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As a full-time working mom in Los Ange-les, I don’t do play dates, have house-hold pets, chair bake-a–thons, or host booster clubs. I am also always late to my 4-year-old son’s preschool Trikethons, Hawaiian Luaus, and PTA meetings that demonstrate his motor skills, social engineering habits, and pincer grip. Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of classic desi moms out there born to handle all of the above with finesse, grace, and precision, and still make a decent rasam; and I bow to these kitchen and career goddesses. And when I do finally arrive at these preschool events after complicated maneuverings on freeways and rabid prayers to be ballooned over a landscape of gridlocked traffic, I find with horror that I have forgotten the all-important camera or video to capture my toddler in various stages of groomed interaction—selecting and performing, conceptualizing and expressing incomparable toddler activities.
Most importantly, I forget to read in time the brightly colored little notes that he brings home from his teacher. A friendly reminder: Dear parent, Tomorrow is … Crazy-Hair Day. Isn’t every day Crazy-Hair Day? Has your toddler ever stood with meditative composure while you combed, cut, decorated, or even touched his hair? This is absolutely the surest and most painful Monday morning test for all preschool moms, set up by well-meaning preschool administrators. A note like that could precipitate an endless variety of effects.
It is a Dangerous 7:45 a.m.
I have a plane to catch in one hour and a crazy-haired toddler to create and drop at preschool in 15 minutes. I fret and fluster, half-dressed, and rummage in the kitchen drawers for ideas and thingamajigs to stick into my toddler’s hair. I promise myself that I will spend the entire weekend working on a drawer to hold thingamajigs for just such tests. Abandoning kitchen cleavers and blender parts, I plunge into his toy box. Surely, there’s an idea here. My mother always said, if you haven’t formerly mastered something, then improvise. I spy the entire Dino Park—Tyrannosaurus, Pteronoden, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus—and … why is my latest copy of Oprah in the toy box? My husband, sensing a threatening anarchy in the state of his morning affairs, rushes to give swift counsel.
Possessed by the fear of the is-everything-alright-at-home-dear query from the preschool teacher and planes taking off without me, I jog into the bathroom. I squirt hair gel into one hand, yank the kid with the other, wrap him tight between my legs and slather. He squirms and claws. Slather some more, grabbing his hair in three bunches. Three seconds and three horns later, he is his favorite Triceratops. You think? He wiggles out of my clutches. No! He wants to be T-Rex, the meat-eating dinosaur.
8:00 a.m. I Ready Myself
Rummage some more, this time in shoebox with garage light on. Must wear matching pair of shoes. Must not forget grant proposal. Where is the grant proposal? Husband finds it in the kitchen drawer with the scrubs. The one I hope to remodel into a perfect preschooler mom’s crafts and thingamajigs drawer. Now I am racing upstairs to the bedroom, two steps at a time, my suit in generous need of a lint remover, matching shoes wedged underarm, and grant proposal between teeth. Where is my Triceratops? I find him lying on the bed watching Pokémon on television. Television in the morning, while his cousins in India are acing Vedic math with a vengeance. The horns are rapidly disintegrating, my asset as domestic strength fast liquidating.
Unsparing in my quest to nail Crazy-Hair Day, I make another attempt and secure the three horns with rubber bands and bundle my son into the car. On the way out I grab some leaves from the money plant that my mother gave me to ensure that I make lots of American money. Sticking the leaves into his hair, I begin coaching.
“Tell your teacher that you are Triceratops in the Jungle.”
“No! I want to be Batman!”
“Triceratops in the Jungle!” I am on high shriek! Clearly, I have not read all of the “8 Secrets of Happy Families” in Oprah’s magazine.
