Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cafe Ideal

They entered the café and found their preferred table unoccupied as usual.

The table sat next to the window which opened immediately onto the Marine Drive, or the Queen’s Necklace, as it is known, somewhat more dramatically. On the other side of the Drive, the Arabian Sea could be heard crashing perpetually into a bunch of artificial boulders, shaped like the Mercedes star – only much thicker – that stretches across the length of the QN. A little to the right, lay Chowpatty – one of only two piles of sand in Mumbai that are passed off as beaches. In the evenings, Chowpatty teems with townsfolk in search of fresh sea breeze and shabby makeshift fast food joints that sell spicy Indian and Chinese food of questionable hygiene. Jute mattresses are lain out on the sand in front of these joints to seat customers. Sand and dirt waft perilously close to the food whenever people pass by these mattresses, which is continuously.

At 8 in the morning, however, the place was entirely devoid of activity.

There were two occupied tables besides the one they slid into. One of them by a family – man, woman, teenage son, grandfather and grandmother – that had just gotten off the train from somewhere in southern India, as evidenced by the four suitcases and about half a dozen backpacks and handbags that encircled their table. At the other table sat two Parsi men, in their sixties, sipping coffee.

“So, what do we order today?” asked Ashish, poring over the menu card. Kaushik shrugged. So did Ritankar. Suresh snatched the card out of Ashish’s hands and began running his fingers down the list. It didn’t matter that barely six items comprised the ‘Breakfast & Snacks’ section in the menu, all of which they knew by rote.

“The Egg Sali, we obviously will order”

“Yes, and the scrambled eggs on toast, as well”

“Right, and lets see…french toasts?”

“Sure, and what else? Boiled eggs? Or do we go with an omelet?”

“Omelet would be nice, I think”

“OK, an omelet then. And four cups of tea, of course”

The waiter noted down the names, offered to him over a span of five minutes.

Café Ideal had been Kaushik’s discovery. He had found it completely by chance when, right in front of the café, he’d stopped to ask for directions to someplace. He had been offered the requisite directions, correctly, he later found out, but had decided to chuck that part of the plan and enter the café instead.

They were regular visitors to the café since then.

The café stands, shaped like an arrow head, on the corner made by the Marine Drive and a road that empties into it from the innards of Mumbai. A row of windows line both the outward facing sides. The windows reach up about 10 feet from the ground; they are covered with glass, clean and transparent near the top and frosted and embroidered at the bottom. The name ‘Café Ideal’ is written on a shiny yellow facade with red paint in English and repeated immediately under in Hindi. The Hindi font is much smaller, illegible from the other side of the Marine Drive and displayed with the sole purpose of avoiding political ire. The furniture inside is wooden, polished. The tables are rectangular; a white formica sheet sits at the top. The chairs have erect backs, meshed jute held together in place by a solid wooden border. They have no armrests. The walls above the windows are layered with colourful vinyl pictures of famous sights from around the world – the Eiffel Tower, the Gateway of India, The Statue of Liberty, The Taj Mahal. Sunlight floods in through the windows throughout the day, making artificial lights redundant. The drinks counter stands in the darkest corner. Beer and wine glasses hang upside down from stands drilled into the wall and cheerfully reflect an invisible yellow bulb somewhere above them; a large red-lit sign with Budweiser written on it hangs over the counter. Right next to this counter is the billing counter. On the wall above it is a poster of the Lord Balaji. It is perhaps the only concession to the café’s Indianness amidst all the quasi-European paraphernalia.

The four huddled around the yellow-orange jukebox, armed with three coins. Inside it, back covers of CDs and pieces of ruled paper with song names handwritten or typed, each sheet and each song meticulously numbered, were stuck neatly to plastic leafs that could be flapped over like pages by clicking a button at the base of the box. The choice of music was evidently not high on the list of priorities of whoever managed the contraption, for the music ranged from the utterly ludicrous to the mildly amusing. Nevertheless, three songs were all that were required, and given that the total collection ran into thousands, a palatable selection could always be arrived at. They chose, as they always did, a Hindi song they could ridicule, an English song they could recognize and a French one they did not understand but enjoyed listening to. The obsession with French music dated back to a year when, during the course of a film, they had heard a husky, utterly sensual female voice singing in French on the soundtrack. Further investigations had revealed that the voice belonged to one Carla Bruni, a fact that had added to their enthusiasm considerably.

Back at the table, breakfast had been served. Suresh had brought with him a two day old edition of The Economic Times, which he now proceeded to unfurl. It was India’s leading financial newspaper, at least as far as volumes went, and inescapable for anyone who worked in the financial sector, which Suresh did. The top headline read ‘After sex scandal, minister ejects prematurely’. To this, Suresh began to giggle and rapidly graduated to uncontrollable laughter. The other three looked at him, expectant, for they knew an immortal line would soon be delivered, as only Suresh could. They were not disappointed.

He looked up at them, suddenly aware that he was the object of their undivided attention, and said “What? I like penis jokes!”

They discussed the previous night’s film, which they had watched over multiple glasses of wine. It had been enjoyable in a way that Ritankar didn’t approve of particularly, for it had nothing to say; just a couple of hours of lighthearted whimsy. Ritankar’s knowledge of film was encyclopedic. Ashish and Kaushik maintained that he was the sort of chap who could outclass IMDB comfortably. He could reel of names of films, their entire cast and crew and, in turn, their filmographies, biographies even. So advanced was his state of being in this regard, that for him, conversations with lesser mortals had become increasingly limited. Indeed, the other three felt privileged to be able to at least hold his attention whilst they spoke.

