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Famous Curry

Famous Curry

I was oblivious to the fact that it was a Bangladeshi eatery. Back in India I would’ve called it a dhaba. But here it was flashing Curry on its signboard, and Kababs too. I was tempted to eat Indian or close to Indian food after a week of running around in cold weather, so I went in.

“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to the biryani. “Biryani”, said the helper, making me nervously thinking what does he think about me. “I know”, I said, “which biryani”? “Beeph” came the reply. There you go, this is a Banladeshi joint. Nothing wrong with it. I love Bengali food, having lived there for the first twelve years of my childhood. So I look at the menu now and focus on the item that said ‘Buffet $8 – three items and Rice or Bread’. I was so happy to eat three items for just eight bucks. So I started ordering, telling the helper to add the chicken gravy, then the fish curry and…he looked at me. “Sir, only one non-veg and two veg items in buffet pleej”. That’s a dampener but I check out the veggies. Nothing appealing at all. “Just the curry with naan for me”, I said.

“Ki holo”, came the owner asking what happened. He could make out I am not a Bangladeshi but obviously didn’t know that I know Bengali. So he enquired the helper as to what happened. I must’ve kept others in the queue waiting. “Veg dekhe na bolche, eta buffet chhilo” pointing at the plate and telling the owner that he seems to not like the veg but wanted the buffet. “ Eta shaat dollar bole dao”, tell him it’s $7. No problem, I thought.

In comes a regular and the owner coaxes him to have the biryani. He retreats giving a smiling ‘nah’, but the owner probably wanted to finish the biryani. I move on with my tray and start noticing the people who filled the small place. It was a shabby place compared to the mid-town east eateries. A very typical low-end South-Asian eatery types with a shabby door to the rest-room and an obviously absent décor. It just had white-tiled walls. The people in there were extremely casual and comfortable, actually standing and conversing and eating around their tables, definitely more than regulars. They all spoke Bengali, spoke about Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina and the politics back home in Bangladesh. Nothing derogatory though but the fact the Bengalis have simple tastes and wear simple clothes, it’s hard to differentiate the class in the herd. I still could not figure that out after years in Calcutta. So I stopped guessing who these people are and assumed that they’re workers in restaurants or small stores. There were a couple of ok-dressed well-educated looking young guys probably eating out on a Saturday night at this place, getting over home-sickness. Must be the IT herd.

So I dig into my naan and chicken curry, not bad I must say. Sitting in a place like this I was tempted to lick my fingers after every bite or two. They were all doing that and once in a while when someone noticed me noticing them, they passed a smile back. I suddenly felt comfortable, forgetting the fact that the owner charged me more than what he charged the regulars. I was told the biryani was for $7 whereas his friend got it for $5 with a piece of chicken from the chicken curry topping it. I held a grudge against the owner for sure.

I finish my dinner, get rid of my tray and head to the restroom to wash my hands. It seemed exactly how I thought of it to be – shabby, but it doesn’t matter. I felt like home, even though I was in the company of people from our neighboring country. I walked past the helper and then the owner, who smiled back at me and made me forget the fact that I was over-charged. Maybe cause it was worth it. I was happy but something inside me said that I should say something to him, so I did – “Tumi Bangladeshi”, I said, meaning are you Bangladeshi. The owner nodded, probably now waiting to hear more from me and confirm his suspicion that I maybe Banladeshi. “Ami India thike eshe chi. Ami Kolkatta dosh bauchaur chhillam. Korry bheeshon bhalo aache tomar” (I am from India and was in Calcutta for 10 years. Your curry was very nice). I walked out, didn’t have any urge to see his expression, since my intention was not to shock and awe but to give a subtle message to him that there are others who like you too and it’s not always about the community.

(Once I was out I figured out who were these people inside, eating, conversing, and making themselves feel at home. Outside I saw New York yellow taxis parked all over the place. That explains so much about their expression of freedom and camaraderie in a small eatery. This place made them feel at home and brought them closer to the people from their part of the world. This is their world for now. The owner is probably a big brother to them, taking care of them, giving them their food at a price that they can afford. I went back the next day, smiled at the owner and ate the buffet this time.)


