Now, decades later, here was Sujoy in New York: forty-five years old, seated in a chair opposite a talk show host, staring into the dark – or rather, into the bright lights and the darkness beyond – where the audience waited for him to speak. They were mostly women, he’d been told, and some had travelled a fair distance to attend – from Texas, from New Orleans, from Kansas, from places he remembered seeing on his father’s maps.
Those maps had been in the atlas, that precious atlas, which he was allowed to peruse only in his father’s presence. He’d been fascinated by all the blue and green, marvellous as a magic trick, waiting for him to dive into. He was always extra careful when he turned the pages, following his father’s strict instructions: with the tip of his forefinger Sujoy was made to unpeel the top right-hand corner of the page, bring it towards him like a giant wave, turn it, then let it fall gently.
Sujoy wanted only to get to the next page so he could eat the blue and green all over again, but his father would hover above him, ensuring that some of the magic was lost. That was the true purpose of fatherhood—to kill magic. When Sujoy would look to his mother for support, she would only smile her gentle smile, weak as a muscle that had atrophied.
More people. That’s what his father had seen in that atlas. No matter the country, state, or city Sujoy pointed to, what his father saw was a disappointing race of humans, sweaty and pointless, sweating pointlessly. Where Sujoy saw crystal-blue water, his father saw sweat, pools of it, rivers of it, oceans of it. As a child, Sujoy had tried not to inhabit his father’s mind, but often he couldn’t help himself.
Even now, in New York, he heard his father’s voice: More people.
But today they were here for him – for his food, and to learn the art of making an “authentic” Indian meal. He was constantly told his food was “so authentic.” At first he had not really understood what this meant. He cooked the only way he knew how, the way his mother had taught him. But after he had eaten at some Indian restaurants in New York, the meaning became clear. Some of the meals had been great – but that was like saying the music in an opera was superb, except for when the soprano hit the wrong notes.
The audience laughed when he said this, and the host gave him a warm smile. Sujoy liked her warmth. He had seen a few episodes of her show, and appreciated that she didn’t cut her way into the lives of her guests with a scalpel. In any case, there was nothing sensational for him to tell about his past.
“No, no,” he gushed, when she asked. “Nothing here . . .”
His story was nothing like that of the other people she had interviewed over the years – politicians, movie stars, artists, trailblazers. That was the word James had used: trailblazers. James, his business partner. James, who’d shared a flat with the host in university. They were great friends, and she was doing James a favour by interviewing Sujoy.
When Sujoy had expressed his discomfort at being on the show through the back door, James was very clear: “If she didn’t think you had something, she’d never take you on.” Sujoy had done well during his mock interview over the phone. But now, this was for real. And reality, even when it came to the most mundane acts such as dusting furniture or filling out a form, always arrived with a degree of difficulty for Sujoy.
“Nothing here,” he said again. The host stared at him for three seconds, maybe four, but it felt like hours.
“Butter chicken,” she said at last to the audience. “We’re here to learn how to cook Gupta’s Butter Chicken.”
At Sujoy’s restaurant, this dish was named after him; he’d used his last name instead of his first because it had a better ring – or so he was told. But for some reason, when the host said it out loud today, the words startled him. There was nothing to be afraid of, he admonished himself. He could make this dish with his eyes closed. In fact, he felt it was imperative to close one’s eyes at some point during the cooking, to get the aroma right.
Just calm down, he told himself; that was for later. Nothing to worry about, Sujoy. This is the most common of Indian dishes, one that the goras love, especially the Brits. The whole country of England lived on butter chicken, didn’t it? Sure, these were Americans – but they had embraced it too. It was the signature dish in his New York restaurant.
That was James’s doing. Sujoy knew nothing about selling, but James could sell skis to a Bedouin. “Just go out there and be yourself,” James had told Sujoy on their way to the studio.
This was code for “don’t screw up.”
If the gig went well, it could lead to more restaurants. Sujoy had three of his own in Mumbai, and was now partner in the one in New York. Two of the greatest cities in the world, Sujoy thought, even though his father would strongly disagree. More algae, more bacteria.
As Sujoy moved from his chair opposite the host to a table piled with ingredients, he felt a shiver up his spine. A cold tingle of excitement about future prospects, about those women from Kansas and Texas going back home and making his butter chicken for their Johns and Jacks. “You’ll be the next Colonel Sanders,” James had said to him, half in jest. But Sujoy didn’t want to be the Colonel; he just wanted to be major.
He had rehearsed this bad joke in his head, to use should the opportunity arise. He walked towards the table, which was so clean and sanitary he felt as though he was in a lab. He had a sudden, intense desire to mess things up. So he did.
“There,” he said, when he was done. “Now it looks like my mother’s kitchen.”
Excerpted with permission from Translated From The Gibberish: Seven Stories And One Half Truth, Anosh Irani, Penguin Books India.