Pramod Paanwalla's Predicament

by Sunil Hariani

Pramod Paanwalla lived a life of reds. His cheeks were red, his wife Urmila's cheeks were red, the Christmas lights outside his restaurant, Bombay Palace, were red, and the incubator of Urmila's culinary productions, an imported tandoori clay oven, was red inside. Of course, one could also say Pramod Paanwalla lived a life of plumps. His cheeks were plump, his wife's cheeks were plump, the Hindu god Ganesh outside his restaurant was plump, and the chickens they cooked were plump.

Six days a week, Pramod stood outside his restaurant on First Avenue and bellowed "Best Indian food in city" to lure customers past the row of Indian restaurants around the corner on Sixth Street. Urmila directed kitchen operations and Ranjit Paanwalla, Pramod's stick figure second cousin through their paternal great-grandfather, waited on and bused tables. They worked from 11a.m. until 3p.m., then again from 5p.m. until midnight. On Mondays they took the day off. Pramod and Urmila visited the temple, talked to relatives in India, went shopping at the Indian supermarket not far from their home in Queens, then ordered pizza with hot peppers for dinner. The latest Hindi film songs played in the background while they both raced through slices until reaching a climactic burp. "Kya baat hai," Pramod would then say in Hindi. That's living.

After dinner Ranjit came over and the three of them settled in front of Pramod's prime financial investment, a sixty-inch TV, to watch the latest Hindi movies on DVD.

Life was satisfying overall for Pramod and Urmila, though their ten year pursuit of the American dream had supplanted their pursuit of the Indian ideal of parenthood prior to their thirties. Accordingly, Urmila implemented a schedule of "hanky panky" for Mondays, their day off, Tuesdays because it was the least busy, and Thursdays because they had thirty minutes to kill when "Eye on Asia" came on between the two Indian feature films. Pramod loved his wife deeply, though as the Hindi films began to emphasize petite, shapely heroines in skimpier Indian clothing, he began to secretly fantasize during their scheduled sessions that Urmila's rotund body was really two women, the actresses Raveena Tandon and Karishma Kapoor.

Ranjit, meanwhile, lived a life of austerity. Despite Pramod's efforts to help Ranjit assimilate, Ranjit worked in the restaurant silently, read Indian newspapers by himself in a tank top undershirt in his studio apartment in Queens, and watched the movies in Pramod's basement without smiling once. He quietly attended cricket match viewings at Pramod's best friend Jeetendra's house, imagining exclamations of "Shot!" and "Wicket down!" by his best friend, Pramod's brother Lakshman. Growing up in Bombay, Lakshman had called on Ranjit almost every day, entertaining him with stories about intimacies with girls and about cheating at school. Once they graduated from college, Lakshman took him to movie premieres, soccer matches, and ocean-side loitering grounds. It was ironic that Pramod had planned to sponsor Lakshman for a green card, but when Lakshman decided he didn't want to emigrate, Ranjit's parents arranged for Ranjit to come instead. Pramod thought that once he arranged Ranjit's marriage to Jeetendra's daughter, Vaishali, Ranjit would open up.

So it was a great surprise when Ranjit told Pramod on a Friday at 11:30a.m., exactly three years from the date Ranjit emigrated to America, twenty-one minutes since he had hung a strip of green Christmas lights to replace the strip of red lights that had burned out, and eleven minutes since Ranjit had last cleaned his ear with his pinky, "You need to find someone else to work, I don't work here no more."

Pramod harumphed, and Ranjit repeated himself. Pramod stopped adding the checks from the night before. "What? What sssi-lly you're talking. Wadisthe ppprrro-blem, yaar?" Pramod asked. He spoke rapidly, gutturally swallowing words and decelerating on the first syllable of focal words.

"I'm tired of working," Ranjit said while wiping the cutlery dry. He looked down to hide the refraction of his frown into a lesser frown.

Pramod started laughing. "We all tired, but how you gonna eat without working?"

