Friday, November 12, 2010

The Girl from Mumbai

Even a good month after the wedding, Vivek still wakes up momentarily stupefied at the woman lying next to him. Six years of seeking a bride in the singles market with nary a response has rattled his mojo. Six long years, not because of lacking in appearance (he looks great in the photoshopped mug), but because of lacking in ‘husband material.’ I can’t tell you what this ‘husband material’ is - only women know - but men need it aplenty to get their attention. Finally, Vivek panics and throws in a big carrot, green card sponsorship for the future in-laws. Of course, that kind of brave sacrifice is bound to get him a pretty girl and he marries in style (and her parents happily retire.)

Given the history here, I am reluctant to separate him from his wife even for a few hours for the guys get-together tonight. But for Parag, the bull-nosed de facto president for these events, tonight is too special (read too costly) to leave out anyone. Vivek is the last to arrive wearing a stiff-collar white shirt, new black-rim spectacles, and the prominent belly bulging from scheduled feedings.

‘Hi guys! How are things going?’ Vivek greets.

‘Your glasses are cool.’

‘Aren’t they? It is a gift from my wi … er … wife.’ Vivek stammers on the last word.

‘Still having trouble with the marriage concept?’

‘Sometimes, I just can’t believe we celebrated our first month anniversary. Time just flies!’

Before I can congratulate him, Parag cuts straight to the point.

‘Vivek, listen, buddy. Tonight’s party is a bit different. We are having a guest, a woman. A dancer from a famous ladies bar in Bombay.’

‘What is a ladies bar?’

‘Bar with dancing ladies.‘

‘Oh, it is like a gentleman’s club?’

‘Yes, but it is called ladies bar over there. Don’t ever go asking for a gentleman’s club in Bombay, unless you prefer to watch dancing men.’

Her name, Parag says, is Laila. A lithesome beauty with long legs and sapphire eyes, she is more popular than Aishwarya Rai in Bombay after nine. So stirring is her dance that once a businessman gets up rapturous in joy and dumps the rupee equivalent of ten thousand dollars over her head. A generous gift, but with the high conversion rate, the heavy load of bundled notes give her a neck sprain. She is in the Bay Area now convalescing in her cousin’s house.

‘Here is the best part,’ Parag says. ‘I know her cousin. Got me in touch with her. She is ready to do a private dance just for us.’

‘Well, you should have sent an email. I thought we are going to Toy Story 3D.’ Vivek says.

‘If you don’t share your email with your wife, you would get the real memo. Can’t send mails about dancing girls to dabbu_luvs_pinky@gmail.’

‘All right. You go ahead. I’ll watch a movie all by myself.’

‘Are you chickening out?’ Parag accuses.

‘No, I’m not really interested in a dance.’

‘C’mon! You’re scared of your wife. And all just for a dance.’

‘Preposterous! All right, I will stick around . Let me just call my wi … wi … ‘

‘Wife?’ I gently suggest.

‘Whew, what a word! Let me just tell her about the dance.’

‘Hold it, right there!’ Parag gets up. ‘Do you know where your wife is?’

‘She is out shopping with the other girls.’

‘Ha! That’s what you think! Maybe she is in a club watching men dance.’

‘That’s gross!’

‘You never know! That is the whole concept of trust. It is a don’t ask, don’t tell policy.’

Vivek reluctantly consents and sits down sulking in the corner. Parag stands up waving his hands to make an announcement.

‘Men, one last thing before she comes here. Laila has some moral issues about dancing for married guys not accompanied by their wives. To make matters simple, I told her we are all bachelors.’

‘That is such a lie! Everyone in this room is married.’ speaks the man in the corner.

‘Vivek, please shut up. It is a mere formality. Now, everyone, please take off your wedding rings, I will collect them in this box.’

Parag drops off his ring with a clang into a tin box and passes it around. After I’m done, I pass it on to Vivek in the corner. I hear a sigh and a grunt.

‘What’s the matter?’ I ask.

‘Ha! It is kind of tight.’ Vivek laughs, grappling with the ring.

‘You are prosperous,’ Parag says. ‘Pinky is feeding you well.’

Another grunt. ‘Parag, it is not coming out.’

‘It better come out if you want to watch her dance.’

