Luze of the Light

My mother said she saw Luze today, maybe the first time in three years. “I almost didn’t recognize her,” said my mom. “Her hair is shorter for one thing, shaved on one side, pink tips on the other. Plaid shirt, leather pants, and lots of black-pink makeup. Acting like she does not know me. I said Hi Luze, you forgot me? Meera’s mom?”

That’s my mom for you. When we were friends, Luze and I, she thought Luze was a terrible influence on me. Now that we’re not, she’s striking up conversations with her in the supermarket.

Still, I’m glad it was my mom at the supermarket checkout and not me. I wouldn’t have known what to say to Luze anyway.

We used to be friends. Not close, but she was friends with my best friend from band. Then our common friend shifted to a different school, and Luze and I were thrown together without consciously trying to become friends. It’s the friend-in-law effect. Given a choice, Luze would not even pick me for her entourage, I’m sure of that. But it’s spring 2015, May, maybe early June, and we’re hanging out and doing things together on a fairly regular basis.

Probably a week, ten days before school let out after our sophomore year, something happens. It’s a day like every other day, except — the way she walks, her skirt flouncing, hands on waist, stopping every few moments, I can tell she has an itch. We are in the cafeteria. Her eyes look every which way, sizing up which clique’s table we should crash into.

When we walk past this kid named Bay, he whispers under his voice, but loud enough for Luze and me to hear.

Slut.

Luze stops. Pivots and faces him.

Oh lord, I’m saying under my breath. I don’t like Bay very much, because he once walked over to our table at lunch time, lifted my container, and looked at the turmeric-lemon rice my mother had packed, and said, “What this? PISS RICE?”

Ok, that “once” was actually the previous day. Everyone in the cafeteria had looked up. Everyone started laughing. When he set the container back on the table, I dug into the “Piss Rice” as though he had not just made me want to puke out all my lunch.

Bay is an idiot, everyone knows that.

“You said something?” says Luze, standing square in front of Bay.

Bay looks up at her and then back at his lunch tray. He separates his lunch trash from things he wants to keep. Green apple slices – trash, Utz potato chips – keep. That sorta thing.

“Repeat what you just said.”

“I said nothin’.” He keeps at his lunch.

“You just fuckin’ called me a fuckin’ slut. Apologize.”

Bay just stares at her.

“You better apologize to me. Also my friend. You owe my friend here an apology too.”

“Her? For what?”

“You called her food Piss Rice. Do you not know it’s culturally insensitive to say such things, you moron?”

I can’t believe she did that, drag me into this fight with Bay. Though she was there yesterday and said nothing, Luze has decided that Bay will pay for his mouthiness today as well as any past transgressions.

At this point, I don’t want trouble of any sort. I had almost forgotten the Piss Rice thing. Not quite forgotten maybe, but at least forgiven. If he thinks it’s Piss Rice, I’m ok with it. As long as I don’t have to hand it over.

“I ain’t apologizing to no one.” Bay balls up the trash, takes aim at the trash can by the wall, and throws an over arm toss.

The moment Bay’s trash missile lands in the can is the moment Luze jumps him. She’s across the table, knocking trays, kicking with her sneakers and knee length socks. Her hands grab a fistful of Bay’s brown curls and pull. The rest of the cafeteria has stopped eating. Everyone is crowded around Bay’s Kingdom, as he calls his lunch table.

Most kids cheer with every blow – Luze’s punches, Bay lashing back. They don’t care who’s right, or what this fight is about, as long as it’s entertaining and it’s free.

Me. I don’t have a choice. I do have to care. Since this battle is being waged on my behalf, and I’m no Gandhi (which is another name that Bay calls me), I jump in too. I smack Bay a few times. Just because. And then I put my hands between Luze and Bay and try to physically come between them. But you can’t stick a paper between these two, she’s gripping him that tight. A 90 lb, 5 foot nothing Indian-American can’t wedge in between these Amazons.

My mother has only one piece of advice when she picks me up from the principal’s office. “Stay away from that Luze. She’s trouble.”

Two hours later Luze is ringing my doorbell, telling me that we have to babysit the Winston kid. Mrs. Winston called for our usual Friday evening thing. My mom only says yes because she’s on a conference call with her Seattle team and she wants to get rid of me.

The Winston house is on the top of Southdown Shores cul de sac. To walk down to their pier, you have to take close to a hundred steps. It’s a large house designed to look like a villa, all stone walls and bougainvillea. The interiors are all gilt in the bathroom, gold trimmings on the ceiling fans, and those curvy couches with the claw feet and more than four legs. There’re two staircases on either side of the sweeping foyer. They merge into a landing about halfway and then proceed upwards in a single wide sweep. Very Hollywood ballroom scene.

The door is open, and Mrs. Winston is sitting on the bottom stair, car keys in one hand, lit cigarette in the other when we arrive. She’s dressed in a figure hugging bodycon dress, short, about mid-thigh and high stilettos. Baby Dorian has run of the floor next to her, scooching around on his bottom and chasing after his runaway ball that rolls just out of his reach when he nudges it.

“The envelope is on the kitchen counter,” she says.

Technically Luze is the only babysitter on payroll, but Mrs. Winston says having two girls on the job makes her feel more relieved, for some reason. There’s always a little extra something in the envelope. “Since there’s two of y’all.” Wink-wink.

Today she doesn’t wink. She’s out the door even before we gather up the baby and his toy.

We like Mrs. Winston. She’s a decent woman, not the type of person who has too many rules for us, pays well.

We have some self-imposed rules we follow in the Winston house. Like don’t call boys over. Or use the house phone to make prank calls. No smoking in the building, not even in the toilet with the exhaust on, and even though Mrs. Winston clearly smokes indoors. Except for the smoking rule which I made up specifically for Luze, these are really my mom’s house rules. Though she complains, Luze mostly agrees with what I say.

We’re lucky that Baby Dorian is an easy baby tonight. I feed him his Gerber formula, and put him to bed while Luze calls in the pizza order. She tiptoes into Dorian’s room and beckons to me.

“Bedroom?” she whispers.

I follow her into the master suite. In three months of babysitting Dorian, we’ve managed to look through a large part of the Winston house. We know where the booze stash is (Mr. Winston’s study) and where the cash is (Jar in the kitchen. I didn’t let Luze take anything.)

“Let’s start with her dresser,” says Luze.

I don’t know what she expects to find. There’s loads of lingerie – lacy and skinny. A couple of bottles of perfume – a Burberry and a Chanel. In the bottom drawer, we find a picture of a man, tucked under her control-top underwear and tak tops.

“Doesn’t look like Mr. Winston,” declares Luz.

“Ex-boyfriend maybe?” I say.

“Or an affair!”

I say the man could be a younger and not bald Mr. Winston, you never quite know with men how they will age.

“Then why is it in the dresser?” Luze says.

Good point.

Luze continues rummaging. She finds a lace teddy and the Winston wedding album in the bottom drawer.

She tosses me the album, then holds up the teddy. “I call dibs.”

It’s has red a push-up bra and a black polka dot silk train. Very pretty. Very adult. The price tag is still attached to it.

I don’t know that she has to call dibs on this outfit. I wouldn’t dream of putting the thing on. It’s too… flimsy. Not my color. Not my style.

She’s smiling at me, raising one eyebrow. “What do you say?”

“Don’t.”

“Stop me,” she laughs, tossing her curls back. She strips down to her bra and panties and puts the teddy on.

Weirdo. I head back into the bedroom, taking the album with me. I lay on the bed, flipping through the album. Even ten years ago, 2007 when they were younger, Mrs. Winston was the beauty. She’s laughing in every picture, pearly teeth and swept up hair. Mr. Winston looks slightly bemused and shocked. As if he’s won the lottery unexpectedly.

Luze is right. The picture we found looks nothing like Mr. Winston.

She comes out of Mrs. Winston’s closet and clears her throat.

