the faux bohemian

My premier novel, The Faux Bohemian, is a story about a young woman coming to terms with young adulthood and dealing with the new phenomenon known as ‘the quarter life crisis.’  Following is an excerpt from the novel:

Novel by Sadia Sarwar

The tunnel traffic snaked around the streets outside the office building. All the savvy New Yorkers were wise to leave the city this weekend because of the large influx of tourists about to raid the city. MidTown was always the worst hit – everyone wanted to go to Times Square of course. Sana would often walk all the way up to the pantheon of billboards and lights, sitting amongst the crowd, enjoying the anonymity. She used to enjoy being anonymous in the city back then, a welcome change from the constant stares from lusty men back home.

The anonymity embedded her with a power to reinvent herself – she could be anybody or anything she desired. Spanish-speaking folks would approach her for directions – her skin color matching the Spanish sun-kissed tinge and at first, she would resist, imploring them to believe her that she did not in fact speak Spanish but that she was Indian/Bangladeshi. However, given the power to reinvent herself, she started to pick up certain Spanish words for direction (right, left, straight ahead, etc.) and would try to communicate to the best of her abilities with them.

After three years of enjoying being alone in the city, the strain of loneliness was starting to unravel. She longed for recognition; she longed to be able to dine at places like the historic Balthazar in SoHo. The loneliness gave way to a desire to be recognized in the city. The city had so many magical doors offering a multitude of things, yet so many of these doors remained closed for her. She was desperate to get them to open for her.

The throbbing pain of loneliness pervaded back into Sana’s mind and she decided to walk to Times Square to sit awhile. She needed to embrace her loneliness. Maybe it would be the last time she would be able to enjoy it before her inevitable return home.

She would have to call her mother alas and admit defeat – a harrowing prospect she intended to delay for if she could help it. Maybe she would call her tomorrow or after the weekend ended. Right now, she wanted to walk to Times Square and numb her pain.

She set off, walking along 5th Avenue, bustling with tourists. She made it up ten blocks when her feet started to throb. She was wearing kitten heels – an incorrect walking instrument. Her stomach growled again and she started to crave some street food. The Bengali biriyani man was out in his food cart today – he rarely stuck around during the weekends, let alone the tourist-packed ones. Last night’s nostalgic remembrance of kacchi made her crave for some of his right then.

Fortuitously finding an ATM across the street from her, she resolved to take out some cash for her meal. The abysmally low bank balance made her wince: $98.63. She took 50$, intending to splurge on some kacchi and a cab ride up to MidTown then back up to Harlem after she was done. What had she to lose anyway? A quick phone call to her mother would solve her problems and so too was her inevitable exhumation from the city.

She makes her way across the crowd surrounding the biriyani man.

‘Hi, what do you want?’

‘Ekta kacchi, please (one kacchi please).’

‘Sure, shathey ki dibo (what do you want to drink)? Coke?’

‘Just paani (water), thank you. Koto dibo (how much is it)?’

‘Kichu lagbey na, Apu (it’s on the house, sister).’

Bengalis had a way of forming familial ties easily. It was common for older men or women to address people younger than them as ‘Apu’ (sister) or ‘Bhaiya’ (brother) and vice versa. It was intended both to show respect and to sow the seeds of familiarity amongst each other. It was the nicest form of networking there was in the world – every Boro Apu or Bhaiya (older ‘sister’ or ‘brother’) you knew meant the more influence and power you were cumulating. The Bengalis were their own resources of help and knowledge. Long before the Internet, it was the network of ‘bhaiya’s’ and ‘apu’s’ is what would propagate your quotidian tasks.

Sana was touched. It was the first time that revealing her Bengali roots had helped her in the city. She smiled at the renowned chef and thanked him vigorously. He beamed back at her, wiping the sweat off his forehead. She found a bench to sit on and enjoy her food. It was delicious. Sana’s maternal grandmother, her Nani had the best kacchi recipe in Dhaka. She had learned the technique from a Hyderabadi chef who used to cook for the kings there. He had been visiting her Nani’s ancestral home in Karachi once, teaching their household chef how it was made. Nani had coaxed it out of him thereafter, carrying those secrets with her to Dhaka. She had tried and failed to teach Sana’s mother the ancient recipe but Sana’s mother was not inclined towards food thus rejected its importance. Sana, though showed an interest, much to her mother’s chagrin, and her Nani had written it down for Sana. She had attempted it once when in college, stinking up the whole dormitory but she still had a long way to go before perfecting it.

