Friday, November 06, 2015

Setopati: Gasoline by Sushma Joshi

  Published in Setopati on: Wednesday, November 04, 2015 10:24:35  
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It was going to be a nice, relaxed baby shower video shoot in Edison, NJ. I was the videographer. Sammy, originally from South India, was the photographer.
Before we drove off, the driver of the rented van, a small, stocky man with an abrupt way of talking, asked Sammy: "Now did you forget anything? Cameras? Directions? Cellphone?" The man was organized, I could tell at first glance.
"I got everything," Sammy mumbled.
"Per-fact directions? Per-fact directions? It has to be per-fact, otherwise we waste lod-of time."
As we cruised down Queens, I asked the driver, "Are you a Sai Bhakta?" A small picture of Shriddi Baba, the previous incarnation of Sai Baba, was on one of the cupholders. Sai Baba, afro-haired guru of the Indian subcontinent, has millions of followers who believe he can perform miracles.
"My wife. She believe too much. Every year, she go to see him. She takes a flight from New York to India and then goes by train and car to his place. Every year."
"Why does she believe too much?" 
"Because she always get what she ask for. She pray, and then she get all she asks."
I had read about this wish-fulfillment factor of Sai Baba worship. When I had been nine, my great-aunt had come back with a richly illustrated book that showed in great detail how devotees always found their lost suitcases and recovered from polio when they followed him.
"Which wishes did she get fulfilled?" I asked. I wanted the nitty-gritty. Did she wish for cauliflower curry for dinner, or were her wishes more high maintenance?
"She want a son, because we had two daughters only, and it was granted. So now she give ten percent of all we earn to poor people. She sent it to her sister in India to distribute so that all our wishes will be fulfilled."
I was disappointed. Same-old, same-old subcontinental obsession. I had hoped the wife had asked for something more extravagant. At the very least, I wanted a couple of miracles - healing of blindness, parting of rivers and oceans, multiplying fishes, that kind of stuff. Something other than a baby with a penis.
The driver, it turned out, was an accountant in 7-11 during the weekdays. I wondered why he was freelancing as a chauffeur during the weekends if he was already a corporate money machine.
As we drove by Long Island City, he gave us a tour in his dry, precise voice: "This here is the warehouse of Bloomingdales. This big building, all six floors, is Macy's. That is the warehouse of LIRR." The whole industrial derelictness suddenly took on the delicious underhand flavor of insider knowledge.
Soon we were in midtown Manhattan.
"My company rents a store in the Empire State Building. The rent is $90,000 a month," the driver said.
"Monthly rent, or annual rent?"
"But its okay, we make $100,000 in one day."
More fascinating stuff flowed out of him. There was a man from B and H photo store who spent $40,000 on lottery tickets every month. He wired over the money straight to the lottery store's account. The Empire State Building, with 103 floors, was the second largest in the country - the Sears building in Chicago, with 108, was the first. Macy was the biggest retail store in the world, with six floors - except they had to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy over their store on Queens Plaza because there were no customers.
Sammy, who was from Gujarat, started to talk to the driver in rapid-fire Gujarati. The syllables, rock-hard, rolled round every other line, but I could still understand fragments of it.
"Are you also from Gujarat?" I ask the driver.
"Gujurat, from Baroda," he replies. Both of his daughters are going through medical school. His sister's daughter just graduated from law school. "She make $150,000 straight out of school," he says. "Lod-of money."
"Lod-of money straight out of school," I agreed. Sammy, who had confided in me that his daughters would be married after high school, looked discomfited.
As we got to Edison, it transpired that Sammy didn't have per-fact directions. The highways soon turned into narrow cul-de-sacs and dead ends, and we spent a fruitless hour leaving messages for the man arranging the party.
"We will ask directions at Royal Al-bart Hall," said the driver. "It is owned by the Indian man. Everything here is owned by Indian people - Dunkin' Donuts is owned by Indian. Seven Eleven is owned by Indian."
Finally, we turned down the driveway into a large, white mansion-like building that had little sugar-icing, Islamic turret-like structures at the top. The glitter-from-99-cent-store look predominated. There was a gigantic black statue of an Indian man in traditional outfit in the front.
"Royal Al-bart Hall," the driver said impressively. "Million dollars to build. It is possible to hold five-six weddings in the same place. There are many halls here." He was clearly pleased at the bigness of the ambitiously titled Royal Albert enterprise.
The two men stood in front of the massive statue of the benign man in his Indian outfit and asked me to take their photograph. I framed them carefully, and hit the shutter. "Now your picture," Sammy insisted. I declined politely. Indian nationalism, especially of the large and expansive variety, is something that Nepalis always try to steer clear of.
