Normal programming…

… recommences! Regular readers, please do excuse the last post. Let’s just say, after weeks of self-control, I found it impossible to resist this opportunity to be naughty staring me right in the face. And now, let’s leave it at that, shall we?

Excitement is in the air at the JnM household. The husband returns from a two month exchange program in the US next week, goodies in tow. Toys and dozens of books for his darling Baby M. A digital SLR and iPhone for himself. And one teeny weeny gift for me. Sigh! How the mighty have fallen!

Okay, I am exaggerating. My gift is a surprise, so I have no idea how tiny (or huge) it is. And guess whose pictures the SLR will end up capturing? And finally, the stuff for Baby M was painstakingly researched and selected and ordered online by none other than yours truly. The poor husband ended up merely playing messenger boy in this instance. So I thought, why not be generous and give him his iPhone in return for the courier service? Yes, I am pretty generous that way.

Baby M will be taking off for Mahabaleshwar as soon as his daddy makes an appearance on Indian shores. This will be his fifth trip in less than a year, after Lonavala, Delhi-Agra, Indore and Alibag. Quite the seasoned traveler already, is our Baby M. He’s been so kind as to allow his poor parents to accompany him this time as well. But don’t expect such largess every time, we’ve been warned. Okay dear, we’ll take what we get.

The no-fuss baby that he is, Baby M has been very little trouble the last four times, gleefully taking in all the different sights with large curious eyes when awake, falling asleep in our arms when tired, and lapping up the sterile but yucky-tasting packaged baby foods as well as the delicious but hardly very hygienic dhaba food with equal ease. The husband and I have our fingers crossed this time will be no different.

The only part that worries me is the long drive. Active toddlers can be hard to manage in a confined space, and Baby M is as active as they get. I am trying to get him hooked on to looking out of the window – nothing like observing the world outside to kill boredom and enrich your mind I believe – but the idea is yet to catch on. In the meantime, mommy’s singing (talk of captive audiences!) and his favorite books seem to do the trick.

Strawberry-picking (and eating!), boating, horse-riding, hiking, swimming and lots of parent-child and husband-wife bonding is on the cards. Wish us happy travels, please!

The joys of Indian life – for babies!

“Rolly polly, up, up up!”, a chubby three year old sings, while her  cousin,  a cute little two year old, chortles with glee and a ten-month old Baby M watches them intently, fascinated. He kicks his legs wildly in protest at being held. So what if he can’t walk yet? His friends are running around playing and of course he must join them!

The girls are our neighbors at my parents’ home in Mumbai. Everyday, morning, afternoon and evening, the three get together in the building compound to ‘play’.  Whoever gets down first calls out to the rest until the entire building knows the gang is getting together again! Sometimes a little boy from across the street joins in as well. The older ones sing songs or tell stories (picked up at playschool), while Baby M is usually content to simply watch them, that’s when he’s not looking at the crows and butterflies, trying to grab at flowers and leaves and staring at the neighborhood cat! Sometimes he’ll laugh out aloud or try to imitate the funny sounds his friends make, more often he simply kicks his legs in delight at their antics.

In the morning, when Aaji sets out on her daily rounds of the market and sundry other chores, Baby M sees her pick up her purse and gets all excited. It’s time to go out! Aaji tries in vain to slip out unnoticed, but the ever-alert Baby M lets out a loud wail until she picks him up and takes him out. Perched on Aaji’s shoulder, Baby M roams the lanes of our sleepy suburb, visiting the bank, the fruit seller, the local library, even the school for physically challenged children where Aaji volunteers her time every week.

Every evening, when Aai shuts down her laptop for the day,  she gets herself and Baby M ready and mom and son head out, to the park, to the local bookstore to browse books for Aai, to pick up Aaji from her yoga class or to the market to hunt for some elusive ingredient for Aai’s recipe-of-the-day.

