How I met My Husband*

By Vibha Akkaraju
October 2014

I’ve forgotten the could-be’s name, but remember all too well the feelings that this “date” elicited in me: achy discomfort, disconnection, a self-consciousness to the point of paralysis. I sat across the table at the Chinese restaurant from him, trying to focus on the task at hand: to get to know him, to maybe begin a two-month courtship that would be lovingly monitored by our parents, and then agree to marry, to everyone’s great relief. But all I could think about was how to act nonchalant.

This was not the way I had imagined I’d find my life partner. Sure, when I played with dolls as a child in India, I arranged marriages for them. I set up two households and negotiated the marriage between the boy and the girl dolls, while the dolls themselves sat quietly in their separate corners. In our little town in Haryana, arranged marriages were the only way people got married. Love marriages launched sordid scandals, something a good girl would never do.

But somewhere along the way, maybe it was in Middle School, soon after arriving here from India, where I first saw occasional boys and girls holding hands, or in High school where the stirrings in my own heart flirted with thoughts of premarital love, my idea of “normal” started to change shape.

I started to imagine that one day I would just trip over a soulmate, fall in love, and never look back. That was certainly the paradigm all around me. But I was never one to fall completely for the Disney promise. Even 20 years ago divorce rates were about 50% – making the outcome of a marriage seem like a coin toss. I had seen plenty of happy marriages that started out arranged and plenty of miserable ones that were born of love. And the other way around.

In fact, on an intellectual level, I thought arranged marriages a lot more sensible than the “free range” variety. My parents could filter out the noise of youthful biases and focus on stuff that really mattered: like education, family, economic compatibility. They could save me from my own hormone-skewed perspective. We keep our wits about us when buying cars, houses, even shoes (well, maybe not shoes) – why hang them up when finding our life partner? Rationally, I knew it all added up, and I had seen that love usually follows contract.

But it was hard to entirely relinquish the Disney dream. It certainly offered what seemed like an easier path to marriage. My parents saw me teeter between their way and the American one, and hoped I would land upon the perfect compromise: find a nice Indian boy before I finished my masters, do touchless dating for 2 months, and get married. My compromise was that I would try to source my own spouse, but if I failed, I’d let them introduce me to prospectives.

As college years slipped past, and as mummy papa got jumpier, I made a couple of encounters of the boyfriend kind. But these relationships were doomed before they started: the bar for the hapless saps was nearly insurmountable. I knew that as soon as my parents got a whiff of my dalliance, all ears would stand on alert, anxiety would reach fatal levels, and calls would be made to relatives in India: start sari shopping. I knew that to put myself or a nearly-innocent bystander through the roaster, I would have to have leather-thick skin and ironclad conviction. He would have to be the one. I was down to the final semester of grad school, and no one had come even close.

So one day, increasingly pessimistic about a chance encounter with Prince Charming, I gave mummy papa the green light: go ahead, introduce me. I could get over my discomfort, I thought. Just mind over matter. A week later, the boy was sitting at the kitchen table, chatting up a storm with them. Medium height, well mannered, gainfully employed — he was probably a perfectly good option. But the situation made it impossible to find out. I could listen in, but every word out of my mouth felt awkward, deliberate, and unnatural. When I made a joke, it fell flat. When I spoke in Hindi, my vocabulary failed me. Even English seemed foreign. If the boy suffered the same, he hid it well. All the while, mummy beamed and papa looked satisfied. I tried deep breathing.

Anticipating my hypoxia, my cousin had offered me a getaway plan: a party at another cousin’s house. Never much of a partier, I had accepted nonetheless, knowing it might be a much needed antidote to the “party” at home. The meeting over, I went. It was exactly the kind of gathering I hated: it reeked of a meat market. Boys were tripping over themselves to out slick each other while girls pretended to be oblivious to their performances. I had escaped a trunk show of a mating exchange to land in a veritable flea market. And I was getting the hives.

But among the dozens of guys I met that night, there was a quieter, more aloof fellow. He didn’t try to corner me or any other girl into a conversation, or even to smile too much. In fact, he seemed out of place at the party, much like I felt. We exchanged introductions – his name was Srini – and both of us were in grad school, though his (M.D., Ph.D. in immunology) made mine (M.A in literature) feel like a Sunday walk.

