By Gauri Hardikar
Poverty of the spirit
“Ouch!” I cry out, as my husband swiftly kicks me under the table.”Don’t stare”, he hisses back. I use every ounce of my will power to reluctantly stop staring at a man, of undeterminable age, flashing all the right symbols of a successful life, right from a haughty nonchalant expression, to branded accessories, while he starts eating his dinner of vada pao. You must be thinking,”Hmpf, so, what’s the big deal? Someone is eating vada pao, hello, this is Mumbai, vada pao is our staple food!” . Let me explain.
We (hubby and I) are having dinner at one of the classiest restaurants in town, and needless to say one of the pricier ones too. We chose the place, because this dinner is a celebration, of many events clubbed together. E.g A recently acquired promotion, not so recent Valentine’s day, actually last year’s Valentine’s day too, and the year before last (did we celebrate that one?!),assorted birthdays, anniversaries, achievements and other significant occasions not celebrated. But actually we both know that we are celebrating togetherness, the wonderful fact that in spite of having a fairly uneventful long married life, and very eventful career lives, both of us want to still spend time with each other dawdling over dinner that stretches over three hours. Hence the extravagance. But that’s beside the point.
The restaurant offers a la carte option and also a buffet. After one glance at the a la carte menu, we roll our eyes, and settle on the buffet. Its not a difficult choice. The buffet with almost 70 dishes costs only 4 times more than the cost of a vada pao. Its actually the price of the Mumbai Special Vada pao that makes both of us almost hyperventilate. In Mumbai Nagari, the place of origin of the Vada Pao, or the humble Indian version of a burger, with prices that range from 5 Rs to, hold Ur breath, 500 hundred rupees, plus taxes ! I blink my eyes and wonder whether I am seeing things. Hubby and I confer and agree that the Vada pao in this swanky place indeed costs 100 times more than what it does at the tapari around the corner. Both of us wonder about people who placed it on the menu and more about whether anyone has ever ordered it?Or has it been cremated with due honors in the restaurant incinerator?
Imagine our excitement when we actually see a waiter carrying two pieces of the stuff to a table behind us. We blink our eyes again; this is the 2nd shock in the same evening. Tell me then; do you blame me for wanting to have a good look at the man who has ordered vada pao which costs only Rs.560? And to answer an obvious question in your minds, he is an Indian.
This gives both of us a lot of food for thought and a lively discussion ensues, which continues, till we leave and wait in the foyer for the valet to get our car. An angry voice interrupts our conversation. We turn around to see the same man, yelling at the doorman, he seems to be in a hurry to leave. Hubby ever fond of gangster movies, has a theory that he is a ‘bhai’ who cannot eat the food that he grew up on, because it’s too dangerous for him. Hence the five star snack, and now the mad hurry to leave. Since there is a crowd of people waiting for their cars, our man strides out to stand near the gate. A motley group of street kids have clustered there, hoping to get the left overs that guests may hand over. As the other kids stare fearfully at the man, a dark, perky little girl, wearing a tattered dress, stretches out a grubby hand to touch the man, big round eyes appealing to his altruistic nature. No sooner does she do so, all hell breaks loose. The man screams every kind of expletive imaginable at her and the rest of the kids, slaps the girl so hard that she falls down, and chases the other kids who rush to help her. While the kid cowers in fright he continues the tirade while we watch in stunned silence. Fortunately, a Mercedes rolls up, the driver runs out to pacify the Sahib, who gets into the car still shaking his fists at the child who is now sitting up and wailing for all she is worth. The kids watching from a safe distance run back to her, the doorman also rushes to help her stand up. I move closer, wanting to offer some sympathy and may be some money to buy dinner. But the kids beat me to it. One hands the girl a half eaten chocolate, the other one opens a carry away box, to reveal some other food stuff, while the third one, removes her own colorful bangles and holds them out to the sobbing child.
It’s an unforgettable sight, these kids may need my money, but they certainly are rich, in spirit, definitely wealthier than me and the vada pao eating man in the shiny Merc put together.