Fantastic falafel – Part II

Veena Gokhale is a Bombay Wali (a woman from Bombay) who has also written a short story collection called Bombay Wali, and other stories (Guernica Editions, 2013). The book evokes the “tough, tantalizing” city she knew as a journalist working there. Copies can be found in Toronto library (see also Veena came to Canada on a journalism fellowship and returned to do a Masters in Toronto. She immigrated and worked for non-profit organizations in Canada and Tanzania. She lives in Montreal with her partner Marc-Antoine. Meanwhile her novel, set in Africa, is being considered for publication.

Veena Gokhale is a Bombay Wali (a woman from Bombay) who has also written a short story collection called Bombay Wali, and other stories (Guernica Editions, 2013). The book evokes the “tough, tantalizing” city she knew as a journalist working there. Copies can be found in Toronto library (see also Veena came to Canada on a journalism fellowship and returned to do a Masters in Toronto. She immigrated and worked for non-profit organizations in Canada and Tanzania. She lives in Montreal with her partner Marc-Antoine. Meanwhile her novel, set in Africa, is being considered for publication.

By Veena Gokhale
Illustration: Maya D’Costa

Story so far: Keshav, his wife Laxmi and daughters Janaki and Meena were good family friends with Vaman, his wife Yashoda, and their son Nitin, when they were in the US and, later, in Winnipeg. But they’d lost touch after Keshav and his family moved to Mississauga.
By chance, Keshav runs into Vaman, and invites his good friend home.
Now read on:

Laxmi spoke again, gesturing towards the picture of Janaki, with her husband and son, which stood on the mantelpiece.
“A Punjabi son-in-law I have,” she said. “But it all worked out well.”
“We were a bit worried when Janaki met Vishal,” Keshav said. “They were both students. But when he finished his law degree, he got a job right away.”
“What kind of law did he study?” Vaman asked.
“Patent law. Good field. Lot of work,” said Keshav.
“His parents live in Vancouver,” said Laxmi. “We’ve met them a few times. Very nice people.”
“And Meena?” asked Vaman. She had been his favourite.
“Her father was very worried when Meena told us she wanted to go to Kingston for a B.A. in Gender Studies,” said Laxmi, inclining her head towards Keshav. “What kind of prospects would she have with a degree like that? And how would she manage, living away from home? I told Keshav not to worry. She’s grown up here, she knows what’s what.”
“She won scholarships all through the Masters and Ph.D. at the University of Toronto,” said Keshav proudly. “And she worked part-time, right from her Bachelors.”
“Keshav said the girls didn’t need to work,” said Laxmi. “It would affect their studies. I said let it be, that’s the system here. And it’s not like they’ll study all the time.”
“Meena’s like you,” Vaman said, looking at Keshav.
“Like me?” Keshav was astonished.
“You’re both scholars, bhai. You were thinking of a Ph.D., after all. I remember you used to come to my room at night. Kept me up talking about the research you wanted to do.”
“That’s right, they’re alike,” said Laxmi. “Sad for Keshav that he had to get married, and then the girls came. Or he would be sitting in a university library somewhere right now.”
“I have no complaints,” Keshav said.
“Meena even learnt Spanish,” said Laxmi. “She did her Ph.D. research in Peru, on women’s cooperatives.”
“That’s my girl,” said Vaman warmly. “You must give me her number. How long was she there?”
“About four months I think,” said Keshav.
“And you went there on holiday, no doubt?”
“Laxmi did,” said Keshav. “I was too busy.”
“It’s hard enough to get him to Boston and Philadelphia, where we have relatives,” said Laxmi.
“I remember that,” said Vaman. “Always staying home, our Keshav.”
“Reading his journals,” Laxmi added. Then Laxmi and Vaman laughed aloud.
Keshav smiled a rare smile; it was good to be teased by his dear wife and his old friend.
Soon after they moved to the dinning room. Vaman ate heartily, loudly praising the spread before him.
“Isn’t it amazing,” he said. “All the different restaurants we have in Toronto? What’s your favourite cuisine, Keshav?”
“Good answer. I meant second favourite, of course.”
“But we never eat out Vaman sahab,” Laxmi said.
“Really?” Vaman’s eyebrows shot up.
“You know Keshav prefers home food.”
On her 12th birthday, Janaki had insisted on going to an Italian restaurant for dinner. They had ordered vegetarian pasta and pizza, finishing up with Tiramisu. Keshav had hardly touched his plate; he had eaten leftovers after they got home.
The girls wanted a change sometimes, and so did Laxmi. They had resolved the situation by ordering take-out, which allowed Keshav to eat his normal fare.
“We ate out in our student days,” said Vaman.
“There was no choice,” said Keshav.
“I’ve spoilt him,” said Laxmi.
“You know she makes Maharashtrian dishes that Yashoda taught her,” said Keshav, looking admiringly at his wife.
“Please invite me to a Maharashtrian meal,” Vaman said.
“Why? You eat that all the time.”
Vaman was silent for a moment; then he said, “I want to see how well you learned, Laxmi.”
The food and wine were having an effect, making them all yawn. Vaman asked if it would be okay if he left early.
“I have a meeting at nine tomorrow,” he said. Turning to Keshav, he continued, “I would like you to come see my office next week. What do you say?”
“Sure,” Keshav replied.
“Bhabi, do I have your permission?” Vaman asked Laxmi.
Keshav remembered how Vaman used to address Laxmi as bhabi, the Hindi word for sister-in-law, which Keshav always found rather artificial. It brought to his mind melodramatic, Bollywood films, which he could not relate to at all.
“Take him out as much as possible,” said Laxmi. “And bring Yashoda over soon.”
There was no news from Vaman for a week, so Laxmi called to speak to Yashoda. She got an answering machine. The generic message was recorded in a female voice, but it wasn’t Yashoda’s.
“How strange! Of course I didn’t leave a message. I really don’t understand,” Laxmi said to Keshav, who was sitting across from her.
“Wrong number,” said Keshav.
“You try.”
He did, and got the same result.
