By linking my dinner prospects to the tidiness of the garage, my wife got me rummaging through the pile of clutter accumulated over years of Costco executive membership. I began to sort the totally-useless from the probably-useless (with my one-year-old wailing his head off in the background) when a brightly-colored package fell out from an old box. I recognized it immediately – after all these years! The outer cover still crinkled like new. I felt the hard wooden frame inside with the stone-edged contours. As I spun it in my hands, this crazy thing I bought fifteen years ago at a curio shop in an Indian town, memories came rushing back.
In the late summer of 1994 in India, my loan search to pursue a Master's program in America got three dispiriting rejections. Just when I'm ready to toss out the idea, I ran into "Loafer" Sharma sucking on a cigarette at the tea canteen. Into the seventh year of a four-year degree, Loafer's flunked-it-all record never stopped him from being the local career counselor. Over a cup of tea and few cigarettes, he heard my story, and said I got it all wrong. All I needed, the ultimate non-achiever opined, was just enough dough for the flight ticket.
"The trick to getting financial aid is really simple," Loafer said, scratching his armpit, "take an expensive gift from India, a decorative piece like a wall hanging. Walk into a young Professor's office and give it to him. Funding guaranteed."
"That sounds crazy!'
"Not in a University," the hopeless deadbeat replied, blowing a cloud of smoke right into my face. "Try that anywhere else and they will slam you for bribery. But put yourself in the Professor's shoes. No human being ever approaches him, because, face it, these birds are intimidating. Just imagine his joy when someone actually presents him with a gift. He thinks 'they must like me, after all, in spite of the crazy subject I teach.'"
"Absolutely. This is how every Indian student gets funding there. Now there's a craft shop just down the road. You will find a great number of impressive stuff over there."
Maybe the slouch had a point after all. I paid for his tea and cigarettes. Least I could do. Within a few minutes, I found it - Lepakshi, a dimly lit gifts and crafts shop. The interior looked like a store room for pirate loot. Bronze figurines, chandeliers, vases – there was just way too much stuff to make one definitive choice.
"Can I help you, sir?" I turned around to face an oily store clerk who looked a bit like a handicraft himself.
"I'm looking for a gift that I can carry in a suitcase."
"Oh, this is for America?"
"I know exactly what you need. This is a collection that just arrived this morning from Darjeeling. It is both a toy and a piece of art."
He led me to the back room where three pieces were set up on a worker's bench. Animal statuettes with bodies carved from wood, fur from stone. Crystal lights for eyes. Just a thousand rupees, what a deal I thought! I chose one and he wrapped it up for me.
Two months later, in the Fall of 1994, I rapped on Prof Scottkid's office with the shiny package under my arm. The door flung open revealing a hairless birdie in horn-rimmed spectacles.
"Yes?" rasped the man better known in classrooms as the Grim Reaper.
His voice jolted me to my senses. What am I doing here? Why am I acting on the advice of a complete dingbat? I'm on the horns of a dilemma: on one hand, if I were to hand over this stupid gift, the Prof will peck me with his pointy nose. On the other hand, it is bizarre to carry on a conversation holding a brightly-colored gift package in plain view with no intention of giving it.
I chose bizarre. But, after some very awkward exchanges, my head couldn't take it any more. In a sudden bout of insanity, I bolted with the package leaving him there like a surprised fish. It struck him deep, because for the rest of my two years there, this birdie studiously avoided me in the hallways.
Several years passed. Downsizing at the end of my Colorado trip, I found the handicraft, lying still unopened in my suitcase just when an old friend Nitin - who was in town for just a couple of days – called me unexpectedly. We go back a long way. In college, there wasn't a hedonistic pleasure on this planet not explored by this dove. He gave us many unforgettable memories. I still remember the night he stood inebriated outside the girls' hostel in underwear singing Bollywood duets into a megaphone. But, that was then.
Now, in the recent past in America, tables have turned. The Art of Living meditation society got him into their inner fold and systematically purified his soul. What was remaining of the filtered ward greeted me at the café in kurta and sandals.
"What's happening?" I asked.
"I cannot say. Whatever happens is destined to happen."
"You sound like Morpheus."
"Who is Morpheus?" He asked puzzled.
"Never mind, you don't watch movies I suppose."
I tried a meaningful conversation for fifteen minutes, but finally gave up. I just had one last thing to say to him.
"Lest I forget: Happy Birthday!"
"Oh, thank you. You still remember my birthday."
"Of course I do," I said. "Who can forget those raining booze parties?"
He winced noticeably.
"Look, I got a gift for you." I handed him the package, expecting some sort of positive reaction. But his face fell. He looked like it instantly complicated his life.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It is a handicraft. Open it."
"Thanks, I will open it in my hotel room. I have to go. I'm teaching a meditation class tomorrow." He bolted in a hurry.
A couple of days later, Nitin called me looking for a ride to the airport. When I got to his hotel, I popped open the trunk as I waited for him to load and get in. A minute later, he slid into the passenger seat with a bag slung over his shoulder. After we arrived at the airport, I got out first and opened the trunk with my key. Imagine my surprise – it was almost empty save for the very same gift package.
"Where is the rest of your luggage?" I asked.
"This is it." He said.
"That is it? Just that bag and my gift?"
"Yes, all I need in my life is in this bag. Two sets of Kurtas, a cotton towel, underwear, my books. The package doesn't fit in the bag, so I'm carrying it by hand."
"But, you haven't even opened it yet."
"Sorry, I just didn't have the time. I will."
I couldn't believe it. This guy has no strings, he lives on twigs and salt. As we walked to the gate, I felt I was burdening him with irrelevant weight. At the security gate, I called him aside.
"Do you really want the gift?" I asked. The pleading in his eyes answered no. I pried it from of his grateful hands. Thanking me, he soared through the gate like an uncaged bird.
Soon after my wife started working, her German boss invited us to their home warming. We were running late and we still had to stop to buy a gift. Suddenly, I remembered the old handicraft lying somewhere around the house. I rapidly searched through my old bags and voila, I found it. Perfect! Finally, it was going somewhere. My wife drove while I fixed a label on the package.
"What should I write?" I asked.
"To Heidi, Congratulations …" she said.
"Shouldn't we also address it to her husband?"
"Oh yes. His name is Wolfe. To Heidi and Wolfe: …"
I was just going to write it down when a chill ran down my spine.
"Her husband's name is Wolfe?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes, what is the matter?"
"Oh no! This won't do. We got to buy a new gift."
"What is wrong with this gift?" she asked puzzled.
"This handicraft is the statue of an animal. Of a wolf. A wolf! We can't give a wolf statuette to a guy called Wolfe."
"You're right. It is insulting. What will he think?" my wife said, and hastily U-turned into a mall. I tossed the package into the back seat. It was jinxed. Stuck to me like glue.
Returning to the present (double entendre intended), I gingerly opened the outer wrapping on the garage floor. Then, I uncoiled the cotton-string inner wrapping, and set it on an upturned box. The wolf, its head toward the sky, howled soundlessly at an imaginary moon.
Suddenly, I became conscious of a silence in the room. The wailing had stopped.
"Coo," said my one-year-old, peeking from behind my arm.
"Yep, it is cool, isn't it? Let me find the batteries."
"Bow-wow," he declared, looking at it intently.
"Not any bow-wow. Wild bow-wow! Wild!" I found the batteries, and inserted them.
The wolf's eyes glowed, and it howled. My son's face instantly changed from dour to excited. It charged him up: he ran around it, clapped, and chortled every time it howled. He played with it the whole day.
The gift finally found a taker.