When I look up, she’s standing there, striking a model pose in the doorway for a second. She catwalks up to the bed wearing just the teddy, silk panties, and a pair of really high heels, with clear lucite heels that she’s borrowed from Mrs. Winston’s collection.

She stands in front of me, waiting for me to admire her. She looks kinda slutty-cute, though I will die before I tell her that. She already thinks no end of herself, does Luze. Too many compliments will go to her head.

She’s standing with her hands in a look-at-me pose, feet stuck out in front, it doesn’t feel like a bedroom, but a beach or a catwalk.
The light is on her face, she’s smiling with a sparkle in her eyes, and she looks like a younger version of Marilyn Monroe. Bigger, taller, and with messy hair. But — infinitely sexier.

I’m about to say something dismissive, when the doorbell rings.

“Fuck! Pizza!” I toss the album aside to one side of the bed, and run out. “Put your clothes on.”

The Ledo’s guy is new. Someone who used to go to my school, I’m positive on that. He gives me a surprised look, as in I didn’t know you lived here. I go to the kitchen and open Mrs. Winston’s envelope.

It’s empty.

What? She forgot to leave the money? I don’t have any cash, I don’t think.

I walk to the door, and show the empty envelope to the pizza guy. “Let me check with my friend if she can pay. Luze!”

No answer.

“LUZE!”

Luze saunters out of the master bedroom, and stands at the top of the stairs. She’s still in the teddy. What in the world –

“What seems to be the problem?” asks Luze, a hand on her hip.

I look at the pizza guy. He opens his mouth to say something, and then shuts it. Then he starts to talk again, before shutting his mouth and turning to me.

“There’s no money.” I wave the empty envelope at her, but Luze isn’t looking at me.

She’s half smiling at the pizza guy, and proceeds to walk down the staircase – slow strut, hand on waist, smiling that same smile — and I am furious. Luze likes to create scenes, draw attention to herself. But mostly it’s at school and it’s always been when she’s wearing more clothes. I want to drag her back into the bedroom and tell her to dress up.

The pizza delivery guy just gapes.

“Mrs. Winston forgot to leave cash. You have any on you?” I draw Luze’s attention back to the cash problem.

“Unfortunately, no. But I’m sure we can work something out with.. what’s your name?”

The pizza guy sputters to life. “Sam. My name is Sam.”

“Sam. We can work something out with Sam. Can’t we, Sam?”

Every time she says his name, Sam seems to be perking up.

I don’t like the sound of where this is heading. “Let’s send the pizza back. I’ll make us sandwiches, Luze.”

“I can’t take it back. They’ll dock it from my pay.”

“And I don’t want sandwiches. I want pizza.” Luze’s voice becomes a babyish whine. She picks up the pizza and walks with it to the island.

Sam’s eyes follow her receding backside. I watch Sam.

Luze sets the pizza down on the island with a thud, and turns around to face us. “Tell you what, Sam.” She smiles when she says Sam. “Since we don’t have any money to pay you, do you want to just eat with us?”

“I’m.. uh.. not sure that’s a good idea. No eating with customers. Ledo’s rules,” says Sam, even though he’s not really behaved like we are his customers ever since Luze appeared on the stairs.

“Come on, Sam. it’s a great idea. Leave the pizza here, take it back, it’s the same thing. Stay and enjoy this.” Luze waves her hands about. “Meera, you tell him.” She looks towards me. I keep quiet.

“It’s a shame to waste all this good pizza, Sam.”

“Pizza for dinner it is,” sighs Sam. “Just don’t tell my boss.”

“What happens in Southdown stays in Southdown.” Luze winks at him.

Sam follows us into the kitchen. He’s kinda cute, this guy, even in the standard green and black Ledo’s uniform. He sits next to Luze, who plonks herself in the middle.

I’m about halfway through my third pizza square when I hear a cry from the baby monitor.

“Dorian’s up,” I tell Luze.

“Be a dear and go check on him.”

I sprint up the stairs two at a time, to get to the baby and pacify him before it becomes a full-on crying session. He takes a while, but I soothe him back to sleep.

By the time I get downstairs, the pizza is almost fully gone. But really, pizza is the least of my worries, as I find out.

Luze is literally on Sam. They’re on the same bar stool, making out. All tongue and hands, and in Luze’s case — boobs. This isn’t the first time she’s made out with someone in my presence, nor is it the fastest time on record. Luze’s body language telegraphs all sorts of mixed messages. Don’t mess with me, along with I’m a slutty girl. It drives guys wild. I’m icked, but not surprised.

I head to the living room and turn on the TV. Soon I’m simul-watching the original Dr. Who on BBC with Honey Boo Boo reruns. The kissing sounds are getting louder, and there’s some fumbling and zipper sounds. I try very hard to block out the romance action in the background. I turn up the TV volume to as much as I can bear. No complaints from the couple in the kitchen. If I were five, I’d be sitting with my fingers in my ears going, nene nene ne, just to block everything out.

And that is probably why we don’t hear the Winstons until Mr. Winston is already inside the house, dragging his wife along. He looks drunk too, red eyes, dragging his feet. Almost as bad as her, but at least he can walk upright on a somewhat straight line. They walk into the family room, swaying, and Mrs. Winston flops onto the small couch next to me.

Luze and Sam spring off the barstool, which I think may actually be a worse idea than them clinging and making out. At least Luze’s semi-nakedness was not on full view the way it is now. She has a deer in the headlight reaction to the Winstons. She’s standing there looking petrified.

“Look, we have a party going on here,” slurs Mrs. Winston. “Why, they even got you a stripper, Gerard,” she says, pointing to Luze.

Mr. Winston just grunts and looks briefly at Luze. For the first time in the evening, Luze has nothing funny or saucy to add.

“Gerard, isn’t it wonderful, they hired you a little stripper? She looks young, doesn’t she? How very considerate of the baby sitters to get you a baby stripper.”

Luze isn’t the sort of person who wears her emotions on her face. A blank expression, maybe a sneer – that’s what is permanently plastered on her face most of the time. But her face turns red now – the tips of her ears, the apples of her cheeks.

“Elsie, I think she’s our baby sitter.”

“Whatever you do, don’t break any laws, Gerard. This isn’t Thailand.”

Luze steps up to Mrs. Winston, bends down close to her face, and holds her hands in both of hers.

“Mrs. Winston, it’s me. Luze.”

“Who?” Mrs. Winston squints at the face in front of her.

“Luze. Dorian’s baby sitter.”

“Oh dear, I didn’t recognize you. Not in that outfit. Which I must say, looks especially fetching on you. Doesn’t it, Gerard?”

Mr. Winston looks for a long moment at Luze, sizing her up.

“She’s a Lolita, isn’t she, Gerard?” Mrs. Winston starts giggling at this.

I look at Luze, who looks ready to burst into tears. “Go upstairs,” I whisper.

Luze nods. The teddy strap is slipping off her shoulder. She smooths her belly and straightens up. The price tag pops out under her arm.

“Stop!” Mrs. Winston puts out her hand to Luze. “Are you wearing my teddy?”

Mr. Winston places an arm on her shoulder but she smacks it away. “Don’t touch me, motherfucker.”

“I’ll go change,” offers Luze.

Hallelujah, I think. The first good idea she’s had all evening.

“You will not touch my things again. Am I clear?” Says Mrs. Winston to Luze. “I’m sick of people eyeing my things. Today it’s my teddy, tomorrow my baby, my husband, this house.” She’s crying by now, loud, copious tears.

Luze turns and flees up the stairs. Sam, who has been inching his way to the door, takes advantage of the confusion to sneak out too. It’s just the three of us now, waiting for Luze to come back down. Mr. Winston turns the TV off and sits on the edge of the couch next to his wife.

I get up from the couch and face the Winstons. “We fed the baby Gerber chicken rice,” I say, hoping this will placate them.

