A chill wind was piercing through the littered streets of the eastern part of this elite city called London. It was no wonder however, neither the wind nor the litter. The weather forecast had spelt a “bright and sunny day”, therefore the wind had to launch its attack. And the litter ? Ahem…this was the Asian pocket of the city.
Families were thronging the grocery shops (“Cash & Carry” shops, they were all named, although they did accept credit cards). Men and women wearing colourful Indian outfits (unfortunately hidden under dull coats in varying shades of black and grey) were entering the Temple. The daring ones were lingering about at the shops that sold pirated DVDs. “Sarkar Raj..only GBP 2.50”, the poster screamed. “Buying pirated versions is unethical !”, my Conscience whispered. “Now..that’s incredibly cheap ! Going to the cinema to watch this movie, even in Chennai, would cost me a fortune !”, the Intellect thundered in reply. We hurried to buy our copy and make our way to the popular South Indian restaurant round the corner. It was rather late in the afternoon, and we were ravenously hungry.
Hotel Saravana Bhavan was decorated with flowers and streamers, brightening an otherwise dull, grey skyline. Their anniversary, it seemed.
The bespectacled waiter greeted us with an oft-rehearsed “Good afternoon, Sir/Ma’am ? What will you have ?”
We scrolled down the menu card…the same card they had printed three years ago, when the Hotel was first inaugurated here. They cards had been laminated after the first couple of months, to minimise the risk of having dried granules of sambar/chutney/etc. imprinted on it by the hotel’s patrons.
The waiter shuffled from one foot to another, looked around at the other tables, and then returned his gaze to us, as politely as he could.
“Tomato Soup”, I quickly ordered.
“Two by Three”, added my enthusiastic father. This was his first visit to London, and his last bid to escape the scorching 45 degrees Indian summer. (He was still bewildered at how he had left Chennai that morning, to reach London again the same morning.)
The waiter’s eyebrows raised involuntarily. “I.. I am sorry Sir.. but we don’t do two-by-three soups here. You can order either two or three soups”.
“What ? But in Chennai, we always have Two-by-three or One-by-Two, in fact we can even have One-by-three soups!”, replied an irate ad hungry Daddy.
“Daddy..please..its not like that here…”, I started, my cheeks reddening. My gracious husband saved the situation (as he always does) by quickly deciding “Three soups, please”. The starters and main course were ordered quite blandly. And by blandly, I only mean, Daddy was already learning the ropes, and so ordered items on the Menu, and nothing else. He was tempted to ask if they served “Pizza”, but as an afterthought, decided otherwise.
While we waited for the food to arrive, we chatted animatedly, discussing the weather, the flight, latest family news, etc. I must admit that Hubby and Daddy are both terrible at sharing information. They do not volunteer the tiniest piece of gossip. It takes a lot of skill to extract it out of them. My college mates however, had been diametrically opposite. Their typical Friday night comprised a movie, beer, spicy peanuts and gossip…mostly about their delicate fellow colleagues. It had taken me quite some time to digest the fact that men enjoy gossip ! Anyway, I expected the same out of dear Hubby too, but as you can see, I was sadly let down.
The aroma of “sambar-vada” (and the tomato soup) wafted gently, making its way to our table. My mouth watered. As soon as the waiter placed our trays before us, and moved on to the next table, we jumped on the food like a pack of wolves !
Suddenly, there were loud voices coming from the next table…”Come on, give it to me…”. “No, I won’t”.
“What’s the scuffle about?”, we wondered, greedily swallowing the perfectly soaked vada.
“No no, give it to me!”, the men were demanding. Our lanky waiter looked from one person to another, his tired feet waiting for some respite from innumerable walks into and out of the kitchen. The two men continued to argue. The women smiled demurely. The babies were beginning to fret.
“This is not fair”.
“Of course it is”.
“No, we called first…its ours”.
And the scuffle went on amidst the din of clattering spoons and plates. We chomped our way through the crisp masala dosas, and started talked in low whispers. Before you misunderstand…this was not an action arising from a deeply ingrained civic sense. It just helped us hear better.
“Come on, Shekar…”, the woman pleaded. “Let’s not create a scene here”.
“OK then, Ravi, here you go…you win this time. But not the next time, eh?”
Mr.Ravi half-smiled and took the check. His eyes ran through the length of the scroll before finally falling on the “Total inc. Tax”. His eyes squinted and his mouth opened. “Eighty pounds !!! What the…”, he muttered under his breath. He slowly fished out his wallet. Mr.Shekar stepped out to make an ’emergency’ phone call, while his wife smiled at their cherubic son.
“Shhhhhhushhhh ! What a pest you are! We are not going to bring you out hereafter”..Mrs. Ravi shouted at her little daughter. She didn’t seem very pleased at her husband’s ‘victory’. A few minutes later, their table was cleared. We heard the “good-byes”. A couple of happy, high-pitched ones, and a couple of low, subdued ones.
My cheeks reddened again and I almost blushed ! “What a scene ! Ravi or Shekar, one of them should have just paid the check in silence”, I volunteered.
“Or simple enough, they could done a One-by-Two”, Hubby added, with a wink.
This time, it was Daddy’s turn to blush.
We thought of all the times we had given or received a gift. The first reaction: “No ..no ..no, you shouldn’t have…”, followed by a toothy-grin and a “Thank you..since you insist!”. Why can’t we do away with the pretence, and graciously thank the giver, “Thank you..I love it..how thoughtful of you !”.
After some discussion over steaming cups of filter coffee, the three of us made a resolution.
– The next time someone says “No, you shouldn’t have..” over a gift, we would take it back right away.
– The next time we go out with someone to a restaurant, we will avoid all conflict. We will allow them to pay, without a fight 😉
We smiled, imagining the reaction this behaviour would elicit. We could well be seeing the last of Hypocrisy !!
As we slurped the last few drops of the fantastic coffee, the waiter arrived with our check.
“Please give it to me”, said Husband.
“Of course not, this is my first day out here, so I am going to treat you”, replied Daddy.
“Daddy, this isn’t fair, you are our guest, and we must take care of you”, said dutiful Husband.
“No Ram, how can a father take money from his children?”, came the gallant reply.
The waiter looked from Hubby to Daddy, and Daddy to Hubby.
He adjusted his glasses, and sighed !!
“The scuffle continues…”