Chetan Niranjana walked out to the shaded back porch and noticed the young girl sitting at the table playing with dominoes as expected. He looked about, just long enough to appreciate the nice garden setting her parents had created behind their modest home.
He carried a mug of tea her mom had made for him and a smoothie for her. He felt ridiculous, coming to his manager’s daughter for advice, but he was desperate and resolved to let this play out.
“Good morning.” He said to get her attention. “I’m looking for Priya.”
She looked up and smiled, apparently happy to see him. “I’m Priya and you must be Mr. Ni-ran … um.”
“Niran-jana. It’s common enough back in India, but here in California, you may never had heard it. Ms. Priya, please don’t think me rude, but I was expecting someone older. How old are you?”
She gave him a friendly look and answered with a smile, “I’m nine but my birthday is next month.” Next her face turned serious as she slowly repeated his name until her tongue got used to it and she could say it easily. Then she stood up, offered her small hand to him and said, “It’s my pleasure to meet you Mr. Niranjana.”
He set the drinks down on the table, smiled and bowed slightly to take her hand, “You are a very gracious young lady and I’m pleased you agreed to meet with me.”
“Baba made me practice that greeting until I had it memorized. But I love meeting and talking with my father’s friends. Please join me.”
He smiled, wanting to not offend or insult her but as he moved towards the table he thought, Nine years old? What was Vijay thinking? She’s much too young to understand this so how could she possibly help?
Passing the glass to her before sitting down, he said. “Your mom sent your smoothie with me.”
She smiled again, took the glass with both hands and settled back in her seat.
“Baba told me you have a problem,” she said as she turned all the dominoes face down and mixed them before clearing an area in front of her and flipping one domino over as if starting a new game. “Please tell me about it. I’ll be listening carefully but will be looking at and working the dominoes.”
He did not understand the domino part, but had been told this was how she worked. He had no opinion about it and thought, she is still a child after all, but I don’t see a way to politely leave. I’ll just lay out the detailed version and she’ll realize she can’t help me so maybe this can be a quick visit. He answered, “Yes. Your father told me that you have a gift for insight and wisdom. I have run out of ideas and need a fresh point of view.
“Almost a year ago my wife and I had a financial challenge. We had lost money in the stock market in both her and my accounts. We also had an emergency need for money about the same time and struggled to agree with how to get by until the market improved. Some of our money was with two companies that were badly hit by covid and we took huge loses. The dividends for both almost dried up and that was the money we needed so badly.’
Priya nodded but kept her eyes on the dominoes and kept flipping random ones and building chains of matching numbers.
“We agreed to a plan but one of her suggestions did not look right to me. But, she was firm that she wanted to move a still-healthy investment to one with higher returns but much higher risks. I tried to explain why their earnings per share and its tax shelter status made it was a bad idea but she insisted. Because we do these things together, I finally agreed to move the money as she wanted and that new company also took a hit. It left us in worse shape than we were before.
“Now she’s angry at me for buying the same investment she wanted me to buy. She says that this was my mistake, not hers, and now, we’ve said some bitter words to each other. She’s angry. I’m angry about being wronged because it was her idea and I’d tried to talk her out of it.”
“Mr. Niranjana,” Priya said lifting her eyes from the dominoes to meet his. “I don’t understand most of what you just said, but . . .” She looked down at the domino pattern she’d built, moved her jaw in thought for a moment then returned to meet his eyes. “Can you be fully honest with me?”
He did not expect this child, or any child to ever confront him like this. He considered her face, looking for any hint of malice or sarcasm or enjoyment of his circumstances. Seeing none, he concluded, she’s asking the question sincerely. I should answer her.
“Yes. I think so. I’ll let you know if you ask for something I can’t talk about. What do you want to know? ”
“That’s good. You should be able to tell me this; if your wife were here instead of you, what would she say happened? I’d like to hear her side as told by you.”
“I can answer that. My wife is a bright and talented woman. She’s not mean or dishonest.”
Priya smiled and said, “Please continue then,” and she dropped her eyes back to the dominoes.