“Good,” says Mr. Winston. He turns to Mrs. Winston. “Babe, if you want to crash, let’s go upstairs.”

Mrs. Winston tries to get up, falters, and flops back into the couch. She’s mumbling something but it’s hard to make out what she’s saying.

“Come on,” he says and puts his arms under her armpits to get her off the couch. And that’s when Mrs. Winston gets up like one of those dormant dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. She lumbers into her full height and lashes out with her arms. “Get away from me, you bastard. I don’t want you touching me again.”

“Fine.” He abruptly pulls his arms from under Mrs. Winston, and teeters to the bottom of the stairs. “Lock the door on your way out,” he tells me.

Mrs. Winston tugs at my sleeve so hard I fall into the couch beside her. She leans forward into me, close I can smell the alcohol on her breath. I can’t tell what she’s had, but it’s strong and cloying, almost like a force field.

“You wanna hear a secret, dear?”

I say nothing. I run my fingers over the length of her hands. My mom does this when I’m fighting with her and she wants me to calm down. It always works on me, but I’m not sure it’s working on her.

“He knocked up his secretary. I said to him, how much more cliched can you get, Gerard? Wife at thirty, partner by thirty five, affair at thirty eight. Milestones in the life of Gerard Winston. Except surprise surprise. There’s a bonus baby on the way. He only wanted the fun. He didn’t bargain for a baby, did you Gerard? Didn’t want no bonus baby, our Gerard.”

I still don’t know what to say.

“Not a one woman man. He’ll fuck anything in sight, will Gerard. He’s probably going at it right now. Fucking your stripper friend.”

This is when I realize I haven’t seen Luze in a while. It can’t take that long to get out of a teddy and back into your jeans.

“I have to find Luze,” I tell Mrs. Winston. “You lie down here.” I put her feet up on the couch.

“Luze?” I call from the bottom of the stairs. Not sure it’s my imagination or what, but I think I hear a moan from upstairs. Oh no, not again. And not with Mr. Winston.

“Luze!”

I run up to the Winstons’ bedroom. The double doors are closed. Locked. Damn.

I knock a few times. Tentative at first, then harder. There’s a muffled sound from inside. And then a moan.

“Open the door!” I push at it. No luck. Run forward and shove into it. The door gives.

Inside I see the craziest scene I’ve ever witnessed. The light is off, and the room is dark, though some white light streams in through the blinds. I can make out Mr. Winston on the floor, curled up on his side in a fetal position. There’s a crumpled lump on one side of him.

Luze is in her jeans and bra, swinging at Mr. Winston with something. I realize it’s the wedding album. She’s holding it with both hands, and swinging — thwack. Thwack. She smacks Mr. Winston on his butt. The album is unwieldy, but she keeps at it. Throws in a few kicks.

Mr. Winston moans.

“Stop!” I yell. “What’re you doing?”

She doesn’t answer me. She keeps hitting him.

I yank the album from her hands. “Have you gone crazy?”

She looks at me, gasping for breath, and unsteady on her feet. She stares, eyes unfocused, as if she’s not really seeing me. Her hair is wild, pulled free of her band, an aura framing her face. The blinds cast a shadow across her face, so she looks weird. Half dark, half light. Angry, but also beautiful. Like a goddess.

“Luze.”

I shake her shoulders.

Luze looks around the room, at Mr. Winston on the floor and back at me.

“What happened?”

Luze does not answer, and as if just realizing it, covers herself with her hands briefly. “Where’s my shirt?”

I look around for the light switch, but she says, “Don’t.”

I last saw her clothes in Mrs. Winston’s closet, I remember. I search for her discarded items in the semi-darkness, and bring it to Luze with her sneakers. She puts on everything and says, “Let’s go.”

I look at Mr. Winston, still curled up, not moving on the floor.

“You think he’s dead?”

“Only one way to tell,” she says, and kicks him in the stomach.

Mr. Winston groans.

“Still alive. Unfortunately.”

She turns around and picks the teddy up, and tosses it to me.

On the drive back, we’re both quiet. When we drive up to my house, I ask her if she wants to come in. She shakes her head.

Why? I ask before I step out of the car.

“He called me a stripper.”

She reaches into the backseat and hands me the teddy. “Keep this with you. Don’t lose it.”

I look at it when I get inside my room. It’s ripped at the top where the strap came off. Did she refuse? Did he try to force-strip her?
It’s all so confusing. I ball up the teddy and stuff it into the bathroom closet with some towels.

My mother really gets on my case the next morning. She says I was grounded, and even if she didn’t remember that I was grounded, I was supposed to remember this shit and act accordingly. It’s the honor system. She also doesn’t think I should hang out with Luze any more. I should cut off Luze slowly and steadily, she says. “Nothing drastic. You don’t want her to question you – why’re you acting stand-offish, why aren’t you talking to me? Just do a slow fade, ok? No hard feelings anywhere.”

It’s too much to focus with my mother’s constant buzz in my ear. I’m hesitant to step out of the house. What if Mr. Winston died during the night? Do fingers leave prints in cloth covered albums? What if she calls the cops on us, crazy Mrs. Winston who’s no lily-white lady herself, boyfriend picture and all. I think about all the things that would work in our favor. We weren’t paid. We weren’t out to steal or anything. Mr. Winston assaulted a 17 year old. That’s practically statutory rape. Surely Luze’s action would be considered self-defense. Maybe I should come clean to my mom.

I think of the dim light from the blinds, on Luze’s face. The way she looked – not a grown-up, not a child, between standing on the edge and slipping off it. If I hadn’t shown up in the bedroom, no saying what she’d have done to Mr. Winston.

I keep listening for the sirens and flashing blue lights. They never come.

That evening was the last I ever saw of the Winstons and baby Dorian. One afternoon, a few weeks after this incident, Luze got a check in the mail from Mrs. Winston. We heard some talk that they moved out of town. There were even rumors that they had divorced, but we didn’t know anything for sure.

When someone witnesses the worst of you, you can pretend it didn’t happen at all, or cut off the witnesses to your disgrace. For most people, the cognitive dissonance of denying what happened is too big to sweep under the rug. Instead, it’s easier to cut off the people who saw you at your worst. That way you can continue your charade, whatever it is. At least that’s my theory of why the Winstons avoided us and us them.

You could say the same about me and Luze. She gave me my share of what Mrs. Winston gave her. That I think was the last time we ever spoke. By then, we had already started sitting with other people at lunch.

When we graduated high school, she and I had completely different sets of friends. People said she was drinking, even dealing drugs. I went off to University of Maryland. I saw her a few times around town, with her crew, which now included Bay. Once I saw them – her and Bay – at the drugstore. I half expected Bay to call me Piss Rice, but he was looking at some herbal supplements.

Cobra Gong – part 2

About two months after the gong went missing – by now I have even forgotten about it – one morning, Baby tells me, “Didi, you remember the cobra gong you were so upset about? Lopa di has the same gong in her house now. Go ask her where she bought it from.”

This information comes to Baby from Sona, who is Lopa di’s servant.

“Is Sona sure it is bought?” I want to know more about this.

“What are you saying, didi?” Baby knows exactly what I am saying. She just wants to act like she know nothing.

When I tell Mister what Baby told me, he gets angry with me. “Since two months, Cobra gong, Cobra gong. My brain has cooked to a khichri, listening to you. I thought by now you would have forgotten about it.”

That is how Mister is always. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t even want to think that it might be my cobra gong in her house.

I ask Baby if she will do something for me. “Go to Lopa di’s house and see if the cobra gong looks like mine. Don’t broadcast in your Ganga group what you’re doing, I don’t want even Sona to know.”

I have full confidence on Baby. She is only primary school pass but she is street smart. She goes inside one morning, after Lopa di has gone for her mid-morning walk to the park. She tells Sona that I asked her to pick up curry leaves for me. Everyone knows about Lopa di’s balcony garden. She has a six foot tall curry leaf plant, a few rose bushes and a jasmine shrub, all growing in pots. When Sona goes to the balcony, Baby looks around the drawing room.

