It was Fall of 1966, I had been a couple of months at Stanford University studying for my Master's degree in Electrical Engineering. Financially I felt destitute. In order to guarantee the tuition and travel costs for the Master's program at Stanford, I had pretty much hocked myself and all my family's fortune. I vowed that I will use as little of it as I could so that the hardship to the family will be minimal. I felt the financial pressure of doing whatever possible to reduce this debt. I began by doing weekend baby sitting and cleaning the house for a professor who lived on campus in exchange for a studio apartment. By being on campus I could ride my bike to classes and participate in campus activity. I did not have to invest in a car. I still needed some more living money.
The Bechtel International Center, the I-center as it was popularly called, provided me a haven. There I was sure to meet other students and have companionship when I felt a social need. As I am an outgoing person this was often. I participated in many of their activities. I noticed that on Sundays the international students served lunch and charged a buck.
My Australian friend Dave, knowing my cash-strapped existence, and need for extra money suggested, 'Manjula, why not make and serve chicken curry lunch?'
Indian food in Bay area was scarce then. There were not many Indian students on campus and I had not seen any Indian women at the I-center; there were no Indian restaurants within easy reach of campus. I thought that was a wonderful idea. I made a quick mental calculation and thought I could make half of my costs in profits. That will help defray some of my daily expenses. So I proudly made out a menu, vegetable rice pullav, chicken curry and rice pudding for dessert. I put the menu on the bulletin board and was very pleased to see that fifteen people had signed up by the end of the first day. That is as many as I could fit around the table in the main lounge. I was jubilant at my success. I danced all the way home.
That night, it suddenly dawned on me that I had never seen a chicken in my life. Leave alone cook it. Terror began to sweep my body. I felt chilly. 'Oh my God! What have you done? You, daft of a woman! How are you going to pull this one off?' part of me said. The other part said, 'Well we can always cancel it and pretend I have been struck by a long term illness. Perhaps, the only way out of this mess and save my face is to just go before people find out what a fake I am. What is the best way to go? Why did I ever come to this place?' I went back and forth further downward spiraling in this useless negative thinking. I had better call my friend Dave and tell him I cannot do this. So I dialed his telephone at somewhat late hour.
'Hello, this is Dave speaking.' I heard him answer the phone in a groggy voice . My first impulse was to hang up the phone and not say anything. What would I say to him? How could I 'fess up' to a new friend of my total imbecility?
Then something within me stirred, and chickening (no pun intended) I said, 'Hello Dave, about that chicken curry lunch next Sunday. I don't have a car and don't know where to buy the chicken.' I could not bring myself to tell him I did not know shit about a chicken. The only ones I had seen were those running around alive and clucking.
'That is not a problem, Manjula. I have a car and I will take you to the store and help you buy the chicken. If we go Saturday afternoon then it will have enough time to defrost by the time you need to cook.' Defrost the chicken, what the heck was he talking about? I wondered.
Not wanting to sound as foolish as I felt. I answered faintly. 'Oh. Ok. Thank you very much. That helps me out a lot. Sorry to bother you. Good night.' I hung up the phone. My agitation only mounted and I sunk into deep melancholy, wishing the earth would open up and swallow me whole. Not only it did not, I woke up next morning, realizing, I had better push the pedal on the bike if I wanted to make it to my 9 AM class. I was awfully late. This adrenaline rush took care of the previous despair. I had no time to dwell on my impending doom.
On my way home, in the distance I saw a woman in a sari, walking. She looked like a North Indian woman. I had heard that there was another Indian woman in the Math department. I prayed that it was she. I turned and raced on my bike, my only hope to salvation, praying that she was a non- vegetarian and ate chicken, because if she did, she will know how to prepare it. I waved at her madly with one hand, trying to get her attention, while I balanced myself on the bicycle with the other. I came close to her, braked, got off my bike, and said,
'Hello, I am Manjula, I have heard so much about you. I am so glad to finally see you.'
'Oh, I am Chanchal. I have also heard about you. Glad to finally meet you.' She beamed. I was elated, her accent sounded like she was from Punjab, where they do eat chicken curry. I came straight to the point.
'You sound like you are from Punjab. You would not happen to know how to cook chicken curry would you? You see, I am making the Sunday lunch at the I-center and need to make chicken curry, but do not know how. I am hoping you do.'
Somehow it was easier to confess to another woman about my lack of culinary knowledge.
'Yes, of course. It is not a problem. You just cook it like potato curry. Instead of potatoes you just add chicken.' Her, words were music to my ears, for I had seen potato curry cooked thousands of time before. God was kind and good. I felt I am saved. Halleluiah! I sang under my breath.
'Thank you Chanchal. Will you like to come to the Sunday lunch?' I invited her.
'Oh, I cannot, I am going to my host family for lunch, but, if I am done in time, I will drop by and see how it went.' She replied.
'That will be great! So good to meet you finally! Look forward to seeing you on Sunday. Thanks for your help with the chicken curry recipe. Bye.' I waved, got on my bike and went home singing. I felt God's grace shining upon me.
Sunday morning came. I got ready to cook the lunch at the I center. I had carefully made sure I had all the ingredients needed. I fried the onions, added spices and tomatoes, fried them in oil, and put the chicken pieces in the deliciously smelling curry sauce, as directed by Chanchal. Dave was there to tell me when the chicken looked cooked. The pullav and the pudding were no sweat. I had rice pudding simmering, and pullav cooking on the other burners. At noon the guests came and paid their buck. I served lunch. Carefully, putting rice and a piece of chicken and some gravy on each plate and the pudding in another plate and took it in. It looked good. I stood around and observed. Proud of my achievement. Every one seemed to be enjoying their meal. A couple of them looked peeved and were not eating their chicken. I asked them, 'Is everything OK?'
'Yeah.' They murmured. They sounded disgruntled to me.
Maybe they did not like the spices, I reasoned and went on listening to the lively conversation. It was Vietnam war protest times and there was plenty to talk about. Soon the end came and people left. Most of them seemed happy and congratulated me on the delicious meal. I was glowing. As I was clearing the table, I saw Chanchal come by.
'Hello, how did it go?'
'Wonderful. Hey, thanks a lot for helping me out. However, a couple did not like theirs maybe I put too much spices or something,' I said glancing ruefully at the chicken remains on the plates of people who looked unhappy.
Suddenly, Chanchal laughed heartily. 'Of course they did not eat their chicken. What you served was the neck and giblets to them. There is no meat. People do not eat those.'
'Then why do they sell these with the chicken?' I said trying to defend my actions. Feeling, that she could have warned me about it.
'Some people like to put them in gravy and soup stock.' She told me.
I felt really bad and guilty about ripping off those couple of people. If I could find them I would have refunded them part of their dollar. If any of you, from that day are reading this story, I owe you a big apology. I hope you understand that there is a price to be paid for taking the road less traveled. I regret it had to be you. I will gladly reimburse you prorated part of your buck.