Another heave and desperate grunt but the ring doesn’t budge. Vivek cries in a panic-stricken voice: ‘I’m stuck! I’m STUCK!’

‘You are not stuck. The ring is stuck. Here, let me help.’ I pitch in and others join. But we can’t separate the ring from his flesh though we separate a big chunk of skin.

‘Ok, that is enough,’ Parag says, ‘sorry, Vivek. You gotta leave. Laila will be here any minute.’

‘No!’ Vivek lunges on his finger.

‘Hey, you will break it. Take it easy,’ I say.

‘Yeah, move out, go watch Toy Story 3D,’ says Parag, ushering him out.

Vivek leaves looking crushed, but not a moment too soon because Laila dances into the hall just a few minutes later like a gust of wind sweeping through rickety leaves.

I will not try to put into words the experience of watching a performer who knows her craft too well. I can only say the hours pass by like seconds and when I finally answer my phone that is ringing of the hook, she is long gone and we are just breaking out from the trance she put us under.

It is Vivek. ‘About time! I have been trying to reach you all night. Is she still there?’

‘Laila? No, she is gone.’

‘Oh no!’ pause, I can detect the disappointment.

‘Why are you asking?’

‘I got the ring out.’

‘Cool! How did you do it?’

I hear a grunt. ‘Please, I don't want to get into those details. It doesn’t matter anyway, she is gone.’

‘Hey, wait, all is not lost. Parag has some great news.’ I hand the phone over to Parag who is passing around the wedding rings from the box. He grabs the phone.

‘Vivek, buddy, I hear the ring is out. Don’t put it back on because Laila ... oh ... she is spectacular ... is back again tomorrow for an encore. Find an excuse to get out of the house, buddy, see you tomorrow same time.’

22 hours later …

As soon as she enters, Laila glides down the dance floor like a dream to where Vivek sits trembling in excitement.

'You were missing all the fun last night.’

‘I … I ... I ... I was otherwise busy.’

‘I hope you are enjoying tonight.’

‘Yes, hundred per cent. No, two hundred per cent.’

She reaches over and slowly withdraws his Marc Jacobs. Vivek blinks and grins.

‘I like your spectacles. Where did you get them?’

‘Oh, aren’t they cool? Those are my anniversary gift.’

She immediately stops dancing. Suffice to say, Vivek never got to see the performance. But, with the extra time on our hands, we finally watch Toy Story 3D. It is a great movie if you are in the right frame of mind. If you are not, it is agony.

Friday, August 13, 2010

What is in a coffee name?

The petite cashier in Starbucks gulped when she saw me approaching - probably yet to recover from the unpronouncable multisyllabic name casually dropped on her head this morning by another Indian. I ordered a tall cappuccino, at which point she had to ask me for my name which was not without trepidation.

'Luke,' I said. Her face went blank for a second and then she exhaled in relief. Luke, that is easy! Of all the coffee names I make up, Luke is my favorite. It is short but also distinct, and, most importantly, easy to yell. Try yelling a Brad or a Chris, and your inflamed larynx begs for a menthol lozenge. Luke is elastic and smooth like a soft whistle.

'Luke – cappuccino,' the barista hollered.

My order was ready in seconds. Fabulous! I collared my cup and headed for the sugar bin when a shrill voice shouted: 'Hey! That is mine.'

A large flat-nosed white guy poked his chin at my coffee looking very pissed.

'Sorry, I'm sure this is mine. You see the name "Luke" written on this cup? That's my name.'

'Luke is my name - my real name. You don't look like a Luke to me.'

Well, excuse me! The insinuation is chilling. This guy has crossed a line – there is got to be some line on racial stereotyping. I don't look Luke just because I am brown? (On that matter, let me set a record straight here - I may look brown, but I was once really fair-complexioned. Years of Indian summers have tanned me. I can even prove it - my inner thighs are still milky white.)

'What do you mean?' I barked.

'Are you kidding? Luke is the whitest name on earth. You will be more convincing calling yourself the Big Lebowski. '

Suddenly, a new indignant voice joined us. A suit-clad Vietnamese. 'The Indian has a point. Maybe that is his real name. Why cannot he be a Luke?"

Just then, the barista hollered again, 'Latte for Kenny Rogers.'

The Vietnamese guy said: 'Excuse me, that's my coffee.'

