Square Dregs and Round Souls

The six young men, returning from their weekly football match, bundled into the dhaba, raucous and belligerent, confident in the interestingness and hilarity of their conversation. They made their way to an empty table, consigning their bags unceremoniously to the indignity of the filthy floor. Their conversation alternated between two extremes, at one point discussing the degradation of culture and art, and the very next moment, descending into vulgar barbs aimed at each other almost in mockery of the pretentiousness of the conversation that just preceded it.

Finally, they fell silent long enough for the group to hear the collective rumblings of their stomachs, and Nouman was assigned the task of ordering the food. The faultless logic behind this election was the simple fact that Nouman was the goalkeeper and so did not have to run as much as the others had to.

Bowing to the weight of reason and to the protestations of his innards, Nouman rose and trudged wearily to the counter, encountering a face he had become habituated to seeing every week.

The man at the counter, known to everyone as Asif, could be described safely as vast. At 6’3”, he cut an imposing figure when he stood up, but fortunately, standing was an activity he wasn’t particularly fond of.  Long years of inactivity, coupled with a flourishing business which surpassed all his financial expectations, resulted in Asif’s girth achieving the steady inflation that Finance Ministers dream of.
He possessed an expressionless face, rendered even more incomprehensible by the bushy beard that grew in all directions in its unique, haphazard fashion. His nostrils flared with the effort of supplying the required levels of oxygen for such a large existent. His ears seemed unnaturally small in comparison to the rest of his body, as if they had been leant to him by someone not as comprehensively endowed.

He sat there now on a miniscule stool with the seat so narrow that it barely seemed to make an impression on the derriere of its possessor. It tempered the otherwise intimidating spectacle with slight twist of absurdism, and allowed Asif to seem much more approachable than he should have.

Asif ran a specialized food stall. He only served maggi, mixed with chicken and cheese, or, for the misery loving vegetarians, fried cauliflower and cheese. This in itself was hardly a recipe for success. What Asif’s stall had to offer was that it was open past curfew. When every other restaurant or stall in the city is shut, then even maggi and cheese takes on the attraction of a gourmet meal to a bunch of starving twenty-somethings. Asif knew this and recognized the potential this business had. He priced the food at double the price that anyone would pay during the daylight hours. He bribed the cops every week for his flouting of the curfew law. And voila! He had a profit margin that would curdle the blood of some of the big restaurant chain owners, if only they knew.

Nouman was ignorant of all this, of course, as he made his way to the counter. His mind was on his food, and the thought would be all consuming, at least until he had consumed it all.

There was a crowd gathered at the counter, all reaching over each other and attempting to shove their way to the front. At the best of times, the Indian public is uncomfortable with the concept of lining up to facilitate smooth service. In the middle of the night, when hunger rules all and a stall has “Self Service” displayed in all its glory at the entrance, Caesar himself would fail to bring order to the ensuing chaos.

Nouman, being a hardened Bangalorean, having spent his entire life in the same city, did not pause to click his tongue at the animalistic behaviour of the customers. He took a deep breath and earnestly plunged into the thick of it, his thousand rupee notes aloft, hoping to catch Asif’s eye with the larger-than-usual denomination.

“Twelve plates of Chicken and Cheese Maggi, six Pepsis, one packet of Classic Milds and two lighters, please, Asif Bhai,” he said, the severity of his hunger forcing a note of servility and pleading into his voice.

“Seven plates of Veg Maggi, seven Pepsis, and two packets of King Lights, please, Asif Bhai,” spoke a rival customer, a boy of barely seventeen, almost simultaneously.

Nouman suppressed his rising irritation. This boy had barely entered the fray, and he had the audacity to shout out his order without even holding the money ready and waving about in his hands. He was sure to get ignored, but, having used his voice in vain, he had also managed to sabotage Nouman’s order, or its audibility, at any rate.

All fifteen men jostling their way to the front also voiced their orders with drone like repetitions with the hope that the order may get programmed into Asif’s head via conditioning. Nouman’s hope of being heard withered with every fresh rallying cry from the crowd around him. For one weak moment he considered letting them place their orders and waiting till they were done before coming forth with his request, but then sanity prevailed and he resumed the voicing of his demands with renewed vigour and enhanced volume.

And then he witnessed the sight that many before him had marvelled at. Asif Bhai, sitting in the midst of a rambling mob, each of them shouting different denominations of different items while speaking in various languages or admixtures of the same, calmly put his hand up and, pointing to first one person, then the other, perfectly reproduced the exact order that person had requested and stated the exact amount that was payable. There was no sign of pen and paper. This was pure memory.

“Twelve plates of Chicken and Cheese Maggi, six Pepsis, one packet of Classic Milds and two lighters. That will be 1900 rupees,” he said, pointing at Nouman.

Nouman handed over the notes in silence, having been rendered speechless by this inhuman retentive ability possessed by a seemingly simple man. As he processed the scale of the task Asif seemed to be handling with nonchalant ease, Asif took the notes, tendered exact change, while still rattling off orders for the other customers awaiting the confirmation that their order too had been heard and processed.

Taking the change, Nouman silently walked back to his table, suddenly lost in thought and no longer interested in the banter that unceasingly flowed from the people around him. His contemplative mood was not noticed by his peers, a silent man can lose himself quite easily amongst a crowd of talkative ones.