And at night, when Ajoba comes home, Baby M leaps into his arms before he enters the house and demands to be taken out for a walk or a ride in the car. Weekends, he travels to South Bombay to visit his cousin, just a year older to him, or north to the suburb where his paternal grandparents, uncle, cousin and many more of our relatives live.

Grandparents, uncles and aunts to pamper him, cousins and neighbors his own age to play with,  older cousins to teach him new tricks, the household help, the driver and  the watchman to entertain him when everyone else is busy, traveling by bus, train and rickshaws, a fruit seller gifting him an orange just because he seemed so fascinated with the color, random girls on the road pinching his cheeks and going ‘so cute!’ at him, the lights of Diwali, band-baaja of Ganpati and kites of Sankrant – could a baby’s life get any richer?

When Baby M first arrived in India, he’d look at a gathering of  two or more people and burst into tears. Guests at home, burst into tears. Enter a strange home, more tears. A stranger picking him up, loud wails and shrieks! Today, he throws himself at anyone who’s standing at the door. An unfamiliar uncle picks him up and all he notices is the pen sticking out of the uncle’s shirt pocket. He’s traveled to Khandala, Pune, Delhi, Agra and Indore over the past couple of months without showing a hint of stranger anxiety.

“Rolly polly, down, down, down!”, Baby M’s friend ends her song and I watch him laugh aloud, my heart bursting with happiness. The decision to move back home never seemed wiser!

Breaking the ‘mamu’ stereotype

Think of a traffic policeman, fondly known as ‘mamu’ or ‘pandu’ in Bombay slang, and what comes to mind is a pan-chewing, pot-bellied old man hiding in the clump of trees just beyond the traffic signal, harassing you for ‘chai-pani’ or else…!

Baby M and I had a very different experience this weekend. A cousin’s husband was treating and the whole gang landed up at New Yorker’s, Chowpatty, Baby M (on his first restaurant outing) included. The interesting-looking food on the table, the sparkling cutlery and the colorful menu cards – all this was too much for the poor child to take though – he lunged this way and that, spoiled for choice and unsure what to attack next. Mom and baby thus made an early exit from the restaurant, mom having gulped down her yummy lasagna in a record five minutes!

The rest of the evening, we strolled along Marine Drive, mom trying to walk off the lasagna and baby taking in the interesting sights and sounds, while the party continued inside. As we neared Nariman Point, a balloon-seller walked past us. Baby M, fearless and single-minded as always, threw himself in the direction of the balloons as soon as he spotted them.

The balloon-seller ran to us, spotting a potential customer in Baby M. (More like potential destroyer if you ask me, but never mind!) Fumbling around for my purse, I realized I had forgotten it back in the restaurant.  ‘Nahi re, balloon ghyaycha nahi ahe, khoop lahaan ahe na baby!’, I tried to tell the little boy. (The baby’s too small, we don’t want to buy the balloon.)

A young traffic policeman standing next to us, smartly dressed and fit as a fiddle,  was keenly following our conversation. To my great surprise, he walked up to us, handed a ten rupee note to the boy, placed a balloon in Baby M’s gleeful hands, gave us a shy smile and quietly walked away. Talk of  breaking all stereotypes in a single shot!

Hi there!

After such a long gap, it’s difficult to find the right words again. Has something similar happened to you? You know, this feverish blogger phase when the words just seem to flow, when every little thought becomes a lovely thought-provoking post and then, suddenly, nothing! But I do miss blogging. So I decided, today I just had to write something, even if it turns out to be junk. Baby steps are the way to go these days!

So here’s what’s been happening in my life…

I am mid-way into the second trimester of my pregnancy, just about to complete five months. The morning sickness has all gone, but the new problem-of-the-ever-expanding-tummy seems so much worse now! How much more can my skin stretch, I keep asking the husband in frustration every day. To which he lovingly pats baby and gives it an adoring look and asks it to grow some more and make it fast. Yeah right, but what about my tummy?