“I look everywhere, but it is not there, didi. Maybe Sona is mistaken? Maybe there is no cobra gong.”

“I cannot believe there is no cobra gong. It might be elsewhere in the house, not in the drawing room,” I say. “If there is a cobra gong, and it’s hidden somewhere else, I’m even more sure that it is mine. If it is simply something bought off Steel City market, it would be displayed in the showcase, yes or no?”

Baby nods her head slowly. “It is such a small item, didi.”

How do I explain to her – that it’s not about the money, it’s not about the item, it’s about the principle?

That evening, I see Lopa di in the quadrangle. She’s sitting on the culvert with the other ladies. “Which new country have you been visiting?” says Mrs. Pershad calls out to me. “Nowadays you have become a celebrity. To see you we will have to take a token number and stand in line outside your house.”

They all cackle, Lopa di also. Haha hehe, as if Mrs. Pershad said something very witty. Our travel, our lifestyle, it makes them all very jealous. They cannot say anything mean or wicked directly, so they clothe their jealousy in snide remarks.

I want to tell them, be ashamed. You all are sitting here laughing with a thief. But I say nothing. I have to get inside the thief’s house and look for the cobra gong first.

“Lopa di, I’m going to the Women’s Welfare Society meeting tomorrow afternoon,” I say to Lopa di. “You said you had some old sarees to give them. Shall I come to pick up?”

Mrs. Pershad says she might also have some clothes for them. Not you, I want to tell her. Let Lopa di talk.

Lopa di looks at me through the top of her glasses, and I think she’s almost going to say no. Instead she says, “Do you need it right now? I’m going to the market, no telling how long it’ll take. Also I have to look through the donation pile once more.”

This is the perfect opportunity for me. “I’ll help you sort, if you want.”

When she comes back home from the market, she rings my doorbell. “If we go over the donations in the morning, it will be ok? It’s already seven and quite dark. I don’t feel up to it.”

I’m disappointed, but, “morning is fine,” I tell her.

Next morning is Saturday. No school. I’m at her house even before Baby comes to work.

“I’ll call Lopa di,” Sona, her live-in servant, says. She opens the door only a sliver and hurries down the corridor to Lopa di’s bedroom.

She hasn’t invited me in, but I get into the house.

Quick, I tell myself. I have a minute or two, maximum before Lopa di comes. I look at the showcase first. What if Baby is mistaken?

Lopa di has rows and rows of miniature musical instruments – dholak, violin, sitar, tanpura, a family of pink flamingos, vistas of beaches and forests, a pair of Chettiar bobbleheads.

Definitely nothing shaped like a cobra gong.

I hear Sona coming back, so I turn around from the showcase and give her a smile.

Sona looks like I have a committed a crime by walking into the house when she left me on the doorstep with the door slightly ajar. “Lopa di says to come in.”

Lopa di’s bedroom room is at the end of the corridor from the drawing room. Opposite it is the spare bedroom. Lopa di is standing by the door when I poke my head in. There are piles of clothes everywhere – the floor, the bed, even on top of the TV.

The shock on my face must’ve showed. Lopa di says “Too much, I know. At our age, we should start giving things away. There’s bliss in people enjoying our possessions while we are alive, don’t you think?”

Is she trying to tell me I should give the cobra gong away? What “our age”? I’m easily 8-10 years younger to her.

She steps out of the room and shuts the door firmly behind her. What’s in the room that she doesn’t want me to see?

She opens the door to the spare room. There is a mountain in this room too, but on a smaller scale.

“Should I keep this?” Lopa di asks, holding up a magenta silk. “It might make a good curtain?”

“Your windows already have curtains,” I tell her quickly. “You already got the interior decorator man to do it for you.” It is true. She spent a good 12 lakhs last year to get the house interior done. “Don’t spoil the look with saree curtains.

Lopa di nods her head in agreement. “Where do we start?”

“You have much work. Maybe you continue working in the next room. I’ll sort this pile and call chowkidar to carry it downstairs for me.”

Lopa di leaves. I wait and then close the door behind her. There’s a wooden almirah in the room. Cobra gong has to be here. Only problem – it is locked. It’s a rough but beautiful piece. Unfinished. The wood has swollen and puckered out in some places. I tug at the handle. The door swings forward and backward but the latch remains intact.

I tug harder. It sounds like it might give way. If only I can hit it with something hard. I look around the room. In a corner of the room, on the floor is a coal iron box. This will have to do.

I give the latch a few thwacks with the iron box. It gives way.

Sitting right there, on the middle shelf is the Cobra gong. I pick it up.

“You’re not really here for the charity clothes.”

I spin around. Lopa di is standing at the door staring at me. I feel a throbbing in my head.

“What’s that in your hand?”

I’m about to lie. But then I think – I’ve done nothing wrong. Stop this drama.

“This.” I hold my palm out to her. “What you stole.”

“Mad or what? I didn’t steal anything. Your husband gifted it to me. Go ask him.”

I feel as if the earth moved under my feet. He gave it to her? Why, when he knew it was my favorite piece in the showcase? Why didn’t he tell me?

“If you want it back, take it. But stop calling me a thief.”

I say nothing. I keep the cobra gong back in the shelf. Now that she says it’s hers, I don’t want to touch it. Look at it, even.

That was the last day I spoke to her.

My husband says she’s lying. I believe him.

I kindly ask you to intervene and get to the bottom of this dispute.

Yours sincerely,
Ruby Deshpande
—-
Dear Mrs. Deshpande

The Housing Committee does not involve itself in domestic disputes between residents, or between spouses.

As is our position in all such matters, please work directly with your spouse and neighbor to amicably resolve the dispute.

Signed

—-
Dear Mrs. Deshpande
This notice is in regards to my client, Mrs. Lopa Jana, resident of Apartment 5C, Ganga Satellite. The accusation my client makes against you are as follows:

That on the morning of November 15th, 2016, you entered my client’s house under false pretexts.

You caused considerable damage to her property, which resulted in repairs costing 5000 Rs.

In addition, you accused her of stealing your property. My client denies your allegations and considers your accusation to be entirely without merit.

She demands that you compensate her for damages sustained to her property, including any lawyer fees incurred.

Yours sincerely
Ramesh Talwar
Attorney, Zilla Court
—-
“Let it go na, didi. God willing, you will make many more trips to Singapore. Why only one gong, you will buy ten cobra gongs. Keep them all over the showcase, gift to neighbors. Why take tension for small things?”

Baby’s words from earlier in the day wouldn’t let
Mrs. Deshpande sleep as she lay in bed watching her husband. How to explain to Baby? Or those women sitting on the culvert, laughing at her, watching her with their catty eyes, wondering? Why, Lopa di and Mister had even patched up. She saw them standing on the landing, talking.

She touched her husband lightly on his nose. “Tell me the truth. Did you gift it to her?”

Mr. Deshpande just turned away and face the wall. Within two minutes, she heard him snoring. Mrs. Deshpande got up and turned off the light.

Cobra Gong – part 1

Statement of Complaint to Building Management

Re: Theft by Ms. Lopa Jana, resident 5C, Ganga Satellite.

My husband and I are residents of Apartment 4B, Ganga Satellite, Koregaon Park, Worli. Mister is retired, formerly branch manager Bank of Baroda. I’m still working in Infant Jesus Senior Secondary school – teacher of chemistry. I called you in today to complain about the activities of Ms. Lopa Jana and her theft of the Cobra Gong from my house. I encourage you to take my statement to the building management committee and take stern action against Ms. Lopa, and compel her to return our stolen property.

Our two boys are now living in Australia and U.K. respectively. We are a decent family, as you can verify by going over monthly maintenance records. Never have we missed a single maintenance payment.

