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We arrive at peak dinner time

June 20, 2011

[Excerpt from a yet-unfinished short story I wrote some months ago. Inspired by night out on my birthday and a Christmas dinner years ago at the same place with an Indian friend and a white friend.]

We arrive at peak dinner time. The restaurant is half full and the host seats us immediately. Menus are handed to us.

Well-built and often good-looking south Indian men serve as waiters. They are deferential, take the customer’s menu selections seriously and serve promptly. If the guests utter a slip of Malayalam, it is politely ignored – the replies are always in English. Conversations with waiters are mostly un-necessary, however, so this off-balanced linguistic quirk is not noticed by most. They wear green shirts and white mundu — marketing their authenticity.

There is classic flute music in the background that lets you imagine yourself surrounded by kathakali dancers and elephants if you wish. The music is deliberately toneless and forgettable so that the unpleasantness of acquainting oneself with unfamiliar musical choices can be avoided. Large, fake palm trees line the periphery of the dining room and sometimes emerge from the center of the tables. You are in the middle of a forest in Kerala! – without the pesky darkness, animals, or insects. If Malayalis take offense or find a slight at such opulently bland expressions of their culture, well then – they are simply un-acquainted with fine dining.

Guests trickle in at an even rate. Many of them are white. Quite a few of the Indians flow their speech between Malayalam and English. A couple of the women are dressed in glittering, heavily embroidered saris and look ready to wander into a wedding hall. None of the white people are dressed up.

It might be noticed that the white people are being served faster. If these moments are mentioned, the naiveté behind these observations seems laughable, even embarrassing. Please, this is not the place or the time for high-minded righteous-ness. There’s food on banana leaves to be eaten with silver forks.

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