My late father's man Friday and I hadn't chatted all of July. "Young ladies, where have you been all this time?" 
Vinayagam asked this morning, pinging me on WhatsApp.  "You've been going places. Now that your daughter's wedding is done, you're always jet-setting—with the big boss and all." Laughing, I retorted that if anything, it was he, Vinayagam, who seemed to be the jet-setter, driving up and down the hills and dales of South India with his wife. I noticed that he'd just skedaddled to a paradise 5000 feet above Madurai called Meghamalai (Cloud Mountain).

This morning, he'd promptly overhauled his cover photo on Facebook. Terraced acres carpeted my phone screen from one edge to the other. A meditation evergreen. Tea leaf wonderland. And cardamom plantations, too, I learned later.

Now that Daddykins, my father, was gone, there was no one stopping his once-chauffeur from seeing the world outside our apartment. "You have to see Meghamalai to believe it," he said. "I'll drive you there. I'm telling you, Young ladies, that it's like nothing you've seen before."

Discussing the beauty of nature naturally led to our backyard in Saratoga. Vinayagam was amazed at the photographs of our two-bit "vineyard" and its grape clusters. He raved about our banana tree and its fruit. Did I know that I could cook with every part of the banana plant? The leaves too were useful for steaming some dishes, he said. He expounded on other delicacies I must make with the benevolence of the plant whose patriarchal stance would obviously keep me chained to the kitchen forever.

"You can make fritters and chips and use the stem too in cooking" he said. "Young ladies, you can consume just about every part of the banana plant, can you believe that?" He paused. "Vazhaiyadi Vazhai", he said in wonderment, in Tamil. It literally meant "like a baby plant by the side of a banana plant." It symbolized the unfailing succession of offspring, generation after generation.

He ended the morning's Philosophy 101 with a sigh. "And one day, the plant will keel over. Just like your dad, Young ladies. Just as you will too when you're old."

The Beauty Of A Good Game

From the corner of my eyes, I’d sensed him looking at me in that curious way as I marched down the trail at Jeeva Park. But I didn’t want to stop, not when I was deep into my podcast. The man seemed to be waiting, however, as I reached the same spot on my next round. He fell into step with me. I fiddled with my iPhone to hear what he had to say. 

“Ma’am, I just wanted to say that I’ve missed your father. We had such wonderful conversations about sports. The morning after a game, your father sought me out to know what I thought of it.” He said he remembered the late Daddykins yesterday, especially when he sat down to watch the opening of World Cup T-20. "Your father watched all the big matches. He watched football. He watched tennis. But he was passionate about cricket." 

I asked the gentleman whether Daddykins took sides at a cricket match. He smiled. "Your father was "bipartisan" in his attitude," he said, with a chuckle. That said, Daddykins was patriotic to a fault, he said. And always ecstatic when his nation won. "But I would say that most of all, your father loved the beauty of a good game."

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A Concentrate

When I was growing up, my father, the late Daddykins, made comments about people—who belonged to another city, another community, another sect, another religion, another country—that I valued as gospel. It took me years to shed some of his beliefs. It would be decades before I formulated my own set of ideals.

Daddykins would have been desperately saddened by the events of Friday, the 13th, in Paris, one of his favorite cities. Indeed, on some days, I saw how my father felt the violence of the world in his core. He was a decent human being, a gentleman, actually, by world definition, and yet, despite his tolerance and magnanimity, he could be small-minded, in the most unexpected ways, and at the strangest of times.

He was a vegetarian, as were most Hindu Brahmin men of the time. But he looked askance at those who ate meat. He exercised every morning throughout his life—he played tennis in his youth and he walked in his later years—and so, he was snooty about those who didn’t factor any exercise into their daily regimen. He read The Hindu every morning, between exercise and prayer, and therefore he looked down his nose at those who didn’t keep up with current events or analyze the daily editorial. He watched television only in the evening, after work; consequently, he decried the no-good who watched television during the day. He worked until a few months before his end when he was a few months shy of 91, and quite obviously he mocked those who had retired early, as he said, work-wise and mind-wise. He prayed morning and evening—they were really short bursts of meditation—and he judged people by whether or not they put mind to prayer. He cast withering glances my way when, on some days, I made irreverent comments as he sat down for prayer. Daddykins disagreed with my opinion that religion and good character were often two orthogonal intents.

