Monday, February 28, 2005

Rantings on a Kind

John G. Wendel and his sisters were some of the most miserly people of all time. Although they had received a huge inheritance from their parents, they spent very little of it and did all they could to keep their wealth for themselves. John was able to influence five of his six sisters never to marry, and they lived in the same house in New York City for 50 years. When the last sister died in 1931, her estate was valued at more than $100 million. Her only dress was one that she had made herself, and she had worn it for 25 years."

When you type "The most miserly people" in Google, this is what comes up. What drove me to this point you will wonder. Was I expecting a list to show up as the answer?..Maybe I was. I am not into hoarding this kind of information. And I wouldn't want to stereotype. I really don't care to do that sort of a thing till I have a valid statistical sample size. And even after years of running into some perfectly well-off people penny-pinching in the most weird and imaginative ways, I refused to categorize them or criticize them. But then everything has its limits.

I thought I had seen the worst when I bumped into this girl in Grad school who pinched packets of ketchup from the school food court, till I ran into this other specimen who just downed packets of half-and-half while the rest of us stuffed our faces with eggs and waffles and pancakes during breakfast. She NEVER ordered anything. I swear she lived on half-and-half for breakfast for at least 2 months...till I thankfully found better people to hang out with. I figured maybe it was just Grad school and the general lack of money that seems to accompany that stage of life. Till I started work and found out that this particular disease spares no section of the population. When it strikes, it really strikes. My neighbor would tear his kitchen-towel squares into quarters, to limit usage. It really worked because the pieces were so small nobody found them useful any more. And it's not as easy to reach for a stack of neatly squared 4-by-4's as it is to reach for the usual Bounty-roll that your eyes frantically seek after a spill. This guy was beat hollow by a friend's friend who actually (I discovered this by accident) reused his garbage bags. Yes, he actually walked over to the huge disposal shoot, emptied his bag and then took it back!!!!

So my sample size was increasing...

We have these friends we do dinner with all the time...the husband is always in Johnston&Murphy shoes and a Burberry shirt, unless it's a fancy place we are meeting up at, in which case he really dresses up. The wife loves Wal-Mart clothes, but only once in a while, as a treat. Needless to say they maintain separate accounts. Picking a place for dinner might be difficult under normal circumstances, but as was recently revealed, it's really easy. The husband gets to choose as he pays (the separation of thy accounts is not altogether fair you see)...and if there's an argument it's quickly settled as the wife uses the surefire comeback "Then I'm not coming!!!” ... The husband eager to have a social life of some sorts has learned not to go there. The amazing thing is misers are not just hoarders of their own money; it breaks their heart when others spend theirs too. But anyways, I'm steering off the chosen bitching-path, let me focus. Here's a snippet of a conversation:

J's husband: "....And then I'll like some Venerable Very Rare Sherry with my dessert please...”
No really, that's the name of the sherry.
Lots of nudging from J.
J: "I'm not hungry."
J's husband: "Order something J...”
He's always taking good care of her. She's always rolling her eyes.
J: "NO. There was free food at the seminar I was attending. I ate there."
Angry voice.
Me: (Changing topic deftly) So what's the plan for the weekend guys? What are ya'll doing tomorrow?
J: "My husband better not drink. He has to wake up at 7 AM to do laundry"

See now my husband and I have fooled ourselves into believing we can afford to get our laundry done at the local laundromat..(Sweet Chinese woman washes, dries, folds and what-not) as we are after all in the DINK stage. Every Sunday though, my man makes very sorry noises while sitting in front of that Microsoft Money sheet and insists we CANNOT afford all this...but nevertheless the system has been adopted and it seems like it's here to stay as believe me it's a DIFFICULT one to throw off.

My husband (I introduce him to you here, finally): "You should really try sending the laundry frees up all your Saturday.."
He proceeds to gush about the Chinese woman's virtues and how everything smells so great.
J: "She charges WHATTT??? No way! My husband will do it. Never mind."
I try again.
Me: "Nice hair style J, did you go to Dellaria's?"
J: "Please, I got it done in India. As if we can afford to get our hair cut in this country"

They are good friends and will remain so. But I cannot, will not, should not be meeting her if I can help it. My sanity is important to me.

