Updated: December 29, 2019 9:53:16 am
Samples of paneer lababdar were being packed and sealed by the Inspector in the office of the Restaurant Manager when the Restaurant Manager crept up to the Officer.
“Sir, the year’s end party at our place is quite famous. Full family entertainment with music, buffet, drinks”. The Officer was not expecting this intrusion. He had come out of the Restaurant Manager’s office because he needed some respite from his job of inspecting eateries. It was good for those who could take advantage of their position, but this Officer wasn’t the type to ask for things in return.
There were many regulations involved and the Officer couldn’t remember more than two or three at any given time. To assist him in his task, there was the Inspector who did the paperwork, sent notices, and accompanied the Officer during the inspections. The Officer was somewhat aware of the inner workings. He’d been told about the deals that the Inspector made with the business owners, but the cuts from those deals did not reach the Officer so he just luxuriated in his ignorance and clean image. Let the Inspector manage things and keep all trouble away from me.
The Officer lit a cigarette and took in an eyeful of his Driver, a strapping man of 28. The Officer — almost a decade older than the Driver, jaded, prone to plunging into sadness quite often — was amazed by the bravado and the headstrong confidence of the Driver. How can this man be so cocky? What does he have that my life lacks? Unable to hold his curiosity and fascination for the Driver, the Officer became friends with him. The Driver brought his car to pick up the Officer from a spot far away from the office and both their residences, far enough from prying eyes, and they went — after sundown, usually — for drives and drinks. During office hours, they maintained the status quo, even though the Officer sometimes played pranks on him. The Driver, too, threatened to not show up, and the Officer made amends by buying gifts for him. Simple gifts that wouldn’t attract attention: shirt, deodorant, shoes.
The Officer caught the eyes of the Driver, who was sitting inside the office vehicle at a far end of the restaurant’s parking space. He felt like running to the Driver, but he couldn’t. He was at work. All his desires would have to wait till after sundown.
And when the Restaurant Manager came, there was no way the Officer could keep ogling at the Driver.
“I’ve heard about your new year parties,” the Officer said to the Restaurant Manager, “but I haven’t attended any”.
“Then please join us this time.”
The Restaurant Manager fished two shiny pieces of paper from the chest pocket of his shirt and thrust those into the unsuspecting Officer’s hand. It was so sudden that the Officer couldn’t understand what happened.
“Sir, a small gift for you from our restaurant,” the Restaurant Manager grinned at the Officer. “Two passes for the year’s end party. December 31st is just two weeks away.”
“Y-yes,” the Officer, with the same quickness as the Restaurant Manager, stuffed the passes into the pocket of his shirt. Two passes. Each pass, he remembered from the advertisements in newspapers, cost about Rs 1,000. So he had items worth Rs 2,000 inside his pocket.
Rs 2,000 on one inspection. How much business does this place make? — the Officer wondered. And how much business does everyone involved make? The restaurant was popular with the moneyed crowd of the town. But was it right to grab these passes? Hope no one saw. The parking space is empty. Who’ll see? And it’s just passes, not cash. This cannot be a bribe. Gift, yes.
“One pass for one person,” the Restaurant Manager explained. “And one child below seven years will be allowed free entry along with one adult who shows a pass. I hope madam and you have a good time at our party”.
Since the Restaurant Manager said “madam and you” so cheerily, the Officer couldn’t bring himself to reveal that he was not married. A barely audible hmm was all he mustered.
The food samples collected, the Inspector slid beside the Officer in the passenger seat. His impertinence disgusted the Officer. How confidently he liaised with the business owners and got them in touch with the authorities! The Officer was in no mood to talk. He just wanted to return, finish the formalities, rest, and, perhaps, plan an evening out with the Driver — who was sitting right in front of him but with whom he couldn’t talk with other people around.
‘Sir,’ the Inspector grinned at the Officer, ‘did the Restaurant Manager give you something?’
The Officer knew it was useless hiding anything from the Inspector. He was not only older than the Officer, he had worked in the field for a longer time than him.
“Yes,” the Officer said, looking out of the window, “two passes to the new year party”.
“You must go. Who will you take along?”
The Officer felt like clasping the Inspector’s throat and demanding to know what gifts he received from the Restaurant Manager, whether cash or coupons; but he said nothing and kept looking at the Driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror, hoping that the Driver might notice, but he didn’t.
“Kal subah tayyar rahna. Aur apne pati-parmeswar ko bhi bata dena. Uske saamne hi hum tere ko utha ke le jayenge,” the Driver hissed into the phone as he drove. Be prepared tomorrow morning. And also tell your dear husband. I shall carry you away right in front of his eyes.
The Officer, smoking, looked out into the darkness. He had heard this conversation 50 times before.
“What are you thinking, sir?” the Driver disconnected the call and asked.
“Nothing,” the Officer sighed, turning towards the Driver. “I’m just wondering why you did not marry this girl.”
“Her parents chose someone else.”
“Then why are you still seeing her? She’s married. You said she also has a child. You can marry some other girl.”
“She’s happy when she’s with me, so I try to make her happy. Anyway — ” the Driver faced the Officer. “I’m honoured that you asked me to go with you to the party at that restaurant.”
“Yes, don’t forget,” the Officer blew the smoke on the Driver’s face.
“Could I ask you for something?” the Driver asked after a pause.
“Could you please get me two more passes?”
“Two more? Why? For whom?”
“Please. You can do this much for me,
“Hello, yes…I’m the Officer…Your food samples have been sent for testing…Don’t worry about the report…I have a favour to ask…Could I have two more passes for your party…Thank you so much…The Driver who was with me that day shall pick up the passes for me…Just ask him to have you talk to me when he’s in your office.”
At the party, the Officer was clutching his fourth glass of Smirnoff and a shot of panic. The place was crowded and young couples were jostling for space on the dance floor. The atmosphere hardly felt worth 1,000 bucks.
But that was the Officer’s opinion. Other people were apparently enjoying the party. Like, that man — little older than the Driver — and his five-year-old son seated some distance away from the Officer’s table. The father-son were happily sampling food and taking photos and were not a bit concerned that the woman who was with them had been away from the table for almost ten minutes.
That woman was the Driver’s Girlfriend.
“Sir, they’re here,” the Driver had informed the Officer of his Girlfriend’s arrival at the party. “My Girlfriend, her husband, and their son. Just don’t look at them.”
Through specialised eye contacts and WhatsApp messages, the Driver and his Girlfriend carried out their meetings — 5-7 minutes at a time. The last meeting was somewhat longer and the Officer was bubbling with anxiety. The Driver had taken five large Signatures and the Officer could imagine certain mishaps. May we get away from this party safely — was the Officer’s last wish of the year.
And safely the matter did end. The Driver returned to the table, smiling, and cupped the Officer’s hand.
“Thank you, sir. This means a lot to me.”
A few minutes later, the Girlfriend returned to her table, straightening her dress as she walked. Few more selfies later, the family left.
On their way home, just at midnight, the Driver said to the Officer, ‘Sir, she told me that she has never been so happy in a long time”.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is the author, most recently, of My Father’s Garden (Speaking Tiger)
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