Sunday, May 5, 2013

BLOOM WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED

http://jnmingdu.com/spring-flowers-desktop-wallpaper-free/

“BLOOM WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED” is a short story that describes the mental meanderings of a middle aged woman who is currently obsessed with figuring out the recipe for “making a happy family” as she goes about her life. She is evolving into an accidental anthropologist but she doesn’t know that yet. Symbiotic, competitive, and parasitic relationships are on display for her to study. The BRICS show up in her life repeatedly. Migration is a constant theme in her world. Mama is what I call her, but her name could be Sheila, or Priya, or Kalyani. The story describes how people come together and make a family unit, what makes the unit stick, yes you guessed it, the ability to work and to laugh together, and to blossom together, no matter where they are planted.


BLOOM  WHERE  YOU  ARE  PLANTED

            On a quiet lane called Summerwoods, in a leafy suburb just a few miles south east of downtown Fairview, lived a family of three, Papa, Mama, and their ten year old daughter Ankita. Papa built homes for a living. Mama tended to the family, hoping she was doing everything just right in her job of creating a happy family, and in the process she was becoming an accidental anthropologist but she didn’t know that yet. Ankita was a fifth grader very intent on ice skating. They went about their days doing things they were supposed to do, and met one another at breakfast, carpool, dinner, and weekends. The larger world of this nuclear family of three was made up of work, play, travel, grandparents, neighbors, cousins, and friends.
            Spring break had arrived with oodles of flowers, sunshine, and inexplicably hot weather. The doomsdayers among the naturalists were having a field day in the media. Mama had invited all of Ankita’s cousins to spend the day with them. Entertaining twenty children all day long wasn’t easy but it sure was a lot of fun. Over the years this was something Mama and Papa had done as a yearly ritual.
            After a day of baking brownies to eat after a spaghetti lunch and games of Hide and Seek, Ludo, Pachisi, Rummy, Go Fish, Hopscotch, and such, the children were running through the sprinklers for the first time that year.
            Worn out and completely happy, except for the occasional and sporadic childish disagreement that had lasted a few moments, the children were now changed into dry clothes, fed rather well on baked chicken and corn, and seated all over the living room. As the calories transformed into sugar in the little ones they began to giggle and twitch and run amuck around the room endangering life and limb and expensive artifacts. This had happened before so Mama had a plan for this evening. She had asked Papa to buy a few foam noodles they could play with even while sitting, and explained the rules of the game she had made up for them while Papa brought the noodles in from the car. Those foam noodles kept coming. There were two to a kid. There was almost no room to sit.
            “What were you thinking?” she asked with her whole demeanor.
            “They were cheaper by the dozen,” said Papa, looking a little guilty.
            Mama’s quiet and orderly game lasted long enough to de-escalate the children into a quieter mood. Now it was circle time, they were telling each other stories and jokes. The phone started to ring and parents, grandparents, baby-sitters were on their way to pick up their wards.
            Babbo was on his way, so were Dadima, Ma, Mom, Mummy, Ba, Chinnamma, Baba, Pappa, Ammi, Zayde and Bapuji.
            School had reopened. The pace had picked up. Suddenly there were lots of quizzes in preparation for the imminent standardized tests. In the thick of it all there were projects due. Mama and Ankita were rushing into the library in a tearing hurry to check out books for a project that was due in less than twenty four hours. “What to cook for dinner?” was not even a consideration on a day like this. It was going to be burritos and nachos they’d decided already, from the neighborhood taqueria. They’d probably be up into the wee hours of the morning working on this, Mama having to help with the cutting and pasting. Skating and school were great, each one on their own, but together, they got all tangled up sometimes. With practice four nights a week this huge project got lost in the haze. If you told a teacher you “forgot” you had to do this thing, for three hundred and fifty points and had had a month to work on it, it would seem like you had lost an elephant in a haystack. But that was pretty much what had occurred. Baal Vihaar had fallen by the wayside, as had their social life, and window shopping. No one was complaining though. Skating had been the nicest thing that had happened to them because of the joy it had brought with it. Loads of work and bills came alongside too, but loads of happiness was what made it all worthwhile. It would take a while learning to juggle the two worlds, of skating, and of school. Right now it was almost like looking in the mirror and speaking one language and having your reflection speak back to you in another. Very confusing.
            Just as they rounded the bend leading to the juvenile non-fiction section a very helpless looking dad with a little boy a miniature image of the father, both very well dressed, Rolex and more, cornflower blue eyes and blond hair, walked up to them, beginning with a “Por favor”, asked a detailed question. Mama knew she had been a bad girl in school opting for home economics every year instead of taking on the challenge of learning a new language because now she couldn’t tell what she could possibly do. She began to point to the Spanish section only to have Ankita tug at her sleeve, whispering,    
            “That was not Spanish, Mama.” 
            “Then what was it?”
            “I’m not sure.”
            About this time the gentleman asked, hopefully, ”Espanol?”
            “Sorry. Only English and Hindi. Maybe someone at the desk can help you.” She started to back away, pointing to the information desk, feeling like her past had come back to haunt her, and she should’ve known better, happy at least her little girl was learning Spanish, French, and Hindi, however sketchily, and all the Bengali Papa could teach her in the few minutes he saw her each day. Papa spoke fluent Spanish, Mama had believed, until one day, on the phone she told a friend he did, and overhearing her he had corrected her, ”I’m not fluent. I’m smooth.”
 The gentleman asked again, very incredulously, eyes narrowing with slight suspicion, ”No habla Espanol???”  
            In about three seconds they all found the situation extremely funny and parted ways laughing.
            The report cards had come home. Ankita clearly needed help with Social Studies. Not one to be able to study on her own, not yet, she needed some coaxing to get started too. Ankita and Mama had agreed upon Saturday and Sunday midmornings as the best time for catching up on History and Geography and Civics. So here they were, textbooks on the table, Mama with a steaming cup of tea, and Ankita.
