Fiction

Story: The Coffee Shop

By Karthik Shankar

coffee shop

The alarm clock announced itself with a rattling ring. My mind had already switched itself on fifteen minutes earlier but my body wasn’t ready to purge itself of the remnants of my daily slumber. I got up to turn it off and folded up my mattress.

Amma was mumbling incoherently while rustling on her bed. I watched her for a few minutes, trying to piece together the memory that was imposing itself on her mind. Old age had taken its toll on her and while she showed no signs of it in her demeanour, her frailty revealed itself in other ways. She took longer to answer the door and her memory sporadically lapsed when she was animatedly recounting her childhood tales. Her emaciated figure reminded me more frequently of my maternal grandmother who I saw only once in childhood.

I made my way to the bathroom and washed myself with the glacial torrent of water that came streaming out of the nozzles. I hoped the water was warmer when Amma made her way to the shower. After cleaning myself, I wiped my body dry with a partially tattered towel. I looked at my face in the tiny hallway mirror, if you even consider a 500 square foot house to possess a hallway. The face that stared back had sunken eyes on a lined face. The only vestiges of my virility were in the thick growth of hair on my misshapen head and upper lip.

My morning shift at Ranga Departmental was best forgotten. I ended up dropping a whole bottle of coke on the floor. It spun around emanating fizz around every corner and splattered on a customer’s bright coloured clothes. Her plump seven year old son was delighted but Muthu chided me in front of everyone. It seemed like I was also imbibing the kinaesthetic gracelessness that came with old age. At 44, I was definitely no spring chicken.

After I finished with my store duties, I muttered a hurried goodbye to Muthu, who replied with a curt grimace. I made my way to the Everyday Coffee on my dilapidated cycle where I changed into the same patented T-shirt, pants and apron that hundreds of employees across the country wear on a daily basis. In 1996, Everyday Coffee with its plush leather seats and stylish décor was an exciting gateway to the ‘new’ India. In it, rich kids could forget about the rigid shackles of Madras’s traditions for a few hours, all while being served by obsequious adults.

In the eastern corner, I ran into Raghu who was mopping the floor. He greeted me with a smile and went back to his graceful ballet.. He always meshed his daily 2 PM task with surprisingly fluid dance movements. The way his head of curls moved around was a work of art in itself.

I finished cleaning the kitchen’s gleaming marble counters and came out in time to hear a customer making an inane request at the cash counter. “I’m sorry ma’am. We do not serve filter coffee” replied Anant with his polished English skills. He was the only one of us employees who was fluent in the language and it was no surprise he was assigned the important cashier job. I stifled a laugh and headed back inside.

After I was done with my afternoon chores, Usha and I gathered in a corner to listen to some golden Tamil melodies. We both had a natural affinity towards each other, being the oldest employees and having a shared proclivity towards classic Tamil cinema. It was a struggle to hear the garbled singing from the ancient portable radio because the latest English pop songs were aggressively blaring around the shop. Everyday Coffee used to play Tamil songs till the owner Mr Krishna Mehta forbade us from doing so, all in a quest to appeal to Madras’s upscale masses.

It seemed like yet another uneventful day. At 4, I cleaned up the bathroom, making sure every corner was spot free. I felt guilty remembering it had been ages since I had cleaned my own home’s bathroom. I was still excessively reliant on Amma to take care of household duties.

After I was done with lavatory duties, I went to the counter. The evening rush was beginning and Everyday Coffee required every hardworking hand it could get. Madras’s swathe of trendy youngsters would be making their way to spend a few hours in this Mecca; a respite from Madras’s blistering heat. More importantly, they would blow their parents’ hard earned money on insanely overpriced coffees, which added to Everyday Coffee’s coffers (and fattened our tips).

I loved to observe these alien youth, all of whom inhabited a different reality than the one I was living in. Most of them fell into three broad categories. There were the overtly snobbish elites, who came in with a small group of friends, talked about the repressing conservativeness of the city, made snide inside jokes about waiters’ grasp of English and on more than one occasion were caught smoking weed in the bathroom.

The second were the aspirational snobs, who tried to act like the elites but didn’t do a very good job hiding their unrefined edges. Their clothes were louder and they mispronounced chic coffee names. Moreover, they were a little more forthcoming with money, which made one suspect their involvement with lucrative side businesses which were not strictly legal.

Finally there were Madras’s children of the soil, who dressed traditionally, didn’t obscure their Tamil origins and looked at Everyday Coffee as an outlet to break away from the city’s overwhelming gender segregation.

I was more than a little green with envy when it came to these kids. I envied their youth, their financial status and their wide eyed optimism that had yet had to collide with the real world.

On the day that was marred by the unfortunate incident in the morning, I was taking orders from a boisterous group of college girls when I noticed one of them pursing up her lips and giving the faintest hint of a smile to a boy sitting alone in a corner. Her sharp features seemed to be carved out of her lustrous dark skin. She almost resembled one of those beautiful stone statues from Thanjavur; a Goddess with an enigmatic smile.

