Vista-71: Vegetarian Vampire


Monday, April 04, 2005

Vegetarian Vampire

By Nikhilesh Dholakia

Even though the air conditioner was whirring in the window, the hotel room felt hot and stuffy.

He reached out and touched Amita’s curly locks longingly, but she simply pulled the sheet tighter and shifted a few inches closer to her edge of the bed.

After a long five hour bus ride through nondescript countryside, the group had arrived back at the Bucharest hotel. Many in the group had decided to eat at the Pizza Hut that was almost directly four floors below the hotel room that Anil and Amita now occupied. While a mushroom-and-onion pizza was no gourmet meal, it felt like one. After three days of eating essentially bad cheese, bread, and boiled vegetables – the only things they could safely trust as being vegetarian – Anil and Amita relished a piping hot, all-American certifiably vegetarian pizza. Even the accompanying Pepsi Max, though different tasting than their preferred Diet Coke, tasted superb.

So far, they had been underwhelmed by the post-conference group tour. The brochure had promised stops at idyllic Black Sea resort towns and a relaxing, romantic boat ride through the lush Danube delta. The resort towns had turned out to be tourist traps with cinder-block hotels and tacky guest houses edging thin strips of rocky, pebbled Black Sea beaches. The boat ride on the Danube delta was more pain than pleasure. The thumping loud engine spewed diesel fumes, and people sat facing each on rubber cushions laid on long benches. Apart from tall grasses and the occasional sea gull, there was none of the promised flora and fauna. The only break in scenery was the occasional passing fishing boat or iron-ore laden barge. These hot stretches of muddy fingers of Danube rushing to meet the Black Sea were a far cry from the sparkling Danube passing under the majestic bridges of Budapest, the Danube that probably inspired Johann Strauss to the glory of the “Blue Danube” composition. The only saving grace was the cheap, warm beer sold on the boat, which Anil guzzled in quantities to dull his headache. Leaning her head on his shoulder, Amita simply dozed off.


The air had a cool crispness the next morning as the bus rolled out of Budapest, away from the Black Sea coast, and into the verdant Transylvanian hills – the countryside of Dracula fame. The very sight of picture postcard villages dotting the mountainside pushed into far recesses the memories of the hot, insipid flatlands of the first part of the tour.

Brasov, the lovely town set amidst the mountains, was a vision ripped out of a picture postcard. This could just as well be Austria or Bavaria, but it was not. It was hard to believe that the same country that brandished concrete-block so-called “resort hotels” on the Black Sea also contained such perfect idyllic towns.

After strolling the shops and cobblestone piazzas of Brasov, the group assembled in the open air dining patio of the hotel. Cheap but good Russian vodka flowed freer than water. Anil wanted a beer, which was expensive and rather flat tasting. Amita said she would just have Pepsi Max. As they put their head together to get a better look at the menu by the light of the oil lamp on the table, Anil and Amita noticed that there were more vegetarian choices than they had seen any place before: a mozzarella and tomato salad, some pasta dishes, a consommé that the waitress assured them was made from asparagus stock.

A few drinks, munching on some tasty breadsticks, and – like the light gray moonlit sky above – the mood started to lighten. Spencer edged his chair just an inch closer to Amita’s and spiked her Pepsi Max with a dash of the cheap Russian vodka. She looked at him in mock horror, gave him a pretend look of admonishment; and then smiled and took a sip.

The food started arriving: hot, fresh and aromatic. They must all have been quite hungry; there was very little conversation for the next ten minutes.

“Hey…Anil, what’s that… pieces of guts from Dracula’s last victim?” teased Tamer, pointing to the chewy pasta twists of spaetzle noodles on Anil’s plate.

“Yeah… I guess so,” Anil said, going along with the joke, “But these are tasty guts!”

By now, Spencer had slipped a generous peg of vodka in Amita’s glass and topped it off with frothy Pepsi Max. The waitress showed them the rich, layered chocolate pastry available for dessert. “Oohs” and “Aahs” emanated around the table. Everyone except Daniela and Amita said they would have one. Amita said she would take just a bite to taste from Anil’s plate, but ended up eating more than half of the pastry.

“Another liter of vodka,” Spencer gestured to the waitress.

Some hard cheese and bread arrived to cleanse the sweet, rich chocolate taste off the palate.

“Did you know that before she became a sociologist Daniela used to be a fabulous Belly dancer?” piped in Fatima, excitedly. The only Romanian in the group, with her jet black tresses falling effortlessly on the navy blue blouse, it was easy to imagine Daniela as an exotic belly dancer in smoke-filled cafés of Bucharest.