 “Are your chores done?”
“Yes ma’am.”
“Okay, I’m ready to help you with your history lesson.”
“And Mama, just so you know I did my chores to make the money to buy the green coat we saw at the mall. You know the one, the one you wouldn’t buy for me.”
“You’ve three coats in the closet that you’ll outgrow having worn maybe twice. Show some restraint. And how will you ever save any money for your car if you spend every penny you earn on things you don’t really need?”
“And why do I have to study?”
“Because you must.”
“Why do I need to know what a bunch of dead people did hundreds of years ago?”
Mama was getting very testy with Ankita’s newfound sense of rebellion and the sassiness that came with it. It was time to explain a few things to the child.
“Because it is important to know how the chain of events unfolded.”
“How do I care?”
“Because you are because of them. This world is because of their world, and the future will be because of them and us.”
“But they are dead and in the future there will be flying cars. Besides, my favorite T.V. show is starting in five minutes. ”
“There will be reruns.”
“So?”
“Don’t raise the level of discourtesy in this household.”
“Don’t what??”
“Oh shut up. Just listen. You need to know the history of the world and its people. So it says in this book. So let’s get started. ”
“Why?”
“So that when you grow up you do not run around like a headless chicken trying to reinvent the wheel and rediscover fire in every area of your life. And just as important as knowing history is taking an interest in the daily news. Today’s news is tomorrow’s history. Try to see in your mind’s eye the continuum of history.”
They sat down at the table an eager teacher and a glum brat. Ankita, looking down, her gaze fell upon the book cover. It had pictures on it. There was one of an exquisite marble statue. It said ‘circa 3000 B. C.’
            “That was more than five thousand years ago. How could they do that so long ago?” she thought amazed.
            She opened the book to see photographs of Jericho, Mohenjodaro, Giza and of what are believed to be the sunken cities of Alexandria and Atlantis. “Whoa, folks were smart back then. Maybe the ancient Peruvians did have flying cars. Maybe.”
            And with that Ankita began to chip away at the lessons of yore, place, and rights and responsibilities.
           Thinking about continuums Mama began to apply that lesson to her appraisal of the factors that contribute to familial bliss. She had watched both sides of her family and Papa’s family evolve or speciate for more than thirty years, and fifteen years, respectively. Patterns were obvious now where there had been seeming randomness as to how families turned out and why. There were many exceptions to the rules, but by and large there were patterns.
            There were families that ended up like unforeseen shipwrecks. There were those that carried on like dinghies with a leak one of the family had to bail water out of constantly. Often there was one member of a family that did really, really well, and like a tugboat pulled the schooner behind him. Some were like slave ships. They’d capture some unfortunate slaves, family, friends, underlings, lovers, business partners, whatever, and drive them with whips and chains, sell them off or set them free or let them die off when their uses were spent. There were some that operated like ghostly galleons, where all crew had died, they just went through the motions of living. Then there were the large racing boats with well oiled human machinery. If they did well three or four generations they built empires. If there were snags along the way they couldn’t deal with their splintered sections sank or swam depending on who was on the team. Sometimes, more importantly, who was not.
            “If I had to separate them into happy and unhappy families, how would I?” she wondered. The three of them got along together so well largely because they were all similar people, very driven, humane, and enjoyed a good laugh together. As Ankita was growing up Mama saw little problems fermenting in nuclear families within the extended family that could well one day be her own. Always one to prefer the preventative to the cure, if time allowed, she became obsessed with this idea of formulating a recipe for creating happy families.
            Upon much going back and forth over the details it occurred to her that money or the lack of it was not the biggest issue here. Character alone was not enough. It was an intangible mix of ingredients the happy folks got just right and the unhappy ones didn’t.
            In a long succession of mothers and fathers and sons and daughters she saw genetics was not much of a determinant of character or happiness or success or the lack thereof. Birth order was fairly important but not a constant in this equation. The same was with education. Typically, A students ended up teaching, B students ended up working for C students. Going to Harvard or MIT helped but community colleges were no social currency. Geographic location was also no indicator of happiness or success. Her cousin in Montana thrived on a farm fifty miles from the highway. Cousins in Las Vegas, NV, Naples, FL, the Silicon Valley, the new boom towns, were struggling. No one in the family had won a lottery yet so that was something thing she still did not know the risks and rewards for.
            It might be easier to look at individual lives and see how love, luck, success, and happiness have been a part of their lives, she conjectured. A lot of people ascribed happiness to good luck but Mama stopped buying that story in her thirties. She had smelled a rat. Happy people seemed to generate luck a lot of times, rather than their luck generating their happiness. Now she was on to something she thought and set out to uncover all the clues.
            Mothers’ Day rolled around. She’d been spoiled rotten with a breakfast she didn’t cook followed by more gifts. Papa and  Ankita had things to do for a while, for an hour or two, this Mama, who never sat down to watch a T.V. show, was swept off her feet by a “special” dedicated to mothers. From George Washington’s Mama, to George W.‘s Mama, she saw a long line of some tenacious, bodacious, unbelievable mamas. “What optimists! What realists! What idealists! Way to go.”
            Mamas ruled for a few days in her observation. Then it began to become very obvious Daddies ruled too. Then there were some mega successful souls, very together, very centered, who came from abusive homes. Some mega millionaires had been orphaned early in life. The picture got fuzzy all over again.
            Was it a spiritual life that made one happy? Perhaps. The bead counting, shloka spouting women in the family were often the bitchiest so that didn’t add up either.
            Was it all an illusion? All in one’s head? Perhaps, yes, but more likely not. “When a content and happy person walks by you, you can feel joy radiating from them. And when an unhappy person walks into a room it gets stinky cold messier-looking. You quickly lose the will to go any where or do any thing,” she knew from having been around some energy black holes she had the misfortune of being related to.
            Now what? All angles covered and still no answers.