Luke rolled his eyes. 'You are defending this phoney when you call yourself Kenny Rogers? C'mon, give me a break. You are either a Ngoc or a Nguyen. What are you? Show me your card.'

'Even if I'm a Nguyen, so what? You are a bad man. You are a racial name profiler, Luke,' Rogers said.

'Racial name profiling? Is that a new offense … are you accusing me of a crime? So I'm guilty, sue me.'

Just then, Luke's quiet friend stepped into the fray. A lanky chap in t-shirt and slacks that seem to slowly drift down to the VCL
1. Tugging them up at the last instant, he spoke with a mild grin: 'Excuse my friend, he is not very PC.'

'You bet I'm not PC, Steve. You –' he said, addressing me. 'Just give me my coffee. When the cup says Luke, it is me.'

'This is my coffee. My name is written on it. And I'm bloody well having it.' I said, and sipped it watching Luke's dismayed reaction.

The barista hollered again - 'Cappuccino for the Asian Luke.'

Awkward silence followed as my expression turned sheepish and Luke's turned murderous. Ok, I messed up.

'All right, it is an honest mistake. Two guys, same name.'

'That ain't a mistake. You are trying to pass off as someone you are not.'

'There you go. RNP again,' said Kenny Rogers.

'RNP? Now it is an acronym? Here is some RNP for you. I walk into an ethnic place and try to pass off as a Nguyen or a Reddy, I will tear the place down with laughter.'

'You are wrong, Luke,' I said. 'They might be surprised, but they won't insult you.'

'Ha! That's what you think!' said Luke.

Steve said: 'Well, there is only one way to find out. I know the perfect Indian place. It is a chat cafe just a couple of blocks away.'

I was game. Luke pondered for a second and accepted the challenge. Rogers said he will tag along to watch Bollywood in the Indian café. He said he is a big fan of Shah Rukh Khan.

'What is taking my Latte so long?' Steve wondered, as his slacks again descended towards VCL.

'Forget it, theAsian Steve just whisked it,' said Luke, with a sardonic guffaw.

There are many chat cafés in the Bay Area, but this place is unique in two respects. First, the kitchen has an exhaust, though it seems to exit the odors into the dining area where they permeate into the customers' skins. Second, the cashier takes orders by names, which is why we came here to test our ethnic RNP theories.

First to order was Steve who chose a samosa chat and gave his name to the bushy-eyebrowed, open-mouthed cashier typing on his computer.

Steve recommended the same dish to Luke who was next up.

'Your name, sir?'

Without flinching, Luke said loudly to anyone who can hear: 'Reddy.'

One bushy eyebrow went up, but the cashier remained glued to the screen. No one laughed, no one seemed to care.

'Repeat: I am Reddy!' said Luke, a little louder. Still no reaction. I smiled pleasantly at Luke who just grunted.

Next up was Kenny Rogers who ordered a Bhel Puri.

'And your name, sir?'

'Shah Rukh Khan.' Both the bushy eyebrows went up, and bobbed once.

I leaned over and asked Kenny what the hell he was trying to do. He said that was the first Indian name that came into his head.

'But you don't need an Indian name here. Just be yourself.'

'Over here, I want to be someone else.' Kenny said. His top shirt buttons were already undone like Indian matinee idols. I peered hard into his face and saw a bit of insanity there. He had moved on from Kenny. He put on shades. A role player who lived in his roles.

When my turn arrived, I ordered a kulfi and gave my name.

'So is that your real name?' Luke asked after we found a table.

'Let us stick to the point. No one here gives two straws whether you are Luke or Reddy. Names don't mean anything here. You got to concede the argument.'

'We are not done,' Luke said, but unconvincingly.

The waiter brought Steve's order first who immediately started digging into it.

'Mmmm … ' said Steve, 'this tastes good.'

I got my Kulfi, Kenny his bhel puri, and then Luke's order arrived.

Luke took a big spoonful and immediately turned purple. His flat nose ballooned out, his eyes melted into waterfalls, his face turned ruddy and black.

'What the bloody f@!% is in this dish??'

'What is the matter?' I asked.

'One spoon and a nuclear reaction is going off in my head. I am dying here. Where is the waiter?'

