If there is such a thing as a Compliment Blacklist, circulated among the male species through some means known only to man, my name was on that list last week.
After publishing “Insult to Injuria Formae” (May 24), in which I had related how a member of the male species had slighted my intelligence, I left for Pioneer Blvd., the street for which my book is named. (Please, please spell out Boulevard when referring to my book. Even an unitalicized title doesn’t make me wince quite like a Pioneer Blvd. does.)
I must explain upfront that the cardiologist who broke my heart on Pioneer Blvd. on Saturday did not insult my intelligence. Neither did he pass so much as a comment, complimentary or otherwise, on my looks. I was wandering about a strip mall on the east side of the street when I noticed two guys having a cuppa, and I figured they’d have time for a chat. They were chatting with each other, after all, and three can be company. In some contexts three’s a crowd but these guys are from the Indian Subcontinent, where it takes three million to make a crowd. Surely they’d say yes.
They did, so I introduced them to my book. Sometime during the conversation I discovered that they are doctors. The Indian is an internist, and his Pakistani buddy is a cardiologist. When I heard that, I naturally asked, “Can you cure a broken heart?”
Believe it or not (and I won’t blame you if you don’t), I wasn’t trying to pun. I was simply asking the question a woman who has made the Compliment Blacklist would want an answer for.
I can’t repeat his answer because he didn’t give me one. Instead, he returned my question with a question: “How come your name is not Sapna or Kalpana?”
In “Insult to Injuria Formae,” the insult to my intelligence had resulted from a question I couldn’t answer. Not so here. Not only could I answer the cardiologist’s question, but his breaking my heart had nothing to do with my name not being Sapna or Kalpana. I wasn’t offended with his question because:
(i) He rhymed. Maybe the reason for his rhyme was that he thought that I, being a writer, would like a bit of poetry. I did, because I am a writer but especially because it spared me from saying what Horatio tells Hamlet after the play-within-the-play (“You might have rhymed”). You see, reader, I don’t want to be Horatio.
(ii) It’s a fair question. Even Indians ask me that. Well, Indians usually ask me why my name is Sharon, which requires a different response than the one about why it is not Sapna or Kalpana. I tell Indians that my name is Sharon because it’s what my parents chose to name me, whereas I told the Pakistani cardiologist something I’ll share in another post.
No sooner had he asked me why my name is not Sapna or Kalpana than his internist friend remarked, “He’s having a sapna about Kalpana.”
Sapna and kalpana are Hindi words meaning dream and imagination, respectively. Kalpana represents creativity in general and the arts in particular, so I said, “My book is about kalpana.” Not the best pun, I admit, but it’s the best I could do. And at least I didn’t stoop to saying something about Kalpuna.
A word about the Indian love for wordplay. Indian puns are not rare, and they are usually well done. Like rare meat, bad Indian puns (which are rare) are not my cup of chai. But what I cannot stomach are puns about Indians.
At the farmers market where I sometimes help a friend at her booth, a customer of hers once asked me if I’d heard about the Indian programmer who’d had to work as a standup comedian during the recession. The previous week this customer of my friend’s had become a customer of mine when he bought a copy of Pioneer Boulevard from me, and I thought he was referring to my book, which is set in the context of the crumbling economy. Delighted that he’d already read the book and now wanted to discuss it, I immediately said no and waited to hear more about the poor programmer-turned-comedian.
It was a wrong assumption on my part. Our (not-so-cool) customer hadn’t read a single story in Pioneer Boulevard, and he didn’t want to discuss it. He gave me a pitying look (for the bubble he was about to burst) and said, “They called him a pun-jobbie.”
To finish my Pioneer Blvd. story, at the end of the conversation with the Pakistani cardiologist, I realized I had the chance to do my bit to mend Indo-Pak relations. Diplomacy can come in many forms. There’s cricket diplomacy (which stirs up more passions than it subdues). There’s Bollywood diplomacy (which is one-sided, since only one country can offer it). There’s chai diplomacy (which doctors know contains caffeine, raises blood sugar levels, and can be interrupted in a heartbeat). Surely my brand of diplomacy, storybook diplomacy, would be more effective.
“If I gave you a copy of my book, would you read it?” I asked the Pakistani cardiologist.
And that’s when he broke my heart.
Just say no, says the anti-narcotics slogan, and perhaps that two-letter word, which can save a person’s life, is his instinctive response as a heart doctor. But that two-letter word cut me so deep, I’m still nursing my broken heart.