            Then one day, it just came to her. ”Happy, healthy, good, and successful families have one thing in common. Them folks don’t go near anything bad ugly people are always messing with, like people’s sense of wellbeing, or their peace of mind, except to make them better. And of course families that laugh together stay together.”  
            The school year ended and skating camp began in earnest the very next Monday. It was Friday the thirteenth now, day five of the twenty days of camp. Ankita had had a bad day. The skating was great. The huddle at the bleachers while awaiting ones turn on the ice wasn’t. It was great when a certain frenemy was away, but as soon as she entered the huddle, things started to fall apart for no apparent reason. Every body tensed up, the air turned antagonistic, genial banter turned acerbic without warning. Altogether this girl Ekta was a force to reckon with. She was the single most divisive force Ankita had come across in all ten years of her precious young life. Ekta seemed like something out of prehistory to her, a tyrannosaurus rex among mere humans, capable of shaking the very ground one stood on, simply by taking a step closer to one.
Ankita and Ekta had been in the same study group at Baal Vihaar Hindi lessons two years ago. That was when Ankita had learned to be wary of Ekta. They met again at skating camp and by all measures, Ekta had emerged as a predatory animal larger stronger bolder than before with a bloodlust that is hard to describe. She had her admirers though, a set of second string skaters who hung out in the shadows, a little older than the rest, but not quite as serious about skating or even as skilled as the rest. Ekta loved her posse and they loved her back. But she would foray into this other group of kids who despised her and she would ignore their disgust and be all cheery around them, handing out compliments, or surreptitiously scratching an unsuspecting one with a talon, as she pleased.
Over an early dinner of Jamaican beef patties and some pink lemonade Ankita told her Mama she was tired, not because she had been skating all day but because Ekta had been horrible all week. Mama knew Ekta and Ekta’s mother well.
            ”You can always tell what someone thinks of you by the way they treat your children. Note to self, tell Ankita to never be intimidated by her critics; just imagine them in their underwear. And write that down in my book of cheesy sayings,” Mama said to herself. She couldn’t help but think of the Zinedine Zidane head butt fiasco. “There are people in this world so jealous of talent greater than their own that they won’t let a man have his last hour of glory untainted. Ankita had better know this and cater for it all her life. Krishna, Jesus, Moses, Hercules, all had people after their blood from the moment they were born, or even before that. Mary, Sita, Joan of Arc, no one was spared hurt, humiliation, death. She’s too decent and does not see through the facades crooks wear. But then who am I to be criticizing her for being too simple. I’m old and gray and still naïve. And if your last name begins with a Z should your baby’s first name begin with a Z? ”
            Ankita finished eating, washed her hands, sat down next to Mama, and said, “I need to learn Ruski or I can’t skate anymore.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “Coach said if you can’t speak Ruski you can’t expect to skate.”
            “Whatever did he say that for? Did he say that to just you or every body else as well?”
            “He said that to the assistant coach.”
            “Oh, okay,” said Mama, getting the picture.
            “Don’t worry about it. You never did learn any Hindi in your two years at Baal Vihaar. Don’t worry about Ruski now. You’ll be fine. Just do a good job at camp every day and don’t eavesdrop on your teachers.”
            Mama had seen an incident or two between the head coach and assistant coach. The older was newly arrived from a very prestigious skating school behind what used to be the iron curtain. Glasnost had passed him by while he honed the skills of many a medalist, a dedicated teacher who lived, breathed, ate, and slept skating. You felt a certain awe in his presence, like the kind you feel in the vicinity of greatness. The younger was from the same town, a new fangled, widely traveled, well assimilated sort who twenty-five years ago might’ve been labeled a product of Coca Cola City. When they clashed they started out in their native language and needing support from others nearby the younger would hopelessly break into English, or so it seemed. The last time she saw them arguing, it had ended with the younger saying, “Why don’t you elevate the urinals also? That way they can always be on their toes,” walking off in a huff, slamming the door behind him.          
Ankita asked Mama,” May I please go back to Baal Vihaar. I could try to learn Hindi again. I’m older and smarter now.”
            “Why this sudden interest in languages, princess? You never did learn any Hindi in your two years at Baal Vihaar and can’t seem to remember your French homework at all.”
            “Because Ekta always says something to me in Hindi every time she walks past me.”
            “What does she say?”
            “I don’t know.”
            “Ask her to say it in English.”
            “Well, she did say something in English today but I don’t know what it means.”
            “And what was that she said?”
            “She said when I grow up she’ll watch me getting knocked up and then begging for more.”
            “WHAT??”
             There was shock and awe in the room. Mama suddenly felt afraid. Papa was out of town. “Where is John Galt when you really need him?” thought Mama to herself. Her head was spinning. He had said he would try to be back for Father’s Day but now it seemed he wouldn’t. The project he was working on, building hurricane-proof homes in the Florida Keys, needed him to be on site 24x7, at least for now.
            “What does knocked up mean?” asked Ankita and didn’t press for an answer when she looked again at Mama’s face.
            Mama thought about speaking with Ekta’s mother about this but decided to not do so. The apple does not roll too far from the tree usually. Ekta’s mother was quite a piece of work and not infirm of purpose. Ekta was pretty but looked like she could eat you alive and completely digest you in a few minutes like a shark could, and was five whole years older than Ankita. Mama knew she would have to watch this carefully because the girls would very likely end up on the same team the whole year and would train and travel together.
            “What else has she said to you?” asked Mama curious if Ankita might have misheard Ekta.
            “She said I was born unlucky and it shows on my face. That is why I always get silver and never gold. She said she was born lucky and would one day be weighed in gold, she’d be that rich. But I’d always be poor. And she laughs and laughs and laughs at me like I’m the funniest person in the world. She laughs at me when I mess up and when I don’t. Some laugh at me with her but now most have stopped because she does similar things to them too. But I am the most funniest to her. I can handle it when I’m on the ice because then there’s just the ice and me, but when I step off the ice it starts to hurt sometimes.”
