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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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."

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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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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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 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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Fly Like A Kite

Vinayagam has been on talking terms with Ganga since early July and so this morning he offered Ganga some Marie biscuits to eat while she drank her morning cup of coffee.

“No way, sweetheart, I cannot afford it,” she said, waving it away. “I’ll put on weight.” Ganga said “weight” in English, the way my friends and I did when we bantered about our extra pounds.

Vinayagam raised an eyebrow and stared at the skinny old hag. “Weight? You? You going to compete in Miss Universal or something?”

Ganga cackled between taking sips of her coffee while Vinayagam went about the kitchen muttering unkind things about her.

“Give it to him, Ganga,” I said. “He’s a jealous creature.”

“Right,” he said coming back into the kitchen after shutting the fridge. “I’m really jealous.” He shot Ganga a look. “Of this old hag.”

“Vinayagam’s jealous,” I repeated, “because he’s putting on weight in the middle—”

“—yes, and the old thing’s worried about putting on weight because she’s going to be competing in Miss Universal.” He walked off in pretend disgust to his place on the living room floor.Ganga laughed, her betel-stained lips opening to her red-brown teeth.

She told me how when she had injured her leg, the late Daddykins offered to have Vinayagam pick her up from her home and drop her back whenever she came to work. “But I refused. Not as long as I have legs. I never ever want to be like this, you know.” She let her hands circle the air as if she had a beer belly. Then she popped betel nut into her mouth and began chewing. “You should see me walk here every morning. I fly to this home. Like a kite, I fly like a kite.”

Language Does Double Duty

Sometimes, language does double duty. The way Vinayagam and Ganga wield Tamil, it does quadruple duty. It burns like Shiva’s third eye. It will melt diamond.

Today Ganga complained that the sari she was washing in our bathroom was bleeding color. She wanted more detergent powder. Vinayagam, whose ordained duty it is to supply everything in the house, handed her a box, saying, “Here, Old Woman. Kottiko.”

As I hinted earlier about the vagaries of language, the word “kottiko” may have several meanings, depending on the situation. In this instance, he was merely telling the old woman to sprinkle as much powder as she needed for the washing. But Ganga took offense. She decided to go to the caustic edge and look down at life from there. Kottiko can also mean “eat.”

“Sweetheart, now why would you tell me to eat this?” she asked. “Do you want me to leave this world?” Vinayagam cackled, assuring her, in his most impertinent manner, that she was free to interpret the situation however she wanted but that he never once meant it that way.

Hearing the commotion in the kitchen, I ran up to her and assured her that I could never ever live a day without her and that it wasn’t the time for her to go. Ganga laughed. She stalked off proudly in the direction of the bathroom, detergent box in hand.