Sunday, January 29, 2012

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

ps: I'm glad to return to blogging here after a year-long hiatus.

I received a call out of the blue from an old buddy Atul, a wistful nostalgic, with the news he was shifting back to motherland by the year's end. Though I knew he was unhappy with his software job, I never imagined he would suddenly abandon a career here just to chase a whimsical dream of cultivating silkworms on mulberry leaves. It sounded like an absurd career change, but this man grew up in the Silk City, and evidently the roots are still tugging his heart. He didn’t give me all the details over the phone, saying it is a long story best explained over dinner. After a short silence, whilst each was trying to figure out who invited whom last, I ruefully realized it was my turn.

‘Oh, thanks, that’s great. BTW, my in-laws are in town. I’m sure you don’t mind if they tag along. I’ll email their dietary restrictions.’

At dinner the next day, Atul and his wife introduced us to his in-laws. Wrapped in Atul’s winter jackets, his mother-in-law said a polite hello, while the pater started at my forehead as if he were trying to read my financial affairs from the shapes of the eyebrows.

‘Who made the food?’ he demanded. My wife said she received their diet restrictions and prepared the dinner with minimal salt and spices.

His expression softened: ‘Thank you, we really have to watch what we eat at this age. Eat right and eat on time, that’s my mantra.’

Without further ado, they dived into the food. I noticed Atul looked severely depressed. I took him aside:

‘What’s the matter? I thought you’d be ecstatic about your move back to India.’

‘Yes, but this is our last six months in US, and we have to deal with them,’ poking his chin at his in-laws.

‘But, your in-laws seem very nice.’

‘Nice? Those old fogies are insufferable!’ He started pacing the floor. ‘They are chewing my ear about my silkworms. The greybeard says it is a demeaning job, that he is too ashamed to disclose this to his circle of friends in Bangalore. Well, I really don’t care what his coterie thinks! For me, it will be a dream come true – in a rustic village with nary a care, just raising silkworms on mulberry leaves. I can spend all day examining the tenderness of the soft larvae in my hands. Tell me,’ he stopped: ‘have you ever stroked an organic worm in its pupal state? Have you ever unrolled a cocoon’s sticky fibers and licked the wispy threads off your fingertips?’

I threw up my hands. ‘Listen, you should consider their position. Engineers don’t suddenly resign their jobs just to breed insects. Give them some time, they will get over this.’

‘Ok, so I understand it is a bit of shock for them. Well, they can stay home in Bangalore and absorb this. They come here, lecture me, use all my stuff - my backpacks, my TV remote, my favorite chair. Look, they are even wearing my best winter jackets.’ Just then his mother-in-law vigorously wiped her flaring nose on his jacket collar. He winced: ‘And I have no privacy, and freedom.’

I was astonished. ‘Privacy? Buddy, you should get used to this. When you are in India, they are going to visit you every day.’

Atul’s face lit up, ‘Not at all. You think I’m an idiot? I’m moving to this godforsaken place called Magarhai in UP. It is so remote that it takes twice the time to go from Bangalore to Magarhai than from Bangalore to any place in the US. Stop for a minute and think about it.’

‘What if your in-laws permanently move in with you? Your F-I-L works in the civil services, after all.’

‘Civil services jobs in Magarhai?' he laughed. 'Until the forest officer dies, my F-I-L can’t get a position. Last I checked, the forest officer is as healthy as he is corrupt. He’s not going anywhere.’

‘Ok, then what is the problem? Cheer up, six months is not so long.’

‘Six months! Six long months! It has only been a week since they landed here! I will grow mental.’

Just then, I noticed his F-I-L take a small pouch out of his pocket and dump its contents on his dinner plate. Suddenly, a raw odor rushed across the room straight up my head like someone had taken two fire-roasted chilli garlic cloves and jammed them up my nostrils.

‘What the hell is that?’ I stammered. I saw my wife collapsing straight down on the sofa.

‘I should have warned you. That is his native chilli pickle. It is a sort of WMD.’

‘But what about all those diet restrictions in your email? No salt, no masala.’ I asked, reeling.

‘Beats me! Penny wise and pound foolish, if you ask me.’

‘My eyes! My god, this is like a tear gas attack. Do they always carry it with them wherever they go?’

‘They cannot eat a meal without that pickle. They bring a year’s supply from Kerala every summer, carrying it on person like a driving license. They brought a full jar to the US in cabin baggage.’

Suddenly, even in the midst of the strong odor, I felt my scalp trying to separate from my forehead: a moment of epiphany. I just had a diabolical idea!

‘Atul, I just figured out the answer to your prayers. I know how to send your in-laws packing off to India in a day.’

‘What? How?’

‘Cut off their oxygen supply.’

He went ‘Eh?’

