A Case of Selective Expertise

THAT the husband was a graduate of IIT Kanpur went a long way in making him acceptable to my extended family. Explaining that he was a blue-blooded engineer wished away his double crime of being a North Indian and not a Syrian Christian. And the thought that an engineer retails for around Rs 10 lakh in the Syrian Christian marriage mart, and here I was getting one for absolutely free, undoubtedly helped.

Well, all my aunts who’d looked green-eyed at the husband when we got married, would feel contented if they saw him now. For, in all these years, Amma and I have struggled with an engineer, who, well, just doesn’t know how to engineer. When the electric bulb goes on the blink, he looks helplessly at me till I clamber up the nearest stool and put in a new bulb. And if, the lord help us, a fuse should blow, it’s the electrician and his whole caboodle of tools, no less!

This despite the fact that my home science teacher in school did teach me how to change a fuse wire. But if I venture towards the fuse box, the husband will shriek, ‘Do you realize you could get a shock?’ And somehow, always in all these years, the knowledge that he’s the family’s engineer wins over my certainty that I can change that fuse myself.

When the flush tank in our bathroom lost its connection, every time I reached for the phone to call the plumber, the husband stayed me, saying, ‘It’s a simple thing. Just needs a wire. I’ll do it.’ All that happened was that I broke my back shoving buckets of water into the loo.

We bought our first stereo system more years ago than I care to remember. Let’s just say that the iPod was merely a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye at the time. And rather proud we were too when we acquired that stereo. It had a radio, a tape deck and a CD player, never mind that we didn’t have a single CD to our collective names at the time. At least we’d be able to listen to FM, we thought. Not once in all the years that followed have I listened to one song on that radio. Tapes, yes, CDs, yes, for we acquired some since.

But the radio requires a bit of engineering. It has an aerial that needs to be put up and fixed somewhere that will ensure crackle-free listening. The husband has made the attempt on at least two separate occasions, only to retire hurt to the living room sofa and STAR Movies.

On a holiday with some friends, one power window of the car we were driving decided to go on holiday too. We had been warned it was having a bit of an identity crisis. But first the husband, and then the son, decided to give it the shrink act. ‘If you push it down a bit, it will go up completely,’ said the second offender to the first. Well, it did go down, and there it stayed, stubbornly resisting all efforts to make it go up again. There we were in the Shimla hills at Christmas time, with a window that remained resolutely firm in letting in the icy Shivalik winds.

All hell broke loose on the second offender. ‘Who the $#@*&%$@# asked you to tamper with it?’ The husband was magnificent in his fury. If it hadn’t been for the cringing little soul clinging to my side, I’d have taken a minute off to enjoy all that Leonine splendour.

An hour later, the husband and our friend, who, needless to say, was also from IIT Kanpur, were swearing openly, without benefit of profanitype, but still unable to admit they were little use as window shrinks. So we wives decided to take a hand. ‘Let’s find a mechanic,’ we said.

‘A mechanic? What you need for power windows is an electrician. And where’d you find one in these hills?’ they sneered.

Luck for once was on our side. As we rounded the next curve, there nestling on the hillside was a service station. An hour there acted as Viagra on the window, and we drove away with it firmly up and that icy breeze whistling outside as it should have been doing all this time. Both husbands were noticeably quiet for the next hour.

Thank god we never had a puncture on that trip. On second thoughts, Mr IIT Vice-Chancellor or whoever’s in charge out there, why don’t you make a six-month course in home maintenance and repairs compulsory for your little boy wonders? Little point in building the nation’s bridges, and setting up oil rigs if that fuse in the house goes a-begging to the diploma electrician, is there?

First published in The Financial Express in 2000. I am happy to say that since this post was first written, the husband has proved the worth of his engineering degree to great mutual satisfaction.

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Clothes Maketh This Woman

A senior colleague and I were arguing some time ago. He insisted you should only wear what you were comfortable in, while I held that it was important at times to be wearing what everyone else was. I should know.

