Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
One of the first persons I phoned when I came to spend the summer with my son, Anand, in Toronto was Vivek. Vivek was in the wholesale trade in Curacao. In the course of our conversation he told me that his two daughters were on holiday in Canada, staying with a cousin of his, Dina. Courtesy demanded that I offer to take my friend’s daughters for lunch. Courtesy also demanded that he not refuse the offer. Dina lived in Pickering, which was a bit of a drive from Toronto. Calls were made and the time and date worked out for taking the girls out to lunch. So here we were Anand, my wife Rajni and I outside Dina’s door.
The door swung open and Vivek’s daughters, Resh (the shortened and westernized form of Reshma) and Shal (ditto for Shalini), flew out. “Hi Uncle, hi auntie, hi Anand,” they chirruped. Dina followed behind them and invited us in.
We had never met Dina before. But talk of that wonderful destroyer of inhibitions, food, made us feel at home. The claims of Indian, Italian and Chinese were discussed. Chinese won out. But Chinese cuisine always begs the question: Hunan, Cantonese, Szechwan, or any other?
Anand remembered that Canada encouraged a variety that was not known even in China: Indian Chinese food. The Chinese who moved to India evolved a blend over the years that appealed to the Indian palate. Now when the descendents of the Indian Chinese moved to Canada, they brought with them the flavors their parents had perfected. Chinese restaurants in Canada advertised “Indian Chinese Food” as proudly as others announced: “Our specialty: Peking Duck”. So Indian Chinese it was to be.
Dina recalled the name of a restaurant on Brimley that served exactly this variety of Chinese food.
“Newton’s. A lot of Indians go there,” she said.
“Left at McGowan, and all the way down,” Anand repeated the directions as he memorized them.
I visited my son in Canada once a year, during summer, and used the occasion to renew contacts with client/friends like Vivek. After graduating from the Wharton School of Business in the U.S, Anand had joined the marketing team of Nokia Canada. When the time came for him to renew his contract, I suggested that he join the family export business which I had been running out of Taipei for the last twenty six years. He agreed to join me, but on condition that he work out of Canada: he had grown to like the lifestyle here.
“It’s a deal”, I said, because his condition made business sense too. Our clients were located in the Caribbean; liaising with them from Toronto, because they were in the same time zone, would be easier than from Taiwan, which would be asleep when the Caribbean was at work. My son’s decision meant, in effect, that our company would work twenty four hours a day.
Both Resh and Shal were lively, and, as the SUV sped on, our conversation, like a beautifully plumaged Caribbean bird, hopped from subject to subject.
How could the talk not turn to the timeless questions Hindu Sindhis ask each other? How many Sindhi families are there on the island? How often do you get together? Do you observe all the religious functions on the Sindhi calendar? What do you do for entertainment?
“Dad, what is with you that you always talk about Sindhis? We live in the West.” Anand said, a little impatiently.
“Yes, even our dad talks like this. Imagine talking about ethnic groups in the Internet age,” one of the girls said.
How could I explain to them that the Hindu Sindhis had no home, that they had scattered all over the world after India was divided in 1947, that there were only 2 million of them left worldwide? Anand and his generation understood the Sindhi language, but could not speak it. Teenagers and younger children nowadays neither understood nor spoke it. They spoke English, Hindi, Tagalog, Portuguese, whatever, depending on the country they lived in. People like Vivek and I saw it all; it was like a puddle of water on a hotplate, effervescing and evaporating, vanishing. In a sense we were like the Chinese, who went to every part of the world, were mostly apolitical, and hugged memories of home and tradition.
But all I said was, “We exist only as a diaspora. We do not know how long we will last as a separate entity.”
“Well, the restaurant seems to be a long ways away,” Rajni said, obviously to change the subject. She always got nervous when the discussion between Anand and me veered towards an argument.
When we came on Ellesmere Road we passed mini malls, a South Indian restaurant, a North Indian one, two Chinese restaurants. But there was no sign of “Newton’s”
“We’ll drive for another five minutes, then it will have to be one of the restaurants we passed. Okay with you girls?” Anand divided his driving into units of five minutes!
“Okay”, shouted the girls in unison.
We swung off Ellesmere on to a narrower road to the right. “Look there’s a Chinese restaurant here,” said Rajni. The restaurant was set in the corner of the strip mall, which stood between two roads. A sign announced: “The Wok”
“Let me go in and ask where Newton’s is”, I said. Anand pulled into a parking space in front of it. I noticed two signs on the glass door, one above the other: “Set lunch $3.99”, “Halal meat served.”
A middle aged Chinese lady sat behind the counter. “Do you know where Newton’s is”, I asked her in Mandarin. I haven’t the faintest idea why I broke into Mandarin. Even as I was talking to her I wondered whether it was some instinctive urge to speak what for me had become a third language, a memory of what I called my second home, Taiwan?
She answered in Mandarin. “I don’t know. We are new here.”
“Seh seh,” I said and left.
“Let’s go to one of the Chinese restaurant we saw on Ellesmere,” I said as I got into the car.
