Meet Cyrus Chutt Chutneywala of Baroda, Gujarat, waiting for a friend in the the Factory Tavern on Andy Warhol Square in Pittsburgh. His friend, Romesh, calls the bar to let Chutt know he’ll be late and the waitress inadvertently hits the speaker phone and public address switch and lets the entire clientele know she has a hard time getting past that name, Chutneywala. Thus begins Clark Blaise’s comic story “Waiting For Romesh” from his brand new collection The Meagre Tarmac, just out from Biblioasis. (See Philip Marchand’s review in the National Post.)
Clark is an old friend (dating back to the early 1980s and dg’s Iowa Writers Workshop experience) who once made the mistake of inviting dg to stay the night. Clark and his wife, Bharati Mukherjee, were sharing an appointment at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs and living in palatial splendour in a huge house on Circular Street with an octagonal carriage house and mistress apartment in back. DG somehow managed to stretch that night into three months (this was in the days of dg’s impoverished apprenticeship, um, actually, he is still an impoverished apprentice), the walking definition of a Horrific Guest. Clark moved away, dg stayed in the house til it was sold. He wrote his story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon” in the little glassed in conservatory.
Clark Blaise is brilliant story writer and memoirist, intelligent, cosmopolitan, a master of point of view. He has lived multiple lives and written about all of them, from his impoverished childhood in Florida, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg to his extended sojourns in India and his long and eminent teaching career. He is the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. He has taught writing and literature at Emory, Skidmore, Columbia, NYU, Sir George Williams, UC-Berkeley, SUNY-Stony Brook, and the David Thompson University Centre. He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2003), and in 2010 was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Nowadays, he divides his time between New York and San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, Bharati Mukherjee.
WAITING FOR ROMESH
By Clark Blaise
These are the random thought’s, over a late afternoon and early evening, of a balding man waiting for his friend. What is the evolutionary advantage of thinning hair? Could it be that balding apes sensed heat and rain before their hirsute brethren, knowing to seek shelter, thus having more playtime to pass on their genes?
According to theory, one monkey out of an infinite number working on an infinite bank of typewriters will create a flawless draft of King Lear. It puts a human face on the notion of “infinity.” Two or three might come close, misspelling a word or deleting a comma, which seems somehow even more miraculous, more human, and tragic. It signals a failed intent. Perfection seems just a more refined form of accident.
Higher altitudes are cooler because fewer molecules are available for collision, thus releasing energy. Given infinite time, every molecule in a confined space – even if the molecules represent the world’s population and the confined space is earth itself – makes contact with every other.
All roads lead to Rome. It is said that if one sits long enough at a café on the Via Veneto, everyone he has ever known will eventually pass by. This has not proven to be the case, however, for Cyrus Chutneywala of Baroda, Gujarat, seated this afternoon at The Factory Tavern in Andy Warhol Square, Pittsburgh. Cyrus, called Chutt by his Indian friends and Chuck by his colleagues at the Mellon Bank, has been waiting through a long afternoon, dinnertime and now early evening for his Wharton batch-mate, Romesh Kumar.
“I hope you weren’t offended,” the waitress said half an hour earlier, when she set his third narrow flute of beer – this one on the house – in front of him. She is tall and thin, wearing black jeans and a slack, black cutaway T-shirt. He searches for the proper word: singlet? Camisole? Her dark, krinkly hair is gathered in a ponytail. It was she, standing at the end of the bar, who had received Romesh Kumar’s “please-tell-Mr.-Chutneywala-I’m-late” phone call. She accidentally hit the speakerphone and public address system at the same time, alerting indoor and outdoor customers to a Chutneywala in their presence, and that she thought “Chutneywala” sufficiently amusing to ask for a repeat. Everyone had heard her giggle. They overheard her half of the conversation. “His name is what? Chutneywala? Come on, man. Who shall I say is calling? Everyone also heard “Romesh Kumar.” He had no secrets.
He’d pretended indifference when she approached his table. Her head – lips, tongue, ears, nose and eyebrows – was a mass of cosmetic shrapnel. Rings on every finger, thumbs included.
