The Conversation of Ifthekar and Aijaz

I was at an eatery grabbing dinner the other day when I encountered Ifthekar and Aijaz (names not changed, but just completely made up since I have no idea what their actual names were). There I was, calmly going about the serious business of helping some Chicken 65 and rumali rotis achieve their life’s purpose, which was to end up in my stomach, and the dynamic duo of Ifthekar and Aijaz casually sashayed in and plopped themselves on the bench opposite me.

If you are a new reader, a quick note that in Hyderabadi restaurants, maximum economy of space is achieved by minimizing personal space, and in all eateries, it was absolutely normal, and in most cases expected, to sit at a table with perfect strangers and enjoy your biryani (or kebab or haleem, but mostly biryani). In fact, prior to your joining me, I had adopted the same technique by sashaying in and plopping myself opposite a studious young man eating a shawarma and completely engrossed in the video on his phone. Must have been attending an online class I think, given his serious countenance and absolutely devoted attention. Or maybe he was watching his favorite hilarious comedy show – one can never be too sure.

 As Ifthekar – he was the younger one, mid-twenties, longish hair (not long enough to be called Zulfi though – thank you Dhruv for this one – it never gets old!), top two buttons of his shirt undone (what a rebel!) – took his seat, he was looking at me straight in my eyes and talking. For a moment I was completely thrown – was I supposed to know him and engage in conversation with him? His mask was casually just under his lower lip – so I could see his whole face and I had no idea who he was. For about 0.008395 seconds I mistook him for the cheerful boy who had served my food earlier but was immediately disabused of that notion by the fact that said cheerful boy yelled out an order to the kitchen about six inches from my right ear. Then I figured Ifthekar was talking on the phone – his fake-earpod Bluetooth earphone was hanging precariously from his ear – almost like Michael Jackson and the baby. The one he was holding over the balcony, that is.

Sharing a table with strangers is de rigueur in local Hyderabadi eateries

Anyway, I figured Ifthekar was talking on the phone and so turned my attention back to fulfilling the destinies of my dishes. Aijaz, who had sashayed in with Ifthekar and was currently stationed at his left-hand side was a slightly older gent – mid-thirties, hair cropped closer than Iffy but by not too much, only the top button undone – compared to Iffy he was positively formally dressed. Now, these two were involved in what I can only surmise to be a bizarre conversation with someone on the other end of that phone call. I say bizarre because the earpiece was in Iffy’s ear, and Aijaz had no idea what was being said by the third party except what he could figure out from Iffy’s responses. However, that did not stop him from speaking non-stop. At times I thought Iffy was having three separate conversations – one with the person on the phone call, the other with Aijaz, and the third one a three-way with both of them.

Suddenly the phone call crystallized into a single one – Iffy and Aijaz were berating the person on the phone call about how their child (the person’s, not Iffy and Aijaz’s) would become ‘barbad’ (‘spoilt’ – for those who are unaware of the divinely exquisite language that is Dakhni) because of what they were doing and so on and so forth in the same vein. Both of them held forth for a good five minutes taking turns till it ended rather abruptly when Iffy turned to Aijaz and declared gravely, “Bacche nai kathe,” (“Says there is no child”). This was followed by a couple of minutes of Iffy and Aijaz looking sheepish as no doubt it was their turn to be roundly upbraided and the person on the phone call wasn’t holding anything back. The call ended almost immediately after that. I almost choked on the Chicken 65 but pretended it was a bit of a cough and soldiered on.

By now it was time for Iffy and Aijaz to order, and Cheerful Boy was not too happy since he had been left hanging while the phone call was happening. So when they ordered a single plate of the smallest portion of biryani available, it did not exactly put him over the moon. But what really got his goat was when the two of them proceeded to give him extremely detailed instructions on how he should get them that tiny little portion of biryani. They went like this:

Iffy: Get the biryani from the center of the pot…

Aijaz: With enough masala…

Iffy: But not too much masala…

Aijaz: The rice should be really soft…

Iffy: Don’t just give pieces with big bones, get enough rice…

Aijaz: And make sure it is piping hot…

This entirely upset no-longer Cheerful Boy, and he snapped and told them he couldn’t assure them that it would be piping hot as it had been made a couple of hours ago and that he couldn’t assure them that it would be from the center of the pot as most of it had been already served and it would be nearer the bottom. Anyway, he wouldn’t be the one plating it up as it would be handed to him from the kitchen and all he could do was bring it to them. All this was, of course, just his way of expressing his annoyance, and he did bring them a plate of piping hot biryani which was, seeing as how they did not complain about it, optimally masala-ed with softly-cooked rice with the right amount of chicken.

But, you cannot keep the Hyderabadi quiet for too long. After they had spent a little bit of time redistributing the rice and chicken amongst themselves, Iffy and Aijaz engaged in a little bit of information exchange about the real-estate sector in Hyderabad. Or, to be precise, Iffy asked some questions and Aijaz self-assuredly answered them. If only I did not know for sure that the information he was thus conveying was completely and utterly inaccurate, I too would have believed him and confidently repeated it to all and sundry. The information had to do with which housing real-estate brands were better than which others, and which cost more than the others. Aijaz pretty much had every bit of information wrong, but his confidence was a wonder to behold.

After a few such questions, Iffy grew tired of the topic and concentrated on gnawing his chicken piece to the bone, which once he completed to his own utmost satisfaction (not to mine – I would have gone after the marrow as well, as my paternal grandmother has rigorously trained me to), he tossed on to the table. Here, I must add that the Chicken 65 and rumali rotis I was eating had long gone the way of the dinosaurs, and now my attention was focused on some tangdi kebab and a bottle of Thums Up. This is important to know because the bone gnawed and tossed by Iffy landed a couple of inches from the aforesaid bottle of Thums Up I was nursing. I looked up and for a brief moment, my eyes met Iffy’s. He did not miss a beat and remarked on how narrow the tables were, ostensibly to Aijaz, but in reality to me to explain away how close the bone he had tossed had come to knocking my Thums Up out of my hand.

I went back to the more serious business at hand, but that did not stop Iffy and Aijaz from having a conversation about it. The tables, they concluded, were so narrow since the restaurant couldn’t rent more space. The restaurant couldn’t rent more space since the shop next door was a Khadi Gramudyog store (a government cooperative store), and everyone knew you couldn’t ask a Khadi store to move. Effectively, they blamed the bone-throw almost knocking my Thums Up out of my hand on Gandhi, and peacefully resumed finishing off their biryani.

The moment the last grain of rice was polished off, they both rose, paid their bill (Cheerful Boy was cheerful once again – they must have tipped him), and left with alacrity.

If you spend any time in Hyderabad, you will come across Iffy and Aijaz, and when you do, do take the time to try and enjoy their company. I’ve come to the realization that they are a great source of merriment to themselves and to others around them!