DAD | 1945 – 2020
Coronavirus will always remain someone else’s problem until it becomes your own. On May 28, 2020, my seventy-four year old father succumbed to this invisible killer. To be fair, my father has had his share of other health complications – Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, subdural hematoma, and aspiration pneumonia. Coronavirus simply finished what his other diseases could not – end his suffering.
My father probably didn’t want us to see him go through the pinnacle of his suffering. And so, the universe granted him his final wishes. He was all by himself in a COVID isolation ward, covered in needles, tubes and masks for five long days. My mother and I were anxiously waiting in self-isolation at home, after testing negative for Coronavirus. My sister and her family were helplessly stuck in Denver. At this point, ten thousand miles from dad or ten miles from dad didn’t make a darn difference. Dad, if he had been conscious, may have used his last five days of solitude to process his own mortality. He may have used the time to prepare to let go of all his attachments, and depart the life which he lived for almost seventy-five years. After five days, succumbing to nature, he finally let go. We may not have been with him in person as he passed on, but I know, everyone he knew was there in spirit with him through his last days and his last minutes.
After my dad had a fall in March, I flew into Chennai, barely two days before all domestic flights stopped operations. I was lucky enough to be ‘stuck’ with my dad and mom in their home. Thank you Corona! We enjoyed many breakfasts and dinners as a family, with my sister comfortably sitting ‘on’ the dining table via an iPad screen. Despite the ups and downs of dad’s health during this period, he never missed an opportunity to crack a stupid joke or indulge us in self-deprecating humor. This period of my life was absolute joy, one I would never have traded for anything else.
My father, whom my sister and I called daddy, was a simple man with humble beginnings. He has always been my favorite rags-to-riches story. The riches he accumulated was not just education and wealth, but a whole lot of love. He was soft-spoken, kind, and loving. He sported a genuine smile and always allowed others to make fun of him. We never once laughed at him, we always laughed with him. It’s this magical quality of vulnerability that made him one of the most loved people in the family.
He was the kind of man who loved his wife very much. After forty-nine years of marriage, he still joked about having an affair, but never had the heart to pursue one.
He was the kind of man who helped his two children become who we are today.
He was the kind of man who helped many people lift themselves out of poverty.
He was the kind of man who had plenty of opportunities to make more money by getting his palms greased, but lived a life of wholesome integrity.
He was the kind of man who didn’t consider it theft when he was caught stealing cookies from his own house.
He was the kind of man who has curious enough to travel to almost thirty countries without speaking much English.
He was the kind of man who tried Sushi for the first time at the prime age of seventy-four.
He was the kind of man who may have never had the vocabulary of spirituality, but lived a life which was aspirational for many of us who only have an intellectual understanding of the subject.
He was many kinds of man. He left us with more memories than we can handle.
If we thought his passing was surreal, the cremation was a movie in itself. Just a few relatives, my mother and I waited, as my father who was wrapped in three layers of plastic, arrived in a tiny ambulance. It was May in Madras – scorching one hundred degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by grueling humidity. Four of us wore the PPE gear we were given, instantly getting soaked in sweat and tears. Condensation in our goggles made it difficult for us to see. We looked like astronauts in space suits before venturing on an unknown mission. The entire scene was being filmed and streamed over the Internet for everyone who couldn’t make it in person. I could not see my father’s face below the plastic. I barely noticed the thin outline of the frail body that he had become. I placed a small garland on my father and my mother touched him good bye. And just like that, he was pushed into the cremation chamber, only to become ash and bone an hour later.
As we waited for his ashes, my cousins and I were joking about dad, laughing away, while my father was quite literally burning behind us. My dad not only gifted us the space to laugh with him when he was alive, but also allowed us the liberty to laugh about him in his death. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
The only certainty in life is death.
