The Big Men

by Swathi Desai

Vivek should have come to this function. My only son should know by now that in America you don’t get ahead in life with your intelligence, not like we do in India. Here it is about who you know and I am not speaking about knowing Americans. There are Indians here who came ten, twenty years before our family and made names for themselves, like Prasadji and Rameshbhai.  Yes, their families had plenty of money in India in high civil servant jobs. But their families were not here in America to help them. They succeeded by boasting about themselves at work, like the Americans, making others believe they were big men, until it became the truth. Now these men are helping our children get ahead and bring honor to their families and where is my Vivek? At the craft store helping people frame photos of their perfect children or rearranging the colored pencils near the cash register. Or maybe he is home now drinking a beer or drawing while his mother cooks his dinner. He should be here meeting these big men, not me. 

Go on, look at young Pranav over there. So happy talking to Prasadji as if he is his long lost son. Look at all the money his father, Rameshbhai, spent on his college. Fancy Ivy League School. Look at the job he got out of college. Something my own Vivek could have gotten just by knowing the right people. My Vivek went to community college two years then entered straight into UC Berkeley. Why did Rameshbhai send Pranav to that fancy school when all he had to do was send him to junior college? The first year is free, then Berkeley! Maybe he knew that Pranav could not get into Berkeley, heh? I heard he spent so much money on classes for Pranav. First the SAT classes, then special coaches for his college applications. My Vivek did none of that and look at him now; not so far behind Pranav.

Oh, look, Rameshbhai is walking over here. Smile. How are you, Rameshbhai? So good to see you bring Pranav to our function. So many times I have brought my Vivek so he could talk to Pranav, but when we get to the party, no Pranav. He must be so busy with his work now, eh?  Management consulting. My Vivek works in management, too. Michael’s Craft Store. Long hours since he changed to salary, not hourly. No more time and a half, eh? I tell him he should work in a government job, but he has to take exam. Ah, you have to go? Oh, you see our friend, Sureshbhai, over there. Please come visit us when you can.  

What I want to know is where did Rameshbhai get the money to send both his children to fancy schools, that’s what I want to know. I’m going to talk to Prasadji as soon as he stops shaking everyone’s hand. Who does he think he is? He is not the most educated one here, that’s Vinitbhai, he graduated from Cambridge, or the one with the most money, that would be Kailashbhai, making so much money on that semi-conductor gadget. Did you hear how his daughter married a black? How can he show his face here? Do you see how he is smiling? As if everyone does not know the shame he must feel. Look, now Prasadji is free. Prasadji! Prasadji!  Did you try the bhajia? The caterer is my relation from Ahmedhabad. Sorry to hear about your heart. I understand about not eating the bhajia, but it is vegetarian, no? It’s the fried food, right you are, sir! I understand how you helped Pranav get his job. Well, my Vivek is in management now, too, but he is at the top, nowhere else to go, right? Ha, ha. Yes, I see, I will send his resume to you. You have to go, yes, yes. Please come visit us when you can.

Did you see the way that both Rameshbhai and Prasadji spoke to me less than a minute and then had to leave? Rameshbhai is an engineer and Prasadji is an attorney, immigration. I heard that Rameshbhai graduated first class first, top of his class. Prasadji probably did, too, but I do not know as much about his family because he is not Gujarati. They both know that I am no one. They have no interest in our gas station business. My brother repairs the cars, but not too well, or else the customers will not come back. My wife works at the register during the day, never at night, because we have been robbed too many times. The last time a man wearing a mask held a gun to her head, so she said no more working at night. We let the blacks and the Mexicans work there at night now. I never ask about immigration status and the Mexicans appreciate that.

We are all here for our semi-annual meeting of Indian Businessmen of America, but there are some ladies, too. Oh, what’s that you say? They changed the name to Indian Business Owners of America, but it’s still called IBA? Easier to remember, correct. The ladies protested, I see.  Probably Lakshmiben with her big real estate business. She does sell many, many homes. I see her face on the backs of benches near bus stops all over San Lorenzo. She has many American clients, too since they recognize the name ‘Lakshmi’ from Padma Lakshmi, the lady on TV.  Hindu girl, she married a muslim, then of course she divorced him. I think he wrote some books.

The topic for tonight is Getting Ahead in an Uncertain Business Climate. Whoever thought up this topic has not been here very long. Every day, every year, every decade is uncertain. When has there ever been certainty in this life we have made in California? Some Indians say life was much better in India and they are here in California to make as much money as they can, then move back to India. There is too much temptation for our children here. Do you see how many of our children have married Americans? I tell my Vivek that he is lucky because we will not force him to marry someone he does not want to marry, but he can never marry an American. Why, he asks? Because we can never feel comfortable in their homes, that is why. Your delicate mother will never be able to visit you in your home if you marry an American, I told Vivek.  Do you see how big the American women are? Your mother’s gifts of jewelry will be wasted on them because they cannot wear our bangles on their big wrists. And the meat they cook in their homes will stink up the house. No, your mother will never be able to visit you.

