It’s a sunny Saturday and the lunch crowd has vanished. “Radha Kaise Na Jale” throbs through the dining room in blaring brass and oboe two keys lower than the original; a karaoke lover’s dream. The lunch buffet ended at two, so I sling my bag into an empty chair next to the window and open the menu. Two American couples walk in and sit at the table in center of the room. Standing at the end of the bar is a man whose hands dive through the air like tiny birds as he spits words into a cordless phone the size of a healthy rabbit.
Bird Hands eyes his newly arrived guests and sets the phone on the counter.
He walks over to my table. “Welcome to Taj Mahal. Would you like something to drink; Coke, Sprite, iced tea, cup of chai, mango shake, glass of wine?”
“Actually, I’m fine with water.”
“Can I offer you an appetizer?”
“No, thank you. I’m ready to order.” He whips a pad from his pocket. “I’d like the Vegetarian thali.” Pen meets paper. “Is the rasam made with tomato or is it the plain tamarind type?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Tomato.”
“Great. Could I please have extra sambar instead of spinach—I don’t eat spinach late in the day.” Before he can respond I add, “And I think I will have that chai.”
His mouth forms a sheepish grin. “Which one?” He says.
I look back to the menu where there is only ONE chai listed under “drinks” and slide my finger over the laminated page, “This one. Oh, and please don’t put any ghee on the chappatti.”
“So, dry chapatti only?”
I don’t have trouble following his accent or understanding the context of his word choice because I am an expert on D.H.E.,or Desi Hybrid English: a creative use of English by desi residents including these classic favorites:
Which one: A quick response which usually means who or what. Can also be a cue to repeat your question. (Coworker: Hey Raj, how’s your wife doing? Raj: Which one?)
Only: Indicates preference or confirmation. (Call me on my cell number, only.)
It’s like: Using like with concrete descriptions. (Neighbor: What kind of car did you buy? Desi: It’s like a Toyota Camry)
Got over: Describes something which has been used to completion; gone. (The milk got over.)
Take: Another way to say have or eat. Commonly used when referring to food. (Take some dinner.)
A few years ago, while making dinner for my friend Gary, I discovered that I wasn’t just a casual observer of D.H.E. but a certified member of stretch-a-language international: NRI Division. “Hey, if you’re hungry I can go ahead and keep rice.”
“Oh, yeah?” Gary laughed. “Where are you going to keep it?”
“You know what I mean,” I whined, and dumped a cup of Sona Masoori into a stainless vessel.
Bird Hands bounces over to the gang in front of me. “Welcome to the Taj Mahal. Have you dined with us before?”
The girl with glasses smiles, “Nope, first time.” Her sidekick’s poofy hair dances as she giggles. Glass Girl turns to her husband/boyfriend/date, “So, what looks good?” The foursome scan page after page; mouthing words their tongues aren’t brave enough to attempt out loud. Suddenly they aren’t in a strip mall in suburban Illinois—but in a far away land unfolding from the laminated list.
Bird Hands turns to Poofy’s beau. “Would you like to try a Kingfisher? It is India’s finest beer. The bottles are big.” He winks at the guy next to glass-girl, “Big enough to share. May I recommend the Taj sampler for your appetizer?”
His words are crisp, clear; perfect English sans accent.
Whoa, Bird Hands—or should I say Super Smooth. Why the sudden need for sophistication? I’m from Kansas. I’m an American woman with European immigrant ancestors—but I consider myself bicultural since my life is defined by all things India. Bird Hands wants to know if the gang lives close by, did they have trouble parking? These are things he’d never ask desi folks. He starts an artificial rave about the beauty of the October sky. Ten years of submersion in the desi universe has taught me many valuable practices. I’ve got a feeling that before I finish my lunch I’m going to witness many more examples of lessons learned.
Bird Hands dashes behind the bar, fills four tumblers with ice and fills them with water—pops the tops off two of India’s finest. I make eye contact to remind him of my impending date with milk infused tea. He disappears into the back and reappears with cup on saucer, sugar packet-stuffed bamboo basket. “Could I please get a glass of water?”
