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Authors: Clark Blaise

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The Meagre Tarmac

BOOK: The Meagre Tarmac
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THE MEAGRE TARMAC

CLARK BLAISE

THE MEAGRE TARMAC

STORIES
BIBLIOASIS

Copyright © Clark Blaise, 2011

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

FIRST EDITION

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Blaise, Clark, 1940—

The meagre tarmac / Clark Blaise.

Short stories.

ISBN 978-1-926845-15-9

I. Title.

PS8553.L34M42 2011 C813'.54 C2011-900983-8

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, Canadian Heritage, and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

PRINTED AND BOUND IN CANADA

To my Granddaughter, Priya Blaise

For fifty years of guidance, all my Indian friends,

and of course my wife, Bharati.

CONTENTS

These stories are intended to be read in order.

The Sociology of Love

In Her Prime

The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real

Dear Abhi

Brewing Tea in the Dark

The Quality of Life

A Connie da Cunha Book

Waiting for Romesh

Potsy and Pansy

Isfahan

Man and Boy

THE SOCIOLOGY OF LOVE

A MONSTROUSLY TALL GIRL
from Stanford with bright yellow hair comes to the door and asks if I am willing to answer questions for her sociology class. She knows my name, “Dr. Vivek Waldekar?” and even folds her hands in a creditable namaste. She has researched me, she knows my job-title and that I am an American citizen. She's wearing shorts and a midriff-baring T-shirt with a boastful logo. It reads, “
All This and Brains, Too
.” She reminds me of an American movie star whose name I don't recall, or the California Girl from an old song, as I had imagined her. I invite her in. I've never felt so much the South Asian man: fine-boned, almost dainty, and timid. My wife, Krithika, stares silently for several long moments, then puts tea water on.

Her name is Anya. She was born in Russia, she says. She has Russian features, as I understand them, a slight tilt to her cheeks but with light blue eyes and corn-yellow hair. When I walk behind her, I notice the top of an elaborate tattoo reaching up from underneath. She is a walking billboard of availability. She says she wants my advice, or my answers, as a successful South Asian immigrant on problems of adjustment and assimilation. She says that questions of accommodation to the u.s., especially to California, speak to her. And specifically South Asians, her honors project, since we lack the demographic residential densities of other Asians, or of Hispanics. We are sociological anomalies.

It is important to establish control early. It is true, I say, we do not swarm like bees in a hive. “Why do you criticize us for living like Americans?” I ask, and she apologizes for the tone of her question. I press on. “What is it we lack? Why do you people think there is something wrong with the way we live?”

She says, “I never suggested anything was wrong — ” She drops her eyes and reads from her notes.

“ — That there's something defective in our lives?”

“Please, I'm so sorry.”

I have no handkerchief to offer.

Perhaps we have memories of overcrowded India, when everyone knew your business. I know where her question is headed: middle-class Indian immigrants do not build little Chinatowns or barrios because we are too arrogant, too materialist, and our caste and regional and religious and linguistic rivalries pull us in too many directions. She hangs her head even before asking the next question.

No, I say, there are no other South Asian families on my street. My next door neighbours are European, by which I mean nonspecifically white. I correct myself. “European” is an old word from my father's India, where even Americans could be European. Across the street are Chinese, behind us a Korean.

That's why I'm involved in sociology, she says, it's so exciting. Sociology alone can answer the big questions, like where are we headed and what is to become of us? I offer a counter-argument; perhaps computer science, or molecular biology, or astronomy, I say, might answer even larger questions. “In the here and now,” she insists, “there is only sociology.” She is too large to argue with. She apologizes for having taken my name from the internal directory of the software company I work for. She'd been an intern last summer in our San Francisco office.

I say I am flattered to be asked big questions, since most days I am steeped in micro-minutiae. Literally: nanotechnology. I can feel Krithika's eyes burning through me.

The following are my answers to her early questions: We have been in San Jose nearly eight years. I am an American citizen, which is the reason I feel safe answering questions that could be interpreted by more recent immigrants as intrusive. We have been married twenty years, with two children. Our daughter Pramila was born in Stanford University Hospital. Our son Jay was born in JJ Hospital, Bombay, seventeen years ago. When he was born I was already in California, finishing my degree and then finding a job and a house. My parents have passed away; I have an older brother, and several cousins in India, as well as Canada and the U.S. My graduate work took four years, during which time I did not see Krithika or my son. Jay and Krithika are still Indian citizens, although my wife holds the Green Card and works as a special assistant in Stanford Medical School Library. She will keep her Indian citizenship in the event of inheritance issues in India.

