Chicago Blues

This blog is an online repertoire of my columns that run in the Indian Express, North American edition. Here I rave and rant about life, mostly as seen from the large vistas of my little world.

Location: Chicago, United States

Thursday, September 14, 2006

They’re everywhere --- the malls, Patel’s stores, the gym, and even the library. And unless you’re considerably hidden under layers of Holi colors, or are sporting a hair-raising flaxen wig that can adeptly hide your desi origin, there’s no ducking out. Even their ‘pick-up’ tactics, so to speak, are so prosaic that their decoying smiles are not as much of a telltale anymore. First, there’s the awkward hovering around, then, depending on the savvy levels, a pick from the obvious-questions-list. For instance, a novice in the trade would ask, “Excuse me, are you from Mumbai…or Delhi?” and a veteran would say, “Excuse me, have we met before? You look very familiar!”

If you still haven’t figured out, I’m referring to the hordes of desi direct sales consultants that are mushrooming by the dozen even as I write this. People are so frenzied about this that it has now become the party topic around town. Every get together I go to, people are bundling up in corners, with their platters of samosas and cups of tea, and discussing ways and means of keeping these irksome hawkers at bay.

A friend of ours, for instance, believed that honesty would be the best policy -- and told this guy he met in the mall that he doesn’t usually give out his numbers to strangers. But the guy persisted, trying to rope in vague connections they may have shared, and trying to explain that he would just be glad to have him over for tea sometime. “In this country, so faraway from home, we desis must stick together, you know. You never know when you might need help,” he’s said to have mumbled. But our friend said, “Well, I have enough friends that I can count on, and thanks for the offer. But I think I’ll pass.”

In another equally interesting episode, another friend was tired of being hounded with phone calls --- some came in the middle of the night --- all the way from India, where this Amway amateur was apparently holidaying. So, my friend decided to play it the Amway way. He took the initiative after a spell of silence, called up the guy, and said, “Hey, remember that business proposition you came to me with? I’d actually like to take you up on it. But there’s one minor hassle --- I don’t exactly have the money to invest at this point of time. So, may be you’ll pitch in, and if I make a profit, I’ll pay you back?” That was the end of it.

Now to our own experiences --- a few years ago, my husband ran into an ex-colleague at the hair cutter’s and it was just a simple, harmless conversation --- catching up on work and such, and it culminated with the exchange of business cards. The calls started to pour in even before he’d reached back home. The guy turned out to be another Timeshare geek, and was literally breathing down my husband’s neck to get him to go over for “snacks and high tea.” My husband, being the gentleman, went over, sat through an elaborate, dreary convention that explained the value of Timeshare, alongside a few other poor, unsuspecting desis like himself, and got home. And something had happened that made him smile --- even before he’d reached back, I’d called the guy’s house to check if my husband was still around, as he’d forgotten to carry his cellphonel. And then I politely told the guy to back off, and that we weren’t interested in any business offer, as we already were into something else. The house was peaceful for days, and the ringing of the phone was merely an echo inside our heads.

And then there was the time when I was at the mall, on a weekend spree, and was chased by this sly desi couple. Finally, when I was at the Starbucks counter, the lady came up to me, and asked, “Hello, excuse me? I was just wondering…you know…if you’re from India…” And I had had enough of being followed and harassed, so I snapped back, “No.” And that’s all it took, really.

In the past weekend, we were at a child’s birthday party, and amidst an ocean of desis, one specimen that caught my attention. He seemed nervous, and was constantly gawking at people from the corner of his eyes, as if to study their mindset. He even gave me the ‘look,’ a couple of times, but I blissfully ignored him. Finally, at the dinner table, he came up to me, and muttered something in Bengali, and said, “Your daughter is beautiful, and very bright too…” I simply cut him short, and said, “Do I know you?” To which he said, wiping his brow restlessly, “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s just that you look very familiar --- are you from Mumbai?” And I said, “Oh, I have a common face. And so do you, by the way --- are you an Amway consultant?”

Come summer and my mind harks back to the alluring warmth of Bangalore sunshine and the cool cascade of the monsoon. Thoughts of sunbathing on the rooftop while slurping on orange popsicles, soaking in first showers and scurrying to pick up marble-sized hailstones, stir idyllic memories in my mind. Even as I write this, I can conjure up visions of eager children in my parents’ neighborhood, drenching merrily in an impulsive monsoon downpour. And my parents are possibly indoors, readying candles and lights for an unforeseen power cut. They’re also, perhaps, relishing piping hot vadas with strong, chicory-laced filter coffee.

Every summer, most of the NRI population here in America goes into a funk, just like me. While my UPite friend in Minnesota misses the gush of the Ganga, a Chennaite pal in Ohio pines for Marina-beach merriment. But there’s much more to this season, aside from the widespread mango mania. There are sights, sounds, smells and tastes, which bring different aspects and cultures of the Indian summer alive.

On a recent trip, I visited the Northern and Southern parts of India, and despite all the diversities, I found that the intoxicating smell of wet earth after the first showers, the taste of roadside chai and chaat --- they’re still the same, and they evoke the same sense of nostalgia. In Kolkata, the season’s first downpour didn’t deter the salted-peanuts vendor in our little boat on the Ganga, while being ferried to a quaint town across the border. And in Chennai, the terraces were beaming with papadam-lined plastic sheets, soaking up the sun while it lasts, and parching just enough to be stowed in aluminum tins for use in the winter months.

What ensues during this time of the year here in the Windy city, however, is quite contrasting. Even when the sun is out bright and nice, I’m left wondering what to wear so that I don’t feel like a fool downtown. You see, the grand Michigan and the mighty Chicago river, not to mention the perdurable nimbus clouds that swathe Illinois skies, have this obsession about conniving against poor, diligent weathermen like Rick D’Maio. On a bright, 84F day (which feels like 94), when one is in the mood to flaunt some skin and tiptoe around Navy Pier in strappy AnneKliens, a sudden blast of chilly air might fleck one brazenly with gooseflesh, and worse, if one’s cruising down these water bodies, the torrent will come teeming down and drench the boats sloppily. And one has to make do with a pack of greasy fries from one of the eateries in Navy Pier, and a Tazo chai from Starbucks. That’s when I think back to the piping hot singaras and masala chai I was duly offered back in Kolkata.

And even though there’s something tenuously seductive about these city lights, which makes me feel special, I long for candle-lit monsoon evenings back at home. Ambling down swarming streets across the gorgeous Millennium Park, I find myself wondering where to take shelter if it pours, or where to pick up a drink to quench my thirst. My daughter, like scores of other cheery toddlers, loves to drench in the spritz of the crown fountain and is absolutely fascinated by the gargoyle effect - she leaps everytime water gushes, so to speak, out of a person’s mouth. But I feel sorry that she’s missing out on the street rain-dances back at home. I see elders delight in the fountains too, and all I can do is sigh, and try to find a familiar desi face on the glass block, just so I can swank a little, and feel belonged.