We had our big ultrasound last week. Where we found out our baby is a… umm…err…  something I had totally not expected shall we say! I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a teeny weeny bit disappointed, but hey, baby’s very healthy, all the tests have been fine so far, so it would be very selfish of me to complain. I’ll just need some time to get used to the idea of being mommy to a baby boy/girl rather than a baby boy/girl I guess!

(Sorry for the secrecy and total confusion friends, all this is just for my dad who reads this blog and for some reason does not wish to know the baby’s gender beforehand.)

Baby’s also super-active it seems. The ultrasound technician kept laughing at its antics throughout. It kept flipping over just when she was ready to take a picture! At the end of it, she asked me to ‘buy good running shoes – you’ll need them’!

Which brings me to – I am so scared of motherhood already! What with the gender shock and the approaching delivery date, its difficult to be the cool never-frazzled mommy of my dreams. The actual delivery is terrifying of course, but I’m more scared of what’s to follow. You mean, the baby’s going to come home with me from the hospital? I have to take care of it 24×7? What if I need a break? And how do I keep it entertained? Should I learn some baby songs now? Or will my usual filmi collection do? But what if baby simply hates my voice?

As you can see, fun times are coming up for us. Hang in there for the ride folks!

Of musical heaven and bumbling husbands!

Brought up in a household obsessed with Hindi film music, my exposure to any sort of ‘non-Indian’ music is so limited, it’s not funny at all. So when the husband proposed we go to a Yanni concert last Friday, I was skeptical. Isn’t he the guy who played at the Taj Mahal a few years ago, I asked? That was the sum total of my knowledge of the master pianist. But the husband seemed rather keen, so we went. And I ended up being one of the loudest cheerleaders in our part of the stands. Now if only I could whistle, I’d surely have been the loudest!

To say the concert was good is to insult the magic of those two hours. There was divine music, exquisite dancing and a certain special something in the air. It was superb, magical, enthralling – basically out of this world. Tell me – where else do you get to see a big happy smile on everybody around you? The musicians seemed the happiest of the lot. They indulged in oneupmanship and cheered the loudest when their teammates outdid them. There was a special bond amongst them that was a privilege to simply watch. The evening ended all too soon, as is often the case with enjoyable evenings. The band played encore after encore, yet we in the audience hungered for more. We were on our feet, clapping and cheering and basically just refusing to leave!

In my post-concert euphoria, I was all set to be suitably grateful to the husband but that was not to be. On our way out, he asked me if the Taj Mahal guy was any good. With a transparently halfhearted attempt at keeping a straight face. Naturally, he got a withering glare for his efforts. The man is yet to learn when not to press home his advantage!

Where my legs declare a strike on me!

It’s official. My legs and I are not friends anymore. This is how it happened. Our friends, S and A, and the husband and I went biking the Lehigh Gorge trail at Jim Thorpe, PA yesterday.

“25 miles of pure nature, including small waterfalls, and continuous views of the Lehigh River. Make sure to bring your camera, lunch, and plenty of water for this exciting journey!” – the trail description read.

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Sounds good, doesn’t it? Except that we sort of missed the 25 miles part, concentrating on the waterfalls and nature bit instead. And how I wish they had mentioned bringing along a signed, sealed contract with our legs rather than the camera – I promise not to declare a strike mid-way down the trail, I promise not to go to sleep in the middle of nowhere etc.

So there we were, starting out bright and early at around 3 PM. The shuttle service that took us to the top of the trail was very reassuring – you should be back in about 3 hours, it’s an easy downhill ride. Plus it’s almost summer, daylight is till 8 o’clock, we told ourselves. How late can we possibly get?

The first 5 miles were just as beautiful as we had imagined them to be. Pure unadulterated nature – a playful river on one side, cascading waterfalls every few minutes on the other, chirping birds, a cool breeze – heaven!

Except that the easy downhill trail we were promised never materialized! And then the legs decided to make themselves heard.

