THE BEST OR NOTHING

It crawled into our garage in the fall of 1999, the ultimate ownership vehicle, a Mercedes E-320, a black, sleek thing with a steel insignia on the hood. My husband, then 44, wanted the best or nothing. We were at a place in our lives where it was time to wear a stamp and seal of authority so people would sit up and take notice. The first time my body eased into its leather luxury, it was special, you know, like a first house or a first diamond choker. It was a strange thought, and it still always is to me, that even as every such acquisition revved up in our hands and won everyone’s appreciation, it was already well on its way towards depreciation.

Our sedan carried violins. It ferried books, backpacks and soccer cleats. It was a carpool vehicle for years alongside its clunky partner, the Toyota Sienna. It seemed that one day all of a sudden—and this happened under our very noses and we couldn’t even smell it—the Benz started reeking of peanut-butter jelly sandwiches and yogurt, decimating all scent of spanking new leather in the way that all novelty is squeezed out of a marriage as careers, babies, diapers, rents, fees, bills, parties and taxes file into the home.

When our daughter became the third driver in the house, she announced that she would not be seen behind the wheels of that ugly van. The first tickets began trickling in. The most memorable of them all was the one she received while noticing, in the mirror, that a police car was trailing her. She tried to make way for the officer so he could pursue his victim when she realized, in cold sweaty horror, after three blocks, that too, that she had been the cop’s target all along. The speeding ticket she received was followed by a truckload of others when, four years later, our boy began to drive the car.

Like him, the car too began to live in the moment. It began to chase experiences, not possessions. But one afternoon after school, our 11th grader discovered that someone had filched the car’s most prized possession—the hood ornament. Could anyone ever imagine a Gandhi without his glasses? A J-Lo without her posterior? A Dolly Parton without her anterior? Well, now, shorn of its brand, the car seemed to squeak, missing the signature piece that had once given other cars on the road the middle finger.

Over time, the Benz became many things to the boy. Once it was a vending kiosk. Its young driver displayed its wares inside the trunk, selling branded used t-shirts and sweatshirts to his class mates for a clean profit which he then applied towards other purchases. After 2012, our ultimate driving machine began to be seen around the beat-up parts of Berkeley but when it came back into our garage one summer, the car’s aging owner noticed that it was wearing a patch on its back. “Not one, several patches,” my husband whined, standing behind the car, looking over it in disbelief. The boy, in collusion with his friend Tim, had used black duct tape to cover the rough edges of an accident, trusting that parents were so foggy that they would never discover the damage. A lot has happened to the Benz in eighteen years, as you can see, but I hope you now understand how in the last few years, this once top of the line Mercedes, began to seem like the frumpiest yellow Ambassador taxi in India’s Kolkata.

For a Benz that had already been benched in the last month, there was one final personal affront, a violation of its innards. Three weeks ago, in a grungy part of downtown San Jose, a no-good hammered the left rear window and made off with whatever he found on the seat—my boy’s jersey, a bag and some other things. And so, last morning, our Mercedes left our driveway never to return. As it edged out, I thought it caressed the shrub to the far right of the house, casting a last look at us from its left window, nursing a hole that may never be filled.

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That Jaipur Cup

"Where’s the second identical cup?" my husband asked. I told him that I’d left behind it in Chennai.

The two of us had won one cup each at a tweeting contest at the Jaipur Lit Fest and the cup was really nothing more than a whimsical thingy one might pick up at a garage sale when a homeowner was trying to offload the unbearableness of his home onto others. The cup was a white one with line drawings of Jaipur scenes. On one side it said, in orange lettering: “A word after a word after a word is power.” I could have said that too. But it had more power because Margaret Atwood had said it.

Last night, while my husband continued to argue about the cup, I told him hat he had been making much ado about a ceramic cup that I could recreate anywhere anytime and that I could not believe the puerility of the conversation we were having.

I told him why the whole thing was abhorrent to me. “Like this isn’t a Wimbledon Cup, you know." My husband persisted. “But now, you see, whenever a writer comes home, you cannot both drink tea out of each of those Jaipur cups,” he said. I broke out in a sweat.