I wondered about the environments parents created for children and about how we indoctrinated our children with our philosophies of how life ought to be lived. I believe my home is as liberal as those of many others. Yet, my husband and I are riddled with biases rising out of our versions of our truths. Two days after the Paris attacks, an eloquent British Muslim scholar stated, on television, that we can take out all the ISIS but we cannot root out a whole ideology with air raids. I also recall something the Dalai Lama said recently, that we need to go back and work on the individual and on ourselves: “Our troubles will increase if we don't put moral principles over money. Morality is important for everyone, including religious people and politicians. The problems that we are facing today are the result of superficial differences over religious faiths and nationalities. We are one people.”

Parents still have so much work to do. I look at my children and I think they’re more open-minded, more idealistic, and more humanistic than I will ever be. But it’s easier to slash our wrists and let ourselves bleed to death than it is to rid ourselves of our convictions.

I don’t believe I ever brought Daddykins around to my way of thinking with respect to piety and several other things. By the time he died, he resembled a concentrate of juice—seven times more concentrated than the original and so viscous and opaque that a ray of sun would not pass through.

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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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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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Cart It Back

At India Cash and Carry on De Anza Boulevard this afternoon, I thought Diwali had arrived. The line bled into the vegetable aisle. I waited for about 15 minutes to reach the counter.

When I walked towards the parking lot with the groceries in my cart, I noticed people loading their bags into their vehicles; after they did that, they simply let their cart stand wherever it was. So some carts languished near Vanity Beauty Salon ten doors away where women will pamper themselves for hours, feet in warm water and head under steamers. A few carts lolled around outside Saratoga Plumbing Supply, an upscale store where salesmen look high and mightily from behind their Toto low flushes. Others rolled around by a massage place called Happy Feet.

As always, I remembered my father, the late, principled old Daddykins. “Put back the cart where it belongs,” he would say to me if I failed to push the cart back into its home outside a store. “You’ll wait ten minutes at the counter but you don’t have half a minute of discipline to put something back where it belongs?” On every visit to a grocery store, Daddykins religiously returned the cart to its home. It was the principle of the thing, to be considerate and unselfish towards the store as well as the next customer.

FINDINGS: Press Clippings

I needed to fill out some paper work before I left India and so Vinayagam, my late father’s man Friday, asked me to look in Daddykins’ almirah for two passport photographs of mine. I found everything but the photos. 

I found a newspaper clipping titled “How healthy are you?” that Daddykins had cut out to show his two daughters on their next visit. When he wrote to us, he often enclosed concert reviews, health columns and humor pieces that he had enjoyed in The Hindu. In this health article he had stashed away, the author—a nutritionist and food writer—had advised readers to do the following test. 

“Stand upright and look down. You should be able to see your toes without turning your head or bending forward.” The author had claimed that many test-takers would not pass it. Daddykins had marked the lines and made a note on the side: “I could just about manage.” 

In the middle of the piece, Daddykins had said, “Daughters, please note.” He had initialed it. This marking was for the Waist-Hip Ratio that was computed as Waist Measurement divided by Hip Measurement (all in centimeters). A Waist-Hip Ratio of less than 0.9 was considered healthiest for men; for women, the value “should not exceed 0.8,” the author had said.

Further down in the piece, my father had made another note: “Important for KM—those are my initials—to note.” And of course he had initialed it as if it were a document to be presented at the passport office. The paragraph went thus: “It is important for young girls to know that being extremely skinny and anorexic is unhealthy. In the process of evolving into a woman, female hormones give girls the curves that suggest their readiness for childbearing in the future. So a degree of plumpness is desirable and any attempt to alter it unnaturally could be very harmful indeed. Provided, of course, the limits specified by both the BMI and Waist-Hip Ratio are not exceeded.”

The article was dated March 2001 when I stood 5’ 2” tall and weighed about 125 pounds. I was a married woman. I was a mother of two children. I was on the other side of 40. Oh yes, you could describe me as many things. "Extremely skinny" and “anorexic" was not one of them.