            “Poor baby you. Tell me everything you can remember so I have a clear and complete image of what you are dealing with.”
            “She said I was a mixed breed so no one would ever like me. She was loved by every body because her family was pure bred.”
            Mama was getting grave. “Tell me everything you can remember. I know it is tempting to just forget, but unless we remember we cannot understand.”
            “That is about the kind of thing she says to me every day. And she says we’re best friends and sisters and we must always hang out together. She always says bad things about every body and everything to me and tells every one I said it. And then she says something in Hindi that I can’t remember. And yes, she told Yash on the Boys team that I like him but I don’t. She actually told the whole camp that, teachers, counselors, all, and sometimes Yash acts a little strange around me and I don’t like it. He’s fifteen. Does knocked up mean beat up?”
            “No it does not. I’ll explain tomorrow. Now get to sleep.”
            Mama had heard enough. It was after ten in the night so it would have to wait until morning. Morning came along and having mulled over it, this peace loving and overly trusting Mama was concerned but decided to take no action.
            The following week Coach asked ten of the senior students to spend a couple of hours each day helping the little children fine tune their beginners’ basics. The parents talked among themselves about just how good he was at matching the groups together with their young mentors. Michael was in charge of the jocks, Michelle the overachievers, Gisele the ballerinas, and so on. It appeared to them that Coach had a scanner in his head that scanned each kid who walked in and sized him up and put him where he’d flourish. Mama noticed Ankita had for her wards seven of the littlest girls, and they all had this Troop Beverly Hills thing going on, part princess, part kamikaze. He worked with people’s strengths.
            The beginners left at two and one day at a quarter to two Ankita walked into the girls’ bathroom and espied her troop cowering in a corner like quarry, Ekta tall and resplendent in her new warm up suit, white with rhinestones and red stripes, towering over them, hands on her waist, feet shoulder-width apart. She heard Ekta ask them, ”Who is more beautiful, Ankita or me?”
             The girls looked bewildered. Ekta repeated her question, slower than before. No one answered. A couple of girls giggled.
            “What are you laughing at? You can’t even answer a simple question. Tell me now, who is more beautiful, she or me?”
              One of the little six year olds came to the rescue of her group and said, ”We’re too young to know,” and pushed her way out of the corner she’d been forced into and the others followed her. Ekta turned around and saw Ankita. Her lower jaw was a half smile, the rest of her face a mix of expressions Ankita couldn’t read. “Had lunch?” Ekta asked her breezily and walked out of the bathroom.
That night the family of Mama, Papa, and Ankita sat down to an early supper of retrievals from the ice box and pantry. There are days when that is what is supposed to happen. And as conversations skip, this one skipped to the topic of the truce between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Mama was moved. Traces of the culture of hatred and revenge had tainted her experiences growing up. She said, to no one in particular, ”Love flows naturally between people. If someone is being mean you cannot allow them to stop this flow for ever. Go around them, over them, under them, through them, and sooner or later they’ll see how important love is. If the Hatfields and the McCoys can forgive and forget their litany of differences anybody can. If Disney and Warner can collaborate, most any body can.”
 Neither Papa, after a grueling day’s work with his Bah Humbug boss, nor Ankita, after fifteen whole days of exposure to noxious fumes from the fire breathing harbinger of Doom, Ekta, could relate to that. Mama had this thing for pointing out too how each person in the world has a God-shaped vacuum in them only God can fill. Both father and daughter had this sneaking suspicion that they carried within them jerk-shaped vacuums instead, so every time they got rid of a jerk, another got sucked into it.
       Papa escaped into the world of cricket that Mama and Ankita knew little of, but were beginning to grasp the nuances of, while not fully comprehending the hoopla surrounding it.
     "What's going on ?" asked Ankita as the t.v.camera zoomed in on two people talking.

      "Oh nothing. Paddy Upton is talking to Shewag," replied Papa. Not that the answer helped her in any way directly, but it set the example for her to find her own escape from the anxieties of the day by simply distracting herself with playing catch with the dog.
     Ankita was learning to ignore Ekta and spend more time with the nicer, “funner”, more into skating than dagger-wielding kids, but the woman had a way with words and social posturing Ankita had no antidote for. She’d catch Ankita for a moment or two and deliver massive doses of “We’re sisters”, bi-alternated with “I’d give anything to watch you enjoying yourself” and “Looky, looky, I’m having all the fun you’re too stupid to have.”  Ankita, a few years younger than Ekta, had a really hard time condoning Ekta’s obsession with bra sizes, which was the absolute first observation she made of every female she crossed paths with. The majority of the population at the rink, going through puberty, was Ekta’s study in incremental change. No one escaped Ekta’s x-ray vision and vicious humor. Ankita, too young to know a whole lot about the subject, smarted at the violation of personal dignity this kind of thing signified to her, but was dumbfounded every single time Ekta let loose one of her cannonball remarks, and hated herself for not being able to silence the woman.
 One day Ekta grabbed Ankita by the arm and, despite warnings that during class those not on the ice must not leave the main arena, dragged her off to show her something “special”. Ankita, curious and afraid in equal parts, gave in to this display of sisterly domination that apparently was Ekta’s way of showing affection, following her through what she would later come to understand as Ekta’s real world, the world her head, her heart, her entire being, and deepest aspirations belonged in. The rink was just a waste of space to her. The real world, or the underbelly of it, was what Ekta wished to conquer. “No wonder she stinks at work and at play,” thought Ankita. This was where Ekta came into her own, taller, more confident, more lyrical, more excited than ever. She pointed a furtive finger at the bathroom at the end of the corridor. They went in. Ekta told her the stall at the end of the row was where so and so was getting their pleasure yesterday. It was the one couples lined up for because it had the most space, and the added thrill of being in plain view of anybody who knew where to get their voyeuristic needs met. The gap between the door and the wall was wider than usual. The next stop on this tour was the rooftop. There was a little alcove known as Lovers’ Den. Behind the dumpsters was the next stop. Ankita’s brain froze about now from worrying about how long she had been gone from the main arena and surely she’d get kicked out of camp for this. She decided she was going back without any more stops. She told Ekta that. Their trek back was silent until Ankita asked Ekta how she knew about all of that stuff. Ekta stopped momentarily, looked at Ankita strangely, her thin lips pressed together, her eyes steely with pupils long like a snake’s for a nanosecond. They had reached the door to the rink. Nobody had missed them.
