Monday, January 31, 2011


I’m sipping my morning tea and sitting on Massi’s bed with the phone tucked under my chin. “Come to Dwarka by 7 pm,” Dad says. “Then we can leave for the airport together.” Dad and I are both returning to the US tonight. Our flights, his to Minnesota and mine to New York, are within an hour of each other. “I don’t know how to get to Dwarka,” I say. “Simple. Tell the driver to head towards to the Domestic Airline Terminal, just before the airport, there is a roundabout, take that and exit for the Dwarka Flyover..."

Oh. My. God. I have an international flight that I have to be on. Not because I have a ticket and re-ticketing in India is a total nightmare. But because I have to get the hell out of this country. Yes, I love Massi. I already miss her and I’m not gone yet. I love my roots and being a part of this quirky family (both sides). But my home is not here. Just like I didn’t belong in Minnesota, I don’t belong in India. And if I get stuck here I will lose my shit.

"Dad, this is not a good idea. There is construction all over Delhi, and in the dark I am not directing a driver who barely speaks English to Dwarka! They don’t believe in using street lights or signage in this country and if we get lost….I need to go home…Today….” I counter, my voice shakes a little. Luck has eluded me lately and I just can’t risk roaming around Delhi four hours before my flight because Dad is having a high maintenance moment. I am not selfless like Mom. I am not catering to every idea and whim he has.

Massi stands by my side and listens. We have only a few hours left and she doesn’t want me to leave until I absolutely must. “Where will we meet? The airport is very big,” Dad says, he sounds a little stressed that I don’t find his idea agreeable. And I don’t understand what is going on with him.

For the last two weeks I have been running around a super sized desi City. I live in a gigantic American city. He is flying KLM and I am going Continental --- I think between the help of their ground staff and public announcement system we’ll be fine. “Dad, I will find you,” I insist. “I want to sit in the lounge before we go,” Dad explains. “Dad! Don’t worry, we will meet, go through customs and sit in the lounge. See you tonight. Love you!” I say and hang up.

Massi shakes her head. You would think I am the parent, not Dad. I take her hand and lead her back to the dining room and so we can have our last breakfast together.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Massi and I climb up the stairs to Younger Massi’s flat. When I was younger I used to pitch a full on spoiled American brat fit when forced to come here.  Younger Massi used to have an Indian toilet, which I referred to as a “squat pot” because instead of sitting on a seat, you had to squat. My extremely mild-mannered mother, the second oldest of four siblings, had no tolerance for my behavior and brought me here kicking and screaming. In retrospect, she was right in not indulging me. I am surprised she never planted one tight slap against my cheek. She would have been completely justified in knocking sense back into me.
We ring the bell and my 30 year cousin opens the door. “Dhabhi,” he says. Little Cousin has Down’s syndrome, and “dhabhi” is how he says “didi” (the Hindi word for sister). Because I am elder to him, he would never take my name. Despite being born disabled in a country that has no patience or need for the infirm, he is very smart and aware. He pulls me into a tight, bone-crushing hug. Not only is he affectionate, he has no appreciation of his brute strength and my pansy sorority girl avoidance for manual labor or physical pain. Emotional pain is another story - clearly I must enjoy that, why else do I keep forming attachments to all the wrong men, like Town and Country.

Little Cousin leads Massi and me to the living room where Younger Massi is reading a Hindi filmi magazine relaying all the Bollywood gossip and scandal. I embrace her and sit on the couch. Little Cousin explains using gestures and grunts that I have come from afar, on a plane. It is most unfortunate that he was born with this condition. He is the perfect combination of smart and loving, and would have made some girl incredibly happy. But love and marriage were not a part of God’s plan for Little Cousin.

The maid comes in with tea for my aunts and sodas for the “kids”. Like a true gentleman, Little Cousin stands up, takes the two Pepsis from the tray, serves me and sits down to my right, almost in my lap. He has no understanding of boundaries, which is okay. He drinks his cola in about 10 seconds flat, sets his empty glass on the coffee table and pats my arm. He is so sweet and innocent, with the gentlest soul. His presence allows you to release your worldly tensions and embrace peace. There is no judgment in his eyes, only the purest form of love and acceptance. He is not capable of understanding, much less forming prejudice.

He sits with us for a little while and then disappears into the other room to watch television. My aunts have been talking and I was half listening because Little Cousin was telling me stories that I didn’t understand. I take my last sip of soda and set the glass aside. Just then Younger Massi’s eyes well with tears and she says the most heartbreaking thing about Little Cousin, “I don’t know what will happen to him when I am gone. Who will take care of him? My husband doesn’t do anything now. My son has become too busy. My daughter has married into a new family. I can only hope that he dies before I do. There is no other way to be sure no harm will come to him.” I know I’m not a parent, but routinely in life and on television “they” say that a parent outliving a child is the worst kind of imaginable pain.