As we were about to swing out of the mall, Rajni, ever the observant one, exclaimed, “Hey, look it says, Indian Chinese food.” These words were on the glass panel of “The Wok” on the side facing Ellesmere Road.
“It should have struck me, when I saw ’Halal Meat served’ on the other door. Should have known the place had something to do with South Asian food,” I said, knocking the side of my head with my knuckles.
Anand made a U turn and swung back into the parking lot. The woman at the counter did not show any surprise at seeing me with others in tow.
“You could have told me that you serve Indian Chinese food,” I told her as she laid our table.
“I didn’t know that is what you wanted. You asked for Newton’s”, she replied in English. Her English had a strong Indian accent.
“Which part of India do you come from,” Rajni asked her.
“Can you speak Hindi?”
“Why won’t I be able to speak Hindi? I was born there. I grew up in India”, she replied in Hindi.
For the first time I became aware of the soft piped music in the background: it was popular Hindi movie music.
While Resh, Shal and Anand studied the menu, Rajni and I learnt that her name was May Lin, that her husband had started “The Wok” in Bombay and later opened a branch in New Delhi by taking on a partner. I recalled that “The Wok” in Bombay had an excellent reputation.
The menu had the usual exotically named dishes. Resh and Shal wanted to know the difference between “Singapore fried rice,” “Tsung Hai fried rice”, and “Manchurian fried rice”. I confessed that I had come across many types of fried rice in the two decades I had lived in Taipei, but these three varieties were new to me.
An Indian family of three entered the restaurant and sat at a table next to ours. May Lin handed them the menu and came to take our order.
The Indian sun had burned the original ivory of May’s Chinese complexion to a darker hue. The rich Indian curries, likewise, had given her figure a plumpness that one rarely saw in women in the Far East. Instead of the customary jade bangle, May wore a gold bangle with an intricate Indian design. Round her neck was a delicate gold chain; the pendant, also of gold, was embossed with a symbol of the Hindu deity Ganesh. Had she been wearing a bindi on her forehead, I would have thought that here was someone who had deliberately tried to go native!
In between serving us, May would go to the next table and ask the Indian family whether they were ready to order.
It had been years since we had eaten Chinese food with this particular flavor. Whenever we went to India, which was once every three or four years, we were too busy trying out the twenty or so provincial varieties of food to bother about trying Indian Chinese. “We are always eating Chinese in Taiwan anyway,” seemed to be our general attitude, “Let’s try a Gujarati thali today. Or, lets do dosa today ”
Suddenly, above the clicking of our chopsticks, we heard an exchange of words between May and the Indian family.
“Now it is after 3 o’clock. We don’t serve the set lunch after 3,” May said in a firm tone.
“In that case, we will not order anything,” the man said huffily and rose. May watched them leave and continued to stand next to their table.
“Does something like this happen often,” I asked May in Hindi. I presumed that May, having lived so long in India, would understand that I asked the question less out of curiosity, more as a gesture of assurance that May should not be embarrassed by what had happened. In Chinese terms it was a failure to provide the right service, hence a cause for loss of face.
“I kept telling them to order,” she replied, taking the figurative hand I had extended to her. “But they kept delaying”
While Anand and Resh and Shal bantered as they ate, May opened up to Rajni and me. In India it is not uncommon for the owner of a restaurant to engage in conversation with a regular patron. In fact it was seen as a bit of special attention reserved for the select few. May assumed this liberty, stood next to our table and did what she would have done in Bombay: talked about personal matters. She told us that it had been hard when they first landed in Canada. She said her husband often wondered whether they had done the right thing in uprooting themselves and their two daughters and moving here. In the beginning they had felt a sense of isolation since they did not know too many people. To compound their discomfort, business had remained slow. It took time to pick up.
Fortunately, their location had helped. There were a number of factories nearby which employed Indians and Sri Lankans. Once the workers at the factories discovered “The Wok” and started patronizing it, the word that the food at “the Wok” was good and reasonably priced had spread fast. And now, just a year and a half after their move, their clientele was as varied as Canada’s population.
She showed us her welcome by turning up the music every time she went into the kitchen to fetch a dish we had ordered. The music belonged to a style that had become popular about ten years after I left India. It recalled a period I had heard about on the grapevine. She had lived through those times and identified with them. The music seemed to pin her, like a butterfly, on a certain time line. It also told me that the India she belonged to was not the India I had left.
She asked us about what we did in Taiwan. We told her we sourced household items our clients wanted, contracted them, inspected the finished goods and looked after the shipping.
“How do you like Taiwan?” Her question had the same casualness as her appearance. She had cut her hair short; it was parted in the middle; the parting was a straggly line, not a neat division. Her shirt and pants had the crumpled air of a person who put work before the allure of a mirror.
“We wouldn’t continue to live in Taiwan if we didn’t like it.” Then, looking mischievously at Rajni, she asked me,
“Twenty six years! So have you taken a syau lau po?”
That is the Mandarin expression for a second, generally a younger wife. Just as I had gauged her to be Indian enough to understand my reason for extending my figurative hand earlier, she knew that I would take her question as the compliment she meant it to be. Among the Chinese, a younger wife often has less to do with lust than with power; it tells your peers that you have arrived. The more gorgeous the lady on your arm, the sharper the cock of the snook.