Our boys are busy with their lives. Mister and I – we now have money. We now have time. So every summer we go for vacations. Different place each year. It used to be a family game – spin the globe, select a spot with closed eyes. When the boys were young, they studied about places in this manner. Once the place is chosen then refer to Encyclopedia Britannica and find out as much as you can. Uganda one day, Philippines another.

Now we choose our vacations this way. More or less. Two years ago, we selected Burkina Faso, which was then in state of Civil War. We obviously could not go on that trip. We went instead to Singapore. It is like Bombay, hot during the day and sticky so you feel like bathing two, even three times in a day. Food is okay-okay, big roads, less dirty than India. And so much shopping you can do. If you go to Mustafa in Little India, you can buy everything under one roof. Thirteen floors. Can you believe it?

But this Cobra Gong, I did not find it in Mustafa, or even Little India. I found it in a small gully shop in Raffles Quay. I am just looking here and there, what to buy to take back for the boys, for ourselves to keep in our showcase. Every shop is like it’s neighbor shop – same little Buddha statues, wall hangings, pagoda shaped wind chimes.

Then I spot it – a brass bowl, the outer metal shaped into a coiled cobra. It comes with its own mallet. I hit the mallet on the rim and shuffle it along, the way the shopkeeper shows me and it’s the most beautiful sound I’ve heard in my life. Deep, echoing, like the sound of temple bells in Uttarkashi, except it emanates from this small cobra gong that I hold in the palm of my hand. I must have it, I tell my husband. He bargains with the Chinese shopkeeper like it was a shop in Andheri and gets it for SG$ 12, about 550 rupees. The shopkeeper wraps it in red crepe paper – separate one for bowl, separate for mallet. He puts it in a black cardboard box. Throughout the flight back, I keep thinking of the Cobra gong. It’s mine, I think. It’s mine.

Except now it’s not. This item worth 550 Rs is now stolen from our house and in the possession of Ms. Lopa Jana.

Let me tell you why I’m saying that.

Ms. Lopa is also a retired bank employee, just like my husband. She worked for many years in a different bank – State Bank of Travancore. She is unmarried. Since we live in the same building for many years, we have met her on occasion – she stops to wish us for Dussehra, New Year, she once received a registered parcel on our behalf. We have also on several occasions helped her. Two years ago, her gas cylinder ran out in the middle of Ganesha festival. At such short notice, who would have come to drop a cylinder to her apartment? I lent her my spare cylinder for a few days. Mister went with the chowkidar and dropped it off.

In those days, I did not realize what her true nature was. But after Mister’s retirement last May, she started coming to our house even when I was not there. I don’t know what they had to discuss every single day but when I came back from work, he would be excited, saying Lopa came by, Lopa gave this, Lopa gave that. Home made nan khatais, masala peanuts that sort of thing. Even that – I think, no problem. Two ex-bank employees, India’s economy is going crazy after all the currency change, they might have many topics to discuss.

But in time, I started noticing things. On one or two occasions, I felt she was copying me. Last year, during October Diwali sale at Co-Optex, I bought a red checked Kalakshetra saree. Two months, what do I see during New Years day celebration in the building? She’s wearing the same saree and posing in the front row as if she is some film star. No shame also. She tells me I like your saree so much, I bought the same for myself.

I signed up for Annual Balcony Garden Competition. Two days later, her name is also on the list. India is a democracy, what can you really do? You can’t got tell her, no you can’t join Annual Balcony Garden Competition just because Mrs. Deshpande has signed up for it. I keep quiet.

One day, last month, I’m looking at the showcase, and I see it has not been dusted nicely in days. I must have a talk with the servant – Baby. She probably treats my house like a vacation spot. I am not home to notice things, Mister is too busy watching TV and talking to Ms. Lopa. She probably doesn’t do any work when I’m not around.

I’m thinking all these things, and that’s when I notice.

The Cobra Gong is gone.

So I ask Mister, “Where is the Cobra Gong? It is not in showcase?”

He looks away from the TV, and at me, as if I have ten horns on my head.

“Cobra Gong. Gone.” I repeat loudly, pointing to the showcase.

Mister says, “Look properly, should be here only. You think it sprouted legs overnight and ran away? Silly woman.”

I look everywhere. In the almirah, behind the trunk, under the divan. It is so loud, I don’t think it accidentally fell down and rolled under the bed.

That morning, I call the school I will be late, and I stay till Baby comes in.

She doesn’t know. “Is this a statue of Mother Mary or what? Why will I take your gong, madam?” she asks. It is true, I hadn’t thought of it. Baby is a born again Christian. She will not touch Hindu/Buddhist items. It is against her religious beliefs.

Still how can something just disappear like that? It is not even anything especially valuable, though it is very pretty.

Despite what she says, for a few days, I still watch Baby. Maybe she took it and sold it in some second hand shop? But Baby flies through my house like she is a cyclone. She has a second shift job at the Steel factory which pays her daily wages and by the hour. I tell her to stop and drink some chai, she tells me, “Some other day, madam, no time.” She doesn’t have time to steal and resell petty objects.

But Baby helps me in other ways. She helps me identify the thief.

to be continued… dunn dunn dunn

Genghis Khan Genes – draft 1

Jim Burriss couldn’t think of an excuse so he had said yes to Leilin this afternoon. Damn, he needed a separate Rolodex of reasons why he couldn’t, and maybe he ought to revoke her access to his calendar. He had better ways to spend his Thursday evenings than wandering aisle to aisle in Homes R Us, as Leilin picked out curtains, floor mats, toilet seat covers and God knows what else for her parents’ newly purchased home.

Newly purchased as in seven months old, and he only had himself to blame for this. He had doubled up as the seller’s and buyer’s agent when her parents bought their single family home in College Park. Every time he took her parents out for a viewing, she had come along, being the only one of the family of three who spoke English.

She was only 24 (to his 48), a chemistry graduate from University of Maryland, and a fine poster child for Genghis Khan’s genes. Her parents had moved to the US when she signed up for her bachelors. Her father handed him a business card written in Cantonese. Used car business, mostly selling to other Chinese, Leilin had said.

She had a pretty heart-shaped face and waist length hair. Her body had none of the girly subtlety of some of the other Chinese girls he had seen. She was big in all the right places, and favored clothes that you had to peel off her. There was no room in her attire for even a finger to sneak in – they were that tight.

He had felt somewhat guilty double dipping on the commission. It was a very skinny – by his standards – 6% on a $325,000 sale. Her parents paid in cash. He used part of the money to buy her parents an 8 x 10 carpet for their study as a Congratulations new Homeowner! gift, and a friendship ring for Leilin, whose pants he was very eager to get into. Diamond, despite its reputation for hardness, has a way of greasing relationships. He had realized this years ago, and used the fact several times to his advantage.

“It stands for friendship,” he emphasized when he handed her the ring.

It was enough of a gift, barely two months into knowing her, that it swept Leilin off her feet and dreaming of a life with Jim. But she had pointed back to the ring on his finger.

“Is this a friendship ring too?”

“Wedding band,” he told her, with shame faced reluctance. “Long story. We haven’t been sleeping in the same bedroom for years. When the kid leaves for college..” he had let his voice trail off suggestively.

“Honey!” Leilin’s voice pierced through the store.

She was holding up some towels for him to inspect. In her short candy stripe skirt, tight white T, and teddy bear satchel, she had the slutty schoolgirl look nailed today. His wife would definitely not approve of Leilin’s taste in clothing. She would not approve of their clandestine relationship either, but Jim brushed aside that thought.

“You like this, honey?” Leilin showed him a towel with polka dots and a panda pattern.

Honey. He wished she would stop this domestic routine. “Better suited for a kid’s bathroom, don’t you think?”

“Exactly,” said Leilin, flushing. She held his gaze, a half smile dancing on her face.

“What do you mean?”

“Exactly what you think.”

No! This can’t be. She’d said she was on the fucking pill, and he’d made sure to rubber up. Every. Single. Time.

