Aditya has joined a Five Star hotel as a cordon bleu chef. But that is a carefully contrived cover. What lies behind this facade?
“Come on, come on" Aditya cajoled the driver in front of him, “get a move on man".
It was a bright October morning, his day off, and Aditya had overslept. He was driving to the supermarket to pick up some last-minute things for this evening’s party. He grabbed a trolley, trundled it to the food section, and cast a cursory glance at the various selections. His eyes zeroed in on the dressings and preserves display and inevitably Jo aunty, of his childhood days, came to mind. The chubby face, the ample figure, was hazy but well remembered. Jo aunty was their neighbour and he vividly remembered the myriad times he had sashayed into her homely living room and magical kitchen, taking sneak peeks at whatever she had prepared. Often she would be pottering around in her pride and joy, her kitchen garden, and would call out to him emphatically, as she saw him cycling home from school, "Adi beta", she would hail, "come and try the lemon cake. I baked it this morning". The fluffiness of her pastries, the exotic flavours of her savouries was legendry. Seeing the awe on Aditya's face after he had gorged himself on one of her delicacies, she would swell up in pride and declare “always be in command of the food son, never let the food dictate to you ". Aditya let the lesson sink in, and somehow it made a niche in his heart.
He was a bit of a perfectionist and had gone to great lengths to make the evening a success. He was busy putting some last minute touches to the salad when the doorbell rang. Wondering who had turned up so early, he reluctantly went to the door. It was Ashok Bhandari, holding out a bouquet of carnations. "I'm here to help you,” he said with a suave smile. Aditya knew instinctively that was not true, Ashok never did anything without a motive, but having no choice accepted the façade. Ashok and he went back a long way, they had gone to college together, and Aditya had a fair idea of Ashok’s true colours. They tolerated each other but their rivalry had been palpable even in those times. As luck would have it, Ashok was working in the hotel, a prominent five star, when Aditya decided to take up a position there, that of a chef. Ashok was the floor manager, and as was his wont, loved to throw his weight around. Highly reminiscent of their younger days when inevitably they vied with each other for the same things. Aditya couldn’t help feeling uneasy around him, and now chance had once again thrown them together. Aditya couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but there was something about Ashok that didn’t quite add up, so he had decided to keep him in his sights. In an effort to unravel him a bit, Aditya had extended an invitation for this evening’s party to Ashok.
Playing it cool, Aditya accepted the proffered flowers and held them to his nose, taking in the delicate scent. Standing aside from the door he added resignedly, “Come in, now that you're here ". He noticed Ashok’s trendy jacket and contrast trousers as he cockily nudged past him. On a closer look Aditya realised Ashok was his usual blustery self, the implication that, Aditya could not handle the evening by himself, was typical of him. He led him to the seating area. “Everything is under control man; why don't you make yourself comfortable. Have a drink or something, while I take a quick shower.”
The room was tastefully decorated in shades of "off white" and peach. Comfortable sofas and easy chairs dotted it here and there, and in the approaching dusk, lamp light lent a soft glow to the room. A stunning Paresh Maity, in vibrant shades of red, bottle green and yellow, held centre place on the wall. Whenever Aditya looked at it, he felt a deep satisfaction and a sense of pride. After all it was his only indulgence. The dining area was on one side, where he had already laid out the cold entrees and the salad to which he was putting the last-minute touches when the door bell had rung. "Great man," Ashok uttered as he took in the place, his mind doing a quick assessment. I realised he too had come to check me out. Touché! He wanted to join the dots of the ten-year period in which we had lost touch with each other and wasn’t exactly sure of what I had done with myself in the time since we left college. Sceptically, he took a surreptitious look around. For a minute Aditya became apprehensive. Was Ashok sharp enough to have an inkling of what was really going on! Was it possible? Had his cover blown? Getting myself in hand I said nonchalantly, “help yourself to a drink,” indicating the bar area, and shimmied out of the room. He knew he could keep an eye on him from the bathroom via the hidden cameras strategically installed throughout the flat. This was going to be quite an evening.