And there isn’t ANYTHING Younger Massi hasn’t done for Little Cousin. She has sent him to the best disabled programs in Delhi so he can have social interaction and some semblance to normalcy. She has bought him clothes and toys, everything she could afford on a middle-class teacher’s salary. So I can only deduce that she must love him more than her husband, or life itself, to wish for such an imaginable thing.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I have been staring out the window watching the banyan trees and concrete buildings blur together. This reverie has fuzzied my thoughts that I don’t notice we have stopped until I hear Massi say to the driver, “Please bring some sweets from the shop.” She hands him a 50 rupee note and he smiles before departing. His smile is genuine and I feel he won’t mistreat my widowed aunt. India is a tough place for single women – spinsters or widows.

As silence settles around us Massi says quietly, “It must be so hard to live alone, yes?” My aunt is very proper and would never speak of personal matters in front of the help. We both know, in India, even the trees know my secrets.

I have always thought Massi to be wise; but she has a dozen nieces so I never really realized that she would recognize pain in me. I like to think I am a pretty good con-artist, disguising my disappointments, losses and pain in a thick coat of humor and happy-go-lucky. It is not often, like now, that someone can steal my words and render me a mute. “It is hard to live alone – for this I know all too well,” she whispers. “It is not easy to do what you did. To take a chance."

We’re not looking at each other. Thank God. I have been on the verge of tears for twelve days. The pressure to appear secure and upbeat for my maternal family is exhausting. We’re so involved in one another’s lives it is borderline emotional incest.

Massi speaks again, “I have money, house, and food. But I am alone…” In the almost 20 years he has been gone, no one on Mom’s side of the family refers to my uncle anymore. We have never recovered from his loss. “I can only imagine how hard it must be for you to live in that Big City. No car, no family, no help. No one to talk at night. No one to eat dinner with. You must be feeling great depression, I know. But you must have faith in God. My beta, you must have faith in God. For God is great."

Oh. My. God. I have to speak. Now. Words must form in my brain and fall out of my mouth. Brain, I command you to think! Mouth, make words! Brain. Mouth. DO. SOMETHING. ANYTHING. Acknowledge Massi. Speak. But I cannot.

“I used to say to God, please, give me one more thing. I have so much. I know. I should not ask. I am not greedy. But please bless my son with a child. And he did. Two children. Now I keep asking for only one more thing, God. Please one more thing…” There is no reason for Massi to tell me her wish. I know it is for my matrimonial settlement. It is why I have traveled 10,000 miles and spent $2,000 in the middle of a recession.

I expect unconditional love from my parents. My mother no longer flinches when I drop the f-bomb in traffic. No one will ever truly “get me” the way my brother does. He can hear one word and know whether to push me away or pull me back. If I need a liver or a kidney, he’s my best DNA bet.

But to hear my aunt praying to her God for my settlement breaks my heart all over again. It must be hard for Massi to love me when I am not of her body, but of her soul. She must feel so powerless against God when she so desperately wants me to find my mate. I can’t bear her worrying for me. I want to be strong like Durga. Maybe I should just marry the next man I meet and put Massi and my parents out of their misery. Sita did it. Why can’t I?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


By the will and grace of Durga, I have returned to South Delhi for my final three days. 

Massi and I are in the car, we’re going to visit my Younger Massi. The day is really warm, bordering on hot. I feel a bead of sweat trickle down the back of my leg and catch in the hollow of my knee before disappearing into the plush car seat. Delhi with its CNG buses and parking garages is so much cleaner and greener than before. With the Commonwealth Games coming, the City has no choice but ready itself for the world stage.

“Put on the air conditioning,” Massi instructs the driver. “It is on madam,” the driver replies and blasts the fan at us. Too bad that air is even hotter than outside. “Oof, turn it off!” Massi instructs and the driver complies. He is a dark, greasy looking man with hair slicked to his skull with coconut oil. A smell that upsets my stomach.

I am thankful to be in India now, rather than during the summer. A stifling season marked by the slow creep of monsoons crossing the Punjab plains. A time when the paralyzing heat holds me hostage in my own skin, and relentless rains that temporarily freeze everything in place. Plants gasp. Cows hide. My hair plasters against my head. Raindrops catch on my eyelashes. It is the closest to blindness I have ever come.

In the aftermath of the rains, the sewers flood the streets with standing water that eventually become standing cesspools of disease. The only thing that sounds more disgusting than infested Third World water is dengue. A disease I had NEVER heard of until I watched the news this morning. 

