledge…”...”
Dad’s off on his Tennyson spiel again. Yes, these are the lines by which he walks every morning for an hour (in gear from Paris’ Avenue Montaigne). These are the very lines that inspire him to wake up at 4.45AM to the sound of an IKEA alarm on his dresser, and these, the powerful lines by which he is off to work, at the age of 85, by 10.43AM just when the house help ambles in late, as usual. (She, unfortunately, isn’t literate enough to understand the power of Lord Tennyson’s words and translating it into Tamil is like offering someone soggy ribbon pakoda.)
So this morning dad said he was disgusted with me and is not going to ever again ask me the question he has asked me for the last two years over every long-distance call.
“Have you filled out your US citizenship papers yet?”
“I’m telling you the situation in the US is not going to be peachy forever.”
“Okay, dad, I get it. I will.”
“You’re always saying ‘I will’. But every time I call you still haven’t.”
“Yes, dad. Understood.”
“What ‘understood’? One fine day, mark my words, young lady, you’ll be barred from entering the United States because you haven’t become a citizen. And your husband and your two children would have entered the country and they’ll be long past the passport counter on their way to Baggage Claim. And you? You’ll be left standing at the immigration counter. Mark my words, my dear girl. You don’t realize it now. You’ll realize it long after I’m gone.”
“Long after I’m gone.” Would these have been the most frequently uttered words since man first surfaced in East Africa? With the exception of the first man on earth–who would not have had a hint that he would go one day–has every man used emotional blackmail on his kid with the words “You won’t realize it now but you’ll realize it LONG AFTER I’m GONE"?
I have vivid memories of emotional blackmail since my birth in 1961. I grew up in a neat and orderly household–where all hand-set calendars showed the right date and all pencils were sharpened daily whether or not they were used and “each each thing was in each each’s place” (like dad would say with a fierce pride only evidenced in Lord Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur). My earliest memory involves the number “9-9-1989”. I suspect that when mom thrust a bottle into my mouth, dad may have said “Drink now, child, so you may survive the stormy night of 9-9-1989.”
See, “9-9-1989” was some number that dad pulled from the air but subsequently ascribed to an astrologer-savant. That, he warned us, would be the day he would be taken by force from the earth. So we listened, paid obeisance to his rules, behaved with a great deal of decorum, organized our lives to make him proud, always remembering that “9-9-1989” was just around the corner.
But 9-9-1989 came and went. Dad has gorged on many an appam since. He hasn' t been shy about feasting on morkuzhambu –with Lay's potato chips on the side, please–either. What’s more, 9-11 came and went. Now 11-26 just passed. But Dad ain’t batting an eyelid. His brow is presently deeply furrowed over who is going to make the clean sweep at the Australian Open this month: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray?
My old man has cried wolf forever, as you can see. I’m going to fill up my US citizenship papers all right. But I’m going to do it on my own time, not under dad’s, pardon the expression, deadline.
What dad needs to know is the following. If the guy at the Immigration counter in the US bars me from entry, I’ve always got a place to go back to: dad’s orderly home in Chennai. There I’ll have food, shelter and love, along with pungent reminders of the value of self-reverence, self-knowledge and self-control.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Glaciers are melting. Polar bears forage around human discards for food. Mr. Gore, if only you had looked to the third world for tips many years ago when countries like India didn’t know about conveniences.
The South India as I knew it forty years ago was a master recycler of old goods, a crusader for natural products. Outside our home in Chennai, the most popular form of transport was the cycle rickshaw, an ungainly bicycle carrying two passengers in a bucket seat. Everything we discarded was bound to be a treasure to someone else. A man came home monthly to collect papers and newspapers. Families made glue out of all-purpose flour. We lined our eyes with home made black kohl made from soot. Polyester fabrics still hadn’t gained yardage over cotton and silk. Few cars mowed the roads. We used only public transport. We knew only slow food; the only fast food I knew of was from roadside vendors who sold hot roasted peanuts in cones fashioned from old newsprint.
A wedding in the family? Water and coffee were served in reusable steel glasses. Long banana leaves were spliced in the rib, cut into sections about a foot long, washed and laid out on wooden or steel tables. Guests ate out of these banana leaves which imparted an earthy flavor to the meal; dessert was served in a cup made of lotus leaves stitched artistically by white cotton thread of likely poor thread count. But who cared? These were all perfectly biodegradable; used leaves were tossed into an open muddy trough where cows had a field day eating vegetarian leftovers from lush green banana leaves.
In the new, remodeled India, the bicycle and the banana leaf are phasing out. At wedding feasts today, banana leaves are laid out now on long rolls of paper for simpler clean-up; dessert is served in plastic cups. One-pint water bottles rule. The once liquid bindi (the Hindu dot on the forehead) is now sold as stickers on laminated packets. Local stores supply plastic bags when, years ago, my parents had to carry five cloth bags every time they went to the market or the grocery store. Looking for the milkman on a bicycle bringing slightly adulterated milk directly from his farm? Sorry, milk now comes in paper or plastic cartons at Foodworld supermarket. At 7AM at Chennai's famous Murugan Idli Shop in T. Nagar, waiters quickly snap cardboard boxes into shape for takeout idli orders; in the old days, we took out idlis in containers made from dried lotus leaves.
Welcome to the new India where modern conveniences now live in happy coexistence with age-old privileges. Where else can you find musty lending libraries with 1950 collections of Superman comics where reduce, reuse and recycle (at a paltry sum) is the order of the day? Contrast that with a stop at an upscale bookstore called Landmark in Chennai's Nungambakkam where the just-published hardback editions of Nandan Nilekani’s “Imagining India – Ideas for the New Century” are stacked up in a six-foot column to sell at Rs. 700 each. In just six months–from July to December 2008– Chennai has undergone massive changes. The city has fast built plaque with spanking new flyovers (overpasses) which, of course, do little to ease traffic. The main thoroughfare in Pondy Bazaar, Chennai’s shopping Mecca, which once was crossable just by flailing your arms madly at bus drivers, is now a manic bazaar choking with autos, buses, bicycles, stylish vast malls, juice shops, streetside vendors selling tissue boxes, flowers, bangles and night pyjamas, you name it.
In the side streets by Pondy Bazaar, I see an impoverished lady whose income depends on collecting all forms of plastic she sees discarded by the roadside. Like my fellow Indians, I turn a blind eye to the lady because I have more pressing matters at the moment. I'm tempted to buy an armload of bangles which the owner gingerly wraps in old newsprint and drops into my handbag. Just behind the bangle stall, I'm attracted to a cotton Kurta set on display at Krishna Collection, an air-conditioned store with a wide variety in fashionable Indian garments. Between the plastic-collecting lady, the bangle kiosk owner, Krishna Collections and I, we all want a piece of the action. And that's the new, inconvenient truth about conveniences.