“Mr. Chutneywala? You’re Parsi, right?” she’d said. “See, I’m not ignorant. Your friend Mr. Kumar said he’d be a little late.”
“So I heard.”
“I think he said ‘a trifle late,’ to be more exact.”
To deflect the conversation away from himself, which he knew to be the preferred opening gambit of casual conversation between the sexes in America, he could have asked the meaning of the rows of silver, like key rings of varying sizes, that she wore through her ears, nose and eyebrows – or the large blue star tattoo near the strap of her camisole – but he chose the least obvious: the rectangular, flesh-colored bandage on her shoulder. It reminded him of inoculation shots, international travel and of his own life when it was just opening up and full of promise.
“I see you are going away,” he’d said.
“What? The tat? That’s from my commune days.”
“No, below it, the plaster. You must have had some shots.”
“This? It’s my nicotine patch. But you’re sweet for asking.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It is none of my business.”
“No, no, it got so bad I used to smoke in the shower. I had to say to myself, enough is enough already. Hey, I’ve been to Bombay. I’ve seen the Towers of Silence. I think it’s the coolest thing, putting dead bodies out for the buzzards. You guys don’t smoke, right? You’re fire-worshippers, aren’t you? Maybe I was a Parsi in my former life.”
“Fire is a manifestation. Christians do not worship two pieces of wood. We worship god, not fire.” It is an explanation he has gone through many times, patiently.
“That’s more or less what I meant,” she says. “Anyway, I’m not Christian.”
With time on his hands, the normally gloomy Chutt can spiral into a full depression. He is thirty-four and unmarried. Giant pandas, Chilean sea bass and Parsi gentlemen suffer a common fate: a deficiency of available females. Insufficient molecular interaction. So few Parsis – just fifty thousand in the world, if that, and dropping – and so much territory to cover. In his own family, among cousins of his generation, not a single boy had found a suitable Parsi girl, or vice versa. His older sister Shireen had gone to Düsseldorf for engineering and married a German boy ten years her junior. After two sons, he’d deserted her for a Turkish girl. Her sons hated India. They hated being taken for Turks on German streets. They’d become skinheads with dark complexions. His younger sister, Freny, was an unmarried schoolteacher in Parsi Gardens, nearing thirty, too old to marry unless she found a foreigner or Parsi widower.
On her next trip past his table, the waitress drops off a plate of Buffalo chicken wings, also on the house. “My name’s Bekka,” she says.
“I’m called Chutt.”
“I know, “ she said. “‘Please tell Chutt’ … that’s how that Kumar guy who’s a trifle late started his message. Frankly, I didn’t like him. Here you are, sitting here so patiently. You look so calm. You look like you’re thinking profound thoughts. Bekka’s short for Rebecca.”
“That’s a very pretty name.”
“Very Old Testament, you mean.”
“Good names come from good books.”
He lets out a long, low “ahhh.” He remembered his best years, standards eight through twelve, at the Sassoon Trust School. When he was eleven, his father sent him down to Bombay from Baroda to live for six years with his Aunt Dolly and Uncle Jamshed Contractor. Jimmy Contractor was called Uncle Two-in-Bush for his failure to keep One-in-Hand. Sassoon Trust had been a Jewish School during British times, but after Independence most of the established Bombay Jewish families started leaving for Israel and England. The Trust is still Jewish, at least in name, but the numbers of Jewish names on the scrolls of class toppers had been yielding to other aspiring minorities: Armenians, Anglo-Indians, Parsis and Muslims. He felt close to the Jews. His old teacher, David Solomon, said the Parsis are the real Jews of India: a dwindling minority, huge in commerce and the professions. With so many Parsi trusts and hospitals, there are no poor Parsis.
It’s a curious fate, to be a threatened minority with no visible enemies. Truth be told, Parsis are a beloved minority. Admired, trusted, generous, intelligent and patriotic. Every Indian honours Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the Ariel Sharon of India in the ’71 War. He remembers Prudence Solomon, called Esther by her father, his first crush. She married Danny Saul from his class, his competitor for topper, and went off to England. Chutt was left alone with the uncontested class medal and his name inscribed for all to see.
