Friday, July 18, 2008


No journey is linear, and today mine took a hard turn. I awoke to a cold shower even though I had the hot water switch turned on. My Internet was still not working despite the Herculean efforts of people on two different continents. And the morning call from my husband brought bad news. The great uncle with whom I shared a birthday died. He was 94. He had been suffering in recent months, and I can’t say his death was a shock, but it was hard to hear from the other side of the world when the most I can do is send flowers.

How will I remember Uncle Joe? As Mister Universe himself: the guy who ran two miles a day until he was in his seventies and would stand on his head “for his circulation” until he was just very recently incapacitated—surprisingly not from standing on his head.

I will remember Uncle Joe as the guy who punched out the checker at Cub Foods because he’d been overcharged for his beef. As the guy who didn’t get married because he didn’t want to waste money on dating women. As the bachelor with the dirty house that gave him the immune system of Superman. As the guy who’d get into a rumble over a parking spot. As the man who’d tell you you were too fat, or too skinny. As the guy who regularly insulted my mother when he came over for parties. “Gee, Dar,” he’d say, “I don’t know. This just doesn’t taste as good as last time.”

I will remember Uncle Joe as a war hero who served in World War II and lost brothers and came back intact and modest about what he’d seen and done. As the uncle from the Depression era who, despite the sexist world in which he grew up, looked at me and said I should “be a nuclear” because I was so smart.

I am not sad because my Uncle Joe isn’t suffering any more. I am sad to lose the presence of this exceptional person who had done so much and seen so much and knew so much. I am sad there will be no more absurd stories of who he punched or wanted to punch or will punch, or how he was still exercising at the nursing home—and not those wimpy exercises. The harder ones. I am sad because I won’t hear any more patented Uncle Joe insults at the family gatherings he was sure to never miss. I am sad to discover that my invincible, bionic uncle was human after all. Vincible. Anti-bionic.

In Buddhism, there is a concept called desirous attachment. Attachment is different than (and even antithetical to) love. Love is selfless; attachment is selfish, concerned with meeting one’s own needs, filling the bottomless well of wanting. It is attachment that makes me bawl and my nose fill up with snot when I hear about my Uncle Joe. I’m not thinking of him and the end of his suffering in this life. I’m thinking: “no more wise cracks and Uncle Joe patented insults at our family gatherings.”

This rationalization doesn’t make the grief go away, especially when it is compounded with unfamiliar surroundings and people, especially when after my ride home from work today, Sonu told me it was his last day in Delhi. He is going back to Punjab to be closer to his family.

“Okay madam,” he said as I was about to get out of his car, “I will miss you.” And as I leaned forward to shake his hand, I saw he had one of our snaps as the wallpaper on his cell phone.

Eight days ago, this man was a total stranger holding a sign with my name on it at the airport. Today, he is a good friend with whom I must part.

Apart from these losses, today was a good day at work. I got there early and spent the morning talking with Angshuman, who looks to be about my age and is one of the pioneers of the editing process at Pearson India.

On his desk is a Twin Peaks box set. Hanging on the wall over his desk is the cover from a Final Fantasy videogame. There is also a red sign with white lettering: “If I was organized, I’d be dangerous.”

He leads me to a conference room on the first floor so we can talk without disturbing people. The room smells vaguely of paint even though the paint on the walls is scuffed, bubbled and peeling in places.

His dark eyes shine and he works up a sweat as he animatedly tells the story of Pearson Education, India to me. He covers some of the same ground that Amar did yesterday, but in more detail.

When adapting books, he explains, we have to change not only cultural references, we have to make sure the common cultural references (like McDonald’s and Levis) still make sense. He says these brands are positioned differently in the Indian economy. “Levis are not a fashion product in the U.S.; they are here. Likewise, McDonald’s is not an every day thing here. It’s more middle range, luxury, take your family out to dinner.”

Or take the example of a sociology textbook from the United States. Race would play a large role in such a book, but it wouldn’t apply in the same way in India, so any content relating to race would have to be revised or deleted.

He gives many more examples. A simple picture of a family watching television had to be changed in a book because there was a lava lamp in the background and the student reviewers were distracted by wondering what this odd object was that they’d never seen. The cover of a book had to be changed because it had a yellow and black construction sign on it, and that meant nothing to the Indian audience whose construction signs are orange. There was a business book entitled, “Never Order Barbeque in Maine.” How do you make that relevant to Indian students?

Angshuman talks for two hours straight and excuses himself to get a drink of water. He is clearly inspired by what he’s been able to do here, moving the publishing house from reprints to original work and adaptations. “It’s all growing;” he says, “it’s not already grown up. Whatever you’re interested in, you can do.”

After our chat, I meet with Shabnum, one of the development editors who is working on an Operations Management book. She gives me chapter one to take a look at, and I am off, editing a text for publication. Just like that. Whatever you’re interested in, you can do.

On the way home, I ask Sonu if we can stop at the Buddhist Temple we drove past yesterday. I hope there I can stop my jangling nerves and feel whatever it is I need to feel about missing my Uncle Joe’s funeral.

Sonu misunderstands and takes me to the Lotus Temple. Once I realize what’s happening, it’s too late to clarify, and I’m not about to argue with a trip back to my favorite place in Delhi so far.

The guard at the Lotus Temple motions for me to stop at the gate and says, “Closed. 9 a.m. tomorrow, you come back.”

There will be no revelations tonight. Just the Delhi traffic, which really gets to me for the first time; I feel car sick—or maybe it’s home sick. Either way, I’m a bit wobbly, a bit guilty and I feel that heart-pounding anxious feeling I’ve been doing such a good job of avoiding as of late.

I try to write about it, but my brain is lazy—or maybe afraid—or maybe self-preserving. It doesn’t want to think through the situation too carefully or too closely.

I go to bed and wrap my left arm around my right shoulder, hugging myself. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before.

You have everything you need within you—not without you.

You are whole.

I feel slightly guilty for the sudden sense of comfort I feel, and I soon drift off to sleep.

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