"I have ideas," Ranjit said as he recalled percolating in the hookah smoke haze of Haribhai Vaswani's office two months earlier, flanked by two bodyguards. Haribhai owned an appliance store on 74th Street in Jackson Heights, but was rumored to be a money launderer and immigrant smuggler. Ranjit had overheard several restaurant owners discussing the receipt of loans from Haribhai, inspiring Ranjit to deliver his own proposal to the appliance store clerk.

One week later, he stood in front of Haribhai's desk in the office above the store as Haribhai took a drag with his frog lips on the hookah tube. Haribhai bounced his head in thought, examining the letter. "Twenty-five thousand." His goondas had already verified Ranjit's standing in the community, but he enjoyed the deliberation. He leaned his portly frame back into his leather chair and simultaneously exhaled smoke and the phrase, "Twenty-five percent." Ranjit nodded and was quickly escorted to an adjoining room where he received a check and a lesson on the relationship between missed payments and broken limbs. He had signed the loan documents without reading them.

"No, I don't want to work anymore," Ranjit said.

"What you gonna do?" Pramod asked.

"Something, we'll see."

"New restaurant opening next week right here, what I'm gonna do?" Pramod motioned with his left hand towards the left wall of his restaurant, from which he had heard the thumps and drilling of renovations for the past month.

Ranjit shrugged his shoulders. "Lots of boys looking for jobs."

"How I'm gonna marry you if you don't have job?" Pramod asked with a smirk. Heh, quit working. He would pretend he didn't need Ranjit's help when he came back after a day or two.

Ranjit flared his nostrils, pinched the locket with the picture of Ganesh around his neck and said, "God will look after me," a translation of his thought, "God is saving me from being crushed by the fat woman you want to be my wife."

Pramod explained Ranjit's whimsy to Urmila that night, assuring her that Ranjit would be back in a few days. Pramod couldn't find another waiter by Tuesday, so he handled the customers himself. He was delivering food to a table near his storefront window when he saw Ranjit outside talking to pedestrians. He walked outside and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Already you want job back?"

Ranjit turned away from a couple he was talking to. "Aare, don't disturb my customers."

The pink glow on Ranjit's face diverted Pramod's attention to a bright pink neon sign in the storefront behind him. It said "Bombay Mahal," or in English, "Bombay Palace," the same as Pramod's restaurant.

"Your customers? Bloody bbbba-stard! You open this restaurant? I'll twist the ears off your head!" Pramod thundered, his anger bringing clarity to his enunciation. Pramod ran back into his restaurant and stormed into the kitchen. He explained the situation to Urmila, forty-eight strands of Brylcreemed hair dancing into his face.

"Sala chor ka bachcha," Urmila cursed, waving her chef's knife as she cut onions.

"Who gave him green card?" he asked.

"You did. YOU did," Urmila answered, pointing the knife at Pramod.

"Who gave him job?" he asked.

"You did! You did!" she affirmed.

"He shot a poison arrow through my heart," Pramod concluded, remembering the moment in the movie Hera Pheri when Vinod Khanna betrayed Amitabh Bachchan after Amitabh had saved his life.

Pramod summarized the tragic tale for customers while observing Ranjit outside stealing potential customers. When Pramod finally closed up and entered Bombay Mahal to speak to Ranjit, Ranjit had already left for his apartment. Pramod's calls to Ranjit's apartment kept going to the answering machine. How did Ranjit have enough money to start a restaurant? Who were his cooks and staff? How long had Ranjit been planning on competing with him? Did Ranjit's parents know how ungrateful, shameless, and treacherous he was? Pramod tried to accost Ranjit at the Bombay Mahal the next day, but a short mustached man named Sudhir kept intercepting him at the door and saying that Ranjit wasn't there.

Ranjit was hiding in the back. Pramod had never bothered to ask him what he thought before, why should he tell him anything now?

Once Ranjit emerged to solicit customers in the evening, Pramod settled on a new strategy. He doled a heap of pureed palak from the tub in the refrigerator into a large bowl. Then he climbed to the roof of his building and propelled handfuls of spinach at the back of Ranjit's head. Ranjit pointed to Pramod with the upturned palm of his right hand, then scampered into his restaurant.

