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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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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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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Just A Cleaner

The people who clean our home pass through several houses in one very long day. On some days, when the teenage son is not in school, he too is part of the cleaning crew, busting cobwebs and dusting ledges. Jose and his wife chuckle and laugh and chatter in Spanish while they go about washing the sink, wiping the pendant lights and fluffing up our pillows. I watch them at work and I wonder whether my husband and I would laugh with each other all day if we were going about our duties together every day. 

Mostly, my husband and I are like Putin and Obama. Like the two leaders, we are remotely aware that we’re serving a common larger goal but like the two leaders, we’re busy polishing our knives towards smaller “side” agendas.  Sometimes I wonder if the cleaning couple that knows every nook and cranny of our home may be saying, in Spanish, that this Indian couple could use a summit like the G-20 to cleanse their lives. 

They never fail to ask after our children and now, after almost eight years of association, they know about the big issues that wrinkle our lives.  The scent of Palmolive and Pine tides away my  troubles, at least momentarily, and I do look forward to the mornings my housekeeping service arrives—even though I’ve noticed how I often find myself cleaning before the cleaners arrive.  

I still remember the time I texted the couple ten minutes after they had left our home. “Hey, you forgot to mop the sun room today,” I said, annoyed about their slip. “Do please do it next time, thanks!” Jose was back at my door in minutes. He did not like to be told he had missed a spot. He was as particular as I was about a job well done. I hated myself that morning.   

Today, while vacuuming our family room, Jose asked after my son in Europe. We talked about Paris and then we ended up talking about the attitudes of people towards immigrant communities. I told him that despite the issues around immigration, America remained one of the most welcoming and broadminded nations in the world. He agreed. But it was also a matter of perspective, he said. All Americans were not that fair-minded or accepting of others and it depended on where an immigrant was on the totem pole.

“Some of the houses that I visit,” he said. “People won’t even honor me with a greeting. They don’t treat me like a human being. For them, I’m just a cleaner.”

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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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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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Mothering

 

I’ve been appalled that my son’s bank in the US has been unable to replace a deleted debit card. On a recent visit to Berlin, I discovered why nothing had happened even after my son’s complaints to the bank. He was being overly polite.

One evening, I heard my boy talk to the bank rep. He sounded as if he were at a confessional. I grabbed the phone from him, ambushing the gentleman at the other end of the line.

 “This here is the boy’s mother,” I said. “I’m sick of this runaround! Did you hear me? I’m sick of it.” I proceed to tell the man just how furious I was with the delay and ineptitude. I used bombastic words. I threw dates. I spat facts. It wasn’t enough that they would not deal with me in America because the son was not a minor anymore. Now that I was in Berlin with my son, I was still being given the runaround, I said.

Ten minutes later, I handed the phone back to my  boy, satisfied that I’d dragged the clerk through the coals. “And that’s how you deal with these people, baby,” I said. I felt proud.  I deserved the Distinguished Service Medal in Mothering.

 My son demurred. He said I had been unpleasant and rude to the clerk.

 I told him he needed to bone up, that he needed to stop sounding as if he were on his first date. I told him he needed to pretend he was being evicted or extradited or something nasty like that. “You need to learn to yell as if you are on your last euro.”   

“But the clerk is merely a cog in the wheel, Mom,” the boy said. “They have rules, you know. The bank guy told you exactly what he told me. You didn’t change the outcome.”

Days later, we were still at an impasse, even after my son mailed them a letter with the requisite information and a signature. Today, two weeks after my return from Berlin, I called the local bank. The accounts manager at the bank, Mike, told me to calm down, that nothing could be accomplished by yelling.

 An hour later I walked into the bank with a copy of my son’s letter. Mike was as calm in person as he had sounded on the phone. His eyes were sky-blue. He had a day’s stubble. He looked like a young philosophy grad who had arrived at his job as a last resort. “Let me check your son’s signature,” he said.