Regularly I cite the 30% rate of STDs in Manhattan as the reason I keep my legs closed. I don’t have the energy or patience to wait six to eight weeks to get over Chlamydia because I slept with Dirty Boy. But now, are you seriously telling me that a wayward mosquito could bite me into sickness? I am not a hypochondriac, but the first sign of headache, muscle or joint pain I am on the next freaking flight back to Newark.

We pass a metal and glass shopping center under construction, next to an old movie theater made of concrete and plaster. Billboards line the tops of buildings and broadcast the latest Bollywood movies. The breasty heroines wear clothes so scandalously tight I swear I can see their ribs. While the bulging heroes dressed in black trousers and open shirts, expose hairless chests. In all my desi dating I have YET to meet a hairless Indian man.

The road slims before it explodes into a highway. In that much time children run to the window and press their dirty faces against the glass. With pitiful expressions they bring their fingers to their mouths, begging for money. My aunt shoos at them and says to the driver, “Pull the car forward."

I know the driver and Massi are not heartless people. To survive in India they have learned to see through the vagrants with stumps instead of limbs, garbage, dirt, men who bathe in water retention tanks and women who sleep on the streets under moonlit nights. Unfortunately there are no manuals to prepare for Americans, even brown ones like me, for the Third World horrors I witness every time I come. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


The next morning Dad and Younger Bhaiya excuse themselves from the breakfast table, leaving Younger Bhabhi, Sweet, Feisty and me in the dining room.  “What else will you eat for breakfast? An egg? Waffles? More toast?” Younger Bhabhi asks. I still have half a papaya and two slices of barely buttered toast sitting in my plate. I reach for my room temperature tea -- like Dad’s family I like my food so spicy hot that it sets my tummy on fire, unlike Dad’s family I don’t like tea that burns my tongue.
I pop a bite of fruit into my mouth and wonder how to explain to a slightly chubby woman that I am not living Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life on the farm, hoeing the fields, milking the cows and walking baskets of eggs to market. Mine is a bit more sedentary and requires about 1,500 calories daily. “Let me finish this and see if I’m still hungry,” I suggest, thinking this is the kindest way to say no. I raise my teacup to my lips and mid-sip, Younger Bhabhi asks, “So is it that you don’t want to get married?” Oh here it is payback.

I am sure Dad’s family thinks that Dad’s reputation is blemished from having an unmarried daughter in her late 30s. And while Indians are arranged marriage people, Dad’s family REALLY subscribes to that religion. Of course I don’t believe she asks because she cares about Dad, her only mission is to make me feel bad about my unmarried circumstance in life. However, I don’t think this is a fire Younger Bhabhi should ignite. Her elder daughter’s, Sweet, engagement broke off because the boy’s family was too drunk and too meat eating for our tastes. And that should tell you something if a Punjabi family would turn down another Punjabi family on the basis of booze and meat.

I let a few minutes pass during which time her daughters shoot glances at one another and shift in their chairs. Their mother’s conversation topic is causing them discomfort. This has me wanting to ask Younger Bhabhi if it is her preference to have teeth that have the look and texture of a corn cob after all the corn is gone. Between her rich father and well-to-do husband she could afford dental maintenance. Instead I ask, “I don’t know what you mean? It’s not up to me, it’s destiny,” I explain and shove toast into my mouth. Sweet and Feisty sigh loudly. Their reaction leads me to believe that talks of my marriage were banned from conversation. And only because Dad and Younger Bhaiya are out of earshot is she daring to ask.

Later I will learn Younger Bhabhi told Dad that she thinks it was a mistake to educate me. That there was no reason I should have a Masters degree, because no Indian man wants to marry someone who will talk back or be smarter than him. Another reason I am so thankful that Durga had my back and got Dad out of India and away from his idiot relatives. My American life may not be perfect, but it is perfect for me.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Sweet honks the horn and her maternal grandfather’s guard opens the gate. She pulls the car into the drive and stops behind a BMW sports car and a Mercedes SUV. Earlier today Dad told me that Vasant Vihar, the neighborhood that Younger Bhabhi’s family lives in, is upscale, safe and home to many of the diplomatic missions to India. It is also an area where Indians won’t rent to Indians, because they want foreign money. So this should indicate how wealthy Younger Bhabhi’s father must be.

We walk inside and I have to catch my breath. This is one of the MOST stunning homes I have EVER stepped foot in – from London, Singapore, the US or India. It belongs in a coffee table photo book. From the outside it was far more visually stimulating than most flat-roofed, modern homes that speckle the Delhi landscape. The materials were a finer concrete, metal and wood that resulted in a contemporary design.

