On Straws and Thoughts of Gandhi

Why you should never tell the waiter you’re a psychiatrist.


I am new to this restaurant. There is the scent of incense, and a little man who clutches his belt buckle as he talks. He is the waiter.  He isn’t very happy with me. “You mustn’t drink with a straw,” the waiter is saying. “Bad for lips and mouth and the teeth. My people, we don’t drink Sweet Lassi with straws. But you Americans like straws!  I say, if you like straws, why not drink beer with straws?

Don’t drink with a straw? Maybe he is a madman. I am a psychiatrist. I like madmen. He turns to leave, and I shout after him: “I am not an American!”

When he comes back with my food I have hidden the straw under the table.

“My name is Navan Patel,” he says. “Where you from?”

Patel doesn’t wait for an answer. He has too much to say. He has traveled the world, spent a day in Kenya hunting, and once slept with an ostrich to stay warm. He has many secrets. Patel showers fully dressed, so he doesn’t need to do laundry. His voices are jovial, telling him to kiss customers’ feet and say bad things about the curry. Sometimes the voices have great jokes, things that make him giggle and tear up, things he can’t repeat to anyone. Above all, Patel knows the story of Gandhi. “It was Africa where Gandhi saw the people as first and second class citizens. When he came to India he saw the same as Africa.”

“You know, I’m from Africa,” I tell him. Maybe he does not hear me.

“Gandhi was a rich man, came from a very, very, very rich family. Gandhi left it all and wore only one clothing. It was very, very cold. He was a vegetarian too. It was Gandhi who said you should not be picky. You must not be picky, you must be choosy. When you are to pay for something you are choosy because you pay for it.

It is something – the brilliant soul of my belt-buckled friend. He won’t let me get a word in edgewise, but I like him.

He pauses, askance, watching me –Are you a journalist?”

I tell him I’m a doctor.

“And what sort of doctor are you?”

“A medical doctor.”

“But some doctors have special things, like they do surgery or treat skin problems.”

“I’m a psychiatrist,” I admit.

“Psychiatrist?”

I nod. Soon there is an air of suspicion about him. “Very well,” he says. He has heard enough. He grabs his belt buckle and heads for the kitchen. He doesn’t come back, my belt-buckled friend, and I am left alone with a straw and thoughts of Gandhi. Someone else comes with the bill.

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