Do I feel my life is satisfactory, are the goals I set long ago being met? Anya is very persistent, and I have never been questioned by such a blue-eyed person. It is a form of hypnosis, I fear. I am satisfied with my life, most definitely. I can say with pride and perhaps a touch of vanity that we have preserved the best of India in our family. I have seen what this country can do, and I have fought it with every fibre of my being. I have not always been successful. The years are brief, and the forces of dissolution are strong.

Jay in particular is thriving. He has won two Junior Tennis Champion ships and maintains decent grades in a very demanding high school filled with the sons and daughters of computer engineers and Stanford professors. As a boy in Dadar, part of Bombay — sorry, Mumbai — I was much like him, except that my father could not offer access to top-flight tennis coaching. I lost a match to Sanjay Prabhakar, who went on to the Davis Cup. “How will I be worthy?” I had asked my father before going in. “You will never be worthy of Sanjay Prabhakar,” he said. “It is your fate. You are good, but he is better and he will always be better. It is not a question of moral worth.” I sold my racquet that day and have never played another set of tennis, even though even now I know I could rise to the top of my club ranks. I might even be able to beat my son, but I worry what that might do to him. I was forced to concentrate on academic accomplishment. In addition, public courts and available equipment in India twenty-five years ago left much to be desired.

Do I have many American friends? Of course. My closest friend is Al Wong, a Stanford classmate, now working in Cupertino. We socialize with Al and Mitzie at least twice a month. She means white Americans. Like yourself ? I ask, and she answers “not quite.” She means two-three-generation white Americans. Such people exist on our street, of course, and in our office, and I am on friendly terms with all of them. I tell her I have never felt myself the victim of any racial incident, and she says, I didn't mean that. I mean instances of friendship, enduring bonds, non-professional alliances ... you know, friendship. You mean hobbies? I ask. The Americans seem to have many hobbies I cannot fully appreciate. They follow the sports teams, they go fishing and sailing and skiing.

In perfect frankness, I do not always enjoy the company of white Americans. They mean well, but we do not communicate on the same level. I do not see their movies or listen to their music, and I have never voted. Jay skis, and surfs. Jay is very athletic, as I have mentioned; we go to Stanford tennis matches. I cannot say that I have been in many American houses, nor they in mine, although Jay's friends seem almost exclusively white. Jay is totally of this world. When I mention Stanford or Harvard, he says Santa Cruz, pops. He's not interested in a tennis scholarship. He says he won the state championship because the dude from Torrance kept doublefaulting. Pramila's friends are very quiet and studious, mostly Chinese and Indian. She is twelve and concentrates only on her studies and ice-skating. I am not always comfortable in her presence. I do not always understand her, or feel that she respects us.

We will not encourage Pramila to date. In fact, we will not permit it until she is finished with college. Then we will select a suitable boy. It will be a drawn-out process, I fear, but we are progressive people in regard to caste and regional origins. A boy from a good family with a solid education is all we ask. If Pramila were not a genius, I would think her retarded. When she's not on the ice, she lurches and stumbles. Jay does not have a particular girlfriend. He says don't even think of arranging a marriage for me. Five thousand years of caste-submission will end here, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

“So, you and your son go to Stanford to watch Mike Mahulkar?”

“Mike?” I must have blinked. “It is Mukesh,” I say. “My son models his tennis game on Mukesh Mahulkar. Some day Mukesh will be a very great tennis player.” Neither my son nor I would ever be able to score a point off Mukesh Mahulkar.

My father has been dead nearly twenty years. I think he died from the strain of arranging my marriage. Krithika's parents never reconciled to my father's modest income. In my strongest memory of him, he was coming from his bath. It was the morning of my marriage. His hair was dark and wet. We will never be worthy, he said. A year later, I was sharing a house with Al Wong and two other Indian guys. Jay was born that same year, but I was not able to go back for the birth, or for my father's funeral services. Fortunately, I have an older brother. My father was Head Clerk in Maharashtra State Public Works Department. In his position, he received and passed on, or rejected, plans for large-scale building and reclamation projects. Anywhere in Asia, certainly anywhere in India in the past twenty years, such a position would generate mountains of black money. Men just like my father pose behind the façade of humble civil servant, living within modest salaries, dressed in kurta and pajama of rough khadi, with Bata sandals on their dusty feet. They would spend half an hour for lunch, sipping tea under a scruffy peepal. But in the cool hours of morning or evening, there would be meetings with shady figures and the exchange of pillow-thick bundles of stapled hundred-rupee notes. They would be pondering immense investments in apartment blocks and outlying farmhouses and purchasing baskets of gold to adorn their wives and daughters.