The biriyani man’s rendition was an expertly concocted fast-food rendition. She appreciated his ingenuity for simplifying this most complex dish and catering to the non-spice eating races of the world. He was a Bengali man who was making it in the Big Apple by reinventing his roots and she thoroughly admired his endeavor.

Sana ravaged the food quite easily, quite shocked – she had thought that not eating regularly had stunted her appetite but she always had room for kacchi it seemed. It was time to head on up to Times Square.

Sana did the usual New York thing of breaking the imaginary cab cue (more of a touristy practice rather than a local one) and hopped on. The cab driver was an Eastern European man who spoke very little English but enough to understand Times Square which satisfied Sana. She insisted that he go all the way East to 9th Avenue then make his way up to 42nd Street, she wanted some quiet time to reflect in the darkness of the cab. Her journey in the Big Apple was coming to an end and she intended to enjoy her independence for a few more days.

The city was brimming with ingénue archetypes as swindlers swarmed the busy streets. Times Square was a cornucopia of chaos with buff Russian men selling fake Broadway tickets, slimy pickpockets going about their prestidigitations and business savvy food cart vendors spewing out over-priced, under-cooked ‘New York’ style delicacies like hot dogs. The Chi-Town dogs were more iconic anyway, unbeknownst to the average tourist – a sentiment that Sana dared not share with any naturalized New Yorker.

She insisted that the cab driver drop her off a block away from the lights extravaganza because she always loved to watch first-time tourists’ reactions to the spectacle. Although not a big fan of light atrocity, no other New York landmark commanded a reaction out of tourists as it did. Sana’s personal favorite was the Flat Iron building. It personified the old and the new of the city – an impressive combination of the Beaux-Arts style and the Chicago School style.

Sana had once made the unfortunate error of befriending the new boy in school in fourth grade. He was erroneously awkward around his classmates and Sana feeling sorry for him had offered him a Mr. Cookie biscuit. Mr. Cookie was a biscuit equivalent of Pringles – a normal biscuit elevated to addictive levels because of its sugarcoated topping. This boy had secretly ‘fallen in love’ with Sana and reasoned that the only way to win her heart by knowing every detail about her. He would monitor the books she borrowed from the school library whence it became clear that Sana loved reading about the various Art movements of the times and the different styles of architecture.

He then resolved to write her a letter to profess his love beginning with as ludicrous a sentence as ‘I love you as much as you love buildings.’ She had politely refused his advances saying that they were too young to get into anything serious at that age and he seemed to understand. Sana not only hated his oversimplification of her admiration for architecture but she even hated the fact that he had chosen to type her letter on a computer using the Comic Sans Font! She hated that font – it was so un-majestic! He was one of the first entrants into her un-dateable list.

A young French couple (or maybe they were French Canadian) was gasping in French as they approached. ‘Oh wow! Quel spectacle! Tabernac!’ Ah, Sana, thought, ‘They were definitely French Canadian’ – an expression so unique to them that down in Mexico, they had named these folks, Tabernac Gringos. Times Square was a scene out of the future – a giant whirlpool of information and sales pitches catering to the malleable consumer minds. It was silently implanting ideas in our head about what shampoo to buy, when to buy, where to buy it, etc. One of Sana’s guerrilla ideas for her 100 Year Coke campaign involved using all the billboards in Times Square for Coke ads. The moon landing could be relived on the screens as well as The World-Famous Elvis Show and so much more. It was a pity that she would not get to work on the momentous campaign.

Sana stood for a minute looking around her at the lights, getting lost in the madness around her but she quickly snapped out of it as she felt a light tugging at her purse. It was no time to be foolish so she drew out her sensory antlers and headed on over to the steps. Sana climbed all the way to the top of the stairs and found a corner to sit on. An elderly Punjabi couple came up to her and asked her, in bits of broken English and Hindi, if she could teach them to take a selfie with their phone. Charmed by their innocence, Sana offered to take a picture of them instead. They agreed and posed like an old married couple.

The wife was wearing the customary attire of a Kameez (long dress), a Salwar (pants) and a dupatta (scarf) with her hair looped up in a bun. Her features were not soft like a woman but seemed to be that of a sun-hardened farm lady but her eyes had so much gleam and shine as to melt any man’s heart. She clung on to her husband’s arms tightly who was taking out a sweater for her from a packet he was holding.