As they walked in, the new kid in town, Zaina, asked Ankita where she could find the kind of bracelet she was wearing, and if it was from Brazil.
 “Nope, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico,” Ankita replied.
 Zaina had a laughing fit. She thought Ankita was joking and only half believed the protestations from all around that such a town did exist. Having only just moved to Fairview from Montreal she was just getting her bearings. She fitted in easily, a terrific athlete and jovial soul, much like most of the campers. Her parents were college professors. Her father taught modern languages and her mother linguistics. Her father was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, then lived in Braga, Portugal, where he met his wife who was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, raised in Goa, India, where she spoke Sinhalese at home, English at school, Marathi and Konkani with the neighbors, Hindi too, and took five years of French at the Alliance Francaise, ten years of Portuguese at school and then five years in college. That didn’t explain everything yet. They went to church some Sundays, madarsa some Fridays, and volunteered at the museum Wednesdays. She had her father’s aquiline features and a golden version of her mothers bronze skin tone and impossibly shiny black hair. She was Pocahontas reincarnated one of the kids said. As a young child she used to get very confused when people, on trains, in school, church, madarsa, airplanes, just about everywhere, asked if she was Metis, Francophone, Anglophone, Allophone, Indian, Pakistani, Ethiopian, Egyptian, Eritrean Moroccan, Tunisian, the Where-ian??  By and by she got the full import of that question and learned to play with it. She got carried away though sometimes. She’d wear a hijab and say grace over her brown bag lunch of leftover pate chinois. She’d take a sequin or rhinestone and glue it on her forehead between her eyebrows, and so on and so forth until Ankita had to tell her one day it was creating too much of a stir, a controversy, was the exact phrase.
 They had become good friends over the summer. Ankita, pathetic at languages, was in awe of this Nefertiti who knew four. Until she met her mother who spoke seven, and painted landscapes from memory that had colors Ankita had not even have imagined before she saw them with her own two eyes. “You’ll see one day, all these places I have painted, you wait and see,” she said to the girls Zaina, Nihinsa, Zaina’s younger sister, and Ankita. Zaina helped Ankita with online summer school French homework and for the first time Ankita discovered something called false cognates and also found out those uncomfortable glass slippers Cinderella had to wear were really fur shoes soft and warm. However, she couldn’t grasp fully yet the magnitude of things that get lost in translation. She had thought that for her five sentence paragraph she’d write about false friends and had started with the working title “Faux Amis” and had found out a whole lot more that she had imagined.
A vampire never allows another to receive or to give or to experience happiness, or encouragement, or love, or knowledge, or truth, or justice, or peace, or completeness, or the hope of any of them, because it undermines their power over the poor miserable creature. This would be the defining characteristic of all bloodsuckers the likes of Mama and her offspring would have run-ins with. By and by they’d learn how to find a way around that obstacle but not before some serious thinking and some decisive action. Mama, keeping an eye on Ekta for the sake of protecting her child, was amazed that children, so early began to display all the qualities that defined bad boardroom behavior or kitty party intrigues, so old so young, and in this mix saw her ingénue floundering, trying to decide if Ekta was a friend or not for a very long time. And Mama owned her share of the blame too. When Ankita had complained all over again about Ekta critiquing her landings, Mama had told her to walk away without a word. A little display of anger right in the beginning might’ve stopped the whole charade in its tracks. But who knows. We’re born to learn from one another. Master slave relationships do exist in these modern times. Some of us are destined to have our earth schools confined in crucibles of such terror.
Ekta was now dating Yash having bailed out of the three coeval relationships from the previous year with three flunkies from her high school and showed Ankita risqué text messages they had exchanged, just as she had done the year before, and the year before that, when they had first met. Ankita said to her she didn’t wish to read other people’s private communications to begin with. Ekta told her she was soooo boring and laughed so loud it echoed in the arena. But Ankita was used to that now. Those poor unfortunate flunkies still followed her around hoping for crumbs much like the three blind mice from the nursery rhyme or rondeau, such were the hypnotic powers of Ekta. Yash, just turned sixteen, new driver’s license and all, looked older, more the man about town. He excelled at skating as always and Ekta’s worldliness was rubbing off on him fast. He was a-changing on and off the rink. He was succeeding like never before. He learned the many ways of power brokering by doing her bidding. He would mimic her language and line of argument and it worked every time.
 She masterfully found his blind spots and used them to manipulate him, and others through him. He was by many a mile the more respectable and believable and reliable of the two, so his credibility took her places where she had had no access hitherto. Where there were no blind spots she skillfully created new ones. She identified with unerring instinct the needs wants desires of all around her, seized upon situations where they could be met and prevented that from happening. Then she would maneuver herself into position as savior omnipotent that held the key to the fulfillment of every wish. In time those around her came to see her as their only source of happiness and security and wisdom and learned to put up with her brand of meanness and ever lowering ethical standards like lotus eaters do with those who feed them their delusion. Outside of skating she commandeered his every source of validation and well-being and rationed them out as she thought fit, which usually meant as she found expedient to her cause but disguised her motives better and better. Over time he began to conform to the mold she created for him without a word from her. She shone in her role and he in his. It is to his credit that he remained at the core who he really was, unsullied, and a quiet renaissance was unfolding within him, anyone could tell. Perhaps anyone but him. Does the diamond in the rough enjoy the process of grinding and cutting and polishing, and does he know he’s starting to dazzle? Go ask Yash.