As he put down the receiver Keshav wondered if this was going to be ‘disappearance number two’. He could see from Laxmi’s expression that she thought the same, but neither of them said anything.
But Vaman called two days later and invited Keshav to his office. Keshav noticed how he gave him elaborate directions, as if he believed that Keshav was new in Toronto.
As he drove into the city Keshav’s thoughts turned to what Vaman had said about he and Meena being similar. What a funny idea! It had surprised him that Laxmi had agreed. He and his daughter had one trait in common, just one: they were both studious. At school she had done well in all subjects, while he had excelled in Science and Math. If they had been really alike, would they not have got along better?
“What do you get out of it?” The image of Meena standing between him and the TV, with that impertinent look on her face, formed in Keshav’s mind. For God’s sake, did such an innocuous action need to be questioned? Meena had an obsession about that sort of analysis, but it wasn’t right that she forced it on others. Most people liked one thing or another. That was all there was to it.
Vaman’s office was on the second floor of a non-descript building near Yonge and Eglinton. The office itself was spacious and well lit. On the walls were photos that must have been taken in some tropical country, likely in the Caribbean, and there was a cheerful Warli painting — the work of a tribal artist from Maharashtra.
“So,” said Vaman after they sat down. “Do you like the place?”
“Oh yes. But… I didn’t realize you had set up a consultancy. I thought you had moved here for a job,” Keshav said.
“Did I say that?” asked Vaman.
“I think so.”
“You’re right. I did come for a job but it didn’t go well.”
Time passed easily in Vaman’s company. Vaman told him that they were installing environmentally friendly technology in low and middle-income countries. He had two other colleagues, he said, but they were not in at the moment. Keshav had seen environmental concerns being increasingly addressed in the journals he read, and had followed the ideas with interest.
“Lunch time! It’s one!” Vaman exclaimed suddenly.
“Do you go home for lunch?” Keshav asked. “Your place is close by, eh? Or do you bring tiffin?”
“Today, we’re going to a restaurant,” Vaman declared with a mischievous smile.
“What? But Laxmi’s already made food!”
Vaman held up his hand. “I called bhabi when you were driving up. She knows.”
Keshav shrugged. There was no point protesting when Vaman had set his mind on something.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“You’ll see.” Vaman seemed to have turned into the impish young man that Keshav had met at Tufts.
A short walk brought them to a small restaurant called Fantastic Falafel.
“It had to be this one,” Vaman said. “Faaaantaastic!”
It was a basic sort of a place with posters of Lebanese tourist attractions on the wall, and plastic flowers in brass vases decorating tables covered with red tablecloths.
Keshav’s heart warmed instantly to Fantastic Falafel. It reminded him of a small, North Indian place he used to frequent with friends, when he was doing his B.Eng. in Madras. He disliked showy restaurants, the kind that Janaki seemed attracted to.
At the cash register sat an ample, old man with a white skullcap on his head. His expression brightened when he saw Vaman, and he came over to their table.
“This is Fadi,” said Vaman, introducing them. “Please join us.” Fadi lowered his bulk into the small, plastic chair.
Vaman recounted the story of how he had met Keshav again after 15 years. Fadi nodded approvingly.
“Now look Sir,” Vaman continued, still in a jovial mood. “My friend is pure vegetarian, so falafel and veg meze for him. And for me, shish taouk as usual.”
“Of course,” said Fadi. Turning towards the back of the restaurant, he yelled out the order.
“We love old, Hindi movies,” said Fadi. “Raj Kapoor, Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, we know them all.”
“Oh ya?” said Keshav, taken aback. “You saw them in Lebanon?”
Fadi nodded. He started rattling off the names of Bollywood classics that he had seen — Mughal-e-Azaam, Baazi, Mother India — among others. No sooner has Fadi finished naming a film, Vaman would make a comment like: “What acting by Dilipji. Aaahaha.” “Madhubala — the most beautiful woman in the world.” “Guru Dutt was one of our greatest directors.”
A mild, pleasing sense of dislocation had enveloped Keshav. He had seen all these movies way back when and thought he had forgotten them, yet every name evoked images, some blurred, some vivid, some black and white, and some technicolour.
Suddenly he became aware that a young woman, pierced and tattooed, had arrived at their table, and was placing several, small plates on it.