Fifteen minutes later, a male police officer entered Pramod's restaurant. "Sir, the man next door says you were throwing food at him from the roof of your building."

"I don't throw nothing," Pramod said.

The officer paused to look at Pramod carefully. "There's spinach on the sidewalk. I don't know what happened, but don't make me come out again."

Pramod vented to Urmila after work in their incense-scented Toyota Corolla.

"This thing must be dealt. I teach Ranjit a lesson. I am the one who succeed for eight years! I am the one who knows how to run restaurant." He paused as he parked on the street in front of their small redbrick Queens house. "I will find new boy to look after the customer. I put more red lights. People see that my restaurant is like the restaurants for kings." Urmila listened silently and followed him into their bedroom. He began pacing between their shrine to Ganesh and their poster of film star Shahrukh Khan. Urmila took off her sari, lay down in bed and waited for Pramod to join her.

"Champu, it is Thursday," she said.

"Yes, already a long week," he responded as he continued pacing.

"No... Tuesday we missed, tonight we don't miss."

Pramod had only agreed to try and have a baby after Lakshman questioned his manhood. He looked up. "Oh! You want... How I hanky-panky when I thinking of beating sala?"

"You work hard all day, you relax now."

"How I relax? My business don't stop because doors are closed," he said.

"So we'll never have a baby? My friends will always make fun because I don't have baby and I'm thirty-three years old?" she asked.

"We have time after I finish him."

"You're not going to finish him in one day. People only going to his restaurant because it's new," she said.

"No, I finish him."

"Why you need to finish him? He's your cousin. You talk to him and fix it," she said.

"I don't talk to bastard!"

"Then you ask Vallabh-bhai to talk to him." Vallabh-bhai was the seventy-four year old sage of the community.

"No. I don't involve him in family business."

"You stubborn. Ek dum stubborn!" She remembered when she and Pramod were children living in adjacent apartments in Bombay. He used to run away from the neighborhood game of marbles every time he thought someone was cheating. She remembered how, after her parents forced her into an arranged marriage at age twenty to another man, Pramod refused to have his marriage arranged because he was in love with her. After her first husband died from hepatitis, Pramod told her that a relative was sponsoring his move to America and asked her to marry him and come along. Despite the reprisals from her family and in-laws, she agreed. She softened her face. "If we already had a child, they would help now at the restaurant."

Pramod pressed his cheeks between his left thumb and left hand fingers, nodded as if he was agreeing, then waved his pointed finger up in triumph. "We have child after I finish him."

Urmila turned on her side. As the exhaustion of the day and frustration of the night sank in, she felt soft tears roll down her cheek. She wasn't going to let him hear her cry.

The next day Pramod lined up a waiter and added seven more strips of red lights to his facade. He took to the sidewalk in the evening, ignoring Ranjit's presence fifteen feet away. Pedestrians from the south heard Pramod's pitch.

"Come in, we got good food. Good price, you see? Not smelling like next door," he entreated, wearing an old blue suit and a tie with a picture of Mother Teresa on it.

Pedestrians coming from the north heard Ranjit's pitch.

"Good evening, sir, madam. We have the best Indian food, half price with a free glass of wine. Please try us, money back guarantee." Ranjit bowed elegantly in a flowing cotton kurta, ornamented in gold, and motioned people in.

Over the next month, no matter how many red lights Pramod added and how many insults he made about Ranjit's place, Pramod only garnered half his usual business, while Ranjit's restaurant was always full. It didn't make sense. Ranjit's cook, Bharati, used to work at Surya, a restaurant on East Sixth which had been panned by the Village Voice, Newsday, India in New York and Urmila's sensory-deficient maternal uncle. Did people really use the free appetizer coupons for Bombay Mahal published in India in New York?

During the week of his opening, Ranjit frantically shuffled between tasks—soliciting customers, procuring additional cutlery, helping to chop vegetables, arbitrating a dispute between his waiters, Sudhir and Venkatesh, about who had been taking more customer orders instead of bussing tables. But by the second week, he had smoothed out the administrative inefficiencies and had time to poll diners for satisfaction. Excellent! So good! I love curry! As if curry was a single spice or Bharati's cooking was remotely authentic.

