Mrs Sen & Mr Chen
Two strangers meet in a foreign land. What bond connects them?
Returning to the living room, where a paperback novel lying open on the lime green sofa awaited her attention, Gita Sen put her teacup down and walked up to the window. The sunlight, so radiant and welcome in the morning, felt like an overstaying guest now, making it hard to read. Adjusting the blinds, Gita was surprised to see a police cruiser idling near Wok Man. Hadn’t she seen the same car pulling away from the curb about twenty minutes ago?
What was going on?
Gita had spoken to the owner of the Chinese takeout restaurant once, briefly, when she was walking past it on her way to the supermarket. On one occasion, when her daughter was picking up food, she’d overheard him introduce himself as Peter Chen, though she didn’t know if ‘Peter’ was his real name. The modest restaurant, whose amber sign was visible at night from Monica’s third-floor apartment, was part of a shopping plaza that had only a few stores, which included a hair salon and a phone repair shop besides the huge supermarket.
“Are you Mrs. Sen?” the smiling man on the sidewalk had said, lowering his cell phone.
Startled, Gita stopped and took a closer look at him. Leaning against the wall, he was right by the entrance to Wok Man. Despite his grey-streaked hair and a lined face that implied years of toil in the restaurant business, she suspected he was younger than her. His eyes—bright, attentive—were on her, and just by looking at him she could tell that customers were drawn to the restaurant by his easy manner, not just the food. His long sideburns, narrow at the top but flared at the bottom, added a jaunty touch. Appropriate for the owner of Wok Man, a name that made her smile. Monica had already said the restaurant was popular.
“Yes, I’m Gita Sen,” she said. “How did you know?”
He chuckled. “I’ve seen you walking with your daughter. She used to pick up food from here. I’m Peter Chen, by the way. Nomoskar.”
“Nomoskar. That’s nice! You know the language—”
“Not really,” he said with a grin. “I picked up phrases, although I’ve forgotten most of them. My parents used to operate a well-known restaurant in Calcutta, but they had to shut it down. This happened a long time ago, even before I was born. Are you visiting?”
“Yes, I came from Kolkata. Were you born in Kol . . . Calcutta?”
“No, I wasn’t born there,” he simply said.
She waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. And curiously, he seemed comfortable with the silence that followed. This evasiveness, which she found a little jarring, clashed with the first impression she’d formed of him as a jovial restaurateur. Perhaps he had his reasons.
“My daughter is a student at the university here,” Gita said.
“I know. She’s working on her doctorate, isn’t she? Smart.” Then, as if suddenly aware that he was being coy, he added, “I came from Hong Kong, but I’ve been here for years.”
After cordial goodbyes, Gita kept walking until she reached the supermarket entrance, where she pulled out her mask and picked up a shopping basket. Monica, who was doing biochemistry, avoided the restaurant, Gita suspected, because a fellow student she’d been dating was a big fan of Chinese food and they used to order food from Wok Man. While Monica hadn’t talked about it, Gita knew she was still trying to get over the breakup.
The store was big; in fact, it was bigger—bewilderingly, at first—than any other store she’d shopped in before coming to this country. It had been overwhelming, despite the clearly labelled aisles, but now she could easily find her way about without looking at the signs. As usual, she gravitated towards the fruits and vegetables first. For Gita, multiple trips to this supermarket—the public library was the only other place within walking distance—hadn’t diminished the pleasure of bagging fresh, blemish-free produce. True, in her hometown these days, one could go to similar supermarkets, as some of the residents in her building did. The area where she lived in Kolkata was gentrifying, becoming a magnet for young tech-savvy cosmopolites who were drawn by the newer apartment buildings and stores.
Back home, though, Gita stuck to her old ways. Heading to the noisy, chaotic open-air market, she haggled with veteran hawkers, who protested and joked with her before agreeing to lower the price of their produce, which they then placed in her bag or wrapped in an old newspaper. This was the real Farmers Market, not the ethnic Farmers Market Monica had taken her to here on a couple of occasions. That ethnic store had seemed like any other supermarket, albeit with a more international flavour. But Monica had assured her that there were open-air markets here as well, with local cultivators selling fresh produce and other stuff on weekends.
In Gita’s apartment building, where she’d lived for years, a young woman on her floor had been especially sweet and solicitous, frequently asking her if she needed anything from the fancy new hypermarket she liked to frequent. One day, breathless with excitement, she’d said, “Auntie, you can get broccoli here now, and it’s not frozen! Do you want some?”
Of course, knowing that Monica was studying abroad, she’d assumed Gita would be familiar with broccoli. But Gita hadn’t seen broccoli, let alone eaten it, until she visited Monica. And now here she was in this supermarket, picking up green broccoli stalks from a bin not far from a cool spray. She’d cook it with spices—Monica had steamed it last time—and they’d have it for dinner along with the tilapia that Gita was going to prepare in mustard sauce.
Returning to Monica’s apartment, Gita made herself a cup of strong tea and began cooking. Turning on the exhaust fan above the stove, she kept it on high speed despite the noise. Cooking smells could be distasteful to some people, her daughter had warned her, and draw complaints from residents who weren’t used to spicy food.
The brick-coloured building—with spacious, well-maintained apartments and up-to-date appliances—was impressive, but she found it unnaturally quiet, as if many units were vacant. What a contrast to the nonstop activity in her building back home! True, the noise could be too much, but she could handle that better than this eerie silence. Especially after her husband’s death, less than two years ago, Gita had welcomed the constant busyness of her Kolkata apartment building. She was never alone, it seemed, and she liked that feeling.