Yes, there is a place I can go to for a feel of home --- Devon Avenue --- but there are limitations. The roadside tender coconuts are not authentic, they’re Mexican simulations. The masala puris at Sukhadia’s are good, but not as good as the ‘chur-muri’ on MG Road. The Alphonso mangoes sold in cartons and tins, in pulp form, are no match to the luscious, fleshy ones plucked straight out of the neighbor’s garden back at home.

All this makes me pine for the simple pleasures of the summer and monsoon in Bangalore. I miss charcoal-roasted corn-on-the-cob, glazed generously with chili powder, as well as the jovial spirit of the wedding season, during the monsoons. And well, the child in me misses the tautness on my palms and the mocha stains on my pastel cotton outfits, from making mud pies in the slush. And even as I sip lemonade from Auntie Annie’s, I can’t help but think back to my mom’s own jaggery-water blend, with just a hint of lemon for that extra zing.

In an age where women have long emerged out of the stay-at-home cocoon and ascended the corporate ladder, I’m possibly bound to get walloped for what I’m about to confess - I feel like a mistress of spices. Watching the movie only enhanced it. I feel like I have strong ties with the spices, the kitchen, and the spiritual core of the family.

When a common cold or cough passes through the household, or say, when the tonsillar tissue acts up, I raid the kitchen for a variety of spices to brew in a range of magic concoctions. The basil and honey blend soothes the throat; the coriander seeds, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, and dry ginger decoction relieves congestion, and so forth. And then, I also remember swallowing pungent chunks of garlic roasted in ghee, to keep the body “warm and nice,” during my initial post delivery days. Like this, there are remedies and cures for a whole set of illnesses, passed down through generations, from grandma’s secret recipe box.

Now one could take the mistress thing to a whole new level, and aver that it is not just the spices Indian women used to be mistresses of in olden days of glory. A fact, which, I’d like to believe, is not far from the truth even today. In a land where 24-hour drive-through Walgreens stores represent panacea, and elegantly carpeted Hindu temples, where ‘weekend pujas’ are conveniently scheduled for busy workaholics, represent spiritual sanctuaries, it would be rather astonishing to see that it still holds good for some modern day divas.

Just the other Friday, on the evening of the Lakshmi festival, I got an invite for a ceremonial “turmeric-vermillion-flower-fruit,” offering at a neighbor’s place. Just the prospect made me all nostalgic about the festive season back at home. I reminisced the cemented front yards of several Hindu houses being decorated with colorful ‘rangoli’ patterns, to denote the festiveness of the day. The markets deluged with bunches of bright yellow chrysanthemums, orange marigolds, and white jasmine garlands; the green of tender mango branches, and clusters of other fragrant hallowed herbs; assortments of fresh fruits, and mounds of turmeric, vermillion and other puja items. And to top it all, the bargaining binges - inevitably being presided over by the womenfolk. The houses exuded the same sense of celebration - aromas of camphor, and burning incense stuck to their walls, and the kitchens were ablaze with sweet dish preparations.

As I ambled along to the neighbor’s house, clad in a salwar-kurta outfit, I realized there was so much amiss. Nothing traditional ‘led’ me into the house, to begin with - no rangoli, no mango leaf borders hung at the top of the door, and not even a whiff of camphor or incense. There was a deity of Goddess Lakshmi sitting prettily adorned by hybrid orchids picked from a Jewel store, possibly, on a side table in the living room. But it was clear that it would have to be taken off the next day, to enable normal Americanized living, and replaced with empty cups of carelessly swigged down coffees. There were no ‘diyas’ burning gleefully at their own pace, lest they trigger off the fire alarm; but there was a string of mini light bulbs hanging precariously over the table. There were little girls in pigtails and ‘lehengas,’ but they weren’t clinching their mothers’ ‘dupattas,’ and sitting coyly, like the ones in India. They instead chose to watch an animated movie on the telly and laugh uproariously in the midst of prayer chants. But the lady in charge seemed like a ‘mistress,’ of spices, of prayers and of the kitchen. She had everything in perfect order - she offered me, and the other guests, a glass of cold ‘badam milk,’ to “keep the body cool and balance the righteousness factor,” to steal her words. She had a platter of ‘prasadam’ packets ready to distribute amongst visitors. She fell at elderly women’s feet to take their blessings. And yes, she too is a modern day diva like scores of other women in these shores - works full time, and on a random day you wouldn’t be able to tell her religiousness from her novelty manner of dressing, and from her general disposition.

Anyhow, this is just one of the many incidents that make my hypothesis true, at least for me.
I feel like I have violated the rules, aka Aishwarya Rai style, if I leave the cumin smoking for too long in the pan while seasoning, or say, if I drop salt on the floor accidentally. Having said my prayers tonight to keep the dream-demons at bay, and emptied the leftovers so I can make a fresh, friendly start with the spices tomorrow, I must go and rub some sandalwood-turmeric-paste on my little one’s insect bite - the turmeric’s an anti-inflammatory agent, and the sandalwood powder will help cool off the itchiness.

When you’re an Indian, and a foodie, living in these shores, chances are you’re familiar with most Mexican spices and foods, simply because they satiate your appetite like no other non-Indian cuisine possibly can. Well, in retrospect, it doesn’t really matter if it’s Mexican, Chinese, Mediterranean, or even American. Because you know how to put an Indian spin on all these cuisines.

At first, you try to evaluate a snack, and then you liken it to an Indian one that comes closest to it in terms of the look, aroma, texture and taste. This way, you’ll know what to call it, what to substitute it with, or what to spice it up with. Of course, you ask for ‘peppered okra,’ at a Chinese place, but when it arrives at the table, and if you’re among desi friends, you’d refer to it as ‘bhindi pakoras.’ And if it’s ‘Jalapeno fritters,’ you’re munching on at a Mexican place, it’s still ‘chili bonda,’ to you, just like ‘falafels’ are ’dal vadas,’ ‘onion rings,’ are ‘onion bajjis,’ and so forth.

I have an interesting theory about Indian palate and spice. Of course, primarily, they go hand-in-hand and nothing can ever undo that. That said, it is in varying degrees of hot, sour, bitter and sweetish-savoriness that the Indian palate can be classified, which in turn can be used in multifarious ways to define different personae, and which part of the world they would best thrive in if they had to. Well, it’s not as simple as calling a sweet-toothed guy from Bengal, ‘sweet fellow,’ but involves meticulous analysis of the person’s food habits. Let’s say a person from Karnataka eats his rice or rotis with a red-chili-garlic chutney. Now, you have to figure out where those chilis were grown in the first place, to know what this guy is actually made of. If it’s Assam, then Mexico’s probably where he’d fit best in, because the Red Savina Habanero chilis of Mexico are on par with Tezpur chilis, the hottest chilis in the world. Like this, a Kannadiga may well be an Assamese, or a Mexican, at heart.

