A Chintamani Story

Sculpted muscles rippling, Syed grunted in the balmy air and pulled his body above the bar for the tenth time. He dropped to the floor with a small thud, and looked over.

"Bro. Now you do it."

I first met Syed on that dusty night at the larger of the two gyms in Chintamani, my base town near Bommekallu: a single, open air room with a fans, duck taped equipment, and a metal grating that could be retracted for a fourth wall. After a quick chat on the nature of my geographic origin (Syed, a native of Chintamani, longed to come to America), he invited me to join in his bicep routine. Like many things Syed did, the workout was hearty and unrushed.

We went till closing at 9PM, at which point Syed walked me out, chatting with the man who owned the gym (a distant cousin) and male friends. He entreated me to sit on the back of his motorbike, and as the motor chugged, we wound our way through the crazy roads and gaudy neighborhoods. Chintamani was a dense, bright and seemingly mismatched array of cement houses that never ceased to excite my whimsy with their paradox of colors and poverty. We pulled up behind a mosque to a small back alley corner.

"You will enjoy." Lit with a kerosene lamp, a small food stand bustled. A little boy sizzled pieces of meat into a wok, and behind him a single communal table and three benches accommodated 4 or 5 men busily crunching, laughing, gnawing, swallowing. It was beef-only. We ordered some kofta, sat with the men, and enjoyed indeed.

The beef, the mosque, the men - this was the tightly knit Muslim community of Chintamani, and Syed was my entrance. Over the next few months, he would become one of my best friends in town, and I spent many hours working out with him, traveling to his different social spots, or getting to know his family in their three-roomed home with adjacent concrete yard. It felt as though Syed's mom had issued me a permanently-standing dinner invitation; although I often fulfilled the invitation, I still usually felt as though I was negligent to her offerings!

***

One such dinner, I sat cross-legged on their bright red floor cushion and listened to Syed's mom Zaiba describe, in Hindi, the restaurant she would open in New York.

"We will serve just one thing every day, this mutton bhiryani that you are eating now," Zaiba said rapidly, with her toothy grin and creased eyes, which somehow seemed perpetually worried. "You will help us to open it, and we will never charge you for the food - not once in your life!"

I turned the idea over in my mind. Setting aside the long list of rational reasons against it - the tortuous prospect of attaining a US visa, saving for a plane fair on her household's combined $2000 a year, or finding restaurant space in Manhattan and start-up capital - I raised what I thought was a reasonable suggestion.

"Us Americans, we don't know what bhiryani is, and we don't eat mutton often. Those egg puffs that the roadside baker sells, can you make them?"

Egg puffs are a delightful Southern Indian street food; croissant-like, their airy bread encapsulated roast onions, peppers, and half a boiled egg, with a generous accompaniment of oily curry sauce.

"Yes, of course," she said, pursing her lips while Syed munched on beside me.

Zaiba is a wide, strong woman who opened up quickly to me and treated me with the kind and slightly rough manner of one who is used to hours upon hours of village gossip. Talking to her felt familial and comfortable.

"So come to New York and open a stall that sells only egg puffs. Just egg puffs and vegetable puffs. We Americans understand these because we know what croissants are, and we eat eggs for breakfast. It's a convenient snack, and you can easily sell each for 120 rupees!"

Syed's sister Fouzia gave a small squeak as she looks on from within the adjacent, small, dark kitchen. Zaiba continued to hesitate, though, which surprised me; the price I suggested (~$2) was 12 times higher than the price it sold near her house.

"No, no. You will see. Smell my bhiryani; isn't it good? Our first batch will smell just like this, it will be so good that people will be drawn in. And then they will enjoy so much that they will need to tell others about it. We will be so successful!"

Her husband, Jaffer, sat across from us on the floor, licked his fingers of bhiryani, and seemed generally unfazed by the conversation.

***

Jaffer is a tailor. He is half deaf and half bald, and has gentle eyes and a worn look to him. He is a calmly devout Muslim, starting each morning at 6AM with a morning prayer. The family told me he was one of the best tailors in Chintamani, and Syed was always showing me new clothes and cloth that he was making. A large portion of his earning went to fund Syed's college.

As a gesture of friendship, I asked Jaffer to make me a shirt any time I found a fabric I liked. The first time I asked, he made me an extra shirt for free, and piled me with pillow cases and cushions made from spare fabric, including one made long ago from Zaiba's wedding sari.

"What use did I have for that? We don't need it anymore, and you are a friend," Zaiba had said, as I protested, shocked.