But on the inside it is a wonder of white marble, uniform columns, huge windows and 12’ ceilings. Two of Younger Bhabhi’s sister-in-laws greet me and I have to do a double take. They are wearing shiny leggings and tunic tops, stilettos and enormous diamond studded bangles. They both tote two bangles on the right wrist and I have no idea how many karats they are sporting, other than a shitload. “Would you like a tour? We understand you’re an architect,” they say. I accept the offer but don’t correct them on my profession. Mostly because I really don’t know what I do for a job anyway.

They guide me into the kitchen and I am awestruck. It is a square space filled with shiny stainless steel appliances, espresso cabinets and white floors, walls and countertops. In the center of the room, an enormous kitchen island lounges in a warm and welcoming fashion. Bright and massive it feels like something you find in Sausalito, not southwest Delhi.

Preparing Indian food can be messy because our base of cooking brown includes ginger and onions in a host of colored spices – paprika, cumin, coriander, peppercorn and of course the-stains-everything-yellow-turmeric. My kitchen backsplash has a constant filmy, greasy yellow residue. However, back in the homeland, in this kitchen that is feeding a large joint family, I am truly impressed to find no trace of spice or dust. I can understand Younger Bhabhi just a little better now. She married out this family and down into ours, while her sister-in-laws married up. I still think she was in the wrong for dumping garbage on Elder Bhabhi’s head.

The sister-in-laws walk me through the rooms of the house. The bedrooms (of which there are five on this floor) are huge, with western style loos with double sinks, marble countertops, huge tubs. This flat makes everything I have seen in New York seem like the red-headed stepchild. Unsurprisingly the final stop on the tour is the master bedroom (about the size of my apartment) where Younger Bhabhi’s father is sitting on his bed, his turban to the side, laughing with his sons, son-in-law, daughter, grandchildren and Dad.

Her dad, who has to be Dad’s age if not older, is still a strikingly good looking man. To which I have say, Punjabi men are very attractive, especially the Sikhs. Their handsomeness has to work double time to overcome being buried under a long beard and moustache. Thus making their features extra sharp and refined. I sit down next to Dad and Younger Bhabhi’s father summons of his grandchildren to bring two parcels sitting on the other side of the bed. The little kid does as he’s told. Younger Bhabhi’s father gets up gives one parcel to Dad and the other to me. 

We open them. Dad receives a cream colored woolen shawl and I get a really nice bolt of a silk blend fabric to have a Punjabi tunic and pant set made.  We are given these items because whenever your daughter’s in-laws visit, they cannot leave empty handed. This includes the cousin through marriage who lives in New York and who you are meeting for the first time.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Upon my return, no one asks how my meeting with my elder cousin and his wife went. I find this ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING. Who doesn’t inquire about their own brother? I mean, sure who really cares about a third cousin twice removed or an over-perfumed grand-uncle’s second wife. But your own brother?

And for the life of me, I don’t understand what could have possibly caused a feud so powerful that it could divide brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts into camps. I suspect money, which begs the question, is that all people are in this family? Dollar signs? Or in this case, rupee notes? Things you own like slaves or dogs? Pens to keep in your pocket?

We pile into the car – Dad, Younger Bhaiya, Younger Bhabhi, me, Sweet and Feisty. We’re off to celebrate Younger Bhaiya and Bhabhi’s wedding anniversary with her brothers – Banta, Dimpy and Japoni (these are their pet names, I have no idea what their real names are) and their families.

I am hoping spending time with Younger Bhabhi’s family will help me understand her better. Maybe the death of her mother was too traumatic a thing to bear. Or maybe her brothers are pompous Punjabi pigs. Perhaps her dad screamed and shouted at her for not being a boy. Maybe her sister-in-laws are mean to her.

As soon as Sweet backs the car out of the drive and into the lane the real Indians, so everyone but me, start speaking in rapid fire Punjabi. I do okay in following, but a part of me doesn’t really care about what they are saying because I am getting home-sick for South Delhi and Massi’s sophistication. Spending time with Dad’s family is mentally draining. They bitch about everyone and the talk is so irrelevant and trite that I wonder why they don’t get bored. Don’t they run of things to complain about?

This is the first time in my life that I’m relieved I didn’t grow up in India. I used to think I missed out on so much by never celebrating Diwali, Dushera and Rakhi in India or in having relationships with my grandparents and cousins. And maybe I did. But I’m glad I was never subjected to what came before the factions. This type of disdain does not happen overnight, it has to be cultivated over decades.

