Today's Reading


Halfway around the world, Ronnie Munshi was, most unprofessionally, avoiding Pival's calls. Perhaps if he had known about her dramatic intentions he might have been more eager to speak to her, but it was doubtful. Suicide is awfully bad for business.

Ronnie Munshi had a policy. He would answer his phone before a tour was booked, but never afterward. His usual strategy with customers was to woo them with relentless passion, but once he booked them he cut off all communication until their trip, to give them no opportunities to back out once he had received their deposit. He was terrified of such an occurrence, and not without reason. Indians, Ronnie thought, with complacent derision, were notoriously unreliable, especially when presented with the bill.

It would have come as a surprise to many that the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company was, in fact, run by Bangladeshis. The fact that this surprise would have been essentially unpleasant, or at the very least awkward, for his clients made it information that Ronnie was careful to hide. He had heard that IndianBangladeshi relationships had improved since his departure from his native land, but he suspected strongly this only applied to wealthy people, who were all the same anyway, wherever you went.

In his fifteen years in America, Ronnie had transformed from a skinny adolescent dishwasher at his distant uncle's Curry Hill kebab joint to a plump and prosperous owner of his own business. He had also learned enough to understand that that business came at the cost of being Bangladeshi. So for all intents and purposes, publicly, at least, he wasn't. To the best of his ability, that is. It's very difficult to pretend to be from a country you dislike while living in another country that doesn't know that the country you dislike and the country you are from are actually two distinct and separate places. Still, Ronnie had managed thus far, and he had no intention of letting Mrs. Sengupta, an uppity Bengali widow, interfere with his performance. Her calls, however, were not doing wonderful things for his heartburn.

Ronnie reached into a drawer on his desk and pulled out a jumbo sized container of Tums, or rather, an off-brand knock off guaranteed to get him the same results. His deceit, although carefully calculated and developed over many years, coupled with his avoidance policies, gave him digestive issues, and the right half of his desk was devoted to medicines, be they Ayurvedic or pharmaceutical, to aid his ever aching stomach. As he chewed the chalky mouthful of pink and yellow tablets, he tried to remember the last day he had gone through without stomach pain.

Ronnie had arrived in America at the age of eighteen with four hundred dollars in his pocket, fifty of which were rapidly stolen by a cabdriver who could see that the frightened foreigner had no concept of United States currency, and a letter of introduction to his uncle and uncle's family.

His uncle, Pritviraj Munshi, actually a third cousin of his late father, introduced himself to his trembling relative as Raj, informing him that this name was easier for Americans to understand. This introduction confused Ronnie, then Rosni, because surely his uncle could count on a relative to understand his real name, even if these strange white people couldn't. But Rosni was too tired and overwhelmed to question his uncle, who had, after all, not only survived for some twenty years in the United States but prospered. Pritviraj had left Bangladesh after the revolution and somehow had made it in America, and that made him a hero in Rosni's exhausted eyes.

Recovering from his jet lag, Rosni presented himself at his uncle's Manhattan business the following day to start working. He realized to his horror that his uncle, a proud Bangladeshi man, had set up an Indian restaurant. Instead of mustard-scented fish curries and coconut mutton chops served with plain rice, his uncle was doing good business selling people kebabs and dals and naan in a cramped but cheerful place with large color-enhanced photos of the Taj Mahal all over the walls and sitar music twanging in the background. There was a tandoori section of the menu, but no tandoor in the kitchen, and nothing was the way he had thought it would be. Confused, and less recovered from his flight than he had thought, Rosni almost fainted on the spot.

Ronnie crunched another handful of Tums, his stomach rebelling at the thought of this, the first lesson in America for beginners. His uncle, sensing his complete disorientation and despair, hastily sat his nephew down and, making sure the place was locked, as business had not yet started for the day, explained that most Americans were not aware of Bangladesh as a concept. They were, however, aware of India, made popular by a band called the Beatles in the past, and they had, at least in New York, developed a taste for North Indian food, and so North Indian food is what Raj gave them. Ronnie, who had never cooked a day in his life, could start on the dishwashers and, if he showed promise, work his way up to a cook. Ronnie agreed, reluctantly, because what else could he do? Working his way dejectedly through a plate of sweet butter chicken, which coated his mouth with viscous sauce, he knew his mother's chicken curry with mustard seeds and curry leaves was highly superior, but they could only afford chicken a few times a month at home. Here, it might have been bland, soaked in butter and too sweet, but he could have it every day. If it hurt his nationalist sensibilities to work in a place that pretended to be Indian, well, he was hungrier than he was patriotic.


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