Life has always been unpredictable, but feels more so these days. Going with the flow and taking it one moment at a time, seems to be the spiritual, practical and only way to approach all of this. At the risk of coming across as preachy, I would ask that all of us hit the pause button and ask ourselves some basic questions. What ‘are’ we doing? What ‘are’ we fighting for? What is ‘actually’ important? If all we become is ash and bone, let’s not forget that the spirit we leave behind, lives only in peoples’ memories. And memories of kindness will always outlast all other memories. If we truly want to leave a lasting legacy, let’s try and be kind to one another. Nothing else matters.
We miss you.
All of us.
PS: My mother, my sister, I and the rest of our family are all doing well. My dad’s passing may seem like a loss, but we know, whatever happened was best for him. We are happy for him.
The ‘Get out of your bubble’ challenge
Photography: http://www.arunmuthu.com | http://www.instagram.com/arunmuthuphoto
The bubbles we don’t see
Nature is the toughest enemy you’ll ever fight.
We live in extraordinary times. The entire planet seems to be engaged in a single conversation about an invisible bug called Coronavirus that has claimed more than seventy-thousand lives in a matter of weeks. And we haven’t even seen the worst yet.
This virus that’s making the rounds seems to be sparing no country and no one. Madonna got it right when she said, Coronavirus is the great equalizer. The virus sees everyone as equal; Royals and commoners, poor and rich, powerful and powerless, old and young, Americans and Chinese, black and brown, yellow and white. We are all the same, but still…
All of us live in our own little bubbles.
Let’s start with my bubble, the only one I seem to know. I managed to travel from Delhi to Chennai, my parents’ hometown just in time to help my father who had a fall and had to be admitted in a hospital. My father is now back home though his condition could be better. My wife who I miss very much is in Delhi with her mother. My parents live in a beautiful house by the seaside with a lovely garden. I have my own room with a nice TV. We have help through the day. Raju who lives on the same street as us, cooks and cleans every day. Kannan, our driver was kind enough to stay with us while my father is recovering. We also have a 24/7 nurse.
When I’m not helpful around the house, I keep myself entertained on Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and every other boredom-relieving thing on the Internet. Sometimes, I’m writing. And some other rimes, I have virtual drinks over video calls with friends and family whom I would otherwise see once every few months. Just today, I found a five-hundred rupee note in my pocket which I had casually forgotten. I peed in a proper toilet next to a bathtub, and watched Ozark on Netflix. That’s my bubble. A comfortable bubble, but a bubble nevertheless.
As an extension of my bubble, I get to experience other people’s bubbles through social media. Many of my friends are cooking, singing, painting, writing, and indulging in other creative activities while being ‘stuck’ at home with their families. All of them maintain safe social distances, while getting used to closer virtual proximities.
The bubbles we don’t see are the ones that need help.
In India, all around us, we have cooks, drivers, cleaners and security guards. We often maintain personal relationships with the helping class. In the west, among the working class, it’s the waiters, neighborhood florists, convenience store clerks whom we briefly interact with. Regardless of where the working class lives, they too live in their own bubbles, experiencing their own set of problems, and maintaining their own definition of what is essential.
While the Coronavirus may be the great equalizer, it also exposed cracks in our society.
There are many untold stories within these bubbles we don’t see. While, for many of us, the pandemic is an unusual global event that requires intellectual introspection, for the working class, it’s a crushingly unfortunate event. They can actually die from starvation because they are not making their daily wages. They can die from heat exhaustion, because they are forced to walk back home to their villages. They can lose their jobs because they can’t ride on a bus. They can be evicted because they can’t pay rent.
When the virus came, many people I know in India (myself included) sent our cleaners, cooks and drivers to their ‘home’ because we no longer needed their help, the same help which we relied on so heavily for so long. We could suddenly help ourselves because receiving help from potentially exposed staff was too risky. And others I know who were so reliant on their help, didn’t want to let their staff go. The staff stayed home because the master class didn’t know any other way and simply couldn’t help themselves. It’s painful to know that I’m in the master class who can decide between keeping and dismissing staff, solely based on my own convenience and my risk tolerance.
In the west, there’s a different kind of working class, but with similar issues nevertheless – your plumber, your weekly maid, the waiter at your favorite restaurant, the butcher, the college kid who serves you your usual latte at Starbucks. Many of these people having been socially distanced, live in distant and uncomfortable bubbles.
