My debut novel “Table for Four” published by Penguin India was also long listed for the Man Asian literary prize:
On a quaint evening back in Prithvi uncle’s house, two stories sat down to dinner with me at the listening table. Prim little play-dough creatures. Twistable. Plottable. Tell-able.
Alas, not so my story.
“Speak up. Do your worst. Make your meaning clear,” I have begged of the wily creature. But he has remained inside me.
Twisting the knife of doubt.
Stalking my thoughts.
Slipping through the net of sense like sand from between fingers. Resisting narration in a spin of whys, hows and what- really –happeneds.
When it comes to him, not even the listening table succeeds.
But that evening at the listening table is a story by itself…
Chapter One: More than Just Pickle and Bread
I had this strange sense of dressing for a performance, this Micawberish feeling that something was bound to turn up. Rummaging inside my suitcase for my indigo blue salwar kurta – the only Indian outfit I had carried with me to Santa Cruz, I wondered just why Prithvi uncle had chosen to emerge from his seclusion and invite us to dinner?
I felt a bit strange in the kurta, having never worn it in my three years here. Santa Cruz was a small, earthquake-prone town, very white-hippie. A town I couldn’t read at first. And so, with the caution of a stranger in a foreign town, I had chosen to blend in, never venturing beyond jeans and T-shirts.
When I emerged from my room, I very nearly collided with Sandra. She had on a short black skirt and a pink top. Sandra carried herself well in Western formals, partly because she didn’t have an ounce of extra flesh and partly, I supposed, because she had grown up wearing them. She also nearly always wore make up. Today it was pink lipstick and eye shadow. The Barbie look. A pair of hematite earrings dangled saucily from her ears. Her hair was freshly washed.
“Wonder where Derek is,” I said.
Sandra pointed to the bottle of wine that rested on the kitchen counter. “Must be getting dressed,” she winked.
Of Prithvi uncle too, there was no sign, though the kitchen smelt reassuringly of masala and I caught a whiff of something that I thought was biriyani.
For the first time in the three years I had lived there, the kitchen smelt neither of Mexico nor of Kamalakka’s remembered recipes.
Suddenly, the front door opened and Prithvi uncle entered looking like a baby wizard. He was wearing a somewhat faded ikkat kurta over a pair of trousers that were inches too long. His eyes searched our faces as though looking for something. And then, he gestured in the direction of the listening table.
“Please,” he said. “There’s more than just pickle and bread,” his eyes glinted.
The expression he had worn on coming in had vanished without a trace. Sandra and I exchanged guilty looks. Had he overheard us discussing his eating habits?
Chapter Two: The Listening Table
He had always been a bit of a recluse. Kept to himself most of the time. Sandra, Derek and I saw little of him during the day. Sometimes we wondered if he had left that house with its neglected garden altogether. But every now and then there would be some small sign to say Prithvi uncle was still around – an unwashed plate in the sink that was not mine or Sandra’s or Derek’s, kitchen lights that Sandra swore came on in the wee hours of the morning, bread crumbs under the table when Derek hadn’t been eating bread, a new bottle of gonghura pickle, and once, a copy of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile with his name on it that Sandra discovered on the living room sofa. There was one direct sign too – those post-it notes on the fridge that he left us from time to time.
In all my three years at Number 14, Bay Street, I met Prithvi uncle exactly four times.
The first time was when I went to check out the house. I had been haunting the UC Santa Cruz Campus Housing office for weeks. The woman there must have been sick of me. Her good mornings had certainly gotten feebler. But I had had little luck with my apartment hunt. Either the rent was way too high or the place too far from campus. I was just beginning to wonder if this business would ever end when that hand-written poster appeared on the Housing office bulletin board.
Nice room with a view of the outside. No fuss landlord. Minimum interference. Rent $250.
14, Bay Street, Santa Cruz.
Phone Prithvi at 831-420-5130
My eyes popped. At the $250 (which was really nothing at all for a room in that neighbourhood) and at the name Prithvi – for it sounded Indian. There were so few Indians in Santa Cruz. I was curious. Was he Indian Indian like me? Or Indian born and raised in America? I phoned the number mentioned in the advertisement, wondering all the while what the catch was. A voice at the other end answered, “Good Evening, Prithvi here,” in an accent that was most definitely urban Indian, though it carried traces of some years spent in America.
He proceeded to give me directions over the phone in a slow, careful sort of way. “Remember, corner house, Bay Street, opposite the pond,” he said finally, “You can come this evening. You aren’t doing anything else anyway. Come and check out the place.” It was only after I had hung up that the oddity of what he had said hit me. You aren’t doing anything else anyway. How the hell would he know that? Or was he just being presumptuous? It hit me too that he had asked me nothing about myself…
He was sitting outside in a garden that badly needed weeding staring at the pond across the house. When I went up close, he waved me to an empty chair beside him.
“You must be Maya,” he said, “So you have got yourself a bicycle? Good town for bikers, this. It is a short ride to the university from here – not more than 7 minutes. You are a student from UCSC, no?” He was less deliberate now than he had been on the phone. His eyes reminded me of enormous mirrors.
“You would like to see the house? Yes?” he asked, and stood up without really waiting for an answer. I saw then that he bordered on being a dwarf. He was that small. Beside him, I felt like a giant. Elf-man, I thought. That’s what he looks like. An elf man.