The only waiter in that place came around shortly. 'Is there a problem, sir' he inquired.

Luke who was emptying sugar sachets into his mouth looked at him with burning eyes: 'There bloody well is. What did you put into my plate? TNT, RDX?'

'May I look at your orders, sir' said the waiter, checking our receipts.

'But I ordered the same dish and it is quite good,' Steve said.

The waiter suddenly exclaimed. 'Sir, Mr. Steve got the white-guy-spicy version, which is really mild. But since your name , is it really Mr. Reddy, sir?'

'Why not?' Steve asked.

'Sir, if you give your name as Reddy, the kitchen staff will think you are a real Reddy and automatically upgrade you to the Guntur-chili spice level , sir.'

Silence. Luke looked at me incredulous. 'Did you say no RNP in Indian places? Maybe, but here is a new acronym – RFP. Racial food profiling! Now, if you will excuse me, I need two gallons of beer.'

He stormed out. Steve excused himself to spring after Luke, the action taking his pants finally past VCL – a very unfortunate sight to add to my chagrin. But Shah Rukh Khan was happy digging with gusto into Luke's unfinished plate.

  1. VCL – Visible Crack Line.

After reading Shefali Kulkarni's delightful piece on coffee names in the village voice blog.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Tug

I enjoy hiking as much as disco dancing on a bed of hot coals, which is to say not a whole lot. Still, here I am, huffing and wheezing on "The Knees-breaker" with mister Ajit for company who is leaping from rock to rock like a horny mountain goat. Ajit has got it all - VP of a 200-strong IT company, a tri-athlete, a blogger with 1000 hits a day, and even a finger-clicking Bollywood dancer.

At the first switchback, I collapse on a rock panting like a strangled cat where Ajit is waiting clicking keys on his Blackberry.

"You took a while, Baddie! Just a second while I finish this tweet ... my 3000 followers are dying for my daily wit" Ajit says, as he thumbs down his wisdom. The sun is unbearable with no cover, I quickly fall on all fours and scoot my butt eastwards.

"What in the world are you doing?" Ajit asks.

"Hiding my face behind my butt. Saw it on Discovery Channel. Called the stoop-down. Chacma baboons known to do this - to cool head in open sun."

"Remind me again why you are here." Ajit asks.

"Ch ... chol ... cholesterol," I pant. Kind of hard to speak with chin resting on a piece of rock.

"Oh yes. Classic - wife worried about your lipid profile, mandates physical work. What is your score anyway?"

"300. Plus." I can't see him but imagine his smirk. Hear a low whistle.

"Tsk, tsk, Baddie - that is very high. I'm, ahem, just 106, but you know me, I always worry about my numbers even if it is the lowest it can get."

"You are not normal, Ajit."

Ajit laughs. "Now, that is bloody ironic. You know you got to move your ass off the couch. You will feel fittest in the great outdoors."

"I feel fittest watching television." I grunt. "How much further do we have to go?"

"Well, we have hardly begun. Listen, man, can you just stand up and look at me? I cannot go on talking to your butt while people are walking by."

From my unique position, I spy something glinting in the sun hundreds of yards away on the side of the hill.

"Hey, what is that?"


I get up to point it out to him. It glints like an aluminum box, maybe some kind of com device, strapped to a huge boulder on the northern side of the hill.

"What the hell is it? No one around, let's investigate," Ajit says jumping over the side rail separating the trail from the gravel.

"Hey, that is off-trail ... illegal!" I protest.

"I'm going anyway. C'mon, before people see us." Ajit is moving fast, picking his way across the patchy gravel-and-stone lie-way . With a shrug, I follow him on the path and onto the narrow ledge leading up to the boulder face, where we stop in front of the box. It is actually not stuck to the wall, but strapped to a rusted iron pole rising from the ground. The door on the box is latched but not locked. Ajit opens it without a moment's hesitation.

When I was five years old, one of my mother's friends K brought me a gift in a strange metal case. I didn't trust her, she had a habit of continuously tapping on my head when she spoke to me, but I was intrigued. Never before did I get a gift in a metal box. I tried to pry off the top but it didn't budge. Mrs. K tapped on my head again to show me the little push-button on the side. I pressed it firmly - the top flew open and a spring-loaded snake jumped right into my face. Since that day, I added one more thing to my don't-trust-list - mysterious metal boxes.

