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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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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Cell By Cell

Our home used to resound with music in the years 1994 to 2012. Some of the early notes were painful to the ears. I thought I’d die, cell by cell, from bombardment by bad notes.

There must be such a thing. There must be people who, sensing they have poor musical sense, go on learning music anyway. Cells must pop inside them—under an avalanche of bad phrasing—becoming goo.

I imagine a new diagnosis of sorts in medicine in which the doctor places a stethoscope on a man’s skin and says, in a mournful tone, “I’m afraid, Mister NoNotes, that you’ve contracted Immusicalia. You will die. Unless you stop singing or playing the trombone, of course.”

So you can see why, in the early years of parenting, I worried, I was suffocated with anxiety, in fact, that my children may not have inherited my musicality and that, instead, they might have acquired their father’s. But the girl and the boy became sensitive musicians with fine ears and nimble fingers. I was sad, however, when they decided that while the fine arts would never leave them, they would not pursue a professional life in arts performance.

This morning, I received a message from my son in Berlin. “Hey, I’ve rented a violin and I’m playing after such a long time. It’s so fun.”

I saw the message rather late today but ever since I read it, I’ve been feeling that my cells are holding hands inside of me. They’re putting their whole cells in and their whole cells out and their whole cells in and turning themselves around. They’re doing the hokey pokey and turning them cells around and that’s what it's all about.

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That Last Diwali With My Father

Three seasons ago, in November 2012, I felt privileged that my father was still alive to make my first Diwali in India special, after 29 years. 

The evening of Diwali, I pulled out my tiny bag of firecrackers. My gift for 89-year-old Daddykins was one box each of sparklers, pinwheels and flowerpots. His valet, Vinayagam, placed a glowing sparkler in my father’s hand. It crackled into stars and starlets. 

On my father’s face I saw the boyish wonder of festivals past, that childlike glee that washes over us when we relive a moment that has been lost to us for decades. I remembered the dewy mornings when my father and I had stood on the wide verandah of the home into which I had been born, his hand guiding mine as I held a sparkler. I caught a million golden showers in his eyeglasses then, as I did now, when Diwali had lost almost all meaning for him. 

A few minutes later, Vinayagam set a flowerpot on the ground and handed me a long lighter with which to light its wick. I ran back to where my father stood. A bouquet of sparks grew towards the sky with the swelling roar of a waterfall.  

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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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Ticked Off By Liftick

Yesterday, I noticed that my lipstick was eroded to a stub of coral red. It hurt when I ran it over my lips.

Today I was at the drugstore to replenish my trusted color: “752 Classic Wine” by L’Oreal which ranked sixth among the best lipstick brands in the world. Who knew that someone out there cared to rank lipstick? How did they rank lipstick? By its staying power? By the marks it left on wine glasses? By its gloss? Its wet look on the lips? By the way it felt to the kisser or to the kissed? Or to both?

A man will never understand how a woman of today may never be seen anywhere without lipstick in her purse and on her mouth. My mother could not grasp the fashion statement—or pronounce fashion-related words—until the day she died. She fussed over grooming but she looked askance at lipstick.

In the India of the 70s and 80s, especially in conservative Chennai, lipstick was a sign of wantonness. At the sight of lip color on me, my mother’s mouth curved downward. I remember how she used to watch me from her designated spot on the sofa as I flitted about the house, a girl of 21 with a red stain on her lips.

“Come here,” she said. She didn’t broach the subject of coquetry implied by my mouth, not yet, anyway. She told me to turn around so she could take in the shock of my hip-length hair held by a barrette. She whined that it was windblown. “Why don’t you braid it?” she asked. “It looks like hay. No coconut oil. That’s what all this new-fangled stuff called shyamboo does to beautiful hair.” Then she got up. She walked around to examine my face. “You need more talcum powder on your nose.” Finally, her eyes swooped down to my lips. “High society lady,” she tsk-tsked. “Look at you! Liftick and all.”

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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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Scarred

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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Slingshot

I'm sitting here in my father's home in Chennai reading about Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, a man the late Daddykins admired for his vision and his implementation of that vision. I didn't realize until today that my father shared a birthday month and year with him.

"Great minds think alike, you know," my father might have said to me, had he outlived Yew.

"But, Daddykins, that great mind built a nation," I might have shot back. "Pray, what did your great mind do?" At that, the old man might have slunk away into his room until such time it was safe to be seen again within a one-mile radius of his nasty younger daughter.

Take Me To Jaipur

From February 16 until June 4th, I called my father’s home every day. Vinayagam would hand the phone to Daddykins who would ask me two questions. The same two questions. For 108 days.

“When are you coming here? Will you take me to Jaipur?”

My answer would always be the same: “On June 6th. Yes, Daddykins.”

By the time I landed in Chennai on June 6th, nine days before his death,Daddykins declared that he was too weak to travel to Jaipur. “You do not have to take me to Jaipur anymore. I cannot do that,” he said in a feeble voice. Then he paused, inhaled heavily and volleyed one that I will never forget. “But you do need to take me to Singapore. For two days.”