It just so happened that I planned to dine out one evening. I am very averse to eating out, but it so happened that the day turned out to be my happy birthday and I had magnanimously, in a moment of emotional outburst, promised myself a treat. So, I finished my office and set out to feed my hungry belly with the luscious stuff that the world had to offer.
I am unmarried and do not have any family as such. I stay alone and happily so. Now, don’t jump into an assumption that I am a social recluse. I have some good and even the usual not-so-good friends in my office and neighborhood. So, I could have easily asked my friends to join me for my birthday treat. It’s not that they would have refused. On the contrary, they would have excitedly canceled all their prior engagements just to gorge on the succulent dishes for which the poor birthday boy was paying. But, I myself chose not to send out invitation to any of them. By nature, I am very frugal and nurture no desire to empty my bank balance to feed lustful friends who have lost the habit of saying ‘no’. Besides, in these circumstances, when they sense that the bill will be on me, they fast for the whole day so that they may sink their salivating mouths into a culinary more palatable than the ordinary home-food. It is a common belief that when the treat is on someone else, then our gluttonous soul lying dormant for all these years suddenly decides to wake up and sniff around. Even the non-foodies begin to lust for the expensive food and even the teetotalers start to plunge their nose into the red wine. Therefore, and wisely so, I deliberately maintained a low profile during the build-up to my birthday, shying away from any limelight and feigning poor health over the week.
So, as I trudged along to the restaurant all alone, there was a spring in my stride and a happy whistle playing on my lips. I chose one of those restaurants in Park Street where I had never been before and was, therefore, looking forward to a fresh ambience. A swish-looking restaurant called ‘Rachel’ caught my eye. I love this name very much and so, despite some initial trepidations, headed towards it.
I stood, somewhat uncertainly, below the flashy neon light. The attendant at the gate looked at me with a not-so-friendly look, eyeing me suspiciously. Perhaps, my shabby clothes made him question my financial viability. But I’m not the one to take such things lightly. I fished out a coin from my pocket and handed it to him. He turned the coin from one side to another with a look of incredulity that I couldn’t fathom. Having surmounted the first obstacle, I puffed out my chest and entered. As I stepped inside, I could make out what the managers were trying to do. They had only installed dim, little lights so that the electricity bill is low. The last time I was in a restaurant in Park Street (it was some 6 years back), the managers were quite considerate about the customers’ requirements and provided ample lights so that they are not inconvenienced.
I poked around. There were quite a few cozy-looking tables. All the ones in the corner had been occupied by couples who were making coquettish sounds as they munched leisurely. Unaccompanied by any lady, I felt a touch out-of-place. Nevertheless, I puffed out my chest again and walked towards an unoccupied table settling down there like a lion about to eat his hard-earned prey.
I looked around. A waiter caught my eye and walked towards me carrying a menu and a glass of cold water. I swallowed the water in one go and began to study the menu in meticulous details. As I scanned through the dishes, my eyeballs popped out. They had raised the price by what looked like ten times, a contingency for which I wasn’t prepared. I knew that the country was under an inflationary grip these past few years. But never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that the restaurants were literally toying with the sensibilities of a food-lover. My first reaction was to walk out of the restaurant instantly, return to my humble house and go to bed with an empty stomach and a filled wallet. The stomach and wallet are inversely related to each other. When one of them is fed, the other feels malnourished. But then I told myself that it’s your birthday. And besides, the waiter was standing not far from my table and, for some mysterious reason, had chosen to fix his eyes entirely on me.
I made a mental calculation of the amount of money I was carrying. Then I made a quick price comparison of the items printed on the menu card. The cheapest item was something I had never heard of before. Perhaps, it was a foreign cuisine or maybe a mash-up of different local foods. I am very choosy about my food, but the risk here was worth taking, as my wallet firmly suggested! Putting on a look of pretentious confidence, I raised my hand and gestured the waiter to come. He came mechanically. Despite my inner turmoil, the sheer professionalism in his stride did not miss my eye. I gave the order. I think I noticed a vague sneer on his lips, which I chose to ignore.
I waited for around 13 minutes (or was it 14) surveying my surroundings. The room was quite dark & dull and most of the customers were eating in inexplicable silence and communicating in romantic whispers. And then the waiter arrived carrying a small tray of food. As he placed the plate on my table, I was quite flummoxed by the sight that greeted me. The thing that I had riskily ordered looked unfamiliar. More importantly, it appeared to be a meat product. Being a strict vegetarian that I am, I stay miles away from meat and hence, you can well understand my state of perplexity. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ask the waiter about my fears for I didn’t want him to think of me as an ignorant chap who doesn’t know what he has ordered. I already had a sinking feeling that deep down he wasn’t showing the kind of awed reverence most waiters are accustomed to showing to the wealthy clients.
He went away, leaving me in a state of disturbed melancholia. The food before me looked repulsive, but I had no other choice. From the corner of my eye, I could sense that the waiter was staring at me from his desk. I held the fork and the spoon and put food to my mouth (and not mouth to my food, as some of my gluttonous friends would have done). My intestines began to squirm in protest as I clumsily gulped down bite after bite. Like the expert strategist that I am, I smartly dropped quite a few pieces (almost half of the food) under the table during the course of my birthday dinner. Finally, I was finished with the grotesque thing which I somehow ate and then washed it down with 3 glasses of water.
The bill arrived along with the sneering waiter. I drilled my eyes into the electronically printed bill. The bastards had added about 20% of the menu price for some taxes and services. My blood boiled in wrath and agony. But the waiter was almost leaning into my pocket and I had to maintain an indifferent & unconcerned look to protect my dignity. My wallet threw me a disgusting look after I nearly emptied it of its contents, and the waiter did the same after I gave him a seemingly unsatisfactory tip. As I quietly walked out of the restaurant, I was no longer the haughty lion that had walked in, but a meek rodent who was scampering away. It was a disturbing yet a memorable birthday and my first and last one with ‘Rachel.’
PS- The above account is a work of fiction and definitely not related to my personal life :))