“Ripeti dopo di me. Uno.”
Ma’am prompted us with her hands as she spoke; like a conductor to an orchestra. But to parrot someone as an adult is embarrassing so a few of us scratched our heads and, with an awkward soft-spoken mumble, trailed off in between. I was one of these people. Sitting at the back of the class, fiddling with pens and looking at the clock, I had no interest in the Italian language. But my father ran a business and dealt with Italy in various woods for furniture. He wanted me to learn Italian and work for the company. I was doing a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at the time, and though I could stand in front of a classroom with graphs and statistics projected on a screen, deliver lengthy presentations on market research and finance management, somehow I failed at counting from one to ten in Italian.
But even Hindi and English abandoned me at the dinner table when I tried to tell my father about this failing interest. He was a hulking figure, his belly pressed against the table’s edge, and his upper-lip heavy with a thick handlebar moustache. He loved to eat, and I, under the tutelage of my mother, loved to cook. My mother was sweet outside of the kitchen but with an apron around her waist she was the most stringent guru.
“I want the tomatoes in thin slices,” she used to say threatening me with a slap. “Nahi toh tera gaal banega tomato jaisa,”
Her fiery temper made me a competent chef. My father took his eating seriously. If his phone rang while he ate, he answered only to unleash a torrent of insults at the caller. On most nights I swallowed all apprehension about Italian with my food. I knew he would never let me leave classes at the Centre because, sometimes, in the dinners of dal makhani, rajma, and curd, which I prepared myself, he would slip in the condiment of an Italian phrase.
“Are your classes going well,” he would ask in Italian. I would stare at him.
“Not well enough. Buck up. I want carbonara soon.”
If I ever got a hold of the language I was to serve him a ceremonial bowl of spaghetti carbonara. But whenever my Italian teacher stood me up in class and I had nothing to say, I knew the day would never come.
We continued parroting the numbers.
“Ventisette! Ventotto! Ventinove!”
Not all at the Centre were uninterested in Italian. Zahra was sitting at the front desk with her back straight, hand in the air, jhumkas shimmering as she shouted the numbers. We were not friends but everyone knew she loved Italian. She had often been sighted at the library, with Italian books spread out before her. If others could not answer in class, she leaned in and whispered in their stead. The Centre screened Italian films regularly and she was present for them all, the light flashing across her face, mouth agape as if to consume the sounds and images.
Regardless, it was noon when we were dismissed and I hailed an auto-rickshaw to go home. I was thinking of Zahra with a tinge of jealousy when my phone rang. It was my college friend Prakhar. I clicked my tongue: I had forgotten all about his party; it was later that night. I could not decide if I wanted to go. Prakhar was a good friend but unbearable as a drunk.
“What’s up,” he asked.
“I was at the Centre.”
“Did they teach you ‘hello’ today?”
“Today we learned: go to hell.”
He laughed. “Don’t forget to bring booze tonight.”
“Right, right. I’ll see you there.”
I thought I would make up an excuse later if I decided against going. When I reached home I found my mama, mami, and their six-year-old daughter Archana in the living room. She was an energetic child. Perhaps this was why I found myself trudging up the stairs to my room, with her bouncing up and down ahead of me, pleading to watch television. When my mother told me Archana would be staying with us for three days, I found myself at Prakhar’s party. Everyone was chatting, drink in hand, heads bobbing to music. I was surprised to see Zahra; she was talking with Prakhar. I approached them and she smiled at me.
“Buongiorno,” she said.
“Oh,” Prakhar said. “He’s the one from the Centre. The guy I was talking about.”
“Yeah I know. He’s in my class.”
“Great. Maybe you can teach him some Italian. He doesn’t know any.”
“Don’t mind him,” Zahra said as he stumbled off to speak with others. “It’s great to see you here. You know, I never really got the chance to speak with you. What got you into Italian?”
“My father runs a furniture business that deals with Italy. He wants me to learn Italian. What about you?”
“Oh I’ve always loved Italy. I’ve read too many translated books so I figured it’s time to learn the language.”
“That’s great. You’re learning quick too.”
“Thanks. Let’s sit down? I’ll get another drink.”
She got a beer and we sat on a sofa-bed which had been opened up for everyone.
“What about the Centre itself? Are you having fun?” she asked.
“It’s a great place but I’m not really enjoying the classes. Italian isn’t a passion of mine. I wouldn’t be learning if my father didn’t insist.”
