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."

An Ode To Ganga

On International Women’s Day, I dedicate this post to one of the most empowered women I know. 70-year-old Ganga has worked for my father, the late Daddykins, for several years. This morning, she strode into the house with a smile staining her betel-soaked teeth: “Hullo, Amma!”

I believe women like Ganga remain a threat to men because they can smell a man’s BS from Mars, a fact that also explained my Daddykins' valet's tendency to taunt her.

“Old Woman, you look like you were born into the English language," he said, "the way you’re addressing my boss in English and all?”

“Sweetheart, you may not know this,” Ganga said, placing her red and black wire bag on the kitchen floor. “But I was born very well.”

“Really?” Vinayagam asked. His scorn went ignored by both the women in the room.

Ganga moseyed up to where I sat cutting up a winter melon. “Like my cousin brother used to be a writer in a bank.”

Vinayagam shut the door of the fridge and turned to her. “You mean he was a peon, Old Woman.”

Ganga didn’t know to read or write. She didn’t know to count the days between March 17 and April 10. But she could speak her mind. She had the right to express herself in the late Daddykins’ home.

“And, you know, my uncle was an attorney,” she said. “A rather big one in the village.”

The young man laughed. “That’s why you’re in and out of a court all the time?” His scornful reference to her litigious streak fazed her the least. “What say, Old Woman?”

Ganga ignored him. A wan smile lifted her cheek. “You know, even though I was born well, I’ve ended up having to wash dishes. But I’m proud about what I do. I do it well. Like…no one dares walk up to Ganga and complain about her poor work ethic.”

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Laundry Lines

Our old maid, Ganga, walked into the balcony, a bucket of wet clothes in hand. Standing on tiptoe, she hauled a wet towel over the laundry line and cursed as she missed. She yelled out to Vinayagam. My late father’s Man Friday was by the woman’s side in minutes. 

“What?” he barked.

“Sweetheart, I’ve been telling you to lower these lines," she said. "I’ve been telling you for a while now."

“Those lines are not low!’ he said. “Besides, you could have gone up to the terrace to hang them on those lines, you know.”

Ganga said she didn’t see the need to go upstairs. “Not for a couple of odds and ends."

“Then you’re lazy, Old Woman. Go to the terrace. Or put up with it."

Ganga proceeded to fix clips on the clothes. Then she pulled shut the door leading to the balcony as the young man continued to watch her, an imperious eyebrow raised and ready to snuff out a rising repartee. But Ganga slipped away from the room in silence.

“Old Woman, that line’s just fine,” Vinayagam said towards her back. “Next time, wear high heels."

That Last Diwali With My Father

Three seasons ago, in November 2012, I felt privileged that my father was still alive to make my first Diwali in India special, after 29 years. 

The evening of Diwali, I pulled out my tiny bag of firecrackers. My gift for 89-year-old Daddykins was one box each of sparklers, pinwheels and flowerpots. His valet, Vinayagam, placed a glowing sparkler in my father’s hand. It crackled into stars and starlets. 

On my father’s face I saw the boyish wonder of festivals past, that childlike glee that washes over us when we relive a moment that has been lost to us for decades. I remembered the dewy mornings when my father and I had stood on the wide verandah of the home into which I had been born, his hand guiding mine as I held a sparkler. I caught a million golden showers in his eyeglasses then, as I did now, when Diwali had lost almost all meaning for him. 

A few minutes later, Vinayagam set a flowerpot on the ground and handed me a long lighter with which to light its wick. I ran back to where my father stood. A bouquet of sparks grew towards the sky with the swelling roar of a waterfall.  

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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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The morning I made Sabudana Kichdi, Vinayagam watched from the sidelines. He knew where to buy the tapioca pearls but he couldn’t understand what people whipped up with the little white balls. He cast a suspicious glance at the pearls, now large and turgid, and as edematous as my feet after a trans-Pacific flight.

I had let the tapioca swim in a bowl of water and I’d forgotten the most important step in dealing with tapioca: using just enough water to soak and draining the water thoroughly.

I added cumin seeds and green chilies to oil heating up in a wok. The late Daddykins’ valet watched as I threw in some curry leaves.

“Hello, madam, will this be worthy enough to eat?” he asked.

I pulled a face. “When have I ever made you something inedible, mister?”

Unfortunately, at the end of the half hour, the dish became a fair enough substitute for Fevicol, one of India’s most touted original adhesives for construction projects.

In July, a visiting cousin took me through the important steps of making an authentic Sabudana Kichdi. She taught me that the amount of water for soaking the pearls was key; for a cup of pearls, she suggested using about a cup and a quarter of water. Turning the pearls over a couple of times, right as they soaked, also ensured that the pearls got coated evenly with water. After six hours of soaking, the pearls had absorbed all the water and were soft to the touch, right down to their core.

Since the July lesson, I’ve made the dish many times and each time I’ve improved upon the previous version. Next time I go back to Chennai, I will make the dish once more for Vinayagam. This time I’ll make it just right. And this time, I’ll be sure to point out that the previous attempt was just my ruse to glue his teeth together for his seasoned impertinence.

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Fly Like A Kite

Vinayagam has been on talking terms with Ganga since early July and so this morning he offered Ganga some Marie biscuits to eat while she drank her morning cup of coffee.

“No way, sweetheart, I cannot afford it,” she said, waving it away. “I’ll put on weight.” Ganga said “weight” in English, the way my friends and I did when we bantered about our extra pounds.

Vinayagam raised an eyebrow and stared at the skinny old hag. “Weight? You? You going to compete in Miss Universal or something?”

Ganga cackled between taking sips of her coffee while Vinayagam went about the kitchen muttering unkind things about her.

“Give it to him, Ganga,” I said. “He’s a jealous creature.”

“Right,” he said coming back into the kitchen after shutting the fridge. “I’m really jealous.” He shot Ganga a look. “Of this old hag.”

“Vinayagam’s jealous,” I repeated, “because he’s putting on weight in the middle—”

“—yes, and the old thing’s worried about putting on weight because she’s going to be competing in Miss Universal.” He walked off in pretend disgust to his place on the living room floor.Ganga laughed, her betel-stained lips opening to her red-brown teeth.

She told me how when she had injured her leg, the late Daddykins offered to have Vinayagam pick her up from her home and drop her back whenever she came to work. “But I refused. Not as long as I have legs. I never ever want to be like this, you know.” She let her hands circle the air as if she had a beer belly. Then she popped betel nut into her mouth and began chewing. “You should see me walk here every morning. I fly to this home. Like a kite, I fly like a kite.”

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.

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.

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.