The metal spit rotates slowly. Layered meats ooze their juices into the circular tray underneath. A young man in a tall, white chef’s hat cuts shavings from the thick roll of meat and stuffs them into freshly baked bread.
“Shawarma!” my companion says. Her eyes shine. “Just the dish I have been craving! If you have no objection, shall we eat here?” This last bit with a questioning glance.
“Sure,” I answer. What objection could I possibly have today? Shawarma is fine, everything is fine with me today. Today, she is here with me. The hazy sky of Hong Kong is bright with the promise of early winter and the lunchtime bustle of Central seems festive.
We are colleagues, Jaya and I. We work half the world away from each other for an information technology company – a giant, with offices in all major countries – she in Chennai, I in London. We meet occasionally at work-related events.
You might have come across colleagues who seem constrained in groups, avoid each other’s eyes, make only the most superficial remarks to each other, but if you observe closely, you find an undefinable sympathy between them. They seem to be in tandem, in parallel orbits, apart and yet connected, as if the same wave touches and moves them, never bringing them closer but never allowing them to drift too far either. We are that kind of colleagues. We both know this; we are both aware of our danger, and are therefore very, very careful. Only once had we forgotten our masks
and props, only once had we revealed ourselves to ourselves, and the need that lay coiled between us had stretched out and enveloped us. Only once. To both our credit. After all, we are two very pragmatic, cautious individuals. There are important, practical factors to consider, like families and shared homes and children and pets.
Jaya and I are in Hong Kong to attend an off-site, a work-meet where colleagues who work together, or at least are supposed to work together, gather to discuss new ideas, newer ways to collaborate. We have all left behind our homes, offices, routines for a few days to plunge into work politics. Old rivalries are being revived, new alliances are being built. Presentations, budgets, bickering, gossip. Days are spent in conference-room manoeuvrings, evenings drinking at pubs in Soho. Jaya and I have slipped out for lunch. By ourselves.
Mid-Levels is crowded with office-goers. The narrow streets are lined with eateries on both sides. Whole glazed ducks and pigs hang in the display windows of Cantonese restaurants and fish and lobsters squirm in large glass tanks. Red-and-white chequered tablecloths gleam in Italian restaurants and men sporting large sombreros hand out menu cards outside Mexican ones. Out of this plenty, Jaya chooses the small Lebanese restaurant tucked under the Mid-Levels escalator.
We enter the low-ceilinged irregular room dominated by the high counter with its magnificent shawarma meats and are shown to a small alcove. There are leather seats around a low, circular table. We sit side by side, our knees bent awkwardly, almost touching.
“What would you like to drink?”
“Virgin toddy. Lots of honey.”
I signal to the waiter. “Two virgin toddies; bring some honey separately.” I turn to Jaya. “You’ll share a Mezze platter?”
“Yes, please. Don’t forget the shawarma.”
The waiter walks away briskly. Jaya shifts in the back-and-armrest-less seat trying to find a comfortable spot. “You won’t believe how I have been craving shawarma...”– she rests her knee against the edge of the table – “... just an irresistible craving...”
“Which you clearly managed to resist until now.”
She smiles. I look at her kohl-lined eyes. The light falls on the planes and angles of her face as she moves on the comfortless leather stool. I, too, have irresistible cravings. The waiter brings our drinks. Jaya adds a spoonful of honey to hers.
“Don’t you want to taste it first?”
“It is never sweet enough.”
I watch her as she carefully fishes out the star anise and cinnamon sticks, the cloves and lime leaves from her drink and arranges them neatly on the rim of her plate. I can smell the fresh, clean fragrance of her hair. The memory of that night comes back to me – the night when we had clung together like two desperate, drowning souls. I feel her heavy hair come undone on my shoulders again, my fingers tear at the buttons of her dress, her whisper sounds in my ear, there’s wine on her breath, my mouth silences her nascent words. I shake my head. That one night always waits in the wings when we meet, and tacitly, mutually, we ignore it.
She raises her eyes and reads mine. Something opens softly between us, throbbing and urgent. We look away.
“How is your time-travel working out?” I ask. Jaya still works with the California-based product development team she was a part of before moving to Chennai from the US a couple of years ago. The product-lead did not wish to lose her and convinced her to stay on the team. She works US hours on cutting-edge robotics technology. I am senior in the corporate hierarchy, but she is the real rocket scientist and we both know it.
“It’s all right. I am working on quant-robotics these days. My objective is to cheat young math-whizzes out of opportunities. I am building an intelligent robot to take over not just solving financial math problems but figure out the sequence in which a series of problems should be solved for optimality, which variables to apply, which to disregard. I am going a bit slow, though; little sleep has that effect on me. Eventually I plan to make a robot that replaces me; it will work while I sleep.”
I look at her smiling eyes. The fine skin under them is stretched, bruised-looking. “This time-zone commute is not such a great idea, Jaya.”
“Yes, it isn’t,” she agrees, “but I can’t leave Chennai right now and I am too selfish to give up working, so I have given up sleeping.” She takes a sip of her warm drink. “Actually, I am lying. I haven’t given up sleeping altogether, just changed the style and rhythm of sleep. I have become an expert napper. Give me ten minutes, and I can sleep anywhere, anytime. I can compete with your cats. Which reminds me, how are the cats doing?”
Cats are part of my life; rather, I am part of theirs. My role might be limited but it is not insignificant. “They are as usual.” I take out my phone and show their latest pictures to Jaya. “I have no complaints. They still allow us to share the house with them and sometimes condescend to being patted. They still dislike my travelling, though. No pet kennel seems to be up to their taste. When I fetch them back home, they behave like teenagers – grumpy for days, won’t eat, stalk out, and stay out all night.”
The cats are my responsibility. My wife refuses to care for them in my absence. She dislikes the insinuation that the cats are a placebo for the children we don’t have. This is one of the many things which I have never said to Jaya. There is no need to. She knows.
“I am on their side. At least they don’t argue and bang doors.” Jaya laughs. She has twin daughters, 15 years old.
“You are incredibly lucky that no one in your home is allergic to cat hair or considers them bad omen.”
Our food arrives. There is something special about shawarma. The succulent meats and greens encased in freshly baked bread go right to the core of your hunger. We share the food and eat with our fingers, dipping fluffy triangles of pita in flavourful dips, tearing pieces off the shawarma rolls. We avoid each other’s eyes when our fingers touch occasionally.
Excerpted with permission from “Shawarma” from The Blue Women: Stories, Anukrti Upadhyay, Harper Collins.