Saturday, December 19, 2009

Huddled under the shadows in Jaal cafe, I tried my best to position my opened book under the very inadequate lamp they had hanging up on the wall. Literally a hole in the wall, Jaal (meaning spicy in Bangla) is claustrophobic and dark - the latter being deliberately so, as it probably makes the place all the more popular with dating couples seeking respite from the public eye. Even in the daytime, couples can find a little privacy for some under-the-table action, resulting in many sheepish-looking teenagers leaving the cafe with slightly tousled hair and rumpled clothes.

Even though I would have preferred a cheerier, brighter place, Jaal is also less than a hundred meters away from my apartment, making it an ideal stop for dinner when I felt too tired or lazy to cook. I also enjoyed the privacy inherent in the place, but only if I managed to get that seat under that single, solitary lamp.

The waiters there know me very well after a year of semi-regular visits from me, and try their best to give me good service. Still, Dhaka will always be Dhaka, and I was told my favourite dish of grilled chicken wasn't available, only to be told 15 minutes later that, oh, so sorry, we missed it out in the fridge, we have it after all. When the meal was finally served, I had to send it back as the chicken was not entirely cooked. I felt sorry for the waiter - clearly, he wanted to treat me well and was exasperated by the comedy of errors. I believe it is extremely useful to have a sorrowful-looking face if working as a waiter here in Dhaka.

Familiar with the amount of waiting required in Jaal, I had come armed with Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, yet another parting gift from the wondrous Linda. The chicken finally arrive (again), and after some careful maneuvering, I had my book stuck open in front of me, pages held open by my plate in a style that I had practiced and honed over many, many years of reading at the dinner table (something that irked my father to no end).

The tables were mostly empty tonight. A boisterous gathering had just left, and for a while it was just me, my book and some English pop music that I didn't recognise. A couple made their way past me to the last booth at the back. I tried to sneak a peek a while later - two coffee mugs and a packet of cigarettes were placed in front of them as they chatted and smoked, the girl holding her cigarette as you would a pencil.

After my meal, I finished up the chapter I reading and asked for the bill which came up to 275 tks (S$5.60) for grilled chicken and rice with a glass of orange juice. A pricier place by local standards, but I suppose I am really paying for the chance to enjoy a slow, leisurely, book-filled dinner. In Dhaka, I always feel like I have a time limit when I eat in small, local restaurants. There isn't the usual hanging-around that I am used to. Food is served very quickly, and your plate is cleared the moment your hands clean up that last bit of rice on your plate. As you beckon for the bill, the waiter is already cleaning down the table and beckoning the next batch of customers to come over to the table.

I left a 20 tks tip - generous by my standards, since I don't usually tip. But alas, for selfish reasons: I think its about time some good karma flowed my way.