Monday, July 12, 2004

Honey, Did I Lock The...

I hadn't expected to update this blog more often than once a month, but what do you know, here I am again.

I remember our trips from Bombay to our native Kerala when I was six or seven years old. We went by train, and it was quite an adventure for me and my three-years younger sister, and we both no doubt made it an ordeal for my parents.

I remember boarding at wayside stations like Dadar, where we had to rush into the Kanyakumari-bound train in the five minutes that it halted there. I remember my father's mad rush to find the compartment we were booked into, followed by the mad rush to get in and get the family and the luggage in amidst other families and their luggage, and of course amidst the throng of bellicose chai and vada hawkers. No sooner than we had settled in and the train had sallied forth with a jerk, my mother would anxiously turn to my father and ask, "Balcony kathavu poottinela?" Did you lock the balcony door?

By the time my conscious memory had started recording such momentous exchanges, my father had got his replies down to a fine art. Without batting an eyelid, he would look up from his suitcase-stowing operation and say, "Of course. Safe and secure." Which statement had as much connection with the truth as other statements we've heard recently in the American media, like: "It was a wardrobe malfunction." Or even: "Yeah they had WMDs; lots of them." He had probably given me the padlock and asked me to do it for him while he was answering a call in the bathroom, and in all probability my infant sister and I had fought over the privilege. But like all great statesmen and diplomats, he knew the first rule of diplomacy: what matters is not only what you say, but how you say it. Had he been ambivalent or surprised about the question ("Balcony door? What balcony door?" or "Um, yeah... I don't remember doing it but I must have.") he would have known no peace until we had alighted from the train at Ernakulam Junction and had had an opportunity to wire our neighbours to find out the state of the door. His sentiments toward said door would not have been unlike those I bore towards an innocent but athletic insect that was trying to find its way out of my dhoti while I was on stage playing Gandhi in the Sons of India paegeant in high school.

Back to the train. So the train would merrily wend its way through the wastelands of the Bombay suburbia and halt for its next mouthful of passengers at Kalyan. Typically some Mallu family, let's call them the Geevargheses (the Geevargheese?), would board the compartment and occupy the other three berths in the sleeper-class booth of six we were in. Heaving the luggage on board and lugging an offspring each, our mythical friends Baby and Blessy Geevarghese would battle their way to their seats and stow their luggage and offspring appropriately. Baby would be fastidiously padlocking the luggage to the chains under the seat when the train would start with a jerk, and Blessy would promptly interrupt him with, "Babychaya, veettil cupboardu poottiyo?" Did you lock the cupboard at home?

Being a man of the world, Baby would summon all confidence, flash his brightest back-from-the-Gelf smile that had won Blessy's heart five years ago, and say, "Of course Blessykutty. Nothing to worry." After which my father would catch his eye, and they would both exchange an understanding glance and a silent nod as if to say, "You too, my friend?" In that instant they would have formed a bond between them that would be much stronger than any bond their wives could form by gossipping about common acquaintances till the Geevargheses alighted at Alwaye 40 hours later. Needless to say, a strict code of silence was always followed among men regarding these assurances of security of cupboards and balconies given to women. In Mallu it was called omerta.

Men of the world, is this sounding familiar to you? If not, it will. It comes in various guises, but not even single unattached men are free from it. Take for instance this fair friend whom I dropped off at the Austin airport last December on her way to India, whom I dropped off at the airport once again two weeks ago during her next trip to India. Both these times, as I was driving out of her apartment's parking lot, she asked me, "Hey Anoop, did I lock the front door?" Truth be told, on both occasions I had been too busy struggling to breathe as I was escorting her well-stuffed suitcase down the stairs into my car's trunk, to notice the state of the door. However, remembering the first rule of diplomacy, I flashed my sincerest smile and said both times, "Of course. I saw you lock it. Over my shoulder. Really." Among those I know who share this affliction are my SRD friend who asked me last week in the parking lot, "Did I lock my car?" and my Chicago friend Poochie who asked me the same thing (the same words!) in the parking lot of the Shedd Aquarium last weekend. Both are women. Alas, no female I know, unattached or otherwise, is free of this affliction. Thus I remain famously single.

Let me redeem myself here and say that I do not hold this in my mind as a stereotype. No sirree. I will be the first to recognize and appreciate that there are women who are strong and decisive and independent, whom their husbands will ask half an hour into a vacation, "Did I turn off the water, dear?" (Or some such.) In fact, my close Mallu friend Anoop Cherian, who was the first in my adulthood to bring this malaise to my attention, spent the better part of his youth looking for such a girl. He was thrilled when he found her in Boston a year ago. She was a Mallu herself, an independent type who, when he arrived at her house to take her out to dinner, locked her door and casually got into his car with nary a care in her heart. When ninety seconds had elapsed and no door question had been posed to him, he stopped his car and escorted her out of it into the neighborhood park. Set in the backdrop of the beautiful New England fall colors, he got down on his knees and proposed to her. She accepted and they got married. The honeymoon was in Bali. But there must be something about marriage that transforms a woman's nature. Back in Boston on their first weekday, as they both walked out onto their snow-covered driveway to get into their cars and drive to work, she turned to him and asked, "Anoobe, did I lock the door?" The chap fainted and spent the week in bed recovering from the concussion. For some reason he lost interest in married life after that. He has since become an ardent student of the Bible.