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The Beauty Of A Good Game

From the corner of my eyes, I’d sensed him looking at me in that curious way as I marched down the trail at Jeeva Park. But I didn’t want to stop, not when I was deep into my podcast. The man seemed to be waiting, however, as I reached the same spot on my next round. He fell into step with me. I fiddled with my iPhone to hear what he had to say. 

“Ma’am, I just wanted to say that I’ve missed your father. We had such wonderful conversations about sports. The morning after a game, your father sought me out to know what I thought of it.” He said he remembered the late Daddykins yesterday, especially when he sat down to watch the opening of World Cup T-20. "Your father watched all the big matches. He watched football. He watched tennis. But he was passionate about cricket." 

I asked the gentleman whether Daddykins took sides at a cricket match. He smiled. "Your father was "bipartisan" in his attitude," he said, with a chuckle. That said, Daddykins was patriotic to a fault, he said. And always ecstatic when his nation won. "But I would say that most of all, your father loved the beauty of a good game."

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An Ode To Ganga

On International Women’s Day, I dedicate this post to one of the most empowered women I know. 70-year-old Ganga has worked for my father, the late Daddykins, for several years. This morning, she strode into the house with a smile staining her betel-soaked teeth: “Hullo, Amma!”

I believe women like Ganga remain a threat to men because they can smell a man’s BS from Mars, a fact that also explained my Daddykins' valet's tendency to taunt her.

“Old Woman, you look like you were born into the English language," he said, "the way you’re addressing my boss in English and all?”

“Sweetheart, you may not know this,” Ganga said, placing her red and black wire bag on the kitchen floor. “But I was born very well.”

“Really?” Vinayagam asked. His scorn went ignored by both the women in the room.

Ganga moseyed up to where I sat cutting up a winter melon. “Like my cousin brother used to be a writer in a bank.”

Vinayagam shut the door of the fridge and turned to her. “You mean he was a peon, Old Woman.”

Ganga didn’t know to read or write. She didn’t know to count the days between March 17 and April 10. But she could speak her mind. She had the right to express herself in the late Daddykins’ home.

“And, you know, my uncle was an attorney,” she said. “A rather big one in the village.”

The young man laughed. “That’s why you’re in and out of a court all the time?” His scornful reference to her litigious streak fazed her the least. “What say, Old Woman?”

Ganga ignored him. A wan smile lifted her cheek. “You know, even though I was born well, I’ve ended up having to wash dishes. But I’m proud about what I do. I do it well. Like…no one dares walk up to Ganga and complain about her poor work ethic.”

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Change With The Times

“Hair unclasped and cascading down their backs,” my aunt said to me. “But who am I to pass judgement?” My mother’s 78-year-old sister was talking about a recent betrothal at which most of the young south Indian girls had not worn their hair bunched up inside barrettes or braided or coiffed up in any way. 

I told my aunt that the times had changed. She chuckled and waved the stubby fingers of her right hand and continued to talk about the mores of the present day. My breath caught in my throat. Once again, after eleven years, my mother had waddled into the room from the land of the dead. She was looking askance at the trend of the times, pulling a face at girls who did not apply coconut oil in their hair anymore and, instead, used this vile fragrant syrup called “shampoo” which left their hair unprotected and all “paraparaaa” while seducing them with voluminous promises of fragrance and body.

“But who am I to say anything about today’s girls?” my aunt wondered, laughing, even as her deceased sister dissolved into the walls. Then she went on to tell me how, in the sixties, my grandmother had lamented to her husband that three of her married daughters had begun draping themselves in six-yard saris. 

“Why won’t they wear nine yards as per Brahmin custom?” my grandmother had asked. To that, her husband, a man who often fed scores of the poor in his outhouse (while flinging colorful epithets into the air when people of a certain community walked down his road) had only one thing to say: “You must change with the times for this is the modern way.”

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Laundry Lines

Our old maid, Ganga, walked into the balcony, a bucket of wet clothes in hand. Standing on tiptoe, she hauled a wet towel over the laundry line and cursed as she missed. She yelled out to Vinayagam. My late father’s Man Friday was by the woman’s side in minutes. 

“What?” he barked.

“Sweetheart, I’ve been telling you to lower these lines," she said. "I’ve been telling you for a while now."