I wanted to tell Mike there was no need. No signature had more cachet than a mother’s testimony. Mothers were always right. We were privy to conversations about warts, fears, girls, dreams—and signatures. No bank or physician’s office could take that away from us just because our child was past 18 years of age. Yes, my son wasn’t a minor anymore. But my major was Mothering, first and foremost, and so I could also weigh in on the point of signature comparison.

I warned Mike. “If you check his current signature against what it was four years ago, I bet it will be quite different.” I told him that college transformed a young man’s outlook as well as his signature.

 Mike looked up and smiled. He asked about Berlin. After looking through the folder they had on file, he nodded.

“Yes, your son’s signature has changed since 2011 and I’m unable to verify it. But you know what? I’m going to help you out. This has gone on way too long. You’ll have a new card in the mail next week.”

I thanked him. As for all the spit and rant over the issue—which will end only when my son receives the card—I believe it was justified.

 My son needs to know this: A little shouting may not open doors but it certainly unlocks a window.

White Lies

Every few months, I have a long conversation with this Chinese-American who lives a few doors away. This morning, I happened to run into her during the course of my walk. She told me she was juggling a lot. Her son was in the toughest years at school. Her mother was suffering from advanced cancer.

Figuring out doctors, therapies and schedules were only part of the family’s struggles. The big challege was coming to terms with her mother’s pressing need for secrecy. She didn’t want any of their relatives to know about her condition. When relatives called to chat, she evaded and prevaricated, fabricating new stakes of fibs to bolster her phantasmagoric tent of white lies.

My neighbor was embarrassed and exasperated. “Now, whether I like it or not, I have been co-opted into all the lies and cover-ups.” She was caught between her duty to her mother and her own conscience.

“Is it a problem only with folks in the Asian cultures, this need to lie about one’s health?” she asked me. I wondered about it. Where I was from, a broken leg evoked extraordinary sympathy. A disturbed mind? Well, we tied an invisible wrist-band to the patient and tagged it with markers like “past sins”, “stigma” and “silence”.

I told my neighbor about my emotional struggles with regard to family members, some of whom valued secrecy for today over wellness for the long term. We saw no solution in sight. People were all different, we decided. Who were we to say that one way was the right way to live? And who were we to tell someone, even one from whom life was leaking out, how he or she must think?

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Mother Hen

My sibling, my sister, is eleven years older than I am. Ever since my mother passed away in 2005, she has clucked around me with the attitude of a mother who is somehow constantly worried about the decisions her errant child might make.

She spent the day with me yesterday and proceeded to pluck each and every one of the feathers I'd glued to my crown. "This master bathroom," she said, noting that the handle of our shower faucet was broken. "It needs redoing. In any case, the tiles are too black."

Then she poked at the carpet in the family room. "Needs to go," she said flatly, panning the room with her eyes. "It's so very old. You've had it since your Almaden home."

Last night she slept on the brand new bed in my son's room. "You know, you actually needed a double or a queen bed here," she said. "Why would you buy yet another twin in place of the old one?" Her eyes travelled to the pendants dropping from the ceiling. "Also, why does your son need a desk? He's almost done with college."

Last night I made her a fruit chaat. "You mean you made the chaat masala? Yourself? Where did you learn to make that?" Then she wondered aloud about what she would eat the following morning. "Now what am I going to get for breakfast? The same thing?" she asked, taking the fruit plate, now all polished off, to the sink.

Back in the family room she wanted to know where I got the new bookshelf. She had never seen it before in my home, apparently. "Oh yes, you have," I said, reminding her about an old white shelf over on the other side of the house. "I painted that green."

Now my sister waddled over to the new green shelf. She touched the top. Then she ran her hands along its back. She touched the award-winning book by Jeet Thayil on the first shelf. She let out a cheep. "You really painted that? Not bad!" She turned around and smiled at me. "Not bad at all. Wow."

In a most invisible way, in the way no one can see but those of us who believe in things like Platform 9 3/4, I dipped a bent fallen feather in E-6000 and fixed it back in my slightly dented crown.