I feel guilty for being fortunate.
Reflecting on how lucky I am, I shared my feelings of guilt with some friends. They reasoned, I’m probably feeling this way because I’m helpless and powerless to do anything about it. While that is mostly true, I’m not ready to accept that notion and surrender to inaction. I feel compelled to do something, even if that something only makes a small difference. I reflected on all the challenges going around in social media – Covid cooking, sketch what you see outside your window, Pose in a saree, ten-day photo challenge, etc. These challenges are necessary distractions to maintain our sanity during times like these. So, please continue doing this. Having said that, I tried to come up with a challenge of my own, more like a request, to do something that can make small differences in other people’s lives.
The ‘Get out of your bubble’ challenge
1. Reflect on 3 people who helped you in the past
Be aware of the not-so-fortunate bubbles around us. Identify three people in your own extended bubble who may need help, pause and reflect on their possible situation.
2. Be curious about their situation
Call them to hear their stories. Try to empathize with what they are going through.
3. Offer help
Find out if you can help them in any way. For example, do they need money to pay for rent, food, or anything else? Do they need to get somewhere but can’t travel because they don’t have a car?
4. Share this challenge and the stories you hear
Share this ‘Get out of your bubble’ challenge on your social media – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and other networks that I’m too old to know about. If you don’t want to share the post, but just the challenge, please share this link:
My mother and I have started making calls. I’ll share these stories on my next post. Thank you for listening and thank you for sharing. Stay safe. See you on the other side.
Photography: http://www.arunmuthu.com | http://www.instagram.com/arunmuthuphoto
Birth, death and everything in-between
I was having a fulfilling day. I woke up at eight in the morning after a night till two. The previous evening started off as a quick dinner between two good friends from college. But then, the evening progressed through exchange of playlists, interesting conversations, and frequent episodes of nostalgia filled with laughter. The morning was a continuation of the previous night’s conversation, complemented by idly dippings in white and red chutney.
My mother had left for volunteering at a hospice for cancer patients, leaving her husband, my father, under my care. My father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s few years earlier, and my mother against her better judgment, trusted her son with her husband. Whatever.
I went to check in on my father. He was working on his fine motor skills, practicing his signature. He complained, he can’t sign the same way he used to, and can’t quite remember what his signature looks like anymore. Poignant moment I thought.
The rains abated. I took my father outside, sat with him without much conversation for a good ten minutes. We stared into my parents’ garden, that was showing off its vibrant green and sparkling water from the recent rains. I took him on a photo expedition around the garden, showing him how beautiful everything in the garden was, while capturing life on my camera. The rusted mini-bicycle, the prayer bells, the white picket fence, yellow flowers and purple eggplants – all of them just stunningly beautiful on their own. He silently nodded in approval.
The rains came back and I was having a lazy afternoon editing my pictures on my iPad. I had a cup of evening coffee, and then spoke to my wife who was in Delhi. We talked about our lives in India, and about our aging parents. She was on an Uber returning from a wedding and a 50th wedding anniversary celebration. Two unrelated events separated by a generation. Just an average day in India.
I completed the photo-series of my parents garden, which I then took to share with them. As I walked in, my mother and father were playing Rummy, a favorite card game in the family. I showed them the pictures of their beautiful home, which they were delighted to see. I then said, I’ll join them for a round of Rummy. My father was instructed by my mother to deal the cards. According to my mother, it apparently helps with his fine motor skills. My father was taking his time, his own sweet time. I joked, “At the speed with which Daddy is dealing the cards, I may have to come back tomorrow morning to begin the game.” All of us laughed loudly.
Like I said, it was an average day.
My phone rang.
It was my best friend’s mother. Sometimes, you don’t have to hear words to know something is not right. Her sister’s husband, Bhas maama had passed away. Bhas maama was close to me. I had known him for more than three decades. He was a good man. He was an intelligent man. A writer who charmed everyone with his very British eloquence. A man who knew how to make seriously good beef. A kind soul, who only lucky few got to know. But then, he got too old and his turn came.
