When I decide to take a flight to New York on 9/11, some of my colleagues are aghast. As if that day should forever be observed as No Flying Day to mark the worst act of aerial terrorism our race has seen. When I refuse to alter my travel plans, they ask me to at least change the airline. Don't fly an American airline that day, they say.
I have flown Delta since November 2000 -- even flying a near empty 767 four weeks after 9/11. This time around, the flight is packed on both the Mumbai-Paris and Paris-New York sectors. And the only allusion to 9/11 comes as we flew out of Paris and the captain asks us not to congregate in the aisles.
Even the security at Paris is light. Twice before, I have endured 30 minutes of scrutiny by airport security at the Charles De Gaulle airport. My carry on bags have then been investigated with unusual Gallic efficiency, my shoes prodded carefully to ensure that I am no Richard Reid, the infamous shoe bomber of four Christmases ago. This time, I am waved through with speed. Perhaps the security folk believe lightning doesn't strike twice the same day.
India these days pops up in the unlikeliest places in America. Gone forever probably are the days when someone in the queue at the Whole Foods store near our office in New York asks where I come from and when I reply India with great pride, deflates my nationalism by asking if it is located in the vicinity of Bangladesh.
Malcom, the tall lad at the Old Navy store near the hotel, brightens up when I mention India as my country of origin. He hails from Trinidad and admires some of our cricketers even though he can't remember their names. Brian Lara, his fellow Trinidadian, I tell Malcom, is my favourite cricketer. I sense he does not quite share my truefan enthusiasm, possibly because one of his island's hallowed areas -- Independence Square -- has now been renamed after the only batsman to break the Test record for highest individual score twice. It is now called Brian Lara Promenade. "He is very rich," is all Malcom will say about the Great Man.
Even as he adds up my bill with some flair, Malcom confesses he is a fan of "Shaakunntula Devee." It takes me a minute or so to figure out who he is talking about. Noting my puzzled expression, but assuming that all Indians must surely know who she is, he exclaims how amazed he is that she can do all those oh-so-complex calculations in her head -- and so fast!! Malcom studies mathematics at New York University and wants to be a cryptographer, so his wonderment at the human computer's skills is obvious.
I never eat Indian food in New York. Not because I am a snob, but because I feel none of the restaurants in that city -- even the supposedly posh ones -- can quite match the fare back home. Also, invariably after I have eaten Indian in NYC I have come down with New York Belly. Who says upset tummies are a Third World phenom?
This trip though, I eat more Indian than all my previous trips to New York combined. Somehow, colleagues and friends feel I am missing Indian cuisine too much so they take me around: Bombay Sizzler (drab decor; dull fare); Jewel of India (an aggressive waiter who insists we sample the buffet than order a la carte; so-so fare); Bukhara Grill at the Indian embassy's reception for the prime minister (no great shakes); Sarvanna Bhavan (twice; better than the rest, though a dining companion has an acidity attack that night). Indian is understandably the flavour at the media centre at the Doubletree hotel, where the Indian media delegation accompanying Dr Manmohan Singh on his visit to New York stay; dunno who did the catering, but the fare is dull par for the course.
Culinary advice for desi travelers to NYC: Give Indian a wide wide berth and settle for Southeast Asian restaurants instead. Thai (Jaya Thai/Pongsiri), Malaysian (Jaya Malaysian/Nyonya), Vietnamese (Anam) offer livelier fare. Alas, Lakhruwana, the fine Sri Lankan restaurant near Broadway, has faded away, but Bamiyaan, the Afghan eating house close to Curry Hill on Lexington Avenue, happily gives Indian folk like my colleagues far better value for money.
Saif Ali Khan, who has happily found his calling as an actor who can draw urban audiences to theatres if he features in the cast, recently recommended a Greek restaurant in New York in one of his interviews to promote Salaam Namaste.
So off I go, accompanied by colleagues and contributors to savour the fare one Sunday evening.
Unlike Symposium, the eclectic Greek restaurant near Columbia University where Indian undergrads congregate sometimes to celebrate academic triumphs, Avra, is a seafood place, which focuses on fish alone.
The gent assigned to our table looks Mediterranean, but has an accent similar to mine. Just as I begin to inquire about his origins, Christopher Gardener grins. "Am from Pune. Came here many years ago." Is he related to John Gardener, the Indian television actor? "Akshay Anand? He's a cousin, but we have lost touch," he says before reeling off the names of some films his relative has featured in.
While we tend to celebrate Indian-American mega success -- for instance, Bobby Jindal, the community's first Congressman in half a century, or Karan Bhatia, whose recent ascension to Deputy US Trade Representative makes him the top ranking Indian official ever -- Chris Gardener's ritual of survival deserves equal celebration.
As he supervises the tables under his jurisdiction with elan and charm -- making it a point to ensure that we, his fellow deshvasis, are looked after -- he also feeds us with bits of his life story. Of how his 11-year-old son in Pune has grown up without seeing much of his dad who toils for a living in a New York restaurant, so that his family can have a better life back home, possibly finding cheer in the Indians (Sanjay Dutt, Salman Khan, Saif etc) who come to savour the fare at Avra.
Sure, Chris' story may be no different from millions of NRI stories in the Gulf and elsewhere. But like many of them it is a saga that calls for applause.