Sourav and Alok decided to go and have lunch one afternoon in "Lajjat", a popular restaurant of their city. Earlier that morning, Sourav had spotted an advertisement of that restaurant in a local daily which read "Come & Enjoy the 'Pakhala' Festival. Before any further is written about this story, its imperative to know that the 'Pakhala' is a local cuisine of the state of Odisha and very popular too, especially in summer. Its humble constituents are rice submerged in water. However the assortment of dishes that are picked with 'Pakhala' make it quite an unputdownable delicacy. A quintessential serving of 'Pakhala' can give its consumer an ultimate satisfaction, both in his tummy and taste. Sourav and Alok shared their appetite for 'Pakhala', for which it barely took any persuasion on the part of Sourav to convince his otherwise home food loving pal for a satiating treat of their favourite dish not prepared by his mother. Maybe the urge to eat "Pakhala" in the dehydrating summer heat had also some role to play in it.
At around fifteen past one in the afternoon, Sourav honked his bike horn impatiently at Alok's residence. Alok rushed down and soon they hit the road to "Lajjat" the ever crowded, ever sought after eatery situated at the heart of Bhubaneswar. When they reached there, they found, to their sheer frustration, half a dozen guests in the lounge area, already in the queue. Alok threw himself at the door and opened it slightly just to take a peep and he was greeted by the hustle and bustle of pervasive chatting at the crowded tables, incessant clinking of the spoons and forks as they were being eagerly glided over ceramic dishes with some faint familiar music humming in the background. The scrumptious mixed aroma stole its way into his nostrils further stirring the already ecstatic hunger enzymes inside him. He just left the door to shut by its own and walked back to his friend who from the look on his face guessed that 'Pakhala' had just been wiped off their fates. The grand wall clock adorning the plastic painted walls of the lounge area read two and by all means when their turn would come "Pakhala" would be out of stock. He remembered the advertsisment from the local daily and recalled those tiny words after an asterisk sign which had warned that guests would be served only on "First Come First Serve Basis". A dismayed Sourav sighed "May be tomorrow."
As both stood gaping at the abstract design of the restaurant's name inscribed on the building, they heard someone whisper "Sir" from their behind and instantaneously turned around. They saw a man, in about his mid fifties, short in stature but stout, with an uncapped pen stacked behind his right ear earnestly looking at both of them. He wore an uniform of white shirt, bow and black trousers. His shirt's collars and cuffs were starched yellow indicating relentless use of it due to lack of choices in his wardrobe. His stubble was in the process of greying and from his disheveled hair it could be discerned that he was past the age where eagerness to appear presentable and smart mattered supremely, unless of course other factors of life dictated otherwise to one. He easily stood out among the staff of his fellow waiters who appeared invariably below thirty years of age and much better suited up to the occasion. He was an oddity in that flashy restaurant. The communist in Sourav was glad that this poor man had not been sacked for being a mismatch in the pristine display of the restaurant. 'Experience surely has some value' Sourav reassured himself. "Yes ?" asked Alok. The man informed both the friends, in a perfected mannerism unique to the workforce in the hospitality business, that he could arrange a seat for them to enjoy their "Pakhala". Sourav instinctively enquired "How do you know that we are here for "Pakhala" ? The man gently replied in a calm tone that he had noticed Alok keenly investigating the banner which displayed the tariffs of dishes served in the "Pakhala Festival". The three of them smiled and Alok expressed his gratitude on both their behalf and thanked the man. He courteously asked him his name and the man said 'Naba'.
They were led by Naba to the table No. 14 as they grinned at each other. It was a table for two at the farthest corner inside the restaurant . The cool air flowing out of the air conditioning machines soothed their crying skins. At the table, Naba pulled one of the chairs and Sourav alighted on it. Sparkling clean water was poured into their glasses for which they thanked Naba. After a brief discussion on the supplementing dishes to be purchased besides their common order, a final list was scribbled down by Naba. He melted away into the crowd, promising to be back within ten minutes. Sourav was marvelling at the ritzy interiors of the restaurant when Alok began to grimace in realization of the fact that they had been lured into a very well laid trap. He went ahead and notified Sourav that he should be now ready to fork out extra cash to return Naba's favour. He did not discount to add his knowledge about rapacious servers in such sprawling eateries, who are on the hunt for unsuspecting foodies, with the sole aim of grossing that 'little extra' in lieu of smartly staged favours. Not happy with such unwarranted cynical expression, Sourav seethed "A modicum of gratitude would do you no harm brother, habit of profiling would." "How do you know that he has 'staged' his help ?', he continued with emphasis. 'Wait and watch' shot back Alok. Sourav chose better than arguing with his friend.
