I have never, never, experienced such horrible embarrassment, and I hope I never again will. And it was all the result of a terrible misunderstanding. Not terrible, really, but causing the most unimaginable mess you can imagine – or cannot imagine. I do not even know where to start. But to start somewhere, anyway, I must tell you that my husband's niece has married into a very prosperous business family. Money is never a problem for her husband or her, as it is occasionally for us – particularly in the last week of the month. My husband, Hafeez, is a military officer of an intermediate rank, that is, not a general, who can more or less afford to live up to his rank, and who frequently comes from a solid background, but neither is he on the other hand, a young, new second lieutenant either, of whom social expectations are not unrealistically high. We medium level military families have the difficult social assignment of being required to keep a decent and dignified outward appearance, while often secretly struggling to afford our expenses, which we can do only by balancing and working out priorities.
In short, we are able, more or less, to make ends meet (often with some taut stretching), but by no means do we live in luxury.
To return then to my husband's niece, Fizza. She and her husband – or so it seems to me – eat out all seven days of the week. Very frequently they invite us to join them. Fizza's husband, Wali, is an easy-going person, and a goodnatured husband, who seems to enjoy my husband's company, and Hafeez does not resent having to listen to Wali's often repeated accounts of his business master-strokes. Twice they took us to a fabulously expensive five (or six or seven?) star hotel, where my very mediocre clothes looked sadly out of place, but neither our host or hostess seemed to mind. I had, moreover, great difficulty making sense of the foreign names of the exotic dishes on the menu, but Fizza came to my rescue by ordering for me. (I told Hafeez afterwards that it seemed that all that the tall-capped chef had done, was to add a large amount of vinegar and olive oil to otherwise ordinary dishes and give them outlandish names. And I strongly felt it was the tall stiff round white headgear that gained him the respectful title of 'chef', otherwise he was just an ordinary labouring class compatriot, possibly from Gujranwala or Swabi, who had learned how to acquire a lofty supercilious manner.)
One day we, Hafeez and I, discussed our outstanding social obligations. Fizza and Wali had been continually inviting us out, while we had not done so even once. It was all very well to say they could afford it and we couldn't do it so easily. But there are rules of social etiquette, even if the other is a close relative – I should say, particularly if he is, and more so, if he is related by marriage.
"It is now our turn," declared my husband, "no matter how we manage it."
About a fortnight before this I had been out with a group of my husband's colleagues' families, celebrating a promotion (from Major to Lieut-Colonel) of the host. We had gone to a nice kebab shop that was getting popular for its really enjoyable food. The kebabs were indeed fabulous, but what really made the place so attractive to me was the prices were not so, at least not till that time (though neither was the service, for that matter.)
We rang up Fizza, and told her we'd like to go out on Friday to the new Kebabi, and to follow it up with the well-known traditional 'kulfis' from the red- cloth-draped clay pots. Of course, at least by our standards, the kebabi was a trifle expensive, being at the moment the most frequented in the city. And it was not kebabs alone that he made, but other alluring dishes worth quite a few times over the price of the kebabs.
"That Kebabi?" asked Fizza, "Oh, yes, Wali and I love kebabs, and we've heard he is really good, and his mutton roast is fabulous. And both of us dote on kulfis. We'll pick you up at whatever time you say."
"But hold on," I interrupted, "we want to make it clear that this time it is we who are hosting the outing. You will be our guests."
"Oh, come on, Ayesha Mumani," protested Fizza, "what difference does it make who treats whom? You know my husband really enjoys taking you both out."
"That is all very well, Fizza, but there are social norms. We have been going out with you I do not know how many times. It is now our turn."
"Remind your Mumani," said Wali, who had been listening in to our talk on the extension, as each of them habitually does when they know we are at the other end, "remind her that we had that excellent meal at their house, with the home-made nehari and her special firni."
"That was just a home-cooked lunch. We would like to take you out somewhere this time."
"But what difference does that make? We enjoy eating with you anywhere."