Daniela was the reason Anil and Amita were on this trip. They both taught in the communications program at Rutgers, and Daniela was a sociologist at nearby Ryder College. Almost every weekend, Daniela was at Anil and Amita’s home, munching on Puri-Sabji, Pulao and Raita, Gulab Jamun or other vegetarian Indian goodies Amita invariably had on the kitchen counter.

Daniela had insisted that Anil and Amita send a paper to this conference, being held for the first time in her native Romania. Tonight, however, was the first time Anil and Amita had heard of a Belly dancing career in Daniela’s past.

Although with brunette curls cut short and rimless glasses, Fatima tried hard to project the serious sociologist and college principal look, Anil could imagine her as well gyrating to Belly dancing music in an Istanbul nightclub to the approving claps of men.

“C’mon… Daniela…” perked up Spencer, draining the vodka in his glass. “Let us see some of your Belly dancing moves…”

“Yeah… give us a private performance,” chimed in Tamer.

“Daniela… show us the talents you have hidden from us for years!” said Anil, grinning at Daniela and Amita. Daniela smiled faintly. Amita didn’t look amused as she sipped her by-now vodka-rich Pepsi Max.

Fatima signaled to the waitress and asked her to put on a lilting Mediterranean number on the PA system. Despite the group’s urgings, however, Daniela simply refused to oblige.

Fatima was in an upbeat mood; she got up and started doing slow, rhythmic Belly dancing moves, to the beat of the sonorous music. Tamer, the fellow Turk who also grew up in Istanbul, could not sit still. He got up and started swaying and clapping by Fatima’s side. Perhaps tinged by jealousy, Tamer’s Californian wife Tricia also got up and started to sway. She was clueless about Belly dancing moves, but managed to put on a fetching show with arms swaying and blond tresses flying.

“Time to hit the floor,” exclaimed Spencer, grabbing Amita by the arm. After a bit of protest, Amita was squarely on the floor.

Anil took another sip of the tasteless flat beer and looked at Spencer doing exaggerated disco moves. Amita had invented moves that were a cross between Belly dancing and Katthak. With the ethnic pink Chunni sliding gracefully across her smart beige Indo-Western two-piece outfit, Amita looked ravishing. Anil was sure every male eye in the restaurant courtyard was on Amita. East had collided with West in a sensuous explosion.

Anil looked at Daniela, the only other member of the group planted on a chair and not on the dance floor. She flashed back an understanding wan smile at him. He gestured to the waitress to get another beer.

When there was a break in the music, Amita came to Anil’s side and said “I am exhausted, dear. I am going back to the room.” She whispered a few good byes to Spencer and others and slipped away.

A haunted Hungarian melody started playing, and everyone settled down with refilled glasses. As happens on such evenings, the conversation flow bounced from philosophical musings to radical rhetoric to emotional disclosures. Finally, Daniela – feeling her responsibility as the national host – got up and said, “We have a long day ahead tomorrow…. We are visiting Bran, Dracula’s castle… let’s all get some sleep.”

As Anil latched the hotel room door shut behind him and adjusted his eyes to the dim light inside, he saw Amita. She had kicked off her shoes and sprawled face down, fully clothed, on her bed. This was an old fashioned room with two single beds separated by a bed stand. Anil pulled the blanket lightly over an oblivious Amita, and went into the bathroom to change.


Bran Castle was every bit as storybook-looking as a fabled castle should be. Except that in the bright sunlight against the backdrop of a vivid blue sky, Bran Castle looked more like a charming Cinderella’s castle rather than the macabre and cruel “Dracula’s castle” that it was reputed to be.

Magnificent high whitewashed walls, dotted with occasional square gun turret holes, rose steeply from the valley. Conical and pyramid shaped red-tiled roofs capped a number of towers and escarpments. A dozen stone chimneys of varying lengths dotted the roof line. Inside the castle were delightful stairwells and narrow passageways, many looking into a courtyard resplendent with seasonal flowers.

“I know all of you are here to see the castle where Count Dracula lived,” said the cheerful young man we had hired as a guide. In his cultivated British accent, he went on “In this region, Count Dracula is known as Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler. Vlad in fact was a ruler revered by Romanians for standing up to the Ottoman Empire. He dealt with all his enemies by imposing the death penalty and impaling them on stakes. He used to sign with his father's name, Dracul – or ‘The Devil’ in Romanian language. This castle with its narrow corridors, labyrinths, and secret chambers inspired Bram Stoker to write the frightful tale of Dracula”.

