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bhindi masala. They can tease baingan bharta out of the most stoic eggplant. Their kitchens are their link to Delhi, and we former residents—or, at least, this former resident—want in. So far, though, I’ve had no luck. At the San Francisco airport, for instance, our connection to that Indian couple was severed when boarding began for the Denver flight: only we stood up. Our new friends were waiting for a flight to Arizona, which meant that no dinner party was imminent. Nor could I make any headway at that restaurant in Estes Park, where I looked up from my bagel with one last desperate attempt: “No, where are you originally from? India? Because we spent eighteen months living there!” To which the woman smiled gently and said, with finality, “Your daughter is beautiful.” Her tone left no further room for discussion. Nor could I make it work at the Denver Botanic Gardens, where I’d spotted that Indian foursome entering ahead of us. Our meandering paths had crossed theirs a half-dozen times, despite Jenny’s best efforts to steer us away from them. Finally, near the Lilac Garden, I spotted my opening: the patriarch of the family was posing his wife, daughter, and son-in-law for a photo. I quickly offered to snap the four of them together. He declined. In accented English. To which I replied in my own terrible Hindi, “Aap guessa hai!?” The four of them looked at me. “Hindi bollna?” I asked. “Are you speaking Hindi?” the father finally asked me. “Yes!” I beamed. “We lived in Delhi for a year-and-a-half.” “Oh. We don’t speak much Hindi.” They turned back to their photo. I turned back to my wife. And that night for dinner, I sautéed some onions and tomatoes, emptied a can of chick peas into the pan, and dumped in a few tablespoons of MDH channa masala mix. It was not like Ganga’s at all. n A Creative Commons Image

couple and their infant son. Bells clanged in my head: she was wearing a salwar. Which meant she was born and bred outside the United States. I innocuously steered George’s stroller toward them. Jenny rolled her eyes and walked off to get coffee. I sat a few seats down from them, removed George from her stroller, and engaged in a deliberately-conspicuous bout of tongue-waggling and noise-making. Sure enough, George’s irresistible smile drew their eyes; and that was the opening I needed. “How old is your son?” I asked. I didn’t actually care how old he was; I just wanted to confirm their accents. And as they proudly boasted that Nikhil or Naveen or something was a year or eighteen months or seven or whatever, all that my brain registered were pronunciations that implied a childhood immersed in sambar. With chicken biryani clouding my thoughts and phantom thalis teasing my nostrils, I exclaimed (loudly, to mask my stomach’s rumbling): “Oh! You’re from India! We lived there for eighteen months!” And from there, the conversation progressed just as I’d hoped. They were from Chennai, but they knew Delhi, and together we grew pleasantly melancholy reminiscing about places and tastes that were, for both of us, equally dear and equally far. By the time Jenny joined us with her coffee, we were chatting about old days like old friends, contrasting our transitions to each other’s cultures, recalling the restaurants we missed the most, and jointly lamenting the fact that nobody knows how to cook an uttapam west of Chowpatti Beach. My nostalgia for Delhi generally fixates on food, but it can go deeper. At three o’clock on a workday, for instance, I’ll look blearily up from my computer and fantasize about the chaiwallah outside my Gurgaon office, just seven thousand miles to my left. Had it been three o’clock in that office, Dipankar and Murali and I would have paid him a visit and enjoyed his five-rupee respite from our responsibilities. (Although this moment of freedom, too, leads my mind back to food. Because here in America, as I stand by the coffee maker, the nearest snack is at a convenience store a mile away. How can my country be considered a world leader when we’re so lacking in sidewalk samosa vendors?) At these times, when I’m missing the camaraderie as much as the cuisine, I turn to the Internet. I vicariously join my Delhi

friends as they motorcycle to Leh or eat parathas in Old Delhi. I toast the country on Republic Day. I cheer cricket players on a first-name basis. And I join them in experiencing the changing capital city—like when my former coworker Nobin switched from the office cab to the Delhi Metro for his commute to Gurgaon. From his seat, he tweeted praise at the shining municipal infrastructure that warmed me in my chair half a world away. I’ve even grown nostalgic for Delhi’s traffic, of all things. Imagine getting misty-eyed for MG Road! But it’s happened: though there was nothing in Delhi I hated more than my commute to Gurgaon, the traffic in Denver is, in a way, worse. Because when I descend the on-ramp into four orderly lanes of vehicles in which nobody honks, nobody jostles for advantage, and nobody takes to the shoulders to jump the queue, I realize that Delhi’s traffic, for all its misery, also contained a kind of freedom: the skill of the driver could alter the course of the jam. A good driver could seize ephemeral opportunities revealed by shifting vehicles to shave seconds off the commute, or to cross the Ring Road before the light turned red. But Denver’s traffic is egalitarian in its oppression. Once you’re on the highway, you’re committed to the collective fate. Delhi’s traffic allows for individual heroics; Denver’s traffic is entirely communal. But I live in America now. I accept it: derivative restaurants, watery tea, nonnegotiable traffic, and streets that are empty of samosas. Which is why I can’t imagine that I’m the only American creeping around Indians to spark culinary connections. Because those of us who left our stomachs in Safdarjung know that expat Indians must be coping with the same emptiness—except that expat Indians possess the wisdom to transform frozen okra and boxed spices into a glorious

Reprinted with permission from The Book Review Literary Trust, New Delhi. Dave Prager is the author of Delirious Delhi: Inside India’s Incredible Capital, just published by Arcade Publishing. You can read an excerpt at DeliriousDelhi.com. Dave now lives in the Bay Area and is on a quest for the best rajma masala. You can tell him where to find it at dave@deliriousdelhi.com. Dec ‘13—Jan ‘14 | www.indiacurrents.com | 19

December 2013 - January 2014 India Currents  
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