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From USA trip Winter 09



“So what kinda accent you got” he asked, “Indian, I’m from India” I admitted, certainly embarrassed once again by my acquired Americo-Brit-Hinglish club sandwich accent. I blame it on globalization though. I had to add ‘I’m from India’ before he assumes that my name means ‘Dances with wolf’. “Is it this cold out there”, he pushed the wrong nerve and I thought of Count of Monte Cristo, just that instead of water I was stuck in this brutally cold Chicago suburb surrounded by nothing but snow or snow covered vehicles. “Minus 25(F)! Never, not in a place habitable enough for five million” I shrugged. “I am from Bombay and the maximum it ranges out there is nothing compared to this place”. Mid-West experiences temperatures ranging from minus 25 F to 110 F. “I am from Bombay too” he replied. “OK….” my tone was demanding an explanation immediately. “I come from Upper State New York and we have most of the towns there named after European cities”. That makes sense cause in the last ten minutes that I’ve been with him at the empty bar with Tom, our bartender, I didn’t get any ‘desi’ vibes from him.

“I speak to your people a lot; phone support I mean”, obviously referring to the call centers back home. I didn’t press any buttons on that and steered clear from getting into the Indian economy or IT conversations. I stopped doing that a couple of years ago. “Abbey, another Guinness?” Tom smiled. Sometimes I wonder if that’s his bartender smile or is he laughing at my acquired feminine nick.  “Yeah, sure” I grinned. Maybe Tom knew what’s coming so he was getting me warmed up for it. 

“Politics is all about money. I was born in 1929 and have seen America at war all these years. I was too young for World War II but all those kids who went from my neighborhood never came back. And worst, we were the most hated community since we were Germans staying in an American-German town”, he said staring at the TV on the wall. “Really, and did you go to the war in Nam?” I asked trying to sound educated, although I simply deducted 1929 from 1964 and made some assumptions here. “No”, he sighed, “I went to the Korean war”. I was the best History student in my school, with my capacity to rote memorize any amount in a short time frame but for some reason the war with Korea was not ringing any bells. So I kept looking at him, waiting to hear his experiences. But he was not in a mood, eyes still glued to the TV but not really watching anything. “Wars keep our corporations wealthy and the Congress healthy. I can bet people will start hating the new President in six months”, he said looking at Obama’s interview with Jack on CNN. “People are eagerly waiting to know two things from you” Jack says with Obama looking at him, glare in his eyes, “have you finalized the first dog and what happens to your blackberry?” Jack asks, Obama laughs, and before I can show my shocked expression to my bar-mate, “what the F@#$?” he growls. I agree, what was that F@#$? I don’t give a damn but here’s a renowned reporter sitting with the President elect in a heavy machinery factory in a small town in Ohio and you do hope to hear more about the bailout package or the war against terror, least I was. “The kids have finalized one and as for the Blackberry, they’ve found a way out” Obama smiled. “The problem with our country is we get our a@# fried all over the world so that our corporations can get richer. He’s gonna go the same way”, my bar-mate shouted. “He’s getting Bush’s problems in legacy”, was my intellectual comment. “Bush got Clinton’s girl’s dirty linen in legacy” I said, expecting my bar-mate to smile. That’s when I realized that there were more people at the bar now and they all, with Tom, started laughing loudly. Trust me, if a desi can pull that off in a bar in this country, you’ve arrived. It was a proud accident for me and I got two pats on my back for that. 

