Friday, June 29, 2012

The Indian Restaurant by the Arkansas River

Desi Wok was a mad, bad hit in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The little restaurant had only been running for a few months, but every single person I knew was addicted to their food. Even white people! My favourites were their chicken biryani, chicken tikka masala, and lollipop wings. I ate from there sometimes twice a week, and their portions, like most American portions, were large enough to last me for two meals. And the biryani only cost 7 dollars! Hotdiggity, I loved that place. Someday I will go back there. I am not much of a foodie, but the fact that the very memory of Desi Wok is making me salivate right this minute says a lot.

Desi Wok was only a 10-minute drive from my place, so I often called in my order and picked it up to eat at home. It was on one of those days while I waited by the cash register for the folks there to pack my food up for me that my eyes fell upon a yellow flyer up on their wall. They usually put up flyers there to advertise cultural events and to make other announcements. That's how I had one day come across the ad for a new movie called 'Om Shanti Om' that was being screened in the normal theaters where they played American movies. I had never heard of that movie before, but an Indian movie being screened in a regular theater in Tulsa was always a big deal, something that you'd go to just because it only rarely happened in white country. Imagine my shock in the theater when I discovered that it was a Shahrukh Khan movie and that he now had abs and was flashing flesh all over the place. Scandalous! And I had loved it!

So I paid closer attention to the yellow flyer on the Desi Wok wall. It had a picture of a man on it. He was a middle-aged Indian man and looked serious in that smudged black-and-white reproduction of his passport photo. He'd died, and they were collecting money to send his body back to India.

I looked at that man, and he looked through me. I wondered where that picture had been taken, and if when he had been looking into the camera lens at that point if he had looked a little deeper and seen me looking back at him from the future, from outside the yellow flyer he would eventually be inked across. I knew him. I had met him once. He had been a waiter at the other older Indian restaurant on the other side of Tulsa, the one by the Arkansas river. I didn't go there very often, but I had eaten there the first time I had visited Tulsa.

It had been a couple of years ago when I was in my final semester as a graduate student at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater 80 miles away. I had been interviewing with the Deloitte office in Tulsa, and a few of us from my university had been invited to visit them. I had bunked a ride with another student (who always weirdly introduced himself as 'of Persian descent') and had met up with an Indian friend of his who lived in Tulsa. He had taken us that Indian restaurant, the one by the river. This was around February 2005.

I hadn't wanted to ask that guy for a ride at all. He had been in a few of my classes, and I'd always found him highly obnoxious and arrogant. I'd seen him around for a couple of years at university, and though he was a Zoroastrian (Parsi) who had lived in Bombay, he would spare no opportunity to insult Indians every chance he got. The word 'a**hole* was invented for him. He'd speak with a phony elitist British accent and only befriended white people, and he used to treat me with ugly contempt until the day he discovered that I listened to English music, after which he stopped sneering at me and would approach me in a friendly way. I couldn't stand him. What an a**hole. I had seen him introducing himself to people as 'of Persian descent', ridiculing Indians in public and often in the presence of other Indians, yet miss no opportunity to audition for and MC the annual (and wildly popular) India Night event on campus where he paraded around on stage for the whole show and praised India and its usual Himalayas and rivers and languages and ancient history or whatever on centerstage. God, what an a**hole. I know, I had been the other MC. What a jackass. He was haughty, thought everyone un-white was beneath him, and he always had a contemptuous mocking grin plastered on his face. During a group study session, I once asked my fellow students for advice on buying a digital camera (a new invention in those days), and he'd suddenly looked at me from far across the long desk and said, "why don't you just buy it from Walmart and return it after using it? Isn't that what all Indians do?" He'd had that same haughty glint in his eyes when he'd said it. I couldn't stand him.

The almost two-hour-ride back and forth between Stillwater and Tulsa had been a long, painful, and silent one. At some point I'd interrogated him about his citizenship. He'd held an Indian passport but had been born in Iran. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, his family had moved to India to join his Indian Parsi relatives only because his father had waited too long to apply for asylum in the UK. So the Persian had grown up in India. He'd apparently also spent a couple of years in the UK as an adult with some relatives. But man, was he a jackass. I'd seen him use his Indian background when it suited him, to connect with Indian recruiters (whom he secretly despised, I guess?) or get a chance to be on stage, but otherwise he'd fake being this exotic brown person with some murky connection to ancient Persia and ye ol' Queen.