‘Pammi ye pehenlo (Pammi, put this on). Thand lag jayega (you will catch a cold).’ The man, who had a hardened face to suggest countless hours of open-sun, seemed to enjoy the esteem that his wife had for him. He was enthralled at being her protector. Sana, desperate to know more about them asked them what they were doing in the city.

‘We are here for holidaying, puttar (little girl/daughter). My Pammi wanted to see the Big Apple.’

‘Uncle, aap dono ki shaadi kab huyi thi (when did you two get married)?’ Sana was trying to forge a familial bond with this man whose innocent eyes seemed to remind her of her father. 

Pammi, the wife answered, looking earnestly at Sana, amused by her curiosity, ‘March 1970 mein.’

Before she could continue, she asked, ‘do you have kids?’

‘Na, puttar, our sons passed away fighting in the army,’ answered the husband looking forlorn.

‘I’m so sorry to hear that Uncle.’ Sana felt a pang of embarrassment, upset at her insensitive questioning. What right had she to be curious about strangers? She was merely looking to cheer herself up with a romantic love-story but instead she stumbled on a story that was bound to reduce her to tears. She immediately handed back their camera to them and excused herself away from them.

Sana was deeply troubled with problems of her own but she was always greatly moved by other peoples’ problems. She emoted too much, at the height of her idealistic teenage years, she resolved to try and alleviate all the members of her household staff from poverty and their corresponding families. She wanted to start a revolution to fight people’s sadness, especially the sadness over which they had no control over. But, over the years, as her own tribulations grew, she forgot about helping others and closed off herself from others’ problems. Hearing about others made her feel hapless, she was desperate to help but she had become pragmatic enough in life to learn that splurging money did not solve every problem. There was no remedy to deaths of loved ones for example or no solace for dying individuals.

Walking speedily past the melee of tourists that had descended upon the Square. New York City was a melting pot of the whole world and it is rumored that if you stood in Times Square long enough, you will have encountered every nationality in the world. She wanted to stand and graze people, wonder where they were from, what were their stories and how they were feeling standing in front of this world-famous monument but she dared not get close enough to ask them anything. She was curious enough to surmise her own stories about them but not willing to find out the truth.

A presumably Hungarian or Swedish man with big arms stowed hastily inside a tight V-neck blue t-shirt was heading right at her. He was stomping on the ground as innocent passersby struggled to abate his advances. His white-haired handlebar moustache reminded her of Wally Walrus, the cartoon character who terrorized Woody Woodpecker and she wondered if he demanded the same dominance as he did. However, he was wearing nice boat shoes and a pair of well-fitted jeans which suggested that he had a woman in his life who took great care of him thus maybe he wasn’t a scary oaf as Wally Walrus after all.

She kept moving along until she was clear of the tourist circus and she started walking along Hell’s Kitchen. Unlike her colleagues, she was not a fan of Netflix’s Daredevil because of the simple premise that he was not a superhero at all but only a mere neighborhood watch of Hell’s Kitchen; whereas, more superior beings such as Spider-Man can protect the whole city. She smiled to herself and as her feet started to throb once again, rejecting her choice of footwear, she decided to hail another uber. She ought not to use up anymore of what little cash she had left anyway.

She stood on the corner of 10th and 48th and waited for a cab to go back to Uptown. This was a quieter part of town and since all the cabs were clustered around the tourist hubs, Sana decides to take the subway. It was around 10 pm when she got on the Express going Uptown when she took out her phone. A few more missed calls from her mother went unnoticed as she immediately logged into her social media accounts. One of her ex-colleagues had posted an update about his Barcelona trip, ‘bar-tha-lo-na, here we come!’ She checked Ryan’s profile and noticed that he had not posted anything ostentatious boasting about his new job or about his trip – a feat that surprised Sana because he was the current maverick of the everyday broadcast trend (vlogging?).

There were some more photos of weddings and holidays from friends back home. By the time the train crossed 101st Street, the car itself became sparser as Sana started to realize the lone world she was heading back up to; a feeling of abject helplessness started to envelop her senses, as she grew weary of what was happening with her life. This triggered a sudden rush of acute and disabling anxiety – she was having a panic attack. An elderly Jamaican lady who was sitting across from her, listening to some music, took off her headphones, ‘ey gyal, yuh okay? Wah wrong wid yuh?’