Appa being the sorts who, seeing me dither between two dresses, would tell the shopkeeper to pack up both, I’d always been reasonably well-dressed till I moved from parental largesse to earning my own living. The said living was decidedly meagre. When you’re waiting for a parental cheque to get you your dinners in the last week of a month, you definitely don’t beg for new clothes.

That was probably the shabbiest period of my life (though I must say present times could provide serious competition!). But I only realized it when, two days after we were married, the husband and I visited a friend of the Ma-in-Law. She appraised me critically and said with great hauteur, ‘We were very relieved to see you had got yourself proper clothes for the wedding. I’d feared you would make a laughing stock of us.’ A bride of two days cannot retort to a jibe like that, but the cruelty of it still stings me. Which is probably why this outpouring.

A couple of years later, the husband and I were in Delhi. The newsmagazine we had joined had just been launched and there was a party to celebrate it. Two decades later, these things are commonplace, but then I was feverish in my anxiety: what would I wear? For I had walked out of the labour room every kilo intact, plus a baby in my arms. None of my clothes fit me. Finally, I plumped on a salwar-kameez I had acquired post-baby. In the best Jaipur tradition, it was hot pink and turquoise silk.

Imagine my horror when I waddled  into a room full of people set out in Delhi’s summer best — crisp cotton chikan in mainly white, interspersed with a couple of pale greens and mauves. Even the men wore white and cream! I fortified myself at the sangria bar, ensconced myself in the darkest room I could find and wept my heart out.

The first thing I did after that awful party was to save up for a chikan outfit. To this day, I believe firmly that I must have one crisp white outfit in my wardrobe at all times. You cannot survive in Delhi without one.

The next challenge was the family occasion. The Ma-in-Law has two-thirds and then some of her family in Delhi. So I often find my wardrobe stretched to the limit, flitting from wedding to funeral to family party. No matter which option you’ve hit from the three above, you can be sure you are being evaluated from every visible angle. And on a journalist’s salary, there’s no way you can afford one kundan necklace, let alone a new one for every wedding.

I’ve worked my way around the weddings by investing in a couple of diehard silk saris. The trick, I discovered, was to avoid zari at all cost and buy styles no can put a date on. You can get away with only a reasonable dent in your wallet. But you can end up, like I did, creating a furore in a multi-level sari shop in Ernakulam because I was insistent I wanted a traditional Temple border silk. The fashions that year did not include traditional Temple borders, and the salesgirl serving me multiplied to a full bevy, scurrying to find me a sari I would put my money on. I would swear the floor manager was happier than me when they finally unearthed my perfect sari.

Funerals are more tricky. What you wear could mar you for life. After the first family funeral, I’ve learnt to keep a whole stock of dupattas, in various assorted colours that would put you to sleep. They cover a whole gamut of sins. I’ve also learnt you don’t wear crisp, glowing white the way they do in TV serials. And that to wear a post-box red T-shirt and still be invited to be a pall-bearer, you have to be born into the family, or at least a son-in-law!

Of course, the twist comes just as you think you know it all. Some years ago, at a school (the husband’s, not mine) reunion I attended in the de rigueur crisp white chikan, I found everyone and his wife in uniform black trouser suits. But by then, I had the years and the experience to toss my head and say, ‘Will you just look at that herd mentality!  Black in a Delhi July – ughhh!’ What goes unsaid is there’s no way my backside can – or will – walk into a pair of form-fitting pants.

First published in The Financial Express.

Homework and Other Holiday Pastimes

The Great Panic is upon us. And has the Jain family firmly in its grip. Amma has been seen muttering over the sambhar pot, ‘How can I fit the aloe vera into a book to press it?’ She considers every moment spent away from a leaf a waste of time. Even when she visits the Madras Store, which is fifty steps away from our house – and, yes, I have measured it – she comes back with a motley collection of branches and leaves.

At last count, the husband could manage a full ten minutes at a stretch without haranguing me about my obvious lack of effort in the house. That’s because he’s busy rifling through trunkloads of old papers, looking for that one paper he wrote on the fifth generation of computers while at IIT Kanpur.