I was at a party a few weeks ago, and the hosts, being Indian, said they had a half-store-bought, half-home-made surprise appetizer that would knock me out. It turned out to be an Indianized version of tortilla-wrap: store-bought tortillas stuffed with homemade rajma (in the place of beans), a tomato-onion-cilantro-yoghurt mix (a take on Mexican salsa), and crumbly, melted shreds of paneer (instead of cheese). It was indeed a ripper of a dish and I have since come up with my own stuffing assortments to modify this recipe.

Like this, there are scores of other incidents that come to mind, which depict the diversity of desis trying to Indianize other cuisines. I remember recommending to my husband’s Tamilian colleague, who happens to be a food lover, an exquisite Ethiopian restaurant we used to frequent. It turned out he’d already been there himself, and the concept of sharing and eating out of a single plate, and being able to relish the food minus the nuisance of forks and knives, had really appealed to him. I was happy to hear that, but he was quick to add that the ‘injeras’ hadn’t been fermented enough, to match the taste of his mother’s dosas. He even joked that he may as well have eaten them with ‘molagapudi’ (a South Indian condiment made with a blend of fried chili, lentils and curry leaves) and yoghurt.

Then there was an incident right at home, where my mother-in-law fussed over our Black & Decker blender that wouldn’t grind ‘shorshe’ (mustard) to a fine paste like her Sumeet heavy-duty mixer-grinder did back at home. And then she discovered America’s own miracle mustard. One weekend when she had invited some friends over for a luncheon, she had used the paste generously in an eggplant curry that instantly became a hit with everyone. Everyone knew it had a magic ingredient, that special something, which they couldn’t lay a finger on. Of course, she wouldn’t reveal the secret, until one day I accidentally caught her squeezing Woeber’s sweet-and-sour mustard right into a pan of eggplants simmering in seasoned low-cholesterol vegetable oil.

Being a epicure of sorts, God knows I’ve Indianized a few exotic dishes myself. I’ve seasoned up my fries with MTR chaat masala, smeared tamarind ‘thokku’ on my pizzas, glazed my ‘burritos’ with curry powder, and jazzed up my broccoli with ginger-garlic paste and red chili powder. And of course, to wash it all down, I’ve drizzled jeera-ajwain powder into my Diet Coke for extra zing.

Bringing up an Indian child in a country where a ‘family’ is merely a social organization form that sticks with you till you’re a teenager can often get tricky. It is not uncommon for harried Indian parents to go out of their way to teach authentic Indian values to their children. They sign up for weekend Bhagavadgita classes at their local temples, recount stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, offer them Indian classical music and dance lessons, throw them lavish arengetrams, arrange for language classes to hone them in their respective mother tongues, and take them to their native every other year. But what some of the children do with all this is a different story altogether. For instance, they refer to the demigods and demons in mythological stories as ‘dudes’ and ‘dudettes,’ secretly practice headbanging to a highly amplified heavy metal warp in their friends’ basements, can’t get Vande Mataram right even after contorting their lips and rolling their tongues to a 360 degrees glob, and would rather stir clear of stray dogs and roadside food vendors, among other things, in India.

I met an enthusiastic Indian parent recently - a father who resumed his love for the violin despite crazy work schedules, just so his eight year old son could receive proper Indian classical violin training. Apparently, the school requires that a child be taught and perfected at home by a parent who has adequate knowledge of the instrument. I was even fortunate enough to see the little one perform, and was blown away at his dedication and demeanor. And I can’t wait for him to grow up and perform for bigger audiences. I’ve known several other such parents, but sadly, I have also seen some of their children grow and completely disregard their the lengths they went to in order to provide them with superior initial grounding. And more often than not, when they grow up, they also grow wings, to use an antiquated Indianism. Which means that they give in to peer pressure and move out to build new homes and lives outside the influence of their parents and Indian roots. Some even cut all ties with their parents as they’re, to put it brutally, ashamed of them. Makes you wonder about the good old Indian dream of raising and nurturing children to have them take care of you in your old age.

But there are exceptions. There’s this respectable family of immigrants belonging to the baby boomer era, with two children. While the son brought home an American bride, the daughter chose a Russian groom. Both the children stayed with their parents until they got married, and they still visit them every other weekend for a family reunion of sorts. I’ve often seen the American daughter-in-law drape saris and celebrate Indian festivals, and the son-in-law belt out Vedic hymns and quote the Gita.

Then there’s this young computer geek who hails from a remote village in South India, and hasn’t forgotten his roots at all. He’s made huge donations to charity causes, including one to build a school for the underprivileged children of his village, and isn’t ashamed of taking his sari-clad, beetle-nut chewing, Telegu-speaking mom (who has little to no knowledge of the English language), sightseeing. In fact, he takes pride in everything she does, be it sow coriander seeds in his backyard for a cilantro mini-lawn, or pack a pungent spiced-rice preparation in Ziploc bags for a Statue of Liberty brunch.

There’s a group of Indian bachelors and bachelorettes in my community that organizes programs for children to get to know their Indian traditions and be in touch with their ethnicity. They also celebrate Indian Republic Day, Independence Day, and organize cricket tournaments for little baseball fanatics who couldn’t tell a cricket ball from a Lego one if it hit them in the face. There are at least a couple of buoyant housewives that have gotten together to publish magazines for desi children with an Indian touch to the stories and features. There’s also an innovative sister-duo that has come up with Hindi rhymes and ‘varnamala,’ (alphabets) for toddlers. And of course, there are Indian channels on the television that air educational programs for children, even if it’s something as rudimentary as a ‘Sri Krishna’ series. But then, the children also have access to the mournful melodramas of Indian families complete with conniving ‘bahus,’ and their mothers-in-law. They also get exposure to Bollywood movies with shoddily dressed heroes and heroines and their claptrap song-dance sequences.

Now every time I hear of an Indian whizkid winning the Spelling Bee, or gyrating to a hot Kareena Kapoor number at the local desi community gathering, I don’t really think of it as progression. I would be much happier to see an Indian kid chin up when his parents ask for ‘alu bhaja’ at Mc D’s, rather than hang his face in shame. But first, I need to teach my little one that the ‘elepayn’ (elephant) as she knows it, on the lobby wall is actually a God named Ganesha.