“I’m surprised you have time to come to parties,” I said.

“I don’t. I should be back at the lab dealing with the mice.”

Gross, I thought. But I was curious. “What do you mean ‘mice?’ What do you do with them?” Most people would have been sorry they asked.

There ensued a lecture on B cells and T cells and proteins and triggers. There were descriptions of the immune system and of the ultimate dilemma he was spending his years exploring: “Why do our bodies sometimes attack themselves? And what keeps them from doing that all the time?”

I was left cross-eyed by the cellular details, but charmed by his deep interest in the subject, so deep in fact, that it never occurred to him that he may be coming across as a complete nerd. Or that this very nerdiness — and his disregard for his image — would be, for me, his biggest appeal.

Both of us too shy to actually exchange phone numbers, and in the neolithic times before Google tracked everyone’s coordinates, we parted, leaving a repeat run-in to the stars.

Back at home, I told my parents I would hold up my end of the bargain. The boy they had brought to meet me had braved all of us on our turf. The least I could do was go out for dinner with him. Give him a chance.

So a few days later, we sat across each other at that Chinese restaurant, the boy and I, each measuring and weighing our words before testing them in the gulf between us. We both tried to be engaging, funny, likeable. But as in the initial meeting at our house, the whole situation was too artificial. How do you act, what do you talk about, when you know everything will be a test of your suitability as a life partner? Do you discuss your life philosophy? That seems too grandiose – besides being a moving target. Do you talk about your day? Too petty. Reading habits? Too risky – you can come off pretentious (do I admit that I love “The Canterbury Tales”?) or too bone-headed (I also inhale “People” magazine.) Nothing fit the occasion.

We muddled through dinner but I decided I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go through the rigors of an arranged marriage. I told Papa that I’m sure the boy would make a fine husband for someone, but he was not for me. “But why,” papa asked, completely incredulous. “Give me a concrete reason.” He knew I was generally the rational sort, and would soon see that billions of people have gone through this process. Why not me?

Maybe all I needed was a little more time with him.

So he announced to me the next Saturday evening that he had invited the boy back to our place for a second visit. I saw mummy cringing.

“I had told you very clearly, ‘no’,” I said, “plus I have other plans.” This time I was furious.

“Just spend an hour with him, Vibha.” he said, trying to sound reasonable.

Another painful dinner, this time laced with guilt of leading on the poor guy, and burnt to a crisp with my anger at my dad. I didn’t last the full hour. Forty five minutes into it, I left. (I still feel bad about that.)

I went to another college party. Some of the same characters from the previous one were there. A guy in tight black jeans and snake skin boots asked me to dance. I obliged for a couple of minutes, but then begged out. Another one tried to start up a conversation. I kept walking, in desperate need of fresh air.

In the parking lot, I saw Srini approaching the party. We stood there and talked. And this time, we exchanged phone numbers. Almost 20 years later, I’m still glad we did.

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The journey begins

 

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*This article was originally published in the October 2014 edition of India Currents, Northern and Southern California editions.

An Ode to My Beloved*

By Vibha Akkaraju

My favorite gift ever, the thing that meant so much more to me than the slick, Silicon Valley emblem it is generally taken for, is on its deathbed. The lump in my throat may surprise you, but not me.

My beloved MacBook Air, the now 6-year-old, lithe little machine, a one-time ballerina in a stadium full of football players, got sick recently. It seemed like gas – as if she had overeaten. Its belly developed a slight bulge, and the flap stopped closing all the way. I really thought this would just pass.

Then the base started to swell more prominently, and you could see the keyboard bulging upward. But everything still worked great. The thing still heated to the perfect lap-warming temperature – just like it always had. The battery drained at a determined clip, but recharged eventually.  It connected to the internet only intermittently – as if it knew I needed help avoiding distractions. I loved it and it clearly loved me back.

