Varsha 2020 Issue, Stories - Sudhir Srinivasan



A Battle at Lunch

By Sudhir Srinivasan


“Something happened at work,” I text my wife, Anitha. “Will keep you posted,” I finish, in corporate-speak.


It’s only fitting, I suppose, for the corporate lunch I’m about to have in this posh restaurant in Khader Nawaz Khan Road, an upmarket Chennai neighbourhood. It’s the sort of restaurant people like me cannot come to more than twice a year, even though my workplace, a business process outsourcing company, is just a kilometre away.


Today, I am walking in because my team leader, whose fancy car got him here faster, is throwing me a pity lunch. The lunch is to soften the blow of the morning meeting in which he shared that I was being thrown into what’s gently called a Performance Improvement Plan. Though it sounds like a benevolent programme to make me a better employee, it is actually corporate-speak that I have two months to find another job, which under the present climate is easier suggested than accomplished.


I spot my team leader, Sukumar, waving at me from a table on the right. I walk past a cold gust of air from the centralised air conditioner, and then past two-three empty tables. The lantern-shaped lights shine bright and yellow across the wooden ceiling. It’s the sort of place Ani would love. I smile at Sukumar, and wave off the waiter, who takes a tentative step towards me before realising I’m joining someone.


I take the chair opposite him, the view of the restaurant quite open from where I sit.


“You didn’t have to—” I begin, when he cuts me off.


“No, it’s okay, Arun,” he says, always remembering to drop names in conversation, as a means of wresting control. “I thought I should talk to you.”


We get through the order-placing. I’m at the mercy of his money; so despite objections, I order myself measly egg fried rice. After going to great pains to make sure I’m okay with him buying food with his own money, he orders for himself a four-course meal combo. As he’s ordering, I observe him. He’s what people in my company would call ‘sorted’. He’s how Anitha, a decade ago, probably imagined I would evolve to be.


Head full of dark hair (half of mine’s already grey), a clean-shaven face (there’s no way I’m shaving every day), well-mannered demeanour (yeah, I’m all right at this), a successful career (well, you know the deal with mine)…


Suddenly, the question of how Anitha would react to my likely termination makes my insides cold.


“You seem thoughtful?” he says.


Before I can answer, he goes on: “I know, I know. This must have come as a shocker for you, Arun.” There’s the name-dropping again. “Think of this as a wake-up call.” Here comes the generic advice. “Think of this as an opportunity to rectify your flaws, take stock of where you are going wrong, iron out your mistakes,” he says, perhaps not aware that he repeated the same advice thrice.


All I really want from this lunch is a way to try and convince him to take me out of this Performance Improvement Plan, or as they call it like it were a sweet kitten, PIP. I am trying to think of a strategy to get him on my side, when I see a bearded man in white shirt and jeans walking into the restaurant. Stocky body, confident walk, assertive presence. In essence, everything I lack—including the beard.


“Look, I know what you are thinking,” he says.


I wonder if he really knows that I’m on the verge of losing the last shred of respect Ani has for me.


“Arun, my advice for you right now would be — ”


The waiter brings in our orders—several plates and bowls for his, one each for mine.


“You can bring the rest of my order as well, please,” Sukumar tells the waiter, and turns at me with an apologetic face. “Sorry, I have to leave in about 20 minutes. I have another meeting. And you better get back too, right?”


I nod, dimly realising that for him, this is one of several formal meetings. We go at our food for a couple of minutes, the awkward silence interrupted by the clinking of spoons and forks. It dawns on me that I have no strategy, no plan, nothing to make him feel kindly towards me. The depressing visual of Ani’s disappointed face washes over me.


I throw a look of resignation around the restaurant. At the waiters who have mastered the art of not looking at customers till they are looked at. At the couple engaged with their mobile phones, sitting diagonally to our table. At the white-shirt bearded guy drinking away some mocktail, two tables away to my right. He catches my glance; I quickly turn back to Sukumar.


Perhaps out of sheer desperation, I decide that the best strategy is no strategy. I simply decide to open up. I speak in Tamil, hoping it can register my plight better. And also because I feel like I’m more honest when speaking in Tamil.


I tell him that this job, especially at this time, is crucial. I tell him I can’t afford to search for a new one, not when in my early 30s, not when this job, my first one after a failed attempt at being a violinist, won’t give me a glowing recommendation. In hopelessness, I even drop the bit about my rocky marriage with Ani. And then, having run out of steam unexpectedly, I become silent.


I guess I must have seemed particularly pathetic, because Sukumar, briefly, drops corporate-speak. And he usually never does. He switches to Tamil too. Suddenly, he seems like a real person.


“Just be more aggressive da,” he says. “You can’t sell, if you are too polite, if you are as soft as you are. You need to be louder. You need to—you need to refuse to back down. Do you understand?”


For the first time perhaps, it feels like he really means to give me useful advice.


The waiter comes in and quietly removes his empty bowls and plates.