“Do you take ice?”
I try not to laugh, covering my mouth with my hand. “I’ll take ice.” It happens; people around me forget I’m American. The first time it happened I was standing with my friend Devi and her mother in their kitchen. Devi’s brother had eloped with an American woman. “Can you believe he did this?” Her mother said to me softly, shaking her head. “We didn’t even know.” She pressed a murrukku into my hand. “How are we to preserve our culture?” I smiled and shook my head back in understanding. I was thrilled that she’d considered me one of her own—but confused on how to react since I was, after all, American.
Devi was staring off into space. “Oh my god,” she said suddenly, “She didn’t mean … we didn’t mean …” The three of us laughed for five continuous minutes. Then there was the time my desi buddies decided we should plan a movie night and dress up as characters from Bollywood films. Someone suggested we start with Lagaan. “Where are we going to find a gori Madam?” my friend Amit asked. I turned my face toward him, batted my long lashes. He gave me this look like: What are you doing? Got something in your eye?
“Hellooo,” I said, “Me?”
“Rightttt,” he said, blushing.
Glass Girl waves at Bird Hands. They’re ready to order. I pretend to read Robert Frost while I listen for his opening line.
“Would you like to hear about the Maharaja package? It includes bread of your choice, a delicious soup, and two entrees from a wide variety of meats. It’s a good way to sample the best of India.”
Glass Girl, “Oh, that sounds fun. And it comes with bread?”
Bread? The menu says naan and roti. Okay, so I called it chapatti—but that’s forgivable.
“What do you think babe?” Glass Girl looks pleadingly at her partner. “Yeah—sure, why not? Each of us will have the, what did you call it?”
“Maharaaaaja Package. Excellent choice sir! May I bring you another beer?”
Numbers explode in my head: it’s cheaper if you order the dishes separately. They probably don’t even realize the “king’s package” doesn’t include dessert! I’ve learned all types of lessons as a bicultural gal, but Lesson #1 in the desi financial universe: do the math. Compare everything. Check all prices. Double check your receipts. Make sure the cashier charges you the price on the sticker ($4.99) and not what comes up from the barcode ($11.99) for those clearance khakis. Always remember a mall full of desis on the weekend means killer sales. Pay a visit to the store(s) advertised on the shopping bags they’re hauling out—you won’t regret it.
Food flies out of the kitchen on sizzling plates. Smoke tumbles toward my table—it’s chicken; four and a half birds. Ooh’s and aah’s only encourage Bird Hands—“Madame, here is your chenna masala; a delicately spiced sauce with chickpeas. Sir, may I present mulligatawny soup; known for its pepper. A delight to the taste buds.”
Silence. Forks and knives carve valleys through a mountain of food. I give it three minutes before someone’s complaining.
Poofy’s tandori chicken is too spicy and now she wants something sweet. Cha-ching: that’ll be $3.25 extra, thank you. “Can we get an order of global margins?” she asks Bird Hands.
“Gulab jamuns. Excellent choice!”
I’m going to need another cup of chai; my head’s paining.
The gang is reaching for their third piece of bread by the time I get my thali. The sambar lacks heat, and the daal is more oil than chilies. My dear Taj has violated the two most important principles of cooking in the desi universe. Lesson #1: If you’re not coughing—you’re not cooking. (I didn’t hear any choking. Not even a sneeze.) Lesson #2: If you’re not sweating—you’re not eating. (There are exactly zero beads of sweat on the bridge of my nose.) Bird Hands sets the tray in front of me without uttering a word and slides my bill to the opposite corner. I understand: You are so desi—I’m not even going to try and sell anything to you.
I take it as a compliment.
Cristina Chopalli, of Chicago, Illinois is currently at work on a collection of fiction and essays about her experiences within Indian culture. She is the organizer of Pravasi: Chicago’s premiere Indian social club. Her blog can be found athttp://www.cristinachopalli.com.