At one table, one of the Indian girls with an American accent and tight blouse looked him in the eye and chatted with him about her recent trip to India. He gave her a discount on the bill and invited her to return soon. Late at night he added up his revenues, which projected after just one week to covering the loan in less than a year. He began practicing the speech he would give Pramod about how Pramod should have let him run Bombay Palace. He would boast about where he was planning on opening a second location and about the American-born Indian woman he would find to marry.

Then in the third week, he had a curious exchange with a repeat customer, a fifty-year-old Indian man with a bulbous nose and greasy, black-dyed hair. The man ordered a large meal while mentioning that Haribhai was his friend. Ranjit praised Haribhai as an excellent man, and smiled deferentially at the customer throughout his meal. When he delivered the bill, the man laughed and handed the bill back to him while repeating that he was Haribhai's friend. Ranjit asked if he was paying by cash or credit card, but the man just said "No," stood up as if going to the bathroom and left. Ranjit did not know how to react. The next day, two large men in tight white t-shirts, and who had eaten at the restaurant twice before, also generously invoked Haribhai throughout their meal. Ranjit tried to block the door as they left, but they laughed, "Bhai, it's not polite to make friends angry." On subsequent days, Ranjit learned that the stated interest on his loan had not accounted for a daily stream of "customers." Two weeks of business made it clear that he would be paying interest in perpetuity.

He was grasping his forehead and tallying the bills on a Wednesday evening at one of the dining tables when Bharati stopped by his left elbow to wish him goodnight. He looked up at her large bosom, and a libidinous urge helped suppress recollections of her crooked nose, yellowing teeth or storekeeper husband in Queens. Ranjit started to stand up, his body bumping into hers, and the two of them clumsily rolled into a wild embrace. They stumbled over her sari to the floor behind the bar at the back of the restaurant and consummated their passion between tangles of pink and green fabric.

She nestled her head into his right shoulder as he stared up at the neon ceiling light through hanging wine glasses. He immediately foresaw a stretch of weeks in which she smiled at him with her yellow teeth and expected his amorous attention, followed by a stretch of bad meals after she failed to receive it.

After she straightened her sari and excused herself for the evening, Ranjit extracted an orange statue of Ganesh from the shelf behind the bar and placed it in the middle of the restaurant on the floor. Ganesh had given him solace during friendless years spent working in a textile factory, reconciling him to his karma. His hubris in trying to alter his karma had led him to his current situation. He knelt before the statue with his forehead touching the ground and prayed for forgiveness and solutions. A white glow centered by the smiling figure of Ganesh filled his brain, and he heard an internal voice say in Hindi, "It will be alright, son. Everything must happen in the cycle of life." The words relaxed him and elicited a trickle of tears as they always did whenever he was troubled, for the perimeter of a circle continues in infinity, and his troubles, like many before and after him, were an insignificant moment in infinity.

He stood up to the stout figure of Haribhai Vaswani in front of him.

"Bhagwan se ek baat kijiye," Haribhai began, Tell God one thing, "to take this pain from my cummer." Haribhai clutched his lower back with the palm of his left hand.

Ranjit bowed with his hands clapped together and self-loathing blackening his brain. He heard Haribhai pass gas in a staccato series of three. He asked if Haribhai was hungry, but Haribhai said that all he needed was a glass of Johnny Walker scotch to settle his stomach. As Ranjit retrieved the drink from the bar, Haribhai surveyed the room and Ranjit surveyed Haribhai—a gold chain with a picture locket of the goddess Kali nestled in his black and gray chest hairs, hairs which mushroomed through the v-neck of a thin white translucent kurta that hung over gray slacks.