While I have been deep in my thoughts Younger Bhabhi has made some comment in Punjabi about me that I didn’t completely follow. This prompts me to join the conversation as best I can, because my Punjabi is worse, and I mean WAY worse, than my Hindi. I struggle to follow. Then I suddenly realize she has asked what Elder Bhaiya and Bhabhi fed me. Another absolutely crazy thing to compete about and so I reply, “I wasn’t hungry.” “That doesn’t matter, what did they offer you?” This is what I dislike. I don’t want to lie and say they prepared a feast fit for a queen. But I don’t want to tell the truth. No matter what I say, when repacked and resold on the gossip trade, will be misquoted. My sodas and snacks will become dung patties and toilet water.

So I decide not to respond. This doesn’t work because she asks again, only loudly, as if the problem is my hearing. I sigh, punch Dad in the leg, his cue that I am not backing down and say, “I understand you don’t like them. But I wanted to meet them for one hour.” “We don’t like them,” she replies. Well no shit Sherlock, and out of respect to Younger Bhaiya I calmly reply, “I understand your feelings. But again, I like them. So I am glad I could go.” “Well they cause me too much stress and tension.” I could say the same thing about her, and again I repeat my position. Because the women in my family are strong willed, and in general Punjabi women are fierce, Younger Bhabhi doesn’t relent and I refuse to concede to her pointless point.

This goes on until finally Feisty says, “Mummy, enough!” And the car goes blessedly silent for the duration of the car ride.

Friday, January 21, 2011


This is absolutely maddening. I travel 10,000 miles and Bhaiya’s freaking driver leaves me at the end of the lane saying he is not allowed to get any closer to my other cousin’s house. I am sure this is Bhabhi’s doing. Making sure I am punished for disobeying her, for demanding to see someone she does not like. But who is she to decide who I can and cannot see in my own family?

I get out of the car and carefully, in three-inch heels not made for uneven Indian roads, I hobble down the street. If I sprain my ankle so help me God I am going to scratch Bhabhi’s eyes out. Chokidhar, the night watchman, sees me and smiles. I have been coming here for years so begins unlocking the gate at the sight of me. As he locks the gate a concerned look comes across his eyes and he asks how I got here. New Delhi is not a place for an American desi who speaks pigeon Hindi to roam about freely. While my direction sense is good, it is not good enough for Delhi. “No no, the car is at the end of the lane.” Chokidhar nods, he is all too well versed in my family’s division. He ushers me into the house and upstairs. This cousin is the elder brother to the one I’m staying with. I am greeted warmly by Elder Bhabhi and we sit down in the drawing room. “You look great,” she says. “You have lost so much weight!” she gushes.

When Elder Bhabhi was young, she was beautiful with fair skin, subtle features and slim waist. She is also much more eloquent and educated than her sister-in-law, Younger Bhabhi. I am not sure what led to the rift between my cousins, but I know I lost respect for Younger Bhabhi when I learned, with her daughters Sweet and Feisty, at her side; she dumped a full dust bin of garbage on Elder Bhabhi’s head.

“You know it hurts us that your dad no longer speaks to us,” she says. “And we don’t know what we have done to upset him that he won’t even call us when he comes to India. Now that my father-in-law is gone, your dad is the closest thing we would have to a father and to be ignored like this…” her voice drifts away so she doesn’t choke on emotion. “But, how great is God, your mother never fails to meet us. Either do you…” she says and tears pool in the corners of her eyes.

Ugh. So gross. I, too, don’t really know why Dad aligns with one cousin and not the other. I feel pretty confident that is has something to do with a $1,000 check Dad sent to Elder Bhaiya some eight years ago where Dad wrote “gift” in the memo space. Unsurprisingly Elder Bhaiya and Bhabhi took the check and cashed it, which enraged Dad. To this day I cannot get a straight answer out of anyone regarding the intended use of that money. But this is the problem with Dad’s family. They insist on operating in a state of smoke and mirrors, everyone lying and telling half-truths. So different than Mom’s emotionally incestuous family where knows everything about everyone. I don’t know what is better --- deceit or full disclosure.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


It has taken the entire car ride across Delhi to mentally prepare for Dad’s family. This is unfortunate – expending preparatory efforts to spend time with my relatives, people who I share blood, history and DNA with. But 98% of these people don’t get me, but worse that than, they don’t try. And the most annoying people in Dad’s family, aren’t actually the “real” members – it the ones who married in.

My nieces, Sweet and Feisty, instruct the servant to take my bag upstairs and we head to the master bedroom. This is actually a funny phenomenon. I don't know if it's a desi thing, a Punjabi thing (both sides of my family do this), or what, but whenever we gather casually as a family, we do it in the bedroom. We have tea and snacks brought to us, we sit on the bed and "gup-shup" (Punjabi for chit-chat) for hours on end.

