It had been an unusually busy day at the Sagar restaurant. The inky blue sky showed no trail of the vibrant transformation it underwent throughout the day. The pleasant blue sky of the morning had metamorphosed into a large swatch of yellows and oranges and greyish-purples by the evening. All the while, the people kept coming in.
The restaurant was open well past its normal hours. The handful of workers, including the manager himself were kept busy by the incessant flow of patrons. The frantic activity in the restaurant was mirrored in the kitchen, where the cooks were working and coordinating like a well-oiled machine, albeit in a frenzied manner. Sankar anna, the senior most in the ranks was running from table to table, catering to the needs of the customers, and simultaneously giving orders to the other, less experienced workers. He was the linchpin that kept this entire system running smoothly.
Next to the kitchen, was a dingy old room used as a scullery. The room had a little window through which the entire front portion of the restaurant was visible. Through the window, a scrawny kid with big, curious eyes was watching the frenetic activity that was going on. Close on his heels was a little kitten, running and jumping around playfully. The boy would watch the people running around for sometime, then turn around and mimic Sankar anna’s gait to the kitten, all the while laughing in utmost exhilaration. He probably imagined the kitten’s antics to be a standing ovation, and it only fuelled him to observe and imitate again.
“Naveen! Come here!” boomed Sankar anna’s voice.
The scrawny little boy froze on his tracks. He was halfway into another playful mimicry when Sankar anna called him. Sankar anna saw me mocking him! He was petrified , and his mind brought all sorts of eventualities into picture. A couple of seconds later, he allowed himself to move from the awkward stance that he was in. He heaved a sigh of relief, realizing that Sankar anna was not going to scold him, and had in fact called for something else.
Sankar anna had called! Naveen’s heart skipped a beat again at the thought. Without wasting a moment, he rushed to the front.
“Naveen, give some sugar at that table,” said Sankar anna as soon as he saw Naveen.
Naveen turned to see where Sankar anna was pointing. It was the corner table, where an old man was having his meals. Naveen went inside and brought back a tall plastic container which was improvised to hold sugar. He went to the table and generously added some sugar to the cup of curd that was there.
“Enough, enough!” said the old man, after Naveen had added about three spoonfuls of sugar. Naveen turned and walked back, almost as if in a trance. The dessert. He had always wanted to have it. Everyday Sankar anna would say that he could have a cup of curd and sugar at the end of the day, after all the customers had gone. But till now, not a single day passed when there was leftover curd. The dessert remained a dream for Naveen. He wondered why Sankar anna wouldn’t keep aside just one cup of curd for him. Just one cup.
Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t realise that he had reached the scullery. The kitten was still there, running around and playing with some ball of thread. Naveen went and sat on an old sack. No sooner had he rested himself than Sankar anna called him again. He got up and ran to the front. Sankar anna was busy serving meals to a man.
“Naveen, go bring a cup of curd. For this table. Go, quick!” he ordered.
Naveen ran back to the kitchen, and opened the refrigerator. His heart sank as he saw that there was a single cup of curd left in it. With a heavy heart, he took it out. He had a strong urge to go back and tell Sankar anna that curd was finished. But he was afraid. Sankar anna would know. He always knows. He trudged back to the table and served the final cup of curd.
The restaurant was almost empty now, and the tables were all free except for a couple of people who came in late.
Just as Naveen was about to sit on one of the empty seats, Sankar anna motioned him to clean some of the tables. Nearly everyone was busy with one or the other thing, and Sankar anna being the efficient delegator couldn’t resist assigning work to Naveen. With a sigh, Naveen went back to the scullery and returned with a dirty old bucket and a piece of shabby cloth. He started cleaning the corner table where the old man was sitting a few minutes ago. As he was about to fold the plantain leaf with leftovers and dump it in the bucket, he saw that the cup of curd was left untouched – or so it seemed. He felt elated, and his lips broke into a smile. The curd was probably too sweet for the old man. Not too sweet for me, thought Naveen. He scooped up the cup in one hand and cleaned the table with the other. He almost broke into a run as he made his way back into the room.
He placed the bucket on the floor and the cup beside it. And then he remembered, there was yet another table to be cleaned. Oh no!, he thought, as he took the bucket again and went back to clean the next table. He had expected to receive some rebuke from Sankar anna, but he was busy serving dal to the young man at the other table. Naveen cleaned the table quickly and ran back to the room. But the sight that greeted him broke his heart. The cup of curd, which he had acquired so unexpectedly, was empty. The little kitten was still licking it clean, after having had a sumptuous little meal.
Naveen felt devastated. He felt the sting of tears in his eyes. He had longed for it for so long, and he almost had it today. But it was not to be. He took the now empty cup, crushed it, and threw it into the garbage bin. He went back to window and looked outside. The young man was having some animated discussion with Sankar anna. He had finished his meal though. What was he so upset about? thought Naveen. From where he was seated, he could only make out Sankar anna saying that the curd was over. Apparently the man had asked for yet another cup, thought Naveen. Sigh! And here he was, longing for just one small cup.
The kitten was still frolicking around, and Naveen was watching it absent-mindedly. He heard Sankar anna’s voice from the kitchen, talking to his colleagues. Boy, he sounded furious! Naveen got up and looked out of the window. Everyone had left, and the workers were cleaning up the remaining tables. He heard Sankar anna entering the scullery and picking up a bucket.
“God, these people! Does a little dal in his curd mean it is the end of the world? Such a show-off! ” Sankar anna was saying.
That was when Naveen saw – the little plastic cup of curd on that table, untouched. A glimmer of hope. Naveen acted almost involuntarily, as he got up, snatched the bucket from Sankar anna’s hand and ran to the front.
“I’ll clean it Sankar anna,” he cried.
His eyes were fixed on nothing, but the dessert.