My legs (grumbling): We are being ignored, you take us for granted, we protest this shoddy treatment!

Me (slightly alarmed): Err, no, no, what are you talking about? I love you, truly!

My legs (angrily): So when was the last time you gave us some exercise? And now you want us to carry you 25 miles – no way!

Me (totally alarmed now): Please, let’s go home and discuss this, okay?

Right leg (fierce and determined): No! We are tired of your false promises. We demand a break now! I am going off to sleep – bye!

Left leg (after a while): Wait, I’m coming too. Bye, JnM!

So there we were, four tired souls and a pair of legs on strike, somewhere mid-way along the 25 mile trail and with twilight fast approaching. There was no cellphone reception, no helplines, not a soul in sight and no access to a motorable road or civilization except at the end of the trail!

So what happened next? Please don’t ask, I don’t want to think about it ever. If I am writing this post, we must have come home, right? Right!

P.S. God bless the park ranger who found us, 3 miles short of the trailhead, and gave us a ride to the parking lot. I would have gone down on my knees to thank her except for those stupid legs, remember?

Say it with flowers!

Nothing brightens up a room better than a bunch of colorful flowers, I have always believed. And no gift gladdens my heart more than a surprise bouquet thrust into my hands!

So the husband, after almost four years of marriage, is finally learning. Here’s the welcome home gift he got for me a couple of days after we were back in New York.

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The husband simply warmed my heart!

Then last week, our office participated in the American Cancer Society’s Daffodil Days campaign. And I, as usual, forgot to order our daffodils. As I had forgotten last year. When a kind elderly colleague saw my crestfallen face and insisted I keep his daffodil plant.

This year, anticipating my forgetfulness perhaps, he had ordered two. And left one by my desk with a lovely little note explaining the gift.

‘Please don’t!’, I protested, ‘You got me one last time too!’

‘Let’s make it a tradition then, shall we? I’ll get you one next year as well!’

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So that, my friends, is my dear little daffodil plant!

And finally there is this dear old lady in our office who’s off on a long leave,  recuperating after multiple knee and hip operations. In the midst of all that excitement and pain, she took time out to send daffodils to all of us who’d sent over a get-well-soon basket to her home last month.

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It sounds so simple, doesn’t it, the secret to making others happy?

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Now if only we’d remember to do it everyday!

A winter trek

Sometime in January last year, the husband and a friend climbed a nearby mountain range for a day trek. ‘What’s so unusual about that?’, you might ask. We live in upstate New York, that’s why. Average temperatures on a nice sunny January day here are below freezing. To say nothing of the fact that it was snowing the day the foolhardy two set out on their crazy (or so I claimed!) adventure.

‘Do I look like I’m crazy too?’, I smugly asked them when the poor guys invited me along. And ‘I just hope they come back home safe and sound!’, I prayed all day, as I enjoyed  some cherished me-time warm and cozy at home.

They came home all right, and brought with them some of the most breathtaking pictures I’ve ever seen! Naturally I was jealous as a cat! I’d mocked them too much to say anything then, but this year when the winter trek was being planned, I quietly slipped in a oh-so-casual ‘Perhaps I’ll come too!’. Hoping it would go unnoticed. Obviously it wasn’t, but what’s a few taunts and jibes when such gorgeous scenery’s awaiting me, right?

So a group of five friends, yours truly included, set out on a trek to the Skytop tower on the Mohonk mountain range early last Sunday. The final ascent to the tower was closed because of icy conditions, so I didn’t get my view after all, but the scenery on the way was worth every bit of the aching limbs that followed.

I leave you with some pictures and a suggestion – if you get a chance to go on a trek in the snow, don’t miss it! Take your precautions, wear lots of layers, put on sensible boots and go for it! Oh, and please don’t tell the husband I said that!

dsc05275Setting out!

dsc05328A semi-frozen stream on the way.

dsc05332Walking on snow is a tough job!

dsc053372But the view sometimes makes up for it!

dsc05327Pug marks in the snow – was that a bear? A dog, more likely, but it was exciting to imagine a bear instead!

dsc05347Lake Mohonk

dsc05353Sunset at 4 – it’s time to head back now!

dsc05365A sight for sore eyes (and aching limbs) – isn’t that just gorgeous?