“The school I went to in Bombay had those little things on the doorframes … ”
“Mezuzot?” she cries. “Holy shit! Mezuzot in India!”
“We called them Methuselahs. Someone said they were old men wrapped up tight in a sheet. They’re scrolls, isn’t it? What did we know?” His current house in Squirrel Hill has mezzuzahs outside every door, and he’s been afraid, and too nostalgic, to remove them.
Chutt is a Wharton graduate. Mellon Bank recruited him, brought him to Pittsburgh and made him an acquisitions manager. He knows the business very well; his division has posted double digit gains every year of his management. Hundreds of millions of dollars pass through his fingers, figuratively speaking, every day, including that very afterooon. Our Wunderkind, the client-brochures call him; he’s been a Pittsburgh Top Forty Young executive three years’ running. Who couldn’t be? he asks himself. For picking winners, he didn’t need Wharton, the caseloads, or the anxieties of preparation and presentation. “You’ve got a Parsi nose,” Romesh had joked, meaning (for once) a nose for profit, not the beak-like protuberance that stereotypically clings to the Parsi profile.
For his first two years, he suffered from the disparity between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which he explained to his parents as being at two ends of the same state, like, say, Rajkot and Surat. Imagine me out here in western Pennsylvania, so far from clean and civilized Surat, stuck in the marshes of the Rann of Kutch. He used to fly to Philly every weekend, just to walk familiar streets and drop in on old friends like Romesh, all of whom had managed to find positions along the New York-Washington corridor.
Pittsburgh might as well have been Kansas City. Some of his friends, the foreign or more insulated east-coasters, assumed it was in a different time zone. They’d get together for dinners down at Susanna Foo’s, just like old times. Now Romesh is making his first trip to Pittsburgh, sent out by the commodities house he works for in Philadelphia. Now it’s Chutt’s turn to show Romesh the sights of Pittsburgh, such as they are, if he ever shows. Pittsburgh has an advanced transportation network and a funicular from the riverbank up the sheer cliff of Mt. Washington. The top is said to offer a spectacular panorama. There are fine museums and a good symphony, but Romesh is more a hedonist and man of action than Chutt.
Rebecca is at the far end of the bar, talking on the phone. He can’t face another chicken wing, but he feels he should wait it out. In case Romesh has an accident, this is the only place in Pittsburgh he can call.
There is something else panda-like about Chutt, comically sad, not roly-poly, with dark rings under his button-black eyes, and ears prone to black tufting. While generally thin, he has the beginning of a small potbelly. His teeth are firm and white, never drilled, only polished. Even when happy, as he normally is, he appears to be pondering grave matters, or to be in mourning. People feel attracted to him and feel safe around him. They trust him with their money and listen to his advice. To Indian eyes he is obviously Parsi – fairer than most Indians, narrow-faced, long-nosed and bright-eyed. He is quiet and contained, a natural gentleman, as Rebecca has observed. Those seem to be rare qualities in American men, and attractive to a wide variety of women. Over the past nine years in America he has not lacked for companionship, whenever he sought it. He’s known betrayal, disappointment and occasional danger, but never heartbreak.
When he first came to the United States, Cyrus Chutneywala learned to hone an explanation before anyone could laugh at his name. It went something like this: back in ancient times, a distant ancestor had made pickles, hot and sweet. In fact, his many-timesgreat grandfather had been purveyor of condiments to the British garrison. Indian condiments are called chutney. A person who makes them is thus a Chutneywala. His name signifies that he is part of an ancient community in India called Parsi. In Indian languages, Parsi means Persian. Over a thousand years ago, his Zoroastrian co-religionists, fleeing the invasion by, and forced conversion to Islam, landed on the coast of Gujarat, attracted by auspicious flares of natural gas. They were hospitably welcomed, and allowed to flourish. A hundred and fifty years ago, Britishers determined that every Indian – “Hindoo,” “Mohametan” or “Parsee” – should have a name, preferably two, and so Parsis, who had never used names, were saddled with place-names, or professions they had long abandoned. No Chutneywala has dipped chilies and mango or sweet-lime slices in over a century. Chutt’s father is a surgeon in Baroda. His mother is a Readymoney from a poorer branch of the celebrated Bombay moneylenders. By the time he finished his disquisition on Parsiness, all but a determined minority were too bored to laugh in his face.
