A Xerox At The Park

Through the course of a five-mile walk at Ortega Park with a friend, I was baffled by the demographics of the park. An all-Indian birthday party was in progress inside the gazebo at the center. A few minutes down, close to our walking path, eight boys kicked a ball on the green: Seven Mowglis in seven t-shirts and seven shorts and seven shoes and one ball.

On a bench, an old man and woman sat in glum resignation to the soundless life of the American suburbia. As we trekked past, we nodded absently, all four of us—as all immigrants do in their adopted country—in silent acknowledgment of the truth that we were all xeroxed faces hailing from a land that produced high technology, high-calorie samosas and high SAT and GRE scores.

For a few cruel seconds, I felt like a migrant hoping to banish all the other migrating beasts to another savannah 10,000 light-years away.

I felt like the zebra at the head of the herd. No two ever had the same set of stripes. Yet they blended into the distant landscape, becoming one in the daze of heat and dust. I sensed the zebra’s frisson of discomfort: If and when the lion came, how would it tell one rear from the other? And, heavens, would there be enough grass for all? Plenty of Bermuda grass? Enough red grass? What about legume?

Further down the trail, I passed one more of my ilk. Right away, I sensed the mild panic leaking at the pores of the Cupertino species: Would there be enough fresh coriander and fenugreek at the farmer’s market the following Friday?

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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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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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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.

Tamil New Year

On Tamil New Year morning, when the banana vendor walked down our road advertising her wares in a voice even louder than my father-in-law’s, my mother-in-law yelled out to me to flag her down.

We wanted banana leaves, only banana leaves. The Bananawoman, however, wanted to part with everything in her basket, including the chunkiest banana stem.

“Old man,” the Bananawoman said to my father-in-law, “You need to help me unload this basket onto the ground.” My father-in-law obeyed her implicitly.

Later, after a bit of back and forth of 8 rupees or 10 rupees and give me more for the money, no I don’t want the stump, what use is the stump and how much for the stump, my father-in-law was done with the buying and the paying.

He was about to go back into the house when the Bananawoman said, “Here, old man, you must help lift this onto my head, come on now, be nice.” The two of them then lifted her cavernous basket. Slowly, such that her bananas and the fenugreek and the banana stems and the six foot leaves didn’t spill out, the woman bent her body and tipped her head just so. Heaving, my father-in-law helped her place it back on her head.

Seconds later, while I was admiring the empowered woman for her power over my father-in-law, the old man, now breathless, told me that she was one demanding woman to put him to so much work on new year morning.

He stopped to look at me standing there watching the proceedings. He eyed my iPad. “Listen, you didn’t capture that on your camera, did you?” 
No, I didn’t.

Money In The Bank

The young man was talking animatedly. He raised his right arm to point something out to me when Ganga walked in right behind him with her mop, its scraggly head up. His arm could have slashed her face.

“Ayyo, Old Lady!" Vinayagam yelled out to the maid. "Next time, warn me when you’re walking up behind me! I could have killed you, see? And then, if you go, I’d have to call your son to take care of your cremation and we’d have to arrange for this and that.”

Unfazed, Ganga grinned, baring the jagged edges of her betel-stained teeth. “Sweetheart, don’t fret. Just call my son and take him to State Bank of Mysore where I’ve stashed away money for my cremation expenses.”

I told Ganga to give me her hand. I held it in mine for a few minutes.  Cackling, Ganga said she never ever wants to be indebted to any of her children when she leaves the world. She waved five fingers in the air. “I’ve left 50, 000 Rupees for when I go.”

From right across the room, Vinayagam, who can never appreciate this most empowered woman because she has the balls and the bearing to cuss him right back, told her that it wasn’t enough. “Old Woman, money alone is pointless. You have to tell the bank that your son must have access to it.” 

Then, the two of them—a young man who’s savvy about banks and paperwork, and an old woman who cannot read or write—began hashing out the nitty-gritty about notaries and banks and stamp papers, in a most civil fashion, and for the first time in a long time. There I sat, in the meanwhile, watching, listening to their debate, reflecting on how the subject of Ganga’s final journey out of this world seemed to give the late Daddykins’ man Friday an unusually high degree of satisfaction.

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.”

The Eldest Rose

“Let me tell you, madam,” VInayagam said from the kitchen doorway. “The Three Roses have specific demands. The Eldest Rose wants her toast crisp and dark. The Youngest Rose wants hers soft and served with the spiciest tomato pickle. The Middle One? Mind you, she wants only oats, not toast.” Then the late Daddykins’ manservant walked up to me. He lowered his voice. “But The Middle One slips into the kitchen every morning asking for a second coffee—when no one’s looking.”

In the meanwhile, out at the dining table, The Eldest Rose buttered her crisp, dark toast with long, graceful strokes. She was down-to-earth. But she was always calculating her planets and their positions. “My bad period—7 and a ½ years—is about to begin right now.”

“Ayyo!” Vinayagam shouted from his spot by the gas stove. “I’m always telling you to stop researching your planets. You never listen to me, do you?”

At 85, The Eldest Rose was sharper than the micro-needle she used to sew mini-saris for her 12-inch dolls. “The truth is,” she continued, unshaken, chopping her sentences with her false teeth. “I may not survive this phase.”


“Yes. I’m at that age.” Her staccato laugh bounced back and forth between fridge and wall.

“Vinayagam!” I yelled. “Bring out Trader Joe’s clover honey. Let’s treat our oldest rose well. Let’s give her some warm Modern Bread with American honey.”

Baby, You're Here

Once again I'm back in the place that has long fed my imagination and nourished my soul.

Daddykins, I wanted to say, do you know I've traveled 29 hours door to door, sipped cold tea—no sugar, no milk—three times, lined up ten times in all outside the "vacant" sign at the tail of the aircraft where no human may go unless he desperately, fierily, wants to go, picked at boiled mushrooms, carrots and potatoes, survived two dozen episodes of Sex and The City, scarfed down muesli and yoghurt at Hong Kong airport when my stomach moaned for a Rajasthani thali, lifted my arms high over my head so three unknown men could xray my naked form.

But Daddykins knew none of that. He received me as if I'd rumbled into Chennai on a five-hour train from Bangalore.

"Baby, you're here," he said.