The end of camp came along. The end of year ice cream social included honorary titles for all. Coach did the honors. “He must know a thing or two about Life”, thought Mama. Among others, Ankita he knighted “The Ice Princess”, Ekta, “Queen of the Balkans”, while the Baal Vihaar teacher used to refer to her as “fighter cock”, which probably had negative connotations in Indian culture, Ankita imagined, and Yash, “Lambert the lion”.
 The meet was scheduled for the last week of June. And for the very first time Ankita won a gold, a single gold, two bronzes, no silvers. Odd. Silver was her metal she had come to believe. But it wasn’t, she had just found out. Unlucky she wasn’t, she found out that too. See what a little gold can do for you? She began believing in herself completely, deeply, unfalteringly, and never looked back. Mama learned a thing or two about the real world and that helped as well.
The wheat moved on to the next year while the chaff dropped away, Ekta included, changing the general atmosphere for the better. There was more work getting done, almost no bickering, and an ease of existence flowed through the space. The kids were jumping higher, spinning longer, getting stronger. The coaches were smiling more, the parents around the rink were quieter and a whole lot more enthused.
            July had been a delightful blur. The family was on vacation. They flew on the evening of the fourth. The night sky below them sparkled with a million fireworks, and above them a billion stars. This was the best seat in the house, obviously. They traveled to India and stopped at Bali and London en route. Each place was very different from the other and yet similar in some ways. People are about the same every where you go, some laidback, some feisty, some testy, some helpful, some grouchy, some generous, some not. Once they were back Papa gave up his job at the construction company he had been with for twenty years and started his own. In January the old neighbors, the very sweet Jose and Maria, banker and beautician, and their lovely children Kevin and Lisa had moved to Cincinnati to live closer to Jose’s parents and put their house up for sale. The house had sold and the new neighbors had moved in while they had been gone on vacation. Mama met them with a slight trepidation, hoping they would be nice or it would be awfully depressing, and discovered the wittiest, most fun loving family of four, Gordon and Elsa who spoke with clipped British accents, and their twins, six year old Jenny and Jemima who spoke with a southern drawl, having lived in Gainesville, Georgia for two years when the family had first emigrated from Lancaster in England. In August Ankita started middle school and adjusted in a few months. Likewise, Mama adjusted to their new lives.
It was September now. This year, after many years, Ankita’s birthday was on a weekend, on a Friday. After school, a few friends were invited home for cake and ice cream, a game or two of charades, and a treasure hunt of Mama’s devising. At five, Papa came home and the trio went to the temple nearby when the guests had left, because that was a tradition they had tried to maintain.
When they came home they had to park in the street as there was a little green Volkswagen parked in the driveway blocking their way to the carport. They wondered who that was. As they walked up the driveway Ekta and her brother met them with birthday wishes for Ankita, a birthday card, and a book. Ekta, just turned sixteen, was the proud owner of a car and the license to drive.
Mama and Papa and Ankita were extremely surprised by Ekta’s visit because at the temple they had heard from common friends that at the cross country run at her school she had fainted and had to be taken to the ER. She was fine and had been released in half an hour but it still had been an ordeal. They were touched by the gesture, coming over on a day like this, bearing gifts and all, when she probably knew all along about the party she had not been invited to.
They went inside and Mama went to fetch cake and tea. Ekta lavished sisterly affection on Ankita telling her she simply had to come and see her on her birthday brushing off her mishap as nothing but a little distraction. For reasons unbeknownst to herself Ankita watched herself regress into a mindless babe speaking gibberish at times and couldn’t steer herself out of the little cul de sac she had talked herself into. Ekta, wearing a pink nylon sari, her short hair put up in an unusual style consisting of two unseasonably high pigtails on either side of her head, was having this hypnotic effect on her. Suddenly she knew why Ekta’s otherwise gentle and reasonably sensible brother always played the village idiot to her village crone. He couldn’t help it!
Mama came into the room with a tray laden with goodies. Ekta politely refused. Her brother helped himself to a piece of cake as did Ankita. She felt his pain. As soon as Mama sat down the energy in the room shifted drastically. The word “dramatically” would not describe accurately what had occurred here. The change was immediate and extreme. A cold wind had swooshed into the room and chilled Mama, Ankita and the brother. Ekta had established a direct line of contact with Papa as she turned to him, looked him in the eye, wagging an overtly familiar finger at him, made a grandiose political statement regarding the activities of the local chapter of the communist party and that of the religious right and the implications of their actions as regarding the Indian community in the greater south eastern region of the United States. Mama stifled a giggle of mixed admiration and amusement. Papa looked puzzled. Ankita and the brother looked on like puppies will look on at big dogs in a fight. That conversation lasted five minutes, at which time Ekta stood up abruptly, said her goodbyes, and left.
When Papa came back to the room having parked the car in the carport Mama asked, ”What was that all about?”
“I have no idea,” he said.
Ankita was reminded of her first impression of Ekta, when they had met in the doorway of the skating rink years ago. Ekta had literally darkened the doorway as she smiled at Ankita, teeth bared, no light in her eyes. Ankita was awfully glad Ekta had quit skating.
            By the end of October, school to rink then home and school again in a tight predictable loop was a well rehearsed dance and it all seemed routine.
            It had been several years since Mama had been able to go whole hog with celebrating Diwali. They had all been just too busy or too tired. This year she had made up her mind to celebrate it just the way she had seen it done in Jaipur at Dadima’s. She had even grown marigolds in the vegetable patch in anticipation of this day. Mango leaves were now available at local Indian grocery stores, so she could make swags with mango leaves and marigolds she decided. She’d try her hand at rangoli. Having played with sidewalk chalk in her childhood for hours on end she knew she could create something pretty. She spent hours planning it all.
