Drained as I was, I couldn’t fathom doing what I usually did. I wanted a break; break from work, from college, home, friends, and may be from myself. Often, when I felt this way, I would walk the open roads of south Mumbai. Sometimes, I started from home right to one end of the Queen’s Necklace at Marine Drive, and back. On other occasions, I would walk the busy streets of Fort, Colaba, CST when it got empty a few hours after the sun vanished from the horizon. The mouth of each road opened to narrow alleys, greeting me as I passed, before dissecting into another. I loved these walks. But today was not one of those occasions. I didn’t feel like a walk, instead I wanted to camp silently.
After weighing my options, I decided to hit the first cafeteria that came my way. The interiors were beautiful, each wall a different colour; if one bright, the other alternated with something dull. It was my first time here, and a perfect blend for my current frame of mind. I ordered a cappuccino at the counter, took a cushioned-seat at the corner of the vacant top floor, and pulled out a novel from my bag – All in the span of a few minutes. I was in some sort of hurry to read. I turned to the page where I had placed the bookmark the last time, and started reading:
“The lute is bent, the arrow straight; judge men not by their looks, but their acts…”
I had barely immersed myself into a few pages, when some distraction moved me from my chore.
A perfectly handsome, well-attired man, slightly taller than me, with the most beautiful pair of deep-set eyes, was standing above.
“I see you are reading Cinnamons Gardens”.
I looked at the cover of the book, and reciprocated half-amused, “Guess…The cover speaks for itself.”
“Good book,” he said, flustered by the response.
I nodded and got down to read, sincerely hoping that the cold snub would put an end to the conversation. I wanted to read, not talk.
“Ma’am,” he said again. “Forgot what I actually came here for. Your coffee…”
“Oh! Sorry, I assumed you were one of those nosy people, wanting to indulge in small talk… and you weren’t in your uniform either. So…”
He smiled. “No need to justify ma’am. I can understand. We have no formal uniforms; it’s kind of our culture out here,” he said, and walked away.
I read on: “I waited for some word from you. Something. I thought I knew the person you were. But I was wrong…”
Barely 15 minutes had passed, when the perfectly handsome man returned. “Sorry to disturb you ma’am. Just a reminder, you’d have to pay right now.”
“Right now! But, I’ll be sitting here for some time. ”
“That’s absolutely fine. You can sit till we shut for the day,” he said, speaking in impeccable English, “But we have certain rules, pay once you are done with your drink. You see… it’s the culture out here.”
“Bill,” I asked amused.
“Rs 150,” he said.
“No cheque…” I asked again.
“We are an eco-friendly café ma’am. We don’t encourage the use of paper.”
I paid hesitantly. The service was quick, the coffee was great, the waiter was good looking, and the ambience was warm and nice. As long as they minded their own business, and let me mind mine, I had no problem.
“By the way, Shyam Selvadurai is an amazing author. I’ve read all of him,” he said, as he headed down.
I smiled. And the waiter was well-read too, what more could customers ask for.
I continued reading: “Learn well what should be learnt, and then live your learning…”
At around 9 pm, and over 130 pages down, I was broken by an anxious call from mom. Waking up to the fact that it was getting really late, I decided to leave. As I walked down, I thought of the perfectly handsome, well-read waiter. He hadn’t come on the top floor for over an hour, not like there were a lot of customers, but I really wished he had visited again. May be we could have spoken a little about the book, and got more of his opinion on it. In hindsight, it would have been quite an unusual conversation.
Sigh! If only I had prodded him to speak further, I thought.
I passed the counter and looked inquiringly to thank the man, but couldn’t find him anywhere. I had almost opened the exit door to leave, when someone called out to me. I turned.
“Ma’am you haven’t taken your order that you placed two hours ago,” a man standing, at the counter said.
“What?” I asked. “But didn’t you send a guy with my order.”
“No ma’am… I remember asking you to come and collect the cappuccino in 10 minutes.”
“I don’t remember any such thing.”
“I clearly do,” he said, staring pointedly at the self-service board on the counter, “And today, I am the only one who’s working here, so it’s impossible that I sent someone.”
“Okay! There is some sort of misunderstanding here…” I said, “Someone came up with the order, and a while later, took the money too.”
“You have the bill,” the man asked shocked.
“Aren’t you into this whole eco-friendly thing.”
“Never mind,” I said, adding, “I’ll cancel that order then.”
“I am sorry ma’am. You can’t cancel the order, you will have to pay. It’s part of the culture here.”
“Okay! Okay! Let’s get done with you and your culture for good… how much?”
“Yes ma’am. Any problem.”
I took the last Rs 50 note from my wallet, and handed it to the man. He gave me a weird green-coloured bill; I walked out fuming. I was both perplexed and angry, with all that had happened inside the cafeteria, but didn’t have the strength to argue. Noticing a small-bin right outside, I tore my bill after scrutinising it twice. I had paid three-times the amount for the coffee. I crumpled the torn scrap, to throw it when I noticed another green bill, like mine on top of the pile of filth. Curious, I picked it up.
2 Cappuccinos Rs 80
Chicken tikka sandwich Rs 70
I threw one last glace at the café. The man at the counter was wearing a uniform. It was all clear to me now. I took the labyrinthine road ahead. I had no other option; I was broke.