As the Air India Boeing from Mumbai gently touched down at the J F Kennedy airport on a bright Friday afternoon, my palpitation level began to reach the zenith.
"It's going to be tough" - I murmured to myself. "For sure, at least in the beginning of the doctoral program, life at the Big Apple will be difficult. Never mind - there is always that silver lining in the dark clouds" - I tried to reassure myself.
As we deplaned and moved ahead, things appeared systematic and the surroundings were beautiful, but I had this constant feeling of butterflies in my stomach. Was I nervous, awestruck or simply tired after a long journey? - I really had no clue.
After completing all the formalities, amidst unending apprehensions I was strategizing my next move to get to the city - "should I take a cab or go by subway" - the thoughts surfaced and disappeared in my mind like waves of the Bay of Bengal.
"Hey, Kalyan" - the name never sounded sweeter.
Oh my God! Outside the terminal building I noticed Balaji and Priya waving at me with a childlike joy and welcome smiles. What a pleasant surprise and an even greater relief! Bala, my longtime buddy from IISc, Bangalore days was living in New York City for the last three years.
"So, how was the journey - did you get decent food and enough sleep in the flight?" - enquired Priya. Before I could respond, Bala in his inimitable style pronounced - "you are going to stay with us till we find you a respectable abode. You are free to fend for yourself thereafter". I profusely thanked God once again for giving me the wisdom to share my travel plans with Bala.
"Fasten your seat-belt" - he reminded me, while driving the car through the long, wide and beautiful roads. "New York City is made of five boroughs - Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and the Staten Island" - Bala was trying to educate me. "We live in the upper West side in Manhattan" - informed Priya. After a fairly long drive and constant chatting, finally we arrived at the fourth floor residence of my hosts. "Get freshened up" - was the call from Priya, while I was still lost in a different world in their beautifully done up apartment - a mischievous breeze from the Hudson river jocundly sauntering by.
Over hot and mesmerizing south Indian coffee, endless discussions ensued on the state of affairs back home - how the roads are dirty, traffic is chaotic and pollution levels unbearable. Sensing that jet lag was getting the better of me, Priya quickly arranged for dinner. The superbly cooked tamarind rice and Chettinad chicken looked to be just made for each other, and I let my appetite go bonkers.
A good night's sleep invigorated me. "Our
desi friends here party on the weekends at somebody's place. Today the guys are gathering at our home. Can we cook a couple of Bengali dishes, for a change?" - enquired Bala in his deep voice. Priya and I spent the whole day in planning and executing the preparations of delicious Indian food.
As the sun began to set in, the stream of guests made their proud entry - Raj and Mini, Joy and Martha, Moon and Jayati, Bipin and Madhura - there were a few others whom I don't remember. "Meet my buddy Kalyan who arrived yesterday from Pune to join Graduate School -" thus spake Balaji. The honoured intelligentsia gave me a look as cold as frozen ice cream, and continued gossiping about all things possible under the sun. And for sure, over drinks and chicken pakoras, they spent hours together discussing how bad the state of affairs are back at home and apprehending about the future of India and who will save the 1.2 billion mortals.
"Priya, I don't remember having eaten the
Chola'r daal (split Bengal gram, simmered lentils with little bites of coconut) and
Aloo'r dum at your place" - wondered Jayati. "It reminds me of Kolkata - haven't had these dishes in a long time".
"Thanks to Kalyan - he volunteered to try his gastronomic skills - hope you guys like it" - informed Priya.
"Apni Bangali? Kotodin natun Bangalir sathe alap hoyni. Kanhatak arr anya bhashay katha bola jay? Amader barite kobeasbenbalun?" - Jayati started blabbering like a waterfall. Soon her husband Moon (Roy) joined our mini adda.
'Apni' became 'tumi' in a few minutes. That was the beginning of our enduring friendship which still continues. The Balaji couple and this Bong pair did everything possible to make me comfortable in unfamiliar terrain. But, as all good things in life have an expiry date; my days of relaxed living at Balaji's place came to an end.
Soon, the small studio apartment near the University campus became my habitat, and no time was lost in setting up a functional kitchen. My new found friends, by now, had discovered my love for fish, and the distance I can travel to fish even in troubled waters.
"Kalyan, there is a fish stall near 110th Street and Broadway, but don't expect to find all the varieties you get in Kolkata. You can try a fish called Carp - very similar to our
Rui Maach"- Jayati enlightened me. The following weekend, with all the enthusiasm and gusto I located the stall. And lo and behold, there was the Carp fish shining in one corner. My joy knew no bounds at the sight of so many varieties of fish, and my mind got busy planning the delectables that I would prepare.
At $ 1.99 a pound, the four pound Carp looked quite appealing. Without batting an eyelid, the man at the back-end was busy cleaning and making pieces with a sharp gadget and with robotic precision. He was so focussed on making pieces that even Grandmasters playing chess would be jealous of his concentration. As luck would have it, the south Asian national could not speak English and was communicating in sign language, if needed.
When my turn came, in my unshakable love of fish, I wanted him to cut the Carp in traditional Bengali style while pointing my fingers on the fish and giving him instructions accordingly. All this happened in microseconds, and I almost lost all my fingers in my quest for authentic 'Bengali style fish pieces'. His sharp implement just stopped short of detaching my fingers over the fish.
Sweating profusely in the air-conditioned stall for the next few minutes, I slowly regained my composure.
Back in my apartment that evening we had a fish filled dinner in the company of Balaji, Moon, Priya and Jayati.
My friends were numbed on hearing what happened earlier in the day. The finger threatening episode could not diminish my spirit, and my love for all things fish still continues.
Even though I recovered from the shock soon, the episode recurred in my dreams a few times through the weeks that followed.
When I narrated the incident over the phone, my 'very special someone' back home advised me to henceforth refrain from pointing fingers!
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