            Ankita was back from school admiring questioning tinkering with the décor and getting in Mama’s way but that was the whole idea to begin with, to pass on a tradition, so Mama did not exactly mind. The significance of each color and symbol was fascinating to Ankita who had just discovered that flags and coats of arms had meanings beyond the obvious, just having studied those in school.
            Mama had, in her growing years, been very afraid of making displays of the swastika or the Om or anything obviously Indian, in an effort to fit in. Over the years society had become more accepting of diversity. She, having seen yoga centers pop up in every strip mall in town and regretting never having learned to sit in the lotus position while the bones had been tender enough, the ligaments limber enough, decided it was okay to paint tiny swastikas in turmeric on the lintel. Until of course the offspring came up with the usual, “Mama!” accompanied by the rolling of the eyes and the shaking of the head and so on.
            Mama had thought about this for a while now preparing the decorations and holiday treats for a week and had internally come to an understanding of this whole business of signs and symbols and celebration and diversity. Especially since she had seen at the local temple the mandap had been decorated with a string of miniature disco ball look-alike silver Christmas ornaments. It looked very pretty. It did look out of place. But no one seemed to care. This probably would not have happened at Dadima’s, but here in Fairview it was perfectly okay.
            She then got to thinking about cultural notions like “it’s raining today” or “let’s all open our presents and see what we got” or “you’ve got yourself a serious tan”. They often meant completely opposite things in Jaipur and in Fairview. And that was okay. Likewise, swastikas, a holy symbol to more than a billion people worldwide today had meant quite the opposite to more than a billion people for a number of years. The swastika had been around for millennia in various parts of the world. Its place in peoples’ hearts and minds had changed over time.                  
            Diwali was here finally. All the guests had arrived. Every body was dressed to the nines. Brocade and gold and silver were every where as were saffron and sugar and cloves. The old silk road and the spice route might just have stopped by the household to deliver a special caravan of goodies for this night. Puja was followed by the usual scramble for fireworks the children had waited for since the fourth of July. The yard had been duly swept and watered to guard against fires, the patio not quite big enough to hold twenty children.
            After an evening of celebrating, one by one all the cousins and friends and neighbors had left. The family sat down for a breather before they put away the leftovers and went to sleep. Ankita could not resist counting the leftover sparklers. She had hoped for plenty. Now all that mattered was whether two boxes of sparklers were plenty or not. Mama asked her to pick up all the empty boxes and wrappers and put them in the trash. Ankita looked at each box, and remarked, “Made in China, made in China, made in China…” The table mats she rolled up to put away were also made in China, all ten of them, and she said that ten times again, and added “Man, everything we have was made in China. Mama, were you made in China too?”
            Mama was most amused. “If you asked another five people at random that same question you’d get a yes for sure.”
            “Fireworks were invented in China, weren’t they? So you got the silver payals for Diwali just as you had wanted. What do you suppose Santa Claus is getting you this year since you already got the number one thing on your wish list?” asked Papa.
            “I don’t know. I’ll tell Santa what I want. And don’t ask me to ask for just one thing. Santa can get me more than just one thing. You don’t have to spend any money you know. And did you know, Abby gets presents eight days straight for Hanukkah? And Zeenath got money for Eid. Malathi got eight new dolls for Golu. Why do I get just one thing for Diwali and just one thing for Christmas?”
            “Festivals are not about presents,” said Mama.
            “O-kay,” said the little lawyer.”
            “They are celebrations of things that are good and worth remembering. They are a reminder of some landmark in time, like the end of harvest, or the onset of spring, or the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya after defeating Raavan, or the birth of a messiah, or the triumph of courage over oppression, or the first day of a new year. Think of what each festival means to you.”
            “What does Diwali mean?”
            “The word ‘diwali’ means ‘a row of lamps’ or ‘festival of lights’. It represents the victory of good over evil or light over darkness.” 
            “Then why do people light candles for Hanukkah and Christmas if Diwali is the festival of lights?”
            “Every culture has its own festival of lights, representing the same old story of the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, celebrating the light within, call it courage or idealism. People are similar in that way no matter what they name their religion. Every one of us under this big blue sky needs a reminder that good vanquishes evil or it’s pretty darned difficult to stay alive.”
            And with that they put away the last of the things lying about and turned in for the night.
            Ankita had made commendable progress in skating over the three years since she had first started and now Coach was asking her to spend more hours on the ice. Mama and Papa were quite alright with that. It did mean cutting back on leisure time and tweaking the family budget but they decided it was worth the trouble.
  Mama was about to drive away after having dropped Ankita off at the skating rink for the day when Mrs. Coach flagged her down, asking if she could possibly stay at the front office and play receptionist and accountant for the day as both had had family emergencies and they had found no replacements yet, “Pleeeeease.”
            “Sure, “said Mama, mentally canceling her hair appointment to cover gray roots a month old, turned around, and parked. There really wasn’t much to do. A couple of kids came in to get drinks at the soda machine, one needed a band-aid, one had to call her mother, one had lost a baby tooth and asked for a zip lock bag so the tooth fairy could see it. The phone rang perhaps twice. Mama got comfortable in her new role by midday, made herself a pot of coffee, got on the internet to check her email, and even put her feet up. There were notes from family, friends, the usual junk mail to delete, the dentist’s reminder, a newsletter, some chain mail, the usual stuff, and a picture of an exotic pet her new book club friend always sent her, a panda on a treadmill, or a tiger in a Santa hat, which irritated Mama worse than the chain mail, but not quite as much as the little plastic bag of doggie doodoo some infuriating neighbor always deposited in the vicinity of her mailbox, but that’s another story.