It must have been one of those three a.m. calls for Bhas maama’s son, who lives in California, on a different continent.
When the call comes, it really doesn’t matter what time it is, does it?
What started off as an average day ended like the ultimate end was here. Mortality was in the air. We may not see it everyday, but it’s happening around the world, not just in our own world. Two of my friends, cousins, had lost their eighty-eight year old aunt. Another friend had just returned home after attending two final rites ceremonies of relatives. Mortality is always in the air, we just don’t know it.
Just when you think everything is calm, life in its very literal sense can get snatched away.
As I was writing, I realized, it was nine pm already and my mother had said she would make dosas for me. I shamelessly finished off three dosas, treating myself to generous helpings of chutneys, this time around, green and red. Someone else’s life may have ended, but mine carried on, for now anyways. And, not too long from now, my turn will come too, while others lives continue.
Tomorrow is another day. It will have its own twists and turns which I will never know until tomorrow. But, for now – today was a good day, a family day, a rainy day, a card-game-kind-of-day, a lazy day, a talk-to-wife-in-Delhi day, a sad day, a grateful day. About tomorrow and the day after, I sometimes question having a plan for life, because I know life usually has some other plans for me. It’s easier for me to surrender to life’s plan, and be equanimous towards everything that’s changing around me, than attempt to execute my own. It creates a spiritual balance that is good for me.
I visited Bhas maama’s house. While the grieving family was busy making chai, Bhas maama was resting peacefully in a mortuary, not too far from the place where he once lived, waiting for his son to return from America. We reminisced Bhas maama’s Britishness, supreme culinary skills, and how often he said “thank you” to his wife. He was a good man. As I drove out of Bhas maama’s house, I witnessed a wedding procession on the one side of the street, and a war cemetery submerged from the recent rains on the other. As I photographed this incredibly sad, yet poetic sight, I couldn’t help wonder, if even nature stopped caring about the departed.
On Life and death
Life in itself doesn’t just end. In one corner of the world where one’s life ends, on the other corner, someone else’s life just begins. In my life, as I was remembering someone who had just passed, there was a wedding in a different place and a wedding anniversary in yet another. When one corner is grieving, the other corner is celebrating.
Nature seems to maintain this tight balance between evil and good, innocence and dementia, young and old, sadness and happiness, celebrations and funerals, birth and death.
Right now, here in India, I happen to have a front row seat for watching the previous generation gently fade away, leaving behind memories that will someday fade as well . The last death of a close one was one of my grandparents, almost twenty years ago. Since then, I have witnessed twenty years of births and birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be fortunate enough to witness one more round of celebrations before I myself start fading away.
I think of death differently. The departed don’t pass away. They simply pass through. All of us pass through the earth, pass through the joys and trepidations of life, pass through hopes and fears, pass through life and death.
We don’t pass away.
We just pass through.
R.I.P. Bhas maama. I’ll call you when I get there.
Three stories of economic relativity
No one really settles in without a 55-inch LG OLED TV.
After several weeks of research, I had narrowed my eyes on LG C9, an incredibly well-designed TV, offering 55 inches of electronic love. I admired the slimness of it just as much as I salivated over the deep blacks. Price tag for my analytical yet irrational desires: 135,000 INR (about USD 2000). I loved something material. I could afford it. I bought it. Classic capitalism – ability to live in the moment, knowing someone is willing to sell you a TV because you can afford it. Right then, as I consumed the TV, I recalled a seemingly connected incident that had happened two days prior.
The payments clerk was our maid’s son.
Our daily maid had promised a few grams of gold to the man who was going to marry her daughter. To pay the dowry, she needed money and had sought this amount as a loan from my parents. My parents are very generous, and will not only give interest-free loans, but will give away money with zero expectations of financial returns. My maid’s son, the bride’s brother, worked as a payments clerk at the same store where I had bought my TV. I had spoken with him about their financial situation, and calculated how much they can realistically afford to pay back any loan they take. I worked with the maid’s son, the payments clerk, to resize the loan and match it to their ability to pay back.