After sufficient time had been allowed for the cooks to prepare the simple meal, Nouman ventured back to the counter to collect the food and drinks. Indian Dhabas work on a beautiful system of trust that defies belief. Indian society is one where people run the other way at the sight of the police, where one is reluctant to help a stricken man on the street out of worry that it is a scam or a trap devised by cunning crooks, where people are only interested in accidents as a form of a morbid spectacle, rather than out of willingness to help the victims. And yet, in the midst of this very society, thousands of customers pay money in cash to cashiers, receive no bill in return, and return calmly to their seats, with the blind trust that the correct order will be given to them. They have no proof that the order has been placed, and their reliance is solely on the trustworthiness and also the memory of the person involved. In case the cashier’s memory fails him, he asks the customer to repeat his order, and though the cashier too has no proof that the customer is representing his order fairly and accurately, he accepts it without question and business continues as usual. The mutual trust was implicit, it never needed iteration, it was an unwritten rule and it was followed diligently, contrary to every instinct of Indian society.

Nouman went back to the counter, which was overflowing with bipedal vermin as always, and he mentally recited the order to himself, ready to reproduce it to Asif Bhai again at a moment’s notice. But before he could utter a word, Asif glanced at him, and without a moment’s hesitation, beckoned to his junior.

“Chote, twelve plates of Chicken and Cheese Maggi, six Pepsis, one packet of Classic Milds and two lighters. Give it to this man here.”

A miniscule boy, barely past puberty, sprinted up to Nouman with the tray laden with food and drinks and dumped it unceremoniously into his hands.

Nouman, head buzzing by now, managed to stop the little tyke before he sprinted off again.

“Listen, what time does the dhaba close?” he asked.

“Six o’clock, Asif bhai shuts it and goes home,” came the reply.

————————————————————————————————

The food and drinks had been decimated, the boys felt full and cheerful. Each of them stood up, already contemplating the comfort of their respective beds. All except one. Nouman bid farewell to each of them, assuring them that he too would leave in a while, but wished to stay back for a bit longer.  Half an hour later he found himself seated on the corner table, book in hand, waiting for the dhaba to empty out so he could get his chance to speak to Asif bhai.

As the populace slowly streamed out of the establishment, Nouman hesitantly walked towards Asif with no little amount of trepidation. It occurred to him that he had never actually spoken to Asif outside of their relationship as a customer and a vendor. He knew virtually nothing about the man. This was an unnecessary step into the unknown on a fantastical whim which his mind was all too prone to.

“Asif Bhai?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” came the prompt reply. Asif looked momentarily surprised at seeing Nouman still at the dhaba, but quickly slipped back into his professional demeanour.

“Do you mind if I speak with you for a while?” Nouman inwardly grimaced. This was beginning to sound like he was asking him out.

“Was there any problem, sir?” asked Asif, his whole attention now directed towards Nouman.

“No, no, nothing like that. I just wanted to have a conversation with you about something. It’s not urgent, I can come some other day if you’re busy.”

“No, I’m not busy. Tell me what you want to say,” said Asif, curiosity sufficiently piqued.

————————————————————————————————–

Nouman and Asif sat on the sidewalk on a deserted street. The nightly territory wars between the stray dogs had commenced, and Nouman watched on in silence as he considered what he wanted to say, how he was going to say it, and what exactly he was trying to achieve with this conversation. Even after all this time, he was not sure he knew the answer to any of those questions. It didn’t seem to bother Asif, though. He sat alongside, unperturbed, smoking a cigarette. He hadn’t said a word since they’d left the Dhaba. He was waiting for Nouman to come out with whatever it was that he wanted to say.

Finally, Nouman broke the silence.

“Have you always had the ability to retain numbers and combinations so easily?”

Asif frowned. This was a weird question to begin with, he could not see where this line of questioning led, and the uncertainty unsettled him.

“Yes,” he began, reluctantly, “since I was a child, I always found myself able to remember whole series of numbers or dates or amounts which was not normal for a kid my age, or any age for that matter. It did not take effort on my part, I was born with it, it seemed natural to me. So much so that as a child, I would often wonder why others could not do the same, and I would get irritated at other peoples’ retentive inabilities.”

“Did you go to school?”

“I did for a while. I was still in primary school when my father left. With him, the only source of income for our family left as well. Mother was educated, intelligent. But she had never been allowed to work, and she wasn’t gonna start now. I had two younger brothers. Toddlers still. I had no choice, I joined a tea and food stall. The owners liked me, partly because I was cheap and partly because of this rote memorizing ability. It took no time at all to train me.”

“How long did you work there?”

“I worked there for ten years, I finally left when I was 22. A rich bastard came to our stall and ordered for his group. They ate everything, and then, when it came to payment, he claimed he had not ordered all that we were charging him for. It was 17 years ago, but I can still tell you his exact order today. I can even tell you which of his friends ate which dish. But when a rich man speaks, the authenticity of his statement is never called into question. I argued with him because I was right. My owner sided with him because he was rich. I was fired. I left and started a stall of my own. And that’s where you find me today.”

“Have you never wished to study, to use your brains for something better?”

Asif shook his head, not in disgust or in disagreement, but purely out of failure to comprehend.
“My brain provides for me, what else can I use it for? Is that not its only job?” he asked in all earnestness.

“Yes,” pressed Nouman, “but you can do something more meaningful. Something that will give you purpose. A goal, a dream.” Even as he spoke, Nouman realized how empty and naive his words sounded. Why was he even here?

“Dreams and goals are not for me, sir. I provide for myself adequately, I don’t have any pressing issues. That is enough. As to finding meaning and purpose in life, I will leave that task to people like you. I don’t have the urge to dig in that direction. It doesn’t interest me.”

His cigarette had gone out. He toyed with the idea of lighting another one, but then seemed to decide against it. Glancing furtively at Nouman, he cleared his throat and rose.

“I hope I was able to answer your questions satisfactorily,” he said, with no real conviction. This whole conversation was a big, absurd mystery to him. Turning, he walked away as hastily as he could without being rude.

Nouman sat in silence, wondering what he had expected. All around him, crickets mocked his naivete in chirpy mirthfulness.

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