Their Last Touch

She had seen her just last night. She’d been silent with her pain. Still, she allowed her to give a light back massage. The young niece tried to let her fingers do their work, while her eyes kept on filling with tears. As she rubbed her back softly, she looked at the bald head with despair. When she was done, she kissed the bald head without knowing that it would be their last touch. That night, the phone rang, and she knew it was the call that they were dreading since her diagnosis.

Anil’s Big Lunch

“Anil, tomorrow we will be going to the village to meet your father’s cousins,” his mother told him the day he landed in India. “Ma, I am home after three years. Can we go later?” His mother said “no” because the train tickets were bought and his father would be upset.

The next morning, they set out with bottles of water and a tiffin carrier full of food. Anil started munching on the goodies he had missed abroad. “Save your appetite for lunch,” his mother warned. “They will be cooking a big meal for you. It’s been so long, after all.” Anil laughed, thinking that six puris and three sweets were hardly anything.

When they reached the village, his relatives jumped on him, making him feel like a movie star. “Come sit by me, Anil!” “No, I am the oldest. He will sit with me!” The women in the family made a big fuss about him, while the men started a game of cards. “Lunch will be served soon,” Anil’s mother told him. “Just remember to never say ‘no’ to anything they offer you,” she instructed. Anil already felt full from snacking on the train ride and thought he would have a light meal and sleep right after. But his mother interrupted his thoughts saying, “Remember, saying ‘no’ will make them think their food isn’t good. The women will feel bad about their cooking skills.” Anil nodded.

The meal began well with all the women standing around Anil, watching his every bite. He gave them a smile every two minutes. This seemed to send the message that he wanted more. More rice came. More fish came. More potatoes. More of everything came. Anil found himself panting. Still he looked at his mother and said “yes” to all that was being offered. After three helpings of everything, he felt quite ill and had to stop himself from throwing up. Even the women in the house looked worriedly at each other. Their food had almost finished. But imagine telling a guest that there was no more food to be served! They wanted to serve Anil the sweet dish, but he still had not said “no” to the other dishes.

Anil could barely look up. His mother sensed trouble. She asked for the sweet dish. The women were happy but jumped up in chorus, “Anil! You didn’t like our food? Was it too salty? Or too sweet?” Anil shook his head as hard as he could without throwing up. More food came. Some of the women struggled to make more food in the kitchen.

When Anil burped for the tenth time and had almost collapsed, he managed to ask for the sweets. The women put one sweet after the other on his plate, watching him chew and smile. After each sweet came the question, “Did you like it?” Anil nodded and panted. Finally, there were no more sweets left and Anil had to run outside to throw up.

He came back inside with a smile and said, “The food was very tasty.” That day when he left with his parents, the relatives talked about his huge appetite and how they had to go back to the kitchen to rustle up more food! The head of the family was glowing with pride. “My cooking must be the best,” she beamed.

Anil spent the return journey crying, promising to be rude next time.

First published in TeleKids (An ABP Group publication)

Lipstick Collector

She opened the big, pink pouch. Her fingers ran over the precious collection. She’d counted twenty last week. When she’d told her mother about it, the older woman had laughed. “I owned one or two. How many lipsticks does a girl need?” The younger woman wasn’t ready with an answer. She never used the same lipstick two days in a row. Of course, she preferred her favourite four most weeks. Maybe her mother was right. It was time to collect something new. She started ordering lip glosses online.

Bye Bye, Potlee.

He gripped her tightly in his arms, a towel between them for precaution. She was crying. Her meowing made him nervous, but the claws needed to be trimmed. He had tried reasoning with her earlier that day; “Potlee, you are too old and sick to file your own nails like before. Please let us do this for you.” The pretty feline child broke his heart and left the beautiful 12 years with a heartbreaking finish. The windows were open and she left him shattered.

The Brown Racists of America

Look at the cultural map of India and you’ll realise that the country has so many sub-cultures, languages and ethnicities within it that it’s asking for trouble. When I say trouble, I am referring to the disgusting but unavoidable thing we call racism. Yes, we’re all Indians. Yes, we all look and sound similar. No, wait. We don’t. You have the different eyes in the north east and the rolling letters in the south. Then there are the many cuisines that can leave any tourist confused about what is really “Indian”.

It is human nature to dislike people who are different from us. Alright, perhaps this isn’t always true, but tell me this: How many Indians can stop themselves from pointing out how their kind is superior to the rest? Remember the movie 2 States? Tamil vs. Punjabi at its best. Well, if India is full of a diversity of brown skinned people, consider the United States.