Perhaps buoyed by my thoughtful nods, he goes on, but switches to English: “I hear that you end many of your calls at the first sign of refusal. You have to break that. It’s nothing you haven’t already been told already, but you need to take feedback seriously. Just be more aggressive, Arun.”


Aggressive. Aggressive. I have heard variations of this my whole life. Stand up for yourself. Take the initiative. In Tamil, some have been less kind. Kozhai. Pottai.


I remember when Anitha and I had just begun texting, many years ago. After a couple of weeks of platonic messaging, she wanted to know if I was ever going to ask her out. “What, like a date?” I fumbled, in response. She thought it adorable, and went on to plan the date for us. She liked it back then. I think time has hacked away at that feeling.

Lost in thought, I recover to realise that I’ve been staring—without meaning to—at the white-shirt bearded guy. I must have been at it for some time, I suppose, given how he returns my stare with interest. I turn away. I fold—like I always do.


Something about how quickly I averted his stare makes me uncomfortable, so I muster the strength to glance at him again… to see him fixating his unmoving eyes on me. I buckle once more, like I had just looked directly at the afternoon sun.


“You’re listening?” asks Sukumar.


I nod a distracted yes.


I see a faint blue light flickering on my cell phone—indication that Anitha has likely responded to my message. It must be disappointment. I save the humiliation for later.


Right now, I’m still feeling sore about folding under the weight of the white-shirt bearded man’s stare. Suddenly, something within me gives way. I feel the adrenaline surging. I decide to fight back. I lift my head slowly, and turn, against all my natural instincts, at the guy. I expect to bear the full blast of his vision… but it’s an anticlimax. He’s fidgeting with his phone. I feel thwarted, but I also feel relieved.


I see Sukumar sneaking a quick peek at his watch. Perhaps he’s already making mental preparations for his next meeting. I see him dig into his dessert, some colourful cake-like item I don’t even know the name of.


Something compels me to turn at him again. I feel the heat of his stare well before I look at him, and sure enough, there he is, glaring at me. Perhaps this is how waiters realise when they are being looked at?


Unlike as I did earlier though, I don’t flinch this time. I don’t break the stare. I maintain it.


Sukumar is probably done with his cake, because he talks again: “You need to force yourself out of your comfort zone.”


I see the white-shirt bearded guy’s stare slowly changing from disinterest to anger. I try to keep up. I can feel the contest already making me physically uncomfortable. I am already picturing myself going very far away from this restaurant, somewhere distant where nobody will stare at me. But I summon the will to continue looking at him. This time, I won’t fold, no. So, I glare; I glower. You want me? Here I am. Come on, you bastard.


“Check please,” I hear Sukumar saying, almost from another world. “You want something?” he asks.


I am unable to respond, this feud draining me by the second. The white-shirt bearded guy seems to be a natural at it; he won’t back down. We keep at it for seconds that seem like hours. And finally, just as I begin picturing giving up, he breaks the stare. I breathe a sigh of relief, but then he resumes with interest. If someone were to translate his stare into words, I imagine it would break into dozens of threats.


I try to return the favour. I think of the vilest Tamil abuses I know, and try to channel them through the rays of my stare. Punda. Pannada. Porombokku. Theru porikki. Echcha baadu. I screw up my eyes in focus, my nostrils flare. I take deep, furious breaths.


Sukumar says something I can’t hear.


White-shirt bearded guy opens his body up, threatening to get up. I mimic his movements. If this has to turn into a fist-fight, let it. Just fuck off. Everyone. Sukumar. This fucker. Everyone. Okay, not Anitha. But everyone else. Fuck off.


Sukumar is still asking me something.


White-shirt fucker lifts his eyebrows, like he were asking what my problem is. I do the same. Do you have a problem, you piece of shit? Fucking look away. Quit! Leave me alone! Let me win!


“ARUN!” shouts Sukumar.


Careful to make sure my stare with white-shirt asshole isn’t broken, I let out a ‘tch’, and lift my left palm to his face, a gesture to him to wait. A rude gesture, but I have more pressing concerns right now.


I feed my stare with all my anger, all the frustration accumulated across the years. This white-shirt bastard is the cause of everything that’s gone wrong in my life. He’s my dying career. He’s Sukumar’s corporate apathy. He’s my lack of aggression. He’s Anitha’s disrespect. He’s why my career as a violinist didn’t take off. He’s the reason for all the misery I have endured, and will.


The waiter and Sukumar talk something.


And then, it happens. It finally happens. The white-shirt asshole breaks the stare. I feel the blood moving again in me. I can breathe again. He resigned. He quit. I didn’t. I won. I could laugh in jubilation. What a loser, he seems to be gesturing with a shake of his head, as he picks up his phone.


I don’t care. I won. I beat you, asshole.


I gloat and maintain the stare for a few more seconds. I take the spoils. Let’s see you look at me again, you piece of shit.


