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.

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An Infinite Life

The movie was to begin at 1 PM. We’d had a late breakfast and we decided that we'd have lunch after the movie; my husband fretted, however, that he would be ravenous before the movie ended. He walked up to the counter to buy himself a packet of some Sabra Roasted Red Pepper Hummus. The package came with a hummus cup and a dozen chipped crackers. He stared at it for a few seconds. “You know, when I see this sort of thing, I have an optimization problem,” he said. “I have to estimate how efficiently I must finish both the hummus and the crackers. It’s not easy to work one’s way through it.”

When I hear such observations from intelligent people who have architected big data systems that run airlines, hospitals and universities, my frontal lobes self-destruct.

I looked at him as he dipped a cracker shard in the dip. “But efficiency in the perfect depletion of hummus is pointless. I would rather you deploy all that efficiency into the conduct of your life. For instance, instead of splurging time on Facebook, you might as well redirect it somewhere else.”

He stopped, between the dipping and the munching, to argue with me. “You don’t get it.  This hummus and these crackers are finite.”

“Your life too is finite,” I said. “Who told you otherwise?” I felt like a Vitamix blender mashing cooked garbanzo. “FYI, we don’t all have an infinite number of years to live.”

“No, you don’t get it. I know exactly how much I have of both this hummus and these crackers. Look, I can SEE it as I eat it.”

“But no one knows if they have an hour left or a decade left or three decades left.”

By now my husband was puree. Still, he continued to argue, keeping his head above the sludge of hummus until he had finished every crumb and had spooned the hummus cup so clean that it shone like glass.

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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.

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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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Striking It Poor

"It'll be simpler if you left the books in the bags," the clerk said, as she began working her way through my three bags of books. 

I was at a popular bookstore for new and used books. I'd found out that between 11 AM and 5 PM, the store bought books that people wanted to sell. Today, I had lugged 50 books to sell. 

I had some great titles in my bags. "Three Cups of Tea," by Greg Mortenson. I didn't want it anymore, especially after I heard the guy was a fraud. But the bookstore didn't want it either.  

I also had an impressive-sounding business intelligence book.  In Amazon parlance, the book was "like new." My husband had used it once in a while. Sometimes he had used it as a coaster for a fine cup of masala chai. On and off it had come in handy as a door stopper. In August, the book served a prop for the office segment of his 60th birthday bash. So while the book had been used, it looked like new. But the bookstore didn't want it.

Then there was a French-English book too: Je Veux Ma Banane (I Want My Banana). It was a children's book, not erotica. But the pages were stuck to one another. Laundry detergent had leaked into them as it languished by a Tide container in the garage. I hoped the bookstore would look past it since it had the clean TV-commercial scent of Downy fabric softener.  

"Okay, we're done," the bookstore clerk said after she plowed through the lot of them. She smiled brightly. "6 dollars if you want cash. And 9 dollars for an exchange." 

"Just three books?" I asked, stupefied. I looked at the ones she had deemed worth her while. She wanted The Sudoku Book. I called it the mother-in-law book. In America, visiting mothers and mothers-in-law passed their time doing Sudoku puzzles.  Supposedly, the idea of sex dominated all life: The woman decided to buy Mary Roach's Bonk simply because it detailed the science behind sex. Then she'd hung on to a Dr. Seuss hardcover, an alphabet book. At that fragile moment,  I could think of a nice word for "F" but Dr. Seuss would have disapproved.

I looked squarely at the woman. "Okay. But what about the rest, some 47 of them?"

"I'm afraid they won't work for us," she said in a sheepish voice. "But you can donate them to the library, you know. It's just a minute away."

I opted for an exchange. Then I drove to the library next door and rumbled back home. They always said there was no money in books. I wished to refine the notion. There was indeed no money—in writing books or in selling them.



The i-Marriage

“Look at so-and-so,” I said to my husband the other day while talking about a married couple who must have been conjoined at birth. “They use “we” whenever they talk about their lives. They do everything together.”

The we-Couples I know always walk together. They are one entity with one head, four hands and four legs. While he cuts vegetables, she cooks. While she puts the dinner away, he loads the dishwasher. They take the garbage out together: she collects all the trash in the house; he rolls out the carts. They make grocery lists together. They hold hands at Safeway. And of course, while they do their taxes together every April, they also itemize the todos of every ordinary day, always watching that they don’t tax each other out. I hear only one note in their marriage: the harmonious "we" note.

On the other hand, we, my husband and I, are the i-Couple. I leave notes for my husband on some mornings like this. “You’ll get your tea after you empty the dishwasher which has been waiting since Alexander The Great crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains into India.” Sometimes I leave a red rose by the note. I’m sweet and all.

These days, when we drive places, the GPS lady comes between us. He listens to her. Note that in a we-Marriage, the GPS lady is one of a threesome, directing the couple towards the perfect union of their souls. In my marriage, the GPS lady seems to have a different angle on everything. She has Occupied the third vertex of our love triangle.

