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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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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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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This Issue Of The Toilet Tissue

During the holiday weekend of Thanksgiving here in America, there’s a lot of visiting and communing and talking and eating and drinking. It follows, of course, that a visit to the bathrooms at the homes of friends and relatives is inevitable. As Newton implied in the 17th century, for every input, there is an equal and opposite output.

I’ll confess, however, that I like to sneak a visit into people’s bathrooms anyway—even when I don’t really have to go.

A bathroom with just a Vaseline jar, a toothbrush, a mint dental floss and a soap on the counter hints at minimalist occupants. They watch CNN in silence. Their cars may need to be towed to Goodwill. They eat the same cereal every day. They still have flip phones because they believe that all the new problems of the world exist because phones have become smarter than their owners.

I can step into a bathroom and smell a dysfunctional partnership. For instance, a leaky faucet hints at fault lines in a marriage. The husband believes it’s the wife’s duty to call the plumber. The wife thinks her man needs to bone up and be the plumber, especially when he calls himself an engineer.

On some bathroom counters, I see the dust and puff of Clinique, Revlon, L’Oreal, Max Factor and Pond’s. A low-lying fog of Elle reeks of an owner whose tastes are so elevated that she’s both high-maintenance and high performing.

Of all the giveaways in a bathroom, however, the toilet tissue is like the FirstResponse test. It signals a growing attitude and, maybe, even character. Some people prefer tissue that’s sweet-scented and monogrammed. I think their owners use it to pad and, possibly, pat themselves on the back. Some could care a rat’s ass about tissue: they buy whatever Costco has on sale. Some apply uncommon moderation even to the common issue of ply and, therefore, they opt for paper with a modicum of cushion. But here is the bottom line for all rears of all kinds: No one wants sand paper.

Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for many things big and small.

I’m grateful for that 90s Torchiere halogen floor lamp under which I sit writing every day. I hate it and I want to upgrade. But the last time I said it to my husband, he barked at me. “Why do you always want to replace something that doesn’t need fixing and isn’t broken?”

I’m grateful for my 1999 Mercedes with its broken tail-lights and smashed fender. For a dozen years, it has complained, electronically, of a dysfunctional lamp. “It’s nothing important,” my husband said, the last time I asked him when he planned to have it fixed. “But the Germans are never wrong,” I said. “They don’t put in a part for no reason.” That lamp is like my spleen. Everyone says the spleen can go but I know I need my spleen because I feel resentful and crotchety sometimes. Thanks to the spleen, we have a word in English that means “a feeling of resentful anger.” Yes, I’m so thankful for my spleen.

I’m so grateful for my persimmon tree, my apple tree, my avocado tree, my pomegranate tree, my pineapple guava tree, my orange tree and my lemon tree. I haven’t partaken of one quarter of any of those fruits borne in my home but I must convey my gratitude on behalf of the squirrels. They cannot write and they would not know how to post a status on Facebook or know how to connect a Facebook post to a blog with short urls and links. It’s not a squirrel’s world except, of course, in my backyard and I’m forever thankful for that.

I’m thankful for my daily Quaker Oats Simply Granola cereal and my Quaker Instant Oatmeal Flavor Variety Pack. I’m so thankful for them because I have breakfast every morning and, thanks to Costco, we have two years’ worth of the same breakfast. And now, I’m afraid I feel a pre-seasonal afterglow: I’m feeling thankful that a quake in my neighborhood, of 8.8, may demolish all things Quaker in my kitchen cabinet.

Last of all, I’m thankful for companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX. The stuff about space makes no sense to me; there are so many problems here on earth that we have no solutions for. But I do see potential in it for a one-way ticket for the following individuals: Donald Trump, Salah Abdeslam and Jeff Bezos himself.

I’m thankful this Thanksgiving. Oh yes, I am.

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A Xerox At The Park

Through the course of a five-mile walk at Ortega Park with a friend, I was baffled by the demographics of the park. An all-Indian birthday party was in progress inside the gazebo at the center. A few minutes down, close to our walking path, eight boys kicked a ball on the green: Seven Mowglis in seven t-shirts and seven shorts and seven shoes and one ball.

On a bench, an old man and woman sat in glum resignation to the soundless life of the American suburbia. As we trekked past, we nodded absently, all four of us—as all immigrants do in their adopted country—in silent acknowledgment of the truth that we were all xeroxed faces hailing from a land that produced high technology, high-calorie samosas and high SAT and GRE scores.