Inside the bedroom we find my cousin, his wife and Dad. I hug them all and as I draw away from Dad I cannot help but notice that something doesn’t look and feel right about him. Dad, when he was young, was a slim and VERY, VERY, VERY handsome man, with a handlebar mustache to boot. I realize he is my dad and I am biased, but I think he was attractive enough for Bollywood. Forty years later, Dad has become portly – which is not completely his fault. Nor is it Mom’s as she is a sensational cook. Dad simply has some fat genes in his family tree and he has the tendency to put on weight. So now that his clothes hang on him, and look two sizes too big, I’m worried.

“What will you have to drink and eat?” my cousin’s wife asks. I call her Bhabhi, which is the Hindi word for sister-in-law, and I call my cousin, Bhaiya, means brother. Because they are quite elder, into their 50s, to utter their names in their presence is so disrespectful it borders on desi sin. “Just a Coke or tea is fine. I am not hungry,” I reply. She does the desi head bob forward, a gesture that would seem to imply she didn’t hear me. But I suspect she doesn’t understand what I’m saying. I know she is literate in English, so I don’t know if it is the speed of my talk or my Midwestern accent. “What will you have?” she asks again. This time I smile and say, “Tea is fine.” Again the head bob. Silence (very unusual when more than two people in Dad's family gather, usually it is a fight to speak) fills the space until my younger niece, Feisty, tosses her IPhone aside, shakes her head and goes into the hallway. At the top of her lungs she yells to the servant, “Make tea please. Six cups!"

“Feisty and Sweet have IPhones,” Dad announces like he had declared a race for a US Senate seat. “Yes, Dad I can see that,” I reply. Now if I am lean on my tech skills, Dad is obsolete. He can work his prehistoric brick cell phone, barely. And my brother and I think he can turn on the computer, but not much more than that. I mean, really, Dad can’t run the damn washing machine at home. “You know how much they cost in India? 8,000 rupees,” he says. Yea and? $200 US sounds about right for an IPhone. “That is a lot of money,” Dad says. I want to say, “Well it helps when your dad is rich,” – because my cousin is. He owns this house in Punjabi Bagh were land is scarce and houses are expensive. I think there are perhaps two or three empty plots remaining in the Punjabi Bagh area. Or at least that is what it sounds like. My Hindi is bad, but I can work with it. My Punjabi is so bad I cannot believe I have not be asked to return my heritage to someone more deserving of the title.

But anyway, based on the size of this house it must have cost 4 crores rupees and is valued at 6-8 crores. To fully appreciate this house’s value, it helps to know that 1 crore of rupees is ten million rupees or about $220,000. This means this house cost about $880,000 to build and is now valued at about $1.3 to $1.6 million. In India, where most people live on a $1 a day, this is some serious cash. I mean shit, $1 million US is a boat load of money, in Indian terms it is mind-blowing to me. 

“Bhaiya, do you think tomorrow night your driver can take me to see your brother?” While my cousin does not get along with his brother and their “break-up” has divided the family into two camps, I don’t subscribe to the nonsense, nor am I interested in picking a side. I live 10,000 miles away I don't have time for other people's shit, I can barely deal with mine. “We don’t talk to him,” Bhabhi reminds. That is fine, she can do what she likes. And I will do the same - which is see my other cousin. Bhaiya nods and says, “We’ll figure something out tomorrow.”

Bhabhi sighs loudly and makes a face. She is CLEARLY not happy with the conversation's current, but cannot say anything to me in front of her husband and my father. While she might be the elder, I, the original family member  trump her. For I am an insider, and in this instance, she is the outsider.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Bangalore Cousin and Bangalore Niece’s departure for Bangalore marks a pivotal point in my trip. One of my paternal cousin’s is sending his daughters (they’re in their early 20s) to pick me up so I can spend time with Dad’s family in an area of Delhi called Punjabi Bagh. Aptly named so because of the dense population of Punjabis living there.

Dad’s family is interesting and has a high percentage of nuts in it. And in fairness to Dad’s family, maybe they think their behavior is normal. But I think they are only motivated by money. Don’t get me wrong, I am motivated by money. I simply prefer the method of getting a job and earning an honest wage.

However, there are members of Dad’s family who only make nice with other family members if there is monetary gain. For instance, one of my uncles was pretty well-to-do and some of his siblings thought it was completely acceptable for them to keep asking him for money for rent and car payments, instead of, I don’t know getting a job. And when the folks in Dad’s family get jobs, it is almost more painful.

Chacha, Dad’s younger brother, considers himself to be somewhat of a master carpenter who builds high end furniture. Most unfortunately, one of Chacha’s latest clients was Massi. He came with sketches and samples, his talks promised her the moon, but he sold her dirt.