Taking the group to the castle’s terrace, overlooking an undulating valley stretching for miles, the guide continued: “Just imagine a thousand heads of Turks killed and impaled on stakes, stretching into this valley, as far as the eye can see…”

“But, in reality....” added the guide, “there is very little archeological evidence that Vlad used this castle, except perhaps as an occasional overnight guest. But the legend of Dracula is associated with Bran Castle and we keep getting thousands of visitors from all over the world…”


Postmodern tourism and Romania had found each other. “Le Vamp”, the nightclub-restaurant that the group chose for dinner and revelry that night, had an all-vampire theme. As they entered, the women were nabbed by a tall male vampire in Dracula costume. Baring exaggerated fangs, “Dracula” secreted two little blood-red lipstick-like dots on the women’s necks. Amita giggled as “Dracula” sank his fangs into her neck. The men were greeted by a masked, blond she-vampire, who did the same ritual on their exposed necks. Anil tried to get past the blond vampire but Fatima grabbed his arms, allowing the masked blond to imprint her fang-marks on Anil’s necks. These “fang marks” were evidence that they had paid the cover charge, in case the guests wanted to step out and reenter the nightclub.

Inside the club, in the antechamber, skulls and bones and coffins with creaking half-open lids completed the décor. Hidden light bulbs projected crimson red or purple lights that caste menacing bat shadows on ceilings and walls. A player-less piano, with automatically moving keys, was playing the distorted notes of Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso requiem – the archetypal Dracula music.

Further inside, the dining room was pretty much like a normal restaurant, with tastefully done Bat motifs on tablecloths, napkins, and the china.

Anil and Amita’s eyes lit up when the waiter pointed out that the menu had a whole vegetarian section.

“We get lots of international tourists,” said the waiter, by way of explanation.

On top of the pastas, breads, and couscous, Anil and Amita were thrilled to order garlic-grilled eggplant and a curried chick peas and vegetable stew. This was the last night of the group tour; a splurge was in order. Bottles of Romanian and Hungarian wines were ordered. While not as cheap as Russian vodka, these wines were still a bargain by Euro-American standards.

As dinner wound down, the tempo of the band picked up. The music was a nice mix of Sixties Oldies, Motown, and Contemporary Billboard Top-30. Tamer and Tricia were immediately on the floor, doing their trademark swing-cum-Paso Doble moves. Spencer was even more ebullient tonight. He grabbed both Amita and Fatima and pulled them to the floor. Looking at Spencer flaying his hands and gyrating, who would have thought that this was the world-famous semanticist from Chicago whose very mention inspired awe in social science and humanities graduate programs? Brushing off the brunette curls that kept descending on her face, Fatima’s infectious grin seemed to light up the dance floor as she swung past couples. Amita was wearing the classic short black dress, clinging her every curve. For all of her 42 years, she could have passed off as a teenager as she twisted her hips to Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes”.

Anil poured some more of the Hungarian cabernet into his empty glass and turned his chair slightly to get a better view. Even Daniela was up and dancing tonight. Amita and Daniela signaled to him furiously to join them on the dance floor. Anil simply smiled and waved back at them.

It was past midnight and the dance floor had thinned out. Spencer had discreetly slipped a half-a-million-lei tip to the band leader, about ten dollars. So, the band had picked up the beat vigorously, even though the hour was late. Amita flitted back to the table briefly to take a few gulps of mineral water, and tried to pull Anil to the dance floor, but he stayed glued in his chair. After a while, Daniela came and sat down to enjoy her wine. Anil leaned over and whispered to her, “Tell Amita… there’s no rush… but I am going back to the hotel.”


It was dark, cloudy and moonless that night.

There was a sharp sensation on his neck as Anil opened his eyes. Amita’s bare leg was already astraddle him as he found her doing a vampire bite on his neck. He smiled and kissed her.

The sun was not up yet, but there was enough light to silhouette the classic spires and rooftops of Brasov as Anil looked out the hotel window.

With hair fanned carelessly across the pillow, Amita looked beautiful. He leaned over, and did his own vampire bite. As she smiled and half opened an eye, he did his guttural Dracula impression: “Vlad the Vegetarian will turn into a pumpkin with the first ray of sunlight. Come, fair damsel…. The impaler is waiting…” As Amita threw her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, Anil imagined a cartoon-style thought bubble floating over his head.

It said, “Romania… you have redeemed yourself.”

September 2004


Post a Comment

<< Home