"You should come to my store. So many things we have to be used in a restaurant. I give you discount." Haribhai recounted the various restaurants he had supplied, then his opinions about each restaurant. He poured himself a refill of scotch. He asked Ranjit about business, but before Ranjit could answer, he gave his thesis on why First Avenue was a better location than Sixth Street around the corner. His soporific monologue not only eased Ranjit's anxiety, but also induced thoughts of using a seat cushion as a pillow and sleeping at the restaurant the second Haribhai left.

"Yes, good location. Good restaurant. All very good. Very good. The thing is, we have agreement, yes, but still, it is my money you have used. You have used my money." He looked towards Ranjit, really past Ranjit to the wall, and continued, "We must... think. Think. Why should it be my money when I don't even own the restaurant?" He laughed, throwing his right hand forward for emphasis of the absurdity. "Pagal hai, na? You see?"

Ranjit felt compelled to nod without knowing what exactly he was acquiescing to. Haribhai's philosophical manner and dramatic pauses perversely reminded Ranjit of a ghazal singer who sings odes to God, which comported with Haribhai's subconscious view of God as his role model. They both controlled their worlds with precision and compassion, though Haribhai may have picked up a gesture or two from the screen villain Pran.

"What we can do is one thing. We can take this thing and turn it from the money you must return, so together we are making the money. Better for you, better for me." Haribhai swayed his head from left to right as he finished his sentence.

A partnership. A partnership with a goonda. At least Ranjit would escape from the loan.

"Phifty-phifty. You take phifty and manage. I give the money. Thik hai, na?"

Was this really a negotiable deal? Though it actually seemed reasonable compared to the loan. And it would let him get to sleep. Ranjit bounced his head slowly.

"Very good, very good," Haribhai said, rolling his head left and right again. "Tomorrow you close the restaurant. We will have a big dinner to celebrate."

Meanwhile, Urmila kept telling Pramod how smart he was and how things would turn around, but he could see that dejection had flushed out the red from her cheeks. He no longer enjoyed watching the three and a half hour Hindi movies and felt ashamed that he had ever fantasized about Raveena Tandon or Karishma Kapoor. Yet in his stressed condition, he didn't want to resume Operation Hanky Panky. He needed to resolve this thing with Ranjit quickly.

The next day, Ranjit stood in front of his restaurant next to six of Haribhai's henchmen watching Haribhai supervise the installation of blue Christmas lights. Who put up blue Christmas lights? It was inauspicious. But Haribhai thought it made the restaurant more unique. When the assistant finished, the team of eight ascended into Ranjit's palace for Haribhai's coronation as a partner in the business. Ranjit followed and instructed his staff to start serving drinks and appetizers. He helped Bharati in the kitchen, and after an hour helped Sudhir and Venkatesh serve the tandoori chicken, eggplant, palak paneer, rice, naan, and raita to the table of thugs. As a tangle of arms attacked the food, Ranjit excused himself for a cigarette break outside.

He watched the cabs race up First Avenue when an explosion of "Who bring you here? Who teach you restaurant business?" assaulted his ears. He dropped his cigarette, grabbed his ears and ducked down, turning to see the source of his auditory distress. "Aare! You'll make me deaf!"

"God will make you deaf for cheating!"

"I am working for three years. How long you think I'm only going to clean tables?"

"We work like team. I always helping you. I treat you like brother! I try to get you married to Vaishali!" Pramod said, garlic-tinged sweat streaming down his forehead.

"She is not a wife, she is an elephant. I don't run a chidiaghar, I run a restaurant. I will find my own wife."

"You think you can manage the restaurant?"

"Already I have more customers," Ranjit said, simultaneously blushing at his lie. He fanned himself with a take-out menu from the dispenser out front, then folded it into the perspiration-soaked crevice under his still-unbroken arm. The blue buds of the Christmas lights buzzed behind him. The strings of lights connected with various extension cords which converged into a single electrical outlet.

"Your food is like the shit," Pramod said.

"Mine is the shit? No one comes to eat your food."

"You are a cheat. God will punish. I will not help you again. You are going to... you are going to... I don't have nothing more to do with you," Pramod said, flicking both hands outward in front of his face before retreating back into his restaurant.