Zaiba would always crow that the price he asked me, 250 rupees per shirt, was less than the 400 rupees he normally charged customers. Having had other shirts stitched in other villages for less- 175 or 200 rupees- I always guessed I was being overcharged a bit. I didn't mind though, as the extra money was surely subsidizing Syed's education or part of Fouzia's wedding.

***

I heard vague discussion of Fouzia's wedding throughout my time there.

On one of the earliest dinners, her mom proudly showed me a wallet picture of the man they had secured for as her husband - a burly looking engineer ten years her senior - and the price of her dowry, 400,000 rupees or $6,000. I was shocked.

"What if you don't like him? Where will you get the money?"

"He is a good man, from a good family," responded Zaiba knowingly. Zaiba got married to Jaffer when she was 12 and he was 25, and gave birth to Syed when she was 15. From her mom's perspective, Fouzia was getting married in a very modern way.

Fouzia looked down modestly when her mom answered. It was impolite for her to comment.

To my Western senses, there was something vaguely tragic about the scene: the frail girl acquiescing from within the dark kitchen, as we sat in the living room, eating and discussing her future. This seating arrangement was custom in Muslim families - the daughters serve more water and food as is needed, and take their dinner afterward, alone. Fouzia is a slight, pale girl a couple of years younger than Syed and I. She is meek, small, yet easily excitable, which I supposed was natural when most of her day was confined to the house; she could not go onto the street without an escort.

A couple of dinners later, I found that the engagement had been postponed. I did not find out why.

***

I heard the wedding was postponed around the time Fouzia began to fixate on the potential of my forgetting her.

Fouzia would ask in English as she served me gravy on my bhiryani, "Will you remember me when you go back to America?"

Fouzia would pout as she served me tea, "You will forget me. You will go back to America and forget us all."

Fouzia would squeak as she poured me water, "If you do not forget me, will you come back to India to come to my wedding, when it happens?"

Upon my affirmation, she gushed, "I will be so happy! I will look up, I will see you, and be so surprised, and say, 'Oh! It's Lucas! My best American friend, at my wedding!'" Fouzia had clearly dreamed this out extensively.

Once, days before I left, I was helping Syed to refill the water in his house's water tank. Chintamani was beset by a heavy drought, but for a subsidized rate families could buy about a week's worth of water from a town truck to store in their cistern. He was filling inside, his mother in the kitchen, and I was walking to water his plants when Fouzia grabbed my arm and drew me behind the house. I was surprised by the touch; I had thought that was forbidden.

"You promise me you will not forget me?"

Her voice was flushed with secrecy, her eyes searching and beseeching, and her body poised with adrenaline from the stolen moment. It was closer than we had ever physically been before, and the only instant we had ever been alone. I could imagine her heart beating fast.

Utterly taken aback, I reacted on instinct and dropped my eyes. "Of course, of course." I nodded and ducked out and into the house.

It was an escape. I had had a chance to acknowledge and validate her feelings - something I was sure was not too common throughout her life - and I had taken the easy way out.

I felt her eyes follow me.

***

My last night in Chintamani, I came again to Syed's house for dinner.

Zaiba had made special ox bone soup, and Jaffer taught me to suck the marrow from the bones. I had brought a package of the beef from our after-workout corner shop behind the mosque. Surprised at the Western custom, Fouzia put most of my contribution on my own plate, despite my offering it around.

I finished my pile of bones and as the night wore on, we talked, laughed, and shared stories. Fouzia cleaned up and served herself a plate of rice, with gravy and a single, small piece of bone. It was the first time I had ever seen her eat.

After her meal, Fouzia brought out sweet chai tea along with a single piece of paper.

"This is for you!" She said and smiled self-consciously.

I looked it over. It was a list of recipes with everything her mom and her had cooked for me, in a delicate pencil handwriting. I read it over and paused at every spice I didn't know. Fouzia and Zaiba bustled around the kitchen to clarify, handing me spices and describing the smells and flavors while Jaffer looked on.

"Thank you," I said as I reached the end. I looked into Zaiba's eyes, seeing a lifetime of hard work and pain, her dreams for what America symbolized reflected in me. I looked at Fouzia. I saw self-conscious, youthful excitement, a blush flowering across her cheeks, a pale forehead smooth where eventually, her mother's worried lines would form.

"Thank you," I said again, looking down, tears forming. "Now, it is time for me to go home." It was too painful to stay. In a broad sense, I felt as though I had failed them all.

With protests, they walked me to the door. I gave Syed's muscular frame a firm hug, and shook the rest of their hands, shaking Fouzia's last. With a single "Goodbye", I turned away and walked off, off and away into the crazy Chintamani night.