I stand my distance as Ajit opened the box. But nothing pops out this time. Inside is a plain wooden handle tied to a piece of rope threading through the back of the pole. A tape across the handle has an ominous message written on it:


"What do you reckon it is," Ajit asks.

"I don't know, but this gives me the creeps. Let us go."

"Now, why would they have anything like this in the middle of nowhere?"

"Maybe it is some alarm or something. What are you waiting here for? Let us go."

"Just a minute." Ajit pauses, he is thinking hard. "Is there anyone on the trail who can see us?"

"No, not unless, of course, if they are engaging in the stoop-down like Chacma baboons."

"Ok, so we are safe. We might as well try it out."

"Try out what?"

"Yank the sucker."

"Are you mad?" I ask, horrified. "We can go to jail."

A strange inscrutable expression is on his face.

"Sorry, I got to do this." In a flash, he rips the tape apart and pulls on the handle! Tugs it down. Nothing happens. We wait in stunned silence. No sirens, no lights, no yells. Ajit frowns almost in disappointment.

On the way back, Ajit lapses into a thoughtful silence. Suddenly, he yelps.

"I think I should have tugged it harder."

"What do you mean?"

"Remember the emergency chains in Indian trains, you got to tug them really hard. I should put more force into it."

"If you are going back there, you are on your own. I'm not risking my neck for someone's idle curiousity."

"You are right. It is not worth the trouble."

We come down to the trail head and I bid him farewell.


I receive a call in the morning while watching Regis-Kelly over breakfast.

"Baddie? This is Ajit. I need a big favor from you."

Fifteen minutes later, I'm pulling up at the corrections center still confused as a goat led into the sea. The guard outside ushers me into a hall where I almost trip when I recognize Ajit in a pink bodysuit standing at a counter.

"There you are! Did you get everything?" He says and grabs the document folder from my arms.

"What is this place? What the hell is all this?"

"Tell you all about it later. What did you tell my wife?"

"The cock-and-bull story you gave me."

"Excellent," he passes on the packet to the woman behind the counter.

"What is with that dress?"

"Some code they have here for offenders. Ok, buddy," Ajit says, "you remember the hike when we pulled that lever?"

"Of course."

"Well, it turns out to be an alarm. It is meant for the rangers to notify forest and brush fires in the neighboring Henry Cowell state park. It is like the place with the best lookout. So, it worked, it alerted the fire station and cops and they all went to the Henry Cowell park and found nothing there. In the meantime, they sent the ranger out to investigate who tripped the alarm."

"Oh no, don't tell me you went back."

"You guessed it. Remember I thought I didn't pull it down hard enough? So I went back for another shot and was in the act when the ranger caught me red-handed."

"What did they slap on you?"

"$1000 and 80 hours of community service in a pink suit in the middle of the busiest parks in the Bay Area. I really got ridiculed. But I managed to do the time without the family and friends knowing about it thus far. If I didn't forget the documents, you wouldn't know either."

"Why did you do this? Why risk your neck?"

Ajit looks flummoxed. "What do you mean? There is a lever in the middle of nowhere. Didn't you feel like yanking it?"

"No, not me."

"You are not normal."

"Now, that's bloody ironic. Don't you regret it now?"

"Funny you should ask. Strangely - no, I don't."

"I don't get it."

The woman calls him and hands him his clothes and documents. He is free.

Ajit pauses in front of the restroom.

"You know, let me ask you something - when you are alone with a fire alarm, do you ever feel like triggering it?"

I ponder that question. No, but I know someone who did. He was making a call from a payphone in a public building and the alarm was just within reach. He couldn't resist fiddling with it. The siren went off, and as he legged it from there he saw members filing out in drill formation, fire engines approaching, and sprinklers raining down the corridors.

Ajit scratches his head. "Well, some people do, some don't. The first time I travelled alone, I was thirteen on the Mangalore-Madras overnight train. I got the uppermost berth, where when I placed my head on the pillow, the emergency chain was only inches away. I couldn't sleep. I was staring at it until the wee hours when I realized a boy on the opposite berth was also awake staring at it - same reason. He gave me first pickings - for 10 seconds, he waited, but when it was apparent I lacked the balls, he jumped across and yanked it, packed his bags and jumped out of the braking train. He pulled the damn chain, even if it means he has to get down in the middle of nowhere 100 km from Madras station."