Payment made. TV promised.
I stepped out of the store walked down the stairs when I saw a Jesus-like man with long hair, scrappily sitting on the street, eating from a take-away plastic lunch box that was not eaten by someone who could afford to waste. He seemed mentally ill, disregarded by most of the locals as ‘paithiam,’ which means ‘mad man’. Four feet away, a street dog was waiting for this man to be done with his lunch. My instinct was to capture this moment on my iPhone XS to share the story, but decided to let go. I just observed and respected the moment for what it was. There is no visual documentation of this scene, just memories and words.
We all have our stories of relative fortunes and distress. I’m at the top of the food chain in these three stories of economic relativity.
We don’t pause enough to realize that we should stop saying, “Life isn’t fair” and start saying, “Life isn’t unfair.”
The day your toilet paper runs out
All is well in Madras.
And then there was a problem. We almost ran out of toilet paper. No extra rolls in the bathroom cabinet. None saved for emergency. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Let me remind you, we are in India, a country where toilet paper is not used for various reasons I won’t bother getting into. I used to bring two rolls of toilet paper whenever I visited because I didn’t quite like the quality of toilet paper that was available in India. But now, we have relocated to India.
Two rolls of toilet paper last only so long.
I needed to do something.
You can pretty much get everything on Amazon here in India, but quality of a product that is not commonly used can be questionable. Thank God for user reviews of toilet paper. You might think, there’s no such thing, but people write about everything these days. (Wink Wink!)
I’ve never bought toilet paper on the Internet before. I only see through the plastic, read the marketing nonsense, and decide what’s best suited for my backside. When you are shopping for toilet paper online however, reading the fine print is essential. Three-ply is better than two-ply. Expensive is usually nicer. The words, ‘Super Soft’ combined with pictures of bears or baby elephants can be comforting.
The reviews can be helpful in decision making as well. Thankfully, the reviews didn’t get into the user experience. For the Selpak brand I was considering, customers wrote that they were finally able to find toilet paper of quality similar to those available in the west. And so, I ordered a four-pack. Three hundred rupees. A dollar a roll is totally worth it, but two days for delivery? WTF? I get random things like curtain rods delivered the same day, but toilet paper delivery takes two days?
I’m bummed. Pun intended.
Verified Amazon Review: The rolls arrived. I’m very happy.
In India, servants and masters form strands of an inter-dependent and complicated social fabric. One simply cannot exist without the other. In the west, while race is a constant topic of discussion, In India, caste is that topic of discussion. People casually evoke caste to identify people and effortlessly discriminate.
Class, however is never discussed. It’s assumed.
The undertones of class can be sensed in everyday conversations. You don’t even have to read between the lines.
The very word, ‘servant’ makes me cringe. It implies there’s a master. It makes me cringe even further to know that I am one of those masters. So, I’ll refrain from using such references. I’ll refer to the staff by their name or their profession – cook, cleaner, driver, nanny, watchman, etc.
First, allow me to tell my story, and then I will add some commentary.
For the past few days, we have been looking for some additional help for cooking dinner and cleaning our house. My dear aunt who is also our neighbor, went out of her way to find help for us. The first reference, Raju, came with high recommendation. But, even after Raju’s promise to meet with us, and after many phone calls, he was a no show. In India, I later realized, “yes” usually means a “no.”
Few days passed. The next reference was Suresh who is supposedly a great cook and cooks for Germans and Americans who live in the neighborhood. No show. Again.
My aunt is not just persistent, but also resourceful. She spoke with her former cook, Nina, who happened to know of a relative, a young woman, Sharada who had recently moved with her husband and two young children to Madras. Sharada and her family had relocated from Nepal to south India where language, culture, food, and pretty much everything else is foreign to them. Yet, they gave up their roots for opportunities, probably not comprehending the potential transformation of their own identity.
