The moment he returned from the office, Ananth quarrelled with his wife.

Sheela and the children, Deepa and Krishna, were dressed and waiting for Ananth to take them out to dinner. It was Deepa’s birthday: she had turned six.  Krishna would be nine next September.

Sheela had reserved a table for eight o’clock that evening and it was already seven. Ananth could tell that she had been pacing the corridor.

As he took off his shoes, she said, ‘It’s seven. You said you would be early. How do you expect us to get there on time?’

He gave her an ice-cold glare and proceeded to the dressing room upstairs. He barely registered his daughter’s voice as she cheerfully announced to Krishna, ‘Papa’s home. Get ready quickly. Don’t delay my birthday dinner.’

Sheela followed Ananth upstairs and looked intently at him as he flung his shirt into the laundry basket. ‘Can you please get ready quickly?’ she asked. ‘Deepa’s so eager. Poor thing. She has been going on about this for a whole week. Let’s not be late.’

‘Well, maybe we won’t go at all,’ he said in a threatening tone.

She stood with her arms folded, knowing he wouldn’t venture anything else as he busily prepared for his bath.

‘Did you have a bad day at the office?’ The moment she said it, Sheela regretted the slight edge to her voice.

‘Yes, but you don’t have to make it worse. And wipe that grin off your face. What’s so funny if I had a bad day at the office?’

‘I did not grin!’ Sheela protested.

‘Don’t give me that. I saw you grin. Anyway, do you have to snarl the moment I arrive from office?’

‘I did not snarl,’ said Sheela, her voice also rising. ‘I just didn’t want the children to be disappointed.’

‘Yeah? So, you think I want the children to be disappointed?’ Ananth demanded.

‘This is a pointless argument,’ she said. ‘Can we please leave immediately?’

‘No.’ He stood his ground with a mad gleam in his eyes. ‘What do you mean pointless? Bloody insulting. Going to the restaurant isn’t that important. Don’t think you can start something, and then close it at your convenience. Let’s finish this first.’

‘There’s nothing to finish.’ She was exasperated.

‘There is,’ he insisted.

‘All right, I am sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you that question. Can we leave now?’ she asked desperately, thinking of Deepa waiting downstairs, dressed up like a butterfly. She then gently closed the dressing room door behind them. The children were downstairs; she hoped they would hear only muffled noises. Perhaps they wouldn’t hear anything at all.

‘I am not happy with that. You want to finish this now because it suits you.’ His eyes were sullen.

‘What do you want me to do? I’ve apologized. All right then, if you’d like to settle this, can we continue after we come back? Please.’ Her tone had turned from desperate to beseeching.

Ananth thought about it for a moment. He did feel that he had scored a victory, even if it was only a minor triumph in the unfinished battle. ‘Well, okay. Only on the condition we continue this after we return.’

‘We will,’ she promised. ‘Now will you please hurry?’

Finally, at 7:20, Ananth bundled his family into their mini-van. While he and Sheela maintained a stony silence in the front, Krishna and Deepa were chirping away happily in the back seat. A teacher had been petty, Deepa said. When she offered chocolates, the teacher officiously grabbed a handful, thrust it into her handbag, and reached for some more.

A few minutes into the drive, it started raining. When he switched on the wipers, Ananth realized that only one of them was working. Thankfully, it was on the driver’s side.

Sheela had chosen the restaurant. She was the gourmet of the house. The new Chinese restaurant, Himalayas, had won excellent reviews. It had a large vegetarian menu. Chinese food was the children’s favourite, particularly Deepa’s. Sheela had checked with a couple of her friends, both restaurant fanatics, and they were lavish with their praise. ‘Make sure you say you’d like your food hot and hot – temperature hot and spicy hot. That way it turns out very Indian.’ Knowing Ananth’s terrible sense of direction and even worse sense of topography, she had taken elaborate directions. She needn’t have. She almost knew the place. However she wasn’t taking chances with his impatience in case they had to search in the vicinity for a few minutes.

At the first traffic light, Ananth turned to her and asked, ‘Which way?’

‘Turn left,’ she instructed. He immediately did.

‘I mean right,’ she said.

‘What do you mean right?’

‘You know very well that I have this problem. I say right when I mean left and left when I mean right,’ Sheela whined apologetically.

‘Fantastic! Is it just you or is it women? Can’t you get right and left straight?’

‘How can right and left be straight, Papa?’ Deepa asked and both children giggled.