As for me, I can proudly say that I now know most of the Hindi dictionary by heart, that I know now the intricacies of bank locker operation as I never do when I’m actually operating a locker, and that Mangal Pandey is no longer a patriot I revere – he’s a pain in the you know where, whom I frankly detest. And this was years before Aamir Khan made a movie about the guy, curing my insomnia of years in the space of three hours.

You see, it’s only twelve days to school reopening day, and the family is caught up in the flood of the son’s holiday homework. Yes, I know homework keeps them busy the way no self-respecting parent can. (Especially if you announce that they’ll get grades for their work when they get back to school.) But I do object to the extension of that line of thought to ‘What keeps a child busy keeps his parents busy’. After all, I don’t get six weeks of paid leave every summer.

So, at the beginning of every holiday, the son and I have this little ritual. We sit down, and he listens patiently while I tell him of all the exciting trips and excursions I have planned for him during June, so will he please get the homework out of his way by the end of May? He acquiesces so earnestly, my mother’s heart gets moved. We chart out schedules for the work at hand, and go back to watching TV, well pleased with ourselves.

By mid-June, neither the excursions nor the homework has happened. I am swamped by guilt that yet another holiday has gone by without my doing anything constructive with the child – you know, the kind of thing he’ll remember nostalgically when he’s forty and tell his kids about. And the son’s chewing off his nails in panic because all his project work remains, pristinely undone.

‘Shall we go and see Lagaan?’ I asked him. ‘No, I’ve got to go to the bank with Amma to complete my Maths project,’ he said, then wistfully, ‘I would have loved to see Lagaan.’ So, dammit, why do I feel guilty?

Luckily, Mangal Pandey has come and gone from our lives. Unable to find more than three sentences on the guy, even on the Net, when he had to do a page on him, the son whooped with joy when he found a picture of him. Then proceeded to blow it up 200 per cent on the neighbourhood photocopier.

The sea cliff almost tore our family apart. Amma began the task bravely with a bagful of plaster of Paris and three children. A week later, their creation still looked like a lump of PoP on a greasy cake tray. The husband, who’s awfully good at hindsight, sniffed at it: ‘Doesn’t look like any cliff I’ve ever seen. The walls should have been more sheer. You’d better do something about it, boy!’ Amma fumed in reply, overlooking for once her life’s guiding principle that sons-in-law are celestial beings, never to be crossed: ‘How come he’s never there to do the work? It’s easy to talk when someone else is doing all the work.’ The son looked at me in despair, while I stood torn between mother and husband.

The call of maternity was the strongest, so after two days of wringing my hands, I stepped in and managed the sheer cliff, but it still looked a lump of PoP, albeit a lump of PoP with one sheer side. That was the point at which one of the collaborators’ mothers took over. She’s a trained artist and, well, need I say more? Oh well, I did the actual shaping.

It was with that experience in mind that  I looked at a colleague enviously the other day and said, ‘You’re so lucky, you’re an artist. You probably have no problems with holiday homework.’

‘I have never had any problems,’ he declared blandly and, I thought, a trifle pompously. ‘The first time my daughter was asked to write ten lines on Mahatma Gandhi, I gave her a earful on how that old man ruined this country. Ever since then, my wife does all her work. I am not even allowed near her pencil box!’

First published in The Financial Express in 2001.

My Tryst with Romance

Some years ago, when the son was still young enough to condescend to travel with us, we visited the Taj Mahal en famille. I was enchanted with the notion of it. What could be more romantic than visiting the world’s best known memorial to love with the person I loved best in the world?

The person I loved best in the world seemed quite as excited about the monument. ‘It’s just two days away from full moon. We must go and see it tonight,’ he said as we skirted close to the dense growth of trees that now surrounds the Taj Mahal. I was touched and decided the hunger pangs that were becoming distinctly audible could wait. It was not often that the husband was so romantic – or cooperative.