Leilin dropped the towels back on the shelf. She walked around the cart, sidled up to him and linked her hand through his. “You’re happy, right? Maybe it’s time to tell your wife about us.”

Are you out of your fucking mind?

He didn’t say anything, just stared straight ahead, and pushed forward. One foot before the other. Left. Right. Maybe he’d heard her wrong. Keep walking. Don’t stop. Maybe if he refused eye contact and said nothing, this little leech clinging to his side will slough off and dissolve into a puddle on the Homes R Us floor.

No such luck. She was keeping up a patter, hadn’t even realized that he was saying nothing.

He stopped the cart in the middle of the aisle. He handed her the keys to his car. “Drive home when you’re done. I’ll take a cab.”

“Jim! Wait!” He heard her calling after him. Other shoppers in the store stopped to look. There were waiting cabs outside Homes R Us always. If not, he’d just walk a few minutes till he got away from this place. He needed the air, to think.

She started calling his office direct line the next morning. He didn’t pick the first or the fifth. He let it all go to voicemail and then listened to the messages one by one.

Did you get home ok? I still have the car keys. Do you want me to drop them off at the office? No, idiot. That’s what spare keys are for, he thought.

At 11, he put his sport coat back on, and headed off to Green Turtle. Told Sylvia, his office assistant, that his head was hurting and to let calls go to voicemail. When he checked at 1, his office mailbox was already full and refusing to take additional messages.

Thirty messages? Leilin was beginning to sound certifiable. Breezy, cajoling, even loving in the beginning. Then progressing to threats. Ugly.

Have you told your wife?

You think if you play dead, the world will leave you alone. You think wrong.

What’s your fax number? I’ll fax you a copy of the sonogram.

Great, now Sylvia would receive it. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out why a woman would fax an unrelated man a copy of her sonogram. Sylvia was all hook nose and beady eyes now, but in her 30s and 40s, she had been some kind of stunning. One of his earliest conquests, and a pretty loyal one. Over the years, they’d settled into an uneasy Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell truce. Hell, things had been so quiet lately, he’d almost erased all the bad blood between him and Sylvia. He respected her stern efficiency, the drum major like precision with which she set up his listings, screened his calls, and arranged his calendar. He didn’t want Sylvia to not like him any more.

And then there was his wife. Maybe, over the years, she’d guessed about his philandering ways – she was a smart woman, he gave her that – but she’d never asked. She was happy soccer momming their son, volunteering at church bazaars, and throwing twice a year parties for his realtor business associates.

Now they were both approaching 50, and she had never worked outside their home in her entire adult life. He couldn’t just up and leave her. There had been initial kvetching, but they had built something peaceable over the years. In a few years, he’d planned to hand over the business to his son, or sell it to a willing buyer for a tidy sum, and move to Florida. Maybe his wife would fight Leilin, fangs out. He had no idea how a Leilin would affect their marriage.

Marc. His son. They’d never been very close, but they weren’t adversarial like some father-son duos he had seen. He could fall in anyone’s eyes, even his wife’s, but the thought of a fall from Marc’s brought him to a near state of panic.

Leilin, the pregnancy, all this mess – so very inconvenient.

He called Leilin from a payphone.

“Sorry babe, I was out showing a rural property to a client. Patchy network,” he lied. “Meet at National Harbor tomorrow? Great place to shop, eat.”

They drove separately to National Harbor. He made sure of that. He chose a sports bar in one of the charming alleys. There was a big group of women, about ten strong, dressed in identical t-shirts and daisy dukes. One of them – big teeth, big hair, horse like – had a tiara and veil and fuck me pumps. Bachelorette party. If Leilin created a scene here, it wouldn’t register.

The waitress came along for their order. Leilin chatted her up while Jim looked over the menu. The waitress prattled on. He only half listened. Something about boyfriend and waitressing while writing film scripts.

Move to LA, he wanted to tell her. DC only has political hacks and government bloat. No one gets rich making films in DC or you’d hear about it. But he let the two women talk. He really wasn’t feeling it this evening.

He ordered steak for the both of them, champagne for himself and a green tea for her.

“Do I show?” Leilin asked when the waitress cleared their plates. At four weeks along, it was still too early, she reasoned. If she watched her weight and figure like a hawk, maybe she could ward off questions for a few weeks. She really was worried about her parents. They wouldn’t be pleased, this sort of thing was a strict no-no in Chinese culture, did he understand?

He gave a quick glance around. The bachelorette gang was doing shots. It was loud but not too busy. The other waiters were hanging about the periphery of the room. Their waitress was probably in the back.

He took out the envelope and placed it in front of Leilin.

“You need to take care of this..” he began. He looked towards her belly and back up at her.

“Don’t worry, honey. I’m eating well. I’m not starving myself.”

Of all the people to have this unpleasant conversation with, he had to do it with an immigrant with zero understanding of American idiom? Great. He chose his next words carefully. Use lots of I statements, he reminded himself.

“Look, it’s my fault. I haven’t been very clear. I.. uh.. don’t want the baby.”

Leilin blinked at him. “You want me to raise the baby alone? You’re not going to be there as a father? What am I supposed to tell my parents?”

He shrugged and pushed an envelope towards her.

She stopped for a moment, pulled the cash out of the envelope, waved it in his face.

“How much is this? Five thousand? Ten?”

“Three,” he said sheepishly.

“Three thousand to raise a child? Three thousand doesn’t buy you a decent second hand car. Ask my father.”

She looked down at the cash, as if ascertaining they were twenties. “I don’t get it. Is this the first installment?”

He didn’t say anything. He glanced around the sports bar. The bride and her party were laughing over something on one of their phones. The waiters stood at the periphery of the room watching the game.

“This is it? Cheapie. I can’t believe you’re trying to give me this much to have your child.”

“Leilin, calm down.” He held out his hand to her. “I don’t want you to have it.”

He waited for the words to register.

“I don’t want the baby. I don’t want you to have the baby. If you have the bay you’re going to have to do it on your own.”

Leilin’s eyes hardened into comprehension.

“I have a doctor friend who can handle this stuff. Very discreet.”

Leilin reached over and slapped him across the face.

Their waitress walked over to their table. “Is everything ok?”

The change in Leilin’s face was swift. She beamed at the waitress. “Everything is perfect.”

“I just wanted to tell you, sir, they’re still processing your payment. I’ll bring your card back in a minute.”

”Take your time!” Leilin said, with a little wave to the waitress, who had suddenly noticed the wad of bills in the table.

“Take this! Tip!” Leilin pushed the wad of bills to the stunned waitress. “My boyfriend is in a generous mood today.”

She thrust her arm out across the table. “We just got engaged. You like the ring?”

The girl looked from one to the other. “Congratulations!” She ventured.

Jim gave her a half smile and opened up his palms upwards, as if to say it wasn’t his idea.

Leilin kissed his cheek once more and turned to the waitress. “Take the tip, miss. All yours.”

“Are you sure? This looks like a lot. I can’t.”

“Of course, you can. Sign up for that acting class you were telling us about. Take your boyfriend on the Corsica vacation. You have the dream. Now you have the money. Like my favorite US president always says, yes you can. Repeat after me. Yes, I can.”

The waitress giggled. “Yes, I can.”

“One more time. ”

“Yes, I can!”

The waitress hurriedly gathered up the notes, as if she was worried that Leilin would change her mind. “Congratulations once again. You guys are extremely generous! Thank you! Thank you so much! At least let me bring you some dessert on the house.”

“Send it over to those girls there. Compliments of Jim!”

The waitress all but skipped to the back. Jim heard the cries from the kitchen. His generosity was now common knowledge.

“You. Come with me.” Leilin looked stern, but really got to him was the uncomfortable poke he felt around his groin area under the table.

He called his wife from the parking lot. Turns out a pistol to your head wins over vows, principles, and plain old wanting to maintain the status quo every single time. They went through a quickie divorce at his behest.

