For the past month, I have been on the “Bad Wife” list at Robin’s job. Never mind that I moved my whole family across the world for him. I closed up a life of 20 years in Los Angeles, helped to rent our house, sold three cars, and arranged dental and medical care for the whole family in a foreign country. The thing that makes me a disgrace in the eyes of the Indians Robin works with, supervises, and is supervised by, is that he doesn’t bring his lunch to work, packed at home, in stackable containers called Tiffin Boxes, like most of the Indians at his job do. Inside these containers should be three different dishes, some sauces, homemade pickle. Maybe, and fresh, still warm, chapattis.
When Robin first mentioned this lunch thing, I went “South Bronx” on him. Here I am trying to boil milk (even though it’s pasteurized and homogenized, it’s not safe to drink without boiling), cook food on a stove that frightens me, fry toast because we don’t have a toaster yet, and make breakfast, lunch, and snacks for three kids who want different things in a city where Ziploc bags are a luxury item and are only available at a store way across town. Isn’t that enough?
And it’s not like Robin doesn’t get it. He knows who he married. I never professed to be a lunch-making, “See you sweetie”, “Have a great day”, “I’m going shopping with the girls” kinda gal. It’s not even like I chose not to be that kind of woman, it’s just that I don’t have the skills or the temperament.
My mother made me take Mechanical Drawing instead of Home Ec. I simply don’t know how to do it. I was raised to be a woman of the nineties, a career woman. I can’t make coffee, I take my children’s Boy Scout uniforms to the dry cleaners to get them to sew on the emblems, and while I can cook a good dinner and make a great cake, I have no idea how to be a glamorous hostess who doesn’t look frazzled and pained in front of guests.
I get pre-washed salad and pre-cut apples and I slam them into easy tear bags. I buy sliced turkey by the pound and pre-sliced Jack cheese and if you’re lucky you’ll get some mayo on it. If you are one of my kids and I have a moment, you might also get a cookie or a piece of something extra, but don’t count on it. If you’re over sixteen in my house, I’m done. If you can drive my car, you can make your own lunch.
I don’t iron, except when someone’s graduating or getting married. I shop and make sure there’s enough food but if I started packing my husband lunch every day just cause I had the inclination and the free time, he would get suspicious. There’s no “free lunch” in LA.
But here, in India, at Robin’s job, at lunchtime, everyone is showing off how loved they are by the steamy, delicious smells that come out of their Tiffin tins. They waft their homemade chapattis and stir their curry and unstack their containers. And there’s Robin, feeling foreign and different because he’s buying his lunch from the food cart. The cart is where the men go who are not worthy enough, not loved enough, and not successful enough to have their own lunch.
About two weeks in, after I can see straight, I set out to buy the containers that the lunch will one day go into. I want him to know that even though it’s beyond me right now, I hear him and I know that it’s important (although I’m not exactly sure why) and that he is loved.
Well, it turns out, in spite of the fact that I asked a reliable source who recommended these nifty, microwave-safe, plastic Tiffin containers, Robin wanted the tin containers that the people I know, hate.
Why am I even having this discussion? My children still haven’t gotten their Typhoid shots and I’m talking about lunch for a grown man? I’d like to see those Indian women from Robin’s job shop at Costco, Trader Joe’s and Toys R Us all in one trip, and use the “Clip and Save” coupons to save twelve extra bucks on Pull-Ups. I’d like to see them pack their cars so that the milk doesn’t leak, the eggs don’t break, and the bread doesn’t get squashed and still have room for the kids in the carpool. As for the Indian men, I’d like to see them stay in their lane when they’re driving on the 101 Freeway while eating pizza and talking on the phone.
I felt like throwing those fuckin’, microwavable, plastic Tiffin containers off the balcony of the 27th floor. “Obviously, you have the wrong wife because this one doesn’t make chapattis and pack them in little tins she can’t find in any store she goes to. And, if you have such a clear idea about how it should go, you should buy them yourself.” Quiet.
Days pass and because I know how important it is to him, I keep trying and I come up with a round stackable set that fits into a tasteful black carrying case. I am still not braving the “Indian” stores so I’m not finding the tin ones.
It seems that now the whole office is fully engaged in our lunch business (I guess because who wants to sort out the sewer system or the power grid or any of the other five billion things that could use some smart minds) and there is a “Plastic Team” and a “Tin Team”. The Plastics think they have the better containers because they can put them in a microwave, fit them into appropriate carrying cases, and clean them easily. Not only does the Tin Team live and die by their tin, their mothers prefer them and pack them and don’t like plastic, don’t trust it, and don’t trust anyone who has it. There are a few on the Tin Team who would gladly join the Plastic Team but their mothers (who pack their lunch) won’t hear of it.
This is way bigger than me. I have inadvertently stumbled into a culture war. The past vs. the future, new vs. old, old vs. young, East vs. West, mothers vs. sons.
I am proud to say that 31 days after my arrival in India and before my children have been vaccinated against Typhoid, I have sent my husband off to work with his lunch, made with love, by our new cook, Philomeena. She wakes before dawn and fries and chops and organizes tasty dishes for Robin to eat at lunchtime. The fresh chapattis are enclosed on top, in a small, sliver of foil paper to keep them warm and moist. He is proud; he belongs.
And because they are Indians and cheerful and all for success, they give Robin a standing ovation when he walks into work with his plastic, stackable, Tiffin lunch box. The Plastic Team is clapping harder than the Tin Team but they are all so relieved that their boss, their co-worker, their friend is loved, that they put aside team rivalries and cultures wars and they clap together.
Now the story’s supposed to end there. It’s tidy, there’s applause, and we feel good. But stories in India aren’t tidy and they don’t necessary end where they should. They tend to drag on until someone just gives up, passes out, or forgets what the point was in the first place.
I thank my cook for making such a lovely lunch for Robin and for bringing peace to our home. Without taking a breath, she points out the he needs tin Tiffin containers because you can’t really trust plastic and it doesn’t keep the food hot.
Copyright Nandi Bowe 2012