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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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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We're Even, My Bagel And I

One morning a few weeks ago, when I told my friend I was stepping out for a bagel, she sent me a quick missive: “That jalapeno bagel is not good for your waistline, dear."

Well, I did not have a “waistline” anymore than Phuket had a resort after the tsunami of 2004. I reminded my thoughtful friend about how, two years ago, the tidal waves of menopause had smashed into the curves at my waist, permanently upending my figure. Now, whenever I got into my skinnies, I saw overriding bulges that were always under strain at the waistline, causing a tectonic shift in other parts.

Despite the extensive damage, I try hard to not harbor insecurities. I continue to eat my favorite foods. This morning, I ventured out again for a toasted jalapeno bagel with jalapeno cream cheese. My bagel was pricey: 450 calories. After that I simply walked 4.5 miles, burning 450 calories.

Now, we’re even, my bagel and I.

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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