“So what brings you here?” I enquired. “I’m here to see my son, haven’t seen him for two years. Going with him and his wife to the ball game tomorrow”, he said with a smile. “I’ve been nursing my wife of 55 years for the past 7 years now. It’s hard to say this for someone you’ve loved for all these years but I hate to see her turn into a vegetable. Every stroke she got in the last seven years crippled some part of her body. She’s in a nursing home now. Last month I thought she almost passed away, since she had a urine infection, but she’s out of danger now”, he sighed. “My last year passed doing the same for my dad; he too had an infection that made him slip into coma. Every morning, afternoon, evening, and night I used to go to the ICU hoping for a miracle that never happened” I said with my voice choking. “Captain Sullenberg is our guardian angel and we thank him from all our hearts” said the news presenter showing a caricature drawn by one of their viewers showing angels landing a plane on the Hudson River. “This is their story for the next two weeks”, he said with a laugh. “The train will pass through Delaware where president elect Obama will pick up his wife and kids and then head for the ceremony at DC. We will be following that train and bringing you live pictures and 3D visuals of the event using Microsoft Synth”, said the presenter, showing some amazing graphics of what’s going to happen on the 20th. “And this ones gonna be the other one,” I said, getting into the camaraderie. 

“My dad used to say that we’re all here to finish an unfinished business, if you finish it you’re in heaven otherwise you’re coming back”, he laughed. “All my life I worked for NY Tel, had a great pay, have a good pension, ‘had’ a lovely wife, great kids and a great retirement home in upper state New York. I took care of my wife, I love her a lot, and now I am going to Stuttgart, to see my ancestral place that I’ve never seen before” he said, probably trying to convince himself that he’s close to finishing his duties for this life. 

“My dad and mom were from the same town but had never met, till they did finally on a ship from Germany to New York. By the time the ship reached New York, they were married. I met my wife when I was 21 and she was 19. She was a Catholic and I was a Protestant. My dad said ‘that’s perfect'” and he laughed. “We got married when she turned 22, and went on to have four kids. She took care of them and I took care of the money”, he said sounding proud and self-convincing. 

“So your son got kids?” I enquired, hoping to get a yes in response, since 2009 minus 1929 equals 80 and if I deduct another 24 from that it comes to 56, thereby guessing his son’s age in between 45 to 55. “No, they just got married three months ago”, he said and started looking at Tom now. Somehow I feel Tom knows the story. Tom was in his fifties and was probably able to empathize with my bar-mate, was my impression.

I ordered mini Angus Burgers and offered my bar-mate if I can buy him a drink or something to eat. He declined saying he had dinner with his son and daughter-in-law. There was a pause in our conversation now and the beer started mixing well in my blood I suppose. Pausing conversations while drinking can adversely affect your capacity to get intoxicated, I think.

But this pause came in hard. I suddenly started missing my wife and kid, my mom and my brother. It happens after two pints of Guinness, I suppose.

I started eating my dinner at the bar and my bar-mate left for the restroom. That’s when I noticed the stoop on his back. He was huge and sure didn’t look like 80 years old.

I started feeling bad about something, and I don’t know what. Just felt like feeling bad I guess. I started thinking of all that this war veteran spoke about, unable to get rid of my habit of visualizing each line, trying to feel what he said.

Here’s this guy in his eighties, with a wife in coma for seven years, living all alone in the mountains in Upper State New York, spending time with his dogs, taking care of his son’s mother all by himself, visiting his son who never visited him in two years, maybe never called him for his wedding, and doesn’t ask him to stay at his place and instead books a room at a hotel. Maybe he did ask, I don’t know. Should I ask why things are this way? Maybe that’s not a good idea. Maybe it’s normal and acceptable here, maybe that’s the culture and I am nobody to question someone’s culture. I met him at a time when I’m trying to meet my yearly target at work and here’s this guy who is still trying to meet the targets set for him, for this life of his. In fifty years will that be me? I don’t think I can eat the burger now.

I stand up to go out for a smoke (Marriott in the US is strictly no-smoking) without giving a damn to the fact that it’s minus 40C outside. I need fresh air. He sees me wearing my overcoat and stops at the group from the next door publishing company sitting close to us. “So how many of you think people will start hating the new President in six months?”

I looked at Tom, he looked at me and then at my unfinished dinner.

I ask him to close my tab; I’ll come back from a smoke and pay. “You should keep laughing guys, that’s what it’s all about”, I heard the war veteran telling the group.

(I simply wrote a conversation that actually took place. I am not implying anything about my bar-mate, his family, or the country he belongs to. I didn’t even ask his name. He knows that I am Abbey).

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