A State of Niceness by Tabish Khair

Tabish Khair
The wipers made a slight sucking noise that Syed felt at the back of his head. Maybe they made the noise only in his head. Surely that was the case: how could he possibly hear the sound of wipers brushing away the relentless autumn drizzle in a car that was hermetically sealed against the outside? It is something he had to get used to: these sealed cars; windows up, always. No draught except the smooth artificial airflow of the air-conditioner. Just warm enough. A smell as that in a room closed for too long, like a prison room, a smell of staleness which had been deodoranted to a nicety. But it persisted. Syed smelled it in all such cars, Fords, Mercedes, Chryslers, cars so different from the Fiats and Ambassadors – those days even Marutis had been rare – that he had driven, windows down, wind ruffling his hair, in India.
The car smelled of stale niceness. Or did it? He could see his parents-in-law, both engineers, both extremely nice people, sitting up front. His father-in-law, reasonable, sane, reddish-brown hair gone a steely grey, was driving. His mother-in-law, reasonable, sane, dark blond hair still kept blond with the help of various lotions and dyes, was leafing through a sales catalogue. They obviously could not smell the stale niceness that pervaded the car. Syed wished he could lower the windows, or get out for a quick breath. But it was drizzling outside, and cold. It would be strange if he lowered the window. It wouldn’t sound nice if he said he wanted to get out and breathe. He had been conscripted into niceness by his decision to move to this country, his decision to marry here.

He closed his eyes and imagined his wife cycling to meet them. She was returning from engineering college. Her parents, who lived in another town, were passing through this city and had invited them out for dinner. Dinner at six. That is another of the things Syed had to get used to in the initial months.
In his mind, he could see her cycling, wearing her smart brown raincoat, focussed – as always – on what she was doing. She had been less focussed when Syed had met her. She had not started studying engineering yet. She had spent a couple of years dabbling in the humanities, a relationship to time and degrees that Syed, coming from a country where careers were aborted by a single lost month, could only envy. At that time, Syed already had a career as a journalist in India. After initial hesitation, which had lasted for almost two years, he had quit his job and moved to this country. He had started off, like any other immigrant in West Europe, by doing odd jobs, mostly menial work which could be performed by those who did not speak the language. Having picked up the language, he had obtained a scholarship to do a PhD in Social Anthropology. But he was not so focussed on it. He felt he had drifted into something to which he was largely superfluous. This lifestyle, this car, this marriage, this orderly state of niceness all around him, his own inability to be rude.

They must have sms-ed or synchronised their watches. They had just parked the car and walked to the entrance of the restaurant when Karen, his wife, cycled up and joined them. The restaurant was in a dour, late-19th century building, grey and solid. It looked more like an office building than a restaurant. But it was, Syed knew, an expensive place, the sort of place frequented only by those who were in the know. Not a pizzeria or a kebab place or a McDonald’s.
Past the flanking columns of the door, engraved into half-pillars, there was suddenly a darkly red-carpeted, sumptuous world. There were rows of coats, overcoats and jackets. A low, diffuse light burned overhead. To the right was the door to the hall of the restaurant, up three small steps. It exuded warmth.
Syed could not follow his in-laws and Karen through the door into the restaurant because he was the last one in the row, and when he hung up his jacket first Karen’s jacket and then her mother’s coat fell off the hooks on which they had been precariously and hurriedly placed. By the time Syed had hung the jacket and the coat back on the pegs, Karen and her parents had entered the restaurant and disappeared in the artificial candle-lit gloaming inside.
Inside, at the reception counter, Syed was stopped by a very Scandinavian looking waiter – tall, broad, blond, even teeth cared for by state-subsidised dentistry from kindergarten onwards – who looked at him with some surprise. When Syed’s eyes got used to the gloom and began to register the other guests (almost all tables appeared to be occupied), he could understand the surprise in the waiter’s eyes: Syed was perhaps the only dark person in the hall. I am meeting friends here, Syed told the waiter and walked in. The waiter did not look convinced and might have intercepted Syed, but at that moment some elderly ladies congesting a table beckoned for attention. The waiter moved in their direction with a dubious glance at Syed.
Syed was in a hall of wooden panelling and rich dark furniture. There were plain white tablecloths, thin elegant candle-stands, maroon or dark green curtains. Everything was subdued and affluent, with the affluence of those who do not have to demonstrate their wealth or taste. It did not appear to be a particularly large hall to Syed, but even then he could not spot Karen or her parents. They appeared to have disappeared, swallowed into this Alladdin’s cave of affluence and taste.

Walking about in the murky light, Syed felt odd. He felt he stood out: was it due to his consciousness of the difference of his skin or the difference of his activity in this place? He was the only person who appeared to be looking, and people who look around always seem a trifle lost. All the others were firmly ensconced in place; they looked like they belonged there and when they moved they always had a definite goal, the toilet, the door, the counter. The waiters moved about with just as much assurance and certainty. Syed wavered in their midst, talking a half-step in one direction and a step in another, looking.
Then suddenly he caught sight of Karen. The room appeared to have changed. It had opened up. It was more cavernous and much larger than it had appeared at first. Actually, for the first time Syed realised that he could not tell where the hall ended. It stretched in front of him, rows and rows of polished tables, ironed tablecloths, people pouring wine, consuming dishes, conversing in low tones, politely.
There was something like a huge bowl further up, with ramps leading up to it from four directions. The bowl appeared at least a storey tall to Syed. He realised, with no sense of shock, that it was a salad bowl, with other small bowls ranged around it: great cornucopias full of fruit and salad, he thought. He had glimpsed Karen walking towards it, along one of the ramps.
He needed to get out of the shadows of the section where he was standing. He needed to catch her attention, though she was not looking around for him. She never looked around these days.
Syed realised that the section where he stood was a raised platform. The stairs were some way off. He could not reach them without losing sight of Karen. So he braved himself, knowing it would draw eyes to him, and jumped down from the platform to a lower level, a hop of three feet or less. All the diners around him turned and looked, precisely but briefly, perhaps even more briefly when they realised who he was, as if that explained his lack of etiquette, his jump.
But the jolt of the jump and the eyes turning to him had momentarily disoriented Syed, and when he looked up, he could not spot Karen again. He stopped a passing waiter to enquire, but the waiter gave him a blank looked and passed.

