I am particularly excited about this. My first attempt at food fiction. Didn’t have a real story like the one on Mamma and K to write on here.
A colleague and I landed up at Not Just Jazz By the Bay for lunch. She rejected boiled chicken sandwich, curd rice, idli as lunch options for a bad stomach at work. Noble intentions of coffee at Phoenix which grew into kebabs and rotis at Inox finally saw us settling for the soup, salad, sandwich and dessert lunch at Not Just …. The food was really good and had us stuffed at Rs 375 (7 USD) each. Loved the hummus. Was won over by the sandwich. The desserts were thankfully not appetising so stuck to fruits. The clear soup was wonderfully flavoured. The cold cuts very fresh. The egg salad divine.
But what struck me was the lonely gentleman having lunch by himself. And the cake which came to his table. I was intrigued. What was his story?
My mind wandered. I tried to fit the pieces. Slipped into a food review mode in between.
Do indulge me by reading it when you have time. Hope the piece flows. Hope it reads well. Hope it doesn’t show the breaks engineered by the doorbell ringing thrice, phone eleven times, SMSs checked, A C getting installed, food ordered, coffee made, KKR getting bashed by Dhoni …
The phone beeped.
Arthur looked up from the harmonium that he was tuning. Why did John have to give him a blasted phone when he dropped by from Sydney? Was he too busy to write his old dad an airmail? What’s with this, ‘have you been to the doc dad’, ‘The kids say hi dad’, ‘Merry Christmas from the Briganzas‘, ‘Cynthia says hi’, ‘Has my bank statement come?’.
Arthur hated SMSs. He wouldn’t own up to it but he loved seeing a letter in the letter box. Opening it ever so carefully. Careful not to tear it by mistake. Reading it word by word. Time after time. Savouring every scrap of news which his son would send from overseas. About his college. The girl that he met. The girl that broke his heart. The other girl that he met. His first job. The girl that married a local. The girl that he met at work. His second job. Photos of their wedding. The taxi that he bought. Arthur’s first grandson. First grandson’s first photo. More photos. Less words. News of the visit to India.
The damned phone. SMSs.
Arthur slowly got up from his haunches. He went to the portly ladies inside the room. Saris tucked in, chattering away happily away as they polished tablas at Tantiya Sangeet Bhandar. Savages. Philistines. Not a musical note in their body. But they knew how to operate the phone.
The SMS appeared on the screen. Arthur brought the phone close to his eyes. Squinted hard through his thick glasses. Maybe he should have taken John’s offer to buy him new glasses. But he was not one for charity. Not even from his son.
‘D-r-o… Slowly the letters began to reveal themselves through his tired and weak eyes. ‘Drop by at Blues and More at two. Mike’.
Blues and More!?
Gosh, it was fifteen year back. Bay Blues, Bombay’s only Blues night club opened with much fanfare by the sea. The nights were heady. Symphonies from a far off land. Music devotees swaying to the tunes of the deep South. Bay Blues was the talk of the town. Arthur was in charge of the instruments. He would lovingly polish the clarinets. Tune the piano. Keep the drums taut. His offerings would be ready when the Gods of Blues took over at night. Those were Glory Days as they say.
Then the charm wore off. Bombay became Mumbai. The club became empty by night. Wired nerves. Strained egos. Fights. Mike had his way. As rulers always do. Blues Bay became Blues and More. Mike brought in a D J. Friday Night Blues Live became Techno Fridays. Arthur packed up and left. You didn’t need someone to tune the music when you had a young kid scratching vinyl.
Arthur looked out onto the lifeless despondent stream of cars stuck outside Tantiya Sangeet Mahal at Lalbagh. There were more instruments to be tuned. Orders to be delivered. The pillars of the unfinished flyover outside mocking the cars. Mocking him. They were all stuck. Prisoners to someone else’s whims. Burning in hell. Skewered in the heat and dust.
What did Mike want? They hadn’t met in fourteen years. How did he get his number? Could he say no to him. Arthur had finally settled down to emptiness. Did he want to break the rhythm?
Arthur looked around. Saw the others around him. Chattering happily. Polishing the instruments to be sold. Doing their jobs. Oblivious to the magic that they held in their calloused, rough hands.
He went to Tantiya. Said he needed to go home and walked off to the room in a chawl that he shared with three others in a lane close by. He looked at his white shirt. Grease stains. Three cigarette burns. This wouldn’t do. He rummaged through his trunk. Through the naphthalene balls. Neatly washed and folded but discoloured shirts. He suddenly spotted a bundle wrapped in a newspaper.
14 November 1995 – Tendulkar Stumped.
Arthur ripped open the packet. Oblivious to the newspaper report on Sachin Tendulkar’s wedding to the good doctor fifteen years back.
A shiny red shirt peeped out of the old newspaper. This was the shirt that Arthur used to wear on Friday nights at Bay Blues.
