“Wake up, Upendra, or you'll miss the interview.”
“5 more minutes, Binod.”
“If you sleep any further the queue for water will become very long.”
Life in a Delhi slum was different from life back home, Upendra wondered, as he woke up. But not too different, luckily. People pushed and shoved just like they did anywhere. Except that there were lots and lots and lots of people in Delhi. More than he had ever seen.
“Don't goof up today. This is my third and last contact. If you blow this you will have to return home.” warned Binod.
“The train to Guwahati takes a long time through the hot plains. No, no, I will not mess up.”
“You better rehearse your lines again, Upendra Koijam.”
“Don't worry. I practised them well, just like Sir taught us.”
“Saabji, this is the boy I told you about.” Upendra addressed the man at the counter.
Upendra inspected him, standing behind Binod. He was exactly as Sir had said he would be.
“Okay. Let me see whom you have caught and brought.” He waved a hand at Upendra. “Hey boy, come here.”
He stepped forward.
“So this is the boy. Let us see.” he said in Hindi.
It was as Sir had taught him to expect. A smallish restaurant on the Delhi - Jaipur highway. A few shabby plastic tables in several colours, with matching plastic chairs stood in a compound outside, covered by a grey-green shamiana. There was a large room inside, with wooden tables and chairs. The sunmica was stained in places and peeling off at the edges; the padding on the seats were torn. Down to the very last detail, as Sir had told.
“What is your name?” the man asked, again in Hindi.
Stop. Sir's last lesson flooded back to him. This was the last lesson that he had learnt, before he boarded the bus to Guwahati for the onward train journey to Delhi.
“Now remember,” Sir had said, “When they ask you for your name, you are not Upendra Koijam. Remember what they expect you to be.”
Binod intervened. “He doesn't know Hindi, Saabji.”
He turned to Upendra.
“Tell him your name.”
He giggled. He knew Hindi quite well, having learnt it at school. But it was all part of the script.
“Hu Jintao, Saabji.”
“Hu Jintao, Saabji.”
“Okay, okay. From where where they get names. This Deng your brother?”
“Me Deng Xiaoping brother, Saabji” he replied in 'broken' Hindi.
“Where you are coming from?”
Here he was on safe ground.
“It is a wonder. All Chinky people coming from Tamenglong.”
“What what you make?”
Upendra paused. What should he say for this man? Perhaps not Lungfung and Talumein soup. That seemed a bit upmarket for this joint.
“Hakka, Singapore, Chicken Lollipop, all come Saabji.”
“Okay, okay. Make something and show.”
Upendra sighed with relief. Now was his chance. He was no great actor, because of which he had blown the first two opportunities. He had spent the whole of yesterday practising hard. And finally made it past to this level. Cooking he was more confident of.
He walked over to the place the man pointed to and lit the stove. He put on the funnily-shaped frying pan (which Sir had taught him to call a wok), and ladled a cupful of oil onto it. Quickly chop up a lot of spring onions, cabbages, carrots and tomatoes, under the saabji's approving eyes.
“No, no. Don't waste. For now, make veg only.”
After frying the vegetables, he picked up several handfuls of boiled rice. It was nice and sticky. Now to add in the various sauces that Sir had taught him so painstakingly. All the difference between Singapore and HongKong depended on how red or yellow it looked.
Now for the make or break part - the tossing. If he didn't spill much, he would get the job.
And what a job – cooking Chinese at a dhaba outside Delhi. He wished he hadn't failed his tenth. If he'd passed, he might have gone on to do a degree at NEHU. Maybe even make it to the Indian Institute of Science, like so many chaps from his district had done so.
But no, he had whiled away his schooldays, and failed students were doomed to a livelihood spent behind a hot stove, cooking things that were as exotic to him as any one else.
It was difficult trying to suppress his irritation. Tamenglong was very much in India, in Manipur exactly, but there was no point in saying that, right? After all, being mistaken for Chinese was how this kind of job market worked, right?
“Hey, get someone to taste it and see.” yelled the man behind the counter, to no one in particular.
A waiter tried it. “It's okay, saabji.”
“Hey boy, I will give you Rs. 7000 a month, will you do the job?”
“Will do, Sir.”
“Got the job, Sir”
“Very good, my boy!”
Mr. Nongthomba sighed, happy that Manipur Chinese Cooking School had achieved 100% placement this year too.