“Oh come on,” she said waving her hand as if at a fly, an annoyance. “Italy has so much to offer: such great theatre, food, architecture, music. You wouldn’t say that if you had a good experience of Italian culture.”
“Have you been there?” I asked.
“I went there with my father, once. But I didn’t see any of those things. What if it’s all just in your head? What if Italy turns out to be different? Would you still love it?”
“You know,” she took a sip of her beer, “I think places are invented.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I was a child I would visit my grandparents in Dehradun and going there meant walks in the hills with my nani and eating cookies with my nana. That’s what Dehradun meant to me. Walks and cookies. Now my nana–nani aren’t there and Dehradun doesn’t feel the same. But not everyone shared my walks and cookies. They saw something else in Dehradun. Those memories are only in my head but that doesn’t make them any less real. It only means my Dehradun is different from other Dehraduns. So why can’t I have my own Italy? I love Italian plays. If I can put Dehradun in a cookie jar then a play is good enough for Rome.”
“And sure there are things to be discovered in places,” she continued. “The Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel; these are things to be discovered, taken in. But places have to be invented too, you know, to be made one’s own. And I have a healthy imagination. Someday I’ll visit Italy. But till then I have my own Italy here,” she tapped her temple. “Reading the plays of Pirandello and Fo in my balcony, ordering pasta late at night, even the time spent at the Centre. Right now, these things are more Italian than Italy itself.”
“Well that’s very convenient,” I said, and she laughed. “But what do I know? All I know about Italian culture is The Godfather.”
Chuckling, she said, “I’ll tell you what. Spend some time at the library with me. I’ll help you revise and lend you some plays. Give Italy a chance.”
“Give your Italy a chance,” I corrected her. She smiled and I smiled back. “Okay.”
We sat in the library, revising what had been taught in class. It was well into the afternoon and our table was next to a window. A beam of sunlight lit Zahra’s face. There were soft, erratic thuds on the window as a wasp buzzed around outside. Several months had passed as we sat together at the library, whispering in Italian to each other. I accompanied Zahra to the films screened at the Centre, too. With her the language seemed less daunting. Even my father seemed less formidable. Most Italian questions asked of me with mouthfuls of aloo and saag were answered to his satisfaction. Even my mother broke into “mera Italy ka tukda,” on seeing my test papers from the Centre come bearing good marks. And when the likes of my relatives came visiting, my father talked of my keen interest in Italian.
My mind had shifted from the lectures and presentations at college to the Centre. No longer was I among the otherwise interested sitting at the back of the class. I was with Zahra, up front, my hand raised in the air. While my Italian was ill–formed and broken, the numbers were child’s play. It was all because of Zahra, sitting in front of me, reading in the sunlight, wasp mindlessly thumping on the window. There can be no pretense: I had fallen in love with her. My determination to learn Italian was just an urgency to impress her. I am convinced that Italian words are incantations in disguise because somehow, along the way, she fell in love with me too. In hindsight it seems like our love for each other was only natural, and like all natural things it grew unbeknownst to us, like a sapling tended to everyday till a bud pops into a flower, and all change becomes apparent.
But even though we were best friends—despite her giggling when I mispronounced words—I was nervous as we sat at the library.
“My father wants me to cook carbonara tonight,” I whispered.
While spaghetti carbonara is quite difficult to cook, the cause of my anxiety was what the occasion really meant: my graduation was approaching fast and I was to be initiated into wood trade. But above all, it was because Zahra and I had decided to tell our parents about each other while things were going well.
“We should get it over with fast,” Zahra had said. “The problem will only fester if we don’t. They should have the chance to adjust.” The problem being religion. Spaghetti and Parmesan made for a delightful combination for my parents but a Hindu and Muslim were best kept apart. I was lost in thought as we got up to leave the library.
“Don’t worry about what they’ll say. Be done with it,” Zahra said. We walked out of the Centre and she hailed a rickshaw. “I’ll tell my parents tonight too.”
“Are you sure?”
She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek.
“Quite,” she said, grinning and I grinned back like a fool. She got on to the rickshaw. “We’ll talk once it’s done. Bye.”
The rickshaw cycled away, bell ringing.
Later that night my father, mother, and I sat at the dinner table with a portion of carbonara on our plates. My father, smiling from ear to ear, put a hand on my shoulder.
They began eating and my mother beamed at me from across the table, giving me a thumbs-up. I looked at my father just in time to see a noodle being sucked into his still smiling mouth.
“Bellissimo! Appena belissimo! Kya baat hai!”
“Such a worthy cook,” my mother said, with a smile.