Then one lovely afternoon – in that golden moment when the house was still and I was at no one’s beck and call, as I typed away my usual drivel, I heard a pop. I looked around. Nothing. But I knew I had heard something. I got up and walked around, inspecting the television, making sure the stove was off. As I approached my seat again, I noticed that a gap had appeared in the two plates that hide the guts of the computer. I lifted up the laptop and looked under. It was as if after a lasagna dinner, two of its shirt buttons had popped off. The remaining ones strained to hold the now-warring sides together.

Srini coaxed me again to cut the cord. Move on, he said. I couldn’t believe it. He’s usually the sentimental sort, but here he was, ready to toss out a shimmering reminder of his greatest husbandly moment. With our kids at 7, 5, and 2, when I was finally, slowly, climbing out of the diaper pail, he had extended me a hand – in way of this Air. In fact, he even lay aside his deep conviction–a no small feat for a 1980s UNIX geek–that Apple was Big Brother, their products overhyped, and their groupies annoying –– and opted for beauty, all for my sake. He had cleared all the clutter off my desk – literally only for a day but symbolically for an era– and replaced it with a single, beautiful reminder of my nearly-forgotten ambition.

It was love at first sight, the kind that’s way too corny to talk about. I wrote several blog entries just to get my hands on this beauty.  I tried to match the elegance of my words to the grace of the gift.  It was a tall order, and one by which I was gladly humbled.

But now, the big test: could my infatuation mature into an enduring commitment? “Surely there must be a cure,” I insisted. I googled “bloated MacBook Air,” and was barraged with a stream of frightening diagnoses: “battery exploding/expanding,” one said. “Noxious gases,” “fire hazard,” warned others. One blogger gave instructions on how to remove the battery – and then warned readers not to.

At the “Genius Bar” at the Apple store, Dylan, a suave 20-something, shook his head sympathetically, maybe slightly bemusedly, at my Air’s plight, but then pointed me to a lineup of sleeker, faster, stronger machines. Did this young man have no concept of “in sickness or in health?”

“But will it work without the battery?” I pleaded.

“Sure, it’ll work, but it will have to stay plugged in. The second it unplugs, it will shut off.”

“How about a new battery?”

“I wouldn’t recommend it. This is an old machine. And as programs get bigger and bigger, and this won’t keep up.”

I sit and type this on my Air tethered to life-support. The battery removed, it has its skinny silhouette back, but it’s the slimness of ill health, not fitness. And without the weight of the battery anchoring it, every time I lift my hands off the keyboard, the entire thing flips backwards. It needs me.
It’s early May, the slight breeze is warmed to a glorious Northern-California perfection, and the patio is bathed in dappled sunshine. It beckons. I will go, but only after we install some electrical outlets out there.

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This essay was originally published in in the July 2014 issue of India Currents.

A Day at the Faire

octobot

San Mateo
May 2014

Just past the lost-child ID station, where Anjali the 8-year-old huffed indignantly at my suggestion that she could use an ID tag, past the fire-belching, scrap-metal Octobot, Myth Busters’ host Adam Savage stood on a rickety platform, with hundreds of fans adoring him.

“What’s the best thing you’ve ever made out of duct tape,” asked a young girl. A raft, he said. They went down some rapids in that raft, and he flew through the air at one point, completely confused about when he was supposed to put his legs straight out, when to fold them.

“Where did you go to college,” someone asked. “I pretended to go to NYU for 6 months.”

“What was your most memorable creation?” When he was 9 years old, he cut up some refrigerator boxes and put them in his mom’s closet, pretending he had created a space shuttle. He outfitted his shuttle with desks and sat in it for months.

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Adam Savage

“What was his biggest failure?” Continue reading

The One Percent American Girl*

Recently, there was a big blowout party for the American Girl store opening at Stanford Mall. Our youngest daughter was ready to go hand over her piggy bank. I was ready with my rant:  In short, American Girl is 99% UnAmerican.

photo credit: Aanika

photo credit: Aanika

Those of you who have managed to escape this over-priced, over-hyped craze that possesses girls at around age 5 and doesn’t let go for a decade, let me bring you in: this 18” tall, made in China, plastic and fabric doll is de rigueur for the doll-age crowd. And sometimes for the crowd’s moms too. And it’s not just one doll. No, there is Caroline, Ivy, Ruthie, Kaya, Kit, Addie, Josephia, Rebecca. And those are just a few in the “historical characters” department. There are dolls of the year, baby dolls, mix-and-match twin dolls. And if you can’t find a doll among this lineup that speaks to you, you can design your own. It’s a sneak-peak at genetically designing your babies. You can choose its skin color, hair color, hair texture, eye color. You get the idea.