But Baba was one of the little folk of the great city, an honest man mired in universal graft. He went to office in white kurta. At lunch, he sat on a wall and ate street-food from pushcart vendors and read his Marathi paper. He came home to a bath and prayer, dinner and bed. Projects he rejected got built anyway, with his superiors' approval. He was seen as an obstruction to progress, a dried-up cow wandering a city fly-over. So we never got the car-anddriver, the club memberships and air-conditioning. He retired on even less than his gazetted salary, before the Arab money and Bombay boom.

I suddenly remember Qasim, the Muslim man whose lunch cart provided tea and cigarettes and fried foods to the mspwd officewallahs. My father and Qasim enjoyed a thirty-year friendship without ever learning the names of one another's children, or visiting each other's houses, or even neighborhoods. Dadar and Mahim are different worlds. We never learned Qasim's last name. But whenever I dropped in on my father on lunch or tea breaks, I would hear him and Qasim engaged in furious discussions over politics, Pakistan, and fatherhood. Qasim had four wives and a dozen children, many of them the same age, all of them dressed in white, carrying trays of water and tea. Qasim and Baba were friends. To me, they are the very model of friendship. You might find it alien. You might not call it friendship at all. If, as rarely happened, Qasim did not appear on a given day, my father would ask a Muslim in the office to inquire after his health. Once or twice in a year, when my father took leave to attend a wedding, a strange boy would appear at our door, asking after Waldekar-sahib. I'm certain my father expressed more of a heartfelt nature to Qasim than he ever did to his wife, or to me. In that, I am my father's son.

“My father, too,” says the blue-eyed girl in the T-shirt.
All This and Brains, Too.
Suddenly, I understand its meaning, and I must have uttered a muted “ahhh!” and blushed. Breasts, not height and blondness. I feel a deep shame for her. Krithika reads the same words, but shows no comprehension. I have a bumper sticker:
My Son Is Palos High School Student of the Month.
When I put it on, my wife said I was inviting the evil eye. For that reason, we have not permitted newspaper access to Pramila. We are simple people. Our children consume everything. To pay for tennis and ice-skating lessons takes up all our cash. I could have bought a Stradivarius violin with what I've spent. When Pramila was ten years old, after a summer spent in Stanford's Intensive Mathematics Workshop with the cream of the nation's high school seniors, she wrote a paper on the Topology of Imaginary Binaries. It is published in a mathematical journal, which we do not display. I do not mention it, ever.

“My father says that if he'd stayed in Russia and never left his government job, he would be sitting on a mountain of bribes. Over here, he started a Russian deli on Geary Boulevard.”

“You have made a very successful transition to this country,” I say.
All this
. “I personally have great respect for the entrepreneurial model.”

She takes the compliment with a shy smile. “Appearances can lie, Dr. Waldekar,” she says.

Krithika brings out water and a plate of savories.

I am of the Stanford generation that built the Internet out of their garages. I knew those boys. They invited me to join, but I was a young husband and father, although my family was still in India waiting to come over, and I had a good, beginning-level job with PacBell. I would be ashamed to beg start-up money from banks or strangers. My friends said,
well, we raised five million today, we're on our way!
And I'd think
you're twenty-five years old and five million dollars in debt? You're on your way to jail!
I have not been in debt a single day of my life, including the house mortgage. It all goes back to my father in frayed khadi, and three-rupee lunches under the dusty peepals.

“I notice an interesting response to my question,” she says. “When I asked if you've fulfilled your goals, you mentioned only that your son is very successful. What about you, Dr. Waldekar?”

Krithika breaks in, finally, “We also have a daughter.”

“I was coming to that,” I say.

“She is enrolled in a graduate level mathematics course,” says Krithika.

BOOK: The Meagre Tarmac
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