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The Tin Trap

October 2004
The Tin Trap

Suburban Memsahib

A few weeks ago my aunt visited from India and I was forced to transport her somewhere in the tin contraption that passes for my mini van. She nearly passed out when she saw the insides and would have probably suffered an aneurysm had I not intervened and apologized and explained the reason for the shabby state of affairs.

The fossilized junk behind the front seat was probably a month's work of Goldfish crackers piling one on top of the other in layers like sedimentary rock?the sticky windows were a result of Varsha's having left a lollipop lying around?and the rest of us discovering it, and in turns wiping our hands on the windows involuntarily and in resigned disgust. The purple patch on the front seat was probably Vrunda leaning over with a full box of grape juice and?you can guess the rest.

My aunt did not say much then but I figured she wouldn't want to step back into the van when she asked me if I had an old towel so she could spare her silk sari.

To say that our van is a piece of junk would be gracious to the pile of scrap metal that passes off for the family car. At the risk of sounding like a slob, I should state that about a year ago, we thought it was most definitely on its last leg and that we would have to put down some of the green stuff on a new jalopy real soon. Since then the insides have decayed beyond the point of recognition and my kids and I enter its confines with bated breath knowing not what new horrors await us as we push open the sliding doors every day.

I am not sure when and how it really came to this. In fact my aunt chastised me and reminded me how neatly maintained my family car was in my childhood, how my dad used to polish it every day till every fixture shone. But the fact was that it was simple to keep it clean inside when we hardly ever used it at all. "Petrol is just too expensive na," my father and Mr. Narayanan would say to one other as they each turned the key in their respective car's engine and let it idle for five minutes. They would then switch off the engines and cover the precious Ambassadors with tarp and retire them for the week. If I didn't have to actually use the van, I too could keep it neat, I thought to myself. Our Ambassador in India was just a "vanity piece" as I had labeled it?we went everywhere in a rickshaw and I used to be laughed at in school when I declared that I had a car.

Here I use the van all the time?it is like a second home and has the clutter to prove it: ice skates, old bikes that I have never bothered giving away, science projects?specifically three different interpretations of the solar system, and soda cans waiting to be recycled at the next trip to the grocery store. I tell my aunt that having kids does this to me, that there wouldn't be Cheerios ground into the rugs or fruit rollups used as sealing tape were it not for our quasi-nomadic existence most of the school year.

After a while, my aunt stops listening. She walks into the house, gets the 409 and starts cleaning. Her industry makes me nervous and like an obedient child, I get to work too. A couple of days later, the van is a mess again. She slides into her seat and sighs: "Everything is different in America" she says, her one explanation for circumstances beyond her control in a strange place away from her home. Soon she is happily tucking into chocolate chip cookies with my little ones completely ignoring the trail of crumbs she is leaving behind.

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