Food and its traditions

Growing up in a mixed Maharashtrian-Kannadiga household, I experienced two very distinct culinary traditions in my childhood.

Aai mostly cooked Maharashtrian dishes in the traditional Koknastha style – mild stir-fried vegetables or pulses with a hint of jaggery and coconut and a simple tadka or phodni, kakdi or tomato-kandyachi koshimbir and super-soft polis or phulkas. Sabudana thalipeeth was a special treat, as was batatyachi poli, better known as aloo paratha!

There were many other Koknastha dishes that I suspect were either too cumbersome to make or that Aai herself did not particularly enjoy and hence were not frequently prepared at our place. Those, I got to enjoy at Aaji’s – aamti, kothimbirchi vadi, puran poli and the like. Yummy!

Attya’s preparations, on the other hand, were typical of North Karnataka, the region she and my father hail from. Simple but delicious saaru-anna, her comfort food, was the dish I took for granted whenever she cooked for us. Bisi bele huli anna, muddi, kadbu and hittud dosa were eagerly anticipated too.

Pav Bhaji, the quintessential Bombay party dish, was reserved as a treat or for when my nagging got too loud and insistent for Aai to handle. As for pizzas, Punjabi or Indo-Chinese dishes, a younger me would have probably told you they are to be found only in restaurants and that too only on special occasions or something!

Lest somebody think I am complaining about what I ate growing up, let me clarify.

I am not! On the contrary, I think of those times with nostalgia nowadays. For one, the food was handed to me, hot and delicious, literally on a platter! Beats slaving over an exotic dish any day, don’t you think?

But jokes aside, Aai’s and Attya’s recipes are probably hand-me-downs from my grandmothers and their grandmothers, the result of decades of experiments and improvements. The secret of Attya’s cooking, I later realized, was in the masalas, painstakingly prepared at home and taught to her by her aunts and cousins.

So there was a strong sense of identification with the distinct taste of each dish and a peculiar sort of comfort in eating the food that my uncles and grandmoms and great granddads had enjoyed before me.

But alas, I did not learn to cook when I was home!

And as a result, my cooking now is a mismash of bits and pieces I pick up from here and there. A pav bhaji recipe from a cookbook, a poha recipe my mausi wrote down for me once, thalipeeth taught to me by my mother-in-law and a spicy Andhra sambar recipe from a family friend. Attya would be shocked to know my favorite bisi bele rice recipe actually comes from Sanjeev Kapoor’s cookbook! And when all else fails, there are the food blogs, my saviors and best friends in the kitchen.

In the last one month alone, I’ve made pithla-bhakri, masale bhaath, solkadhi, manchurian and fried rice, baingan bhartha, dum aloo, bruschetta and tomato-sev-shak, all from recipes so generously shared by my fellow bloggers. The wonderful part, of course, is that the husband and I are able to cook and enjoy such a wide variety of cuisines from India and elsewhere.

But on the other hand, there’s no pattern to our cooking at all! One never knows what to expect. My pithla may be of Kolhapuri origin and very spicy one day, and of Koknastha style and boringly mild the next. The husband has given up trying to analyze my cooking and asking me to make a particular dish ‘like last time’ by now!

Plus there’s no sense of the familiar in my food at all! I struggle to recreate the taste of Attya’s saaru each time I make some, but in vain. My concoction is delicious too, no doubt, but it’s not the taste I associate with the saaru of my childhood, you see!

A simple solution, a practical person like my father or my husband would say, is to set aside some time and learn to cook my favorite dishes from Aai or Attya one day. But if only it were as simple as that! If I had the patience to sit down and learn to cook, I would have done it a long time back, wouldn’t I?