But moonlight rhapsodies in the Taj were not for us that night. The Taj is closed down once dusk falls, and not even for the President do they make an exception. ‘$*@$(!,’ said the husband. ‘Now we’ll have to come here in the morning, through all the markets, when it is so crowded! Can’t we catch a glimpse of it from a rooftop or something and finish with it?’ This time, I decided to listen to my stomach. The heart could wait.

Next morning, we set off again, my parents also in tow. The romantic in me, well-fed on aloo parathas and masala chai, had revived once again. For once, the son too was curiously interested in all my stories about the Taj.

Impressed by his ardour, I blindfolded his eyes as we reached the Taj Mahal itself, lest occasional glimpses caught beforehand spoil the view in full. The husband snickered openly. But when I lifted my hands off the son’s face, I could swear his spectacles twitched. ‘It’s beautiful,’ he breathed. I felt tears pricking my eyes. He was my son after all. ‘Mum,’ he continued, ‘can I get one of those pictures of me holding that thingummy on top of the Taj?’

The husband rushed to the rescue, and we spent the next fifteen minutes waiting for our own special edition of the Indian peacock to strike the requisite poses before the Taj Mahal. Never mind, I consoled myself, he’s too young.

By now, we were taking off our shoes to climb into the interior chambers. Stepping in, I heard a snort of disgust behind me. ‘Look at this horrible grouting!’ This from the husband, proud house owner to be. ‘For god’s sake, Shah Jahan was supposed to have been the architect emperor, how could he have passed this?’

The son piped up from the other side, ‘Where are all those rooms the papers said were found under this? You know the ones where they found all those skeletons and all?’ The son’s ideas of ‘int’resting’ history are all uniformly gruesome.

‘That’s not open to the public,’ said Amma. The son was openly contemptuous. ‘Not open to the public, ha? Well, that’s what I came to see. I’m sure thousands of people come here to see all those dungeons and skeletons. I’m sure all these people have come to see them. And they cheat them like this. I’m sure I can find a way by myself.’

We entered the makbara. ‘This is nice,’ said the husband and the really exquisite inlay work made even the son pause for a closer look. I allowed myself to hope.

‘Hey! How come she gets central place?’ Well, dodos, obviously because the Taj was designed to be a mausoleum only for ‘her’. The emperor had planned a Taj all for himself, but in black, on the other side of the Yamuna. But history in the form of Aurangzeb overtook him, and he ended up with second best place in the white Taj,

The two looked at me disbelievingly. ‘Oh well,’ said the son, ever the chauvinist, ‘he got the bigger personal dome. Can we go down and see the actual tombs? Then maybe I can look for those rooms?’

But no, the way to the tombs was also cordoned off, maybe because of curious investigators just like the son, who was spitting fire at the discovery. ‘I call this a waste of ten bucks,’ he sputtered. ‘All that money and you get to see only two crummy tombs!’ Amma gently reminded him he’d got in for free anyway. There are times when I love my mother very much.

We came out and I suggested we sit near the railing for some time. The Yamuna flowed on just beneath, and I found myself wondering what all the waters had seen in the years gone by. It was a wonderful moment. ‘Now this is what I call grouting,’ exclaimed the husband suddenly, from where he’d been examining the base of one of the Taj’s four pillars. ‘Come, take a look at this. Maybe we could try black grouting too.’ The son burped loudly in the background. The aloo parathas were working.

I decided to come back to earth and the family. After all, what was the Taj Mahal but a mausoleum? And to a woman who’d spent nineteen of her thirty-eight years bearing fourteen children, even dying in childbirth. Surely, if Shah Jahan had loved Mumtaz Mahal so much, he would have decided that seven or eight was enough, and let her live longer.

There are times when I think practicality is a family weakness.

First published in The Financial Express.

In For a Sniff, In For a Durian

Maybe my guardian angel was taking a day off. Or maybe she just has a sense of humour. I see no other reason why my eyes – and nose – should have fallen on the pile of durian just outside the Singapore supermarket.

The supermarket was my last stop on what had been a very hasty and, for me, focussed shopping expedition a mere five hours before my flight would take off for Delhi. The committed shopper in me stood outraged. There I was, in the ‘biggest shopping mall’ in the world, and I hadn’t bought anything!

