‘Savi, Tiffin kudukkiriya?’ – Ramesh was at the table waiting for his breakfast. Savitha served him idlis with pudina chutney and podi. The morning breakfast gave the two of them a chance to start their days exchanging pleasantries, most importantly telling each other about their love for the other person and sharing their plans for the day.
‘I just cannot come along, please understand. It is too difficult for me to explain.’ Ramesh and Savitha turned around on hearing this. It was their son Rahul on the phone. They had not witnessed Rahul in such an animated state before. Savitha got worried instantly. She looked at Ramesh with concern largely writ on her face. Ramesh pressed his left hand on her right, closed his eyes and shook his head gently forward once. She felt assured. ‘You guys do not understand, I cannot explain everything. Please leave me out of this.’ Rahul closed the call after saying these lines. It is only then he realized that his entire conversation had audience in the form of his parents; he did not know whether to head to the table for breakfast or leave to the drawing room to read the newspaper. He did not want any questions and follow it up with explanations from his side. He just wasn’t in the mood to talk, forget explaining.
Rahul looked at his mom and could well sense the anxiety and concern within her. She had reason to feel worried. Rahul was always a calm and composed young man. He was refreshingly mature for his age. He would never lose his cool and composure; however there were drops of sweat ready to drip off his forehead now. He felt his feet stuck to the ground and in spite of his best efforts could not take a step forward or back. Sensing the discomfort Rahul was going through, Ramesh remarked ‘Whatever be the worry, simply trust your instinct. It will never fail you.’ Ramesh got up, washed his hands and headed to his room. Savitha was about to turn and retrieve more idlis from the kitchen to serve Rahul. Rahul mumbled, cleared his throat, and repeated himself. He spoke for five minutes. Savitha did not know how to react; she was searching for the right words in her mind. Finally she ended up saying, ‘Do not make it too uncomfortable, please handle it well’. Rahul asked her, ‘Mom. Does that mean you are asking me to go ahead?’ Savitha replied, ‘Yes’. Rahul hugged his mom with a tear rolling down his cheeks.
Rahul had breakfast, got ready and left for classes. He travelled to college on his bike. He travelled for 15 minutes passing by temples, schools, a market place for vegetables and fruits, and reached the traffic signal. He stopped his bike in spite of the green signal, pedestrians waiting to cross the road were startled a bit. Within seconds their look changed and there was a cheeky smile on their faces. It felt as if they were collectively saying, “Now we get it!” A smartly dressed young girl, who was standing behind the group of pedestrians, walked upto the bike and smiled at Rahul. Rahul extended his hand and said, ‘Happy birthday Sami!’ She thanked him, sat on the bike and hugged him tight. They still had time to get past the signal, leaving behind the pedestrians with a startled look again on their faces.
The regular routine of classes, canteen lunch, tea and snacks, a private getaway of 5 minutes at the coffee shop down the college road, led Rahul and Samiksha towards the evening. It was 5 pm, Samiksha felt good at keeping a check on time that particular day. The strap was light orange in colour and the dial was white. Stylish roman symbols found their relevant places along the white space. ‘Rahul, I love the watch. I have wanted to buy one for long. Muah. I love you a lot.’ The happiness and pride on Rahul’s face was evident. ‘I love you a lot Sami. Muah.’ Rahul said this and noticed their friends walking upto the parking lot. The group of 6 had 3 couples, Rahul and Samiksha being the newest entrants as a couple though they were always part of the same group since the first year. It was the final year, and this was the last birthday bash in the group before they graduated from college. It was all the more special.
The three bikes created a roar; the camaraderie in the group was very palpable. Before long they were on the highway heading towards the city. Their college was located on the state highway 15 kilometres from the heart of the city. Towards the other side, the highway led to a smaller city which was famous for its palaces and gardens. Samiksha was already planning a getaway with Rahul to visit the palaces. She always loved history and the architectural marvels across civilizations. She had visited the palaces before, though not as a couple. She started dating Rahul 3 months back and wanted to have a romantic getaway with him soon. A shrill horn from a car brought her back to the present, she was not amused. She was imagining walking hand in hand with Rahul admiring the paintings and the carpets. She glared at the driver and in no uncertain terms showed her anger by certain hand gestures. She turned her attention away from the car and hugged Rahul even more fondly. She felt awesome in his company, she felt like a complete girl. She didn’t want to let go of him, but had to for the time being. They reached the restaurant by 6:30 pm.