“Yes. He is doing well all round. When is your graduation, beta?”
“It’s in May.”
“Very well. Graduate, then it’s time to join the business.”
They continued smiling and resumed eating. I steeled myself.
“Listen, there is something you should know.”
They looked up, still smiling. But I saw the slightest arch in my mother’s brow. She knew something unsavory was to follow.
“It’s about the Centre,” I continued.
“I met someone there. Her name is Zahra.”
The smiles still clung to their faces but had been knocked askew, like a tilted picture frame after a door is slammed shut.
“So what,” my mother said. “Is she the first girl you’ve met?”
“She is my girlfriend.”
My father laughed but my mother was angry. “Arrey don’t fume. It’s alright, beta,” he said. “These things happen at your age. You will grow out of it.”
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“You have young blood. Once you graduate and start working you will enter the real world. There is no space for such things in the real world.”
“I just wanted to let both of you know.”
“Thank you,” my mother snapped.
The rest of the meal was eaten in silence. Once it was over, I washed my hands and went upstairs to call Zahra.
“How did it go,” I asked.
“You first,” she replied.
“Not well,” I said. “Mom was angry but dad just laughed it off. I guess they’re hoping it won’t last. I’ll hear about it a lot but they won’t really interfere.”
“It’s worse with me. They want me to leave you.”
“I’ll just lie to them. Both of them were angry but I made them promise not to pull me from the Centre. I said it was nothing serious and I’ll break it off if they want.”
“Don’t worry about it too much. All this won’t matter when we’re having carbonara in Rome.”
In truth I was quite afraid for what was to come. But I refrained from speaking.
“Yeah,” I said, “things will be good.”
A few years later, with no one but Prakhar in attendance, Zahra and I got married in court. Our families abandoned us. Her parents disowned her when they realised she had gone against their will. They were well into discussions about marriage with another family when she told them the truth. My father, on the other hand, tried to tempt me out of the ordeal with the bribe of a secure future.
“Don’t jump into this ditch. You’ve been working well for the company. You are my son,” he pleaded. “I only want what’s best for you.”
Even my mother had stopped speaking with me. It was years before I heard from her again. But alas be it oak, mahogany, spruce, or ebony, furniture could not entice me to leave Zahra. My father would not have me in the company if I married a Muslim, so I packed my bags, walked out of my parents’ home, and into a one bedroom flat; into uncertainty. I worked as a salesman for a small firm and Zahra worked as a content writer. Spending time together only at night, silent, in stuffy heat under a clacking fan, our relationship was maimed. We hardly saw each other, had little money and even lesser time to entertain thoughts of Italy. Italian was decaying in our minds because we had no use for it; there was no room for it in our cramped apartment. Zahra had stopped reading Italian plays too. All we did was work, eat, watch TV in silence, and sleep. We could no longer afford to think about Italy. Going there seemed like a childish idea.
But each night as I stared at the fan, with Zahra sleeping next to me, facing away, I thought about how I could improve things. Knowing that Italy was too expensive a pursuit, an idea took shape in my mind: if we could not go to Italy, I would bring it to our one bedroom flat. I would invent a cheaper Italy. I decided to cook us a dinner of spaghetti carbonara. Being on a minuscule budget, I replaced pancetta and guanciale with simple sausage. I filled our flat with candles and borrowed an old music system and candelabra from Prakhar. Zahra and I only had a coffee table, so I threw a sheet over it and put the candelabra on top. From the nearest liquor shop I bought cheap red wine. Once the creamy pasta was on the table and the candles lit I played Italian jazz on the music system and waited for Zahra to return from work.
I was going to attempt speaking in Italian for the entire night even though I had not truly mastered it. But it had to be done. Soon enough I heard footsteps outside. The door opened and Zahra stood in the frame, assessing what was happening. She walked towards the table, with a smile. I pulled out her chair.
“Welcome to Italy,” I said. “I made dinner.”
I unveiled the carbonara and she clutched my hand.
“Exquisite,” she said.
“I try best.”
I heaped a good portion of the spaghetti onto her plate and poured the wine. She picked up the fork, prodded the food around, and laughed.
“Hmm, no pancetta.”
“I accuse environment.”
“Accuse environment? Do you mean circumstance?”
“Yes, yes. I accuse circumstance.”