Ranjit knew everything Pramod said was true. Shame didn't make him regret not discussing his issues with Pramod, but he did wish he had just gone back to India. He sucked the cigarette to its final twilight and prepared to deal with Haribhai's team.

He turned around to see flames gently bobbing on the wires of the Christmas lights on his storefront. He stood incredulously as the searing red and orange consumed the white wood siding of the front of the building. The thought of letting the goondas inside perish only momentarily interrupted his broader debate between calling the fire department, getting water from Pramod's restaurant or going back in to at least warn his employees. The flames had not yet covered the doorway, so he darted up the stairs to shout everyone out. The team of thugs collectively saw the fire through the storefront window, then stumbled over chairs to exit, some of them still clutching chicken legs. Sudhir and Venkatesh followed. Ranjit ran into the kitchen and pulled Bharati by her upper right arm through the restaurant and the flames that now covered the doorway.

A crowd had gathered in an arc in front of the restaurant. Two of the thugs shouted that Haribhai was still inside in the bathroom. Ranjit hesitated as the flames engulfed the mini-lobby which led into the restaurant. He covered his head with his arms and charged inside, colliding with Haribhai, who had been standing paralyzed in front of the doorway. Ranjit jumped back up and pulled Haribhai to his feet. "Chalo!" he shouted. He held Haribhai's arm and charged back outside, releasing his arm as he emerged from the doorway, then jumping over the stairs and tumbling onto the sidewalk, Haribhai's portly mass landing right behind him.

He crawled onto his hands and knees, coughing and gasping for air, before arising to a wall of people applauding his heroics. There were still no fire trucks. He couldn't see Pramod or Urmila, and turned around to a view of the fire layered over the front of Pramod's restaurant. He rushed towards the crowd and vainly shouted for them, inadvertently summoning Bharati. He ignored her inquiries and tore off cloth from her sari, wrapping it around his hand and running towards Pramod's door. He pulled the handle, flames burning the skin on his upper forearm, and rushed inside. He could smell his hair singeing, but immediately forgot about it as he looked around for Pramod and Urmila. There was no one in the dining room. He shouted their names while running towards the kitchen and knocking over a chair.

"Who is it?" Pramod asked feebly from the kitchen.

Ranjit pushed through the swinging door of the kitchen to see Pramod and Urmila filling buckets with water.

"Come on! You'll burn!" he shouted, rushing to the back of the restaurant only to find the rear exit blocked by a large trash receptacle.

Pramod and Urmila looked at him without moving. Ranjit rushed back to the kitchen door.

"Come on!" he repeated.

Urmila and Pramod finally matched his urgency in going into the dining room. Flames rolled over the blue polyester-carpeted dining room in a single instance, causing Ranjit to tumble backward through the arms of an arriving Pramod. Pramod and Urmila each grabbed one of Ranjit's arms and dragged him back into the kitchen. Ranjit immediately jumped up and began looking for rags to wet and secure the door. He stuttered instructions to Urmila to fill buckets of water to throw at the door and surrounding wall. Pramod thought about the indignity of Urmila taking orders from Ranjit and started filling the buckets himself. Ranjit asked if Pramod or Urmila also heard a fire engine siren, but they were unsure. After securing the door, Ranjit retrieved the small fire extinguisher tank from the back wall and stood in front of the kitchen door poised for the final battle. Pramod and Urmila silently stood a few feet behind him. Urmila noticed the bubbled skin on Ranjit's arm but didn't say anything.

They could now clearly hear the sirens of the fire engines. Ranjit and Pramod exhorted the imagined firefighters with chants of, "Come on, yaar!" and "Jaldi karo!" while Urmila exhorted fate with chants of "He Bhagwan!" and "Bacchow! Bacchow!" Hurry up! God help us! Save us! Pramod kept wiping his face on his right sleeve, while Ranjit rhythmically shook the hose of the extinguisher and Urmila serially pressed her palm to her forehead and looked up at the ceiling.

