I didn't exactly lie; well not usually

MY SISTER still feels outrage at the carrot story.

As a very young child, I lied and said I'd eaten my steamed carrots when I hadn't. My sister, of course, immediately ratted me out. My own lie infuriated her, of course, but her real beef was with my mom for swallowing it.

As I look back, the most surprising thing about that episode is that my mom didn't catch me. Can you fool your mom? I usually can't.

Except for that one memorable dinner, I didn't try to lie to my mom outright. But I evaded, I danced, I skirted the territories of truth and fiction.

My mother would ask whether I'd brushed my teeth. Like Fievel in "An American Tale," I'd cheerfully reply, "Yes," but mumble the suffix, "yesterday."

That sort of lie of omission characterized my attempts at deception.

An example from the Mahabharata spoke deeply to me. Yudhisthira is an incredibly virtuous man, and is in fact the son of the god of dharma (righteousness and duty).

Yudhisthira has never spoken a lie. The gods so smile upon him that his chariot floats an inch above the ground, never touching the dust.

But, as the days of war drag on, he knows that he must get a psychological edge on his opponent. So Yudhisthira has an elephant bought and named Ashwattama, the name of his opponent's beloved son. Yudhisthira has the elephant killed so that he can honestly say, with his opponent's listening, "Ashwattama is dead."

As planned, this breaks the other warrior's heart, and he recedes from the battle.

But because he lied, Yudhisthira's chariot falls upon the ground, never to float again.

I don't know what part of my behavior was like his chariot, some characteristic "tell" (in poker lingo) that told my mother I was lying. Was it a nervous hand, a tic of the mouth, a darting eye?

Perhaps my mom just listens really well. "Listen to what people mean, not what they say," she urged my overly literal younger self. I was just putting together people's words, not the whole of who was saying them. When you have that skill, as she does, you can sense what doesn't fit the rest of the puzzle.

My praise of her listening skills is not just adoring-daughter hyperbole. Hundreds of immigrants in the Indian-American communities came to my mother for a sympathetic ear, not to mention a great meal and wise advice.

I used to mind that many of them asked her and my dad to cast astrological charts for guidance. For as long as I can remember, I've considered astrology bunk, just another superstition and a lie that charlatans use to prey on the gullible. But my mother gave sound advice no matter what the stars said, and so I tempered my bitterness with gratitude that advice-seekers got what they needed, even if it was couched in hogwash.

I needed advice from my mother during my first year of college, which is why I stopped lying to her.

I'd had a proto-relationship with a boy before, a short, clandestine romance that derived far too much of its thrill from scheming. But I needed help with a new relationship, my first real one.

So at winter break, during a layover in the humid Bangkok airport, I broke the news. Of course she understood; she'd probably known what I was hiding in my glosses and half-truths over the phone.

And later, when she advised me to not give anyone my heart just yet, and I wondered whether I could ever give this boy up and stay whole, she said, "You got over Karl, didn't you?"

My mouth must have gaped open. I had no idea she knew. She sure got one over on me. But perhaps she was just getting back at me for the only time I ever caught her in a fib (beyond telling telemarketers my dad wasn't home).

In my teens, I went through a shutterbug phase lasting approximately one week. I approached my mom to ask her for some film, and she told me, a bit dismissively, that she'd buy some when she had the chance. (I assume she wanted to keep the film development costs down.) Then I revealed that I knew of her giant stash of unused film.

She controlled her reaction better than I had. She smiled and agreed to give me some film. In that slow smile I saw good sportsmanship and even pride that her stubborn, literal daughter had solved the puzzle of truth.

Sumana Harihareswara writes each week for Bay Area Living. You can contact her at sumana@crummy.com.