When I was making my way back to the counter with my order, I was summoned by the gawky young man. “Anna!’ he called out loud enough for me to hear but not so decibel splitting as to have the whole shop take notice. When I stood in front of him, I was immediately entrusted with a task that usually followed years of mutual friendship.

Anna can you please pass on this note to that girl in the yellow salwar?” he requested me. The boy was not experienced enough to realise that implicit trust in a stranger wouldn’t usually pay off. “Please make sure her friends don’t know you’re passing it on” he added. I briefly registered his visage. His skin was fair, a premium among Madras’s light skin obsessed folk. His oversized facial features still didn’t seem comfortable in his face. He didn’t look older than seventeen.

He gave me such a hopeful look that I couldn’t refuse him. He was young and enamoured with the striking girl in yellow. Let life strike him below the belt at a later point. I would be his guardian angel.

Sure sir” I replied. “Would you like to order any coffee?” I asked, making sure not to neglect my waiterly duties. “Just get me the cheapest one on the menu” he promptly answered. That was the point I realised that the kid wasn’t as naïve as he looked.

In the kitchen I parsed through the coarsely written note, which mixed Tamil and English liberally. It was essentially a series of elegiac lines that professed eternal love and desire. They were obviously poached from Tamil movies but if every teenage boy listed out his actual state of mind, love letters would be decidedly less romantic.

I knew I was breaching his privacy by reading it but I doubt he cared. When the kitchen staff had finished whipping up the girls’ drinks, I got into a panic. How was I supposed to pass on the note to the boy’s paramour without arousing the suspicions of her giggly friends? I then had a brainwave. I decided to call her out to the counter requesting her to make another choice of drink as the one she ordered wasn’t available. This meant taking Anant into confidence, which wasn’t an easy task considering his prickly nature. I convinced him by promising him my tips for the day. I was actually giving up my tips for this young man I hardly knew! Let it never be said by the young that the old in this country are the ones that are keeping them down.

Thankfully, the plan worked. She got up, a little miffed that we had taken so long to tell her about the non-availability of her selection. At the counter, I quickly handed over the thin scrap of paper and with the slightest hint of a whisper pointed out who it came from. She burst into a full toothed smile and went back to her seat, loudly protesting the inconvenience to her friends. She excused herself to go to the bathroom and took her own sweet time to come out. A woman who was waiting with her wailing infant gave her a death glare when she ambled out cheerfully.

The boy who was transfixed at this entire display of theatrics, finally burst into an easy smile when she exited the lavatory. She gave him a brief smile, albeit one that was replete with fluttered eyelids. When the time came for the bill to be paid, she took an active interest in collecting everyone’s money and made sure she slipped that same note into the pad. She gave me an all knowing look while handing me the receipt book. At the counter, I slipped the note into my pocket and handed the change back to the now itinerant group.

After they left, I handed it over to the young man, who was giddy with excitement. After quickly perusing the contents of her reply, he jumped up and hugged me. She had asked him to meet her at the coffee shop the next day. His loud howl of delight was briefly taken in by the other customers before they went back to their more portentous conversations.

Within a few minutes, he quickly updated me on his life, ambitions and his infatuation. Forthcoming would be a weak word to describe him. His name was Rehan Malik. He was nineteen years of age and a second year student of Electrical Engineering in Madras University. The object of his affections, Kavita Jayakumar was a Mechanical Engineering student from the same university but they moved around in different circles. Her tight clique of Tam-Brahm friends would frown upon her mingling with a jovial Muslim boy.

That night, I was the storyteller at home. Stretching out every moment, I conveyed the invigorating tale of young love. Amma despite her external proclamations of enthusiasm was lost within. I knew she was thinking about Anjale.

I drifted off to sleep that night, my mood sour because of Amma, although I didn’t show it. Ofcourse this story would rustle up memories of the past. Why was it so difficult for women to live in the present? I wasn’t wearing my past like an albatross around my neck. Why couldn’t my mother do the same?

My uneasy dreams brought me snapshots of my past and futures that never were. I dreamed of Anjale and our daily encounters back in Thanjavur. In those days eyes were everything. We didn’t speak. We didn’t exchange notes. Our eyes dramatized our hopes, dreams and love. It was enough.

Her parents weren’t placated though. A boy with no father, no fields and barely any income to get by would hardly make a good match for their daughter. I even attended her engagement, struggling to fight back tears as I saw my one and only love being betrothed to another man, who would satiate the economic expectations of her parents.

My dreams and thoughts crossed over and over till I couldn’t take it anymore. I woke up in a cold sweat and decided not to go back to sleep that day.

That evening, I was blessed by the sight of Rehan once more. He greeted me like an old friend and proceeded to take the same table. He was looking spiffier with his neatly combed hair and well ironed clothes. He wanted my advice about every possible conversation topic that would come up in that day’s meeting. I was only too glad to be his mentor and confidante. Like an old professional, I educated him about girls as if I had conducted independent research on the matter. “Girls like well-behaved men, who treat them with respect” I said, parroting lines from my massive neural database of Tamil romance movies.