On a Monday evening, Nina, Sharada, and my aunt arrived at our house. Sharada is a tall woman. She was dressed in a neat salvar kameez, and had kumkum applied unevenly on her forehead, right where her hair was parted. She appeared religious. My wife, my mother, my aunt, and I were sitting on the couch while Sharada and Nina were standing in front of us. An intimidating panel interview for anyone. I wanted to ask them to sit down, but I didn’t want to disrupt the social order. Only later, did I have the courage and the sense to ask myself,
Who cares if social order is disrupted in order to save human dignity?
Sharada was silent and appeared nervous. Nina did most of the talking. I tried to put Sharada at ease by asking her about her young children. After discussing what she can cook and if she can clean, they told us, Sharada will return the next evening to try the job for a week. The next evening, I received a call from my aunt letting me know that Sharada backed out. The reason was that she was nervous about her first job. Why am I not surprised?
After yet another no-show, my aunt’s current cook, Shanthi, another Nepalese woman who spoke fluent Tamil, recommended Ikinder. Perhaps, the fourth time would be the charm. This time around, during the interview, I offered two chairs for Ikinder and Shanthi to sit down. They were surprised that we would offer them a seat. A seat! They laughed and gestured “It’s OK,” and stood.
The fourth time was indeed the charm. It all worked out and Ikinder agreed to help us with cleaning and cooking every other evening. There was no bargaining. He asked for four-thousand rupees a month (sixty US dollars) and I agreed. For the last few days, he has made some delicious meals and appears to be efficient with his cleaning. I can only hope he stays.
A monthly salary of sixty dollars, even for a part-time job is not a whole lot of money. Of course, the economics, cost of labor and cost of living are different in every place. However, I cannot overlook the fact that I sometimes spend that kind of money on a single dinner, or on ten cushion covers, even here in India. Life isn’t fair and it is what it is, but still makes me pause and reflect.
My mother, a working professional, a doctor no less, raised me, but couldn’t have done it without help. The women who helped raise my sister and me lived in our house, ate whatever was leftover, and watched the same programs on TV as we did. They were loyal guardians of our home and I can’t recall a single incident of abuse or theft. More than thirty years later, my father who has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, needs attention the same way my sister and I needed when we were children. Though he is self-sufficient for the most part, he needs physical help, but more importantly trusted help. My mother has done a phenomenal job of securing trusted, stable, and loyal help. This is important. Home staff can be flaky if you don’t take good care of them. If you are used to a cook and a driver, and if they just leave, your life gets disrupted. And for my seventy year old mother, who is running this household almost entirely by herself, if the staff doesn’t show for a few weeks, it becomes extremely challenging.
In India, we have quite a number of staff ‘types.’ There’s a cook who feeds you, a driver who drives you places in an air-conditioned bubble, a top-servant who mops the floor and washes your dishes, a watchman who provides security for your house, a dhobi who washes your clothes, and a nanny who takes care of your children. What I often find missing is explicit gratitude for all that they do for us. We almost never say thank you to them. We take them for granted. They seem to exist just to serve.
Our driver, Kannan, has been with our family for eighteen years. I moved out of my parents’ house about ten years before Kannan joined us, and I find that Kannan sometimes knows more about my father than I do. It’s not a bad thing or a sad thing. It just is.
Kannan’s life story is inspiring. More than twenty years ago, he lost his brother to alcohol. Kannan took it upon himself to take care of his widowed sister-in-law and her two young children. The children are all grown up now. One of them is working in animation and the other one is an engineer. He never married. He dedicated his life to two causes – his family and mine. Kannan knows my entire family – over a hundred of them. He didn’t know them because he spent time with them, but because he cared enough. Just two days ago, I learned the names of his nephew and niece – Dinesh and Divya. There’s so little I know about Kannan or anyone who helps us. Dhanam. Selvi. Moses. Shanthi. Aandal. Raghu. Shanmugam. I want to hear their stories. I want to know how they live. How do they celebrate birthdays? How do they mourn deaths? Where do they eat? What do they eat? How do they entertain themselves? What are their friends like? I don’t seem to know anything about them.
