This article was first published on August 1, 2003.
I had barely learned to walk on the streets of the United States when I got my first job. Having seen over 32 summers in India, this one was just another, except that the sun was on the other side of the hemisphere now. I was in Florida. I had seen the beaches of Florida from my couch in India on Baywatch.
The sun was shining and its rays found their way through the stubborn clouds. The breeze from the Atlantic was warm and sultry. It was my first Friday on the job. The colorful and casual atmosphere blessed my tense disposition. Fridays bring everyone closer, and work is just an excuse. No new projects begin, and none of the meetings are serious.
This Friday was no different. My colleagues were buzzing around, all excited. It was only 10 a.m., and they were all excited about pizza. “Pizza?” I wondered. Americans eat 75 acres of pizza in a day, I remembered reading somewhere. I was curious to see what this was all about.
It starts with deciding the toppings. “Pepperoni, artichokes …” screamed Diana.
“Hmm …” I wondered, “never heard of these.”
“I am a vegetarian,” I was quick to say before Steve asked me.
“Excuse me?” he asked. I said I would go for anything vegetarian.
“Oh! You are the only one,” he commented, and selected “tomato, alapeno, and pineapple” for me. Which left me wondering what this “alapeno” was all about. I was looking for a familiar face to ask. I was told it was “jalapeño,” meaning chilies for us Indians.
The morning passed quickly. I was used to an unending six-day week in India, in which Friday was no different from any other day. “This is going to be interesting,” I thought, reassured that I had idlis and molagapodi in my backpack as back-up.
It was noon, and the Buicks and Carreras roared in the parking lot. Diana and Chuck were huddled in a corner trying to call Pizza Hut. “Let’s go,” she announced finally, and screwed up her nose at him. They were only gone a few minutes, before the team marched to the break room to get spoons, knives, and paper plates. Sodas were popped open as folks assembled in the conference room.
I had only finished checking my e-mails that morning from my dear wife Pushpa, when Linda walked into my cubicle and invited me to come. She seemed to be the lonely one, not as excited as the others.
“You must be waiting to get a bite?” I enquired, to strike a conversation. She responded with a puzzled look on her face. Maybe it was my diction. I tried again: “You must be waiting …” Before I could finish, she shrugged it off. I thought she was the cynical, disinterested kind. I walked with her to the conference room silently, carrying the backpack with me. The conference room was filled with laughter and euphoria.
The smell of pizza filled the room. “Pepperoni,” I heard someone scream behind me. I thought I heard “pepper.”
“Do they have a pepper pizza? Interesting.” Hunger was making me delusional. I had visions of the idli and the molagapodi on my back. The noise decibel seemed to be reducing, inversely proportional to the number of boxes being opened. By the time the last one was opened, there was near silence.
Pleasantries were exchanged. The team leader congratulated the team on their weekly achievement. Then everyone darted to the table of pizzas. As the first got ready to settle down with her slices, she rushed back to the table, having forgotten something.
“Red peppers?” she enquired. “Red peppers,” repeated the guy in front of her, raising his hand towards the table. Diana suddenly remembered she had left the packets at the counter in Pizza Hut. “Shit! I screwed up,” she admitted apologetically.
I looked at my pizza slices, with some tired-looking artichoke pieces punctuated with pale yellow pineapple. To eat this, I have to make it exciting, I thought. While the others munched on pepperoni, I was contemplating how to eat this dry stuff.
In classic Iyer fashion, I hit upon an idea! I am so proud when my ideas are inexpensive too. Without a second thought, I opened my backpack and discreetly took out the molagapodi packet. Chuck, Linda, and Diana watched as I opened the packet and sprinkled molagapodi on my pizza.
“Hey, what is that?” someone behind me asked. “Red chili powder,” I replied. “Red chili? You mean red pepper?” Jose retorted. Without waiting for an answer, he helped himself to the packet, which was then passed from one pair of hands to another. Pizza pieces were quickly being devoured. The red powder disappeared as soon as it had appeared. By the time I left the room, red was the prevailing color. Every other face was flushed red, as molagapodi celebrated its victory on a Friday in the United States of America.
Chittur Ramachandran is a Business Analyst with Cisco Systems, USA.