He doesn’t. He gets engrossed with texting, or whatever it is he’s doing. My chest swells in relief. I feel like a big weight is off my shoulders. I let out a tiny hint of a smile. It feels like my career is back on track. It feels like Anitha respects me. It feels like I’m a violinist.


I turn back at Sukumar. “What was that?” he asks, dropping his wallet into his fancy bag. “You know him?”


I wave the question away.


“Sorry,” I say, and the next sentences are perhaps the most assertive I have sounded in years. “Thanks for the lunch, Sukumar.” Look at that, I just dropped his name. How’s that for assertiveness? “Thank you for all the advice,” I continue. “I think you will be seeing a very different me in the coming months. I think I can change your mind.”

He looks taken aback for a few seconds, but recovers with a smile.


“See you at work then,” he says, getting up.


“Yes!” I say, giving perhaps the firmest handshake I have in years. There’s that look of surprise again. He leaves, looking a bit bemused.


I check my messages, and just as I thought, a message from Anitha—not one that conveys disappointment, but concern. “All okay?”

I smile. “It’s nothing,” I type. “Nothing I can’t handle.”


I picture her looking a bit surprised. Right now, I feel like I can turn everything around.


I get up, feeling a sense of elation.

Only to see the white-shirt bearded man in my face.


I reel.


“What’s your problem man?” he says in his deep voice, bearing down on me.


I gawk at him, not sure how to respond.


I shrink. “Uh, nothing,” I say, feeling my self-loathing rising. “Why?” I ask, trying to put up a dying, defiant resistance.


“You were staring at me?” he asks, looking down at me, like I were something to be squashed.


“I-- I thought you were someone I knew,” I muster.


He considers my response for a moment, while still sizing me up. I stay quiet.


“All right, you take care then.” He taps my shoulder and walks away.


I sit down, my new balloon of self-confidence in shreds.


I run the conversation again in my head, but this time, I imagine asking him what his problem is, and demanding that he get the fuck out of my face. Perhaps that’s what I should have said. If it happened again, perhaps that’s what I would say. But there was just no time. I just didn’t expect him.


I get up, and take lumbering, pathetic steps towards the exit.


“Thank you, sir!” says the waiter.


I nod acknowledgement, unlocking my mobile phone, my feeling of elation seeming already like a distant memory.


I decide I may as well get it out of the way. So, I text Anitha: “I think there could be a problem at work. I’ll tell you in person.”


So much for ‘Nothing I can’t handle’.


I step out of the restaurant, inspecting my rusty, old motorbike from a distance. A fitting bike.


“Xoxo,” I text her, as an afterthought. In desperation.


I labour towards my bike, feeling robbed of all energy to ride to work, feeling empty of any motivation to do anything.


That’s when it occurs to me. Perhaps he’s still here somewhere? Perhaps I can still salvage this. I look around, a starving predator hunting for food. I search for the white-shirt asshole. I scan the parking area, I look out onto the road. I throw an exasperated look at the watchman.


He’s nowhere. He’s gone.


Of course.


I climb onto my bike, on the seat that Anitha has reminded me a hundred times, needs recushioning.


My phone beeps. I feel a sense of mild anticipation, as I unlock it. It’s a reply from her. Perhaps an ‘Xoxo’ in return, perhaps a reassuring message.

Her message: “k.”


I look at it, far longer than it deserves.


After many minutes, I slide the phone into my pocket, and start my bike, not caring to wear the helmet hanging by the side of my bike. What does it matter?

I exit the restaurant’s parking lot… And I spot him.


There he is, smoking a cigarette, leaning on his white car. White shirt, full beard, a demeanour like he owns the street. I gather determination, and ride towards him slowly, unsure of what I’m about to do.


I don’t accelerate, but I don’t slow down either. I’m almost near his car that is ahead to my left. I still haven’t made up my mind. He looks at me. He recognises me, of course. For a brief second, our battle resumes. Our eyes locked again in a feud.


But then, I am unable to help myself. I avert eye contact. I look down at the road, at the moving tarmac. I keep looking down, his polished black shoes at the periphery of my vision, as my bike goes close to his car, beside it, past it, and then further and further away. Away from his car, away from him. Away from everything.


I tell myself it’s because I’m late for work. I’ll get in trouble with Sukumar, and I can’t afford it now. I tell myself that’s why I didn’t stop my bike. That’s why I didn’t confront the guy. Yeah, that makes sense, I think. That makes sense. I made the right choice, I tell myself.


I ride out of the posh neighbourhood, and merge into the Nungambakkam Main Road traffic. Among all the noisy, moving vehicles around me, I feel more at ease than I did in that empty, quiet road.


Dully motoring along towards my office whose building I can already see towering at the end of the road, I catch myself wishing for something. I wish this ride would never end.


Sudhir Srinivasan is a writer and film critic from South India, and works as the entertainment editor of The New Indian Express newspaper. He has also worked with newspapers such as The Hindu and The Times of India.


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