“Yemma, why won’t you cook fresh for my son every morning, even when your mother-in-law and I are back in India?” my father-in-law asked me three years ago when he visited us in the United States.
The question was innocuous at first sip, like the first taste of pepper in a mulligatawny soup. In minutes, however, it stung. When a man assumes that I was born to hold a spoon or a ladle, I begin to shudder. I morph. When I smell the faintest whiff of male chauvinism, I become the eighteen-handed Hindu demoness: behold Durga, brandishing a weapon in each hand. My spoon unfurls into a dagger. My fork transmogrifies into a trident, its middle prong elongating fast. My pestle bloats into a mace. My knife twists into a pen with a jalapeno nib. My tongue stretches and curls.
“I’m a writer in the day,” I told him that morning, in a voice with a serrated edge. “My kitchen will be closed in the morning. My husband, your son, may eat at Subway.”
This is I, Kalpana Mohan, the warrior daughter-in-law who plays a duel role in the home. I am the Occupier. I am the Occupied. That pepperjack me is an upgraded version–after an arranged marriage, an American graduate degree, two children, half a dozen parking tickets, half a dozen speeding tickets, three surgeries, two whiplash injuries, four property moves, four cars, many cordless phones from Costco, $500 in Santa Clara Country library fines, countless mammograms, many margaritas and mojitos, innumerable pap smears, twenty department store cards, a dozen close friends, sciatica, many acupuncture visits, and 1200 Facebook friends. But most of all, this is I, the writer, after a half century of a hyphenated life as an Indian and an American on the global stage. And for my voice, for my point of view and for my courage in all my dealings, day after day, to do what I do and say what I say, I thank India Currents, the very first publication in the United States that gave my mind a forum and my pen a page.
I’ve lived in the SF Bay Area for 27 years, longer than I’ve lived in India. In that time, I’ve grown older and fatter, just like the India Currents magazine. I remember how IC looked when I first wrote for it: like me, it was eager, lean and mean, and several ounces lighter. It had fewer advertisements and far less savvy and wisdom on its pages. Like this publication, I had little to talk about in the eighties.
Today, three decades after I first rolled my hing-filled suitcases through the green channel at the San Francisco International, I realize that I, too, have a lot I can advertise. “Want to know the secret to a stable marriage? Worry NoMo. Consult with KalMo.” “Want to know about the best music teachers in the Silicon Valley? Call 1-800-TIGERMOM.” Heck, full-page ads aren’t enough for me these days because I have so much to say. I need to rent space. I need billboards with lights–the glittering, holographic kind that litter US 101 en route to San Francisco.
In so many ways, the evolution of this magazine has been tied to my own personal revolution–as a woman, as a mother, and as a writer. After ten years in the infinite loop of a programmer’s life, I decided that all I wanted to do was to write. IC gave me my first break. I began my journey into the world of letters by writing about my year in Paris: “Of Pooshnikkais and Paris” (November 1999) was my story about finding a little bit of home in the City of Love.
Since then I’ve freelanced for many other magazines and newspapers. I’ve learned many different aspects of the writing craft while working with editors at various local, regional, and national publications. I held the notion in the early days that I must write exclusively for mainstream publications to establish myself as a “real” writer.
What I discovered, along the way, was that the more I wrote for consumer magazines, the more I began selling my soul to the devil. They seemed to care little for the individuality of the writer. They cared only about their bottom line and their personality. An experience with one of my writing assignments at a national magazine still stands out in my mind. I got paid a handsome amount per word for the job; but the editor took my submission (an essay), stripped it of everything but its research, smothered any sorry shriek of a voice that might leap into view between the words and published his essay in which the only thing that was honestly mine was my name as printed in the byline. That was one of the turning points of my writing life. Since then, I have refused to write for anyone who will not publish me the way I intended myself to be heard. The truth is that no publication has trusted my voice and respected my writing in the way that India Currents has. Its editors have become my lifelong friends. And, month after month, I’ve gleaned small and big things about being Indian in the diaspora through the wonderful, colorful, writers whose voices rise from the pages of this publication.
During the years I’ve written for India Currents, I’ve fussed over two awkward children and a wayward husband, made human beings of them, fed them beans curry and rasam at home, yelled at them like a witch when they didn’t do their part in the house, locked my daughter in the garage so she would introspect and practice her abhinaya pieces before her arangetram, locked my son in his room so he would practice his music, slipped into jeans and sat around with baseball mothers never knowing when to clap and cheer, slaved over my daughter’s science project at Challenger School and then turned offensive when she did not get first prize, whipped up the first version of my children’s college essays which they vomited over (after telling me that I must get a life and not leak into theirs), screamed at my husband for uploading photographs while not unloading dishes from the dishwasher, and posted statuses on Facebook announcing the same.