Showering hurriedly, Aditya vigorously rubbed his mop of black hair with a towel. Deep set black eyes in a wide forehead stared back at him from the mirror. At thirty-three, his eyes still had a whimsical look about him, which made him look absurdly young. Added to that was his trim body, a combination of metabolism and exercise, which completed a dashing picture. His childhood friend Vikram had a theory; Vikram had one for almost everything; that girls fell for whimsy, and didn’t look beyond sporty, so Aditya should have scored high with them. As per Vikram’s theory girls should have been falling out of his closet but reality was far different. There was no one special in his life so far. Besides his intellect always got in the way, he looked for something more in a girl than just looks. And above all where did he ever have the time to indulge himself.
Academic excellence throughout school and college had given Aditya an edge in life and he had always wanted to make the most of it. Unlike his dad, who had frittered away his life, and was a disgruntled man today! Aditya felt he was more in synch with his mother. Mom with her subtle good looks, deep brown eyes and calm manner. She was the gentle rudder, the invisible buffer in the turbulent sea of Aditya’s life with his father. Her animated stories of a great grandfather, who was a freedom fighter, had fired his imagination. From then on he had decided to do something fiercely national when he grew up. On joining the premier civil services of India later, he was excited to be recruited by the Intelligence Bureau.
Donning a comfortable designer shirt in muted greys and blues, Aditya stepped out to join his guest. There was a nervous energy about Ashok which Aditya found unsettling. He wondered whether to humour him or was there something deeper to it. Public school educated Ashok, average height, thickening body, and a phlegmatic expression which made it amply clear to one and all that lesser things were not for him, was the sum total of his personality. Armed with the crutches of a blue chip family, quality education, the right opportunities, his insecurity was inexplicable. He was heading a section of food and beverages, then why this apprehension of a relative newcomer like him, Aditya wondered thoughtfully. He had planned for this evening meticulously and had his pawns in place. The chairman of the hotel was out of the country, and persuading Mrs Suri, his wife, to grace the occasion, gave it the stamp of exclusivity. When news of it filtered down to Ashok, he had gone into overdrive. He didn’t rest till he had extorted an invitation from Aditya which in any case, had been Aditya’s intention all along. So everything had fallen neatly into place.
It had all begun a couple of months earlier in office when on a visit to the Data Section, Aditya was shown a photograph of a woman suspect. It was taken in rather poor light, but something about it caught his attention. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it immediately; but felt there was something vaguely familiar about her. All day the image kept troubling him till eventually it dawned. Why that was Anjali Shukla, the sleepy sexy Anjali of his college days. With angelic lips, almond shaped hazel eyes, in a radiantly beautiful face, Anjali knew she was pretty. The minute she slithered into class with her vague, absentminded, lost look, she knew she had everyone's attention and took full advantage. Regrettably during college, she had better fish to fry, and had no time for a regular ordinary guy like him, Aditya mused, and like ships in a vast ocean they had gone their separate ways.
In the department I was just beginning to find my legs, in the elite cell to which I was assigned. I had successfully completed a difficult mission on the northern border, which had paved the way into the elite cell. As soon as I recalled Anjali, I immediately informed my superior, of my possible connection to a suspect. The memo clearing my name for the assignment lay on my desk the very next morning. Pure conjecture just now, but could that sleepy, sultry eyed, beauty, be mixed up with dangerous people, who had the ruin of the country as an objective? We had been trying to find the chain of funding of a sleeper cell we were tracking. Unbelievable that Anjali Shukla could be a conduit! And wait, wasn’t her father an army officer? How could she betray her country like this? How in the name of the devil had all this come about?
During the past year an uncanny and volatile atmosphere appeared to be pervading the country. There were undercurrents of dissatisfied murmurings in many parts of the country, indicating that a peculiar cocktail was brewing. It could fast metamorphose into a crescendo. Anti-India slogans were gathering momentum; lone voices could soon take on avalanche proportions. The Government couldn’t afford another bomb blast, like the previous one, where innocents would be the victims. The Department had been exhorted to pull up its socks. It was imperative to find out the route of the funding. Dam the spring and the river would dry up. The dossier prepared on Anjali, showed that she worked in the PR department of a prominent five-star hotel, and lived alone in an apartment nearby. She had been in a brief marriage.
An elaborate cover portfolio was drawn up for me. I breezed into the hotel, in the Food and Beverages section, embellished with Cordon Bleu references, and experience with a resort chain. I took charge as a chef in the fine dining restaurant. I was the subject of much conjecture in the hotel, like from where had this lad sprung up and landed this plum position; and my nonchalant attitude did nothing to quench the curiosity of the other employees. Two months down the line, I was still the subject of much speculation, and I let the matter fester. Ashok, head of an important section, and as was his nature, constantly on the prowl, was pleasantly surprised when he had bumped into me one day and was “apparently’’ glad to renew our acquaintance.