‘Shut up,’ he snarled at them.

Deepa’s face turned white, but Krishna retained his composure.

‘Just take a look at the Friday evening traffic. Got to go three kilometres to do a U-turn.’

Whenever he sighted a gap on either side, Ananth changed gears and attempted to get ahead of the car in front, only to brake immediately. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sheela, her hands tentatively outstretched to act as a counterbalance to this ride of fits and starts. She was particularly nervous when he overtook on the left. The blinding rain lashed on the left half of the windscreen making blurred, flowing apparitions of the cars in front. A malicious pleasure rose in him and he pressed the gas pedal more aggressively before braking again.

When the traffic stopped next, he look at his watch and cursed, ‘Damn it, it’s already 7:40. We’ll never get there at eight. And this restaurant, I’ve heard, will never hold the table for more than ten minutes. And it’s a Friday evening, too.’

With one hand on the steering wheel, he whipped out his mobile phone with the other. He pressed the buttons with such force that the keypad emitted an extended complaining tone for each press.

‘Himalayas?’ he shouted into the phone above the din of the rain.

There was a blaring of horns as he swerved to avoid the car in front. ‘The bastard braked suddenly!’

‘Don’t use profanity in the presence of the children,’ Sheela admonished.

‘That isn’t profanity. “Bastard” is in the Oxford English dictionary. Look it up. Child born out of wedlock, it would say.  If the children didn’t learn cuss words, how would they curse? Have you ever tried saying “Oh sugar” instead of “Oh s--t”? Do you think that works? And I don’t know of any child that doesn’t learn the word “bastard” sooner or later. What’s the big deal?’

A crackling emerged from the mobile phone. ‘Hello, hello…’ the caller’s voice at the other end said searchingly.

‘Oh s--t, the call,’ he remembered. ‘Himalayas?’ he repeated. ‘… screw! Wrong number.’

Sheela took the phone from him crossly and said, ‘You take care of the driving. I’ll make the call. When you make a U-turn, proceed straight. It’s right on the main road, next to French Plaza. There’s a lighted sign. You can’t miss it.’

‘And don’t you do your left right stuff with the restaurant booking and add to the confusion,’ he hissed.

He almost went past the neon sign that said “Himalayas – Theme Restaurant” and under it “Chinese Food.” A valet hurriedly took custody of their car.

In the lobby, a woman dressed completely in pink and fidgeting with her dress welcomed them with a radiant smile. Ananth barked, ‘Ananth, family of four,’ to the maître d’ behind the table. Sheela braced herself while the man searched interminably for their reservation. ‘Oh, here it is,’ he confirmed, and she heaved a sigh.

A waiter led them through the dimly lit interior to their booth. Every booth was named after a Himalayan peak and shaped like a crater. Their booth was called “Nanda Devi.” The waiter opened an inconspicuous door on the surface of the mountain to let them in.  With muted excitement, Krishna and Deepa took in the candles on the low table. The family manoeuvred between the low table and even lower benches to seat themselves. Immediately the children reached for the pickled cabbage and soy sauce.

‘I wish we’d got Everest,’ said Krishna in disappointment, and then looked away as Ananth glared at him. Regrettably, the waiter pointed out, “Everest” was already taken. Perhaps they could call in advance next time and book it. Ananth raised his eyebrows. Soon, Krishna and Deepa were quickly distracted by the centre of the circular restaurant, where there was a weather-controlled chamber. Inside was real snow shaped like a mountain. Without seeking permission, both dashed into the chamber, joining the children sliding and throwing snowballs at one another.

The waiter presented them with menu cards.

‘We are strict vegetarians. No eggs, no meat, no meat broth in anything, okay?’ Ananth warned.

‘Sure, sir,’ said the waiter.

Krishna and Deepa were summoned to the table to order. With melting snowflakes in their hair, they seized the menu cards. ‘Fried potatoes with garlic, cauliflower Manchurian…’ they were reading out aloud not mindful of their mother asking them to keep their voices low.

‘What starters would you recommend?’ Ananth asked the waiter.

‘Fried vegetables with greenjillies,’ said the waiter after a moment’s thought.

‘What?’ Ananth asked, even though it was clear that he had understood the waiter.

‘Fried vegetables with greenjillies,’ the waiter repeated.

‘You mean green… chillies?’ he asked with exaggerated effect.