It follows that my husband and I do not walk together. The last time, my man got ready to walk, right about the time I set out for my walk, I warned him. “You know, I won’t talk when I walk,” I said. “I’ll be busy with Michael Krasny or Ira Glass or Salman Rushdie.” So he plugged his device into his ears and marched on ahead. I picked my podcast. I turned right in the direction of De Anza Boulevard. He turned left towards Scotland Road.

Our singular marriage has most relevance in bed. By midnight, my husband may be found in his natural habitat, huddled inside the double layers of comforters, finger pulsating over his phone. I lie down by his side, my iPhone in hand. We are in an i-Marriage.

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All Ears

When I tell some people that I’m a writer, they respond with a smile and a raised brow. Then, a second or so later, they let it drop that they too have a book in them. They confide, in a low, serious voice, that they too would have written a book had they only had the time to do so between their endless professional commitments, their family life and their daily chores.

Isn’t it interesting how everyone thinks it’s easy to be a writer? Writing is not about putting words down on a page. It’s about conveying meaning and driving change, one word at a time. The easier something reads, the harder it is to write.

“It’s the same story with my profession,” Gurdeep Kaur Chawla said to me over coffee last evening. “People think they can be interpreters too.”

Gurdeep’s job is to listen. Sometimes, she has the luxury of a pause before a translation. Not always. For 20 years, she has been like a funambulist, testing the tightrope of the limits of language as she crosses between islands called English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

Listening is one of the hardest things in the world to do well. I live with a man who always listens with all neurons on fire. He listens to the radio intently even though he isn’t having a conversation with it. He listens to my daughter’s ramble on weekends and overanalyzes her barbs. He listens to the GPS woman with complete attention—and she is not even his wife and her directions are not always more accurate than mine. He has that way of listening, I think, with all of his ears and all of his body. You could say that he listens like a cricket (which, by the way, has ears on its knees).

Most of us listen absently. If we were to analyze our manner of listening, I suspect there would be gaps in hearing, comprehension and analysis. And the juice of every job is in the analysis before a big next step. This is why I don’t dare discount the years people have invested in their careers, or their missteps and failures, often unknown, en route to their minor victories and major triumphs. That is why Gurdeep’s life of sudden interpretation seemed to defy interpretation. Even on deadline, writers had the luxury of sufficient time—to revise, polish and edit again.

“When I’m on the job, I’m all ears,” she said. No one wants to be asked to repeat something that they just said, especially when they’re in what one might call “a flow.”

What if your job depended on listening, analysis and simultaneous translation? What if you were helping broker deals in a lawyer’s office or at the United Nations? What if you had to bring in your experiences with life, your knowledge of world leaders, past and present, and your awareness of the globe you live in, of all the old news and all the new news, of the latest attack on an embassy building, of the crisis in Syria and of the term, in Hindi, for “technology outlook”?

“If I miss just one word, I cannot catch up,” Gurdeep said. The last time she felt that way—even though she didn’t exactly have time to dwell on it—she was seated between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a private chatter at a big white house.

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Bitter Sweetener

So, once again, today, at Starbucks, my husband told me that I could not get a coffee cake or a marble cake slice along with my cappuccino. I don’t take well to being told I cannot do something. He did the same thing at Peet’s the other evening.

This afternoon, he gave me an Orange Alert even before we queued up behind a couple of others at Starbucks.“And you don’t need to eat all that,” he said, in his grim airline counter voice, pointing to the cakes. “You know you just had a big meal at the wedding an hour ago.”

“But there was no dessert.”

“No. There was burfi.”

“But that was big. Too big.” My husband doesn’t get it. I cannot eat burfis the size of South Dakota along with lunch.

“And, in any case, I wanted something sweeter,” I said. “And smaller.”

“There was that kheer.”

“That was before. Long before lunch.”

By now, it was our turn at the counter and the Starbucks lady seemed to be enjoying our bickering. “I’d like a small cappuccino,” I said, turning to the woman.

All of a sudden, I felt the inner glow of all the women who had gone before me. I heard the strident cry of Rani of Jhansi asking me to fight for my craving. I heard the slam of Kannagi’s anklet on the stone floor. I heeded Betty Freidan’s whisper: “The real enemy is women's denigration of themselves.” Then there were the words of Gloria Steinem in my ears: “Once we begin to ask [questions], there's no turning back.”

While the Starbucks clerk stood in front of me nonplussed, I broke into a crazy laugh. “You know what? I do want that coffee cake—the slice, not the other kind that looks like a muffin—AND I want a small cappuccino, extra hot.”

And while I hurried away from the counter, my good man pulled out his wallet, his face churlish. He remained that way for a while afterward although he knew that I knew that a giggle hovered at the edge of his lip.

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The Senior Moment

The girl at the movie counter blinked when I asked her if I'd get two tickets at the cheaper, matinee price. I couldn't believe the price she quoted. I'm only at the movies to see Daniel Craig's nipples and six-pack. That's about every two years.

"$10.49 for a ticket?" I asked of the girl. "Is that the going price for movies these days?"

"Oh yes, that's the price of a regular ticket," she said, "Unless..." Her voice petered out as she looked to my right.

My husband had appeared by my side at that prescient moment. The next thing she said gave me hope for a future full of exciting discounts. "Unless of course one of you is a senior. 60 and above."

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