I had to lay it out to him. ‘The pickle, Atul! That is their oxygen supply. Destroy it!’

It slowly dawned on him. ‘Whoa! Brilliant! Destroy the pickle!The lovebirds can’t last a day without it. What a terrific idea!’

I bowed.

Atul started pacing again. ‘Hmmm, the aged civil servant keeps it in his room … got it! My wife takes them out for a walk every day in the morning. It will just take me two minutes to find it and destroy it. The only question is with what?’

‘Try yeast. Scary white color, sour taste, and harmless.’

‘Perfect.’ Atul stopped pacing: ‘I owe you a big one, buddy. You are a genius, you know that? It is just a weird kind of genius, but it is still genius.’

From the distance, we watched his father-in-law at the dining table licking the picked rice off his fingers. Atul’s eyes narrowed as he whispered softly: ‘Enjoy this meal, you hungry old man … you won’t be having one like this in America again.’


My phone was ringing off the hook. I picked it up and heard Atul shriek in a panic-stricken whisper: ‘It is not working!’

‘Calm down, what is the problem? Have you found the pickle?’

‘It is in the suitcase. But I can’t open it. The mistrustful geezer keeps it locked.’

‘Oh boy! Have you searched for the key, maybe it is there somewhere.’

‘No, it is a 3-digit combination lock.’

‘3 digits? That is not so bad … 5 seconds a try, just a couple of hours before you crack it.’

Atul whispered back: ‘You’re right. But, I don’t have a couple of hours. I only get 10 minutes when they go for the walk. But … wait … I got an idea!’

I sensed this idea is not going to be good.

Atul went on: ‘Listen, I’m taking the whole family to Costco tomorrow. The house will be empty. Can you come in and do the job for me?’

I didn’t like this one bit, but then he made an offer I couldn’t refuse: his indoor wet grinder and flour mill. The secret to his sensational dosas. It was probably worth the risk. Still, I felt like the inventor who got smacked around by his own invention.


Just as he said it, I found the key in the flower pot. Beside it, a packet of yeast that I slipped into my pocket. I unlocked the garage side door and entered through the kitchen. Atul’s words: Follow the smell, it will lead you to his suitcase.

The odor led me up the stairs into a bedroom where I found the case lying on the floor. I methodically began to try out all the combinations. But, after only five minutes, the phone rang. It was Atul.

‘Are you done yet?’

‘No, I just started.’

‘Oh no. We have to abandon this, we are heading back early. My in-laws wandered into the beef section and they are all queasy now. You have only 5 minutes to clear the place.’

‘Wait, give me some clues. What are his favorite numbers? Anything … his birthday, anniversary number … ‘

Atul made a sound like he was scratching his head. ‘How do I know? I can't ask them now. Well, I know his IAS rank. It is 119, I think. He talks about it all the time.’ (Atul was referring to the highly competitive civil services entrance test.)

I tried it: 1-1-9. Click!

‘It worked!’

Atul was ecstatic. ‘Great! We are leaving any minute. Finish it off quickly!’

I found the pickle in a big silver tin box wrapped in his white undershirts. With a towel protecting my nose, I opened the top and quickly dumped the yeast. Mission accomplished, I barely managed to sneak out and run across to the other street when their car turned around the corner.


Atul called me the next day.

‘Yippe! It worked like a charm! My father-in-law was livid when he discovered the damaged pickle. But, don’t worry, they don’t suspect foul play, they think it is fungus. Very good job, bro.’

‘So, what’s the deal? Are they leaving?’

‘Yes, my wife just took them to the travel agency. He wants to take the first available flight back to India. Why don’t you swing by and I will show you what you earned today?’

I drove over to his place. Atul made some coffee and pulled out the wet grinder mill. As I was admiring the flawless design, his in-laws returned.

Inexplicably, they seemed to be in an awfully good mood.

I said: ‘Hello, I just heard the news that you are leaving early. I’m really sorry you can’t stay.’

‘No worries, young man. सर्ववस्तूनि कारणोद्भवानि!’


Everything happens for a reason. Atul, my dear son-in-law, you will be so happy when you hear this. At this travel agency, Sai Travels, I ran into an elderly gentleman like myself in the waiting room who told me that the Magarhai forest officer has been arrested on corruption charges. The position has opened up, so I immediately called the head office in Delhi. I need to show up and apply in person at Magarhai before Friday. We are leaving tonight straight for Magarhai and I’m very confident about getting this position. If the pickle weren't spoilt, I’d have never known about this case. Atul, my boy, I know you must be unhappy we are leaving early without staying the full six months. But, don't you worry, we will spend the rest of our lives together.’

Atul gaped open-mouthed as comprehension still eluded him.

I excused myself from their family matters. Now is not the time to claim the wet grinder.

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