Leilin’s parents paid for the dress, the rehearsal, the flowers, everything really. In cash. As the parents of an only child, it was their duty to take care of her needs. The wedding photographer was careful to take pictures of Leilin only from the waist up. Marc was invited to the wedding but refused to show up. His ex-wife and Sylvia were not, but their gifts were shipped to him and Leilin’s new home.

Jacob was born, barely six months after the wedding, with a head full of light brown hair, almond eyes, and a loud, piercing cry. Fine Genghis Khan Genes, thought Jim. His new inlaws gifted the baby a garland made of dollars. Chinese custom, giggled Leilin.

Really, who makes so much money selling used cars? Jim wanted to ask but didn’t. He was too scared he’d unwittingly married into the local chapter of the Yamaguchi.

Debt

I don’t like debt of any sort. You gift me something, I’ll find a way to equalize it in some way. Equal in value, effort, thoughtfulness. You bring me a lunch box filled to its gills with home made macaroni and cheese, I’ll return the box with home cooked dal. Or spices. Or crayons. Something, just not an empty box. We are culturally averse to returning an empty box to its owner. The superstition is that it causes fissures in friendships to do so. While I don’t particularly think myself superstitious, this is one habit that’s stuck with me.

It’s partly cultural. Indians don’t believe in emptiness. Walking into someone’s house empty handed. Letting a guest leave empty handed. That’s probably why Indians will pack you boxes and boxes of food after you’ve attended a party in their home.

Maybe it’s just me being anal. Maybe I’m just trying to avoid any kinda of mental debt, and I’m happily blaming my culture for it. This thinking extends to other parts of my life too. I answer emails as soon as I receive them, just so I don’t have any kind of reply/scheduling debt at the end of day, and I can leave the office with zero inbox.

Which is why it bothers me so much that I’m deep in Nanowrimo word debt as of today. It’s 6 days of Nano, and I should technically be at 10000 or so words. Instead I’m at 5500.

The glass half full angle is that I’m 5500 words more than where I began. And maybe, instead of this blog post, I’m better off writing something for my mini novella.

The Gospel of Zero Fucks

Because it’s November and Halloween is over and whatever mental space it occupied is now available for other projects.

Because Newton’s law. If an object at motion stays in motion, it’s just a matter of initial movement.

Because the memory of those past failures, the censure of people’s eyes, the worry that you’ll fall flat once again – publicly – can dull your fire for only so long.

Because that device that automatically transforms your nebulous thoughts into sparkling prose is still being invented in someone’s garage. Till then you just got your opposable thumbs and an iPhone screen. And yes, the next great American novel will be written on an iPhone.

Because Nanowrino. Nanowrimo is an exact number. 50k. It’s magical. It has meaning. At the end of this month, if you buy yourself one of this “I feel like a 26.2 today” and cross out the 26.2 and replace it with 50k, the Nanowrimo segment of the universe will completely get it.

Because Gospel of Zero Fucks. It’s a good mantra to live your life by.

Day 1: 1699. I was soooooo tempted to add a random word somewhere to take the count to 1700 but I left it at that. It’s sort of like a mental cliffhanger, the Edge of Seventeen Hundred.

Hacky Heart… Or the birth of Lola

Every year, BITS Pilani organizes a cultural festival (Oasis!) and a conference… Apogee.

My first year of undergrad, I volunteered for the Computer Science department during Apogee, and created some kinda crossword puzzle generator and solver. I was immensely proud of the project and my 2 person rag-tag army consisting of derelicts like me. As in, none of us really liked the majors we had signed up for (mine was Pharmacy?!), and spent every minute of our waking life taking elective courses in Computer Science.

So for Apogee projects, you had a student panel of judges and a professor panel of judges, and they assigned you scores based on utility and creativity. And there was some kinda award/prize for best project.

There was one particular student judge who scared the heck out of all of us. He was tall and lanky and dour as Abraham Lincoln. He went around asking what each student’s project did for the poor of India. Da fuq?

Some of the kids had done cool projects on fractals, and morphing and this guy was doing some kinda Gandhian thought experiment? [Gandhi, during India’s freedom struggle, had exhorted people to think about their actions – how does your action affect your country? If your action uplifts your fellowmen, go ahead and do it, it’s the right karma.]

When my turn came and I finished my demo, he asked me the same dreaded question.

What does your project do for the poorest man in India?

Shamefaced, I had to admit that despite its slick Windows 95 look (remember those days?!) my crossword project did not solve anything for the poorest man or woman in India. The guy left with a sneer on his face.

Needless to say, most of the project awards that year went to Pharmacy and Biology departments, for their world-disease eradicating potential.

Dour Student Judge

I don’t remember the guy at all, just his face… I can look him up in the BITSAA yearbook. But his impact shows up in my life, every now and then.

As in, I have some dreams. I sort of know how to get from Point A to Point B. And then, some days, Dour Student Judge takes over. I start looking at things from a big picture perspective, and suddenly it’s like there’s no point to what I’m doing. My thoughts become a jumble of death, and evolution, and how everything that has any meaning and symbolism in this present universe may one day mean nothing in the context of a different matrix or value system.

Looked at from world hunger and poverty perspectives, my dreams make no sense. I start wondering.. does the world really, really need another effing app? If my app does nothing to solve world hunger, poverty, or the feeling of disconnect people have, is it truly anything to write home about?

NOTHING IS GOOD ENOUGH.

I could write just as easily about the opposite effect. When just to get out of bed and put a foot in front of the other can seem monumental. When it seems as if every step you take is just an infinitesimal grain of sand on the vast ocean side of life.

I AM A NOBODY. I AM WORTH EXACTLY NOTHING.

Jealous of Myself

These types of paralyses happen to me a lot. My life can be going along swimmingly, and there’ll be a little nugget of doubt that will roll downhill down the neuronal pathways, picking up speed, and the flotsam and jetsam of fears, till it explodes into one large snowball of doubt, paralysis, stasis, and failure.

I AM A NOBODY. I AM WORTH EXACTLY NOTHING.

When I was a kid, and didn’t have words to describe this feeling, I called this getting “jealous of myself.” As in, I was so jealous of my own life that I doubted myself and sabotaged it in any way I could.

And yet… as much as paralysis is debilitating… getting out of it is even more fucking gratifying.

So this post isn’t about how paralyzed I am and how sucky my life is. It’s more about how I hacked my thinking.

4Q 2014…

I went through the last quarter of 2014 thinking it was the worst period of my life, not knowing that life would find ways to break me mentally.

I was sick for an extended period of time, and losing and regaining vision as a result of an auto-immune disease triggered by this other condition I had.

If it rained outside, my vision got blurry. If I got tired, my vision got blurry. At my worst, I had a vision field about the size of a dime. I had racing thoughts and it constantly felt as if I was falling off my bed, even if I was lying down.

Life off-kilter. Before he figured out the correlations between my various conditions, my doctor thought I had MS.

I was on steroids, and gaining weight at an alarming rate. I probably looked like Pillsbury man, except I couldn’t see myself in the mirror.

Then one day, I was well enough to see. When I got on the scale, I was shocked that I was 160+ lbs on a 5ft 2in body. Not good.

NOT FUCKING GOOD AT ALL.

I leaned into the mirror, forcing myself to smile. And even in the blurry haze, all I remember from that day are my fat protruding cheeks. And my thought.. I look like a frickin’ chipmunk from Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Multiple boo-hoo-woe-is-me sessions and fat ugly tears ensued.

And then I met Lola

One December afternoon, I was beyond bored and miserable. I had to do something. Anything.

I looked around my bed at the things in the room.

Phone. I could write if I increased font size to 60.

Mirror. Nah.. don’t go there. I’ll feel miserable.

Dresser. My underwear drawer needs sorting. Meh, it’ll wait.

Elliptical. Mac. Swift programming?

