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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A Concentrate

When I was growing up, my father, the late Daddykins, made comments about people—who belonged to another city, another community, another sect, another religion, another country—that I valued as gospel. It took me years to shed some of his beliefs. It would be decades before I formulated my own set of ideals.

Daddykins would have been desperately saddened by the events of Friday, the 13th, in Paris, one of his favorite cities. Indeed, on some days, I saw how my father felt the violence of the world in his core. He was a decent human being, a gentleman, actually, by world definition, and yet, despite his tolerance and magnanimity, he could be small-minded, in the most unexpected ways, and at the strangest of times.

He was a vegetarian, as were most Hindu Brahmin men of the time. But he looked askance at those who ate meat. He exercised every morning throughout his life—he played tennis in his youth and he walked in his later years—and so, he was snooty about those who didn’t factor any exercise into their daily regimen. He read The Hindu every morning, between exercise and prayer, and therefore he looked down his nose at those who didn’t keep up with current events or analyze the daily editorial. He watched television only in the evening, after work; consequently, he decried the no-good who watched television during the day. He worked until a few months before his end when he was a few months shy of 91, and quite obviously he mocked those who had retired early, as he said, work-wise and mind-wise. He prayed morning and evening—they were really short bursts of meditation—and he judged people by whether or not they put mind to prayer. He cast withering glances my way when, on some days, I made irreverent comments as he sat down for prayer. Daddykins disagreed with my opinion that religion and good character were often two orthogonal intents.

I wondered about the environments parents created for children and about how we indoctrinated our children with our philosophies of how life ought to be lived. I believe my home is as liberal as those of many others. Yet, my husband and I are riddled with biases rising out of our versions of our truths. Two days after the Paris attacks, an eloquent British Muslim scholar stated, on television, that we can take out all the ISIS but we cannot root out a whole ideology with air raids. I also recall something the Dalai Lama said recently, that we need to go back and work on the individual and on ourselves: “Our troubles will increase if we don't put moral principles over money. Morality is important for everyone, including religious people and politicians. The problems that we are facing today are the result of superficial differences over religious faiths and nationalities. We are one people.”

Parents still have so much work to do. I look at my children and I think they’re more open-minded, more idealistic, and more humanistic than I will ever be. But it’s easier to slash our wrists and let ourselves bleed to death than it is to rid ourselves of our convictions.

I don’t believe I ever brought Daddykins around to my way of thinking with respect to piety and several other things. By the time he died, he resembled a concentrate of juice—seven times more concentrated than the original and so viscous and opaque that a ray of sun would not pass through.

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My Turn To Blanch

In the year 2008, my father, the late Daddykins, flew down to spend four months at my home. Daddykins pottered around the kitchen doing little things that would make my day easier. At 6.30AM, he’d stand at the stove, laboring over a perfect cappuccino for me. While morning coffee trickled into the decanter, Daddykins emptied the dishwasher, putting away many dishes into the wrong cabinets.

Every other day, he helped me make yoghurt with active culture from kefir, taking care to set the timer for 25 minutes after the milk had boiled. He grated carrots and cucumber for salad. He diced apples–so badly though that I gently weaned him away to bananas.

When pomegranates came into season in October, he’d shell them for half an hour and then complain that, thanks to me, his nice white undershirt had "terrorist" stains on them that would never go away.

I remember how, close to Diwali week in early November, when I got ready to make my famous almond halwa, my father offered to blanch almonds. But when I supervised him on how gently to coax them out of their skin after soaking them in hot water, he didn’t mince words.

“You’ve given me a job. Now can you let me do it?” It was my turn to blanch.

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Four Limes Under A Car

Today, we arrive at the close of Navarathri, the Hindu nine-night festival of feast, prayer and glamor. This, here, is the tenth day, Vijayadasami, the day everyone must pray, sing, dance, move, write, speak, code, cure—really, do everything that brings meaning to our lives. It’s also the day Hindus celebrate all the machines we use.

When my father, the late Daddykins, was alive, we’d go out into the road on this morning. We'd decorate his car windows with sandalwood and vermilion. Daddykins' Maruti Dzire would wear a garland of roses on its windscreen.Inside, by the Ganesha on the dash, Vinayagam, my father’s chauffeur, placed a long strand of jasmine.