So the argument went on, neither side conceding the other's wish.
Finally I gave in. "It is a fact," I reminded my husband, "that these little expenses mean just nothing to them. Fizza in fact told me Wali sometimes adjusts the whole bill in some client's expense account. At the level of these big businessmen, a paltry sum like this is hardly noticed."
And so it was that I ultimately considered that I had lost my offer of hospitality, and that we would, as almost always, be the guests and they the very cordial hosts.
And on the other hand Fizza told her husband that her uncle and aunt seemed to be feeling bad at always being treated as people who found it difficult to pay, and she felt it would probably make them more happy if we agreed to be their guests on this occasion. Wali thought it was a matter of needless injured sensitivity, but in the end gave in. He agreed – for just this once, he expressly stipulated – to let us host the outing.
They called for us in their purring sleek huge latest model car. When we had planned on being the hosts, we had thought of taking them out in our own rather dilapidated vehicle that had been giving us good dependable service for the last eight years. But if they were accustomed to their own airconditioned comfort, and if it was they who were taking us out, there seemed no reason why we should insist on supplying the transport.
I had not noticed when we had come to this place the first time, probably because of the gay atmosphere of laughter and gossip, the run-down neighbourhood in which the café was situated. Well, we could not protest now, seeing it was we ourselves who had asked to be brought here.
"The surroundings are not very sanitary," commented Wali under his breath to his wife.
"Shh!" she cautioned, "Don't appear so snobbish. They told me they have been here before, and no doubt the food is good."
Wali manouvered his large vehicle into a narrow space in the unpaved uneven lot, that was used as an unofficial parking area.
We squirmed in awkwardly sideways into the heavy upright chairs with their bright red plastic coverings nailed down with shining brass tacks, placed too close to the table. "I'll take the corner seat," murmured Wali, who could not manage to edge in.
A waiter in an unpressed shalwar-qameez, flitting past, flung a greasy menu leaflet at each of the two male members of the party.
I caught one, and Fizza fished out the other from under the table. We both studied the list of offered dishes.
The mutton leg seems very tempting, I thought, I hope they order it. We didn't dare to do so ourselves last time, because of course it is very expensive. But my friend Kaneez was telling me this is the specialty here.
The mutton leg appears very appetizing, mused Fizza. But I don't think Mamoon and Mumani will be able to afford it. We'll come back some time on our own, and try it. We'll bring them along also, later. I had better not mention it just now, it might create an awkwardness for them.
"Well, what will it be?" asked Wali in his goodnatured drawl. Fizza had cautioned him not to be so thoughtless as to place the order himself, but to leave it instead to us, seeing, as they believed, it was we who were treating them.
"Oh, I think the kebabs will do, since this is what the shop is famous for," said Hafeez, trying to keep his watering mouth under control. We could not remember having had a whole roasted mutton leg for ages. Definitely, they would call for it.
"And shouldn't there be parathas with them?" ventured Fizza hesitantly. "But of course plain naan will do, seeing we are all of us trying to keep our weights under control."
"Oh, yes, of course plain naan will do," I had to agree, though regretfully. Kebabs are traditionally eaten with the flaky parathas for which the shop is famous. But how could I be forward enough to ask for these, if the hosts were not on their own volunteering to get them?
"These kebabs are always eaten with the parathas made here especially for them," pointed out Wali under his breath, but Fizza started talking loudly to drown his comment. If her relatives were not ordering them, there must be a solid – financial – reason.
We each waited for the other to order the customary side dishes. Both sides ran their eyes hungrily down the appetizing list of rice favourites, mutton favourites, organic meat specialties, South Indian delectable vegetable creations.
"Well?" asked Wali, a trifle impatiently.
What was I to say? It was they who sent for a dozen dishes every time, not we, the guests.
"Just plain boiled rice and salad will do," I mumbled, hoping of course that our hosts would scornfully countermand the unduly humble order. Hafeez was positively scowling. Fizza, her face noticeably sad, was bending down to stroke a stray cat. Wali looked clearly astounded, then glanced at his watch.