‘Yes, sir. Greenjillies,’ the waiter repeated helpfully.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Vishnu, sir,’ replied the waiter.

‘My dear friend Vishnu, remember you are trying to run a Chinese restaurant here. Authenticity matters. You say greenjillies, it no longer sounds like Chinese food. We came here to eat Chinese food. Where are you from?’

The waiter simpered but remained silent.

‘Anyway, green chillies are two words. Not one word. Repeat after me. Green… chillies.’ Ananth spaced the words deliberately.

‘That’s what I said,’ the waiter said.

‘No, that’s not what you said. You said greenjillies, not green… chillies.’

This time the waiter tried earnestly, but ‘greenjillies’ was all he could manage.

‘Anyway, what did you study?’ asked Ananth.

‘Sir, B.A. in Economics.’

Ananth swore. ‘I am sure Adam Smith will turn in his grave. Do you know Adam Smith?’

The waiter simpered again.

‘I am waiting for an answer, Vishnu. Do you know Adam Smith?’

‘Sir, I forgot almost everything I studied. I don’t remember any Adam Smith.’

At this Sheela cleared her throat and nudged the children, who were happy to order fried vegetables with green chillies and spicy baby corn with pepper. The waiter took the order for the soups as well and disappeared.

Ananth sipped his water and looked around. The booths ceremoniously announced their names: Nanga Parbat, Kanchenjunga, K2 …

‘What’s the Himalayas got to do with Chinese food? I can understand if the theme was Great Wall or Forbidden City or something. What’s all this Himalayas stuff made of anyway?’ Ananth ran his fingers over the surface of the crater. ‘Papier-mâché? Wood pulp? Seems so artificial and cheap.’

‘Why don’t we pick the main courses while the starters are coming?’ Sheela asked.

The children became busy once again, arguing over eggplant in garlic sauce and stir-fried vegetables with cashew nuts.

The waiter brought the starters. ‘The soup’s on the way. Enjoy your starters.’

The ravenous children immediately began to demolish the starters.

Ananth took a bite and remarked. ‘Nothing like the Dynasty Restaurant’s Chinese food, you know.’

Sheela pouted. ‘You’re the only one of us who has eaten there. You’ve never taken me or the children.’ He ignored her, took another bite and confirmed that this was nowhere close to Dynasty’s class.

‘Well, I took opinions about this restaurant from my friends.’

 ‘Opinions from them? You must be out of your mind. Their taste is so middle class. They haven’t seen anything better. No wonder they relished this mediocre food.’

Krishna and Deepa muttered that they saw nothing wrong with the food. Deepa especially liked the baby corn.

When the waiter laid the first bowl of soup on the table, Ananth pounced on him.

‘Your thumb was in the soup!’ he accused the waiter.

‘No, sir. I only placed it like this.’ The waiter demonstrated with another bowl, his thumb clearing the level of the soup by a large margin.

‘No. You are lying. I don’t know why they can’t train you in elementary stuff like this. Just recruit people off the road, and make them waiters. I’d like to speak to your owner.’

For a moment the waiter was shocked and then he scratched his head. ‘Sir, please… not the owner, sir… I am sorry for everything. I will make absolutely sure that nothing else goes wrong with the rest of your evening.’

Ananth dismissed the supplication categorically. ‘Nothing doing. Get your owner.’ And ‘You keep out of this’ to a Sheela who wanted to intercede.

The waiter came back with the woman in pink who had welcomed them in the lobby. She listened to Ananth’s story, making suitably placatory noises now and then. The commotion had stirred interest in the other booths. Heads appeared above “Everest” and later, above “Kanchenjunga.” The owner, noticing this out of the corner of her eye, flashed quick smiles at them. Ananth was drowned in an animated portrayal of that evening’s injustice. ‘This place is totally phony. You have philistines for waiters, cardboard for settings, cheap snow… and you charge a fancy rate.’ The owner, self-consciously adjusting her pink dress, managed to slip in an offer of a significant discount to their bill while chiding the waiter in staccato tones.

The commotion was unexpectedly interrupted. A couple of waiters bearing a cake were walking to their booth merrily singing, ‘Happy Birthday to You.’ The owner, halfway through the argument, joined the singing as a dutiful host, in an absurdly high-pitched tone. More heads appeared from behind the other peaks and spontaneously joined the singing. After a round of applause, the heads disappeared behind the peaks to mind their own business.