Elliptical.

ELLIPTICAL!!!

That was the day it dawned on me that I have a tricked out elliptical in my bedroom for a reason. I almost forgot I owned it because I hated getting on it. I much preferred going for long walks to the Marina.. Except it had snowed outside. And with my poor vision, I couldn’t be trusted to go on walks by myself.

I could be blind and I could still get on the elliptical, couldn’t I? I would do 30 minutes on the elliptical.

30?

No way… 15?

15? Hmm. Okay, do 15.

That was all I had to spend on it. 30 minutes was ideal, but 15 was all I had to commit to. If I did 15 minutes, I could kvetch, moan, eat tubs of ice cream – whatever I wanted.

I didn’t need to strain. I didn’t need to do crazy speeds. 15 minutes. That’s all.

Me: What if I get dizzy?

Other me: Get off.

Me: What if I can’t see?

Other me: What if you’re just making excuses?

I got on it, and started walking.

By minute 2, I had picked up enough speed to get huffy and puffy. By minute six, I had to hold on to the rails to continue walking because my vision had gone blurry.

Keep going, Other Me yelled in my ear. 15 bloody minutes. Minute 15, you can give up and go lie on your bed in a fat, crying puddle.

And so I went on.. constantly squinting at the clock.

9 minutes. 10.

12.

15.

At the 15th minute, I took a small break, and then I said, I’ll keep walking for 5 more minutes just to cool down.

Fair enough. Kept walking.

20th minute.

Other me: See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Wanna do 2 more?

Me: Maaaayyybe.

And before I knew it, I’d done 27 or 28 minutes.

Other me: You’re almost there. Don’t you want to take it all the way to 30?

Me: LOLA, you’re a FUCKING BITCH. I HATE YOU. I’ll do 30 just to get you off my back.

And so.. thanks to my alter-ego Lola, I finished my 30 minutes.

In fact I did 35, just to prove to Lola that I was a bigger, stubborner bitch than she was.

Since then.. I’ve had many, many moments of fear and doubt and worthlessness. But I think I’ve found my hacks. And I have Lola.

So, dear reader, without further ado:

How to hack your heart in 3 easy steps

1) Set a teeny, tiny goal and accomplish it. Too tired to write? Spend two minutes on your phone writing a couple of sentences. Most times the two minutes become five, five become ten… and I’ve managed a full hour of writing.

2) Set your escape clauses in your contract with yourself. Tell yourself it’s ok to quit after X tries, or Y minutes. There must be some psychological reason, but I think just knowing you have an escape clause makes you not want to quit. Also I find that I almost always exceed my escape limits. In fact, in almost two years of using this hack, I’ve used my escape clause exactly twice.

3) Create your Lola.

Lola. I’m sure I could’ve chosen a more intellectually satisfying moniker than Lola.. But Lola is good enough.

She’s my alter ego, my inner goddess, my BFF-mom-stern-teacher all rolled into one. She’s a fabulous conversationalist, one hell of a sharp dresser, and a charmer when she’s in the mood for charm. Many times she tells me I’m being a whiny, ungrateful bitch. Often she whispers her sensible words of wisdom and calms me down.

At night, she’s in charge of programming. She sends me pretty vivid dreams most nights. Recently she gave me a scene-by-scene dream of sitcom situations. Beyotch or whatever, you gotta love her.

It doesn’t have to be Lola, it could be Lionel. Or Lupe. Doesn’t matter. Find the kindest, most nurturing part of yourself, and friend it.

And so.. like today.. whenever I beset by fears, I talk to myself.. My inner Lola.

Two more minutes. One more baby step. You can do it. You WILL do it.

She shows me how to hack my doubting fearful heart.

[And to answer my Latter Day Gandhi classmate… You don’t go through life sitting in a room just ‘cos you’re gonna die one day. It’s meaningless to wonder at the stench of a corpse flower in the context of world hunger or poverty. These contexts are often absurd. Even a simple crossie can provide a family hours of immense pleasure just by showing up in the daily newspaper.

Sometimes we don’t need to overthink things. They just are. Let them be.]

Tooth Fairy Secretary

When I was growing up, my father and his father, my thatha, were major sources of hilarity and heartburn in our house. If your sibling was the target of their comments, you laughed loud and clear. If *you* were, you glared at everyone else, and wished a cyclone would hit your far-away-from-the-coastline city and swallow just your two annoying siblings.

Ceiling fan usage was a big issue for my dad. He had this theory that if you opened the front and back doors to the house, you’d generate enough of a vortex for the home to be naturally cool.

Circulation. Simple physics. It made theoretical sense, except we lived on an upper story of a building in a relatively land locked city, and no matter how hard you tried, you didn’t feel the breeze. He also did this early in the morning, which had the double effect of waking us up and saving on ceiling fan use.

If you complained too much, my father had his standard line: Periya England-la porandhu valandhaya? Po, London-ku poyi fan pottuko. Roughly: Who do you think you are? Someone born and brought up in England? Go live in London and put the fan on all you want. I grew up thinking of Englanders as these posh people who sat down for tea and ate suppers (thanks, Enid Blyton) and had massive ceiling fans everywhere (thanks, daddy!)

It wasn’t obvious to me then, but it’s clearer now — the source of this Natural Air Circulation business was none other than my thatha, my dad’s dad, who used to live with us. He was another Natural Air fanatic. Except he fed his fixation at 3 pm in the afternoon. In peak Indian summer. When there was a nasty summer loo raging outside. That was when he threw open all the doors and windows in the house to let the air circulate.

The two of them argued constantly — if my thatha said Gandhi was a saint, my father said, “Master manipulator! Crook of the first order!” My father said bathing in ice cold water in the middle of winter was good for building character. My thatha (you guessed it!) had my mother boil a bucket of hot water just for himself, even in 110F summer, and frolicked around in the bathroom like a baby buffalo in a muddy pond.

When you think about all this, you wonder how you’re sane.

Which is another way of confessing I’m a special shade of cuckoo and I’m bringing up the next generation of crazy.

My kids have been brought up to believe I’ll return them to Walmart and ask for a full refund. If they complain about a scratch on the knee or a hurting arm, I’ll say lets get you to the ER and let the nurses give you some shots. If the complaints are accompanied by loud tears, I’ll say, “Come on, let’s go to the ER, and get it chopped off.”

Which is almost always guaranteed to shut the tear factory. Try it at home and tell me.

Maybe I’m consigning them to a life of therapist visits. In the meanwhile, I can see both of them develop a quirky sense of humor.

The last time Annika lost a tooth, she kept asking if the tooth fairy was real. Here I am, trying to keep a straight face and wondering if today’s the day my little Annika will have her innocence shattered. Meanwhile Megha’s begging me, in full view of her sister, to let her tell Annika the truth.

Finally I give in. Better for her to know the truth from her sister than hear it outside.

Megha starts solemnly, “Annika, it’s time to tell you the truth. The tooth fairy is not real, because — ”

“Because what?”

“Because I AM THE TOOTH FAIRY!!!!”

Annika goes into a complete tizzy. “Show me how you fly!”

Her older sister flaps her arms, and tries to do ballet style jumps through the air.

“Where do you store your wings?”

Megha gives random, semi-convincing answers to all of Annika’s questions. It’s hilarious listening to them.

Finally, she extracts a promise. “Do you promise not to tell anyone, especially Clara?”

“Yes! Yes! I promise.”

And who could say no to this irresistible offer? “Well, I’m going to continue being the Tooth Fairy and you can be the Tooth Fairy Secretary!!!”

Too good to miss, of course. Annika signed up immediately.

The last I heard of that, was the two of them practicing their kung fu moves. Apparently the biggest occupational hazard of being a tooth fairy/secretary was having your wings ripped off by greedy children who can’t be satisfied with the $1 the Tooth Fairy leaves them.

I look at the two of them and think my family’s Crazy genes are definitely not recessive.