The food arrived in exactly ten minutes. It was indeed very sincere of the restaurant to stick to the printed commitment made by it on every menu card which read "Please bear with us for at least ten minutes to serve you your Order." Now, the restaurant could easily choose to hide behind the term "at least" which had been cleverly placed in the statement. Rather it had chosen to be earnest in its effort or so it seemed. Naba and his colleague placed the small dishes of the assortments surrounding the main attraction. It looked like an arc with the bulgy 'Pakhala' bowl in the middle surrounded by the tiny dishes in a picture perfect style. Alok had already begun devouring his lunch, even before Naba had left to attend other customers, making all kind of sounds which one is not expected to make while eating, least of all, while eating at restaurants. Naba flashed a warm smile at Sourav and said "Sir, I'll be at that corner" pointing at the billing counter, "Just wave if there's anything you need" and walked away. Sourav began with his food. He started to take small pinches from each dish and put them to his tongue, a habit sheltered since his childhood. He smiled approvingly and submerged himself in the delicious depths of "Pakhala". He kept consuming continuously for a considerable stretch without even raising his head. Exhausted with the marathon gulping, he began throwing random glances at adjoining tables and their occupants. All of a sudden he caught a glimpse of Naba, who appeared to be caught in a heated communication with the manager. Sourav immediately waved at him pretending to be in urgent need of his services, with a latent motive to rescue him. Naba came rushing to their table and gasped 'Yes Sir'. Sourav delicately began to inquire about the matter and came to be informed by him that a complain has been made before the Manager that he had been inattentive to requests which had been placed much prior to that of Table No. 14's. Enraged at the blatant display of disregard a couple of customers had decided to walk out but not before formally complaining to the manager. A surprised Sourav immediately verified the truth of the allegations to which Naba confessed that he had indeed ignored their requests in order to accord preference to the servings at table No. 14. It was hard for Sourav to not let perplexity creep into his expression. He gently asked "Why ?". "Better prospects I guess" Alok mumbled mockingly taking time out of mashing the potatoes inside his mouth. When Sourav looked back at Naba after frowning at Alok he had already retired to his usual spot.
Trying to figure out the motives of Naba, Sourav continued eating. Just about the time when they were finished and ready to leave. They heard a commotion outside, in the lounge area. Naba was also not standing at his usual spot. Done quickly with the payment for their lunch, both Alok and Sourav rushed outside. They saw two men clad in flashy attire raining down on Naba and the manager. 'Now what ?', Sourav though to himself and walked forward. He heard one of them yelling "What kind of pathetic restaurant is this, where you don't honour the table reservation made by customers ?..." Alok stole away a staff who was witnessing the stand off and asked him what has happened. He informed Alok and Sourav that Naba had given them the exact table which was reserved for these two gentlemen, who are regulars to this place. Naba was quietly standing there swallowing all the fire. But given the circumstances, the man was not without fault. The manager intervened and said "Sir, please come inside. Your table is now available." indicating that the trespassers had left. As soon as they entered inside the restaurant, Naba joined Sourav and Alok and offered to see them off to their vehicles. As they were crossing the street Sourav was quickly making an assessment of an adequate compensation for all the trouble the poor man had tolerated for accommodating them. Alok continued to nod his head sarcastically.
When they reached near their bike, Sourav forked out two hundred rupee notes and shoved them into Naba's hand hoping he'd not be expecting more. Naba unfolded the crispy notes and put them back into Sourav's shirt pocket, blessed both of them and walked back to earn his livelihood, probably praying that he does not get sacked over the incidents of the day. Sourav stood speechless trying to fathom the last half an hour of his life as Alok put on his helmet and inserted the keys into the ignition slot. At this time, Sourav saw another waiter walking out to unwind as he pulled out a cigarette from his pocket and placed it between his lips. Wasting no time, Sourav rushed to him and after narrating the whole string of events, requested him for an explanation . With a wry smile the waiter spoke "Sahib, Naba has been working here since its inauguration day, sincere and loyal barely complaining about anything. Naba's son came here once to meet him at the restaurant over some urgent matter. I remember seeing him happy after they sat down and discussed whatever it was. He also introduced his son to all of us. His name was Baldev and he was a Junior Engineer, recently employed by the State Govt. He was so proud of his son., it glittered in his eyes. He also treated him, that day, to his favourite dishes. When Baldev took our leave and both of them walked out, we followed them to see him off. He pleaded with his father to return back to his work and promised to take care of himself and started to cross the road." Pausing for a moment the man continued "The next thing we see is that Baldev is crushed to his death by a speeding lorry. The rogue didn't even stop to look back on what he did. Naba's twenty four year old son breathed his last at the spot, right before his eyes. Not a day passes when Naba doesn't regret working at this place. But Sahib, what choice a poor husband has. He has no chance of an alternate employment at his age and his present employment pays for his wife's medical bills.". He paused again, a little longer this time and continued "On that fateful day, Baldev had come to inform his father that the Govt. has approved his loan application for two lakh rupees for his mother's operation." Sourav had no strength left to query about the woman's exact ailment. The waiter's mate summoned him to attend to the swelling crowd of guests inside. He took Sourav's leave and started walking back. Mid way he stopped, turned back and exclaimed softly "Sahib, the whole staff is talking about how similar you look to Baldev, just like his mirror image !!"
Sourav saw two lads mounted on a bike, fly past him, screaming their wits out and the rider driving without holding the handles of the bike. He let his gaze follow them till they became ants caught in the shimmering summer air far away. The last words of the waiter hung in his mind just like the obstinate winter mist of the hills.
("The Waiter's Son" is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person (alive or dead), place or incident is only coincidental.)