Syed was reminded of the lack that had crept into his marriage over the years. Or perhaps it had always been there; he had just become more sensitive to it in recent months. He missed ordinary gestures: the easy knowledge of each other’s presence, the shared joke, the need not to ask. Perhaps that was so because he craved ordinary things.
This craving for ordinary things: the potted flower, the striped curtain, the pot simmering in the kitchen, the novel spread on the sofa, the smell of toast. How easily Karen could extend these to him, how unthinkingly withdraw them too. For she took the ordinariness for granted. She had not had to gather up fragments of the ordinary, the daily, in a new setting.
It was like that with almost all of them, despite their concern, despite the niceness. And it was buttressed by a belief that, after all, they lived in the best of worlds – and any of his losses were amply compensated. The losses had to be acknowledged at times, but only at a human, personal level, never as a matter of the world, a flaw that increasingly appeared structural to him. It was simply taken for granted that coming from where he did, being what he was – westernised, professional, irreligious – it was normal for him to be here. And, as such, he felt, it was always him seeking the ordinary (and often not finding it); it was always him who had to move around, make space, look, ask.

Tired of asking and looking around in a place that seemed without end to him, Syed gravitated back towards the section near the entrance, the exit. He stood next to a table lined with national newspapers, worrying about the state of the world and making polite noises of criticism about the treatment of refugees in the country, and tabloids full of lurid scandals and crimes, the latter often pointing a vague finger at immigrants and refugees. He did not necessarily disagree with all the newspapers and they did not always agree with each other, but Syed found their assurance, whether it was about Nigeria or Denmark or USA, difficult to stomach. It was this commonality of tone that made all the news sound like a repeat of what Syed had read for weeks, months, years. But just as he could not walk away from the restaurant – it would have been rude of him, surely – he could not resist reading such headlines day after day.  They were in different ways (mostly well-meaning, mostly nice) so oblivious of him, and yet he had to keep looking at them, for them, these printed words he knew by heart even before they were printed each night.
He stood there browsing through the newspapers for five minutes or so. It was then that he noticed a corridor leading to a quiet and empty section.
The corridor had surprisingly cheap wooden panelling. The section it led to was empty, and unlike the rest of the restaurant, it had chairs piled up on the tables. The chairs and tables were of the spindly kind used in cafes. This section was probably used during earlier hours to serve customers who wanted a coffee and cake rather than a meal. Syed walked into it listlessly, noticing the chairs and round wooden tables, the empty beer counter, the pattern on the floor.
He was looking at the floor when he almost bumped into someone. It was a waiter, not a local this time, but someone from the Middle East or Turkey. Can I help you, sir? the man said, in English. A surprising feeling of gratitude flooded Syed. Syed noticed that the man did not wear the uniform of waiters. He was probably a cleaner from the kitchens below, sent up to fetch the tray of dirtied utensils that he was carrying. Syed explained his search to the man.
Have you looked in the reserved sections? asked the man. Seeing the look of incomprehension on Syed’s face, the man pointed at the cheap wooden panelling along one side of the corridor: there are rooms behind those panels. They are usually used by special guests. Your family might have been placed there.

Syed slid one of the panels open, and was met with garish light. The room inside contrasted with the main hall of the restaurant through which he had been walking until now. The main hall was dimly lit; the guests were dressed in conservative greys, blue and black, the tables arranged at polite distance from each other all over the floor. But this hidden room was like a wedding shamiana in a small town in India or Pakistan. It was garishly lit: the men talking confidently, the women speaking in low tones or keeping quiet. There was a buffet table in the middle of the room, piled with dishes, while the chairs were ranged along the four walls.
Syed realised with a shock that almost all the people sitting in the room, the women dressed in gorgeous colours, were South Asians: Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankan. The women mostly sat on the chairs along the walls, holding plates of food in their hands or laps, sometimes feeding a child. The men, more conservatively dressed, stood conversing desultorily in groups all over this secret room in the panelling. They were attired like aspiring businessmen or government functionaries on a rare trip abroad. Some of the groups were mixed, but mostly the men stood together.
A thickset middle-aged man spotted Syed and sauntered over to him. You live here? he asked in a heavy Haryanvi or Punjabi accent. Syed nodded in affirmation. The man’s slightly florid features lit up with a smile and a smirk of recognition: South Asian to South Asian, Indian to Indian, man to man. So, where are the fun spots of this famous city? he asked again, with a wink. You know, he repeated, the fun places.
It took Syed a second before he understood the question. Then the words sank in, illustrated by the sly look in the man’s eyes. Syed looked at him for another second. Then he did something incredibly rude: he turned on his heels and started to walk towards the exit.