“Those lines are not low!’ he said. “Besides, you could have gone up to the terrace to hang them on those lines, you know.”

Ganga said she didn’t see the need to go upstairs. “Not for a couple of odds and ends."

“Then you’re lazy, Old Woman. Go to the terrace. Or put up with it."

Ganga proceeded to fix clips on the clothes. Then she pulled shut the door leading to the balcony as the young man continued to watch her, an imperious eyebrow raised and ready to snuff out a rising repartee. But Ganga slipped away from the room in silence.

“Old Woman, that line’s just fine,” Vinayagam said towards her back. “Next time, wear high heels."

An Infinite Life

The movie was to begin at 1 PM. We’d had a late breakfast and we decided that we'd have lunch after the movie; my husband fretted, however, that he would be ravenous before the movie ended. He walked up to the counter to buy himself a packet of some Sabra Roasted Red Pepper Hummus. The package came with a hummus cup and a dozen chipped crackers. He stared at it for a few seconds. “You know, when I see this sort of thing, I have an optimization problem,” he said. “I have to estimate how efficiently I must finish both the hummus and the crackers. It’s not easy to work one’s way through it.”

When I hear such observations from intelligent people who have architected big data systems that run airlines, hospitals and universities, my frontal lobes self-destruct.

I looked at him as he dipped a cracker shard in the dip. “But efficiency in the perfect depletion of hummus is pointless. I would rather you deploy all that efficiency into the conduct of your life. For instance, instead of splurging time on Facebook, you might as well redirect it somewhere else.”

He stopped, between the dipping and the munching, to argue with me. “You don’t get it.  This hummus and these crackers are finite.”

“Your life too is finite,” I said. “Who told you otherwise?” I felt like a Vitamix blender mashing cooked garbanzo. “FYI, we don’t all have an infinite number of years to live.”

“No, you don’t get it. I know exactly how much I have of both this hummus and these crackers. Look, I can SEE it as I eat it.”

“But no one knows if they have an hour left or a decade left or three decades left.”

By now my husband was puree. Still, he continued to argue, keeping his head above the sludge of hummus until he had finished every crumb and had spooned the hummus cup so clean that it shone like glass.

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Are You In Consulting Too?

Sometimes I think I’m a consultant too. I just finished consulting with a nice batch of onion pakoras that I made using the recipe my mother-in-law patented years ago. Before consulting in the kitchen over hot oil, I was consulting over an awards ceremony lunch held by the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club where I got a prize for a story that I was consulted on, and wrote, of course. To get to the Crowne Plaza for the event, I had to be a car consultant to my editor Jaya who is, kind of, like a consultant—to me and to many others.

Be warned, though. I’m not a “Consultant Consultant” in the way all the youth of the day are. Youngsters like my son, they are the real thing. Colleges in America give birth to 21-year-old consultants every year. Companies like Bain, McKinsey, BCG and scores of others, hire them, right out of their party circuit and funnel them through grueling rounds of interviews. They anoint them and administer—as the Archbishop of Canterbury did to the Queen of England—the oath: “From now on, may the world know who you are. Go forth and Consult.”

Consultants are not just Analysts or Developers or Architects or Doctors or Engineers or Scientists. Don’t ever ask a Consultant what he or she does. Please, have some respect, for they are Consultants.

Are You Deaf?

It is my understanding that most men would rather be lost and let their cars steer them in the direction of Raqqa than stop to ask for directions. I think good hearing is embroiled in machismo too—even more than physical strength, temerity or virility.

I’ve found that my husband often asks me—especially now that he’s at a certain age—to repeat a word. It happens frequently enough that I worry. One day, when I said “school” he wondered if I meant “fool.” Another day, I said something about “mood,” he took it to mean “food.” This morning he thought I meant “New York” when I said “MIOT.”

Naturally, I offered to make him an appointment at the famous California Ear Institute. People fly in from Reykajavik and Ougadougou to be treated at the CAE. But he declined my offer in a sort of a vehement brush-off. He stalked out of the room.

Most women, on the contrary, deal with any slight loss of hearing as if it were a virtue. A woman can bear a child in her uterus and so the ability to hear is merely a secondary capability. I have no doubt that women will agree when I say that selective hearing needs to be added to the list of virtues, besides chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Consider what happened to me yesterday. The old woman at the counter of the used books place I frequent was trying to talk to me as I struggled to turn off my iPod player.