There was one nice American. Sherry. A very nice lady. She was the only one who would marry Vikram, he had epilepsy, so no one from our side would go near him; they did not want their daughters to marry someone with such a defect. Their children might catch it. She thought saris were too complicated to wear so my Gita bought her a salwar kurta, but she had to buy it in extra large size. Sherry learned to cook our food, too she even made rice the proper way, so it did not come out sticky.  My Gita had to tell her to stop using that Uncle Ben’s nonsense. Only basmati will do. She made one or two dals that Vikram could tolerate. But she bought rotis from the Amber Bazaar. When my Gita is tired from working at the gas station, she will ask me to go to Amber Bazaar and buy a few things. There is no shame in this once in a while. I buy us pistachio and saffron kulfi from there as a treat. Sherry was not much for making our shakhs, vegetables were not her favorite, she would say. That was all right for Vikram since he did not care for vegetables, either. It was too bad when she died of breast cancer last year, yes.

Okay, okay I will be quiet now that the meeting is starting. They are so formal here. They act like this gathering is the House of Parliament. What are they going to do next, put on wigs?There is Prasadji banging his gavel, calling the meeting to order. Order, what order? The men who have the most money and education are the leaders and we who work hard every day of our lives are below them. That is the order. I wish Vivek could have come tonight, though. After the last few times, his work schedule changed, so he could not attend. I am sure he could change his schedule now, being a manager. But he did not.

Now they are reading the minutes from the last meeting, as if anyone is listening. Everyone including the big men are just waiting for the waiters to clear the bhajia station so they can start putting the dinner on the long table. When we first started, we had no caterer, we just brought our own snacks that our wives packed for us. Then the wives of the big men started to coordinate the snack food for everyone. They wanted to bring warm food, it was only right, for such a gathering, but the Elks Lodge would not allow it. Something about a fire code. Not approved for open flames. I am sure the Elks thought our food was not good enough for their lodge, so the big men decided to move to a different venue. And here we have been at the local high school ever since. It is a very fancy public high school in Atherton, but I hear that the big men don’t even send their children to this school, not good enough. They send them to private schools, so much money, such waste. Most of us have to drive a very long way in traffic to reach the high school, but then we get to drive by the homes of the big men, see how fancy their houses are.

Vivek said he could not come tonight because he had to work on his drawings. I told him that grown men do not draw, especially cartoons and he is nearly twenty-five years complete. I did not hit him like my father used to beat me, I would not do that to him. But I had to show him that I am his father and I know better than him, so I ripped apart his silly drawing and what do you think he did?  He stood up and looked at me and he shook with such anger. If he had taken a step toward me, I would have had to beat him. But he did not. He is a good boy and knows when to obey. Then he got some tape and carefully, so carefully, he pieced together the drawing.  He cried then and had to blot the tears that were falling on his cartoons. He asked me to leave him then. Since he made this request in the way a man would, I closed the door behind me and I left. I saw his mother standing there. She had witnessed our son’s shame. I went to her, but she clutched the fall of her sari and turned from me. I heard her call out, as I left for the meeting tonight, that I pushed him out of the gas station, but I was not going to push him out of his home. Does she not know that a child can never be pushed out of his own home?

The secretary just finished reading the minutes from the last meeting. It sounded exactly like the last one and the one before that. I am here to make contacts for my one and only son, but he is not even here and the big men will not talk to me except to smile and nod and pretend that they will help me. My wife’s food is much better than this food. I do not know how old the food is. I am sure it was not made fresh today like the food in my house. Knowing this caterer, it was probably all brought from another one of his events and reheated. Steamed to look fresh.  

How can I trust any of these people, when even the food cannot be trusted? The big men are only concerned with themselves or at most, the children of the other big men. I trust my Gita, I do. And Jaime at the gas station. He has been with me for fifteen years now and Jaime’s girlfriend Kennisha. She is reliable when she is not in school. She goes to the community college and takes too many courses. I tell her to go slow, but she wants to go to regular college, she says.  She will be the first in her family. Like my Vivek, I told her. When I said his name, she put her head down and looked at the cash register. She might have still been upset with me because the last time she saw Vivek was when she had to pull me off of him at the store. She yelled, “Mr. Shah, Mr. Shah!  Stop, you’re hurting him, stop!” It was only when I looked down at my son that I saw how he had put his hands over his head and was rocking back and forth. I went to touch him, but he scampered away from me, back toward the candy and the chewing gum. He looked at me like he didn’t even know me, his own father. How can a son not know his own father?  Kennisha went to him and put her arm around him, lifting him up off the floor. That was when Vivek went to go find another job. That was as it should be. A boy, in order to be a man, must go out on his own, just like I did when I left India, leaving my entire family. So it was only right that Vivek find another job away from his father, so he could become a man. Maybe even a big man, someday.

About the Author

Swathi Desai is a creative director in the design industry and a graduate of the Wharton School. Her writing has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and the East Bay Express. She lives in the Bay Area with her family.