A white facade. Large calligraphic font proclaiming the word ‘Ashoka ‘distinctly to the world. A wooden door foisting into inconspicuousness the interiors of its obscure self. A voice verbalizing ‘these guys make the best sizzlers in the world, buddy!’ while I listened in rapt attention. An imprudently irresistible smell of a fried-something suspended in the air…
“Abey chutiye, raaste se hat!”
A deafening honk threatened to burst my eardrums at seams.
I gave the Tata Safari the middle finger, steered by an impudent, snobbishnessthrustuponhimjustbytheideaofdrivingacarsonofabitch chauffer, while I looked up to realize that the Red light had turned Green out of nowhere. I wasn’t sure if he got the clue to go fuck himself, because as my foot began pedalling the Avon, I caught snippets of what had intended to be a fully fledged abuse drowned by the Evening Traffic Din, an indelicate instruction involving the use of my middle finger and my rectum. I didn’t venture to add a rejoinder because, firstly, he looked like a goon. Secondly I had to reach home early, as my parents and bro were to leave that day for Delhi. I would have tagged along too had I not a 10th Board practical examination the next day.
I reached home to find them all packed up and ready to go. My family usually ensures that we reach the station half an hour before the train’s scheduled arrival, and that we leave home an hour before even though the station is a five minute drive from home. Mater indicated the daal and chawal in the fridge, informed me that bai will come the day after at 6am in the morning to make breakfast for me. She then handed over 3 crisp currency notes, a 100 inscribed besides a guffawing Gandhi on each one of them in case of an emergency. She was apparently of the view that the goody-me wouldn’t go about on a self proclaimed venture out of the house.
Pater told me not to leave the lights on in rooms where I wasn’t working.
Both told me not to open the door to strangers as they bid farewell.
I don’t know whether it took me 10 or 20 microseconds to arrive at the decision, but five minutes had surely elapsed before I made any movement. It was wintertime. I put on a sweater and my Dad’s old blazer ( I had inferred it made me look better). Thrashed his priced Old Spice aftershave (even though I hadn’t shaved) on my pimpled face for good measure. I had Mater’s Spirit’s keys at my disposal.
The chilly wind made my eyes stream as I whizzed past the traffic. I parked the Spirit near the restaurant. Checked if I still had the 300 bucks in my pocket. I saw the door ahead, and bracing my shoulders, went in.
The restaurant ambience was scintillating, the interiors projecting an aura of grandeur. I seated myself on a table, hung my blazer up on the chair beside. A waiter came over with the menu, wishing me ‘Good Evening Sir’ as he withdrew to allow me to peruse the list. I acknowledged his greeting and peered into the menu. This is what I saw.
|AFGHANI CHICKEN||Rs. 350 SOMETHING|
|TANDOORI CHICKEN||Rs. 400 SOMETHING|
I tried hard not to show the grimace on my face. I shuddered to think what lay in store for me in the succeeding pages. I thumbed through, trying hard not to glance towards the right half of the page. I reached the sizzlers section. The least was for 350 bucks.
I swerved towards my right where the door was. I had just summoned the guts to bolt out of the restaurant as fast as my legs could possibly allow me, but was arrested by a voice.
“Have you made your choice, sir?”
Just behind me stood a suited bloke, his face a living personification of amiability. Two waiters came from either side ahead.
The motherfuckers had me trapped.
“Yeah, just a sec.” Said I, putting on an air of suavity. The air conditioner in the restaurant suddenly seemed as if it was pumping hot air inside. I tried loosening the collar of my sweater as I scanned the items for the one dish that would save my face from an imminent and cataclysmic embarrassment. Soon enough, I locked upon an entry.
|PANEER BUTTER MASALA||Rs. 250|
“One Paneer Butter Masala please!” announced the self-aggrandizing I, jerking my head towards the supposed manager while conferring a disdainful look to one of the waiters.
“Anything else along with that, sir?”
Damn, I hadn’t thought of that. I shuffled through the pages. Least naan cost around Rs. 20. I ordered 2. That left Rs.10 in the end. Fair enough.
Meanwhile, as the order was being prepared, I took a sneak peek at the tables close by. Some executives sat gossiping at a corner. A family of three adjacent to me ate in silence, their single kid looking morosely at a sizzler, which he was poking dispassionately with the fork (the moron!). A boisterous group of college goers had just pilfered in, and were now seated just behind. I realized that I couldn’t even pass the time by bird-watching. I tried eavesdropping on their conversation. Someone was pulling someone’s legs (I gather you aren’t envisaging that literally). A girl let out a raucous shriek, disagreeing fervently as the others hooted in massive derision.
The waiter returned, along with my order. With a theatrical toss of his hands, he lifted the lid off the dish, as I primed myself to get gobsmacked by the sheer appearance of the delicacy.
Why wasn’t I overwhelmed, asked I to myself, as I gazed at the red gravy with pieces of white submerged, cajoling the surface tension of the fluid (God, when will the IIT garbage exit my brain for good?) to relent its possession on them., when it hit me. This was something I had at home, something that Mater prepared, something that I already knew existed and had enough of. What I really craved for was something that was unknown, a surprise in itself. The waiter proceeded to ladle out the paneer on the plate. I grasped the naan in my right hand, ready to dig into this repast.
The food was great, really, a trifle different in taste from what Mater made at home. Before long I was through with the two paltry naans that they had brought out.
It seemed the waiter, who had been stationed sideways to keep serving me once the quantity on the plate was taken care of, was waiting for this cue. “Would you like some more naans sir?”
“Or tandoori roti…”
“Umm…no…uhh… please bring the bill.”
I was still quite famished. The waiter cleared out the table as I sat waiting. Before long he was back with, wait a sec, I hadn’t asked him to bring an ice cream bowl. And yet I saw him now, striding towards my table with a bowl clasped in his hands. He put it on my table.
Praise Providence and the Almighty that he left, because I :-
- Stared at it first for the longest time possible.
- Wondered why the water was hot.
- Speculated regarding the use of the lemon afloat.
- Held it in my hand and dropped it back into the water, splashing some liberally around the bowl
I hailed the waiter. I asked him where the wash basin was, which he dutifully pointed out. I washed my hands and came back to find the bill on my table. 300 bucks I kept inside the folder, watching the waiter coming to take it away.
It had been quite a while since he had vanished. A couple of waiters passing by me gave me queer looks. The supposed manager ambled out of nowhere, depositing the folder on my desk. He stared at me as I held the 10 rupee note and stuffed it into my jeans pocket.
“I hope you liked it, sir?” he asked with that sickening affable demeanour, giving a shady smile.
“Ohh…very good, very good indeed.” Said I, not very convincingly, as I made my exit.
Outside the air was brisk and nippy, and I went over to where the Spirit was parked. I initiated the ignition, and drove, until I reached the crossing where Ganesh Chat Bhel Bhandar’s thela resided.
I felt replete after the 20 paanipuris I had, and somehow felt that the emptiness of my stomach had shifted to my pocket…