A Gujarati businessman falls for amorous underbelly of Chinese economy
Day two at the convention wasn’t any different. A few hours, long, fast and eventless, passed in a blink of an eye. The initial excitement was now tinged with the tediousness of it all. At some point, Dev and Zui left Raghu by a dumpling stall in the cafeteria, asking him to stay put.
The unfamiliarity of it all frightened Raghu. A strange premonition was taking hold of him. He felt fragile, exposed and very lonely. An hour passed, and Dev and Zui were a no-show. Raghu began to feel himself panicking. He stared at a vending machine next to the dumpling stall. Perhaps he could try a Chinese snack to kill time. He looked at what was on offer, starting from the top left and working his way down. Shrimp chips, wasabi peas, Pocky sticks, dried seaweed, dried squid. His nose crinkled involuntarily. Dried mango. That pumped some life back into him. Rice crackers! His mother used to make rice crackers. Perhaps she’d learnt it from a Chinese cookery show on TV, he thought and chuckled.
Before he could decide, someone tapped him on the shoulder and he turned and finally saw a familiar face.
‘You having fun?’ Tanmay asked, smiling.
‘Hardly. I’m waiting for Dev.’ Raghu spoke with hesitation, his voice low.
‘Hmm.’ Tanmay nodded solemnly. He ordered a pork dumpling from the stall and motioned for Raghu to join him at the table. ‘Did he leave with Zui?’ he asked.
‘Yes, it’s been an hour,’ Raghu said.
Tanmay chewed on his food, then spat it out into a paper napkin. ‘A decade in this country and the food still frustrates me.’
Raghu pulled out a sealed plastic packet from his bag and handed it over to Tanmay.
‘In case you miss Indian food, here, try some of this. It’s khakhra. Crispy stuff. Dabeli flavour. Spicy,’ he said.
Tanmay waved a hand, dismissing his offer. ‘Nah, I’m good.’
‘Please, I insist. I have a dozen more in the hotel,’ Raghu said.
Tanmay reluctantly took a packet and ripped it open. He tried a khakhra, and a minute later, he’d polished off the whole packet. ‘We need to import this!’ he said enthusiastically. ‘I don’t know about others, but I’d buy that in bulk!’ Tanmay’s praise was for the khakhra, but Raghu still felt personally flattered. He could see Tanmay warming up to him. It felt good, comforting. In this strange sea with choppy waters, it seemed like he might actually make a friend.
‘I should call Dev,’ he said, remembering his other friend.
‘No point,’ Tanmay replied.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You said he’s gone with Zui, right? They’re not coming back any time soon.’
‘Huh?’ Raghu asked, confused.
‘It’s what long-distance lovers do when they meet, no?’ Tanmay said.
‘Lovers? But he’s married!’ Raghu was shocked.
‘Do you want me to drop you back to the hotel?’
‘No, I’m fine. I’m just—’
‘Surprised, I can see. I’d have thought you knew.’
‘He said she oversees his operations here.’
‘Samosa mimosa. Same thing,’ Tanmay laughed.
Raghu was quiet, his brows furrowed.
‘Pardon my poor jokes. My wife gives me a hard time about them. You sure you don’t want me to drop you back?’ Tanmay pressed.
‘No, I’ll be okay.’
‘Here, take my card. Call me if you need anything. I can help you out with some products to import. No hesitation. I owe you one now for the ... khakhra.’
Raghu nodded, his mind still processing the information about Dev and Zui. As the other man walked away from him, Raghu’s heart refused to believe what he had said. Dev couldn’t possibly be having an affair! Raghu shook his head and set off in search of his friend.
He walked in all directions, squinting his eyes, doing a double take now and then, but there was no sign of Dev.
There Raghu stood, in a whirlpool of strangers, frozen, his loneliness making him shiver. After two hours, he was running out of ideas and patience. Suddenly, he recalled that as per Dev’s instructions, he was carrying a printout of the hotel reservation with its address. He found the exit and stepped out of the convention centre. Now all he needed to do was find a bus to his hotel.
‘Bus?’ he located a security guard and enquired.
‘Go front side. This back side. You come wrong way.’ The guard directed him to the other side of the centre. By now, Raghu’s stomach had begun growling, and the constant pain in his legs from jet lag and all the walking was causing him tremendous discomfort. Anxiety added to the mix and sucked out every ounce of energy from his body. He began walking around the convention centre to reach the front, but the lane ahead was blocked. There had clearly been an accident there recently, as an ambulance was parked by the curbside. A bunch of cops were directing traffic and pedestrians to take a detour. The pain in Raghu’s knees was getting worse by the minute and the last thing he wanted was to meander through side streets. The late afternoon sun was still bright enough to cause a headache. He yanked out the visitor tag he was wearing around his neck and unfastened the first button of his shirt in an effort to cool himself.
A sudden fruit stall sighting down the road brought him unprecedented joy. He momentarily forgot his distress and walked down to the stall with renewed energy. There, he busied himself with evaluating the myriad options – bananas, berries, lychees, kiwis, sliced pineapple and a cluster of others fruits he’d never seen before. One even looked like jellyfish. It made him apprehensive, so he decided to stick with the safe options and bought a couple of bananas. Then he asked the seller where one could get a taxi nearby. The seller stared at him with suspicious eyes. Then, strangely enough, he went back to slicing his fruits. Raghu cursed, more at the situation than at the seller, shaking his head. A moment later, the seller looked up and pointed at something across the street from him.
There’s a method to this madness, Raghu thought, and thanked the man with a smile. He looked in the direction the fruit seller had pointed, but all he could see were the remnants of a metropolitan blur. With no other leads, he decided to walk in that direction anyway. Up close, he could spot a cycle repair shop, a grocery store, a run-down beauty salon, a café and a toy store; it seemed like there was everything in that corner except a taxi stand.
Raghu was about to give up and turn back when his eyes fell on a glittery hoarding. Orchid Massage, it said in English.
Two petite girls in revealing purple outfits were lurking under the sign. They smiled and made suggestive gestures at Raghu; fluttering their eyelashes, flashing him innocent I’ll- show-you-a good-time looks and shy glances, sticking out their chests. Both girls were dainty, with buttery complexion, smoky eyes and seductive silhouettes. Raghu stared. He forgot all about finding a taxi, or even Dev, and his mind drifted into a spiral of erotic adventures he’d never dreamt of, all of which included him sandwiched between the two girls. He resolutely ignored the self-loathing thoughts that tried to sneak in and turned to face them.
‘From India?’ one of them asked and smiled, revealing her perfect white teeth.
‘Yes, yes. From India.’ Raghu was thrilled at this recognition.
‘We’re very friendly,’ the other girl said, her voice tinkling. ‘Come in?’ She was swinging from side to side, her fingers playing with her glossy locks.
Raghu wasn’t listening. Dev’s words were bouncing within his wildly oscillating mind. We’ll get you a lap dance, he’d said after sending away the massage girl in the hotel room. What was it? Did people sit on him or was it the other way around? What was the appeal there? Whatever the heck a lap dance was, Raghu was going to find out on his own and tonight was the night to do it.
The girls giggled at Raghu’s dazed look. One grabbed his hand. A family of five with three small kids walked past him with one kid glowering at Raghu and the massage girls.
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