I remember vividly, how that spattering of a blackish-green ‘shikakai’ blend I’d been handed down as a family tradition, along with a bottle of thick castor oil, had mucked up an otherwise spotless, dove-white bath tub. To my horror, it started to clog solidly and steadily, and wouldn’t run down the drain even after several powerful prods. I didn’t know whether to begin removing the stains, or dissolving the messy congestion. It didn’t take me long to figure out there was a bundle of hair muddled up in it as well, blame it on the lead content in the water, like my mom said. I guess many desi women here have experienced similar atrocious episodes, especially the ones that believed they could take care of their scalps and tresses just like they did back at home, only to sooner or later realize that grandma’s henna, or methi formula is rather hazardous to the elegance of American baths.

Then there was the time when I began frying pakoras on a dull, rainy evening, triggering the fire alarm, and eventually, a dose of heavy embarrassment that has stayed with me for years. I have since taken refuge in the convenience of ‘Swad’ and other frozen, deep-fried delights, which simply need to be thawed and popped in the oven. Consequently, I don’t spend hours kneading the dough and readying the filling for scrumptious samosas anymore. And speaking of ovens, there was no way to learn what is safe for microwave use a few years ago, when microwaves were unheard of in India. So for a newbie that had just set foot in here, it was a matter of trial and, on occasion, irreparable error.

And that’s not where the awkwardness ends. The initial struggle of getting used to left-hand steering, and the reverse order of many other things, is still fresh in my memory. The sudden, pungent, garlicky odors that emanated from the rajma in my lunch box at work, sending some colleagues into a tizzy; the puzzled look on the librarian’s face when I’d hunted down and picked out a dusty, Satyajit Ray video from a forgotten corner; the subtle surprise on the sales clerk’s face on seeing a string of deftly cut-out coupons pop out of my bag; the confusion I stirred by saying “water, without ice please,” at a restaurant; how I used to get wished on the wrong day for writing my birthday down the wrong way; the tongue-twister effect my name has had on countless Americans - all these incidents have changed my entire outlook on life. I have reoriented the way I cook, eat, talk, write, and to put it mildly, live.

I have fond memories from an age bygone, when my mother made sure I got those weekly warm oil scalp massages, and cleanses with the finest of traditional hair care ingredients, either grown and mixed at home, or hand picked from the maid’s farm. But now I make do with damaging shampoo, cleanser, conditioner, and other mysterious chemical combos, to make my hair look passable. My ‘rice cakes’ baked in a microwavable set of trays, turn out just as swell as my mother’s steamed, pressure-cooked ‘idlis’. My coffeemaker brews Folgers coffee just as fresh as my mother’s ‘Kothas’ blend in a stainless steel traditional kettle.

Also, these days I delight in reading a painstakingly typed out email from my folks, just as I used to, when they sent a hand-written letter tucked coyly inside a tightly wrapped parcel. I see the herbal hair oil pack that my husband sheepishly orders online from an Indian portal, and rejoice secretly. I bake raisin bran cookies from store bought mix for my little one and take pride in it. I enjoy onion rings dunked in mayonnaise, just as much as I would, a platter of samosas with spicy chutney on the side. I soak up the richness of honey bunches of cereal in milk, like I would, of my mother’s ragi porridge. Yet, there’s definitely something amiss - my life definitely isn’t the same as it used to be.

I sometimes wonder - will I hand down a list of the best ready-to-eat brands to my daughter, or actual recipes? Will I teach her the secrets of homemade fresh fruit face packs for glowing skin, or simply buy her those trendy chemical peel-off masks? Well, these are questions that only need to be answered in the long run. For now, I need to read out some stories from ancient Indian mythology to her, at least before she grills me about the Godly ‘dudes’ and ‘dudettes’.

Yet another long weekend has gone by. And while most people we know spent it soaking up the sun at the beaches, or sightseeing and shopping at hotspots, we decided to do nothing. Well, near to nothing, as the highlight of it was a housewarming party we attended. Yes, there surely was a house, it was new, and there was a party to celebrate it. But it was nowhere close to the housewarming celebrations as I know them, from back home.

There was no sign of a deity whatsoever, given that the hosts were Indians, theists, and rather pious, to boot. So that rules out any impressions that come from a ceremonious puja that is typical for an occasion such as this. Just a clean house with presents stacked up in a corner, and a bunch of bouquets and cards in another. Of course, there was plenty of food, and several desis to indulge.

Understandably, this evoked a feeling of nostalgia in me. I vividly remember the day my family ritualized our new home back in India. Lord Ganesh, considered the harbinger of goodwill and prosperity, was worshipped initially, to kick off the celebrations. A series of prayers and offerings to many other deities followed, and when the walls were laced significantly with the fragrance of holy smoke, burning incense, flowers, camphor, fruits, and ghee-doused semolina pudding, the rites came to a close. Of course, a formal lunch and dinner for friends and relatives followed, but that wasn’t the focus of the entire affair.

There was something about the air in the house that day that made me heady with pride, peace, and a weird sense of triumph. It made me admire my parents a little more, and fall in love with the house. I could feel the rhythm of the sacred chants in every brick and stone, and that made me shudder with sanctity. Thereafter, I felt, strangely as it were, secure and sheltered, to live there. Every special memory associated with that house has a sense of righteousness about it. So much so that this silly fact - that our first homegrown coconut was offered to the Lord before being eaten in the form of a delicious burfi, makes me ebb with delight.

At the party we attended, there were many redolent features too. Pigtailed little girls dressed in resplendent lehengas, women in heavily embroidered six-yard splendors, and some men in their Indian finery too. Tiny voices with squeals of hide-and-seek play, noisy adult chitchat, fused with the clanking of ladles and bangles, filled the atmosphere, making it homely, but in a peculiar way. Also part of this strange atmosphere were several aromas, sounds and sights, none of which was spiritually soothing. The aromas came from - samosas, mixed in a painstakingly cosmopolitan manner with nachos and crackers, complete with cheese-dips and salsa, and the main course. The sounds were several - right from the crackling fizz of soda and beer (at times it was hard to keep the kids off), to the click of high-fives, symbolic of a curious bonding amongst desi software pros. The sights were colorful - clothes, food, flashy cameras, and jewelry, to name a few. The interiors of the house were too spic and span, no tinge of warm and welcoming turmeric or vermilion, no scent of incense, no scattered petals of flowers, no chants or hymns. That’s not to say there’s something amiss or wrong with the set-up, but it just felt a trifle one-dimensional and bare for my conservative and perhaps silly, values.

In this world of luxury, novelty, progress, and high-speed life, even the Honda-driving, cell-phone-sporting priest clad in a silken kurta-veshti and sleek Reebok sneakers seems to send out a homespun kind of signal to me. I always find a sense of divine merit and peace sipping the pint-sized drops of holy water, eating the sanctified pieces of almonds and raisins, while resting my feet on the carpeted floors of the Hindu temple. I experienced a bone-numbing, gratifying, consecrated sensation when my little daughter was blessed by the high priest on her first birthday, after a formalized service.