The fun of cooking is in experimenting with different recipes and ingredients I think. I’m sure I would die of boredom if I had to cook the same sort of food day after day! So I’ll continue to hunt everywhere for recipes and play around with the poor husband’s taste buds instead. Maybe a pattern will emerge over the years.

If not, my kids might feel inspired to write a post on their mother’s wonderfully erratic and vibrant style of cooking someday!

A Thanksgiving Tale

There is this sweet old lady in our office who’s one of the most talkative and friendly Americans I know. She must be over sixty years old, but she’s the one greeting us all first thing in the morning with a smile and a chirpy ‘Good morning’, she asks after our weekends and remembers all our birthdays. A warm grandmotherly sort of person is how I always think of her.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I got chatting with her about our holiday plans. She was planning to go over to her daughter’s place. ‘No more cooking for me, I’ve done it for so many years, let the daughter do it now!’, she declared. And then she wanted to know our plans. ‘We are going to Vegas’, I told her.

She seemed slightly shocked. ‘Do you have family in Vegas? Thanksgiving is supposed to be family time!’, she told me, a somewhat disapproving look on her face. It would have been rude to tell her I didn’t know what Thanksgiving was until I came to America two years ago and that it wasn’t exactly the most important festival on my social calendar.

So I did the next best thing and told her our family was in India and we had no family here, so we thought we might as well take advantage of the long weekend and have some fun instead. She seemed to get it, I think, for the frown gave way to her usual smile once again as she piped up, ‘Oh yes, enjoy while you can dearie!’

Long after our conversation was over, her words and her reaction stayed with me. And made me re-think my views on Thanksgiving. Why were we so disassociated from the festivities? I couldn’t think of a good reason except that we had never really given a thought to it!

Thanksgiving isn’t a religious festival at all. So there’s no reason we cannot celebrate it. And we don’t believe in any such religious restrictions anyhow. Even for Christmas, which is a religious festival, I learnt Christmas carols for the office luncheon and we brought home a tree and decorated it in our amateurish desi way and had great fun in the process.

The problem was in our perception, I realized. Here was an American treating us as fellow Americans while we thought of ourselves as Indians after all. In our minds, we were still living in India.

Was it time to assimilate a little more? At least for the time we are here? We could have vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners, couldn’t we? Call over friends, if not family. Maybe we wouldn’t want to it every year, but trying it once in a while wouldn’t be a bad idea either, would it?

I am still thinking about this. Perhaps it will never make much of a difference to us either way, but if we decide to bring up our kids in this country, we’ll need to be much more participative in this whole Thanksgiving/Christmas scene, I feel. Do you folks agree?

What’s a drink between friends? Part II

So we were pretty overwhelmed with this girl’s hospitality and made it a point to let her know how much we appreciated it. But there was one small thing I did NOT appreciate and unfortunately could not discuss with her, considering I barely know her and she was our host and a very nice person otherwise AND I hate confrontations and all! Naturally then, I had to vent myself here.

So we were in North Carolina for the weekend and Sunday night found us wandering about downtown Chapel Hill, a beautiful little town, by the way. Tired from the day’s sightseeing and wanting to rest our aching limbs, we chanced upon a Chipotle, one of the few non-desi places we desis can get good wholesome but spicy food in America. Their burrito bowl is as good as rajma-chawal I think!

So the husband was having his fajitas, I was enjoying my burrito bowl and our friends were nursing a glass of margarita each. Now I was raised to be a teetotaler, in a family where alcohol, tobacco and meat are all considered the original sins, next to drugs, fraud and murder probably! I am pretty sure my mother has never sat next to a person enjoying a glass of wine and will not be doing it anytime soon either. Me, I am not that fanatical at all but I stick to my teetotaler upbringing out of choice. I don’t think alcohol is a sin but I am not a great fan of the effect it sometimes has on people.