Some day, I’ll write nine stories of servitude.
How much to separate? How much to commune?
[Context: My wife and I are living in my parents’ home in Madras – a beautiful house that is close enough, yet far enough from all the hustle bustle of maddening Madras. The house has two floors. On the ground floor, we have my parents bedroom, living room and kitchen. On the first floor, we have our bedroom, a guest bedroom, and a good-size common area that currently serves no purpose, but shows a lot of potential.]
For all practical purposes, our space is upstairs and my parents space is downstairs. But, things are never that simple. While the physical separation of upstairs and downstairs may exist, downstairs also serves as the socializing space. No socializing happens upstairs, at least for now. Downstairs though, we have our morning coffees together (if we wake up early enough), read our newspapers together, eat our meals together, and entertain our neighbors and visitors together.
With this interesting arrangement, it’s never easy to know how much to separate and how much to commune.
You may have your own experience of separation and communion – perhaps at the work place – How close do you get with your colleague? How much do you stay away from the same colleague?
How much is too much and how little is too little?
Same with your friends – Are your friends close enough for coffee, but too far for cocktails?
Back to my dilemma…
How much do you separate and how much do you commune?
I want to separate enough to have a single malt in my glass and listen to music.
I want to commune enough to sit outside with everyone in the garden and listen to the birds.
I want to separate enough to have my own fridge.
I want to commune enough to share the space of ‘my’ fridge upstairs for accommodating leftovers that didn’t find the room in ‘our’ fridge downstairs.
I want to separate enough to have private conversations with my wife.
I want to commune enough to gossip about my uncle’s sister-in-law’s second cousin.
I want to separate enough to watch my Netflix shows.
I want to commune enough to watch Tamil soaps with my parents.
I want to separate enough to wake up whenever I want.
I want to commune enough to say good night to my parents before I head to bed, upstairs.
I want to separate enough to feel independent.
I want to commune enough to be part of the family, part of the community.
This artful balance takes time. We will figure our way home.
Cushion Cover Discount
Bargaining in India is a complex, yet charming human interaction, filled to the brim with histrionics.
My wife and I arrived at Royal Furnishings, a small store on a busy street in Adyar, Madras. All we wanted were ten cushion covers stitched. The following drama ensued.
“Stitching plus material, 4500 ungalukka ga, Saar,” meaning “4500 just for you,” announced a young Nepalese-looking man addressing me with “Saar” in first-class Tamil.
The other man, who appeared to be more senior, perhaps the owner, wrote on a scrappy bill and handed it to us. The bill read:
Total = Rs. 4500
Discount = Rs. 250
Final = Rs. 4250
We appeared alarmed and showed no interest in any further negotiation. My wife firmly expressed her urgency in Hindi, “We will have to settle soon for 4000 Rupees because we are hungry and we have to leave.”
Practicing his time-tested technique, the Senior shook his head firmly and declared, “No chance, Saar.” His accompanying body language was almost compelling to fool us into thinking, ”We’ve gone too low.”
My wife is no less a champion. She doesn’t fall for these cliched gimmicks.
She fought back, making a Madras-localite argument in Hindi, “Before coming here, we called Haryana Handlooms, but they are located in Anna Nagar. So, you have to stitch the cushion covers for four thousand. We don’t want to drive that far.“
The Senior retorts not in Hindi, not in Tamil, not in English, but in an entirely new language – Silence. He stared at the bill for twenty good seconds without saying a word. We finally heard him, “Four-thousand-two-hundred, final price Ma’am.”
We gestured to walk away. The Senior quickly grabbed the bill from us, did some button-pressing on the calculator, wrote 4000 on the bill and handed it back to us. He then added, “Today is the first day of Navratri (festive season). Four thousand for you only, Ma’am.”
Despite the drama that I thought was unnecessary, I feel like we are becoming good at getting discounts. Or, so I think. Feeling accomplished, I asked my wife, “Have we arrived yet?” She casually responded,
“By the time we arrive, we’ll be ready to leave.”