Maybe it is just a state of mind, and the religious aspects of the whole thing are always debatable, needless to say. But it feels, to put it mildly, good, and fulfilling to be in the presence of indigenous traditions and customs. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy some wine on a special occasion, or spread festive cheer with a beer. It’s just that sometimes too much revolution is a little too much to handle. Besides, that elephant-faced, pot-bellied, adorable little demigod - sitting pretty on the dashboard, nightstand, and in various forms in my arty clay collection, reminds me of my roots, and to be proud of them.

I seem to have developed a new sentimental edge these days. Well, not so much ‘these days’ as ‘eternally since I can recollect.’ And my guess is that it’s not just me, or something to do with my exclusively patriotic genes. I look around, and see every other Indian woman worth her salwar kameez share my state of mind. And all it takes is a box of homemade besan-laddus to take this melancholy up to a higher level.

It’s not like we don’t get Indian food here in all sorts, tastes, and regional specialties for a few bucks. It’s not even like we have to drive miles away for those, although, if we did, there’s a fair chance we’d come upon a wider assortment of sweets, biscuits (of the likes of Parle, and Good Day, not the American versions, like Pillsbury) papads, and related condiments with a potential to bring home closer to us. It’s just a daffy little obsession we seem to have about home made food. May be it is the thought of our mothers toiling in the kitchen for hours on end just so we could get a little taste of their gourmet cooking, that drives us wild with nostalgia.

On my recent visit to India, however, I witnessed some unusual things. My mother’s refrigerator was stocked with an array of neatly organized bottles, with pickles of many kinds in them. However, they didn’t really taste home made, even though they screamed ‘Mother’s Recipe,’ (the brand, I mean). At the break of dawn, my mother sheepishly offered me Kelloggs Crispies in a bowl of stove-warmed milk, while all I secretly hoped for was a cup of steaming hot filter ‘kaapi.’ And eventually, when the kaapi did make its appearance, it was a vanilla-cocoa blend, decaf, and it came with a platter of Cheez-Its. “It’s a new flavor, from Coffee Day,” she said, “I think you’ll like it.” But it didn’t stimulate my senses like the chicory-mixed, caffeine-rich cuppa would have. Suddenly, I felt ancient, and my poor old parents, in all their attempts to make me comfortable, seemed, rather sadly, to have developed a modern, youthful predilection.

Even as I braced myself for these new changes, I found that the more I explored this freshness, the worse it got. My dear old Bangalore, which was once known for its lush green landscapes and simple, old-fashioned lifestyle had transmogrified into a concrete jungle, full of choky malls, and fancy lounge bars, among other things.

My local grocery, or ‘kaka’ shop had been replaced by a sprawling, cramped supermarket that sold Tropicana juices in the place of Maazas, and oversized RedKen shampoo-conditioners in the place of convenient Clinic Plus sachets. The quaint little ‘Darshini’ that used to sell idli-vada with coconut chutney in steel plates had been redesigned into a trendy eatery with a proper, printed, laminated menu, and pizza varieties, to boot. The down-to-earth ‘chaat’ joint of yester years had turned into a stylish bistro that sold grilled sandwiches with a diverse selection of cheeses, and a vending machine for diet colas.

Cinema halls with squeaky chairs were now a thing of the past - multiplex, escalator-driven talkies appeared to be the latest fad. Even the local goldsmith had had a makeover - he no longer sold authentic, 24-carat jewelry out of a petty shack with wooden shelves, protected by grandfather locks, but 18-carat white gold ornaments, in a glass-walled ‘showroom,’ complete with security guards and tempered glass displays.

The kids in the community no longer played in the muddy, fenced playground; they either enjoyed videogames in the confines of their homes, or went to ‘entertainment zones,’ for more choices. The oldies no longer sat on the stone bench in the park, laughing their worries away, but attended ‘Ha-Ha Clubs,’ for therapeutic sessions of forced cheer.

I felt suffocated in this new-fangled way of life, understandably enough. Maybe I was being a little too crabby, but I wanted to enjoy the joys of simple, everyday living, like say, shopping in a ‘Season’s Discount’ roadside sale counter without the frills and thrills of high rise malls, or enjoy a by-two coffee with my dad after a Masala Dosa meal, without having to endure the nuisances of exotic blends and complicated carte du jour. So, when I returned, I made sure my mom packed for me home-made ‘rasam powder,’ (I get MTR ready-to-eats here, thank you) and home-grown ‘henna’ (no L’Oreal streaks for me, please) among other things. And I don’t spend hours contemplating my choice of oxygen-enriching or camomile-cleansing facials here anymore. I’m happy to make my own multani-matti face pack, and I hope it shows well enough.

Home keeping is grisly business, more so if you’re a cleanliness freak like myself. And with spring in, it’s really a tough grind. I wish sometimes that we could reschedule this annual cleaning ritual to good old Diwali season like we do back home, but that would be winter, and we’re at a high risk of breaking bones then, given how merciless Chicago’s winds and flurries can get, making that trip to the garbage unit rather deadly. So basically, springtime cleaning is a fixed routine one cannot escape from.

I usually begin by making a list of the nooks, crannies, boxes, cabinets and other quaint places that need tidying up. And if this piece of paper doesn’t get torn into bits and munched on by my little devil, I end up trashing it as junk myself, only to later realize I need to get started all over again. So this can actually take a while. And once the list is finally set, I put out all the trendy gadgets, wipes, liquids, brushes, and scrubs available, and try to put them to use on the many surfaces with every knack I could possibly possess. But I confess - I do have my precincts - I cannot lug that brawny vacuum all by myself to all those remote attics and wicked little crannies. And that’s when I can’t help but think back to the good old Indian broom - handy, robust, and good enough to dust cobwebs off ceilings, or kill cockroaches in a snap. And then I reminisce the olden days of glory, when I used to lead a laidback, comfortable life, courtesy my maid. But I also feel awfully shamed when I think of how I used to taunt her and remind her of a few specks of dust in that one forgotten corner.

Then there’s the laundrying. Winter clothes, formals, and those other special coloreds have to be carefully segregated, washed, and dried without crumpling. And if you accidentally hit the wrong button, you have to spend hours straightening out the crinkles, which is generally not an easy task to accomplish with lightweight irons. And when this happens, I feel helpless without the ever-faithful istriwallah who used press all clothes crisp and creaseless with his charcoal-filled, brawny box back at home.

