Dhruv found this faux French restaurant—a restaurant of sorts but perhaps more of a cafeteria—off the bypass road of a highway called Research Boulevard, close to his hotel. There were many of these restaurants all over the southern and midwestern states to which Dhruv traveled for work, and he had eaten in most of them. On a Wednesday night he was having a late dinner of something they called chicken friand, a square puff pastry stuffed with chicken and gravy and smothered in a thick, gummy mushroom cream sauce. As always he ordered it from the counter and watched it plucked from its home under a heat lamp where it had been kept warm for an undisclosed length of time. This was one of the better ones, still somewhat moist and flaky. Sometimes the corners were so dry and hardened he couldn’t get his fork through it, yet he took his chances on this dish every time he came.
He had to admit the concept here was well executed, a testament to the power of objects. Mounted on a brick wall across from his table, a decorative iron hook held a long-handled copper saucepan. The hook’s baseplate was a pleasing silhouette of a rooster, a motif repeated throughout the restaurant, on a teacup, a ceramic jug, and a porcelain plate. A fi replace divided the two dining rooms and on the broad mantel rested a giant iron lid and a bellows. Dark wooden beams stretched across the plaster ceiling, and some of the walls were paneled with the same coffee-colored wood. The few segments of wall not made of brick or covered with wood were accented with framed pictures—maps of France, still life paintings, and sketches of ruined castles on riverbanks. The music was baroque.
He never dined idly anymore. During this meal he wanted to get a letter written to his parents. “I am sitting in a quaint French-style restaurant,” he wrote, in English. His old friend Tuli had once joked that his parents did everything in English—they shopped in English, they ate in English, they even [End Page 20] made love in English. Picturing Tuli’s jolly, white-toothed grin, Dhruv sighed deeply before continuing his letter. He tried to describe the rustic décor and how it was meant to evoke the French countryside. This would mean little to them since neither he nor his parents had ever been to the French countryside and his parents had no appreciation for the charm of old things, no nostalgia for simpler times. They lived in India surrounded by old things, and their lives had always been relatively simple. Among the three of them, only Dhruv would have fallen victim to the manipulations of this interior. This dining room, reproduced hundreds of times in hundreds of cities, somehow awakened heartfelt pastoral yearnings, as if he’d been a French farmer in another life.
He wanted to write about a woman he loved but couldn’t begin for many reasons. For one thing, she had not yet returned his feelings, and for another, she was a Muslim, though not devout in the least. In fact, she was a heavy drinker. He believed he could fix that if she would give him the chance.
He was easily distracted from his letter. Outside in the parking lot, an old Asian man was shouting at an Asian woman, presumably his wife. Dhruv studied the man’s behavior, the angry spasms of his mouth and his arms flailing theatrically under the eerie orange street lamps. He wondered if something justifiably outrageous had set him off on a public tirade, or if he was just another grown man prone to tantrums. Grown men prone to tantrums were a universal phenomenon, found a stone’s throw from any point around the globe.
Dhruv looked away momentarily to see if anyone else found this scene riveting, but the only other person facing the window was a woman sitting alone a few tables down. Dhruv had noticed her when he sat down with his tray because she was dining alone and reading a novel, and...