On a Sunday morning not long ago, Wife and I sat together facing the computer, peering at the Excel sheet we had created the day before. A four-week trip to India was looming ahead, and our itinerary was still open. At the workplace this activity might be called Collaborative Vacation Planning. But “Collaborative” conveys an egalitarian spirit; it hints at a balanced, amiable, and constructive atmosphere. The situation at home was different. Wife was the project lead, the chief authority, one who took all decisions; I followed orders, compiled notes, drafted the plan. All accountability, though, was mine. If anything were to go wrong, my head would be on the chopping block.
The first column of the Excel sheet enumerated dates from mid-December to mid-January; other columns contained variations of plans (titled Plan-A, Plan-B, and so on, until F) that listed, for each of those dates, the cities we would be in: Bangalore, Chennai, Trivandrum, Kochi, Trichy, Tanjavur, Mumbai. Wife and I considered the alternatives, spoke to my sister in Bangalore, and a couple of hours later we settled on Plan-B. (Plan-B: right from the start there was something inferior to it, like a compromise you’d settle on when Plan-A doesn’t work. A bad omen.) My sister consented to book our flight and train tickets across this network of cities, and we began to look for accommodation.
This, we soon learned, was the easy part. Next came the task of choosing what to do on which date: whom to call on, whom to invite, what event to cover, which place to visit. So we created another sheet and wrote down all of it: people, places, events. A ‘Priority’ column was added, some items were tagged “Must Do”, others “Important”, and yet others “Nice to do (else Mom will feel bad)”. This last set consisted mostly of visits to all my uncles and aunts in Bangalore, an agonizingly long list of siblings my mother had inherited long ago.
Wife and I were not the only ones to influence this priority. Is it ok not to meet A Chettan in Trivandrum? Should we take a detour between Trivandrum and Kochi to meet B Kunjamma? Should we invite the C family home, or should we visit them at their place? Who is important, who is even more important – this is a family matter, a conclusion reached after multiple consultations with key stakeholders. (It is no accident that the last sentence reads like a summary of a business deal: such familial agreements are as complex as the ones we negotiate at the workplace; never mind that the monetary rewards here are, if anything, in the negative.) So Wife consulted her parents, chatted with her sister, conferred with her aunt. Slowly, after several exchanges, the common priorities emerged. Sometimes the real motivation surfaced inadvertently.
“Let’s skip K Chikkamma this time.” I said. K is my mother’s younger sister.
Wife exploded: “How could you think like that! How can you not visit K Chikkamma!!”
“Well, she lives too far away, and we don’t have much time in Bangalore anyway.”
“But that’s so unkind! What would you do if in your old age R visits the town you live in but does not come to meet you?”
R is my nine-year-old nephew. “I would disown him immediately.”
“See what? I wish my aunts and uncles do me a similar favour – that would rid us of all these obligatory visits.”
“You’ll never change.” She frowned. “I was hoping to get some nice kesaribhaat and chitranna at their place.”
Food, then, was the hidden priority, a key variable in the formula lurking behind many of the cells in our Excel sheet.
Agreeing on this priority column took two weeks, four quarrels, and a dozen promises of unaffordable gifts. (I’m still not sure if truce has been made.)
The detailed picture in this second sheet led us back to the first one: Plan-B, our original distribution of dates to cities, would not work. (“I knew it!” Wife said; Plan-B was her choice, but she has a frog’s memory for such details.) We shifted dates, struck off places, cancelled old reservations and made new ones. I felt like someone who had bought a new suitcase for a journey and found it too small for all that he wanted to carry. But getting another suitcase was no option: four weeks was all we had.
Some years ago a similar Excel sheet would have featured another column: ‘Gifts’. We don’t bother anymore. This must be one of the least-discussed benefits of globalisation: the wide availability of Western consumer goods in Indian markets has freed NRIs of that enormously complicated obligation: gifting Western commodities to the Indian cousins. I remember one occasion. We were visiting one of my mother’s many brothers in Bangalore. His daughter was in her early teens, and we had chosen for her a nice-looking table clock from IKEA. As we sat sipping tea in their living room, this cousin opened the gift. At first she seemed happy with the object, but after she turned it around a frown emerged. Her mother, curious to learn why, grabbed the clock and read aloud the engraved letters at the bottom: Made-in-India. My reputation has never taken a steeper plunge.
These days we pick up chocolates for the cousins. They are all grown up, but their mothers and fathers expect such courtesies. So we oblige. Not with the well-known brands like Lindt or Merci or Godiva – these are available at the Indian malls. Besides, they are expensive. We choose the most local of brands, probably unknown beyond our village in Germany. The nearby Penny Markt – a discount supermarket – stocks some of these chocolate bars for 35 cents; the packaging is passable, the letters on it German: foreign enough for our relatives in India.
Now, with less than two weeks remaining, with the Excel sheet marked with free and occupied cells, the preparation seems complete. Almost. I am yet to pick up those chocolate bars, plus a few other items my father wants. Then there is the packing bit. But packing presents little worry on the way into India: my suitcase (the real one, not its metaphorical cousin) is seldom more than half full. The accumulation of stuff – and the adventure that goes with it – will begin once we land in Bangalore. I can already feel my head on the chopping block.