The best evenings sometimes start with you being made to wait. As in my case last week. For fifteen minutes. Then half an hour. Then by a text that says ‘leaving in seven’. (Seven?? What happened to five?) And finally by a frazzled man who arrives an hour late.
I didn’t mind. Or I told myself I didn’t. If you haven’t seen a person in a while your endurance improves. Tolerance for the clock shoots up. But also crucially as Murakami put it, “For a while is a phrase whose length can’t be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting”. And let’s not forget context: a woman sitting alone at a (Delhi) bar is curious to onlookers. And depending on the bar’s degree of seedy, curious can be replaced with inviting.
It’s not the same as woman sitting by herself in a coffee shop.
Coffee shops are more straightforward. There’s no need to rev up defensive body language or plug in mental All Out to fumigate leery mosquito/men that hover. Not at coffee shops. At coffee shops, you watch people. People watch you. You sip. If it gets uncomfortable you take out a book. (Not a laptop. That’s ‘beyond my ken’. I’ve never done it. And unless push really comes to shove it up, this stays).
But now bars. There’s no taking out a book at a bar, EVEN if you’re being made to wait. I don’t know why but it’s just incongruous. If it were acceptable to say, play kho-kho in church, a book at a bar may seem not so blasphemous. And on the wouldn’t-be-caught-dead-with scale, at a bar, book is as bad as laptop. Or this could be merely a flighty Feb 2012 dated theory and if you checked with me in April, I’d look up blankly from a book and a Bloody Mary.
The point is ambience. Shatabadi music/Kenny G coupled with the Kapoor uncles and the Arora sa’abs saying, ‘happy hour hai na? ek aur Blenders Pride jaldi se’, a couple on the far corner sitting on the same side, man’s arm around woman’s shoulder, both lost to the world — yea, no. Not good for reading. What you’ve got (to play with) is tissue, scratched cutlery, the menu advertising a sea food festival, and your ‘mobile device’, and still more time to kill. Damn it.
I ring a friend to vent. ‘He’s late. Talk to me. I’m sitting alone. Ordered my vodka’. Friend is babysitting a delighted nephew and playing with a train set. Every few minutes she breaks off to give the tot a scrap of attention (“haan baby, platform”). We discuss our day. Swap gibberish. Gossip a little. Talk about planets and lunacy. Admit to vulnerability and butterflies. Get a recipe for fish, an assurance that ‘it’ will be fine, and top it off with a semi-abrupt ‘Okay. Call you tomorrow. I think he’s here’. (I have fascinating insights on how we sideline and take for granted beautiful permanent friends the moment an interesting Spring cloud emerges. But that’s a different story.)
He arrives. He apologises. Not profusely. Nothing as blatant. But I can see the guilt in his sheepish suppressed grin. I say it’s fine.
Hell, I got here just twenty minutes ago myself. And there it is — the 3D costume you’ve slipped into — I have slipped into — of being mock-spurned, nonchalant yet genuinely happy. The mock-spurned bit you think you will milk till the last order. In your head — in my head — it’s a watertight blackmail: hey, you kept me waiting! You think this will work. Till the bar closes. Till the laughs scale a higher note. Till the Republic Day elephants pack up and go home. But my underestimation is the speed-breaker. For my white little lie has been outed by his one cheeky question to the prawn-curry-pimping waiter: ‘When did madam get here’? And the slick, spineless weasel of a waiter does a quick calculation of where his tip will come from, and with a flourish, manages to deflate my entire comic charade: “Madam has been waiting, Sir — for a while”.
— Nivriti Butalia is NOT an ‘unrepentant alcoholic’, even if the ed-in-chief says as much in writing