Sheela had ordered the cake when she booked the table and, in all the fuss over the complaint, had quite forgotten about it. The waiters carrying the cake were unassailable messengers of cheer who couldn’t care less about the preceding events and weren’t in the least disturbed by an obviously unusual conversation between their owner and the customer. They placed the cake and knife on the table, wished Deepa many happy returns of the day, beamed at them all, and left.

The rhythm of belligerence was now broken. Ananth was making an effort to recollect where he had been interrupted in his tale of woe. The owner waited with a patient smile. Sheela quietly asked the owner to serve the main course and gracefully accepted the woman’s offer to replace the waiter.

When the main courses were served, Ananth exclaimed, shaking his head, ‘Totally phony. Greenjillies? Himalayas? Chinese food?’

Sheela lifted her head from her plate and looked at him with a steady gaze. ‘What did you expect? A piece of the real Himalayas?  And by the way, what were you imagining? That you’d get authentic Chinese food in an Indian Chinese restaurant? And, on top of that, completely vegetarian food? And even if you got authentic Chinese food, do you think you’d be able it eat it? You want Chinese food that’s hot and hot - Indianized.  You think that’s how they serve food in China? With lots of paneer in fried rice? In fact, you would be secretly pleased if you discovered your vegetarian food had been cooked in separate woks. Vegetarian woks. So will you please shut up and let the children eat in peace? And, by the way, the waiter did not dip his thumb in the dish. You were hoping that would happen. It didn’t. His thumb wasn’t in the dish.’

The rest of the meal and the cake were eaten in silence except when Deepa said, ‘I liked the fried vegetables with greenjillies…’ She froze at once and corrected herself: ‘Green … chillies.’

Krishna suppressed a giggle and said, ‘I have never eaten at the Dynasty. You haven’t taken us there. But this was good. The fried vegetables? They were yummy.’

In a corner of the restaurant, Sheela and Ananth could see the owner talking to the waiter in a discreet voice. From the crestfallen appearance of the waiter, it was apparent that the dressing down was not yet over.

When the bill arrived, Ananth discovered that they had been charged only for the cake. He paid and they had almost reached the parking lot when he stopped.

‘What if that woman sacks the waiter?’ he asked Sheela.

‘Well, we can’t do anything about it,’ said Sheela, continuing to the car.

Ananth did not move. ‘You are so cool about it.’

‘What can we do?’ she asked.

‘Wait here,’ Ananth said in the general direction of his family and retraced his steps.

The waiter was standing in the corner of the lobby. Evidently he hadn’t been assigned any guests yet. When Ananth walked up to him, the waiter brightened up with an uncertain smile. He accepted without protest what Ananth thrust into his hand. He discreetly counted the money and disbelief covered his face.

The owner, still nervously adjusting her dress, was tending to the arriving customers. She was now trying to seat a family of ten or twelve who could barely stand in the narrow foyer.  Little pools of water had formed around their legs. Ananth had to stand on his toes to peer beyond the family. It was not easy to catch her eye.

‘Don’t sack the fellow. I was just fooling around with him,’ he cried, for that was the only way he could get her attention.

Some family members gave him a hostile glance for distracting their hostess from the difficult duty of seating such a large number of wet people.

The owner smiled at him, but continued her feverish instructions, ‘Open the K2 and Nanga Parbat booths and put the tables together …’

‘Don’t sack him,’ Ananth repeated.  ‘He just needs more training.’

This time she responded, ‘No. We won’t,’ and started attending to the family.  It seemed to Ananth she was eager to dismiss him.

As he was leaving the restaurant, the waiter came trotting towards him and said, ‘Thangyouverymuch, sir.’

Ananth came back to Sheela and explained what had happened.

‘She didn’t sound genuine in her assurance that she wouldn’t sack the fellow,’ he complained.

She shrugged. ‘Did you say you tipped him three thousand rupees? That’s perhaps half his monthly salary.’

When they reached home, he almost ran to the bathroom. He had not eased himself in hours now, not since before he had left the office. His kidneys were bursting. On the way to the bathroom he suddenly remembered the pact with Sheela to continue their argument when they came home. Would she continue? She hadn’t approved of the large tip. And hell, it had been his call to continue the argument. What had he been thinking? Before he could reach the bathroom, the sobs overtook him. Somebody tugged at his trousers. It was Deepa. He hadn’t noticed that she had followed him.

‘It’s all right, Papa,’ she said.

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