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Kishore Singh: Lunching with Sabina

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does things in style, and its first anniversary bash at its relocated restaurant on Sunday was every bit as classy. En route to the restaurant, we’d stopped for a brief while at The Claridges, and the brunch buffet in the front garden had never looked more inviting. But Olive, when we got there, was the more interesting with its various counters and grills and inside-outside seating. (And amusing too, if you stopped to see the way women’s heels sank inelegantly into the pebbled garden.)

Because we were late by brunch standards (but early by Delhi lunch timings), we found a table inside (actually, it was chivalrously offered to us), got our wines and appetisers, and sat down for a good tuck-in — but, alas, the grill counter on which we had our eyes was queue-deep in diners.

“Make sure you have the rabbit,” Delhi’s grande-dame of good dining had said, when I’d risen with my plate, “and the lasagna.” Fortunately, that counter was absent of people, so I took a small portion of each to bide our time — but one of the pieces of rabbit turned out to be guinea fowl from a neighbouring tureen, so while I got to feed from Sabina Sehgal Saikia’s recommendation of the menu, my wife had only the lasagna, pronouncing her faux-rabbit to be “just chicken”.

On the table beside ours, a math lesson was in progress. Sabina’s husband was teaching the younger of their two children how to solve integers (whatever they be). “He must be a very bright boy,” my wife said in jest to Shantanu. “He’s done very poorly in school,” said the boy’s father, making the kid squirm in embarrassment. At which my wife launched into a complicated story of how our son had been really, really poor in arithmetic, how he’d managed an impressive 95 per cent in his boards, and how he was now nicely settled in college, so they were not to worry about some niggardly thing like a low score in middle school.

Though we’d known each other for years, indeed known the families for some time — Sabina’s sister, a dentist, was my sister-in-law’s very close friend in Jaipur, and her architect brother had been responsible for the interiors of a company in which I had briefly worked when work under his supervision was still on — we had never been very close friends. We’d exchanged some phone calls, true; sought information even from each other; promised to meet up in each other’s homes, conversation that was never intended to be taken seriously because it was always over food, and often after a glass or two of wine or something stronger.

On any number of occasions, we’d asked her what we should eat at the banquets where we often met. And Sabina — she never lingered late, she was always among the early diners — would tell you what she had liked. Unlike her weekly restaurant review columns where she often said what was awful about the food, at parties she never told you what wasn’t nice, she only recommended what she thought was good. Invariably, she was right. And it was always a treat to have her sit beside you at Habib Rehman’s parties where even when all the food was excellent, her suggestions were extraordinarily well paired.

Sabina, since Thursday evening, has been missing at the Taj in Mumbai, her SMSes eloquent and painful and indicating a state of hopelessness. On Sunday, as she left from Olive before we did, she’d enveloped us each in her familiar bear-like hug, thanking my wife for her assurances on how her son would likely perform as he got older.

We’re waiting, Sabina, to return those hugs. At Olive this coming Sunday?

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