Let me clarify. Most people I know are social drinkers and they’ll be up in arms against me for clubbing them with drunks and alcoholics. I understand the difference, you know. I just don’t like the idea of indulging in something that can turn so ugly when over-indulged in. Maybe there’s nothing wrong in having a social drink from time to time if I can stay within my limits. But what if I forget them? Or worse, what if I am just not able to stick to them? Why even go down a road whose end is so ugly? Sure, I can always turn back but what if lose my way instead?

And then there is this weird concept that says you cannot let go and enjoy yourself completely without a drink or two. Which is basically what our friend’s wife kept saying once the first margarita gave way to the second. And which irritated me no end. I had absolutely no issues when she was sitting next to me, enjoying her drink and all of us enjoying our conversation. But then she wanted to know why the husband and I weren’t drinking. Didn’t we like to have fun? Didn’t we wish to experience the lightheadedness and total abandon that can only came with a drink?

This idea that I couldn’t enjoy myself as much as she would just because I wasn’t drinking made me see red. I didn’t try and foist my morals upon her, did I? Why, then, was she trying to impose her concept of fun on me? I might have had more *fun* than any other person at that table. Or I might be a total loser. What does that have to do with drinking?

I prefer to have my share of fun without the aid of a drink. Basically, I hate the idea of losing control, the very idea that was being advocated as the biggest joy of drinking in the first place. I prefer to be in my senses all the time. Call me a control freak or whatever, but that’s the way I am.

I wish I could have said all this to her but then I’d be violating my own rules. Which basically say – to each his or her own. As long as you aren’t throwing up on me or insisting on driving us straight down a cliff, I don’t mind you drinking. So as long as I’m not playing moral police and spoiling your fun, why not let me be? I’ll jump up and down and crack silly jokes and giggle like crazy in the spirit of the occasion and I’ll do it even though I’m not drunk and I’ll still have as much fun as you and not spoil your fun, promise! Just let me do it in my own way, will you?

Sigh! We are traveling to Vegas with these friends and another couple (more college friends) for Thanksgiving next weekend. So I thought I’d get this rant out of my system before then. They are all great people and very good friends, but I know many more such remarks are going to come our way in Vegas. I think I’ll manage to laugh them off now that I’ve ranted here in advance!

What’s a drink between friends? Part I

So we visited North Carolina last weekend. The husband had his B-school interviews there and an old friend who lives in the area very graciously invited us to stay over at his place. Which was inducement enough for me to tag along, as usual. Now this friend is the husband’s college classmate, but I know him pretty well too. I met the husband through him, in fact, so I’ve been friends with this guy much before I knew the husband and have a fairly good personal equation with him.

The guy’s wife, however, we were both meeting for the second time only. So we were slightly apprehensive about plonking ourselves for three entire days at their place. But both of them were so insistent that we went along. And the hospitality we received was totally unexpected and overwhelming, especially coming from her. She wasn’t very warm or friendly on the surface but appearances are so often deceptive, aren’t they?

We could see she’d gone to great lengths to make us feel welcome. Showing us around all day on Sunday, pre-arranging scrumptious food for our entire stay before we even arrived, offering to work from home for the two weekdays we were there since I was working from home too – all the little touches were there. And the husband and I were totally in awe of her for that.

But why all this background? Patience my friends, there’s a good reason of course – coming up in the next post – stay tuned for that!

P.S. In case you are wondering why this sudden installment style of posting, one of the two pieces of constructive feedback I received on my 99th post was to keep my posts short and readable to hold the reader’s interest. And I am nothing if not prompt in implementing good feedback, as you can see!

Living within our means

The scary economic times we are living through make me think about our finances more than usual these days. Each time I panic, I run through a mental checklist – jobs, expenditure, savings – are we doing something wrong? Is there some way we can be more prudent? I think not. We were pretty conservative in our lifestyle much before all this happened anyway. But what about the people around me?