I juggled this conversation between serving other tables. At 6 PM, it increasingly looked like Kavita wasn’t going to show up. Rehan’s frayed nerves showed on his youthful face. At 6.20 however, the object of his affections showed up wearing a red salwar that wwas decidedly less demure than the previous day’s. “I’m sorry I had an extra class she told him. She gave me a desultory nod and sat down. I moved away from the table and observed them from afar. Conversation seemed awkward at first. This was afterall the first time the two were even speaking outside a formal setting to each other. However, conversation flowed like smooth mocha coffees, after I ‘accidentally’ switched the radio channel for a few seconds. The female voice that was crooning a very popular love ballad at that moment was enough to provide a few minutes of confused laughs. Moreover the movie it belonged to had political undertones of sectarian violence; enough to fuel conversation for the whole evening. After the ‘mishap’ the two lovebirds seemed much more relaxed. I was only too happy to take the credit.

That evening was a rousing success for both Rehan and Kavita. They promised to meet again the next week. Rehan gave me a thumbs up before he left. Before long, Everday Coffee was the haunt of Rehan and his paramour Kavita. Their courting session lasted several weeks. I saw it grow from quiet infatuation to unbridled passion. Kavita shed her bashful persona and blossomed into a chatterbox with Rehan. She also opened up to me and they filled every week of mine with a few hours of priceless joy.

They told me the day they became an ‘official’ couple. They were already dating discreetly for a few weeks but that fateful October morning, Kavita had summoned up the courage to tell her insular group of friends that she was dating a Muslim boy. I also added to their celebrations by giving the two a free round of coffee. Anant gave me a weary frown when I told him to take it out of my tips.

So went on the love story of Rehan and Kavita, two youngsters who were living the dream of the new India. I witnessed warm hugs, fights, study sessions and truth and dare contests during their elongated dating period. However the blessed couple had yet to come up against the India of yore and they did.

One day more than two years after they got together, Rehan was sitting silently in a corner. My familiarity with him had transmogrified our waiter – customer relationship into a deeper paternalistic one. I took a seat next to him and asked him what the matter was. He looked up at me and his heavy eyes made it clear he had been crying. “She’s getting married” he announced with a raspy tone. After comforting him, I cajoled the story out of him.

With their impending graduation, Kavita’s parents had started planning her wedding. Upon revealing that she was seeing someone, her parents had reluctantly met him three days ago. However they were aghast that their daughter had gotten involved with a Muslim boy. They ignored her protestations and decided to move up the wedding. Kavita was getting engaged in two weeks’ time.

I listened to the story with a heavy heart. This is how it always goes. Emboldened by economic reforms, the youth always imagine are in charge of their destiny. Then they realise they live in a façade, an environment that has changed its edifice but not its contents.

I told there was no point moping about this. He couldn’t change anything. The look he then gave me was one I still picture every day in my mind; the visual personification of steely determination. “I will fight for her” he vowed. His clichéd line aside, his heroism didn’t seem like an insincere quality that was pilfered from movies but something that emanated from real inner strength. In another lifetime I would be Rehan Malik, fighting for Anjale. If the new generation was standing on our backs to fight new fights, I was ready to be that support. I told him to go out and get her. That evening was the last time I saw Rehan Malik.

Weeks passed by. Then months. Finally years. I still think of that vibrant couple, who gave this weary old man a second chance at young love, even if he was only a silent observer. I worked in Everyday Coffee till my retirement at the ripe old age of 61. I was the only employee who had stuck on well past the rebranding of Madras as Chennai and I was rewarded with a hefty plaque and a meagre severance pay.

One day, several weeks after Rehan Malik had disappeared into the real world, Amma woke up in the middle of the night and roused me from my sleep. “You never told me what happened to that boy Rehan” she demanded petulantly.

Oh I must have forgotten” I said. “Rehan and Kavita’s love story is one that truly resonates through the ages.”

Oh! Tell me everything.”

Rehan stormed into Kavita’s house while the engagement was going on. He professed his love for her in front of her parents, fiancé and more than 200 guests.

Appadiya? That sounds like a movie. What did her parents say?”

Her parents were initially furious when he entered but on hearing him and seeing their daughter weep tears of joy, they were extremely moved. They cancelled the engagement and let Kavita and Rehan be together.”

So when are they getting married?”

Their wedding will be in September.”

I’m so happy everything worked out well”, my mother sighed happily. “You should take them a nice wedding gift”

Yes I will.”

That night she slept like a log, enveloped in the glow of happy real life endings. I slept peacefully too. I hadn’t deceived my mother. The generation of the future are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Call it intuition or optimism. Somewhere in Madras, Rehan and Kavita are together. I do hope they remember the old man who served them their coffees.

****

(Karthik Shankar is a part time journalist and a full time procrastinator. His favourite writers include Michael Chabon, Victor Hugo and Haruki Murakami. Karthik can be contacted at karthik.psshankar@gmail.com)

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