Tuesday, March 28, 2017


I stood in line at the local department store, clutching a couple of tops and a blouse, wondering why the person ahead was taking so long.
To my left, a family with a little girl belted firmly in the stroller. She yelled loudly "Appa..." and my mind categorized them firmly as 'another desi family'.
The cashier wasn't done yet with the man at the register. He stood, looking thin and worn out,  in a leather or pleather jacket and jeans, with an 8 or 9 year old daughter in pigtails standing at his side. A toddler with cropped hair wearing a floral dress over leggings padded about in bare feet around the store display, while her sister watched her from a distance, not attempting to go after her, just holding silently to an empty umbrella stroller.
The line behind me was growing longer, the whiff of impatience growing stronger with little murmurings behind me. The toddler waved about what looked like a gift card and wrapper, her father looked desperately in the direction of the shoe aisle, waiting, as he clutched a discount card and flyer.
A loud voice announced something about buying a dress, behind me. In Tamil. Ok, so that means 'desi family' was actually Tamilians shopping in the store.
Hmm, what about the harassed father with two daughters? They looked faintly desi, but not quite.
Just then, a very young lady with a highly decorative hijab, blue with embroidery and a small sparkly fringe, wearing an equally pretty blue kameez and pants, rushed up to the counter, carrying a winter jacket.
The man sighed in relief as the cashier finished up the sale and rang them out, smiling broadly as he handed over the discount coupon. The mother looked frantically a moment for the toddler and retrieved her from near the dishcloth display, perching her on the hip with a swift efficiency. The gift card fell unnoticed to the middle of my path to the cash register.
Should I pick it up or ignore it? No matter, a bare half minute, the older daughter darted in, picked up the gift card, and adroitly put it back in with the other gift cards at the sales counter.
Sale done, the whole family trundled out the door, discussing their purchases of bulky winter jackets that were almost surely a fantastic bargain, end-of-year clearance. Hopefully it will keep the girls warm as the weather turns cold in the fall.
The cashier seemed extra short and unfriendly to me as she went through the motions of ringing my purchases up, no matter that I finished up my transaction in a tiny fraction of the time of the previous customer. Maybe she was worn out from holding on to her civility for them, and not too inclined to be polite to any more brown people for the day.
If so, I'm glad that the young family ahead got the polite and patient treatment, even if I didn't. Let them have at least some more time to savor America as a welcoming refuge, even if time eventually disabuses them of that dream.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Lessons on a Sewing Machine