His father is so ashamed of being unable to find suitable matches for his son and daughters that he has threatened to atone by going off to Africa to perform free surgery. His mother wants a fancy flat in Bombay. Over the past five years, Chutt has rejected eight marriage proposals from prominent Bombay Parsi families. They were good girls, educated, professional, virginal, but – how to say – too good, too boring for his new sensibility. He is not without guilt over every rejection. He might be prolonging his loneliness, but he is also condemning eight more Parsi families to barrenness. In such a way, because of men like himself, a people die. To find a waitress in Pittsburgh who knows about Parsis seems as miraculous as a Bombay girl who might know about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Or Methuselahs on an Indian’s door.
She says, “Look, I get off at nine. I’m just filling in for a friend’s shift, normally I don’t get off till two. I hate to see you filling up on chicken wings and beer. Your friend isn’t coming. He called again and I told him you’d just left. I love Indian food. I know a quiet place on West Liberty.”
On the drive over, she removes the row of silver key rings from her brow. He supposes they must untwist like wire coils from a spiral notebook. Every day on his way to work, Chutt drives this same block of West Liberty Avenue, yet he has never noticed the large Gul Mohar signboard. How could an Indian restaurant exist in Pittsburgh, blocks from his office, without his knowing? Inside the Gul Mohar, she pulls him by hand past empty tables and heads directly to the kitchen. The owners are Gujarati, Joshi by name, vegetarian, he presumes. She calls them by their first names, they by hers, she lifts the pot-lids and swirls the steam in his direction. He is lost for a moment in the intensity of childhood memories, he suddenly recalls names of food and spices he’d nearly forgotten, and can see the family cook as a young man, bald old Rupla with his head full of hair, bending down to offer him two or three rolls of khandvi, over which he drizzles warm phorni and mustard seed and says, “Just for you, Baba.”
Rebecca carries plates out to waiting customers. When she returns, she unties her ponytail and leads him to the table nearest the kitchen doors. Was this restaurant here yesterday? Will it be here tomorrow?
The nicotine patch, it too is gone. The camisole strap hides the tattoo. “How do you know these people?” he asks. He means: who are they? Or he really means, Who are you? Even more, he wonders: is this really happening?
“I used to work here. I still help out once a week. At least the customers here aren’t always hitting on me.”
“I hope you don’t think – ” Chutt starts.
“I picked you up. There’s a difference.” Mrs. Joshi brings a carafe of wine. Chutt is resigned to vegetarian, but for him they have made a special beef dhansak.
“I called ahead.”
Such planning, such conspiring.
“I’m a good Indian cook, Chutt.”
He’s not much of a drinker, especially after three narrow flutes of beer, but raises his glass in a toast.
“To Romesh Kumar!” she offers. “The very late Romesh Kumar!”
They get into the inevitable. Her story: “My grandfather had a cigar shop – Adam Newman’s on Centre Avenue. I loved the smell of cigars and cigarettes. My zeyde gave me cigarettes so I started smoking when I was twelve. He’s still going strong at ninety-two. For that matter, I started everything when I was twelve. And as for names, we’re like Parsis ourselves. I have a made-up name. My grandfather had a big long name back in Latvia, but he spent the whole time on the boat studying English and when he landed in New York he said, ‘My name is New Man.’ He actually named himself Adam Newman, just like Paul and Alfred E.”
Chutt doesn’t recognize her references. He wonders suddenly, what do you say to an ape that types everything correctly, five perfect acts, but gets the title wrong? Knig Lear. Or types t’is instead of ’tis in the fourth act? Do you pat him on his balding head and say good enough, or say sorry, and have him go back and type two hundred pages of gibberish?