"How many kebabs will you want?" asked the waiter clearly disappointed in what had appeared to be an affluent party of customers. "Six dozen? Seven dozen?"
As a general rule, Wali would order at least six dozen, of which the men readily demolished half, Fizza and I between us with difficulty managing over a dozen, and the remainder (often, at Fizza's instructions, supplemented by another dozen) were packed and taken home with us for the children.
But how could I be so greedy as to order such a huge amount on my own, taking it as our right to feed our children delicacies financed by our hosts?
I decided I would order a minimum quantity, and wait for the hosts to increase the amount immediately, on their own, to the customary level.
"Oh, a dozen – or at the most a dozen and a half would do," I said tentatively. I knew of course Fizza or Wali, either of them, would laugh at my humble demand and change the order to the amount they always asked for.
Fizza, however, continued to pet the spotted cat. Wali had received a call on his mobile phone, and seemed to be telling the caller he would be back within ten or fifteen minutes.
So neither of them spoke.
Hafeez's look at me was positively poisonous. Why is my wife acting so insultingly humble, when she knows our hosts can well afford the biggest bill, and always do?
The waiter's scornful look completed my misery.
It took the men just five minutes to polish off their eight kebabs each, after which they sat, picking up the small bread crumbs Wali pulled over the plate of dry looking rice, and heaped the salad over half of it. Hafeez shovelled out the remainder of the rice into his own monogrammed plastic plate, and seasoned it with the pickles kept on the table. "Not bad," he commented ironically.
"Now for the wonderful kulfis," Fizza gushed, endeavouring to put some life into the tense meal. "As usual I am going to make eat a rasmalai as well as a kulfi."
Actually, she generally had two kulfis and a rasmalai also. Wali, who was diabetic, nevertheless always permitted himself this occasional indulgence, and ate with the same enthusiasm as his wife, sometimes going to the extent of three kulfis with the rasmalai.
"I think we'll have just one each, seeing they are so filling," I very politely limited ourselves. At least at this point, I was positive, they would noisily protest and send for the usual two kulfis for me, and three for Hafeez, along with soft creamy rasmalai that they knew I had a chronic craving for.
"Whatever is the matter with Ayesha Mumani?" wondered Fizza. "Is she off mood today? I don't think she and Mamoon normally have major quarrels, but even if, for some reason they had one today, surely they should be more cordial and relaxed if they have invited us. How can they think of ordering just one each? It seems to indicate they want us to ask for the same small amount."
"It was a bad idea, letting these people host the outing," said Wali to himself. "Clearly they are financially constrained. But why, for God's sake, did they insist on bringing us?"
Pepsi? Sprite? Mirinda?" asked the waiter gathering up our miserably few empty metal kulfi cones.
"If you all feel like it," said Fizza, thoughtfully endeavouring to keep the bill down. "I am not so particular myself."
Now, normally, we never have simple aerated drinks. Wali snorts at the list of commercially publicised names. He takes us over to a spotless and sophisticated airconditioned refreshment centre where they specialize in freshly squeezed juice. The clean, firm, ripe fruit is displayed for customers to check and approve. Fizza and I always take pomegranate juice, Hafeez enjoys mango, while Wali orders orange for himself. The huge tankard-like overflowing mugs, with a surface of gleaming frothy bubbles, are one of this world's great luxuries.
Like all luxuries, they cost quite a bit too, but what businessman calculates these trifles?
"Aren't we going to have the usual fresh juices?" asked Wali in genuine surprise.
But, feeling Fizza's stiletto heels poking into his casual Italian-made leather sandals, he instantly pulled himself up, and said, "Actually, I, too, do not feel like drinking anything on top of that great meal."
Great meal, indeed! He was clearly avoiding the expense. What was the matter with Wali and Fizza? Had the business suddenly collapsed?
The waiter, realizing that there was nothing more to be expected from these parsimonious patrons, brought up the bill.
to be continued...