The entire TV room is filled with ill-crafted furniture. The cupboard doors and drawers on Massi’s entertainment center don’t close properly; there is a constant unsightly gap of the seal. The glass pieces were installed on a crooked angle. The laminate finish, only a few months old, is chipping. Even in the temperamental climate of India, three months is too fast for wood to warp.

It’s like Chacha didn’t bother to take any pride in his work, which is his prerogative. If he wishes to sully his reputation, no one can stop him. But when Massi asked him to come and see the furniture, he first said yes. However, on the day of the appointment he didn’t show. Massi called him. He called back three days later and told her she ruined the furniture. Really? How is a 75 year old widow going to destroy her newly purchased goods? And what kind of baseless person knowingly and willingly rips off a widow? Hinduism very seriously frowns upon this behavior. I hope he is ready for what karma delivers.

Sigh. As if Dad’s family was not mentally taxing enough. Massi’s furniture is a constant reminder of sketchy manners and shoddy ethics. Dad’s family will do anything other than genuine work for money. How my hard-working, honest Dad is related to those people is beyond me.

And now I am set to spend three days on the other side of Delhi with Mom’s in-laws, Punjabi outlaws to the fullest extent of the law. Durga, can you hear me? Infuse me with girl power please, desi style.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Massi, Bangalore Cousin and I are seated across the desk from the pandit in his office. He has just performed the final puja and I’m relieved. It was nerve wracking to sit quietly (quiet, not one of my strengths) five days in a row for 30 minutes listening to half a dozen pandits chanting the gauri-shankar mantra hoping to dislodge my matrimonial star disaster. It is also a little embarrassing. Sure my stars are out of my Type-A-control- freak control (believe me if I could have done anything to fix my stars I would have). But I couldn’t help feeling a little like an unmarriable loser during the sessions.

“I have completed her pendant..." the pandit begins. It irks me that calls me "her". I have a freaking name. He has entered it a billion times into his pandit program, so he should freaking know it. "...with pearl, coral and yellow sapphire. For peace, depression and prosperity. Please have her put this on a chain and the stones must be touching the skin,” the pandit explains. I take off a plain gold chain from my neck and Bangalore Cousin helps me put it back on. “How does it look?” I ask. Even if it is medicinal jewelry, I want it to look nice. “Looks fine,” Bangalore Cousin says. Massi slides on her glasses and inspects the pendant. She nods, pats my hand and flashes a supportive smile.

“We have two boys who we wish for you to chart her stars against,” Bangalore Cousin says and slides a piece of paper with the date and place of birth for both Dr. Froggy and Town and Country. Massi doesn't seem that surprised that there are men in my life. The pandit takes the information and enters it into the computer program.

“Hhhmm. This one is an excellent match. The stars are good. He’s very successful and has a capacity to earn. She will be very happy with him,” the pandit says. The three of us are silent. “Which boy is good?” Bangalore Cousin asks slowly. Holy shit, this is it. “Dr. Froggy,” the pandit replies. Bangalore Cousin sighs and I almost choke on air. “This one though, very bad match. His stars are…” It cannot be a good sign if stars render a pandit speechless. Finally someone with worse stars than mine. “…very bad. This one is no good; this boy has lots of troubles. I don’t think you should pursue this one. I don’t see this one ending well for you,” the pandit says and looks me square in the eye.

Finally, the rule of fate. For some reason I feel better knowing, being told, that despite the lustful desire, Town and Country is bad idea. I feel ready to focus on developing a relationship with Dr. Froggy.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


“I need to check my email, stat,” I say to Bangalore Niece who is very busy reading her Facebook news feed. I have not logged onto Facebook, much less my yahoo account, sent a text message or answered a phone in one full week. Admittedly I have enjoyed the reprieve from technology. I never realized how Pavlovian dog I am with the damn thing - it rings, I answer. God forbid I let a call go to voicemail.

But yesterday my brother called to say Siobhan emailed him worried she not heard from me and hoped I made it to India safely. He explained that I was staying with our aunt who has no computer, which put Siobhan at ease. But her concern prompted me to make sure none of my other friends are worried. To me it’s India. It’s where my relatives live. It’s where we came from. And I guess I forget for non-desis, it is 10 time zones away on the other side of the planet.

“Sure. Can I check one more friend’s status?” Bangalore Niece asks. “Sure,” I reply and peer over her shoulder wondering what a 15 year does online. When Bangalore Niece was seven I started calling her G.I.T. – goddess in training. “I’m not spying,” I say when she looks over at me and sees me reading her wall. I hope she knows I still and will always think she's special. “Who is this girl?" I ask and point at the screen. “Massi, she’s my classmate Priya. They’ve posted photos from Pizza Hut at the mall yesterday. She’s okay, but not smart,” Bangalore Niece explains. “I know the type, beauty no brains. Good thing she can get an arranged marriage instead of worry about college. It's good to be Indian…” I mutter. Bangalore Niece smirks and retreats to the sitting room to watch TV.