A far greater tragedy than Shakespeare ever conceived.
“As for men, let’s say I’m a little easy. Actually, I’d call myself a regular Sally Sleep-Around. This is your chance to run away. You work in a bar, you get off at two in the morning … at least I get to choose. It’s hard to lead a Sex in the City life in Pittsburgh but people say if I blonded up I’d look a lot like Sarah Jessica Parker.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t rec …”
She waves it off. “I think I’ll go ahead. Forever Blonde!”
He’s fascinated by the row of tiny perforations just above her eyebrow. Her brow looks vulnerable, detachable like a postage stamp. Does the body have the capacity to restore flesh, to forgive trauma? Can a woman who has been possessed by so many men be loving and faithful? How is it that a woman who has been used by so many remains so fresh, so pure? And the pure girls of Bombay seem so stale and lifeless?
“I have an apartment up on Mt. Washington, two blocks from the incline. I can see Aliquippa out one window and Homestead out the other. Straight down, I’ve got the Point at my feet.”
“I’ve got a view of Temple Beth Emmanuel,” says Chutt.
“No shit – my old shul! We’ve got a bench inside!”
And then it’s his turn. The unmarried sisters and himself, and his father’s vow to go to Africa and redeem a continent for his failure. There had been a woman at Wharton, an American of Indian origin who slept with him, praised his projects and professed a great if sentimental love for India, then stole all his research notes and passed them off as her own. She had an American boyfriend who threatened to kill him if he protested.
“Cheating in business school? I thought you guys got points for that.”
In retrospect, the proudest act of his life was admitting the sex before an ethics panel, naming the girl and her boyfriend, acknowledging his poor judgment and a certain susceptibility to high-risk behavior. All the Indian students shunned him, except for Romesh Kumar. The girl was expelled; he received a reprimand and was exiled to Pittsburgh. The story of his shame would spread and grow with every retelling, and he would never be hired in India.
“Wharton,” she says. “Makes us sort of ‘Love Story,’ doesn’t it?”
Before he can raise his hand in cultural surrender, she seizes it. “Just look at those fingers!” she says. “And that long, long nose! A girl notices things like that!”
“Things like what?”
“Sometimes those stubby-fingered guys surprise you, but you’re no surprise, Mr. Chutneywala. I’ll bet you could perch three barn owls on your thing.”
Is this what she expects? “A sparrow,” he says. “Two if very young.” To himself he thinks of the pain of supporting a vulture. Then she giggles. “I’m kidding! You look so tight and worried. Have your dhansak. Have more wine. Think of Mt. Washington. Let’s drink to inclines – sorry, you’re such a sweetie! Smile! Laugh!”
In the night she says, “This is the only time I miss a cigarette. God do I miss a cigarette! I took off my patch – you noticed? I did it for you.”
He doesn’t quite know how to respond. No one has ever treated him to such a gift, or such a sign of respect and devotion. He strokes her hair, notices with some satisfaction the human sweat, like his.
“You know what I get off on? It’s when the man collapses inside me, when he deflates, and I’m there to catch him. If he doesn’t collapse, I can’t catch him.”
Chutt knows he collapsed. There is no more of him to deflate, he has told her everything, shown her all there is, all he has ever been, all he can be. He has spoken even of his deepest shame, a blasphemous fear of vultures. He has never confessed it – who would listen, who would care? He suspects that he is the only Parsi in the world with this particular phobia. He would rather have his body buried in Pittsburgh than torn to shreds in Bombay. In most settings, even on a pleasant Pittsburgh evening, he can summon the sweet, high summer, midday stench of rotting flesh.
But not tonight as they stand naked above the city, taking in the promised vision: the sweep of the rivers and the orange running lights of barges heading down the Ohio, the lighted arches of a dozen bridges over the Allegheny and Monongahela, the fluorescence of the Point, lights so close he could reach down and touch them, from a place so quiet he can hear their hum and sizzle. He is certain that none of her men have rocked her in their arms like this, as barge lights disappear behind the headlands.