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.

~~~To see the reactions to this post on Facebook, go to http://bit.ly/2n4EVat

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.

~~~To see the reactions to this post on Facebook, go to http://bit.ly/JaiCupFB

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.

~~~To read the reactions to this post on Facebook, go to http://bit.ly/Tgvng15FB

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.   

~~~To read the reactions to this post on Facebook, go to http://on.fb.me/1N1fP30

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.”

~~~To see the reactions to this post on Facebook, go to http://bit.ly/AClnrFB1

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.

~~~To see the reactions to this post on Facebook, go to http://bit.ly/MusCLFB

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.

Glossing Over Floss

“And, mind you, today does not count!” my dentist said, with a wicked laugh, while I lay, my mouth open, dying to tell her I did floss once last month. But she had me pinned down like Gulliver in Lilliput by the force of her dental LED light, an aspirator, a pick axe, a hose, a mouth vacuum, a brushing head and reams of dental floss.

I hate floss. All the dental floss on earth needs immediate recycling as follows: 
As total Colgate ribbons to hold up Donald Trump’s Hair before Trumpgate; 
as waxed hand loom saris redolent of raspberry mint gum; 
as mummyfying thread to glide ISIS members (and their members) into Egypt’s valley of the kings; 
as parachutes to blow helicopter parents out of reach; 
as sails for cruise boats aiming for the Arctic.

At the very least, floss needs a decent burial as well as an epitaph on a marble headstone, preferably filled in gold by a dentist: 
“Buried here is floss. It’s cutting edge is gross.
Among the things humans must lack, Is a fishline for plaque.”

~~~For reactions to this post on Facebook, go to http://bit.ly/Floss1

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?

~~~For reactions to this post on Facebook, go to http://bit.ly/WhoWasI