The American dream
When you reach the well of eternal bliss, you will hear a voice, sweet and melodious. Somebody calling your name; like an intimate whisper.
But never look back, never. The moment you do, you will turn into stone.
We all hear this warning but we do look back. And we do not even turn into stone, we split into two. This is far more painful than turning into stone. One piece drags us to the well and the other pulls back to the past.
KK, one of these split-souls, entered the tavern, holding a bottle of single malt. Part of it already consumed.
“Learn to love your drink. Do not just consume it. Hold the bottle for a while. Stroke it. Kiss it. Hug it. And then pour it, slowly, ever so slowly,” he said.
“Admire the incredible colour and delicate flavour of the single malt. Then put it to your lips. Take a sip. Feel it on your lips and then let it go down into your mouth, stroking its walls before it reaches your throat.”
As he opened the bottle, some hands stretched out. Others just smiled and continued to sip their coffee.
“Feel its natural smoothness before you drink it. See, how alive it is, how tender. If you treat it nicely, it will never hurt you. Never gulp it down. It is insulting,” said KK as he poured the golden liquid into eager glasses.
“Where is her home? Where does the desire of my heart live?” asked the traveller.
“You see those mountains at the end of this desert? Go there,” said the old vulture perched on a rock while looking at the traveller’s torn shoes and scorched feet.
“There you will see a huge tree, the only tree in this barren land. It is the tree of desires. Pluck a leaf off this tree and it will tell you where to go.”
“You know what’s the problem with you desis (South Asians)? You cannot hold your drinks,” said KK as he raised his glass to cheer.
“Yes, look at this gora (a white man),” said Dev, “he is darker than most of us.”
KK, who never tells his full name, heard Dev. “It is not about the colour of your skin. It is about your manners,” he said.
“That’s right and you are the custodian of the white man’s burden,” Dev retorted as other members of the Alif Laila Tavern group laughed.
KK ignored them. He always does. Says what he wants to, whether others pay attention or not, and moves ahead.
“Who are you?” asked the traveller.
“I am a waiter. I wait,” said the vulture.
“Wait for what?” asked the traveller.
“Wait for travellers like you to fall,” said the vulture.
“O where, where is the object of my desire,” the traveller said to himself and moved on.
“Remember, what you were told when you began the journey. Never look back,” the vulture shouted, “keep moving.”
“Only if they knew there is no destination, no well, and no beloved. It is an unending journey,” whispered the wind.
“No, no, the journey ends. It always does. They all fall, one by one. And I have to clean up after them,” said the vulture.
KK works at a 7-Eleven shop. Is single. Lives in a studio apartment. And drives an old car.
Dev is a software engineer. Married. Lives in a single-family home. Drives a new Mercedes.
Both are from Indian Punjab and both live in Northern Virginia. Dev is from old Amritsar. His father is a shopkeeper. His family in India lives comfortably but is not rich. And Dev says so.
KK says he is from Chandigarh, a beautiful, modern city in northern India that serves as the capital of two states, Haryana and Punjab. He claims his father was a senior government official. They lived in a big bungalow and had an imported car, “not a local concoction.”
The traveller reached the tree of desires and plucked a leaf. Then he plucked another, and another and another. They all had the same message: “Look to your left or right, on both sides you will see a maze. Both equally difficult, you have to cross one to get further instructions.”
“Is there a clue?” the traveller asked the tree.
“Yes, there is,” said the tree, “follow your passion.”
Dev, who claims that he once went to Chandigarh just to check KK’s background, says KK lies. His father was a retired clerk and the family lived in a small, government quarter. After retirement, KK’s father moved back to his village in Punjab.
But nobody minds KK’s lies or appreciates Dev’s truthfulness. Both are common among the desis in North America.
Those still struggling; do glorify their past. And those who are successful do emphasise their humble background to underline their success.
The tavern group includes both. We have a successful builder, who built himself a palatial home from the money he saved from rebuilding rundown houses in a poor Washington neighbourhood.
You can always make him buy you lunch if you agree to listen to his story: how a kid of a humble Indian background became one of the top builders in America.
Although he is nowhere near the top, do not tell him so. If you do, you will have to pay for the lunch.
There is a restaurant owner, who pockets the tip his guests leave for the waiters, but he never tires of telling his friends how generous he is.
And there is Sheeda who works all night at a gas station, earning seven dollars per hour, but always tries to pay for everybody on the table.
“We had a large kitchen back home,” he says, “and had dozens of guests every night. Now I work at a gas station so people call me Sheeda. Back home, they called me Mr Rasheed.”
KK too belongs to Sheeda’s group. Both does what’s called the “graveyard shift” in America, from 6 pm to 6 am And then they spend another hour, for which they are not paid, handing over charge to the next beast of burden.
KK comes to the tavern once a month after he has saved enough to buy a bottle of single malt whiskey. Sheeda comes twice a month. He does not drink but he does bring a hookah with him, which he shares with whoever is interested.
The traveller entered the maze. It was difficult but not complicated. It needed brawn not brain. Most obstacles had to be physically removed. There were little monsters and bandits too. He had to fight them off to cross over to the other side.
But he came out of the maze in one piece, although badly bruised, more internally than externally. And his passion guided him as the vulture had suggested.
As he came out, he met an old wizard who put some cash on his hands and said: “You worked hard but since you did not have the magic green leaf, you will only be paid half.”
“I do now, don’t I?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the wizard, “from now on you will be paid better.”
“And where is the object of my desire?” the traveller asked.
“Ah, the object, my dear, the object,” said the wizard. “We are all subjective. There is no objectivity in this world.”
“Is this the new instruction for me?” the traveller asked.
The wizard nodded and asked him to move ahead.
The traveller was not sure if he understood the new message. But he had to move on.
“In India, we say when Krishna blows the flute, you have to follow. And that’s how we are scattered all over the globe,” said KK.
“Yes, the call, the eternal call” said Sheeda, “but what is the message?”
“I do not know the message but I know the call makes us all restless. We cannot resist it. So we have to move,” said KK.
“There is nothing eternal or divine about this call,” said the man everybody called Mr Socialist because of his views. “It’s our economic needs that force us to leave our homes.”
“It is more than that,” said Zamray, an Afghan. “War, suppression, political instability, religious conflicts and ethnic killings force people out too.”
“And the West has its own attraction,” Dev added.
“But remember, the vulture will get you before you reach the well of eternal bliss or the object of your desire,” warned Zamray.