“Where are you from, sir?” asked the older Indian gentleman sitting next to the open seat awaiting me on the plane. I had given him a smile and said hello – among the simple things that make Indian people very happy, especially when far away from home.
“That, sir, is a very good question! I’m not sure I know the answer anymore…but I know exactly where I am going.”
“It had better be Delhi or you are on the wrong plane.”
“There is no place I’d rather be right now!”
A pause and a curious smile was followed by the question: “What is your good name?”
“Ricky,” I replied, extending my hand to Sanjay, the Delhiite Punjabi and 30-year resident of Louisville, KY, owner of several businesses, father of two girls who became doctors, who was floored when I told him where he could get the best naguri halwa for breakfast in Chandni Chowk, in the mayhem of my beloved Old Delhi.
“This is impossible!” He beamed before continuing, “…And you say you have lived in Brazil for 20 years?”
“It gets crazier.”
“We have time!”
“But I want to hear about the 30 years in America I didn’t have…”
“There’s nothing to tell. I feel like I lost my life running after money. I have two daughters who disrespect me. Even my wife is more interested in money.”
“Please, Sanjay, you mustn’t say those things. Bhagavadgita teaches us that everything is part of an Order. We choose our actions, never the results…”
The flight attendant interrupted, bringing him a pre-ordered specialty Indian vegetarian meal. He continued, “…I know! But still! America is strange place: the people with money are unhappy; the people with no money are unhappy. People are aggressive. It’s like there is no love in their hearts! Nobody is happy!”
His words surprised me and slapped me when I least expected them. “Hmmm…” I pondered. “I think you’ve just given words to something I have never been able to pinpoint. I live in a happy country: I know what you are saying…”
“This is the second time this year I am returning to India and I am staying through Diwali. Do you know I haven’t seen Diwali in 30 years! I am thinking maybe I will stay. If my family wants to see me they can come to India. If they don’t, no problem. I have completed my duty already. You know my one daughter wanted alcohol at her wedding? The other is dating a drug dealer?”
“A doctor and a drug dealer?” I choked, “Fantastic! A perfect business! But one you probably don’t want to see. I say stay in India!”
The flight attended returned, giving me the conventional vegetarian meal. I had noticed he had barely touched his specialty food, and it really did not look appetizing. And my conventional Indian vegetarian meal looked much better.
“No, Sanjay. Here! You don’t eat that. You eat with me.” I moved to offer the food.
“No! Please! I can’t take your food!”
“Yes you will. You eat, I say!” I pushed over his tray to make room for mine. I tore the roti with my hands and gave him half, holding the little pot of masala sabji for him to dip the bread.
He beamed again, laughing, “This is what we do in India! Now I really know you are an Indian! I miss sharing so much.”
When he said that, I felt something very beautiful but very uncomfortable welling inside me. I did not dare respond ‘me too’ for fear of what might happen, so I made a joke: “Sanjay, why are you talking? Have you lost all your good manners in America? Do you want to eat or do you want to talk?”
He laughed again before resorting to the customary silence of concentrating on food, but it didn’t last long.
“So tell me one thing: what is it about my India you miss the most?”
I finished chewing and took a deep breath, but it was of no use: If I answered I would not be able to hold it anymore.
“The people,” I said, tears falling into my food.
I couldn’t look at him. He saw me and I think he started crying more than me.
A moment of silence greater than that of the food passed. Then Sanjay responded to his own question: “For me, it’s the food!”
We snorted simultaneously, almost spitting on our food in laughter, choking on our aloo sabji and tears.
All this to say thanks to the guys who showed me a whole new world that is mine now, and who also taught me one of the most important lessons in life: sharing – and, of course, how to make people to eat food.