We drove up to the entrance, where a wooden gateway decorated with flowers stood. Hundreds of men and women in elaborate outfits walked in and out. Inside the massive hall, a bride and groom covered with gold jewelry on a brightly decorated dais were being shot by a videographer and ten photographers. A thousand relatives sat back and fanned themselves, watching the proceedings with genteel tedium. The children ran around, screaming and chasing each other with manic energy. Sammy tried to get directions from the wedding videographer, unsuccessfully. The man, absorbed in catching every moment, glared at this interruption and shrugged Sammy off like an irritating bug.
I went to wait in the car. "Whose statue is this?" I asked.
"Sardar svdhvrddddmnmv Patel," the driver answered.
"Sardar who Patel?"
"Sardar svdhvrmnmvvrddd Patel."
"What did he do, Sardar Patel?"
"He was one of the great leaders. He did good things for our country."
"I've never heard of him," I say, ashamed of my lack of historical knowledge.
"Oh," he says disapprovingly. "He provided a solution for the Hindu-Muslim problem. Whenever there is problem with Hindu-Muslim, he provided answer."
Was Sardar Patel some sort of Gandhian figure? I cursed my Nepali education which had given me zero knowledge about our neighbours’ histories.
"When Hindu-Muslim fight starts, he get really fed up and said this time I am going to take care of it. So he go to the bazzar, and he says to people he will bring water to put out the fires. He come back and people think he bring water." Here he pauses and looks at me consideringly. "But he bring gasoline."
Oh, I say, stymied. Was this supposed to be some aphoric morality tale, some metaphor of explosion awaiting society? Was Sardar Patel going to demonstrate, like some wily fox in the Panchatantra, the literal quality of infernos that could destroy the fabric of society in order to knock sense into his followers?
"So he tried to negotiate peace by bringing gasoline…?"
"He said we have to deal with the Muslim problem once and for all. He said they cannot do bad things like take down temples and build mosques in their place. They are minorities, they cannot do what they want."
My instantaneous thought - but it’s the Hindus who are trying to demolish the mosques these days, not the other way around. Aurangazeb the temple-destroyer lived and died centuries ago - is left unsaid. The man, who had seemed eminently reasonable only a couple of minutes ago, suddenly took on the aspect of a caged tiger, somebody I would have to walk around carefully, offering no sudden movements. This was not the interfaith loving Sai Bhakta I had been imagining. This was the tip of the Gujarat inferno that killed hundred of Muslim men, women and children. The Gujarat massacre had been coolly calculated and pre-planned with cellphones, computer print-outs of Muslim houses and businesses, and SUVs. They had had per-fact directions. They had not wasted any time.
"Oh," I reply, unable to respond. My very silence seemed to communicate my sadness. For the first time he lost his numerical, factual calm.
"Muslims are minority, their leaders lead them, but their leaders are bad anyway," he said. "Sardar Patel told them they have to agree, or else they would be taken care of." Had George W. Bush had gotten his "if you're not with us, you're with them" ideology from Sardar Patel?
"India is a country for Hindus, for all people. But Muslims are minority, they cannot go around doing what they want."
As a Nepali, I was in a minority myself. Since the rights of minorities was being articulated with such unambiguous generosity, I kept my mouth shut. The silence lengthened. The tension in the car became taut.
"A lot of Nepali people come to Baroda to do business," he said abruptly. He had made the same minority connections between Muslims and Nepalis that I had done in my head. Being disagreeable, meat-eating Hindus apparently didn't win any brownie points. "They sell sweater in wintertime."
"Oh really?" I say brightly, as if I am oblivious to the fact that this has been couched as a grievance. I don't want to hear his opinions on one more minority. "What is that store over there? I've always wondered."
The conversation successfully deflected but not resolved, we drive down in crackling, electrical silence to the baby shower. On the way, we stopped for some gasoline at a gas station. "Fill up the tank," he said. When the gas station man, who sounded like an Arab, took out the pipe without filling it up, the driver told him in a dismissive and rude tone, "The tank fills up automatically, then it stops. You don't know?" The gas station attendant shrugged at this accusation of ignorance. It looked like his first day at work.
"Building number Tir-ple Five?" Sammy asked as the cellphone rang. The baby shower we were contracted to film was being held in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Everybody was lavishly dressed, and a preponderance of gold jewelry was in evidence - the Gujarati community, with prolific business links, tends to be affluent amongst Indians. As I walked around, I wondered how many of these gentle, vegetarian folks held the same views that the driver had expressed, and how many of them, if asked with enough conviction, would send back money to buy that gasoline.
(This piece was written in 2002 while the author was a graduate student in New York)
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