In conclusion I can only take solace in the fact that there are a million shlokas in the Gita about the fate of misers, the Bible condones it and Kabir Das himself poked a lot of fun at them....and the Quran, well the Quran says that a miser will be made to wear a pair of shoes prepared from the fire of Jahannam, which will make his brain boil like a pot on the fire. I would not go so far as to wish this on any of my sample cases, but I'm afraid their spouses just might. So be careful misers.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Haagen Daaz

Just cream and sugar. With swirls or chunks of chocolate or coffee or cookies or mint or caramel. No doubt the mere mention brings forth pleasant thoughts and intense cravings to many a patron of this cold delectable dessert. The first spoonful that melts on my tongue forever takes me back to a time when life was easy and free and a little aimless until I made it not that easy or free and definitely not aimless! Let me explain. The main piece of furniture in the scene that comes to mind is one very old couch procured by my room-mate from a yard sale down the street (a steal deal by the way) and a really, really crammed coffee table. A day-bed next to it, with a bunch of Indian wall-hangings above. The day bed is covered with copies of my thesis with my advisor's scribbles covering the margins! A Wal-Mart floor lamp, the shade gathering layers of dust, right next to it. The background of the scene is a kitchen counter full of half opened cereal boxes and Oreo cookies. A huge stockpot with the remains of “Vaangibath" - a favorite quick-fix of my roomie's. On the couch sat two individuals with a lot to say but saying absolutely nothing. They were talked out! Literally. Night after night of phone conversations that lasted well into the wee hours of the mornings had quite drained them. It still seemed like there was a lot to be covered though. When sitting right next to each other the flow of conversation was never that fluent or steady. Awkward pauses punctuated even the smallest sentences. But every night they would stare at the TV on which all but four mind-numbing channels were available till one of them said "Feel like some ice-cream?” And the other would readily agree just to have something to do. The bowls would be fished out and they would settle back on the couch.
Eventually the awkward pauses vanished. Conversation was easier as the magic abated while translating itself into love and comfort...the kind that makes wonderful marriages. The kind that rocks your world. The kind that can give you that lump in your throat. And not just because ice cream is cold.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady

"Don't bother Savitri while she's working!!!” These words were uttered at different decibels at different times of the day, throughout my childhood. My Mom laughingly explained to friends and relatives "If my daughter gets mad, she'll be off on her bicycle but only to return in an hour or two...but if Savitri gets mad, where will I find a maid like her??” She would sometimes pose this rhetorical question with genuine concern, in a tone used when expecting an actual answer. People would laugh and agree, confirming in my eight year old mind that I was indeed here to stay while Savitri was the one that had to be won over, to be spoiled but, she would never be one of our world. My Mom was always clear about the 'other' caste system that resides in every nook and cranny of every labor-loving developing nation. They are the working class. They have to be kept in their place. Never let them forget who the feeding hand belongs to. We all followed these simple sounding but extremely complex rules as best as we could. I call them complex because for a eight year old it seemed like the woman who helped my mom in the kitchen all day chopping up vegetables, sieving flour, making me my Bournvita when my Mom wasn't home, making my bed and, to a high degree, controlling my mother's moods (hey, hell hath no fury like my Mom when Savitri did not show on any godforsaken day) should of course be right next to me on the living room sofa when I'm watching TV, correct? Well no, very early on I learned that the maids sat on the floor by your feet...something my 4 year old niece has easily picked up during her visits to India. We were all intimately aware of every member of Savitri's family. Her husband who drank away all his life's earnings, her "Useless Fellow" of a son as my parents used to refer to him, and the daughters who flew the nest as soon as possible only to return with sob-stories of their own. Savitri on the other hand also knew us all well. She referred to my sister as the Good girl (No doubt she picked that up from my Mom) who helped around in the house and who was no doubt, the obedient one. My brother she held in a god-like reverence. He was the one who everyone in the community wanted their sons to be like. He was abroad and doing so well. She was as proud of him as we were (almost!). I was called "Baby"...well, north of Andhra Pradesh pretty much every girl below 15 is referred to as "Baby" so I guess she wasn't in reality calling me a babe...but nevertheless, the name stuck well into my teens and my early twenties. Savitri knew about every family quarrel, every back-biting incident (complaints about siblings were made to my mom in the back end of the kitchen to which Savitri was very privy), every celebration, and every failure. She knew my mom's opinions about my Father's 'side' and my Mom’s views on her own 'side' and she could I think very accurately guess our opinions on all relatives in general. It had to happen as my Mom and she chatted amicably most days and both women loved to talk.