Illustration: Maya D'Costa

Illustration: Maya D’Costa

“Here’s your veg meze. Enjoy the food,” Fadi said. He got up slowly and made his way back to the cash register.
Vaman broke a piece of the pita bread and dipped it in a grayish spread; Keshav followed.
“We go to the movies on Cheap Tuesdays, sometimes. We should all go together,” Vaman said.
Keshav found the idea delightful. It was ages since he had entered a movie theatre. Perhaps they’d all eat popcorn!
“Why,” he said, “this dish is like our baigan bharta.”
“Exactly,” Vaman said. “It’s Babaganoush, eggplant and olive oil and lemon and tahini and garlic. So good. Lebanese food is like our food. Try this — deep fried cauliflower, and here’s bhindi with tomatoes.”
Keshav placed a piece of nicely browned cauliflower in his mouth, and then took a bite of a marinated pepper. Not used to new flavours, his taste buds buzzed.
“Very nice” he said.
“I knew you would like it,” said Vaman triumphantly.
Keshav looked at him in wonder. It was so good to see Vaman again! He whittled life down to its most enjoyable elements, and made everything so desirable. He had missed him all these long years; missed him sorely. He had never found another friend to equal him.
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Then Vaman put down his fork and said gravely, “There’s something I must tell you. Somehow, I couldn’t earlier.”
Keshav stopped eating and looked steadily at him.
“The truth is, Yashoda didn’t return from India. Nor did Nitin. Her brother died and she felt she could not leave her parents. There was no one to look after them, and they were not doing so well, health-wise.”
“Oh no!” said Keshav.
“It was very hard of course, very hard. My old company took me on again, but my heart was not in that job.”
“Why didn’t you stay with them in India!”
“It wasn’t for me Keshav… not for me.”
Vaman took a sip of water.
Keshav could not believe that Yashoda and Vaman had broken up. How could it be? They had had a love marriage. They were such a good couple, so compatible, and such good people too. Divorce was unheard of among his friends and relatives. He could barely focus on what Vaman was saying.
“Luckily, I heard of CESO. It’s an NGO that sends professionals to developing countries and places them with local organizations. They only cover basic costs. There was no money to be made there, but it was just what I wanted, a real change. So I went to Guyana for six months. Enjoyed the work, and the country. Got into hiking and bird watching and things like that.”
Laxmi is going to be so shocked when she hears the news, Keshav thought. She will invite Vaman for dinner soon, and cook him a Maharashtrian meal.
Vaman continued. In Guyana he had met another CESO volunteer — Dina, a Parsi widow with a young son, Cyrus. Like Vaman, she too had grown up in Bombay, and got her Bachelors degree from there. She had come to Canada with her husband who had developed cancer a few years later, and died. She was a dietician, and worked in Toronto. Vaman had moved here to be with her.
Their main dishes arrived. Keshav was relieved as both of them had to turn their attention to the food. He needed a pause.
The falafel was a kind of a wada, really, only simpler. That was fine with him; he liked plain food.
What a lot Vaman had been through! Life had been so cruel to him. Now it made sense that Vaman had not called; he must have been consumed by unspeakable pain.
And yet, there he was, tucking into his chicken kabab with obvious relish. It was good to see that his love for food was still intact.
Keshav wanted to know how Yashoda and Nitin were, but felt awkward asking. Perhaps he should ask about Dina instead.
“I hope we’ll see Dina soon,” he said.
“You’ll meet her all right. She’s quite different from Yashoda. More outgoing. She did go to Ottawa that weekend. And frankly, I wanted to see you both on my own first.”
Keshav nodded.
“Dina’s brother lives in Mississauga. When we met that day, we had stayed overnight with them. And I was rushing to send off an application for Cyrus. He’s always last-minute.”
“How old is she, Dina?”
“About ten years younger than me.”
After a few moments, Keshav asked, “Are you in touch with Yashoda?”
“Yes, very much so. I call Nitin every month and Yashoda comes on the line too. Nitin has a job at a handmade paper place. Actually, the move went quite well for him.”
“That’s good,” Keshav said.
Strange where life takes you, he thought. Vaman and Yashoda separating, of all people. Yet it was easy to believe that Yashoda had decided to stay on; she would go where she was most needed. She always put others first. Maybe Yashoda deserved some applause. But she had a duty towards her husband too, didn’t she? Then he chided himself: who was he to judge? He was not like Meena, putting people under a microscope and then dissecting their lives with a knife.
“Are you… okay?” Keshav asked, looking keenly at Vaman.
“Yes, I am,” Vaman said simply. “We get along well, Dina and me. I was very hurt, and very angry, for a long time. But…” He shrugged.
Vaman was immensely relieved. He had never found a friend quite like Keshav. And he had been afraid, so afraid, that Keshav might reject him. Blame him for the break-up, for not staying back in India with Yashoda and Nitin, for not doing enough. But it was going to be all right. It was going to be all right after all.
Keshav was trying to puzzle it all out. It was natural, Vaman and Dina turning towards each other in Guyana. Everything must have been so new and strange. Having someone from back home to turn to must have helped a lot. It was good that Vaman had remarried.
Looking at Vaman’s balding head bent over his plate, Keshav tried for a few moments to grasp, to get a firmer hold, on his friend’s life — romancing Yashoda, having a child like Nitin, all the moves, all those changes… Contemplating Vaman’s life made him almost dizzy. Yet Vaman had really lived — deeply and fully. And he himself, had he gone far enough?
Shaking the thought away, he said, “Not everything works out.”
There was his relationship with Meena. He wasn’t sure exactly when or even why it had soured. They did manage to get along, after a fashion, on her visits home. But he was never fully relaxed when Meena was around.
“But some things turn out well,” said Vaman. He stuck out his hand and Keshav took it at once in a firm grip.
Fadi noticed the gesture from across the room. On the counter was a glass jar with date cookies. Opening it, he placed two of them on a plate, side by side. He would send them over with the check — a little treat for these men for whom he felt a certain affinity..
© Veena Gokhale

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