We ate our dinner with the music playing and talked as the candle flames flickered around us. It was quite hot and we had to switch on the fan and lights soon enough. Zahra and I laughed together, and as she held my clammy palm all felt right again. We made love that night after ages and I woke up the next morning feeling like a richer man. Such a success was the venture that we dedicated all Friday nights to Italy: Italian Night. On Italian Night, of course, there was only Italian to be spoken. The food too was never ordered; I cooked it at home. I added lasagna, cannoli, ravioli, and others to the cuisine of our one-bedroom Italy. If the day at work was forgiving we had energy enough to waltz to Italian music too. Sometimes, if I spent a week persuading her, we watched The Godfather on her laptop. But we enacted scenes from Zahra’s favorite Italian plays more often. She would take her favorite lines from Pirandello’s plays and scribble them in Italian because we only had them in English. Then we would jump onto our bed and shout out the dialogues, sometimes to our neighbors’ dismay.
“You know nature is an instrument of the imagination to chase creation at a higher level!”
“Okay but where does all this get us?”
“Nowhere! It only means that one can be born as many things: a tree, a stone, water, a butterfly, a human. But also a fictional character.”
“And so you and those around you are fictional? Only characters?”
“Yes, sir. But no less real.”
One night, while we were in bed, I heard Zahra sigh and turn toward me.
“Listen,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Promise to hear me out?”
“Things are getting better now but I’m sick of content writing. I have an idea.”
“What is it?”
“Let’s open an Italian restaurant.”
There was silence as I took this in. We were indeed improving: the fridge was full of food and the mind empty of anxiety. But why put it all at risk? As I thought about it, I remember wondering what I was most excited about that week. All I could think of was spaghetti carbonara. Italian Night.
“I think we should do it.”
I had come to think of spaghetti carbonara as an old friend. The kitchen was bustling as usual and I was cooking carbonara, my face hot from the day spent in front of the stove, my old backache stinging. Regardless, in the boiling water, the raw spoke-like spaghetti had curled into noodles, and I had already beaten the egg yolks with salt, pepper, and grated Parmesan, into a creamy yellow concoction. I cooked the pasta with sausage and turned off the heat. Soon, I added the creamy sauce to the pasta and put it all into the crockery.
“Have it sent.”
An Italian man had placed the order. He was not the first Italian in our restaurant, and I knew what would happen. I folded my arms and waited. Soon a waiter came into the kitchen, smiling.
“The man would like to see you, sahib.”
I walked out the swinging doors and into the restaurant. It was full and there was a queue outside. Chet Baker’s Romas was playing; a fine choice. I walked towards the Italian man, passing all the posters of Italian architecture, Pirandello, and of course, The Godfather. Zahra and I had hung those posters ourselves when we opened the restaurant.
The Italian was sitting alone at a table for two, right next to a wall; a bright yellow filament bulb was hanging above him. His meal was untouched.
“You asked for the chef, Sir. How may I assist?”
He looked up, smiled, and gestured to the empty seat. “If at all possible I would like a word.”
I sat down.
“I am a chef too,” he said, “from Roma. We are mad for carbonara. So when I saw this on the menu,” he gestured to the food, “Zahra’s Carbonara, I was intrigued.
“No pancetta? No guanciale? I would be fired for doing this in Roma.”
“Do not get me wrong,” he continued. “This is a fine establishment. But why not serve it the real way?”
“Because it is Zahra’s Carbonara, Sir. Zahra is the name of my wife. We were poor when we started the restaurant and could not afford pancetta or guanciale. Only sausage. Soon she would not have it any other way.”
“Ah,” he said. “A tragedy in my opinion. It is to be had with pork. But I understand. Perhaps that is where the restaurant’s name comes from: Italy Second Hand?”
“Quite right, Sir,” I said, as he chuckled. “On some nights we serve it the traditional way as a special.”
“Hmm. Is your wife here?”
“No, sir. She died a few years ago.”
“My apologies. But tell me, have you ever been to Italy? To Roma?”
“Yes. I went with my wife many times. Now my daughter has settled in Sicily.”
“Bellisimo. Maybe you can visit my restaurant in Roma next time.”
“It would have been my pleasure, Sir. But when I go to Italy now I feel like I have left it behind. I don’t think I can go there without my wife.
“Allow me, Sir.” I served him the carbonara. He twirled his fork in the noodles and brought them to his mouth. Looking up at the bulb, he chewed with a thoughtful countenance, and swallowed.
“Hmm,” he said smiling. “Remarkable. Tastes Italian to me.”
Sidharth Singh is a postgraduate student of English literature at Shiv Nadar University. He was a participant at the DumPukht Writers’ Workshop. This is his first publication.