A day came as it does in every story involving a maid when something went missing. I don't recall what it was, try as I might now. It was a watch I think or maybe it was some money. I am not sure but everybody was in a frenzy looking for it. There was some hushed talk between my parents where there was a reference to "Her" which my inquisitive ears picked up. My friend Sumona's maid had made off with her Mom's earrings. I could totally put this together. Off I marched to the back door of the kitchen where Savitri was washing dishes with soap and soot (the mempry of that awful gray mixture rubbing against steel can still send creeps down my back) and I asked her outright if she took it. There was black anger on her face but she said nothing. I reported back that her silence must mean something. I hardly completed my narration when I felt a sharp smack on my head. My Mom was livid. Her number 1 rule had been broken. Not only had I bothered Savitri while she was working but I might have just screwed up the smooth functioning of this household indefinitely. Savitri would leave, how would my Mom get a maid as reliable as her, what would we do! I was aghast at the damage I had just caused. Things were getting very ugly. My sister found the missing item while I was dissolving in tears which brought around a fresh round of ribcage-shattering sobs. I was told to apologize. I had no problems with that. I walked over and stood in silence for a few minutes and returned. It wasn't that I meant to skip the deed completely or dupe my I walked up there I realized I had no clue how to say I was sorry in Hindi. Being a South Indian no matter where you are raised, you are born with a genetic makeup that makes speaking Hindi (not to mention writing essays and life stories called "Jeevinis") an almost insurmountable task. It's nothing that tutors, "kunji's" and sufficient cramming cannot solve but at 8 I had not yet mastered the basic know-how. So I stood there racking my brain trying to think of the Hindi word for "Sorry". I failed but I did look at her with my tearstained face for about 30 seconds. On my return I was patted on the back by every member in the family for doing the right thing. I never told them that I had not really apologized. I avoided crossing paths with Savitri for the rest of the week.

Many days later I heard my Mom and Savitri talking and Savitri made a reference to how I had paid her the second visit on that fateful day. I held my breath waiting to hear what she said. She said nothing and the moment passed. I walked over to the kitchen to make sure the black anger had left her face and she smiled a toothless smile and peeled an apple for me. We never talked about it again; I was after all a "Baby" and she, a Lady.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Mirror Mirror on the Wall....

"So how often does the average woman peer at the mirror wondering about what she notices there and what can be improved upon...?"....I wondered as I walked over to my mirror for the 12th time that day...and what did I carry back with me? Doubt, confirmation, relief??? Was I worried about the big pores or the length of my bangs? I noticed them yes, but I did not care. Why I don't care spins off a whole new reel of's not like I'm one of those oh-so-married-women who don't care how they look any more (as if their entire existence was just one-big-preening session in order to rope-in the best guy the market had to offer) neither was I a woman who took her hubby for granted (you know the kind, all that primping for the other women in the party and lounging in pajamas with curlers in their hair for their own men!!)....I was reasonably interested in my appearance most of the time...(reasonable is a very relative term I am happy to note)...I fancied I portrayed the "healthy beauty" of today ...i.e., no emancipated malnourished frame (hate those bodies...well actually some of them do look good but then those celery-water-cigarettes-diets are SO not for me) but no tires under-thy-belt to talk of either...(OK maybe 1 or two...hey what's the point of an anonymous blogspot if I can't lie at least about that!!!) then why am I not doing anything about the big pores....?

There was a time when I must admit my appearance dominated much of my daily thought process..."Is my skirt the fashionable length of the current moment?”…“Is my hair shiny enough?"..."Does my skin look dull in these unkind fluorescent office lights?"..."What do I wear for the weekly clubbing session?” ....Sadly I was forced to process the hundred million other things that go on in a day in the not-so-active remainder part of my brain....the half that was not coding and decoding the fashion do's and don' can get pretty stressful you know. You might say I have not performed badly during the span of my 20-something years considering that was only half my brain working. But come on, if things are going well enough as they are why this change now...I worry that I don't worry three-fourths of my brain is moaning this loss of obsessive ness, pondering this change for the better (?...well people assure me looks are not everything) and even lesser of my otherwise healthy brain is being put to good use.

So I sit down to this some sort of a confidence? Am I assured that my life as it is - career, family and what-not are sort of OK so it needn't show in every garment-hairdo-handbag that I and the above mentioned categories are OK? The notion is appealing but not convincing....I have a laundry list of stuff-I-still-so-want-from-life like any other human being walking this planet and the chances of my change in attitude being possibly caused because of contentment did not seem likely at I move on....Is this the famous laziness that people talk of when they talk about the "settled" feeling? Am I just getting plain lazy? Is poking at my pimples, picking out a new dress on a 3 hour shopping trip just sounding like too much work? Sounded more of a suspect. So I jot that down in my plausible-reason list and dig some more. Is it likely that I am after all not that selfish a person and have started developing an interest in others that dominates that I have on myself? I don't know if that's true...but I do seem more of a people person now that I have ever been in my entire life...I do feel drawn to discussing stuff happening in peoples lives...I sometimes feel like taking care of them...Is my newly-discovered lack-of-obsessive ness actually a way to make space for some other instinct?.. Am I seeing a peek of my long-awaited-maternal feelings that so many of my girlfriends have felt since 13?..I have spent years worrying why my heart doesn't do the popular flip-flop when I see babies or when I think of having children...Maybe just maybe things are changing a bit...I don't know for sure but I know I see a trace of a something here and maybe it's best to go with that...Maybe I am ready...

