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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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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We're Even, My Bagel And I

One morning a few weeks ago, when I told my friend I was stepping out for a bagel, she sent me a quick missive: “That jalapeno bagel is not good for your waistline, dear."

Well, I did not have a “waistline” anymore than Phuket had a resort after the tsunami of 2004. I reminded my thoughtful friend about how, two years ago, the tidal waves of menopause had smashed into the curves at my waist, permanently upending my figure. Now, whenever I got into my skinnies, I saw overriding bulges that were always under strain at the waistline, causing a tectonic shift in other parts.

Despite the extensive damage, I try hard to not harbor insecurities. I continue to eat my favorite foods. This morning, I ventured out again for a toasted jalapeno bagel with jalapeno cream cheese. My bagel was pricey: 450 calories. After that I simply walked 4.5 miles, burning 450 calories.

Now, we’re even, my bagel and I.

Designs On A Designer

 The day we were about to drive out to San Francisco with friends, I realized that I’d left my sunglasses at home. “Do you have one I can borrow?” I asked my friend. She ran into her daughter’s room and returned with a nice pair. They were designer, BCBGMAXAZRIA, and, according to the label inside, made in China. When I glided them over the bridge of my nose, I seemed to feel slimmer. I glowed with the chic of Milan.

My own pair of sunglasses, the ones at home, cost me ten dollars at Walgreens. I don’t invest in expensive glasses anymore because when I buy one, they never stay with me. When I took one to India, they forgot to return home with me. I bought another pair when I returned. But whenever I drove out in our van, I discovered too late that they were in the sedan. Almost always, my sunglasses were in the purse that I was not carrying at the time I needed them. I was always looking everywhere under the sun for my sunglasses.

But the day I received my BCBGMAXAZRIA, they began to feel right on my skin. I’d been given them with the tacit understanding—between close friends—that they were meant to be returned.

I never mean to not return something. When a friend gives me food in her container, I keep it in the fridge for a day or so and then, when I’ve consumed its contents, I toss the container into the dishwasher. A day later, I shove the clean container into a kitchen drawer. In less than a week, I forget all about the container and about the friend.

Sometimes, I’m also a victim of the “no return” policy. People have forgotten to return my books. A friend borrowed our lawnmower eons ago. No one in either family now remembers the incident, least of all, my husband, who will not look directly at our lawn anymore unless it stares back at him from a picture on Facebook. Just ten days ago, a friend borrowed our keyboard. Soon, she’ll begin to think she has always owned a Yamaha keyboard. And I’ll forget that I was the one who bought it.

Of late, I’ve been taking my BCBGMAXAZRIA on walks around the block. They look svelte even when I’m in sweats. They stay tight when I sweat. I may have designs on them but the truth is they were designed for me.

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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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My Turn To Blanch

In the year 2008, my father, the late Daddykins, flew down to spend four months at my home. Daddykins pottered around the kitchen doing little things that would make my day easier. At 6.30AM, he’d stand at the stove, laboring over a perfect cappuccino for me. While morning coffee trickled into the decanter, Daddykins emptied the dishwasher, putting away many dishes into the wrong cabinets.

Every other day, he helped me make yoghurt with active culture from kefir, taking care to set the timer for 25 minutes after the milk had boiled. He grated carrots and cucumber for salad. He diced apples–so badly though that I gently weaned him away to bananas.

When pomegranates came into season in October, he’d shell them for half an hour and then complain that, thanks to me, his nice white undershirt had "terrorist" stains on them that would never go away.

I remember how, close to Diwali week in early November, when I got ready to make my famous almond halwa, my father offered to blanch almonds. But when I supervised him on how gently to coax them out of their skin after soaking them in hot water, he didn’t mince words.

“You’ve given me a job. Now can you let me do it?” It was my turn to blanch.

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