"I'm sure there is a point here, but I'm missing it."

"Baddie, that is my only regret. I should have yanked that chain, not him."

I still don't get it.

"Maybe you will never understand. I don't know how to explain. I gotta go. By the way, the boy's name is Aravind Adiga."

"The Booker prizewinning novelist?"

It has been ten days since that conversation. I don't think I will ever understand the significance of the "tug" - that urge to pull chains and yank levers. I'm trying, see I even chose this spot in the apartment business center not only to write this article but also to test my biological radio kit.

The fire alarm is within an arm's reach. Been that way for over two hours. Yet, I don't feel the tug. Strangely disappointed with myself. Don't even know why.

Monday, March 1, 2010


For those of you who have read Wodehouse's conception of a personal chef so good that church-going women battle for his service like common crooks, then brace yourself for this. The flesh-and-blood version of Anatole is alive and kicking, displaying, as we speak, his exceptional culinary prowess daily in my mother's kitchen. Venkat starts the day with a strong cup of coffee that springs you from bed faster than a kick in the groin. You will embark on a gastric odyssey from a dosa breakfast to ambrosial dishes of the problem-solving cadre. His all-in-one sambars, for instance, have wiped out saas-bahu type of disputes, but the piece de resistance is the tamarind chutney that seizes control of the upper esophagus for all of five witless seconds. Insanely slurper-icious, it has much scope in improving bilateral relationships.

Unlike Anatole, however, Venkat is not a mercenery. But he also carries his own baggage of eccentricities. For one thing, he is honest to the point of insanity -sure, integrity is godsend to my mom whose last cook Sanyasi was steadily pilfering her saffola oil and pure sooji - but, Venkat does not even eat at work because to him that is tantamount to stealing. Second, he thinks cooking, in spite of all the awe it inspires, is just unskilled labor (he always dreamt of being a car driver, but sooji is easier to obtain than a steering wheel where he grew up.) He is also touchy as a hen, cannot tolerate a slight or even the perception of one especially on his appearance. And even if he feels slightly insulted, he resigns immediately.

But thanks to his quirks, he now works for my mother. His previous employer Judge Shankar just lives up the street from my mother's house. On Diwali day, Venkat came to work dressed in pink Gemini shirt and maroon striped pants, such a bizarre sight that even the normally dour Judge guffawed. Venkat quit immediately, and his wife put him back on the market, triggering a bidding war between Mom and Mrs. L.

Of course, you'd think Mrs. L won; after all, the conniving wealthy woman has many stellar accomplishments: best maid-servant, best gardener, and most obedient husband. But she misread Venkat. Money alone doesn't work on him. He is also particular about piosity. In this department, my mother has no equal. Mrs L's fourteen gods in her pooja room are no match for the pantheon of thirty-six on mom's staggeringly superior pooja room.

I remember I was in India when my mother got the acceptance call from Venkat. His wife came alone first to "inspect" the kitchen. Her eye caught the family antique in the dining room - a large amphora from Egypt with elliptic handles. She pleaded with us to put it away.

"But why?" asked my mother.

"Because the handles on this amphora look just like his ears. He will be offended immediately."

"But the handles are protruding outwards, human ears go sideward," I said.

"Venkat's ears are unlike human ears, he has front-facing lobes." She produced her ration card with his picture. It is difficult to imagine front-facing ear lobes until you see them with your eyes. She was right - the resemblance to the old jug is striking. So it went to the attic. And so did the salt-and-pepper shaker because of the likeness to his nose. So did a terrain-map globe because of its likeness to the baldness pattern on his head. Finally, Venkat began office the next day.

In hindsight, I should have seen the first sign of trouble just a few days later. My mother's driver had quit, so we were searching for a replacement. Venkat sought me out and offered himself.

"Have you ever driven a car before?" I asked.

"No, sir. But," he hastened to add, "the old driver Ramu taught me everything I need to know. Clutch on the left, brake in the middle, gas pedal to the right. Press the clutch, shift the gear, accelerate, and steer. It is a piece of cake."

"Listen, Venkat," I said softly, "why don't you get some lessons where driving a real car is involved? A couple of years experience, and this job is yours."