Here, though, Monica was at peace and seemed to relish the silence and privacy.
“They’re just quiet, Ma . . . it has little to do with vacancies,” she’d said.
Waking with a start, Gita looked groggily at her novel on the floor and realized that the tea hadn’t prevented her from dozing off. The light had softened, cooling the room. She could look forward to the favourite part of the day, but there would be no walk today. Monica had assured her she’d be home early when Gita told her that she was cooking. They’d chat and, following dinner, watch a movie or a show on one of the streaming channels.
Gita, rising, went up to the window and opened the blinds fully to let in more of the diffuse light. And then, in shock, she stood still. A black-and-white police cruiser, its blue lights flashing, was pulling away from the curb near Wok Man. The siren wasn’t on. Picking up her phone, she speed-dialled Monica, her hand shaking a little.
“Monica, I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I keep seeing a police car near the Chinese restaurant. Could it be a robbery? Hope it’s not bad. The siren didn’t come on.”
“Ma, calm down . . . you’re breathless. You’re talking too fast. If you saw the police car at different times, and there was no siren, you don’t have to worry. Nothing happened.”
“I don’t understand—”
Monica laughed. “I should have told you that there’s a police station close by. Apparently, the officers love Wok Man’s food. I’ve also seen them picking up their orders.”
“Really?” Gita was amazed. “But why did I see the flashing blue lights?”
“You saw the lights only once, right?” Monica said. “It’s possible that a call came through. The officer wouldn’t have left if there was a problem at the restaurant.”
“You’re right,” Gita said, relieved, and was pleased when Monica confirmed that she’d be coming home early.
The next day was Saturday, which meant that Gita would get to spend more time with her daughter as she did her errands and drove her used car—a silver metallic Toyota Corolla—for their short road trips, though they still avoided crowded touristy spots.
“So, what should we pick up, Ma . . . for dinner, I mean?” Monica said.
As daylight dimmed and the headlights of vehicles came on, they were driving back from a store where Gita had been able to buy small gifts for friends and relatives back home. When they went out, it was usually Monica who decided what they were going to eat. Gita’s exposure to other cultures and their food was limited. While she missed her fish and vegetables with steamed rice if they didn’t have it for a couple of days, Monica could go for days and days without craving the food she’d grown up with, as if her upbringing had been cosmopolitan and she’d travelled widely as a child, sampling various cuisines.
“How about Chinese?” Gita said. “Do you want to pick up from Wok Man?”
“Sure, Ma, it’s been a while. I’ll stop somewhere and order on the phone. That name reminds me of the Walkman I had as a child. Remember?”
“Of course, Monica. You used to listen to it constantly. Once Baba threatened to confiscate it when you disobeyed him. I still have it, though it no longer works.”
“Wow, it’s so old! You kept it, Ma? Why?”
“Why not? It’s a reminder of your childhood. A memento.”
Almost thirty minutes after placing the order, Monica pulled up outside Wok Man and stepped out of the car. When she opened the door, a pungent and pleasingly familiar aroma wafted from the restaurant. Gita, who remained in the car, could briefly see a glass shield, behind which a woman was using the cash register. A few people were standing about, waiting for their orders, but there was no sign of Peter Chen, who was probably in the kitchen, Gita thought, busy working with his small staff to get the dishes ready.
Monica returned with a brown bag containing their order: hot and sour soup; braised eggplant and green beans with tofu and chili-garlic sauce; salted fish and chicken fried rice. Also included, surprising them, were two complimentary spring rolls and duck sauce.
Eating the delicious food, Gita could see why it was a hit with the police officers. The Chinese cuisine here was customized for the local palate, Monica had told her, giving rise to menu items like Kung Pao shrimp and General Tso’s chicken. The same thing happened back home, where Gita’s young neighbours relished items such as Manchow soup, Gobi Manchurian and Chili chicken, which they picked up from the Chinese restaurant down the street.
The weekend passed too fast for Gita, and though she didn’t say anything on Monday morning as Monica was getting ready, the thought of being alone in the apartment for several hours filled her with dread. The novelty of her surroundings had worn off. Gita couldn’t go far anyway, and she’d declined Monica’s offer to drop her somewhere or take her to the university, which she’d already seen. Gita wasn’t adventurous, unlike her late husband or Monica, and she had no interest in hiring a cab or using a ridesharing service. Where would she go alone? Having already visited her relatives with Monica, she had no desire to go again to their distant suburb, where they clustered with other diasporic families in a well-manicured subdivision.
In retrospect, the timing of Gita’s visit was off, but Monica had persuaded her to come, saying that now was better than after she received her degree.
“Who knows where I’ll end up, Ma,” she’d said. “Please come before I’m done here.”
After Monica left earlier than usual for her department meeting, Gita made a cup of tea and headed to the living room. Feeling the warmth of the sun on opening the blinds, she thought a walk now would be appropriate. But how many more times was she going to stroll in the same neighbourhood? Or walk to the shopping plaza, where the supermarket had become so familiar that some employees smiled or greeted her when she entered? She was a regular, and evidently a foreign visitor who couldn’t drive or didn’t have a car.
And then she saw it again, to her astonishment. A police cruiser! It was idling in the same spot, though Wok Man was closed and there were no other cars in the vicinity. Had Peter parked his car in the back? Was he even in yet? Still gawking at the cruiser as she gulped down her tea, she waited for somebody to emerge from the restaurant. Something was off, surely, unless Peter had decided to open the restaurant very early. How strange, if true! Losing her patience, Gita put her cup down and hurried to the bedroom to change.