‘There are Munnabhais waiting for the kill everywhere’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

How often do you check the price before ordering food? Not often, particularly when you are travelling on a holiday and stop by at a modest-looking place. But I’ve learned the hard way that checking prices before ordering is better than feeling cheated later, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

To me, the ambience matters more than the food. I like the fast-disappearing old-world dhabas along the highways, the ones that had charpoys laid out. But some of them can be deceptively simple. Behind those humble counters can be men ready to rip you off.

So, while on a highway trip with a friend, I stopped by at one such dhaba. “What’s for breakfast?” I asked and the dhaba boy reeled out a string of culinary names. Cutting him short, I asked how much a breakfast costs. “50,” he said and I, duly impressed with the low price, ordered two breakfasts. The platter was impressive. It had two subjis, four puris, curd, pickle and even a gulab jamun. As we ate, my friend remarked, “Are you sure this costs only Rs 50?”

The same thought was on my mind as well, yet we went on to order two teas. And this time, I didn’t ask the price. How much would it be, maximum Rs 5? In those days, tea at a wayside shop cost just Rs 3.

After the heavy repast, we stretched ourselves on the charpoy, took in the sky and asked, “How much?” The boy disappeared, brought another thali with saunf, misri, toothpick and the bill. One look at the amount and my temper went up the hill. The breakfast had cost us 390! The thali was for Rs 170 and the humble chai was for Rs 25! “What’s this?” we exclaimed, “You said Rs 50 for a breakfast, didn’t you?” That, the boy clarified, was the cost of an ordinary thali. He had given us a special thali. “We didn’t ask for a special thali?” I protested. And the chai, we were told, was also “special”.

I was ready for a fight even though the stocky sardar behind the counter looked rather formidable. “Paaji, what’s this? Is this how you loot people?” I remarked. The man, engrossed in cooking, pretended not to hear me. He was adamant that he would take Rs 390 and not a paisa less. That’s when my friend decided to roll up his sleeves and take matters in his own hands. He slapped Rs 200 on the table with a threat, “Take it if you want to, else *******.” The swearing worked and we left in a huff, hurling more abuses at the sardar.

There was another occasion when I was taken for a ride. I had taken my family, including my in-laws, on a drive to Lansdowne in our new car. Failing to find a hotel accommodation in the tiny market town, we ended up in a tiny, scenic village called Jehrikhal. Here, the only hotel had no rooms to spare. Looking for an alternative, we chanced upon an idler called Munna. A resourceful sort, he promised to organise a home stay for us. I was overjoyed at the prospect of living in a home instead of a hotel. They were cheaper and better. Soon we were taken to a simple house overlooking a valley of pine forests. It was a wonderful stay and our hosts were ever so attentive to our requests for tea, coffee and food. Munna was our grocer, cook, guide and Man Friday, and made our stay a memorable one.

But, on our way out, I nearly had a heart attack on seeing the bill he gave us. Every time we had brought up the subject of money, he had waved his hand saying, “Arrey, yeh to ghar ki baat hai (Don’t worry, it’s all in the family).” But the price he charged us was fit for a palace! So, the next time around, don’t be coy about asking how much a cup of tea costs. There are Munnabhais waiting for the kill.

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