The waiter stood at the counter, methodically rubbing the glasses clean. It was a quiet afternoon, only one of the booths occupied by a regular. The gloomy café was silent & frequented only by those who had an old familiarity with it. One wouldn’t fall in love with it in a glance, its charm obvious to only those who took pains to spot it. There was a slight drizzle outside, an anomaly to the usual torrents Mumbai was used to. The lone customer, a gentleman (You could always tell them apart, the way they dressed, the waiter thought, all trim & proper) sat in the darkest corner, staring into space, an alit cigarette between his fingers. The monotony of his present work gave the waiter space for thought, and his brain promptly settled on the only living thing in the room –
He is a strange one, he is. Why does he always come alone? And he just sits and stares and smokes and stares again. If he wasn’t a regular…
Exactly what he would have done if the Gentleman was not a regular, the waiter never had an opportunity to decide, for at that precise moment the door opened and a woman walked in. With a sigh, he went to her as she seated herself and placed a glass of water on her table. And he stared.
The Gentleman stared at her. He was vaguely annoyed. He frequented the café in the afternoons, when he could, precisely because it would be empty. He knew that the waiter thought him an oddity, he knew the owner tolerated him for his steady patronage and nothing else. It couldn’t have mattered less. He needed this. The peace, the stillness. The precious hours where no human could demand his time, or claim his attention. There was something in this café, something which had drawn him from the beginning. His colleagues had sneered at it and sworn to never return. But his quiet eyes had recognised something that none of them needed. A refuge.
A family of seven and tight four walls does it to a man, he thought, amused at himself. All the comfort he had toiled for, all the respect he had amassed in his work, and this is where he came. A seedy café in an old neighbourhood. To the tunes of the latest Bollywood movie playing in the background. So the Gentleman sat still, completely content. In a dark nook, with only shapeless cigarette smoke and inane thoughts to keep him company.
Until the woman came in, of course.
So he stared. Stared at her, hoping the ceaseless stare of a man would make her uncomfortable enough to leave. It was 1970. Women did not visit cafés on Wednesday afternoons, all by themselves.
The waiter was startled. He recognized her, the woman who sat with a strange defiance and looked at him to give her order. A grilled cheese sandwich & chocolate milkshake. He bowed very slightly, still shocked. He showed deference. And felt a little afraid.
The Gentleman saw immediately that the waiter was unsettled. He hadn’t spent a lot of his afternoons at the café with no accomplishments. He knew all the myriad expressions which adorned the chap’s face. But this was something new. Enough of a deviance to make him ignore his reveries and annoyance to look at the woman again.
She seemed ordinary enough. Draped in a customary saree, a little damp from the drizzle. Probably only a few years younger than his own 35 years. Neither fair, neither dark. Neither thin, neither fat. Hair neatly plaited. She didn’t have horns or any mark of any devil that he could see. Perhaps it was unusual, her coming unchaperoned, but what of it? Times were changing, after all.
Then what had so disconcerted the waiter?
Observing her, a shiver of surprise passed the Gentleman’s face. Supremely unconcerned about the mild turbulence she was causing, the woman had taken out a diary and began to write in it.
The Gentleman was intrigued.
So, I’m here. What good it will do, what I hope to accomplish, I do not truly know. This strange, disjointed feeling is no more foreign. A nudge, which tells, “This is not your life!”
Yes, now I know. Writing always helps. Now I know why I am here, why I willed myself in a last hope. Maybe this will finally set me on a path which I tried to tread after that Day. That single Day when my entire world, the world I didn’t know existed, crashed in spectacularly tiny splinters.
Here I sit, in a vague hope that I can bid a last goodbye to that phantasm which I was unknowingly a part of.
Here I sit, in the same place where He brought me so many times before.
The waiter, having quickly disposed of the Lady’s order, couldn’t contain himself. He had within him a profound knowledge meant to be unburdened. Immediately. It was perhaps natural that he gravitated towards the only other being in the room. Even if he thought the Gentleman to be an oddball.
In the guise of refilling the water-glass, he hissed, “Bhaiya! Do you know who she is?!” And interpreting the look of absolute disinterest on the other man’s face to be nothing but a show (Strange, how astute the Waiter proved to be in reading the Gentleman’s expression rather correctly), he continued, “She is his wife! The gangster who was slain by the police in the street two blocks away!! They say he was a true don! An absolute monster! The police took her in for questing too. But she says she knew nothing of it, that she was an ordinary English teacher. As if!” he scorned. “They used to come here Bhai Saab, I have served them with my own hands! They say the police believe she might be gunned down yet by her husband’s enemies!”
The waiter was appropriately worried about the last rumour. No matter how interesting his customer, he didn’t want a woman’s carcass strewn across the floor of his workspace.
To say that the Gentleman was surprised was to put it mildly. He looked at her more closely, trying to associate her appearance with her rather bloody past. He knew about the case, of course. Everyone in Bombay did.
Nothing in her face gave away the fact that she had opened her door a few months back to be greeted by the stony faces of policemen. Or had opened the morning newspaper to see the red blood of her husband’s life spilt in black & white.
Contained. Calm. Quiet. Those were the words which struck him when he looked at her. Head bent over the pages of her diary, hand & pen moving steadily over an unseen trail of ink. Something about her determined gait, apparent lack of concern about social niceties & norms pulled at him.
And he felt something which struck even him by surprise. An unmistakable something which was beginning to feel very much like admiration.
I know how odd it must seem. A woman coming here all by herself, eating all by herself. People who know me will probably be shocked. Might think that I am finally losing my already strange mind. They used to indulge my reading poetry by faraway poets they have never heard of; Used to tolerate my suddenly opening a diary to scribble in it; But now, if they see me here, they will be convinced that I am not ‘right’.
Let them. I am here to get up. To get up, dust my hands & bathe to cleanse all the blood I never knew existed. It doesn’t matter if He loved me and I him. It was a world in a void, non-existent. A mirage.
I am going to go home and tell them I am leaving, for a new life.
It doesn’t matter if people recognize my face. I am my past, I own it and will not allow it to hurt me. Right from this moment.
I registered the waiter’s reaction, it didn’t go unnoticed.
And that Man in the corner has been staring at me all this time. I will look up, I will stare him down. I will not be beaten by judgement & speculation.
Look up. Look at me. Acknowledge me. I want to see your face, there is something here – he willed.
And she did.
Oh my god. Her eyes. She is angry at me. And she is beautiful.