So it was with this man I couldn't stand and a friend of his I'd only just met that I showed up for lunch at that Indian Restaurant by the Arkansas River. It was an Indian restaurant much like all the others you'll find anywhere in the US. A slightly mouldy interior with a name any combination of [Mahal, Taj, Masala, House, India(n), Spice(s)], very agreeable smiling brown waiters, strange pictures on the wall of people and elephants that looked Rajasthani, Mughal, and erotic all at once, sticky table-tops, old wooden chairs with upholstered seats that I didn't want to touch, and some faint music ('Chaudvin ka Chand' - mostly instrumental - or classical) playing from speakers hidden somewhere in fake potted plants.

We'd arrived during the lunch rush, and we'd opted for the buffet (I've eaten at way too many Indian and Chinese buffets in America) over the menu. We must've eaten the usual food that these usual Indian restaurants outside of India serve at the buffet table - coagulated daal makhani, soupy butter chicken, stiff pieces of white roti that everyone calls naan, some generic chunky yellow-green vegetables, white rice, salaad, and gulaab jaamun. And don't miss the brittle 'lentil wafers', the broken ones with the jagged edges, at the beginning and the stale but sweet mouthfreshners on your way out.

My Indiaphobe friend and his Indian friend sure looked like they were enjoying the Indian food. They ate a lot. God, I hated this guy. He sure had a chip on his shoulder about 'Persia'. I used to call him the 'Prince of Persia' behind his back at university; he had been quite universally disliked. It was at a potluck party at our department head's house the year before when I happily looked at the qorma an Indian student had brought that he had snapped at me and hissed, "oh yeah, well did you know that qorma was Persian??" This was a man being bitchy. Only an hour ago when we had dropped by his friend's apartment to pick him up had he started going gaga over his large flat-screen TV (another new thing in those days). He'd looked at me but I had been bored. "This is HD!" he'd told me. Do you even know what HD is, his tone implied. He'd given me a dirty look. I guess he was the sort of guy who didn't know how to deal with a difference of opinion.

I couldn't wait to get back to Stillwater. We still had to get through lunch, and we had just started. We'd been greeted at our table by a middle-aged Indian waiter. He had looked a little bit like Narsimha Rao, but his manners were a lot better. I had been so angst-ridden about having to be around the Persian for the past two days, and this older man's manners made me feel better. He had been very attentive, almost clicking his heels. His English had an Indian accent, but he spoke it very well. "Is there anything else I can get for you?" he'd ask with a nod. "Have you had dessert?" "We hope you've enjoyed your experience at Masala/Taj/Spice/India Mahal/House." What a great waiter, I'd never seen anything like him before. That was in February 2005.

I got the job at Deloitte and moved there a few months later in June. I probably saw that yellow flyer in Desi Wok 3 years later in 2008. I remembered that man. He had been the best waiter I'd ever met. He had been very professional, and he had almost behaved like he had been a trained butler. I looked at his picture some more, but my food was ready, so I packed it and took it home with me.

A few days later I withdrew some money from my bank and made my way to that Indian Restaurant by the Arkansas River. I never went there very often, it used to depress me; the insides were a little too dark, it almost felt like you were entering Ali Baba's cave except that there were no great treasures within.

I walked up to their bar and told the man there that I had wanted to donate money to send the body of that middle-aged waiter back to India. The man's eyes became soft, and he took out his register to wrote down the amount I was donating. I think we spoke in whispers, although I'm not sure why. He took the money. I asked him how his co-waiter had died. A heart attack. He'd been living in Tulsa for many years and had been sending money to his wife and children and old mother in India. Now it was time for him to go back too.

I don't know why I remember him so clearly from that day with the Indiaphobe Persian and his Indian friend. It's not like I'd ever seen him after that. I don't know why you remember some people after one meeting. I don't know why it always feels like they're still out there somewhere living, talking, waiting.


Priyanka S said...

Just could not stop reading till the very have an incredible talent for story-telling and that's what your next book should be all about...waiting for it:)

Also thoroughly enjoyed the portrait of the generic Indian restaurant in US - must do one of the generic ones I encountered in UK!

Khadija Ejaz said...