I had taken an airy two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of an upmarket society within easy driving distance from the hotel. It had a large sitting area and the picture windows looked down onto the lush lawns and swimming pool below. My brief was to be an independent, carefree scion of a well to do family, who was working more for the passion of it, rather than any monetary considerations. My main concern had been my first meeting with Anjali. It had to be as unobtrusive and natural as possible. The opportunity presented itself one day in the hotel library when I noticed her going inside. I followed on the pretext of picking up a book on travel. On coming face to face, initially she looked through me, but I retained her attention by asking where the travel section was. The coin fell into place, and she exclaimed, “Why Aditya if it isn’t you, good God fancy seeing you here. Small world.” It certainly appeared so, with three of us converging at the same place. We sat down to catch up but I noticed a reticence in her, a certain subduedness.
Looking surreptitiously, I found her face was fuller, lending a softness to the high cheek bones. The hazel eyes were enigmatic, but wait, did I discern a certain sharpness in them? Gone was her bashful persona. Had it been an elaborate cover up for a very incisive mind? Was she our coveted conduit? Predictable as ever, Anjali knew her beauty was to her advantage and that she had my full attention. I could sense her mind doing a quick arithmetic, and deciding that there was no harm in renewing an acquaintance with an old college mate. After all he was only churning out desserts in the hotel restaurant. From then on, a few chance meetings, coffee in the coffee shop, a few brainstorming sessions with the managerial team furthered our acquaintance, and whetted our appetite for each other. Reports from the office showed there had been no untoward activity on her part in this intervening period. Naturally tonight's party would get me a step closer to unravelling this tangled web called Anjali. That was what I optimistically hoped.
As the evening progressed, the call bell rang repeatedly, and the room started filling up. Mrs Suri arrived holding out a huge bouquet of lilies thinking it was my birthday. It was an eclectic gathering, a few from the hotel and some from the building. There was Shyam from accounts, and Ruhi, an interior decorator. A few pals from catering. Anjali made a dramatic entrance looking spectacular in a lime green saree with her hair flowing down her back. The stage was set. Now if only the players would make an error and let down their mask. Would I get an inkling of their true colours in this charade? Could the evening pan out to give me the lead I was desperately seeking. The canvas was beginning to get tantalisingly vivid.
The room hummed with the sound of voices. Everyone was seated comfortably, or stood in small groups. There was a burst of laughter somewhere. Soft music, the clinking of ice in glasses and the aroma of well cooked food, created a convivial atmosphere. I could see everyone was enjoying themselves, but my mind was preoccupied. Earlier on a chance visit to the bedroom, I had caught Ashok near my laptop on the study table and he had sheepishly retreated, claiming he was looking for the wash room. What was he doing there? The synopsis at the office had suggested activity emanating from the hotel. The photo of Anjali in the doorway of a cafe in a suspect zone, had drawn the spotlight on her; but was she the only dramatis personae? My mind was abuzz with conjecture.
I glanced in her direction. She was enjoying her drink with Shyam and Rahul from catering, and they were in an animated discussion about something. She seemed like a guest totally at ease with herself. Which meant I had to do a quick rethink on Ashok? A whole new perspective was beginning to emerge. Was the bluster and air of insecurity, only a mantle for a devious mind? The evening’s outcome was beginning to have all kinds of possibilities.
The main course, delectable but routine, was over. It was time for dessert. Dessert was always the most challenging part of any meal. It held anticipation, skill and unpredictability, yet was utterly irresistible, The ultimate test of a fine chef. A fitting finale to a successful evening.
The time to act had come. I stepped out from the shadows and quietly changed the music to a Joe Reisman’s instrumental medley. The soft strains of violins and guitars filled the room. ‘Brasilia’, one of Reisman’s most breath-taking numbers, my mother’s favourite, and which had grown on me over the years, cast a spell. I made my way to where Anjali was seated. “Care to dance”, I said. She looked up with a start, and putting her glass down, stood up, and neatly fitted into my arms. I twirled her around the room and looked deep into her eyes. Over her shoulder I spotted Ashok in a corner staring moodily into his drink. I couldn’t help but wonder whether dessert would live up to its reputation.