Vinayagam was the self-appointed priest on the occasion of Vijayadasami. Standing in front of the car, right by its license plate, he lit a forest of incense sticks poking out of a banana cluster resting on a plate. He burned camphor on a brass holder. Then he closed his eyes and bent his head. He put his hands together and prayed that his car—which belonged to Daddykins, on paper at least—came to no hit and run or any other harm in the coming year. He proceeded to set a lime under each tire.

In the meanwhile, Saravanan, my father’s other helper, held a winter melon in his hand. He lifted the melon high above his head. For a few seconds he looked like Atlas holding up the world because the fruit was as large as Saravanan was small. He bashed it against the road where it splattered, entrails splashing outward, its seed shooting out into neighboring apartment buildings.

Then, while Daddykins looked on, Vinayagam slid into the seat of our car, cranked the engine, moved into first gear and eased the tires, gently, over the fruit.

Four yellow limes burst under gargantuan rubber. For a few minutes, the air, now citrus scented, swirled around us, mingling with that permanent odor of Chennai—a heady compound of incense, curry leaf, jasmine, rose, juice of winter melon, sandalwood, broken coconut and cow dung.

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The Telephone Grizzly

People don’t realize that the telephone is the first lifeline that snips when a parent takes ill. When my mother’s cancer seeped into her brain, she didn’t know to ask for her black diary. That’s where she stored my phone number and those of all the people she called every day for something or other.

A decade later, when my father, the late Daddykins, dissolved into his illness, he stopped going to the phone. Instead, it went to him. It went to him through the person of the deputy secretary of homeland security, Vinayagam.

The young man would take the cordless phone to the rust-orange sofa by the window where his boss sat, newspaper on his lap, buried in the fog that separates the dying from the living.

“Saar, it’s your sister!” he'd say to Daddykins. “It’s your sweet sister from Kerala, Saar.” And my father would intone into the phone, fielding my aunt’s endless questions like an iPhone Siri, incapable of a laugh, a cry, a chortle, a snicker, a squeal, a surprise, a chuckle or a point of view.

Those of us who have lost a parent know that the day of demise isn’t the day of an actual, physical, blood-congealing death. It’s the day following which the parent will not come to the phone. It’s the day the parent is taught, by someone else, to greet the child.

For me, the telephone, especially my landline, is a grizzly monster, a demon that screens and permits incoming calls only from those on earth. For instance, it didn’t ring the morning of my birthday when, like the Times Square ball, Daddykins’ call would be the first one to drop so I could begin my life anew.

But I know one man is trying hard to keep my father alive. When I called Vinayagam today, four days after my birthday, he did what Daddykins always did. He sang into the phone exactly the way his boss used to, like a broken record. He sang the first two lines: “Happy Birthday to you, Kalpana. Happy Birthday to you, Kalpana.”

For those eleven seconds, for exactly those cadent but unmusical seconds, Daddykins was alive, again.

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Who Was I?

A weekend could upend my idea of who I was. It could rock the premise on which I had built my social, professional and literary life as an Indian-American in California.

On Friday evening, someone dismissed, categorically, the quality and approach of an Indian-American magazine I respected and had worked for over the decades. “Why couldn’t the magazine hire better writers?” she asked.

On Saturday afternoon, some people in my writing group offered breathtaking analyses for a story penned by a talented member. I came unhinged. Should I appreciate the story? Or marvel at the succinct and lyrical analyses by fellow writers who had mastered both writing and analysis? How could I improve at both?

Later that evening, at a birthday party, a young Sikh gentleman sang Hindi melodies from the 50s through the 70s. For years, the tunes had pierced my ears and drenched my soul. I went to bed that night wondering if I should distance myself from such music. It weighed me down. It was another reminder that my parents had departed. It was proof that my father, the late but always punctual Daddykins, who read me and made three Xerox copies of every story I had ever published, had really, completely departed.

Early on Sunday, I was in Dublin for a prayer at the new home of a cousin’s son. The young man and his wife were just starting out in life. Their road was not yet locatable on GPS. I thought about my first home in San Jose’s Evergreen area. Our home had been built on new land cleared for starter homes. Now, after four moves and 32 years, I had dropped roots in an old neighborhood of heritage oaks, stately firs and meandering trails. We had raised two children into thinking, mature adults. Yet, in a matter of forty-eight hours, I felt lost, unanchored, somehow.

On Sunday evening, I rose to sing India’s national anthem in unison with 18000 others in this welcoming valley of dreams. Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, was on his first official trip to the Silicon Valley. He was on a mission to enlist CEOs to realize his dream, Digital India, for connecting all the people of India.