For a few cruel seconds, I felt like a migrant hoping to banish all the other migrating beasts to another savannah 10,000 light-years away.

I felt like the zebra at the head of the herd. No two ever had the same set of stripes. Yet they blended into the distant landscape, becoming one in the daze of heat and dust. I sensed the zebra’s frisson of discomfort: If and when the lion came, how would it tell one rear from the other? And, heavens, would there be enough grass for all? Plenty of Bermuda grass? Enough red grass? What about legume?

Further down the trail, I passed one more of my ilk. Right away, I sensed the mild panic leaking at the pores of the Cupertino species: Would there be enough fresh coriander and fenugreek at the farmer’s market the following Friday?

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A Pinch Of Baking Powder

Every few days, my daughter and I talk about the nonfiction universe we inhabit. We talk of reading, thinking, reporting and writing. We talk about humor and craft. Sometimes we segue into debates about work ethic. Almost always, we veer into discussions about race and privilege and perceptions about privilege. A few days ago, she told me about an upcoming in-person interview. She said it gave her butterflies in the stomach.

The child resembles her father almost completely—in mind, in spirit, in looks.  He gave her his deep voice, his incisive mind, his nonporous logic, his doggedness in arriving at solutions to problems step-by-step, his mile-long, self-effacing smile and his goat eyes. She got my handwriting and not her father’s—his look like rat droppings—and my skewed way of looking at the world and my sense of tune.  But I wish she had inherited one atomic particle of her father’s self-confidence. 

The child makes statements like this one below when she attends public talks in which she misses the chance of a lifetime to steal moments with a famous personality. She doesn’t like being reminded of such missed opportunities.

“Mom, how can I just walk up to Atul Gawande and ask him to sign my book? What do I tell him?”

“You just walk up to Atul Gawande and ask him to sign your book,” I say. “And say you are crazy about his writings and you read every line he writes and totally love his work.”

“But that’s weird. Who ever does that?” 

“People do that all the time. They just walk up to people they admire.”

“Ugh. I can’t do that.”

“Of course you can.”

“That’s so weird.”

“No, it’s not.”

“But it’s well known that celebrities hate all the fuss.”

“No, they don’t. Everyone loves fans.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

At the end of most such arguments, she reminds me that she’s now half my age and that I too must have been diffident at 25. And then I tell her that self-confidence, even a wee bit of it at just the right time, can open doors. When I put the phone down, I sigh and wonder whether God intentionally forgot the baking powder when he closed the oven door on her. I think all humans need is a pinch of baking powder at conception, just a smidgen. It makes all things inflate.   

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Designs On A Designer

 The day we were about to drive out to San Francisco with friends, I realized that I’d left my sunglasses at home. “Do you have one I can borrow?” I asked my friend. She ran into her daughter’s room and returned with a nice pair. They were designer, BCBGMAXAZRIA, and, according to the label inside, made in China. When I glided them over the bridge of my nose, I seemed to feel slimmer. I glowed with the chic of Milan.

My own pair of sunglasses, the ones at home, cost me ten dollars at Walgreens. I don’t invest in expensive glasses anymore because when I buy one, they never stay with me. When I took one to India, they forgot to return home with me. I bought another pair when I returned. But whenever I drove out in our van, I discovered too late that they were in the sedan. Almost always, my sunglasses were in the purse that I was not carrying at the time I needed them. I was always looking everywhere under the sun for my sunglasses.

But the day I received my BCBGMAXAZRIA, they began to feel right on my skin. I’d been given them with the tacit understanding—between close friends—that they were meant to be returned.

I never mean to not return something. When a friend gives me food in her container, I keep it in the fridge for a day or so and then, when I’ve consumed its contents, I toss the container into the dishwasher. A day later, I shove the clean container into a kitchen drawer. In less than a week, I forget all about the container and about the friend.

Sometimes, I’m also a victim of the “no return” policy. People have forgotten to return my books. A friend borrowed our lawnmower eons ago. No one in either family now remembers the incident, least of all, my husband, who will not look directly at our lawn anymore unless it stares back at him from a picture on Facebook. Just ten days ago, a friend borrowed our keyboard. Soon, she’ll begin to think she has always owned a Yamaha keyboard. And I’ll forget that I was the one who bought it.

Of late, I’ve been taking my BCBGMAXAZRIA on walks around the block. They look svelte even when I’m in sweats. They stay tight when I sweat. I may have designs on them but the truth is they were designed for me.

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