I log onto my account and see several dozen emails from friends and one from Dr. Froggy. I spend 15 minutes responding to my friends and then open Dr. Froggy’s note. Email from Dr. Froggy: Hey, are you okay? I’ve been texting you for days and haven’t heard back, kinda worried. My house is almost done, I want you to come and see it.

I roll my eyes at his email. It’s sweet that he’s concerned for me, but it’s slightly annoying that he’s freaking out now. I called him before I left the States last week. But he was too busy watching hockey. And I wasn’t able to explain that I won’t be spending $2.00 per text message, and therefore turning my mobile off for the next two weeks.

“Who sent this email?” Bangalore Cousin asks and reads from behind me. “Dr. Froggy,” I reply and turn to look at her. “Think he’s interested?” I ask, half-jokingly. “Quite interested. What kind of house has he built?” she asks. “A big one,” I reply flatly. “Anything from Town and Country?”

Just the mention of him sends me a-flutter inside, rendering me unable to speak. I shake my head. Bangalore Cousin nods. As much as we fight, she has been with me during my ups and downs with men, friends and life. She has been my constant companion and confidante; she knows me, she understands what I don’t, what I can’t say. “Jerk," she mutters. She is quiet and then asks,“Do you know both of their birth dates and locations?” I nod. “Good, let’s ask the pandit to chart your stars against both of them. Let’s leave this to fate and get rid of Town and Country once and for all.”

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Bangalore Cousin and I have been sitting drinking tea and eating snacks. Despite not exercising in a week and snacking twice a day, I have not gained an ounce. I am beginning to think so much of my American life is so unhealthy including my diet that consists mostly of chips, Diet Coke and wine. Then again, I bet I’d be a great eater if I had a maid cooking for me!

“Massi?” Bangalore Nieces asks and sits down next to me. “Yes?” I reply. “Do you go on dates?” she asks. “Ah yes, I do. Do you,” I reply. She laughs and shakes her head. “No. I am not allowed until I’m 18,” she says. “I think that sounds about right. I think 15 is too young and 18 is just right, you’ll see how much your self-confidence matures in three years. And at your age, it is too easy to fall prey to the way a boy makes you feel,” I share and look her square in the eye, making it clear that I’m talking about sex, but in desi-side-speak. “What about drinking? Do you drink?” Bangalore Niece asks. “Oh yes, boy do I ever…” I reply and glance at my cousin. She is doing everything she can not to have an anxiety attack. Her daughter is talking about adult themes and she is torn between knowing and not knowing.

“Cigarettes? Do you smoke?” Bangalore Niece asks. “I did. For a long time, a closet smoker. Only smoked with smoker friends or alone. And it is disgusting. Don’t even try smoking,” I warn with an edge in my voice that I know she hears because a startled look crawls across her face. “Drugs? Did you do drugs?” Bangalore Niece. “Nope, that is one thing I never got into…” I reply. “Thank God. Finally something you don’t condone everything for my daughter…” Bangalore Cousin mutters.

“Listen Bangalore Niece,” I say and ignore her mother. “I have made a lot of mistakes. A shit-load actually. And man if I could turn time back I’d fix so much. I have dated the wrong guys, gotten drunk, was really fat, have a poor diet so much to change… I also think the questions you are asking are too mature for a 15 year old. But when you’re 18, which makes you an adult, I will come back to India and you can ask me anything and I will tell you everything you want to know. But you have to promise to protect my confidence and I’ll do the same for you, sound okay?” I ask. My niece thinks for a long moment and nods. “Okay. You have never lied to me, so I’ll wait three years, because you promise right? You promise to tell me? Everything I ask?” she asks. “If you promise to keep my secrets,” I reply. She nods and goes into the other room to watch television.

My cousin finally breathes again. “I don’t know if I want to hear those answers you give her. Or what she tells you. But of all my cousins, you live the furthest and they see you the least, but you have the most impact and impression on them. I have never heard my son offer to take anyone drinks. Nor does my daughter speak to anyone else the way she does you – she trusts you and I trust you, and I am glad she’ll have someone to talk to about boys and booze. God knows we didn’t,” Bangalore Cousin says and shakes her head as though her memories film-strip through her head.

Agreed. Growing up caught between America and India, I definitely didn’t have a sounding board either. So I am happy to be a place of trust and safety for Bangalore Niece. Isn't this what family is all about? I guess this is what sustains you through the fights and disagreements - the love and trust.