At one every afternoon, Kaushik picked his phone up and began calling his fellow lunchmen – about half a dozen of them - located variously around the office campus. Once this was done, he took the elevator down to ground level where the Food Court was and found himself an unoccupied table, where he and his friends would congregate for the day. Kaushik enjoyed lunchtimes, happy for the break and the conversation after the monotony of reading, for three straight hours, Roger Ebert reviews and essays from The Economist.
The Food Court was a huge open space with round black wooden tables spread around it. There were five counters, each run by a different caterer, that served the same food, except one which served sandwiches and pasta that smelled of unventilated cellars. Over time, Kaushik had picked his favourite amongst the other four and stuck to it ever since. By the time the food he ordered was ready, Ashish usually arrived. Ashish, since he lived with his parents, brought home-cooked food in a black oblong Tiffin box. The rest – some of them friends from IIM Lucknow, the others colleagues whom they minded least – trickled in, in ones and twos; by half past one the congregation was complete.
The conversation usually revolved around neutral subjects. Cricket, the weather, politics, work. Most preferred cricket, since they followed it closely, with the exception of Ashish who, therefore, did his best to turn the conversation to politics. When they spoke of work, it was usually about one of the bosses; their favourite was a stocky old man with a permanently bemused expression, who addressed everyone, including in emails, as ‘Guys’. The expression wasn’t without reason; it was widely believed that he indeed had absolutely no clue what happened around him. Stories of him abound – of how, even as he signed proposals, he recommended that they not be taken forward, how he contended that their reporting systems should somehow capture and track competition data and how he, the bloody nincompoop, had a wife of the MILF variety. Sometimes, they spotted him approach their table and immediately made as if they were done and were about to leave.
Discussions on films and literature were usually avoided; Ashish and Kaushik were aware their fellow lunchmen weren’t terribly interested. They did utter the occasional wisecrack though, like when the only female amongst them, a pretty little girl with a shrill voice, had informed that she would be migrating to Ho Chi Minh City in a month’s time, for her husband had been transferred there, and Kaushik had said how she would love the smell of napalm in the mornings. Or when one of them had had his overtures turned down by a girl, a co-worker, and Ashish had declared he could smell bitter almonds. On these occasions, while the two of them laughed uncontrollably, the rest looked at them with expressions that resembled that favourite boss of theirs. They spent close to an hour at the table, continuing to occupy it long after their plates were empty and other groups began to circle around like eagles. Eventually, when someone mustered the courage to ask them if they were done, they shrugged and got up.
Afterwards, while most of them returned to their desks, Ashish and Kaushik did not. Instead, they made their way to the Visitors’ waiting area, empty at that hour, and lounged there for another half an hour. They exchanged notes – interesting articles they’d come across during the course of the day on issues that they would like to further delve into. Invariably, the conversation degenerated, at some point, into a cribbing session on what the fuck they were doing in this place and how they would happily relieve themselves of an upper and lower limb each to get out of there. There were long periods of silences in these conversations, during which neither of them could think of anything worthwhile to talk about but found simply sitting there more worthwhile than going back to their desks. It would be past three by the time they would wearily make their way back, promising each other to read more on that interesting issue and discuss it when they met in the evening. Once in a while, Kaushik would have a meeting he’d have to attend and he’d go straight to it, unprepared but convinced he’d breeze through it without the least trouble.