The sun lazily bounced off the tarmac as Prerna and her husband, Manish, sped past suburban Staten Island. American flags fluttered on the porches of Bay Terrace and boards in front yards proudly proclaimed that the owners of the houses had lived to see the turn of the millennium. The couple lived in a simple, two-level, white-painted house. Prerna kept a small, manicured garden – a far cry from the weedy, neglected sidewalk outside. It reminded her of her childhood, but she preferred the grit and diversity of the city. Manish, however, didn’t – he was a man of small pleasures, such as lying on the sofa and watching cricket, or enjoying a barbeque at a neighbour’s house.
Sometimes, Prerna marvelled at how much Manish reminded her of Karanjit – they had the same moustache and high forehead – but he couldn’t be more different from her father. For one, he barely smiled, whereas Karanjit was inclined to beam at absolutely everything. “Work, work, always driving you to work. And at the same time every morning, every day,” grumbled Manish, as he steered the car down the last length of Hylan Boulevard before veering off to Bay Street, which runs alongside Upper New York Bay. The road would take them to St George for Prerna’s early morning shopping before she caught the Staten Island Ferry to work.
“That’s the restaurant owner’s life in New York City,” Prerna said. “I’m sorry, but you know we can’t afford to live anywhere else. And here, we have more space. Especially with the state of affairs at The Curry Bowl.”
“Can you drive a little faster? I don’t want to miss the freshest herbs and spices at Khanna and Sons in St George – they sell out so quickly. If we don’t get there early enough, Shriman Khanna will try to sell me his old, wilted herbs, and stale spices. I can’t have that. I can’t miss my ferry either.”
“Driving as fast as I can, dear.” Manish threw up his hands.
“Traffic! You don’t drive, so maybe you don’t understand that.”
Prerna glared at her husband and was about to retort sharply when a bicyclist veered in front of their car. “Manish! Watch out for that bicycle!”
Manish honked at the errant bicyclist and rolled down the window. “Get to the side of the road! You are going too slow for the traffic!”
The bicyclist glared over his shoulder, flipping them off as the Nissan sped past him
“Don’t worry, I’m an excellent driver.”
“You remind me of my father; he would smile and honk at all the cows in Old Delhi – only you don’t smile when you honk and there are no cows crossing the roads in New York. It’s just aggressive people in aggressive vehicles.”
Manish pressed on the accelerator as they closed in on downtown St George. “My courier business is starting to trickle off. I’m not sure why. I gave a lot to the Indian community downtown – the best prices, taking risks on some of the rules for people like Dr Annu. I feel that they are not appreciating what I’ve done for them,” Manish sighed as the traffic lights in front of them turned red.
“Take it easy. Businesses are still recovering from 9/11. It’s for everyone. We can talk about that later; I really need to get to the spice market now,” Prerna responded.
“Always about you; never about me!” Manish stepped on the gas again, and soon they were in another world. Soon Manish pulled over on the uneven, ragged curb and kissed his wife on the cheek.
“Be careful in the city and have a nice day,” he said.
“A nice day for me is running my restaurant and making my customers happy, even if it is for the last time,” Prerna laughed as she slipped out of the car and headed towards her first destination on Victory Boulevard.
Her walk revealed a slight limp and a rhythmic flick of her wrist as she strode down the cracked, gum-stained sidewalks of Staten Island’s gritty downtown – her bag swinging from her shoulder. The sari she wore was just a little more sober than the ones she wore as a teen in New Delhi, and rather than sandals, she now wore white sneakers. She had adapted. After so many years of cooking, her “chef ’s wrist,” the carpal tunnel syndrome, which always seemed to flare when she was stressed or entered dark spaces in her mind, nagged at her. She had the chronic tendency of reaching over and massaging it with her thumb whenever she could, which was quite often.
Prerna rounded a corner, avoiding the more aggressive drunks, but offering the politer drug addicts or poor opioid zombies whatever change she had on hand. From what Prerna knew about America, St George and Tompkinsville areas were like San Francisco, with a couple of black eyes added on. It sharply contrasted with the neighbourhood she and Manish had settled in, which was more like white-suburban middle America, but with far less space.
The progressives who lived there were getting rusty and becoming increasingly conservative, leaving most immigrant families to suffer the forces of gentrification. Many couldn’t afford to live there any more.
In this way, Prerna and her family were lucky that she was a small business owner – one with a loyal clientele. In contrast to the grit of downtown Staten Island, the area’s low hills, its steep streets dotted with regal Victorian and Craftsman mansions (most of them sliced and diced into apartments), which seemed to lord over the beautiful, usually placid harbour, hinted at a deeper history than the area was given credit for.
As she approached her destination, Prerna heard the booming horn of the Staten Island Ferry and felt the moist harbour breeze ruffle her hair. Before entering the spice shop, Prerna hesitated a moment, pressing her phone to her ear – not only to look occupied and tethered to safety amidst the last stretch of the dangerous block but to speak to her most trusted staff member, Dilip.
“Dilip, good morning. I’m on the way; I just got to the Khanna’s...Yes, that is correct, I will get curry leaves, okra and, raw mangoes...If their saffron is cheap and of good quality, I will get a bunch of that too. See you soon!”
As Prerna entered the store, she took in the tall shelves stacked with colourful jars of pickles, the mountains of spices kept behind the counter, the unopened sacks of herbs that called out to her from the corner, and the aisles and aisles of utensils. What always seemed to be missing, however, was the absolute, uplifting freshness of the products Prerna and her father always discovered together while shopping in the markets of Old Delhi – a freshness that seemed to cleanse the air.
The shopkeeper, Aadesh, and his assistant, Adarsh, looking for all the world like twins with their bushy moustaches and matching off-white kurtas, sat behind the counter, warily eyeing her. Prerna made her way past the spices, assessing everything from the green and red chillies, the round purple brinjals, the glistening karelas and okra, and, of course, reserving her sharpest judgement for the saffron and curry leaves.
Excerpted with permission from Imaginary Rain, Vikas Khanna, Penguin.