Most folks I know here live in five bedroom houses and own two or more cars including the mandatory gas-guzzling SUV. The homes are usually mortgaged, the cars are often leased. The husband and I live in a one bedroom loft apartment and drive a second-hand Honda sedan. Everything we own is fully paid for. One of our friends with four kids spent thousands of dollars at a swanky Disney resort last year. He was worrying over paying for his kids’ education when we spoke with him last. We have no kids yet but we preferred to stay in a decent hotel outside Disney at half the price when we visited Florida last year.

I often read articles on personal finance that advise Americans to consolidate credit card debt and urge them to pay off a little more than the minimum balance every month. A credit card is a mere convenience to us, a better option than carrying around paper money. We pay all our bills at the end of the month, without giving a moment’s thought to the deferred payment or minimum balance options. They might as well not exist, that’s how much they figure in our scheme of things.

It’s common practice here, I am told, to borrow money against one’s home equity, ‘unlocking’ the wealth ‘tied up’ in the home. The borrowed money is supposed to be used for important expenses like paying for college education but sometimes more frivolous indulgences pop up as well, I’ve heard.

Just before we came to America, the husband and I invested our savings in a modest two-bedroom home in India. The bank was surprised with the loan amount we applied for. ‘We’ll give you five times that’, they offered. ‘No, thank you, this is all we need and can afford right now’, we countered. Besides, why do two people need a bigger house anyway? We’ll get a bigger and better home when we need one and can afford to pay for it, we figured.

There are several more examples, but I’m sure you get the picture. So are the husband and I both saints? No! This is simply the way we were brought up to think. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious and go on about how wise I am. Fact is, I am no different from most people I know back home in India.

When I opened my first bank account in the US, the bank executive offered us a savings plan that would automatically transfer the cents left off from my transactions to the savings account. ‘This way, you’ll have some savings at the end of the month’, the guy very sincerely told us. ‘Thanks, but no thanks!’, we told him, struggling to control our smiles. One of the things the husband and I fought over the most when we landed here were my penny-pinching habits. I didn’t need to save cents while I watched and fretted over every dollar I parted with!

This is a complete shift in culture and perspective we are talking about here. Like two people who see the same glass as half full and half empty, one of us looks at a paid-for home and rushes to unlock and spend the wealth in it while the other sees an outstanding home loan as debt and strives to repay it. It’s difficult to say who’s right and who’s wrong when confronted with such a clash of cultures. After all the glass IS both half full and half empty. Economists, who obviously understand these things better than I do, tell us it’s American consumers who fuel the world’s economy. And most folks would think I am a worrier who doesn’t know how to enjoy life.

Perhaps they are right. It all depends on one’s perspective, I guess, but I feel happier choosing the more prudent option for myself. And I don’t think I’m missing out on life’s pleasures at all! Is living in a two-bedroom condo all that bad? Both the husband and I lived in one-bedroom homes all through our childhood. We were four of us in my family while his had over ten people living in the same 500 square feet of space at one point of time. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, all our memories from this period are of laughter and games and sharing and warmth and togetherness.

Perhaps neither of us can imagine going back to living that way again, but we definitely can imagine bringing up our kids (when we have them!) in our cozy two-bedroom home in Pune, we are deliriously happy in our tiny condo right now, and we sure had loads of fun during our trip to Cape Cod last summer! Sure, I go berserk each time I see a glossy travel ad or one of those gorgeous remodeled homes on HGTV. I’d love to indulge in a five-star spa or decorate my home like that someday, but I’ll do it when I can afford to pay for it. And not have to worry about the kids’ education fund a few months later!

What about you? Do you think we are forgotting the art of living simply and within our means? Do we need a jolt like this recession to remind us of the simple and fun things in life?

Disclaimer: I am not an economist or a financial expert. This post is a collection of my thoughts and impressions from the news articles I read and the people I speak with. I mean absolutely no disrespect to anybody.