Traffic on the Marine Drive, from where they sat in the café, looked sparse. It was only nine in the morning. A solitary white Maruti 800 with large ‘L’s taped over the windshield and elsewhere drove fitfully past their window. Inside it, a middle-aged lady sat clutching the steering wheel with all her might. Next to her sat a nondescript man with one hand on the handbrake between them, looking straight ahead. On the sides of the car, in huge red letters, was written

‘Good Luck Motor Driving School’

They burst into laughter again.

By and by, breakfast ended. Additional cups of tea were drunk. By 10, as the place started to fill up, they walked out into the warm summer day. The last leg of the ritual began - the smoking of a cigarette. None of them were regular smokers, but in their minds it completed the experience. Standing in the sun on an empty footpath, blowing puffs of smoke at the sky as the breeze flew in languorously from the sea.

Sunday had just begun.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The End of Summer

He alights from the coach and finds that the connecting train has already arrived. It means he will not find a place next to the window. On most days, he is able to sit next to the window since he arrives before the train does.

It is not just the view and the wind that make the seats by the windows attractive; it also allows him to keep an eye on the traffic on the bridge that passes over the rail tracks near where he gets down. It’s a bridge that his cab travels through on the way home from the station. On days when the traffic on it lies thick and unmoving, he walks to save time.

Indeed, the seats next to the windows are taken. There are plenty others available, however, and he lowers himself into one. There is still time before the train is to depart. He unzips the front pouch of his worn backpack and takes his Ipod out. The gentle, idyllic sound of the Kings of Convenience permeates into his ears; it evokes visions of Scandinavian quietude that he finds relaxing after a day at work. He closes his eyes and waits for the train to move.

A minute or two after the train rolls out of the station, he sees the creek. The train glides over it, gathering speed, till the motor vehicles on the bridge next to the train’s start to fall behind. In the distance, waning sunlight and the warm moisture in the air make the hazy outlines of tall, lean buildings quiver. The sky is a resplendent pink. Overhead, trails of angry, dusty clouds lie haphazardly in the sky, as if they were passed through a shredder. They foretell gusty winds and heavy, scant rain drops. A light, cool breeze seems to be blowing; he cannot be sure for it could be an illusion borne out of the train's motion.

He knows the sky's pink colour is due to increased particulate matter in the atmosphere. He has read it somewhere. He wonders if this has anything to do with pollution. He suspects not. Such evenings must always have been there. Nevertheless, he finds the mankind’s response to such matters as pollution and global warming fascinating. Some say they will damage the planet irrevocably. Others don’t. It could all come to good or bad. Nobody knows for certain. And so, everything continues as it always did. It is as if the world as a whole were smoking cigarettes.

Through the window, he sees the cityscape in vivid sepia tones, as if it were a flashback in a film. The train has now crossed the creek and is on firm land again. Box shaped railway quarters with decaying walls form the backdrop for a continuous line of tin-roofed, temporary cottages on either side of the tracks, shallow gutters half covered by broken, discarded tiles in between. Groups of dirty looking kids, in soiled half-pants and undershirts, run around, playing cricket. Their mothers are inside, cooking their evening meals. Their fathers are out at work in far-off mills and will return, drunk, long after they've fallen asleep.

On another day, these sights and ruminations would depress him. Today, everything, bathed in the pink of the sky, appears magical. The city looks like it should when he sifts through its memories, many years later.

He decides, traffic or no traffic, he’ll walk home today.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


He sits waiting, patiently, for six-o- clock to happen, turning his prized Parker between the fingers of his left hand. His right palm cups the electronic mouse; the fingers clicking away, continuously refreshing his mailbox. There are ten minutes before he can leave.

He’s not expecting any emails at this time of the day. At least not very pressing ones. The constant refreshing is borne out of habit, formed over hundreds of meaningless hours that he has idled away. Around him, his colleagues bustle around, engrossed in their own methods of appearing busy and important.

With less than five minutes to go, a mail appears. He curses softly under his breath. Its from the HOD. The subject line informs him that it is a reply to the long chain of mails that he has helped lengthen through the day, wilfully frustrating attempts from another team to enlist his assistance. They want access to a document which he is in possession of. He is unwilling to give it, for no other reason than that they want it. The HOD’s mail is short and crisp, as most HOD mails are. It contains a name, two words and a comma. His name, then the comma, and the two words – please expedite.

He considers his options. He doesn’t have many. He can delay, just leave for the day and think about it when he returns the next day. Or he can reply to the mail and stand by his position, which he cannot do since the HOD may not take kindly to such behaviour. He considers discussing this face to face with the HOD, explain to him why the document need not be shared but decides against it, for it is too trivial a matter.

For a while, he fantasizes. He imagines himself typing out ‘I will not’ and other stronger variants in reply. He conjures up the consequent face-off in the HOD’s cabin, where the man screams at him in hysteric disbelief. At which point, he calmly lays his resignation on the table and laughs in his face, before walking out with his hands in his pockets and a whistle on his lips.

He finds the document, attaches it to the mail and sends it to the other team with a word or two by way of apology. He checks his watch and finds the long hand shifted two cuts beyond twelve. He curses again, a little louder this time, switches off the computer, picks up his backpack and races out.

Out on the road, he spots the train sliding into the station on the opposite side. He checks the oncoming traffic on both sides of the road, at highspeed for it is an expressway, times himself and sprints. He hears automobile brakes in the background but doesn’t turn to check. By the time he enters the station, the train’s begun to move again. He quickens his pace, elbowing out a couple of college boys who seem to have admitted defeat, reaches the platform just as the train starts to accelerate, races past half a dozen other people, grabs the iron pole in the middle of the compartment’s wide, open entrance with his right hand, jogs two more steps before jumping aboard.