A table was reserved in Rahul’s name. The 6 of them made their way to the roof top, which was covered with a glass ceiling and illuminated with objects that resembled the stars in the sky. A live orchestra was playing soothing Western music. Samiksha said, ‘A perfect setting!’ Vishal remarked, ‘I don’t know why Rahul hesitated to come here. In the morning he was profusely trying to change the venue. However given you had mentioned about how you wanted to celebrate your birthday only here, I made sure there was no change in plans.’ She hugged Vishal and looked out for Rahul. She realized that Rahul was still standing at the door hesitant to walk in and join the group at the table. She noticed that he was tense, sweating. Only then she realized that he had been unusually quite the entire day. The number of people in college walking upto her to wish and chit chat had ensured she didn’t feel the pinch till then. She gestured to Rahul to come over. He took sheepish steps towards the table and took his chair. She leaned towards Rahul and asked, ‘Kya hua baby? You have been quite the entire day.’ Rahul composed himself, didn’t want to spoil her mood and the evening. He wiped his forehead with a tissue paper, and assured her ‘Everything is fine. I did not sleep well last night. There is nothing to worry about.’ Samiksha wasn’t convinced but wanted to take it offline later.
Maya and Chandra sat to Samiksha’s left hand side at the table. Kalki and Vishal sat to Rahul’s right. The damsels were keen on having a wild night and hence wanted to drink till they dropped. All of them stayed at the hostel and they had developed a great understanding with the watchman over the last 4 years. Entering the hostel without a fuss in an inebriated state was least of their concerns. Rahul did not order for a drink. Chandra remarked, ‘Do not worry, your one drink wont impact the bill much.’ The entire group burst out in laughter except for Rahul, who managed a smirk. Kalki noticed that in spite of sitting beside her, Rahul had not spoken with her at all. Kalki enquired, ‘Sab kuch theek hain nah?’ Rahul just managed to nod his head in assurance.
Midway into the dinner, Vishal said ‘Rahul, I remember you telling us that your dad worked in the hotel business. A cousin of mine is finishing her hotel management course this year. As part of the final year, she needs to complete a 3 month internship. Will you be able to help her through your dad?’ Rahul was immediately taken back in time by 4 years. It was the initial days after joining college. The usual introductions involved talking about native city, schools and colleges studied in previously, parents, their occupation and whether day scholar (day schi) or a hostellite. Rahul noticed that he was in the company of affluent individuals who had ‘high class’ backgrounds. He felt nice in the company of Vishal, Chandra, Kalki and Samiksha instantaneously. Maya came into the group only after 3 months into the first year. Rahul did not want to be left out for lack of a high class family profile. He had gone ahead and introduced his father as a person in a senior role in one of the leading hotel chains. Rahul did not lie completely; Ramesh was the senior most among his colleagues and was definitely in the hotel business. However Ramesh’s role did not exactly match up with the description given by Rahul. Since those introductions, the topic of parents and their roles had cropped up rarely. Rahul found himself in a spot now. He had to respond to Vishal. Before he could utter his first word, he heard Samiksha shriek.
‘Don’t you know to serve water? It is meant to go into the glass, not on my dress.’ Rahul noticed that the waiter had spilled water. The waiter’s nervousness indicated he was new in the role, and he seemed to be searching for cover before some senior came by. Samiksha frowned, ‘I want your chief in charge to be here right now.’
The chief in charge was summoned; he arrived calmly but with a brisk walk. It seemed that he had understood about the mishap and was ready with a way to deal with the situation. Once he reached the table he focused his complete attention on Samiksha, listened to her patiently, and apologized on behalf of the waiter. Samiksha felt better, however demanded ‘We do not want this waiter to serve the table anymore. Make sure there is someone lot better.’ The chief assured Samiksha, ‘Most certainly Ma’am, I will ensure our best waiter serves you and takes care of you and your friends for the rest of the evening.’ The best waiter was summoned and then the chief left the floor.
Spirit in varying forms was served around the table and it certainly changed the mood of the group. Rahul chose not to drink and was visibly upset and shaken especially since the chief left the table. There were no more mishaps in terms of service, quality of food and drinks. Nearing the fag end of the dinner, Chandra asked the waiter for the cake that was pre ordered at the time of booking the table in the restaurant. The cake was cut, photographs were taken, Samiksha fed a huge piece of the cake into Rahul’s mouth.
It was a nice outing for the entire group; all of them had fun except for Rahul. Somehow the rest of the group did not make too much of an effort to lighten his mood. All their earlier attempts had fallen flat and they chose to not take up the issue anymore for the evening. Vishal asked for the bill and Rahul paid the same. Samiksha and Rahul were the last ones to leave, and she noticed that there was no tip left for the waiter. She was surprised; Rahul never left a table without tipping the waiter. She felt he was not in the best of moods, hence might have forgotten. She politely told him, ‘Please leave behind a tip for the waiter. Given how we started off, the new waiter with the tilak took excellent care of us.’ Rahul did not utter a word, did not react either. It semed as if he had frozen in time. She continued, ‘We should show our appreciation for his care and service that ensured we did not spoil our evening by coming here.’ Realizing that Rahul had not moved an inch, she took his wallet and placed two Rs. 100 notes, and started walking away from the table. She reached the door and waited for Rahul. He took his pen and a tissue paper, scribbled quickly and left. The waiter approached the table, more interested in what was written on the tissue paper. He picked it up, adjusted his spectacles and read, Sorry Dad - for putting you through the bitter experience and the tip!