I smiled. “Do you think the lady by my side looks like someone who can brook competition?”
“One of the reasons I learnt karate was to nip any competition in the bud,” Rajni bantered. She continued in Hindi, “So, is there someone who shares your husband’s attention, May?”
“I have told my husband to go and find another wife for himself. Especially when we quarrel. But he says I am good enough for him, in spite of my occasional crankiness. The man is basically a good-hearted person.”
Our conversation turned naturally to the different ways the Chinese and Indians did things. She told us about her first and only visit to Guangzhou as a girl of eight or so.
“The first thing I noticed was that the buildings in Guangzhou were as old and faded as the ones in parts of Bombay.”
She said she remembered vividly almost everything that happened during that month long visit.
She asked how, as Indians, we reacted to certain Chinese customs, which she described at length. I told her that these customs were no longer practiced in Taiwan in the form she mentioned them; maybe they were still practiced in Mainland China. We are often frozen in the customs which existed when we left the old country; the country moves on, our memories don’t.
“It is true I have never visited Taiwan or Hong Kong,” May added.
It became clear as we talked that her idea of the Far East was not the reality I moved in, just as her India was not my India.
I tried to guess the sort of life she had lived in India. What with help readily available for peanuts she wouldn’t have been the cashier-cum-waitress that she was here.
“In India I imagine you would have lorded it over. Just sat at the counter and taken in the cash. Your husband too would have just moved among the tables, watching the waiters do their job.”
“In India”, she replied, “I never even went to the restaurant. I spent the day with friends. Talking and drinking tea.”
“Playing mahjong, you mean.”
“No. My Indian friends didn’t know the game.”
“I assumed that your friends would have been other Indian Chinese.”
“I had a few of those too. But I spent my afternoon with the neighbors in our building. Maharastrians, Gujaratis, Madrasis, Punjabis.”
I was familiar with the mix that lived in an apartment complex in cosmopolitan Bombay. May continued, “In India there is so much to do. Help each other to make mithai or cook for Diwali or Holi or prepare for a child the woman upstairs is going to deliver.”
I was able to imagine the extent of the change the Lins had made by moving to Canada. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had said that here her husband was the chef and that their two daughters helped mop and clean the place at night.
“So why did you decide to move?” I asked
“For the sake of the daughters. The schooling here is good.” That was her polite way of saying that Canada offered their children a brighter future that overcrowded India.
“Dessert time” cut in Anand. But no one was interested.
After May cleared our table, she asked whether I would give her my business card. I did.
“My nephew is planning to leave Bombay for Taiwan. Two or three months later.”
“I will be there by then. Why is he going to Taiwan?”
“To look for a job. Could you help him find a job?” I was aware that some immigrants came to Canada after a stint in a third country.
“Can he read and write Mandarin?”
“He can. He can also speak Cantonese.” She told us about his education and work experience.
I knew where there might be an opening for a person with the sort background her nephew had.
“Sure I will. Tell him to give me a call when he lands in Taiwan.”
“His name is Andrew Lin.”
And so the present extends into the future. Stories seldom end with full stops, as they do in books. In life they end with commas, one story blends into another just as a third weaves out of the first two. And so when Andrew Lin’s call will come, a bit of Canada will be resurrected in Taiwan. More important, another story will unfold of a talented and enterprising wanderer carrying diminishing bits of home with him in the countries he moves to, becoming, a few generations down the road, a puddle of water on a hot plate.
Seh Seh – Thank you in Mandarin
Bindi – a decoration on the forehead, usually a dot of vermilion
Thali – a steel tray with multiple compartments for vegetables, yogurt, lentils, rice and pickle
Dosa – a crepe made from rice batter and lentils
Syau lau po – literally “ junior wife;: mistress
Mithai – Indian desserts made mainly from milk and sugar
Author’s Bio: Murli Melwani’s short stories have been published in magazines in various countries. He is a two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, in 2012 and 2013. One of my stories made the list of “South Million Writers Award notable stories of 2012”. Another was nominated for “Best of the Net2013” prize run by Sundress Publications,USA. A few have been published in anthologies, including Stories from Asia: Major Writers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Longman Imprint Books, U.K), Lotus Leaves (Macmillian, India),Call it a Day(Thought Publications) and The First Writers Workshop.He is the author of a collection of short stories: Stories of a Salesman Writers Workshop 1967(a second edition appeared in 1979) and a play in Three Acts. Deep Roots, Writers Workshop 1973.His book of criticism, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: An Historical and a Critical Survey was published in 2009 to favorable reviews. Murli Melwani, 75, is a U.S citizen; he lives in Plano, TX, U.S.A, and is an occasional contributor to The Dallas Morning News.
“Water on a Hot Plate” has been published, with an audio link(so that the story can be read and heard at the same time) online only. Here is the online link.
William Bruce McFadden (Narrator) has written, produced and narrated more than 400 programs for businesses, non-profit organizations and government agencies. He has received international recognition and awards for his work.