After you pick a doll and plunk down the $110 to $124 for one of these beauties, you can start filling out its universe. Start with the books, which are not bad, actually. They are historic or contemporary fiction, some are mystery and advice books, and seem to be at least better written than, say, Disney books. That’s a low bar, and AG hurdles it handily.

But a girl can’t live on books alone. She needs clothes ($68 for a holiday dress, for a start); she needs furniture (Rebecca’s bed: $125); she needs hair accessories ($12-$49) and ski gear ($38) and horses ($75). To be truly dolled up, she needs her hair done. Any AG girl store will set you up with an appointment for a $25 hair do-up. If she gets “sick,” she can be sent to the “Doll Hospital,” where, for some undisclosed fee, they will do minor or major surgery, and return the doll back to its worried-sick owner before the holidays. She might still need a wheelchair ($38) for a while. And you may have to buy her a spa chair ($110) so she doesn’t miss her beauty regimen while she recovers.

It’s madness. Who can afford these outrageous prices? Maybe they should call it the 1 percent girl. Maybe, if as the name suggests and image portrays, these AGs and their accessories were lovingly made in middle-America by mom and pop artisans, you could understand $90 for a Lilliputian table and chair. But it’s commissioned by Mattel and made in China! How are people not outraged by the hypocrisy?

What hypocrisy, yawn my girls. In fact, with all these temptations, how is a girl not to start a-dreamin’? Ours were no different. Daughter #1 begged for an AG for two years before I got her an 18″ very un-American doll. $30 from Target. It snoozed her alarm, but didn’t shut it off. The pleading soon resumed and continued, until, in a wild stroke of luck (okay, and some talent!), she was able to earn a bunch of money dancing for an opera. With bank account freshly flush, the first thing she bought herself was an AG. Fair enough.

#2 started her campaign the day #1 got her AG. She made a pretty reasonable case that it is unreasonable to expect a kid to earn this much money, especially as we didn’t give allowances then and didn’t pay for chores. What was she to do? First she didn’t get picked for the opera and now this? Still, we fought back for 2 years. But on Christmas after she turned 9, we surprised her. Or, shall we say, she surprised us. She is just not into dolls anymore, she announced, and tossed it over to #3.

The surprise continued when we found that #3, instead of being satisfied, was only just bitten. She wanted the full compliment. Dresses, pajamas, furniture, babies, more dolls, more of everything. I tell her she is my American Girl, but she has an Indian-American mother, and our breed just doesn’t buy overpriced doll gear. I tell her to ask her sisters to sew clothes for her dolls, and to fashion furniture out of cardboard. It was good for her, I told her. I might as well have been talking to a plastic doll.

Fast forward three years. A shift in allowance policy in our house allowed #3 to gather $86 to spend on whatever she wants. After a year of anticipation, the much-ballyhooed AG store was finally opening at Stanford mall. She took her sisters and dad for the grand opening. I held off initially, but joined later when curiosity got the better of me.

I went to the mall knowing that I would be collecting material for my writing. I knew there would be throngs of people who had drunk the spiked AG Kool Aid, that I would have the opportunity to take pictures of moms and daughters toting multiple dolls. My cynicism was having a field day.

Initially, I thought I was dead on: The line to get into the store was comically long (1.5 hour wait just to get a number, after which it would be several more hours to enter Xanadu), so we bowed out and just reveled in the festivities. The entire mall was swept up in the frenzy. Hundreds of shoppers watched a variety show AG had organized, with fresh-faced girls singing songs about the multiplication tables and other wholesome subjects. Booths invited kids to take pieces of modeling clay and make mini sculptures. Each kid was handed a bag full of goodies that would wind up in the garbage in a week.