Between the rising and falling strains of the anthem, I believe I heard another sound. The soundless swish of Kleenex on cheeks. The sound of sadness that all immigrants must hear in their hearts on some days. The ring of American careening. Of silent hyphens clattering to the floor.

Was I American? Was I Indian?

Who was I?

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The morning I made Sabudana Kichdi, Vinayagam watched from the sidelines. He knew where to buy the tapioca pearls but he couldn’t understand what people whipped up with the little white balls. He cast a suspicious glance at the pearls, now large and turgid, and as edematous as my feet after a trans-Pacific flight.

I had let the tapioca swim in a bowl of water and I’d forgotten the most important step in dealing with tapioca: using just enough water to soak and draining the water thoroughly.

I added cumin seeds and green chilies to oil heating up in a wok. The late Daddykins’ valet watched as I threw in some curry leaves.

“Hello, madam, will this be worthy enough to eat?” he asked.

I pulled a face. “When have I ever made you something inedible, mister?”

Unfortunately, at the end of the half hour, the dish became a fair enough substitute for Fevicol, one of India’s most touted original adhesives for construction projects.

In July, a visiting cousin took me through the important steps of making an authentic Sabudana Kichdi. She taught me that the amount of water for soaking the pearls was key; for a cup of pearls, she suggested using about a cup and a quarter of water. Turning the pearls over a couple of times, right as they soaked, also ensured that the pearls got coated evenly with water. After six hours of soaking, the pearls had absorbed all the water and were soft to the touch, right down to their core.

Since the July lesson, I’ve made the dish many times and each time I’ve improved upon the previous version. Next time I go back to Chennai, I will make the dish once more for Vinayagam. This time I’ll make it just right. And this time, I’ll be sure to point out that the previous attempt was just my ruse to glue his teeth together for his seasoned impertinence.

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In 1973, I was barely 12 years old and beginning my second year of life in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. One afternoon, right after school, my father, the late Daddykins, dropped me off at the local library. I was returning a book a few days late. I ran into the building and handed the book to the clerk at the counter.

The native Tanzanian rifled through the pages, looking for the tag with due dates. Then he looked up and told me that I was late and that I would need to pay a fine. I was prepared to do that. But I was not prepared for what came out of the man’s mouth right after. “You Indians,” he said, his eyes piercing mine. “You’re all thieves.”

I struggled to make sense of what I’d heard. The reaction of the gentleman to the minor infraction stings even today, four decades later, long after all my positive experiences in Dar in the many years that followed. I remember being frazzled as I got back into the car to tell my father about what had just passed. He was livid. But as he drove out of the parking lot, he told me that I should just let the insult glide off my back, that he simply couldn’t change the world.

Last night I read about the incident on campus at USC. As Rini Sampath—an Indian-American and the first woman student body president—walked back from a friend’s apartment, someone leaned out of a fraternity house and slandered her. "You Indian piece of s—t!" he shouted, tossing his drink in her direction.

Slurs and epithets—whether they come from a place of hurt or anger or misunderstanding—are like boils on the body. They heal, yes, they do, but they pock and pit the skin, leaving scars by which to gauge our place in the world.

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In Its Place

I believe an uncluttered home is a sign of an uncluttered mind. Like the late Daddykins used to say to me when I was growing up, “each, each thing in each, each place.” And like many of us, I too have modeled myself after my parents—with a place for everything and everything in its place.

Last night I was appalled when I discovered that my husband had arranged all his tiny shampoos and conditioners in an open cupboard in direct view of the toilet bowl. This morning I warned him that this was dangerous in earthquake country. He needed to move them if he didn’t want them toppling into the toilet. In any case, I had a big box marked “All Filched Hotel Shampoos And Conditioners.” Why hadn’t he put them in there? He knew I had a box or a place for everything.

 “You know,” my husband said from his spot at our granite counter. He glared at me with a wry face, right pointer finger hovering over his cell phone. “Given a chance, you’ll find a “place” in the house for me too, won’t you?”

 He had ventured into very marshy terrain.

“Exactly,” I said. I paused. I held my breath in my cheek. I felt the tension of the lioness just before she put claw to wildebeest. “I’m putting you in your place.”

 At the moment the house is resounding with the melodious strains of my wicked cackle but something tells me this will be avenged when the time is just right.

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