"Two years, sir?" his voice faltered.

"Completely necessary, Venkat. Just a breeze. Can I get another cup of that elaichi tea? It is just out of the world. With a piece of cake, please."

A week later, we were heading out to the airport for our return trip back to US. When the taxi stopped at a traffic light, I saw an old beat-up Fiat on the curbside repeatedly backing up into a tree. The driver was too inept to avoid the tree as he rammed into it over and over again. Our light turned green and my taxi started pulling away when I recognized the Fiat driver's face: Venkat! Taking those darned lessons, but not learning much.

When we arrived in America, my cellphone immediately buzzed. Missed calls from Mom. I called her up.

"Son, it is all over. The sky has fallen on our heads," my mother bawled at the other end.

"What happened?"

"Venkat resigned. He is gone."

"But why?"

"Mrs. L enticed him with a driving opportunity. She purchased an old beat-up Fiat just for him, so he can drive it around for groceries."

"Oh no! I saw him in the car. I thought he was taking lessons. She knew his weakness, that clever woman."

"That woman has no shame. She just sent an invitation for her birthday party tomorrow. She is ready to show off her new cook."

"Mom, listen - I think you should stay calm ..."

Clearly, nothing I said calmed down my mother. My wife sized up the situation and asked me to go back to India again.

"Whatever you do, you got to get Venkat back," said my wife with the look of a determined bahu.

Forty-eight hours later, I am back, ringing the doorbell on my mother's house. I saw the beat-up Fiat parked outside Mrs. L's gate, more beat-up than ever. Venkat must be pounding it like one of his rotis. Mom opened the door.

"Good to see you again so soon," Mom said.

"Well, you look like you recovered from the shock," I said.

Mom nodded. "You must be really tired. Back-to-back trips when I'm doing just fine. What do you want - coffee or tea?"

"Tea, please." I said. Didn't really matter. I flopped down on the balcony chair, and Mom appeared with tea cups. I could see Mrs. L's house from here. In fact, I know where her kitchen is. Venkat must be in there, I thought and sipped my tea.

For a second, the world turned upside down and tilted upright again. The veil seems lifted, the sky is blue again. The birds are chirping, the fruit-seller is calling out his goods, and the kids are playing in the park. It is a perfect day. It is elaichi tea. It is a kick in the groin.

I leapt out of my chair. "Venkat is back!" I said.

Mom smiled: "Yes, he rejoined this morning."

"But why ... how ..."

"Well, I went to Mrs. L's birthday party. Can't be the sore loser, right? Venkat was there, avoiding me, but his food was as good as it usually is."

"All right," I said impatiently, "but why did he come back? Change of heart?"

"Not really. I had to take a gift for Mrs. L, after all she was kind enough to give me a gift on friendship day. I hope you are not mad at me ... I gave her the Egyptian amphora."

"But, Mom, why ... that is so dear to us... OH!" It struck me then. The devious plan. I stopped.

Mom grinned: "Mrs. L had no clue what this was getting her into. She was so excited about the amphora she put it on her dining table. For one whole day, Venkat had to endure the humiliation of this hideous thing mocking his ears."

"Mom, you are the devil incarnate." I realized I was wasting my time now. "Well, you should have let me into the plan. I took emergency leave to get back here. I'll take the 3.30 flight to Bangalore from where I can get back to work."

"Why don't you stay here for dinner? You must be tired." She called out for Venkat.

I dialled the travel agency and spoke: "Can't, Mom. Gotta go. Oh hello! Frontline travel? Can I speak to Ms. Archana please"

Venkat arrived in the meantime as I was waiting for my agent.

"Venkat, my son is not staying for dinner. So nothing fancy today, you can stick to my regular diet."

I cupped the mouthpiece. "Wait, what were you planning for dinner today?"

Venkat cleared his throat. "Uttapam opener, and then a main course with two curries - stuffed brinjal and chopped jackfruit, coconut, tamarind chutneys, and strained rasam. For dessert, thayir vada and pista kulfi. But, since you are leaving now ..."

I instantly slammed down the phone. "That, my friend, is just a rumor!"

ps: To my mother's cook who has all the skills as the Venkat of this story without his front-facing lobes and fragile ego.