Mostly, I wrote about what I was seeing, hearing and living. I wrote about Karnatik music in “Karnatik Revival,” (May 2008) and its resurrection in the 90s and beyond, thanks to the interest of Indians in the United States. When my mother passed away after a three-year battle with cancer, I wrote how her death had torn the sails of our family frigate. “A Queen Flies The Coop”(July 2007)was hard to write; I had to work on it between memories, regrets, and sniffles. Then I wrote about entrepreneurship. I was astounded by Mani Krishnan’s pluck and creativity in finding fulfillment and money, in that order, in the business of food. “Desi Food Nation” (March 2008) made the cover and, for a while, that story was hotter than the dosas at Bangalore’s MTR.
At rare moments, I do feel a soupcon of regret for having shunned a predictable monthly paycheck to write full-time for money that, in my father-in-law’s opinion, wouldn’t be enough to buy a two-ply package of Charmin toilet tissue. He was right, after all. But I’ve been fortunate enough to be the wife of a man who was smart enough to pay the bills and eccentric enough for me to write about my maniacal life with him. I’ve been lucky in raising two children who had the sense of humor to grow up around a mother who was missing more than a byte or two in her registers.
“If I’m weird and nasty, I’m happy to say it’s all thanks to my mom. Proud of you, dear mother!” my daughter wrote after she saw a particularly stinging post of mine below someone’s photograph on Facebook. I quickly ran to delete my post but the damage was done. But the friend didn’t care. “We’re friends,” she wrote back. And really, what else could she expect from me, of all people, anyway? Now those are the sorts of friends I’ve made far, far away in the United States where friends often end up replacing relatives and taking over our lives.
India Currents celebrates its 25th anniversary this year; I’ve been celebrating my 50th. On my birthday last October, my friends of the last three decades in the San Francisco Bay Area made puree out of me. They diced me. They sliced me. They braised me and claimed they praised me. They raked up all the sexual innuendos for which I had become infamous. They made chutney out of me using habanero chilies and tamarind, with sugar on the side. My husband, the eternal paparazzi, shared 70,423 photographs of me having the time of my life so my relatives and friends around the world could partake in the dressing down of a woman who had given so many friends and relatives hellish over-the-hill memories.
I remember how I was assaulted by fears of my own mortality in the days leading up to that big birthday. That same week, a friend’s husband who was buckling to brain cancer took a turn for the worse. The Monday of that week, I was at a cremation service for an acquaintance who, within eight months, lost the battle to advanced lung cancer at 48.
More and more, I find myself in memorial services as I enter the golden years in my adopted land. The memorial service for Susie Nagpal, a Saratoga councilwoman whom I had just got to know, became my inspiration for a timely discussion on the topic of death. “Rites of Passage” (February 2011), a service piece I wrote on the logistics of death, became an important piece for IC’s readers.
Life in the Silicon Valley can be serene, despite the material cacophony wrought by success and competition. For me, it has meant a quiet life away from the din I had been used to in India, away from the roar of traffic, the yelp of stray dogs, the prattle of street fights or the sudden blare of a dappankuthu song. Suburban America has offered my family a clinical existence, one stripped clean, as you can see, of sound and smell and roadside brawls.
But life within the four walls of our home hasn’t been all détente and roses. On many days, our family room feels like Tahrir Square. When our daughter arrives on her break from college, don’t come home. It’s World War III at the Mohans and the word “nuclear” means fission, not fusion.
India Currents has been privy to those landmines, thanks to Pavithra Mohan, our daughter, who educated Indian American parents on what they needed to know about teenagers growing up in America. I heard her frustrations with me through IC’s pages and especially in these times when she has been far away, I have tried to listen more, judge less and support her through challenging times.
As a writer, I’ve cherished the freedom I’ve had to speak my mind. My husband has—while lamenting every April about my not pulling the financial cart—become a friend, philosopher, guide, banker, and photographer in my writing career. He has taught me that becoming the best in one’s profession is often about networking, building bridges, and forging mutually beneficial friendships with rivals. I’ve realized that the only way to become better is by encouraging others and being encouraged. And so, every few days, I’m at a writing group where we’re discussing one another’s stories, or at a reading where I’m learning something more about the process of writing and publishing, or at a social meeting with colleagues over wine or coffee just for the heck of it. These friends and mentors, along with my husband, have allowed me to dream about writing the book that’s in my heart, a collection of narratives about India.
I do, of course, worry about this new post-50, post-intermission segment of my life. If I go first, will my husband water the curry leaf plant in our home that I tend to with love, multi-vitamins and expired folic acid? How will he spend my IC check should it, perchance, arrive posthumously? Who will take over my weekly blog posts at saritorial.com?
The problem is that life is complicated, long after we ride into the sunset with Yama. Still, whatever happens, I hope I’ll keep laughing, and writing, until my screen goes black.