Once the cleaning is done, somehow, there’s the clearing. I miss my maid all the more when I have to sort, bag, and empty the trash. I absolutely loathe the thought of carrying heavy, wet bags filled with soggy, rotting vegetable peels, and smelly leftovers to the disposal units, then cleaning the baskets, and lining them with fresh plastic. My poor maid took care of all that very painstakingly, and my association with all that garbage was limited to just filling it up.

Another major cleaning ordeal, if you have a baby in diapers, is emptying the Diaper Genie, which basically is a con-trivance - it makes you believe that its plastic liner is mal-odor-proof. So you pop open its bottom and roll out a stringed, tentacle-like diddie, and (unless you’re Shankar Mahadevan) you’ll probably choke by the time you get it to the dumpster.

And to top all this misery, my little daughter seems to bear an uncanny adulation for trash bags. She loves to drop perfectly healthy fruits, vegetables and any other eatables she can lay her hands on in them, and is quite happy to feast on tidbits of old, dust-covered, baby food droppings, bits of paper, or any other forbidden objects off the floor instead. She also likes to, depending on the day’s mood, decorate the kitchen floor with the minutest flecks of selectively magnetic onion peel, or douse it in dishwashing liquid. So my cleaning routine retreats to where it began, and so on.

There are times when this entire chore gets so dreadful that I end up having all that dirt ramble through my dreams. Those soapy spots on the mirror, those stubborn flecks of dust on the television, scraps of junk on the floor, and my daughter with her four-toothed smile, and handfuls of rubbish - they all come to haunt me one way or another. It seems like cleaning has taken over my life. I’ve come to terms with it, at least partly, and try to look at the rewards it offers. My travails often make for good story fodder at get-togethers, for instance, when I say that I can well relate to Monica of F.R.I.E.N.D.S and Jerry of Seinfeld, and add jokingly that I’m just short of having a clinical disorder (It’s always nice to leave people guessing anyway, so they won’t mess around when they’re in my house.) And then, I get my share of exercise with all the bending and stretching, so that makes up for my excuse of not being able to hit the gym.

Birthdays, Then and Now

In the past week, several people have asked me, “Sooooo, how does it feel to now be the mom of a one year old?!” The real answer, I’m afraid, is, “Terrific, I’m on cloud nine, I could fly…(my wallet is so light) etc.” But I ended up saying just, “Terrific.”

My daughter just turned one. It has, no doubt, been the most amazing year of my life - watching her grow from a teensy, red, blotchy, wailing newborn, into a beautiful, babbling, tottering, bonny little girl. But it has also been the priciest year of my life. And I am now officially a member of the prestigious Party-City-Pauper-Parents-Association, which is basically like an ancillary unit of Party City, and ensures that parents like us get so broke that we cardinally become party-poopers.

Planning my little girl’s birthday party was no child’s play. It involved some grisly tasks, the most primary of those being - to choose a party theme. There’s a whole array of themes out there - and every time Disney brings out a new movie - wham, a new one is added to the list. There are Nascars and Star Wars for sporty little boys, Barbies and Princesses for stylish little girls, and Batmans and Harry Potters for the adventurous lot.

Being stuck amidst an ocean of party supplies and themes, I was virtually clueless about how to put them all together for my one year old. I wondered whether it would make any sense to someone as tiny as her, who barely even knew the party was going to be held in her honor. All I knew was that I wanted to make it special for her, something she’d look back on, someday in the future, and cherish with pride. So I took the help of a few been-there-done-that-moms, and finally narrowed down on a theme, and everything that’s currently the rage.

The next step was to book a banquet (which, like preschool, or say, a Kalyana Mantapam in India, is usually signed and sealed atleast six months in advance) send out e-vites, garner all the RSVPs, hire a clown, choose a caterer, baker, and anyone else that might be of use in putting a menu together. Although, if you’re hosting a party strictly for kids, in true Yankee style, you could probably make do with cake, cheese pizzas, fries and coke. But we, being the gregarious Indians that we are, had half the city desis on our list, and hence had to have a full-fledged spicy, savory Indian spread. Then, we had to stock up on the supplies, which, at the outset, entailed getting scared stiff by monstrous balloons that crooned upon touching or exploding streamers that seemed to guffaw at our plight. And once we’d gotten over this phobia of leaping, screaming festoons, we had to pick out theme-based plates, cups, spoons, forks, napkins, table covers, banners, and candles - the works. There was also an entire package of theme-based party favors (or ‘return gifts,’ to use an Indianism) for the little invitees, which was hard to turn down. After everything had been sought and bought, the house, for about a week before the event, transformed into a pandemonium of party trimmings and trappings. So much so that we had to tread with caution around the danger zones, lest we rouse a resting inflatable to screech happy birthday in high pitched tones, and consequently get my little one into a wild frenzy.

Eventually, the party was over, and the only economical thing about it was that the leftovers were zip-locked, frozen, reheated and relished to the last bite. Even as I reel from the fervor and furor of the gala, I cannot help but recall the minimalist, hush birthday celebrations back at home. One woke to the fragrance of burning incense and the tinkling of the sacred bell - an indication that a special puja was being offered to the family deity; and after a ceremonious ‘oil bath,’ one would sit down and enjoy a traditional Indian meal with family, complete with ‘kheer,’ ‘gajar halwa,’ or ‘gulab jamoons,’ and rather coyly, accept gifts, which mostly comprised clothes, books, or on occasion, jewelry. A bash, if at all, would be limited to a group of close friends who were served potato wafers and pastries, accompanied by a refreshing ‘Rasna’ or ‘Kissan’ juice blend, to help wash the snacks down. There were no frills, no thrills. Just a bunch of loved ones huddling up together and wishing one well.

I am not so sure my daughter really understood the significance of all the hoopla, but for now I can quietly revel in the fact that she absolutely loved the idea of a pack of animals adorning the top of her cake in a delicious butter cream frosting. How else could she have imagined biting into a lion, turtle, or frog with her teeny mouth and six brand new teeth?

No Elephants, Still Indian

It’s funny how people react when we confess our origins. That, or when our dialect gives us away, which, I’m afraid, is more often that not. We’re associated either with Gandhi, or tandoori chicken. On occasion, some people want to know if, in India, elephants are still a principal mode of transportation, and if children live with their parents till they die. Surely, these folks haven’t quite heard of Narain Karthikeyan, or watched Aishwarya Rai on Letterman’s. And why they haven’t is simply beyond me.

On our part, we gawk at an American bride struggling to waddle her way through the corridors of the Hindu temple clad in a saree, and jeer at all the non-Indians on Devon Avenue burning their tongues out on blowtorch-hot paani-puris. But we seldom sneer at the svelte, young ABCD dressed, well, hardly, or belittle a traditional tam-brahm pigging out on an extra-large hamburger. It is difficult to say why, but I suspect it is mainly because we are quite fraught with attempts of being like them. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be skimpily dressed or obese, to feel belonged enough, or be noticed?