That was why as my friend pointed significantly at her watch, I pleaded, ‘A few chocolates’, and found myself in the choc aisle, grabbing candy hamburgers and jelly worms by the bagful. The duty-free might have more connoisseur chocolates, but the son is the kind who goes to Geneva and, after an exciting week of eating snails, rosti and fondue, demands to be taken to the nearest McDonald’s. He would not consider handmade Swiss chocolates a suitable substitute for marshmallows with chocolate and strawberry jelly centres.

As I stepped out of the cash counter, my nostrils encountered a smell. ‘That’s durian,’ said the friend, recognising my sniff-ful air. ‘It’s quite an experience.’ That was when I slipped, for I am a self-confessed sucker for new experiences of the taste-bud variety. But I had only four hours in which to go home, pack my bag and reach the airport. ‘I’ll take a box,’ I said, offering the vendor a crumpled ten-dollar bill.

This is where you need a bit of natural history. It is tough being a durian in Singapore. The fruit is particular to the region, but considered delicacy or taboo, depending on how your nostrils react to it. For the durian’s smell is its most outstanding feature – it is pungent, a bit like an overflowing drain or rotten eggs. And it clings. Look at a durian, and the world will know you’ve looked.

The durian looks as exotic as it smells. It resembles everyone’s favourite Martian fantasy. It’s cream, like a coconut, on the inside, and green, also like a coconut, on the outside, but then the durian goes all out to make a display of itself. It has uncannily Martian-like spikes sticking out of it all over. It was the sight of the spikes that made me opt for the cut and packaged version. I was not, of course, to know that it would be my undoing.

Rushing into the airport, a good hour late, I was stopped for the mandatory tape around check-in baggage. The girl sniffed. ‘Are you carrying any… well, fruit?’ she asked. ‘No,’ I declared. After all, the durian was in my cabin bag.

She let me go and I joined my group in the boarding line. My bag passed through the x-ray, but it did not pass the smell test. ‘Who’s carrying fruit?’ asked the official. ‘I am,’ I declared. ‘It’s only a very small pack of durian.’ He looked aghast, ready to faint, and put my bag back through the x-ray. ‘Madam, I am afraid, we will have to ask you to take it out.’

‘Okay,’ I said, ‘no problem. But it is only a small pack, and I am dying to try the stuff. If you could see your way to letting me…’

‘Please sit where I can see you,’ he said, whipping out a large handkerchief and swathing his nose in it. Not smell you, went unsaid. Though, I assure you, it wasn’t that bad. It had to be a male thing, for the girl next to him looked definitely more sympathetic.

My group was already beginning to snicker, and the snickers grew to guffaws as a veritable drama proceeded to unfold before us. A major conference was called behind the counter to discuss the durian problem. At least five airline staffers darted from corner to corner, conferring with other staff. Hurried notes were exchanged. Three times, I was called to verify that I was indeed carrying durian. To the last, a slip of a lad – I could not believe he was of employable age – I said blithely, ‘Oh please let me keep it. I’m taking it for my family,’ knowing full well that the said family would probably put the durian – and me – into the rubbish bin at first sniff.

‘Aw cawfawm,’ he said very seriously, his head bobbing up and down to every ‘w’ note. ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘Please confirm that I won’t have to throw ten dollars into the garbage.’

But I was wrong. The airline’s problem was not whether or not to allow my durian and me into the plane, it was how to get my durian offloaded without, well, raising a stink! That’s why they were refusing to let me open my bag and show them the durian.

Finally, they faced the inevitable, and a girl came and asked me to throw my durian into the trash can. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I love durian too, but the smell, you see, our other passengers. You should have sealed it in some bubble wrap and put it into your check-in baggage. It’s not really allowed, but no one would know.’

Well, so much for honesty. The last thing I saw of Singapore was my little carton of durian, perched forlornly on the garbage can. The smell, however, I carried with me into a smoggy New Delhi night. And no one could stop me.

First published in The Financial Express in 2000.