Once he arrived at Phoenix airport, Madhavan carefully picked up Sankar's photo from his pouch and studied it thoroughly, to make sure that he recognized him. Sankar was fat, short and had a broad fleshy nose and eyes like his father Dr Somasundaram. Appa and Sankar’s father were colleagues. He remembered Appa mentioning to him once, how Sankar looked just like his father. After collecting his baggage, Madhavan looked around for Sankar. When he did not spot Sankar anywhere, he decided to sit in the lounge and wait for him. More than half an hour passed, and there was no sign of Sankar. Madhavan started to fidget with his pouch at first, and then he started pacing up and down the lounge. Nothing had prepared him for Sankar's absence. Madhavan knew his address and phone number, so thought he would wait for ten more minutes and then think of getting some help to contact him. He was looking at his watch and grimacing, when a smart young man wearing a blue T-shirt with ARIZONA printed on it, approached him and asked with a charming smile, "Are you Madhavan? ...looking for one Sankar?"
Madhavan appraised the young man with a boyish smile in front of him and stuttered, 'Yes, I...I.. I’m Madhavan from Chennai. Who are you?"
Then, the young man smilingly extended his hands and Madhavan shook hands with him in obvious relief. “I'm Cheenu, Cheenu Krishnan,’ Secretary of the Indian Students Association. I've come to pick you up and put you up with Manikkam, Sathish and Mathews." Cheenu paused, looking at Madhavan's puzzled expression and switched over to Tamil. "How was your flight? There's a slight change in the program; you were supposed to stay with Sankar but..", he paused, as though searching for the correct word and then continued, "..but his roommates are not quite willing". Cheenu gently waved his hand and smiled reassuringly, "Don't worry about that, everything's taken care of .” Cheenu then led him to the parked car, helped him with the baggage and gestured to him to sit next to him..
During the long drive, Cheenu chatted as though Madhavan was his long lost friend. After asking Madhavan about his college, family details et cetera, more to make Madhavan talk than due to any idle curiosity. Cheenu talked about his parents and sister in Chennai. He also talked about his own initial nervousness, the difficulties he had to face, his friends, the students of the ASU in general . Madhavan noticed that though Cheenu came from an upper-class background and was better than any of his English-speaking classmates flaunting their parent's wealth, he had no attitude like them, he was simple, polite and frank. He wished he too could chat like him but, after years of living in a self-imposed cocoon, talking and listening only to himself, it was not easy for Madhavan to open up, but he showed his attention and appreciation to every syllable Cheenu uttered by appropriate responses with nods, smiles and laughs.
Madhavan was awestruck when Cheenu showed the University campus, which had about fifty thousand students. Cheenu showed him the restaurant he worked at, before he got his assistantship. When Cheenu knew that Madhavan had already got the assistantship, he genuinely admired his intelligence. By the time they were nearing the similar looking, two bedroom apartments of students, Madhavan was confident, cheerful and full of hope for his Arizona stay. Cheenu looked at Madhavan and said, “I think you're lucky that you're going to be with Mac. He's a nice guy, his roommates too seem to be nice. I don't know much about your father's colleagues' son Sankar, but, whatever I heard about him is not very flattering." He then broke into a guffaw and said, "In fact, a very bad reference for a newcomer like you"
Madhavan was really curious now and pleaded, "Please tell Cheenu, what happened? Why's Sankar so unpopular here?"
Cheenu continued to laugh and said "There're many stories about him, his meanness and selfishness. Mac would keep you engaged with Sankar puranam for at least a couple of weeks. I don't know much, but he's a disgrace to fellow South Indians. All I know about him was, he used to drink milk daily from their common milk can and add water to it till one day he was caught red handed by one of his roommates. Then there are stories about his extreme selfishness and stingy behavior. He once collected pennies from everyone worth 100 dollars, I believe. No harm in being economical, in fact, one should be, but when you live with others, you've to adjust a lot, and have to be selfless. You can't afford to be a parasite here. Anyway you're lucky, Madhavan, as I told you, you'd be much better off with Mac and company."