“Well, I’ve tried to see this from her perspective.” He explained how wife used to be a real estate agent but changed careers about 12 years ago to get into software sales. Not long after she left real estate, the tax laws changed for real estate trusts and she missed a wave of changes that removed some tax shelters while creating others. But if those laws had not changed, her recommendation would have been very profitable.
He thought before continuing, Is she understanding all this? “My wife can be very proud about certain things and her work history is one of these things. I think she badly does not want to have missed something this important about something she thought she knew. Somehow, she’s rewritten the history of how we got to this point, but I can’t get her to see the facts as I do.”
Priya turned over one more domino after he finished speaking and placed it at the end of one of her chains. She leaned back to look over the full layout and turned over another domino, considered it but set it aside.
“This domino does not fit.“ She raised her eyes to meet his again. “Mr. Niranjana, is your wife a good person? Do you like her?”
He was startled by this different angle, but quickly answered, “She’s the best person I know. She’s kind and smart and we, um, well, we love being together – a lot. I more than like her. I love her – I love her a great deal.”
“And does she feel the same about you?”
“Yes, I think – I hope so. We’re just both very angry right now.”
“What would you feel like if she left you?”
Her words sent a cold shock wave through him. “That – um. That would be awful – a disaster, but . . .”
“And how would she feel if you left her?”
He was startled to hear such thing from such a young child. It made him almost angry because, both these questions are so far over the top for our situation.
He must have made some kind of face because Priya tilted her head and said, “It’s just a question Mr. Niranjana.”
He couldn’t decide which stirred him more, the bluntness of her questions and implication of their answers or the unexpected fact that they were coming from a nine year old girl who could not possible understand the complexities of adult relationships. She cannot understand how painful this had been for us. Is she implying that we are close to losing our marriage? It’s inappropriate and – and wrong.
He struggled to regain his composure. Getting angry at this young girl would be pointless, but – is her question also pointless? No – it’s likely not.
He squared his chin and answered, “Miss Priya, I would never do that her. I could not. I’d do almost anything to prevent . . .” but he suddenly ran out of words as a thought occurred to him.
Her eyes remained on him, listening carefully to what he said but now she was silently letting his own words sink in. The feeling was not unlike waking up in a strange place and being confused about where you were.
After what felt like a long time, she continued. “Mr. Niranjana, I think you have your answer. It’s a simple question you need to answer for yourself. What do you want more; to be right or to protect your marriage?”
He did not realize that he was leaning forward, as if trying to meet this conversation with brute force and suddenly, he needed to just sit back and make the decision. “I’m not going to lose her to a disagreement like this. I’ll stop . . .”
“No,” she interrupted. “I don’t need to know the details. I said that I think you have your answer and I also think you know what you need to do or maybe stop doing.” She dropped her eyes back to the dominoes and picked up the piece she’d just set aside. “Oh look, this one does have place – right – here.” She smiled a very young girl smile of simple joy after placing it at a branch in one of the chains.
He suddenly realized that she had given him a step to take, one he’d not considered. It was now obvious but he didn’t like it. He didn’t want to do it but recognized that it would work. It would gracefully allow he and his wife to return to their normal lives including rebuilding their investment portfolios.
Silently he came to terms with the idea before asking, “Priya, you got all this from the dominoes?”
She answered with a friendly smile, “No, I just ask questions. The dominoes keep my hands busy while I try to listen and understand. The only thing you said that I understood was that you were getting close to losing your wife because of a disagreement over what you both remember and that you don’t want that to happen. You both can’t be right, but does it matter who’s wrong?”
“No – I guess it really doesn’t,” he answered thoughtful. “And if that’s true, there may be an easy fix to this?
“I agree and I bet she has allowed you to be wrong before. Perhaps this time it’s your turn.”
He shook his head in amazement. “Your parents Priya — they must be very proud of you.”
She smiled and giggled a bit at his words. “They let me be wrong a lot.”
“Thank you Priya. I — I, uh, need to get moving. I’ve just realized that I have an errand to run before going home.” He stood up and offered his hand to her.
She stood up smiling widely and leaned across the table to reach his. “So, you do have a fix in mind?”
“I do. It involves a bottle of her favorite wine and a set of dominoes. We’ve never owned a set and I think there is more to this game than I ever realized.”