Two mobile phones on either ends of the city beeped and blinked with an array of urgent text messages.
Each message was read the moment it blinked into being, but the replies were deliberately delayed.
Later in the afternoon would be fine.
If we need to talk, we need to be in some place quiet enough to be heard.
In a gush of enthusiasm, Parth shared a few links of online restaurant reviews.
There’s Melange, where can step in for breakfast and stay on till dinner. They will not show us the door.
Done! Kayal texted him a thumbs-up of approval.
Parth arrived early. The café was actually a refurbished colonial bungalow, bang in the middle of that fast-fuelled and humid city. Great canopies of trees arching over its vast garden zoned out all the hustle-bustle outside. Tables were set along the corridors. Bougainvilleas burst in full bloom. It was a green lung that a city trapped in pigeonholes of office cubicles and residential complexes was glad to escape to.
Parth chose a table along the corridor overlooking a lily pond in the garden. It was to be his second meeting with Kayal, and their first private one. Kayal arrived late. After a spate of meetings with strangers arranged through matrimonial sites by her parents, all of which she intently ended, she wasn’t sure what to think of this one. But the bougainvillea blossoms brightened her up somehow. She smiled.
“Sorry for the delay!”
“Anything to eat?” he asked, sipping his juice.
She picked up the menu card, settled in her chair and dropped her handcrafted cloth bag on a chair beside. She studied his face nonchalantly above her spectacles and menu card, wondering where to begin the conversation. He moved cautiously between the table and his chair as the Prada aviator sunglasses hung from his Ed Hardy t-shirt. Last time, thanks to a cacophony of cousins, high and excited, there had hardly been any conversation between them. She had sensed his face smiling at her through the small talk she had held with everyone else. Numbers had been exchanged as a parting note.
He beamed. “What next?” he said.
“Meeting friends and some packing left.”
The conversation floated around, nothing of much substance but with smiles for a while as a warm up. Her sandwich came along with a coffee. The bitter after taste of coffee made her want to have a sip of water. She held a tissue close to her mouth since the coffee made her conscious of her breath. She looked around. As if reading her mind, he piped up, “One should not drink water after coffee.”
She looked at him quizzically.
“It gives you a headache,” he explained.
“But I don’t like the taste it leaves in my mouth,” she replied, unmoved.
She spotted a waiter at a distance and waved out to him. He reached their table with a notepad.
“A glass of water please,” she said.
“What brand would you like, ma’am,” chimed the waiter. “Himalayan, Qua, Evian?”
“I just need a glass of ordinary water,” she said.
“Sorry ma’am, we only serve bottled water, you need to buy one,” said the waiter.
“Can I meet your manager?”Kayal said. Her face was calm but the icy tone was enough to freeze the air.
“Hey, it’s just a bottle of water, we’ll get one,” Parth cut in hurriedly.
Eyebrows arched, she stood up. “I’ll meet the manager.”
The waiter smiled in disbelief. She walked in search of the counter. Parth hurried behind her. The waiter walked behind both, an inscrutable expression on his face. After crossing a few corridors she arrived at a raised platform with a counter. Heads from other tables turned in mild curiosity.
She stepped up and cleared her throat, “Excuse me!”
“Yes ma’am, how may I help you”, smiled the man behind the counter.
“Can I have a glass of water please”, she replied.
“Which one ma’am?”
“I just need a glass of water.” Kayal stressed every word with dangerous slowness.
“Ma’am, but we only serve bottled water”, parroted the man.
Standing next to her, Parth tried to get her attention in vain.
“Do you all drink from bottles?” she asked curtly.
“No ma’am, but…” said the man.
“Then give me the water you drink,” she finished and stepped down.
Parth looked abjectly apologetic. The manager turned to get a glass of water from a jug. All heads at tables nearby had turned towards them by now.
She got her glass of water, drank it and returned it with a firm “Thank you.”
She walked back to her table along the corridor at a leisurely pace. Parth looked at the manager. “Sorry,” he mumbled, thrust fifty rupees in his hand, got a bottle of water and paced behind her.
He sat at the table, looked at her and said, “Should I ask for the bill?”
“No, that’s fine, we can talk for a while”, she replied in even tones. Not a trace of the exasperation of the past few minutes on her face.
He thought about what might burst next, pulled his chair closer to the table and eased into it.
“They can’t capitalise on water!” she blurted out finally, relaxing into a smile.
“Quite hot headed, hmm!” he muttered, loud enough for her to hear.
“Difficult to handle, eh?”
“Not really”, he replied, struggling between a smile and embarrassment.
“A smoke?” he offered placatingly.
The smoking zone was enclosed in an opening beyond the tables and the garden at the far end of the pathway. A standee arrow mark indicated the direction.
“You have not understood and I have no patience to explain. Anyway, I don’t believe in harming others for self-amusement”, she said. The smile had wiped itself off her face as she stood up to leave. She placed some money under the plate before she turned away.
He almost got up from his chair in protest, but sank back in silence and smiled pensively.