Mac was waiting for Cheenu and Madhavan. After the initial introduction was over, Sathish who talked with an artificial American drawl and Mathews, with a typical Malayalee accent, retired to their room, as it was already late at night, leaving Madhavan, Mac and Cheenu. Mac offered to make an extra omelette for Cheenu and Madhavan but Cheenu declined the offer as he had his pizza at the airport, while waiting for Madhavan's flight. Madhavan liked Mac, he was tall, dark and had a very pleasant smile. He too, like Cheenu exuded a rare charm which made everyone feel at home in his presence. So, Madhavan summoned up his courage and said he was a pure vegetarian and could not eat omelette. Mac laughed,
"Don't worry, Madhavan, I've got some good yogurt, I mean curd in the fridge. We have rice too. You can eat curd rice. Waiting to have some good home made pickle. Did you bring any stuff'?
Madhavan beamed and pointed towards his bag and said "Yes, I've mango thokku, lime pickle, mor milagai. I brought masalas too", Looking at Cheenu, Madhavan continued, "I can give you some home made snacks. Shall I unpack now?"
"No, not now, I'll come this weekend to collect my share, that is, if Mac and co leave some for me, now I must go back. Hulio would be waiting, you know he must be worried about his junk of a car. For a change, I tell you Mac, his car behaved so well today! Our Madhavan is lucky. Okay, you guys carry on. I've to go now." Cheenu took leave. shaking Madhavan's hand. Madhavan was quite emotional, when he thanked Cheenu, who instilled so much courage and confidence in him. He made a mental note to write to his Amma about the kindness of these total strangers, on the very first day of arrival.
Once Cheenu left, Mac showed him around the apartment, without entering the bedroom, where Sathish and Mathews were sleeping. Madhavan was simply flabbergasted to see that the apartment was air-conditioned, wall to wall carpeted, spotlessly clean and spacious. There was a good sofa set (unlike the rexine sofa cum bed of his Besant Nagar house), huge TV and a few curios in the living room. Dining room had a small table with 4 chairs and a fridge, the kitchen had cupboards, shiny, clean countertops, microwave oven, rice cooker, and a coffeemaker. Madhavan looked at Mac, grinned and said, "Very good, I did n't expect this much, you've everything here...". Madhavan stopped in the middle of the sentence glancing at the unfamiliar gadgets, dish washer, coffeemaker and microwave. Mac laughed his good-natured laugh while remarking casually," Most of these things like fridge and cooking range come with the apartment, although this dishwasher and microwave -Sathish got from his friend who left for India..., of course, for free…. then.. the furniture, we got from a heavy discount sale. You know, Sathish is really good at these purchases, so we call him "Deal Sathish"
Tonight, he was sleepy, that's why he did n't talk to you much. Tomorrow ..you can listen to him with his American accent! He loves America and says he would never set foot again in India. He is a nice guy, good at heart. Mathews is just the opposite- he hates America, coming from a Kerala village, he has funny notions of health and hygiene. But we get along very well with no problems. We do all the cooking and cleaning by taking turns,” Pointing to the chart on the wall, Mac continued, "That's our time table, who should do cooking, cleaning, on what days etc.. Now, we've to include your name too. You're a vegetarian, I know, but can you cook vegetarian food?"
"Oh, yes, I can. My Amma is a wonderful cook and she gave me her recipes and masalas",Madhavan replied.
"That's great, now you go, have a shower and come, then we can warm up some cabbage and rice"
Madhavan was delighted to see the bathroom with provisions for hot and cold water, white marble floor with matching white floral shower curtains. While bathing, he mentally prepared a big letter to Amma with all these details. He also had to remember to call and inform his safe arrival to Mr. Rajgopal. He could not help smiling at Sankar's story... After all the bragging of Appa's colleague, Dr.Somasundaram, it was fun to listen to his son's activities here. I'm lucky, Cheenu is so nice, and so is this Mac, and they speak Tamil too. I can improve my English by listening to all of them. The most important thing is they're so nice, no superior air about them. They are not empty vessels like my classmates or Raghavan mama's arrogant wife. Amma will have a good laugh about Sankar. Maybe Paati is right, I have a great horoscope and all my bad times are over now. Right from the flight up until now, everything is going great."
Madhavan remembered the pretty air hostesses, his first taste of alcohol and he felt a 'man' again.
After his shower, he had his dinner of rice, cabbage, yogurt and Amma's mango thokku, which he managed to dish out from his luggage. He was so happy that Mac thoroughly enjoyed his Amma's thokku as well. By the time he lay down to sleep, he felt all his problems were solved and slipped into a peaceful, contented sleep.