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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Ticked Off By Liftick

Yesterday, I noticed that my lipstick was eroded to a stub of coral red. It hurt when I ran it over my lips.

Today I was at the drugstore to replenish my trusted color: “752 Classic Wine” by L’Oreal which ranked sixth among the best lipstick brands in the world. Who knew that someone out there cared to rank lipstick? How did they rank lipstick? By its staying power? By the marks it left on wine glasses? By its gloss? Its wet look on the lips? By the way it felt to the kisser or to the kissed? Or to both?

A man will never understand how a woman of today may never be seen anywhere without lipstick in her purse and on her mouth. My mother could not grasp the fashion statement—or pronounce fashion-related words—until the day she died. She fussed over grooming but she looked askance at lipstick.

In the India of the 70s and 80s, especially in conservative Chennai, lipstick was a sign of wantonness. At the sight of lip color on me, my mother’s mouth curved downward. I remember how she used to watch me from her designated spot on the sofa as I flitted about the house, a girl of 21 with a red stain on her lips.

“Come here,” she said. She didn’t broach the subject of coquetry implied by my mouth, not yet, anyway. She told me to turn around so she could take in the shock of my hip-length hair held by a barrette. She whined that it was windblown. “Why don’t you braid it?” she asked. “It looks like hay. No coconut oil. That’s what all this new-fangled stuff called shyamboo does to beautiful hair.” Then she got up. She walked around to examine my face. “You need more talcum powder on your nose.” Finally, her eyes swooped down to my lips. “High society lady,” she tsk-tsked. “Look at you! Liftick and all.”

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