            A family walked in. Mama thought a section of a Las Vegas convention of celebrity look-alikes had wandered in. The father was a dead ringer for Evander Holyfield except with a Midwestern accent, the mother looked like Oksana Baiul and didn’t say a thing, and the daughter was a little Surya Bonaly. Mama said hello and asked how she might help, in her best imitation of a receptionist doing a great job. The father said he had called earlier in the week to meet Anya (Mrs. Coach) and set up a schedule for his daughter who had been skating now for three years in Minnesota. They had just moved here with a job transfer and he was thrilled to find out they taught figure skating the old fashioned way. His wife seemed very enthusiastic but didn’t say a word. In the meantime Mama had surveyed both of ‘Evander’s‘ earlobes and determined he most definitely was a look-alike and not the genuine article, the real deal, sashaying about town using an alias. She got up and went looking for Mrs. Coach.
            Mama found her and told her about the family that had an appointment to see her and they walked together to the office. Mama entered the room after Mrs. Coach.
 Mrs. Coach was rooted to the spot and blocked her way. The father was speaking rapid fire Russian. The room tilted on its axis. Eventually, they got the paperwork done, Mama brought them coffee and juice, following which they left for a tour of the premises,
 Mrs. Coach speaking animatedly.
            Mama had ordered some Chinese takeout, her favorite, sweet and sour chicken with steamed rice. With an expectant air she snapped the fortune cookie in half and drew the mysterious strip of clairvoyance and peered at it. It boded well. She flipped it over to see what her lucky numbers were, in English and in Chinese, in case she ever wanted to spend a dollar on lotto, perhaps here, or in China. Quelle surprise! There it was, her fortune … in Espanol. This was a first. Mama couldn’t help a giggle of understanding at this subtle shift in social consciousness.
            Later that day Mrs. Coach explained that it was the mother, ‘Oksana’ to Mama until she found out her real name was Ludmilla, who had called her a few days earlier to pick a day to meet with her. She had said she was from Belarus. And that had been the content of that conversation. Today she told the rest of her story. She had met her husband in Belarus when he was studying Russian and practicing weight lifting, fifteen years ago. Meeting her husband in school was her first time meeting a real American, and over the five years together he had won her heart and her whole family over. They of course thought he was the exception to the rule. It was all those Russian lessons, they said, and the discipline acquired from years of weight lifting that had made him un-American and almost Russian, for he played the accordion too, and learnt to sing along with Raj Kapoor in Awaara like the rest of them. They had moved to the USA three years ago, to Minnesota at first because it was cold enough there to feel like home. Over the years she had become used to the summer heat spending Augusts in Iowa, so when his office made him an offer he couldn’t refuse they moved. Since she was a stay at home mom and they spoke Russian at home and watched Russian T.V. via satellite her English was still shaky. It helped to be able to get the basics of grocery shopping and skating taken care of in Russian. She could hardly believe the town actually had a Russian store and two Russian restaurants. Growing up she had been under the impression that America was very different from what it really is. “People here are so warm and gentle, not the bloodthirsty crooks I had imagined they were,” was her observation.
            Mama thought about the time she had been to Kenya before Ankita was born on a safari vacation with Papa and every where they went people addressed them as Mr. and Mrs. Patel. Or that time she had ordered pork fried rice at the mall and two or three people around her keeled over dead. Or the time her niece had sung Lee Ann Rimes’ “Blue” at the talent show at school and nobody clapped at first when she finished. Three seconds later there was much clapping and cheering and a second place trophy. And that time her cousin who lived on a farm in Montana was visiting with her three year old, and they had all gone out for dosas to this large Indian restaurant packed with customers. The little one had dropped the abbronzato bomb in a loud voice, ”What are all these peanut butter people doing over here?” completely overlooking the fact he was as brown as the rest of the room. Growing up in the relative isolation of rural Montana he had never seen another brown person outside of family. And maybe he never really had looked in the mirror poor baby.
            That evening Mama and Ankita went home to find a large shipment of tulip bulbs Mama had ordered from a catalog from The Netherlands, all opened up, next to the freshly dug earth that displayed a shiny earthworm or two. Nanima emerged from the back door carrying a water bottle. Nanima had promised to help. She had come over a few hours earlier and found the box, and discovered that her daughter and grand daughter were not home yet. She got started on the planting since the beds had already been tilled, Papa having arranged for that. He had given trustworthy Pablo and Angel a couple of hours off from roofing and sent them to the house with a tiller to accomplish the dirt-digging.
Nanima’s knees hurt when she sat on the ground so she had brought along her special gardening tool, a low stool on wheels!
            “Hey Grandma, Nanima, what is worse than finding a worm in your apple?” asked Ankita.
            “Finding half a worm in your apple?”
            “Ooo you knew that one already.”
            “I was once a child just like you are now.”
            “You had riddles back in your time?”
            “No, just silly questions.”
            The two kept up their banter. Ankita still acted four around her grandmother. That was an accepted fact between them, their little inside joke.
            Four hours and two aching backs later the tulips had been duly embedded in peat enriched soil drizzled with water and bulb fertilizer. Now it was time to sit back relax and replenish.
            Grandma had a thing for tulips she said. They came in boxes each year from another place, another soil, having known only that before they got here, knowing now they would never see the sky that same shade of blue again, never hear again the sounds of the old familiar garden. They had been transplanted, just like she had been.
            And as Mama sat down with her cup of ginger tea the doorbell rang. The Kumars at number 42 had sent their son over to deliver a platter of steaming fresh dhokla. Mama called them and thanked them profusely. The lady said she’d seen them toiling in the yard and knew they’d enjoy the little surprise. Mama promised her the first tulips that bloomed that season. While Mama and Mrs. Kumar chatted on the phone Nanima asked Ankita,                                             
            “Has your mother watched Borat yet?”
            “I don’t know. Is that a movie or a T.V. show?”
            “Never mind. Let’s get the dhoklas while they’re piping hot.”
            And so before the winter, which they looked forward to for respite from the long warm season, and the joy of Christmas, and Ice Capades, the colors of spring had been embedded in the still warm earth. You couldn’t tell looking at the drab brown papery bulbs of course. But such are the cycles of life, of migrations, birth and rebirth, of seasons… Fall must follow summer, resurrection fall, December in between, and rivers must flow into oceans.