Their informal rain dance was rewarded by two firefighters kicking through the kitchen door and hustling the three of them through the smoke, past the water streams, onto the sidewalk and to a set of oxygen tanks. The three of them watched the firefighters continue to hose down the buildings and evacuate people from the apartments above the restaurants. Pramod processed the severity of the destruction. After a few minutes of recovering his breath, he removed his mask, turned to Ranjit, bent over and touched his feet. "You... will live 100 years."

Ranjit trembled, tears escaping his eyes. He tried speaking, his muffled voice reminding him to remove his mask, then said, "I am sorry." He pulled Pramod into a long hug, then turned to Urmila. "Urmila-behen, forgive me." Ranjit bent over and touched her feet. She did not react, still stunned at the destruction of the business they had nurtured for ten years.

They answered the police officer's questions for an hour. No one could tell them when they could go back to recover their possessions.

Four days later, they discovered that most of the items in the kitchen—pots, pans, appliances—had survived, but that many of the items in the dining room, including the famous handkerchief which Jeetendra said had been used by Amitabh Bachchan in the movie Sholay, were destroyed. The insurance company which had issued both Ranjit's and Pramod's policies claimed that it was not responsible for a fire caused by the gross negligence of someone hanging defective and excessive Christmas lights on his storefront, and threatened a suit for insurance fraud, highlighting the claim of $3000 for a handkerchief, however famous.

Haribhai offered to replace Ranjit's items for saving his life, but Ranjit declined in fear of perpetual servitude. Haribhai insisted that his lawyer at least threaten a lawsuit against the insurance company on both Ranjit's and Pramod's behalf, which culminated in a settlement for half the value of the items in each destroyed property. On the basis of Vallabh-bhai's counsel—"each journey gives a lesson, and sometimes we must use the lesson instead of avoiding future journeys"—Pramod and Urmila accepted Ranjit's vow before Ganesh to earn back their faith. Pramod and Ranjit combined their settlements to fund the opening three months later of "Mumbai Mahal" on Lexington Avenue between 27th and 28th streets, the Curry Hill district of the city where none of the Indian restaurants used Christmas lights.

On the morning of the opening, Ranjit entered the restaurant to place the orange statue of Ganesh he had salvaged from the fire on a small shrine behind the bar. The lips of Ganesh's elephant head had been burned on each side, as if Ganesh was smiling. Urmila called Ranjit into the kitchen to explain the efficiencies of reusing the frying oil from the previous day as the cooking oil for the current day. A less discerning eye would miss that the doughy undulations between Urmila's blouse and slip had given way to a taut protuberance.

Urmila stopped mid-sentence as the opening strains of "Zindagi Ek Safar" reverberated through the restaurant. She looked at Ranjit before they both went to the dining room. Pramod was lip-synching the words, translated as "life is a beautiful journey, who knows what will happen tomorrow," and shaking his head left and right to the music while pointing an upturned palm at Urmila and Ranjit. After two verses, he realized his wife and cousin would not be joining his festivity and approached them.

"You are my family. We will make a great restaurant. My cousin-brother will be the best manager, and now he will have a good wife," Pramod said, panting slightly.

For the first time since Pramod had known him, Ranjit smiled. A few weeks earlier, Ranjit was renting a video across the street when a scent of perfume led his attention to a woman in a sari who smiled at him with perfect white teeth. She briefly held her eyes on his, then looked away. Her proportions were smaller than Ranjit remembered. In fact, she kind of looked like Karishma Kapoor, though he always thought Karishma Kapoor was too thin, whereas Vaishali was—anandi. Voluptuous. After he told Pramod that he had reconsidered the marriage arrangement, Pramod called Jeetendra to work with Pramod's astrologer to pick an auspicious date for Ranjit and Vaishali's wedding.

"When my child come, I will not be happier," Pramod said, touching Urmila's midsection. "Let's have beer."

Pramod pulled out two bottles of Kingfisher from the refrigerator behind the bar and handed them to Ranjit with a bottle opener. Ranjit flared his nostrils, but opened the bottles and handed one to Pramod. Pramod swigged, burped, and exclaimed as if in a post-pizza vigor, "Kya baat hai!"