The driveway is already jam-packed with SUVs and four-wheel-drives complete with television sets, video games, entire pool and end tables. I park under a sign that screams “NEVER PARK HERE” and pray that the parking attendant is drunk, blind, in love, or has become an illuminating spiritual teacher this morning, and will not notice. I handpick my bucking Triceratops and his backpack, and pretend to skip cheerfully into the classroom. Shoving oversized backpack into an undersized cubbyhole, I pin a green big-eyed caterpillar with my son’s much-too-Indian and much-too-long name on his jacket. With a kiss on his cheek and a great big lint-covered hug I watch him slip away into the world of Legos and toddler-size furniture. Within minutes he has forgotten me and is offering his horns as show-and-tell. My plane leaves in 31 minutes. I slink away.
1:30 p.m. Sacramento
I am marching up the steps of the State’s Capitol Building, waving a placard, and rallying against the elimination of the California Arts Council. Cell phone rings, and my preschooler wants to know how big my plane was. “Big as the Incredible Hulk and as fast as Spiderman,” I whisper into the phone and wave the placard. He hangs up without a goodbye. I must have said something right.
Two days and 12 panel discussions later, the conference is over. I have networked, argued, strategized, and engaged effectively. I stumble out of the plane with handbag bulging with business cards and ideas. “What did you bring?” demands my I-simply-gotta-have-it toddler. He repeats the question five times. In the car, as I fearfully check his backpack for notes and other such dangerous items from his teacher, I find a painting he has made this morning. A thumb-sized crooked yellow line on an enormous white sheet of craft paper and his name scribbled in the corner. “Clearly, a cold minimalist,” I assure my husband. I continue the search. And there it is, in pink and green: a note of love and treachery. Hi Mom. Remember, tomorrow is … Bring-Your-Own-Snack-to-Class Morning. Didn’t their quest for drama and action ever stop?
My husband assures me that I should simply pick up muffins or bagels. I am stubborn. I want to cook, bake, or invent something that only the Iron Chefs on the Food Network would attempt. We argue on the 101 and 405 freeways. By the time we enter the garage, I have bullied him into buying jilebees and laddus from the Indian store because I want to offer the class something unusual, exciting, and culturally diverse.
9:00 a.m. Laddus and Jilebees
I have taken the morning off to be “everybody else’s mom.” My laddus and jilebees, orange and glistening with ghee, sit tall beside brown muffins, bagels and cream cheese, and some more brown muffins, and bagels and cream cheese. I dole out my laddus and jilebees to the kids and when my son isn’t listening, I even tell some of the parents that I myself had made these traditional Indian treats. When one politely asks for the recipe, I quickly promise to email it to her!
Our teacher’s assistant is a cheerful young thing in a cheerful red apron, all in great, efficient readiness for some catastrophic bagel or muffin accident that might happen on her cheerful little pink tee. Batting squeaky-clean lashes, she says, “We don’t want to serve that to the kids, they may not want to eat that.” I place a plate of “that” in front of my son and he quickly chomps into a mouthful of laddu. He offers one of “that” to his classmate. “Eeeuu” she says and scrunches up her nose. My son looks at me as if to say, “What’s wrong with the laddu, amma?” Cheerful assistant looks at me as if to say, “I told you so.” Some parents looks away. I am embarrassed. How dare you not want to try my laddus and jilebees? Is it not your responsibility to teach children to be open, willing, to learn and appreciate different cultures, foods, and people? All this I think to myself but do not say. I go to work instead and promise to bring muffins, and bagels and cream cheese the next time around.
6:30 p.m. On My Way Home on 405
I reflect, while National Public Radio’s annual pledge drive plays in the background. This past month I have negotiated several boundaries. I have participated in passionate grassroots advocacy, discussed with forward-thinking minds, and carried forth ideas to promote cross-cultural understanding, appreciation, and cooperation. I stood on the steps of our state’s Capitol building demanding rights, while senators watched. I marched in Westwood and rallied for peace and almost got myself arrested. But at the little preschool down the street, I have given in.
Anuradha Kishore Ganapati is a development and communications officer at UCLA’s Center for Intercultural Performance.