The US has people of every race and ethnicity — Hispanic, Black, Caucasian and Asian — spread in its 50 states. Indians living in the United States have a lot of diversity to handle. My parents moved to the US after they got married. That was in the 70s. I’ve spent a lot of time with their friends during my childhood and college years. Back in my school years, I knew that the Indians got together every weekend and the kids had pizza while the adults had good old home-cooked food. I also never questioned the uniform brownness of our gatherings. Then during my years at the University of Rochester, I met the new generation of Indians, or the Indian-origin Americans who only visited India every few years. This group actually hung out in more colourful groups that included people of Asian, European and African origins. Of course these Indians also had their little club that organised events with Indian food and dances, but they didn’t seem opposed to racial mixing.

But the parents were still picky. They worked with people belong to various races, but they drew the line when it came to marriage. I remember hearing the grown-ups talk about somebody’s daughter. “She is marrying this black guy!” There was much incredulity. “Are you serious?” They were appalled. Then a couple of years later when the marriage broke up: “This is what she gets for marrying into that race.” Indians love fair complexions, so I wasn’t surprised. But it wasn’t just about skin colour. It was also about stereotypes. They were nicer about another girl’s wedding because her African American husband turned out to be a lawyer. Phew!

And then there was a family friend’s daughter who married a Hispanic man. She didn’t dare tell her parents that she was dating a Hispanic guy until the day he proposed marriage. When she did tell them, all hell broke loose. In fact, her father refused to attend the wedding until her mother convinced him to be nice. Judging from the conversation around me, I understood that marrying a White person was not as bad as marrying a Black or Hispanic one. White people were respectable. Oh, they had such nice pale skin too.

First published in HuffPost India blogs

Her Breakup Movie

She’d played the movie in her head time and time again. He’d ask her to join him for a walk. They’d hold hands and let the end sink in. Then he’d kiss her goodbye at her doorstep. But it didn’t happen that way when it really happened. She was shocked that he just stopped taking her calls and broke up by email. “This is so wrong,” she thought. She hated this movie.

Between Two States

After spending 15 years in the United States, my parents decided to move back to their homeland. India was always home for them. I remember their friends thinking they were crazy. “You’re leaving the land of opportunity,” they’d warn them. Then they would turn around and gossip, wondering if a layoff or family discord had resulted in the decision.
Two decades down the line, my parents realise that moving back was the best thing they ever did. There is hardly a month when a friend doesn’t call to whine about his hectic life in the States. “I hate travelling to work in the snow every day,” one says. Another complains about the expensive health insurance plans. My father smugly reminds them that they chose to live the American dream–which seems to have evaporated in the recent years.
Yes, it isn’t like life in India is smooth, but there are advantages. For instance, social security benefits converted to Indian Rupees can give comfort that it cannot in the US. Then there’s always the family support. Most people have something to bank on like a parental house, furniture and the like. Even for the ones who are self-made, like my father, emotional support is a plus. And who doesn’t love to have conversations in the language that they grew up speaking at home? Think about the pleasure your dad feels when he can sit and watch a cricket match while he and his friends swear away at the opponent team in their mother tongue. Complete bliss, I say.  Well, a lot of retired people are doing their best to grab what India has to offer–without giving up their social life and property in America. A lot of my parents’ friends do the 6 month here, 6 month there thing. That means that they avoid the cruel Indian summers by staying in their American homes at that time, and then they avoid the very cold US winters while they sip tea in their homes here. Of course, there’s the added benefit of relatively cheap domestic help.
My mother was always the envy of her friends after she moved here. “We have to go to the office and then come home and cook and clean,” they’d tell her. In the United States, a weekly cleaning lady is more of the norm than daily cooks and maids and drivers. So when a couple spends half the year in India, they can lie back and let people take care of them and their house. Travel into the mind of one of these 6-month-plan couples, and what do you see? A sincere effort to keep in touch with their roots? Or the end of a long road of trying to be as American as possible? It could be both. I once asked an uncle why he couldn’t just choose between the two lands. He sighed. Then he said: Child, we built our home there. It’s where we have our homes and our friends and our children. But we spent too much time away from India. He also admitted that it was like taking a holiday. If you ask me, it isn’t about making up for time lost as much as it is about trying to get the best of both worlds. It seems that the 6 month here, 6 month there plan gives them just that!

First published in The Huffington Post India Blogs