Also, we love our Paddys and Chaks more than the Padmanabhans and Chakrapanis. We experiment with exotic foods, and feel free to share and eat with our hands only at an elite Ethiopian restaurant, even as we acclaim the importance of keeping it “real, and simple,” like it were an alien concept. We commend the finesse of Rachael Ray, like cumin, in all its smoky glory, was a spice we’d never used. We exalt the connoisseur in Martha Stewart, as if crochet were an art our grandmothers never excelled in. We commiserate with Patricia Heaton as if Doris Roberts were more appalling and melodramatic than all the mothers-in-law of Ekta Kapoor’s one million soaps put together. We indulge in potluck-poker-nights like the gambling addas during Diwali were uncivil. But we still enjoy the rare bonding with a Hindi-speaking cab driver, or the congregations with fellow-Indians at the local grocery. (Unless the cabbie exhibits stalker tendencies, or the person at the grocery is an Amway distributor). We love to hotfoot to the lanky weekend line at the temple cafeteria in a haste that would put Tirupathi pilgrims to shame. We queue up at the Thanksgiving sale counters like we’ve never haggled and gotten a good deal on anything.

But fact is – even if we’re able, successfully, to order a light pizza on the phone without much ado (“easy on cheese” is not that difficult to say, after all) we can’t always camouflage our Indiginized utterances and usages. We wouldn’t rest in the restrooms, ask for checks at the end of a meal, or worse, hand out bills. Plastic silverware will remain an oxymoron in some of our dictionaries, and some of us wouldn’t eat our dinners (with or without them) at 6pm.

That’s not to say we’re elephant-riding, namby-pamby, curry-eating yellowbellies. Well, let’s face it - it takes more than dependable, cheering parents and a gut full of curry to ride on a scuzzy, wobbly behemoth.

Woes of Being an Edgy Veggie

Being vegetarian, I’ve realized, is not so pertinent as an unbecoming ‘desi’ thing anymore. It’s more like a kooky thing. So, what does sheepishly ordering onion rings and fries (discounting the fact that they’re ‘fried,’ in all probability, in lard), amidst an ocean of hamburger hogs make me? A hippie desi with very poor levels of health consciousness and probably, very high levels of cholesterol. Although, in my defense, it doesn’t really show.

With a 14-month-old elf for a daughter who complicates my life as it is, I have complicated it further by turning vegetarian. Or rather, returning to being a vegetarian. I was actually born and raised a vegetarian, and then, rather gingerly, took to eating chicken just for the fun of it. In retrospect, I didn’t exactly love it, but it just made things easier, in India, and around the world (except Fiji, of course, which I don’t intend visiting anytime soon). And then the pregnancy brought in a blast of nausea and I simply had to relinquish it. But that was the easy part. I had to make up by feasting on insipid bunches of broccoli and mushy mouthfuls of tofu.

And now, not only do I have to live with being known as the freak that doesn’t eat beef or pork, but also as the ostracized lunatic that doesn’t eat chicken or fish. And unless I’m attending a ‘desi’ shindig, where I can be pretty sure there will be at least one veggie dish on the menu, I should either be well-versed with excerpts from Sue Coe’s “Dead Meat,” to save my skin, or simply, chicken out. Else, I’d have to inform my hosts beforehand, and drive them up the wall, quite literally, to dust off their vegetarian cookbooks. On second thought, it’s much easier to eat before I go, and, feigning a queasy stomach, munch on salads and desserts. Yet, that doesn’t make me any more likable, because the hosts have either burned themselves out barbecuing the steak, or broiling the chops.

But I always end up giving restaurant staff a hard time by forgetting to say ‘no meat,’ (instead of, to use the good old Indianism, ‘without meat’) or gorging on gorgeous stuffed mushrooms, only to later realize that the stuffing was, in fact, made of creepy bivalve clams, or other squishy mollusks. And many a time, I am humiliated further when people, in all their effort to be polite, raise a brow and say, “Oh, vegetarianism – sure, I’ve tried that,” like it’s an eccentric cult and they just had to go back on it in order to subsist in the real world.

While I struggle to justify vegetarianism without sounding like a prudish party-pooper, I can safely say that I don’t eat anything that bites back, given that eggs, as I know them, do not. And apparently, Alex Poulos has said, “I will not eat anything that walks, runs, skips, hops or crawls. God knows that I've crawled on occasion, and I'm glad that no one ate me.” Surely, he hasn’t visited Fiji.

Ski is the Limit

Every winter, I’m reminded that there are two kinds of people. Those who ski and those who don’t. But it’s really not as simple as it sounds. Skiers are basically people who love to wear wacky, slippery footwear, and glide down steep, scary, snow-slopes, being fully aware that they could end up twisting their backs, breaking their bones, or simply, in the gut of a very famished wolf. As for non-skiers, they are usually happy to be alive, and can often be seen enjoying the wretchedness of winter sports on TV.

I’m not much of what you might call a sporty individual, if you disregard those biking miles and tennis points. To give you an idea - I generally elude looking down when, say, on the terrace, if I’ve been gritty enough to get there in the first place. And ‘tall,’ in my dictionary, puts the ceiling on ten feet, or thereabouts. So you can imagine what the prospect of boogying on a very craggy sand dune, stomach down, could do to me.

A few years ago, along the colossal, shifty sand eskers of Te Paki Stream in New Zealand, I was summoned and handed a boogie board to lie on. Petrified, I dropped the board, (never mind that I nearly tore my left toe apart) yowled, and implored my tour guide to let me go. But being sternly resolute, he dragged me to a smaller, less daunting mound of sand, and backed me up with some basic grounding, and a lot of reassuring. I then stood and witnessed many people boogying. They were basically being hurled like lumber on planks, and, on touching bottom, they appeared to have been casually axed off their boards. So, readying myself for the absolute pits, I lay down on the board, like a goat ready for its sacrificial ceremony, and went slinking down. Eyes shut, nerves clenched, I landed at the base, with a lungful of very sandy air. And somehow, several grueling sashays later, I was proclaimed bonafide boogier.

So when I was asked to go skiing in Wisconsin, I thought, why not. All I had to do was stand atop a snow-covered cliff, slide down, collapse, coalesce with gravity, get circled around by sneering six-year olds, and if I didn’t feel mortified enough, go back up for more. And since I couldn’t even stand erect with ski boots on, I took lessons at a beginner’s camp. Once everyone had been gathered up, the instructor slithered down, ducking every now and then, turning stylishly, and yelling, “Come on, follow me,” as if it was no big deal. But unless you were raised by mountain sheep in Montana, you’ll need more than that to take off and alight in one piece.