A woman will ask such questions of any man who happens to be accompanying her. To the man who has no romantic ambitions in her direction, such queries are rhetorical and can be safely sidestepped like questions about the weather ("No it won't rain today."). But for husbands and boyfriends, the only option is to lie outright or trudge back and check the door or whatever it is that is in question. If you see a man get out of his car in pouring rain or freezing sleet, walk back to his house and check the front door, you know why he is doing it. If while boarding your next flight, you happen to hear a man telling his wife that he has checked the oven and that it was indeed turned off, catch his eye and nod a silent nod of understanding.


Friday, July 09, 2004

Lunch Games

What better way to begin my blogging career than to write about the most important thing in life: lunch.

For all you single unattached living-by-yourself men out there, I can already see you nodding. Alas, what a struggle it is daily for us qualified professionals to put some decent food on our plates at lunchtime. If only it were as simple as dinner, where we have the time to hunt for food without being encumbered by meetings or phone calls or coworkers breathing hellfire and brimstone down our necks. For dinner we can whip out our phonebooks and call our single unattached women friends and friend families in search of food. At least as many as we have time for before Swad and Thai Kitchen and Trudy's close their doors for the night, I mean. If not, well there's always Maggi.

There was a time when lunch used to come in a box which Amma packed into my school bag. Those were the days. Mine was usually a modest affair in keeping with my needs; a few dosas with chutney maybe, or some curd rice and vegetables. But I've seen bigger. Real South Indians know about the multi-layer tower lunch box made of armor-grade steel, with a steel clamp and spoon wedged at the top to hold the assembly securely shut from invading Mongol hordes. I remember classmates working through five- or six-layer towers of feed with hardly any time left over to digest it all over Kings in the boys' playground. Needless to say they would get similar portions for other meals at home. These former classmates of mine now throw their weight around as adults. Some are born great, some achieve their greatness, and some have their greatness thrust into them morsel by morsel. Especially those Mallu friends who used to bring rice with grains of outlandish proportions (parboiled rice, I think). "May I taste those potatoes in your lunch box?" "What potatoes? Those are just grains of rice. See?"

Kings was our post-lunch game for years. Now that's a game some of these soft middle-aged corporate types could use to trim off all the layers they worked hard for years to attain. What could be more effective than the urgency of running in a Kings game in the tropical midday sunshine from a boy who has a rubber ball that he will lob hard at your legs to make you "out"? Sadly I never used to last very long, preferring to lurk in the shadows and surrender when the attack came rather than being the hero who held out till the last. I wonder whether I should have chosen the latter course. I might even have grown a muscle or two somewhere in my legs.

Anyhow, for people of all ages and situations, lunch has its accompanying games. For some it is the game of chatting up the cute members of the opposite sex in college. "Hi, your face looks familiar. Have we met before? My name is Inderjit. May I join you at your table?" (We used to have a lot of that going on at IITB. Really. Don't laugh.) For others, it is the game of soliciting Amway memberships at the company cafeteria. "Hi, your face looks familiar. Have we met before? My name is Inderjit. May I join you at your table?" For some, it is the game of showing pictures of their baby or cat or dog to all who don't manage to escape. "Hi Inderjit, we met last week over lunch, remember? I brought those photos of Timmy today. Wouldn't you like to see them? Hey, wait!" And for the lowest life forms, it is the game of clicking through Slashdot over a bowl of cafeteria salad at their desks. "Welcome InderjitSingh. You have 5 moderator points -- use 'em or lose 'em!" Most of these are guys.

Here in Austin we have our own game of eating lunch out. Once or twice a week, four of us meet in front of bldg 5 and go out for lunch. Drive, order, chat, eat, pay and drive back. That's my idea of a dream lunch. If only it were that simple. It has got to be preceded by the game.

It starts innocuously enough, with the four of us piling into M's VW. Us two guys sit in front, leaving the rear seat free for the girl-girl bonding between Chubby and Appy. M starts his car and puts it into gear. "Okay junta, where to?"

All of us being broad-minded and eclectic in our culinary tastes, we are all quite flexible. The game goes somewhat like this.

"Oh, anywhere is fine." As long as it isn't Mexican or Chinese, is what that means. Over time we have all learnt to read between the lines.

"Me? I'm flexible too. No pizza though. I just had some last night."

"Hey, how about the pasta bar?"

"No, that always takes too long. I have a meeting in 45 minutes."

"And it has too much cheese. I'm cutting down."

Meanwhile M has started cruising down the street, mentally striking off all the joints along the wayside from our list since none of them will meet our criteria. Ever. "I'm hungry, I want to eat lots today."

"Hullo, I said I have a meeting, remember?"

"Okay, how about Pho Thai Sun?"

"No no, their stuff is too smelly."

"And Wan Fu is out because we don't want to eat Chinese, right?"

"Right baba, no Chinese today."

And so it goes -- the game. There have been days when we cruised around for hours and hours playing the game in that dark blue VW in the Texas sun with the smoke of hunger and frustration coming out of our ears before we could reach a decision. Girl bonding happens in the back seat and geek talk and car talk happens in the front seat during breaks from the game. It is a close battle of wits and nerve, with numerous thrusts and parries turning the tide of victory one way or the other. Usually one or more of us gives in and we reach a compromise. It's usually Subway or this joint called Java Noodles.

"Oh, come on in. Table for four? Will it be the usual L5 for you sir?"

Such are the games of lunch.

More later. It's nearly dinner time. I need to make some phone calls...