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Many Shades of Infidelity

He got off his seat and reached for the trusty black Travelpro in the overhead cabin. His wife was busy straightening her ponytail and reapplying lipstick. “She uses far too much of that stuff”, he thought, “She’s beautiful as she is, why bother”. They headed out and he nodded to the pilot on his way out. “They were so nice to us” he said to his wife, and she smiled and agreed. He liked that, he liked when she agreed with him. She calmly pointed out their bags while he hauled them off to the carts at baggage claim and then into his faithful old Camry in the parking lot. “Do you want me to cook for you?” she asked anxiously once they were in with the windows rolled down to get the two day-old stale air out, driving towards the airport exit.. He looked at her and wondered what to say. That little hideaway town had been all it promised to be weather-wise but it had done little to his palate. Being a staunch vegetarian definitely had its pitfalls and they had ended up eating salads and garden burgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He was dying for some good old sambhar cooked the way she expertly did, making even the podi from scratch each time. He knew there would be no arguments. But the tired way her eyebrows bunched up made him change his mind and he took a detour so they could go through the Chinese take-out place they did without fail every other week. She waited in the car and fiddled with his new I-Pod. She looked up as he walked towards the car with the identical orders of veggie fried rice and egg rolls in greasy brown bags. She had taken to ordering exactly whatever he ordered and this way, if she couldn’t finish her food, he would happily polish it off. She knew he loved that kind of thoughtfulness about her. “I forgot the hot sauce” he mouthed to her and headed back in again. He was trying to make himself heard above the Chinese cooks barking orders at each other when he heard someone calling his name. “Still can’t do without the pint of Tabasco with each meal hahn?” She looked the same, not a day older, her hair still a little on the wild side, big grin, shiny eyes. There was a time when he thought her hair was the prettiest thing about her, till he found out many, many other pretty things about her. In fact her hair was not the wildest thing about her. He had loved her, worshipped her. He could remember believing that if he could have her he could conquer the world. And had she not loved him too? She had almost said it so many times. Then why had she not ever said it? He had loved her so much and he had hated her as much. “Two pack eenuf?” said the small lady behind the counter. “Give him 5 or 10 maybe?” she laughed before he could answer. Shiny teeth, shiny lips, shiny everything. No makeup, she just shone. Oh why, why couldn’t they have been together, they would have been amazing together. She had blatantly refused, casually dashing his dreams of 5 semesters and more to bits, explaining coldly how different they were, how it wouldn’t have worked, how he needed somebody of a different kind, oh, how she had gone on and on. He remembered her holding a magazine in her hand at that time and questioning irrationally if she had just read those lines from her Cosmopolitan articles and memorized them. He wondered now if she still read that junk. He smiled, of course she did, she read everything on the planet she could lay her hands on, all junk included. “So can I take your smile as a ‘Hello’, and an ‘I’m doing good and how’re you doing yourself?’?” Ouch. Not a time to zone out at all. He smiled again, and did the chit-chat. Nice and smooth. They walked out. “I have cut down on the spice” he said. “I disagree!” she said. “You headed home?” “Nope... Going camping with my boyfriend and his friends, I have to park my car at his place” she said, pausing at the word boyfriend, watching for a reaction. None at all, he had it all in control now. “We just flew in from a weekend trip”, he said “We got good deals”. “But you get good deals all the time now, and don’t you hate the way the airlines suck up to you nowadays?” she rolled her eyes. “They just want your money!” Couldn’t she just agree with him for once? They were close to the parking lot. She walked ahead, tossed her bag over her shoulder and asked “Do I get to meet Lata?” Yes she gets too, because he couldn’t stop it, Lata was stepping out of the car, walking towards them. Lots of smiling and handshaking. “Come visit sometime!” Lata is excited about meeting a graduate school friend of mine. “I would love to!” she promises with raised eyebrows that are a sure-giveaway that she is lying. They are all back in their respective cars. He arched his neck to catch another glimpse of her getting into her Miata while Lata opened the greasy bags to check if the fortune cookies were there. He sighed. He and his faithful wife in the faithful Camry followed the Miata out of the parking lot.