I'm not really a novice sewer, despite the impression that the title of this post might convey. But with my father's Tanglish aphorism of 'Inji-neer, chukku-neer' ( a pun on 'Engineer' and 'Ginger water') ringing in my memory, I undertook to repair my nearly 25-year old sewing machine, an appliance that I have lived with longer than with my own kids.
Flashback: I went out on my birthday to pick out a suitably decorous birthday present as a new bride. A lovely pair of opal studs caught my eye and it was duly paid for and boxed up in a delicate little jewelry box,. But the price tag was a sore trial. At $150, it seemed like a small fortune to me, especially considering it against what we might have paid in rupees.
I went home and rethought the 'investment'. The opals and the 18k gold of the studs were of no real value, it wasn't going to appreciate in price, and the amount seemed too steep to pay. I hesitantly spoke with my husband and asked if we could return the studs and instead get a less decorative, but to my mind, a more valuable gift for about the same amount. And so we did. I came home the next evening, the proud owner of a new Singer 5932 machine with 23 stitches and 4-step buttonhole.
Now, so many years and plenty of miscellaneous sewing of clothes and home furnishings later, the machine was still chugging along just fine till last week.  I needed to make a small modification to a new dress, and disaster struck. 
Without being too technical about it, the sewing machine has a presser foot lowering lever, which somehow lost the spring loading that kept the fabric pressed up properly against the feed and advanced the fabric as the motor was running. I couldn't sew, period, as the presser foot wouldn't go on, and with no way to insert the needle correctly.
Armed with a couple of old screwdrivers, I started to take apart the machine, and identified what might have been a problem part. But part of the problem was that it appeared to look just fine, not broken or in need of replacement. I googled to price the replacement part and found it to be around $12 with shipping. That won't be too expensive, I thought, as I started to put the removed parts back together again. Maybe I should go ahead and get that and try to replace it, painful as it might be to manipulate that part in place. But it might not fix the problem, and then what?
Problem #2: - I had failed to note how I dismantled the machine, and struggled mightily to get everything back together. Did the black screw go here or there? Why am I having to press this part hard against that in order to insert this screw? Oh dear, I need a third hand here! I called my highly-amused husband to help with tightening that screw.
"Why do you struggle so much over a 25-year old machine? Just get rid of it and get a new one."
He had a point. I abandoned trying to close the machine, with its screws incorrectly positioned and all, and spent a happy hour on the internet, looking up replacement sewing machines.
A day later, I placed an order online and avidly tracked the shipment, with the new sewing machine delivered at my doorstep in a couple of days.  I unboxed it, admired it to my heart's content, with critical eyes that noted however that (a) it had more plastic parts than the older model, including some high-use parts that were sure to be candidates for replacement sooner rather than later (b) the lighting was  a tiny white LED, more energy efficient for sure, but hardly helpful for ageing eyes. Threading this needle was going to be a painful endeavour, unless I learned to use the autothread mechanism in a jiffy. (c) Bobbin sizes were much larger than the old one. How annoying, I might not be able to use all of the old bobbins then.
I started the sewing, and well pleased with the new machine's performance,  happily finished my project, plotting all the while what to do with the old one.
Next, I looked online for suitable repair places and found what looked like the best option, a tiny old-fashioned repair store that was right on my way to work, owned by someone who sounded like a character from a novel. 'H.M. helped me repair my old vacuum, even though I thought it couldn't be fixed'. or 'He tuned and fixed my mother's sewing machine for a very reasonable price.' the reviews were few, but sounded quite genuinely heartfelt.
"Why bother with repairing it? Surely some sewing studio or the other will take it as it is as a donation and fix it themselves to be able to use it." -Another reasonable suggestion from Hubby.
I tried calling around, and no they did not want a 25-year old Singer, even if it had been in proper working condition, being tied in with an ecosystem of other manufacturers whose machines they sold to the customers. I was going to have to try sneaking it past the eagle eyes of the Goodwill or Salvation Army and see if they would take, disassembled/unrepaired as it still was.
Every evening, I took to dedicating 10 minutes of my time to going back and examining the disassembled sewing machine. Something clicked in my brain. This screw should go there, that screw should go here, this needed to be connected to that plate, and that one to this plate, and voila, everything would fall in place like a charm and I would finally be able to close the machine up correctly. Well, at least everything except for a  final horrible little screw that held the cover in place. But at least it all fit properly together.
Another day, and I decided, "Let me take another look at the spring assembly and try something that I had found on Google." Bingo, now the presser foot was raising and lowering better, closer to the way it should, though not yet quite right.
A third day, and I brought it down to the kitchen table with bright sunlight streaming down on it. Every part seemed ablaze with the light, and I could feel a sense of wellness as I happily unscrewed plates and took it apart for the nth time. It was an old friend whose insides were rapidly becoming as familiar as its outside had been all these years. Let me try one more adjustment, push up on this, unscrew and tighten that. Finally, the holy grail, a functional presser foot that moved up and down correctly. Time to reassemble and give it a try with stitching.
Alas, not so fast, the height was still incorrect. Take a deep breath, watch a couple more assembly videos on the internet ( of different unrelated sewing machines), disassemble and try again. Readjust the foot ever so carefully, and finally put it all back again. Worn out, getting to the final cosmetic screw, resort to cellotape to hold that in place in a couple of strategic points.
Rethread, start up the machine, lo and behold, my sewing machine was fixed, and I was super-thrilled of having lived up to the 'Inji-neer, chukku-neer' ideal!

Shall I give it away, or stash it away in case the brand-new delicate darling machine ever fails? I don't know. I shall temporize and keep it for a while till I decide.