When we got hungry, we could go to almost any restaurant and just say “American Girl” and get a discount on the bill. Burgers, pizza, cupcakes – everything was cheaper. And who can resist an easy bargain? Just being at the mall on that day meant you were part of the American Girl party. The whole thing was enough to make me pine for my Barbies.

But later, a new thought challenged my cynicism: I realized that the AG hype  might be the essence of “American.” After all, this is how our economy runs. We all have to collectively convince ourselves that we need newer, better, more things, and the more we buy, the better the consumer-confidence index, and more smoothly hums the economic engine. We could all take a lesson from the AG marketing people.

They are brilliant – indeed geniuses – at selling their stuff. They have picked a message and they stick with it. Wholesome, historic, and hugely hyped. They could have hired real singers and dancers, but opted for the homegrown talent that would warm the hearts of their market share. They could have charged us to play at the craft booths, but that would be akin to charging for cigars at your baby’s birth.

The folks at AG not only dance to their own tunes, they get everyone else to join in too. To be in the “in” crowd on opening weekend, you really needed to be sporting an AG doll. What could be more effective advertising? To be a savvy shopper, you needed to go to stores where pledging your love to AG would get you a discount. Surely, nothing could be more American than propelling our consumerism. Maybe even consume more than we can afford. And the whole “Made in China” thing? Heck, at this point, even that seems American.

I’m taking notes. Look out for the grand opening blowout for my blog.

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*This article was originally published in the Feb 2014 edition of India Currents, Northern California edition.

Notes from Tokyo: Games with Geishas

Tokyo, Japan.

First, an apology: what follows may seem touristy and stinking of stale stereotypes. I know Japan is more modern and more stressed out than we are. The country is crawling with techno-geeks and littered with tall towers. But this is how I experienced one evening in Tokyo.

I had cabin fever and joined Srini towards the end of his business trip. On their last night, his company had planned a big event. A surprise event. All they told us was that we would be going to a ryotei, a traditional Japanese restaurant, to dine with geishas. That’s right, kimono wrapped, puffy-haired ladies sporting wooden flip-flops. Only they are too graceful to flip and flop.

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iSurprise

iphone4teens

Maya was about to turn 13, and for her pre-party, had launched a campaign to upgrade to a smart phone – an iphone 5C, to be exact. She had taped posters with the oh-so-subtle “iPhone 5C” in 124 point font on our bathroom mirrors, on the bedroom walls, on the stove backsplash, in our underwear drawers. Until now, she had a phone that allowed her to write texts, but it delivered them only when it was in the mood. It could take pictures, but refused to send them (yes, even with a data plan). Sometimes it just took a day off from work. It wasn’t all bad though – the thing was built like a brick, and the battery lasted forever.

We had been resisting the conversion, Continue reading

Confessions of a Worry Wart

Thursday, July 25, 2013

School’s out, the kids are at a sleep-away camp,* and I should be celebrating. Parents I know use the freedom to revel in tidier homes. They travel, they watch adult movies, maybe even finish their sentences. What do I do? I worry.

Maybe there are legions of closet worriers out there. Maybe we all are, to some degree, just pretending to be carefree, easygoing, and happy to be rid of our kids for a while. Maybe my preoccupations aren’t all that original at all. Or are they?

When a friend proposed a Girl Scout nature camp near Tahoe to me, I considered for a bit, assuming that this too shall pass. What was she talking about? We don’t pack our kids off to the woods on their own for a week! I know, I know, “a week is nothing,” you are thinking. You know people whose kids go off for the entire summer!  Well, I know people whose kids go to boarding school for years. But we haven’t really had a primer for this.

Neither Srini nor I went to camp. The only “camping” we know is what I did with my parents – and my chachas and mamas and cousins.  It was like an Indian wedding, only in the woods. While the neighboring campers roasted hot dogs on sticks, we feasted on chole, naan, and yogurt. We sang Hindi songs around the campfire and and told jokes in our broken Punjabi. Mummy packed our white linens to sleep on, and meticulously scrubbed everything when we got home.

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