Anyhow, I took a crack at it, and haven’t looked back since. What I mean is, I haven’t looked back at the gradient of the slope halfway through, slammed into a fellow skier, and plummeted like a bag of bricks onto the gear-rental shack.

Much Moving and More Shaking

If you’re looking for a windy-city-winter-warm-up to scald your feet, fry your brain cells, char your patience, and burn your pocket crisp, you simply must move homes. How you accomplish it depends, among other things, on how many landlords’ whims and wiles you’re willing to endure, and how fast you can crunch numbers without reaching for a calculator (because costs invariably escalate with the batting of an eyelid, or revamping of the Dan Ryan). Of course, if you’re among the fortunate few and are at the mercy of an agent, (unless you’re Oprah Winfrey) you needn’t worry about the latter, as the agent will do all the talking, wheedling, and deciding.

Let’s assume you aren’t among those privileged few, and are on your own. You begin by listing out all the criteria that will make a house best suited for your family. But clearly, compromise is the key word, as your husband’s longing for a jumbo garage or your yearning for roomy closets will not counterbalance a pint-sized den that won’t hold your baby’s two million toys. Then you make the calls, and it is suggested that you write every bit of information down, including the time and duration of the calls, the quotes, the offers, the works. Then you set out on the site seeing, and even if you inadvertently forget your coat, you won’t exactly freeze to death, as the prices might set your sweat glands working overtime. And then, you check out the neighborhood, (better Wiggles-Ville than Wrigley-Ville) scrutinize every nook and cranny, and generally take mental notes of anything interesting or uninteresting you might discern.

Finally, with all your stars aligned in the apposite places, and the assent of the inspectors (and carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and all their other kin) if you happen upon your near-perfect new haven, you move on to the next level - the sign up procedure. Now this requires extraordinary math skills, extra powerful vision, and legal parlance proficiency. Math skills for obvious reasons, and the effective vision coupled with a thorough grasp of legal dialect, might come in handy for conscientious interpretation of mysterious terms and clauses set conveniently in fine print. You also need to supply all documents that pertain to your existence, and endorse your motor skills, marital status, professional standing, wages, and, unless you’re eligible for a hundred-and-ten percent credit, some savings. Once the paper work is done and over with, you embark upon the mammoth mission of packing, cleaning, and moving (however, if you’re left with any dough at the end of it all or are benign enough to forsake a meal or two, you might consider hiring movers). And aside from unpacking, rearranging, and reorganizing, you’ll have to baby-proof all the outlets, cabinets, doors, drawers, and anything that holds assets and snaps open precariously. To be completely safe, you’ll also have to elevate the entire house up by a few feet, unless your little one takes Pooh’s invite to play very seriously, or actually lives on Sesame Street.

Hot Samosa, Cold Call?

“Kamon achen, di?”1 he asked. Stumped, I mumbled, “Hmm?” (It could be some relative after all, I thought). Then he went on to tell me how deeply he cared for my homesickness. And how imperative his role was, in ridding me of it. Now before your heart goes all out for this alleged member-of-the-kinfolk-from-Kolkata, be warned that he was a complete stranger, and all he actually cared about was my money. He was calling from Kolkata all right (although he averred that his office was situated in Detroit, the caller-id revealed a “+91-33” number) but his only intent was to urge me to sign up for a long-distance telephone service that he claimed was the cheapest and the best.

Even when we were not on the Do-Not-Call list, we had our chance with winning, on occasion. We could ward pesky telemarketers off by using on them an indigenous dialect. And if they clung on and asked, “Do you speak English, ma’m?” one could say, in Tamil2, for instance, “Aama, teriyum,”3 snigger, and then, opportunely hang up. But in those days, these mavericks fell fundamentally into two categories - those who tried to woo you into a subscription for a tacky publication you had no use for except to blot the oil off ‘pooris,’4 unless you were obese, and the cheesy weight loss ad on its front-page occluded your consumption of fatty food; or those who persuaded you to go on vacation to a place that you’d either already seen, or were flat broke to afford.

The most eccentric experience I’ve had with telemarketers was when my knowledge of the English language was questioned, for the sheer lack of a certain twang in my vocalization. But I, my dears, do speak some English, and it definitely does not transcend the discerning powers of my American fellas. (Well, at least when I say ‘let’s make a move,’ they do, in all their dervish spirit, shake a leg or two). But these were the pre-outsourcing times.

Coming back to Bengali babu5, I could virtually picture a 20-something graduate in a swanky, air-conditioned office in Kolkata, biting into a sizzling singara6 at 2:45 am IST. The darndest thing is he hit home, and with a little more prodding in Bengali, or his perfected yankee spiel, he could’ve sold his service to me, or even a monk sworn to silence in the wilderness.

PATs, or Painstakingly Americanized Transcriptions:

1 “How’re you doing, sis?”
2 A South Indian language
3 “Yes, I do know English”
4 Deep-fried wheat-flour crepes
5 Dude from Bengal
6 A spicy, crisped vegetable dumpling

Missing Indi Mom in Windy Chicago

That shrill wailing would’ve shaken even the comatose to life, so I just had to pay heed. My watch read 6:30 am (IST), and although I took a moment to estimate the CST equivalent of it, I instantly realized that my baby girl was only trying to execute her ‘morning’ duties, given that we had only returned the day before, and her sense of time was as obscure as Chicago’s winter. It was 7:00 pm in the windy city, but that mattered little to us - what did, mainly, was the intoxicating aroma of ma’s filter coffee, and, rather inadvertently, the clattering of ‘vessels’ by the maid, back at home in India. Anyhow, groggily rummaging through the diaper bag, I managed to ferret some wipes and a couple of diapers out (although I lost one of those in a brash scuffle with the cabin baggage tag). And then, thrusting the onus on my snoring husband, I snoozed off again.

I have almost unlearnt the art of diapering, as ma handled that, and everything else that encompasses taking care of a baby, and its haggard new mommy. Hence, during my stay at ma’s, I had conveniently relieved myself of all responsibilities; but now, jetlag aside, I have to cope with being a single mom for most part of the day (while the husband slogs to bring home the bread, and marmalade) as well as playing cook, Elmo, gardener, and maid - only, I can’t even clank the dishes to vent out my rage as that would wake the baby. No shopping sprees during the week; no luxury baths; no self-grooming binges; no fresh, piping hot food at every meal; no extra hours of beauty sleep; and specially, no ma. The most that “Patel’s” sells are “Mother’s Recipe” pickles, and even to fetch those in, we must brave storm and snow. But before I can even think of that, I need to refill my rupee-laden wallet with mighty dollar bills; and I may as well combine that with untying my tangled hair, doing the laundry, and rolling out the rotis. But first, I need to use the restroom.