On Thursday night, 13 March, my friend Yaqoob invited me to dinner. As it was the first time I was actually going to witness a South Asian male cooking, the only option was acceptance.
He said that a couple of his neighbours would probably be joining us. I wasn't really thrilled with the idea of a couple of flighty college students intruding on the evening, but the draw of Yaq standing in front of a stove was too strong to resist.
I arrived slightly early for 'Pakistani time' - about 15 minutes after our agreed time of 8pm (no excuse, I'd gotten caught up doing some quick work for the priory). When we got to Yaq's room, there were two other young South Asian men there: Rahul, a fellow Washingtonian of Sindhi descent studying immunology; and Anirudh, a Delhi lad studying law. Rahul, true to his American origin, was extroverted, enthusiastic and sweet. Anirudh was quieter and far drier, with a sharp eye and an equally sharp wit.
Hmmm. *Three* South Asian men, where I'd only expected one. I'm not great with subcontinental men at the best of times. It didn't look good.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
The conversation sparkled: mixed Urdu & English, South Asian gestures and references flowed effortlessly. There was amicable competition among regions - as the lone Punjaban, I got to slag off Urdu, which was being vaunted as 'such a beautiful language' - one I consider style and no substance. Punjabi, on the other hand, has grit. It's a cheeky member of the Indo-European family, daring to be tonal and earthy. The sound of Punjabi is unmistakable: as a Punjaban, anytime I hear it, my head swivels so fast I nearly give myself whiplash, and despite being American born, I'm at home.
As a Lahore born NWFPer, Yaq supported me on this one, talking about his Lahori Urdu and how he wanted to speak Punjabi, whilst the other two clucked their tongues and shook their heads knowingly.
Then Rahul made a fatal error. He said, "You know, I really love bhangra music."
"Really?" I replied, attempting to look harmless. "Bhangra music is fantastic, innit - and it's PUNJABI."
Silence. Game, set, match - Irim and the Punjab.
The next topic of conversation, of course, had to be our host and his new girlfriend. As the president of the (uber-Catholic, conservative gay men in denial) Newman Society, Yaq had adopted a certain way of being, and I was a bit worried that she was a beard. That fear was allayed when Rahul and Anirudh gleefully recounted the story of walking into Yaq's unlocked flat, knowing she was there - and Yaq rushing to the door, his jumper somewhat, erm, disarranged (helpfully pointed out by Ani: "It looks like you have put your jumper on in a hurry").
Since I can't keep my mouth shut, time for me to chime in. Yaq kept trying to reach his girlfriend. First her flat, then her mobile, then her friend's flat. I suggested he was being a typically controlling South Asian male and that he should stop. As his searching became more frantic, I jokingly floated the idea that perhaps she wasn't at her friend's at all, but was actually seeing someone else.
Even as he laughed and denied it, you could see Yaq's tension skyrocket and his attempts to reach F become more determined.
Ani looked at me with a mixture of awe and fear. "I think you've pushed him over the edge. That's just the primal fear for South Asian men, isn't it?" (Men everywhere, of course, but South Asian men are in another league when it comes to obsessing about it.)
Sweetheart, I cut my teeth on the South Asian male psyche. Driving them round the bend is like taking candy from a baby.
It turned out F was at her friend's watching "The West Wing". Yaq mentioned to her that I had said he should leave her be and give her some space, to which she responded (so I could hear), "EXACTLY!"
After that, the only thing left to bait Yaqoob with was religion. I suggested that I might become polytheistic because the world looked like it had been designed by committee and because most monotheistic religions ignored a darker side of God, represented by the likes of Kali. This elicited a "Polytheism is cool, man," from Ani. Yaq started singing the Credo, which made me even more shameless - when he sang 'unum Deum', I said, "But I'm not sure..."
But it wasn't the sparkling conversation or Yaqoob baiting that won the evening. That came much earlier, when dinner was served.
As mentioned earlier, Anirudh is a Tamil Brahmin, eliciting images of vegetarianism, cow worship and meditation. Knowing Yaqoob had made a meat dish, I asked Ani if he'd have enough to eat. He said he wasn't a vegetarian; that Hinduism had no rule that you should be. He said that it was the English who had created this image of the 'Hindoo'. That led to a fascinating conversation, and food was temporarily forgotten.
Then Yaqoob served up, and I asked, "What kind of meat is that?"
"Beef," he responded, as he ladled a portion onto Ani's plate.
Rahul and I gasped involuntarily: despite Ani's comment, this was a step too far. Pictures of Ani ending up as a dung fly in the next life despite his Brahmin caste danced in my head. He couldn't possibly eat a sacred cow.
"Ani!" I exclaimed. "You can't eat that!"
Nonchalantly scooping up chawal and curry with his fingers, the Delhi denizen drily declared:
"It's not an Indian cow."