Fiction / September 2012 (Issue 18)


Freezing Time

by Murli Melwani

Vivek was one of the first people I phoned when I came to spend the summer in Toronto with my son, Anand. Vivek was in the wholesale trade in Curacao, and 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. Calls were made, and a time and date worked out for taking the girls 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 Westernised 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. Indian, Italian and Chinese were discussed. Chinese won out. But Chinese cuisine always begs the question: Hunan, Cantonese, Szechuan or other?

Anand remembered that Canada offered another variety unknown in the Middle Kingdom: Indian Chinese. The Chinese who moved to India developed a culinary blend that appealed to the local palate. When their descendants moved to Canada, they brought with them the flavours their parents had perfected. Chinese restaurants in Canada advertised "Indian Chinese Food" as proudly as others announced: "Our specialty: Peking Duck."

Dina recalled the name of a restaurant in Brimley. "Newton's. A lot of Indians go there," she said.

"Left at McGowan, and all the way down," Anand repeated the directions as he memorised them.

I visited my son in Canada once a year, during summer and used the occasion to renew contacts with clients and friends like Vivek. After graduating from the Wharton School of Business, Anand had joined the marketing team of Nokia Canada. When the time came for him to renew his contract, I suggested instead that he join the family export business, which I had been running out of Taipei for the last twenty six-years. He agreed, but on condition that he work from Canada, as 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, and with the time zones, liaising with them from Toronto would be easier than from Taiwan. 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 of Hindu Sindhis? How many Sindhi families are there on the island? How often do you get together? Do you still follow all the religious observances of 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 we had scattered all over the world after India was divided in 1947, that there were only 2 million of us left worldwide? While Anand and his generation understood the Sindhi language, but could not speak it, teenagers and younger children nowadays could do neither. They spoke English, Hindi, Tagalog, Portuguese, whatever, depending on where they lived in. People like Vivek and I saw it all: our identity was like a puddle of water on a hotplate, effervescing and evaporating. 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."

"The restaurant seems to be a long ways away," Rajni said to change the subject. She always got nervous when discussions between Anand and I veered towards an argument.

When we came onto Ellesmere Road, we passed a South Indian restaurant, a North Indian one and two Chinese places. 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. OK with you girls?" Anand always divided his driving into units of five minutes.

"OK," the girls replied in unison.

We swung off Ellesmere on to a narrower road to the right. "Look there's a Chinese restaurant," said Rajni, indicating a place set in the corner of the strip mall. 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 the restaurant. 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, without the faintest idea why I had chosen the language. Even as I was talking to her, I wondered whether it was an instinctive urge to speak what for me had become a third language, a memory of the Taiwan I called my second home.

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 door that this 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 and we went it.

The woman at the counter showed no 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.

"Bombay"

"Can you speak Hindi?"

"Why wouldn'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 from the soundtracks of popular Hindi films.

While Resh, Shal and Anand studied the menu, Rajni and I learned 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 although I had come across many types of fried rice in the two decades I had lived in Taipei, 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 a 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 bracelet, she wore a gold bangle with an intricate Indian design. Around her neck was a delicate gold chain, its pendant, also of gold, embossed with a symbol of Ganesh. Had she been wearing a bindi on her forehead, I would have thought she was deliberately trying to go native!

It had been years since I had eaten Chinese food with these particular flavours. 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 with Indian Chinese. "We are always eating Chinese in Taiwan, anyway," was our general attitude. "Let's try a Gujarati thali today. Or maybe dosa."

In between serving us, May had returned several times to the next table to ask the Indian family whether they were ready to order. This continued until, above the clicking of our chopsticks, we heard an exchange of words: "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.

"Do things like this happen often?" I asked May in Hindi. I presumed that May, having lived so long in India, would understand that I was asking less out of curiosity than as an assurance that she should not be embarrassed by what had happened. In Chinese terms, she had failed to provide the right service, a potential cause for a loss of face.

"I kept telling them to order," she replied, taking the figurative hand I had extended. "But they kept delaying."

While Anand, 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, a bit of special attention reserved for the select few. May assumed this liberty with us 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, and that her husband often wondered whether they had done the right thing by uprooting themselves and their two daughters. In the beginning, they had felt a sense of isolation as they did not know 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 discovered The Wok and started patronising it, the word that its food 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 hospitality 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, and it recalled a period I had only heard about though the grapevine. But May had lived through those times and identified with them. The music seemed to pin her, like a butterfly, to a point on a 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. I 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, and it was parted in the middle, the parting more a straggly line than 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?"

Just as I had gauged her to be Indian enough to understand the reason for extending my figurative hand earlier, she knew I would understand her question about a second wife 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 brooks competition?"

"One of the reasons I learned karate was to nip any competition in the bud," Rajni quipped. She continued in Hindi, "So, is there someone who shares your husband's attention, May?"

"I have often 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. "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 her month-long visit, and 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 practised in Taiwan in the form she described, although maybe they were still followed that way in Mainland China. We often remain 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 mine. I tried to guess at the life she had lived in Bombay. With help readily available for peanuts, she wouldn't have been the cashier-cum-waitress she was here.

"In India, I imagine you lorded over it. Just sat at the counter and took in the cash, while your husband 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 mah jong, 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 neighbours in our building. Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Madrasis, Punjabis."

I was familiar with the mix that lived in an apartment complex in cosmopolitan Bombay.

"In India there is so much to do," she continued, "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 at night.

"So why did you decide to move?" I asked

"For the sake of our daughters. The schooling here is good," her polite way of saying that Canada offered their children a brighter future than 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 one?" 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 comes, a bit of Canada will be resurrected in Taiwan. But more important, another story will unfold of a talented and enterprising wanderer carrying diminishing bits of home with him wherever he goes, becoming, a few generations down the road, a puddle of water on a hot plate.

 
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