Friday, April 17, 2009

Casus Belly

I tried to go quietly to war with an Indian hostess but was beaten before my armies took the field.

I was in Hong Kong, it was late, and I was ready for dinner. We kept passing up perfectly good places for no good reason. Nobody there. Too crowded. Had sushi yesterday. Ready to settle for cuttlefish and MSG, I spotted our refuge in a glittering second-story sign: Bombay Dreams. We entered and boarded the closet-sized elevator. It opened on a dimly-lit dining room and time stopped. Countless forks paused before countless mouths, and countles pairs of dark, watery eyes held us in brief but profound thrall. The place was uniformly Indian. I was hypnotized by hunger. A sari-clad figure emerged from the shadows. 

 "Oh I am sorry sirs, we are finished seating for the night,"  she said, nodding urgently toward the exit.

Baffled by the obvious lie, I waved at a vacant area, "Are you sure there's no room for two?"

"I am sure."

"I see tables open," I said, smiling and raising my eyebrows.

"I am sorry sir, it's too late." "Too" and "late" were spoken with earnest enunciation and a kind of rhythmic leaning. She again presented the exit.

As we were walking out, the elevator disgorged a huge group of young Indian men and women arriving for dinner. They paused in their mutual chatter just long enough to regard us cooly. Before the elevator doors closed we could see them pulling out chairs, sitting down, and making themselves quite at home.

"Well, that was fucked up."

"Whatever we'll just get room service at the hotel."

We did not. Hunger had changed to raw fatigue and I hit the bed resentful, resolved to return to Bombay Dreams and get proper service—to make a stand.

The following weekend there were many more of us, and it was much earlier in the evening. We would not be easily turned away. The same sari-clad hostess met my gaze and my courage faltered; why had I dragged friends on to the battlefield? Her opening gambit was strong—we were seated at the doors to the kitchen. "Could we sit somewhere else?" I asked in a tone both acid and decorous.

It was easy to hear her say "No," as she strode away.

After we waited a half-hour for our water glasses to be filled, I became morbidly obsessed with the stupidity of my plan. If anything, she had originally done me a favor by refusing to serve me—she had fired a warning shot.

What followed was a lopsided war of attrition. The beer was warm, sour, and infrequently replenished. The waitstaff was cloyingly decorous when fielding questions like "How is it possible that other party has already been served?" We got some things we didn't order. The things we did order trickled to our table in a confounding sequence. After being asked what we wanted for desert, we were ignored entirely. I knew I'd lost before the check came, and would've prostrated myself before General Sari if she'd emerged, but she didn't. We were allowed to languish for one last eternity before the bill arrived.

A hostile reaction would have validated my campaign—her utter disdain was unconquerable. We paid and left in silence. As we approached the exit, she appeared for one instant, chirping "Thank you! Come again!"

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