“Are you deaf?” she asked, concern creasing her face, as she handed me my Dostoyevsky novel.

“No,” I said, with a quick laugh. “Although the truth is I have lost a fair amount of hearing in my left ear.” I pointed to the white wires snaking into my ears and the iPod inside my sweatshirt. “Right now, I was listening to a podcast when you tried talking to me. These are just my speakers.”

The old woman apologized profusely for her thoughtlessness while I waved it all off congenially, even though a small, vitriolic cell inside me wanted to tell her that given her age she was hurtling towards deafness at the velocity of a NASA Rocket.

Disaster City

Right about now, in Chennai, always a month before the New Year, a hundred performance venues open their doors to the sound of classical music and the tinkle of dancing bells. The month-long season of music and dance is heady.

Arias waft around in the breeze on the wings of pesky mosquitoes. Streets burst with vendors of jasmine braids and rose garlands. Auto-rickshaw smog blankets the town. The aroma of a crisp dosa dunked in spicy sambar beckons around every by-lane. Chennai airport overflows with suitcases and the gibber of English in abominable accents; non-resident Indians—artistes as well as music aficionados—descend from all over the world to throng the festival.

December season 2015 has begun with a different beat. The northeast monsoons have pelted the region so hard that Chennai’s airport has shut down. Planes are belly-deep in water. Train tracks are inundated. The Indian Army has taken over the town.

This coastal city of nine million people has received more rainfall in three weeks—just yesterday alone, it recorded 10 inches—than the United Kingdom receives in a whole year.

A friend’s aged parents were rescued, by Navy boats, from a little room on the upper storey of their home; they had been stranded with no power and no food. A Facebook friend wrote that her mother stood on the upper floor of her home, watching the disaster swirling downstairs; all her things were floating below, “including the bed, dining table, chairs and the kitchen gas cylinder.”

I hear reports that the number of dead this rainy season is at 188. I’m skeptical. When the rains peel off, we will see the rot within. Yama, my Hindu god of death, preys on random souls, as we know from the many events of November. In India, people look up to the heavens. They call it karma.

Death comes when it's dry too. Every year, many people across India die in heat waves. Temperatures of 105 degrees are not uncommon in towns like Chennai.

Last summer, when I visited home for three months, we bought water from gargantuan Metro water trucks that plied the streets. I felt faint on the hottest days in April and I drank a lot of water. I took military showers. I treated water like I did an expensive swig of Chartreuse. Everyone in Chennai does that. For several years in a row, the wells in the town have been running dry. Locals used to fret about how they would survive another drought year. But this month, right as Paris is discussing climate change, the mental climate in Chennai is changing. No one wants water. They cannot stand it or stand in it.

The city is thirsting for dry weather. This week people have opened their homes to strangers. The lucky ones who have power are using Whatsapp and Facebook to inform and rescue. Volunteers are cooking for many hundreds of people and distributing food packets. I see extraordinary courage in the poorest of the poor; they wade through water to supply the daily packet of milk to customers. I see others who have put aside their sorrows to help. A friend who lost her 40-year-old husband to a heart attack just six days ago has volunteered her Toyota Innova and her home for those in need.

I see how domestic and international media have yet to delve into how one of the world’s ancient cultures has banded together to deploy humanitarian services in a powerless metropolis under maximal deluge and minimal drainage. I saw a CNN segment today on Chennai's struggles. It was a short vignette with a stark discussion of the rainfall. As if one could separate a city, its people, and its ethos from its greatest disaster in a hundred years.

I learned that Lonely Planet and the BBC named Chennai one of the top cities in the world to visit in 2015—for the city's mixture of “both modern and traditional values.” National Geographic called it a “great food city.” For now, at least for a few weeks, Chennai will be a great food packet city because, in the greatest traditions of Indian hospitality, people are worrying that the fellow Indian has eaten.

I end with a quote from a friend, Krish Suresh, who hails from Chennai: “If the "livability" factor of a city is measured by how its residents come together at a time of natural disaster, then Chennai has to be one of the most livable cities in the world.”