At my new biotech job one day a few weeks ago, after several hours of intensive word juggling, I walked downstairs, past the laboratories, and went outside to clear my mind. At the edge of the parking lot next to a chaparral-lined canyon that hasn’t been fully engulfed by pavement yet, I met two Indian guys who’d also decided to take a break under the shade tree facing the canyon.
I asked them a serious question that I really thought they’d have an answer to: Is there anywhere around here I can get Indian food?
“We don’t know because we are new. We’re from India. We just came here two weeks ago from the Bangalore office for one month of tech-support training,” said the shorter of the two, a curly-haired, bespectacled, classically nerdy-looking guy who wore a madras shirt tucked into belted trousers. His taller, more casually dressed, less-outgoing friend just smiled.
So, these were the voices on the phone! I had come face to face with the living, breathing targets of every joke ever told in the U.S. about trying to get a modem fixed.
The tall gent in the T-shirt asked: “You like to eat Indian food?”
I explained that I did, especially since I’m a vegetarian. They said they were vegetarians, too. The short guy’s name was Punya, and the tall guy was Abhijeet. I told them about some of my favorite places in San Diego, like the cluster of restaurants surrounding the Shri Mandir Hindu temple on Black Mountain Road, but they said they didn’t have a car.
“Well, then I’m the one that should be helping you find somewhere to eat around here. I’ll investigate.”
A week later, I drove Punya and Abhijeet to San Marcos to have lunch at Curry and More, the only Indian place close to work. They seemed very happy to make an American friend. We shared some curries and naan—pretty good, they said. It was their first Indian meal since they’d been here, and it made them feel at home.
Punya and Abhijeet, both in their late 20s, told me they were the only two guys from hundreds in the company’s Bangalore office who’d been sent to San Diego for training. Both of them have a science-education background and are very knowledgeable about biotechnology. Neither of them seemed particularly enamored with San Diego; they couldn’t wait to get back to India, even though they’d been here for only a couple weeks.
These guys were not just coworkers but also good friends and a classic odd couple. Abhijeet is traditional. His parents arranged his marriage, and he and his wife of only six months live together with his family. In contrast, Punya recently fell in love with a Punjabi woman. Her parents may not approve, but he’s hoping to win them over. That he has a good job will probably help.
We didn’t have much time to talk before we had to get back to work, but they insisted on paying for lunch, so I told them I wanted to treat them to dinner at one of the places in San Diego I liked before they left the following week.
The night before their return to India, I drove Punya and Abhijeet to Black Mountain Road. I pointed at the different restaurants in the little Indian shopping plaza, and they decided to try Surathi Farsan, a popular, casual place that has a lot of West and South Indian dishes. We split a thali, a dosa and some chat—that’s a snack with yogurt, not a talk, though we had that, too.
They really liked the food, especially the chat, though Abhijeet insisted the water in India makes the food taste better. Punya loves dosas (large, light crispy, savory pancakes) and explained that they’re a common breakfast food. They argued over whether or not you can get a dosa late at night in Bangalore, which escalated into a ridiculous $200,000-rupee bet (about $5,000), which had all three of us laughing out loud. They asked if I’d ever been to India, and I said no. Punya invited me to come to his wedding next year, and I said I’d try to be there.
Then we walked to the temple—there was a service in progress, so they took off their shoes and went in, and I followed. There was a full house of worshippers, chanting, drumming and incense. We stayed for a few minutes, then left. Punya was impressed to see Hindus and Jains worshipping together. He translated part of the chant: a reminder to keep the universal God or spirit in our hearts and minds.
On the drive home, I handed Abhijeet my iPhone, so he could use my radio app to tune in an Indian station. He knew every song, which Bollywood film it came from and its stars. When we arrived at their chain hotel near the freeway, I saw it was located right next to a Hooters. Punya told me that on their first night here, they went there to get dinner and were very surprised by the atmosphere. He had asked Abhijeet, “Are all restaurants in America like this?”
As I dropped them off, they gave me a gift of some high-quality Indian tea—and then had an argument about whether or not I should drink it with milk. They gave me their emails and insisted I let them know who was right.
Yesterday I passed Tech Support and saw that Punya’s empty cubicle still had his paper name badge on it, and I thought to myself: Sorry, Punya, but Abhijeet was right: the tea is better with milk and I’ll see you guys next year.
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