Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Night at the Coffee Shop

“Are you from Delhi?”

“No, I am not. I am here to visit a friend of mine. Another two days of stay at the most.”

“Okay. Do you know where New Friends’ Colony is?”

“I haven’t been around much of Delhi, but I am sure I can find my way.”

“Great! Let’s meet at the Barista over there, between 9 and 9-15 p.m. tonight.”

“That suits me.”

“But, how will I recognize you?”

“Look for someone with a pair of glasses, a…red t-shirt with a pair of jeans.”

“Okay fine. See you tonight then. Have a nice day.”

“You too. Bye.”

Delhi, me and rainfall wraps into a perfect story. It may sound superstitious, but the first summer shower in Delhi always finds a way to welcome me. It had happened more than once in the past and this day was no exclusion. The autowala was quetching all along the way from the railway station to the hotel, “This stinky weather has made life hell for the people in here. Be rich if you intend to settle in this place, at least enough to be able to afford an air-conditioner…” I was absorbed in my own stream of thoughts and hardly saw him taking notice of that. His face changed expressions for a while before reverting back to his trivial monologue, “…even the winter is not so easy here…”

I spent the rest of the day sleeping in the comfort of my little room.

“Where is the watch?”, I murmured as I ran my hands along the side of the pillow with eyes half-open. It was five past four in the afternoon. The room was darker than usual. The view outside was different too. Patches of black clouds were moving atop and the afternoon skyline showed signs of misty showers. I had to make a few quick calls before the weather turns worse. I jumped out of the bed, squeezed into some decent clothing, and headed straight for the nearest phone booth.

It took me more than fifteen minutes to finish the entire list of calls. By the time I came out of the booth, it was already drizzling. I hurried back, but before I could reach the shelter of my hotel, Delhi experienced its first shower of the season. I gave a skewed smile, hoping it would magically reach the autowala from the morning ride. Back in my mind, it echoed, “Barista, New Friends’ Colony, 9 and 9-15.”

The rain was refusing to stop. Every minute that passed tinkled in my ears as huge droplets kept squashing themselves against the streets outside. In a couple of hours, I was worried.

“What if it does not stop at all? Will it be safe to go out looking for a place I do not have the slightest idea about? If that place is in North Delhi, I do not know the best way to reach there, and then come back as well. Do I really need to meet this person? I can just say that I got lost and could not make it to the place. Why am I being so girly? Let the hour come and then I shall decide whether to make the move or not.”

And so on and so forth. For a reason I could not decipher, I was nervous. I fixed up a meeting with a person I do not know, in an unknown place, at odd hours. The splashing water washed away all the assurance I had. At one point, I was wishing the rain never stopped.

But it did. It was like a red signal turning green. I cursed myself for being so forthcoming.

“It won’t take you more than half an hour to reach there, minus the traffic you might have to get across in SouthEx”, replied the attendant at the reception desk of the hotel. Wisely enough, I fixed my ETD for 8:30 p.m.

Time flew in between and the next moment I found myself chaffering with the autowala who claimed he knew the place quite well. He really did, and dropped me right in front of a market. B A R I S T A – I could read it from a distance.

Barista, a chain of coffee outlets across India, draws its inspiration from conventional Italian Espresso bars where variety comes in many flavors – latte, cappuccino, caramel, mocha and so on. The ambience appeals most to the liberalized young generation of the day, and even though there can not be any denial to the fact that bills soar high above normal, it has become a stamping ground for the coffee patrons. Besides, people are no longer known by the company they keep, but the places they visit. This was not my first visit to Barista, so I just knew the cheapest deal I could get out of my wallet at the place.

I took a table by a corner and glanced over the place. There were three young ladies seated at the other corner; assiduous critics of the twenty first century film industry. Other than that the place was virtually empty. My associate still had ten more minutes before he is late.

Sometime back, in February, the first of my applications for doctorate studies in a foreign university got accepted. Ever since then I had been hunting for a peer who would accompany me to the dream destination. There were many but none within a socially communicable distance. My visit to Delhi brought me near one such person, a man who worked in some software firm and has now decided to pursue his post-graduation. I made it a point to meet him, talk about our work, travel preparation and plans, and along the way, make a friend. Unfortunately, the only means of contact he left was his phone number and a proposed meeting at Barista.

I was interrupted by a garish outcry at the next table. There were four men in their mid-twenties, trying to form an opinion on some unknown political issue. It was an interesting conversation to overhear, for hardly does the young generation care about politics anymore. Yet, these men lacked all senses of discipline and coordination. Everyone was calling out to stress a point. It reminded me of the Parliament sessions that decide the future of the country – a place of extreme confusion and disorder. The man facing me noticed the discomfort in my face and requested the others to stay within the audible limits of their own table. Once in a while they would look at me. At other times, I would.

The discussion became gradually ordered and more of current affairs rolled into it. It was then when I found myself incompetent to maintain the pseudo presence in their talk. I drifted my eyes to another part of the place.

Far down to my left, a young man and a woman sat quietly, occasionally glancing outside through the glazed wall at the front. Judging by the way they whispered into each other’s face, they looked like a pair in love. I had to soon draw my attention away from them. The man unexpectedly caught my line of vision and gave a curious look. I had no other option left but to stretch out my sight to the entrance.

There stood outside a man neatly attired in a white shirt and black trousers, formal shoes and a white tie with bold blue strips. He held a contemporary tailored leather bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. With his pair of silver rim spectacles, he looked like an entrepreneur right off-the-shelf. The man got rid of the cigarette bud and walked in. There was a peculiar air of intellect surrounding him. He might have come straight after his office hours to keep an appointment, which I proudly imagined to be myself. However, he just took another table, drew out a small red diary from his bag, and started scribbling on it.

Time passed and I started losing interest in the activities going on at the other three tables. I had been there for an hour now and the person I sought did not show up. I decided to go back.

Once out of the coffee shop, I felt more relieved than ever. The misty shower was back and the streets looked surprisingly shiny. Any of the men in the noisy bunch, or the silent lover, or the single intellectual might have been the person of my day. But none approached me. There was no way for me to know, and I missed the only chance to meet him. I put my glasses back on and headed straight down to the hotel. I kept wondering if the night at the coffee shop would have been different had I not soaked my red t-shirt that afternoon in the rain. That day, my anxiety took over my consciousness.

"The Night at the Coffee Shop" was my first trial at short story writing. It happens to be a Bollywood style true incident. The only thing I know about short stories is 'surprise ending'. And I thought this might be one.


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