A bath under the community tap outside. A splash of his young room mate’s Old Spice. A bus ride past the majestic Byculla Church, snaking over Mohammed Ali Road on J J flyover, skipping past Flora Fountain and an hour later Arthur got off at the bus stop by the sea. He ignored the offending sign, Blues and More, and walked in.
He took sometime to get used to the gloom inside after the bright sun. Slowly his eyes focused on the salad bar. Heaps of food. The lovely aroma of warm bread wafting from the toaster. Ham. When did he last have that? An ice cream corner. A smoking pot labelled ‘chicken and mushroom soup’. Sights which mocked the vada pao. The last thing that he ate the previous night. He needed to skip meals as the month drew to an end.
He stood by the door. Skinny to the bone. Tall. Slightly hunched. Shiny red shirt shirt. Incongruous amongst the pin striped shirts and floral dresses of the afternoon buffet crowd. Arthur peered patiently through his horn rimmed glasses till he suddenly spotted Dharmesh walking towards him. Had the child grown up or what? Arthur had hired him as a waiter ages back when Dharmesh turned up at their door.
A big grin.
“Arthur saab. How are you? Mike had to go to the market. He asked me to look after you. Won’t you take a seat?”
Arthur grumbled. Damn that Mike. He loved him like a brother. He wouldn’t wait for anyone else. Arthur used to work at the Taj Mahal Hotel after all. He was trained by the sahibs. He was part of the team that were entrusted with the instruments for Zubin Mehta’s concert. That was another age. He was sought after in Bombay. In Mumbai even a rascal like Mike would make him wait. That’s life.
Arthur sat down timidly at a table by the side. The gleaming red shirt a contrast to its bony owner.
A young boy, whom he didn’t recognise, got him a bowl of steaming soup. The first eager spoonful singed his tongue. He bit into the lovely bread in the basket they had put beside him. Was he too eager? Did they realise that his last meal was more than twenty hours back? That the last time he had butter was when his son visited him a couple of years back? But the bread was so soft. The soup so clear and well flavoured. His eyes fell on the little stage by the corner. He saw the legion Blues and More blazoned on the wall. His feet began to tap the rhythm in his head. The waiter came back with a little cream pile with crackers around it.
‘Hummus and pita?’
Looked weird. Arthur politely took a bite. The creamy alien taste playing hide and seek within the bites of the crisp warm bread was heavenly. Gone was ‘Uncle’ of Tantiya Music Mahal. Arthur the Music Tuner, sought after by the best in Bombay, was lunching. Or as they said, ‘fine dining’.
He got up with confidence and walked up to the salad bar. Loaded the plate with fresh pink ham, crisp, garlic kissed bacon bits, sliced roast beef, firm well flavoured noodles, cubes of baked potatoes, egg yolks lovingly bathed in French dressing. Arthur was used to dining with royalty.
Arthur lost himself in the meal. For a few moments he forgot searching for coins in his wallet every night. Something to pay for a vada pao or anda bhurji pao on good days.Or just pao on other days after he finished work at Tantiya’s.
The waiter came to him with a sandwich.
“Honey mustard chicken. Dharmesh sir sent it”
Arthur almost fainted as the flavours of the sandwich wafted in. He took a bite. Chicken? Gosh, was it a year? More than that? He used to be picky about his chicken. In a different era. But months of simple bread and bhajiyas hadn’t dulled his taste. He still could tell a good chicken from the chewy. This was heavenly. Succulent like he liked it. The touch of honey was aristocratic. This was his world. He had been away for too long. Honey mustard chicken. Even the name sounded poetic. So different from his Sunday treat of usal, dal fry, rice and bangda (mackeral) fry which he could barely afford at Moushi’s cart.
He made one more trip. Gone was the feeble, curious, timid intruder in a red shiny shirt. Arthur walked up like a regular, picked up some fruits from the dessert counter and came back to his table.
Suddenly the sound system cranked up a notch. The elevator music stopped. Loud pop played and then …
“Happy birthday to you”
“Happy Birthday to you”
Seven eight waiters in black surrounded him. Arthur looked up. Puzzled.
Dharmesh walked up to him. Big smile. Behind the portly waiter flashed the sepia image of a thin teen. Big grin. Wanting a job. Nothing to offer.
Dharmesh placed the cake on the table. Dark chocolate. Just as Arthur loved it. He could smell the sweetness of fresh cream. He could even taste the cake in his mouth. It looked so rich. When did he last have a cake …
Arthur cautiously looked around. Everyone was looking at him. Gosh, did he hate attention. Nah, he lapped it up. Fighting the urge to grin. To stand up. To bow.
He looked across and saw two people in the table beside him. Taking a break from work. Having their lunch. He saw them smiling at him. Genial. Benevolent. Pity?
The song ended. The waiters clapped. The others got back to their meals.
“Damn you Mike. You remembered”.
Arthur politely got up. Pushed his chair back. Avoided the eyes of the beaming Dharmesh.
He walked out of the door.
The cake remained on the table. Uncut.