9 September 2011

Red and Blue

A woman in a blue sari entered warily and heavily - this was her first time at the Bar. Rukmini sensed the unease from behind the counter and loudly welcomed her.

“Hello Ma'am, If you are alone why don't you sit by the bar?” Rukmini's voice echoed through the filtered light.

Blue looked up, smiled, picked up her pace and adjusted herself on the tall stool by the bar counter. She appeared to be in her mid-forties, with all the trappings of marriage - thali, bangles, gold watch, and matching blouse. Being used to surrounded by family or friends or maids, it was unsettling for her to be alone and that too, at a bar. She tried to loop her titantic handbag on the stool but its weight unsettled the balance of the stool, so she let it hit the floor like a brick. The handbag was more of an accessory for utility rather than style. Although her children were older she had not yet stopped stuffing it with things they might suddenly need.

She looked nervous, so Rukmini leaned forward and sincerely said, “How can I help you? If this is your first time, let me assure you as the proprietor that your privacy is respected here. You can have a drink or a lime soda. Just make yourself comfortable and relax.” and then softly she added, “This bar is a place that allows you to be alone yet surrounded by people.”

Blue looked her in the eye and whispered “Thanks ma. Can I have a whisky on the rocks?”

Rukmini had learned early in the business not to judge people by what they wear and what they drink. It rarely followed a pattern and in any case, clients found it patronizing when she tried to guess their favourites. Now she either let the menu card or the client decide. Without a trace of judgement she asked, “Would you like domestic or foreign? If you like single malts I recently got 16 year aged whisky?”

Blue was certain. “Single malt sounds very good. I want lots of ice”.

Rukmini fixed her the drink, and asked Thangai to bring over some bit size potato samosas. Blue took a long sip, sat back and closed her eyes. Rukmini felt some sadness radiating from her. A story would unfold; she must wait.

Across, in the horizon of the bar there now appeared a new client. From afar she looked like a college student and for a moment Rukmini wondered if Swami had checked her age before letting her in. But as she walked closer, she observed the slim hands give way to folds under her arms and birds feet at her eyes. She wore a red sleeveless dress, red heels and looked stunning. Rukmini did not recognize her as a regular.

“Hi”, gushed Red, “I have heard so much about this place and wanted to try it out.” She smiled from ear to ear and planted herself firmly on the bar stool. Not wanting personal prejudice to overtake her business interests Rukmini let the two ends of her mouth twitch upwards about a fraction of a centimetre, let her eyes twinkle a bit, and jauntily said, “Welcome then. How would you like to start the evening?” Red asked for a cosmopolitan. No surprises there.

Red watched Rukmini closely as she made the drink and gave her an appreciative nod when she took her first sip. Rukmini was wary.

She slipped closer to Blue and asked her if she wanted another drink. Blue nodded and Rukmini this time served out two portions. The second she took and sat down by Blue.

They didn't say anything for while, till Blue asked, “Is this place only for women because you hate men?” Rukmini got asked this often and she searched in her head for the stock answer for the married types. “No, my husband cheated on me and I felt very lonely during that time. I didn't want to drink at home in front of the children and I didn't have any other respectable place to drink in private. So when my husband died I opened this place so that I could provide a space for broken-hearted women.” Yes, Rukmini lied when she wanted to hear a story.

Blue took the bait. She looked around her, assured that no one was within earshot and began. She was 47. Despite objections, she married for love. They had been married for 25 years now and had two teenage children. For the past year things had become unsettled. Her husband took more business trips alone, stopped making love to her and she noticed that he purchased jewellery that was gifted to no one in the family. She confronted him; he accepted it. She asked him to end it; he said that he couldn't stop. She asked for a divorce; he said he would fight to get custody of the children and she being unemployed, he stood a better chance of winning. She asked him what she should do; he asked to be left alone. Rukmini had heard this story many times, she squeezed Blue's hand and asked her if she wanted a third drink. Blue agreed.

While Blue was talking, Rukmini was watching Red from the corner of her eye. She was on the phone, having a soft but aggressive discussion with someone. When Rukmini got up to prepare Blue's drink, Red summoned her. She acknowledged the summon, took her time to prepare two drinks and served Blue. She waited till Red finished her conversation before walking over.

“That was the best Cosmo I had”, beamed Red, a hint of ruby now visible across her fair cheeks. “Can I have another?” Rukmini obliged and while she was serving the drink, Red asked her, “The d├ęcor is beautiful here. Did you design it yourself?” Rukmini decided that it was time to indulge. “No” she said flatly, “my boyfriend is an architect and he gave structure to my emotions.”

“I wish my boyfriend was this creative. He only knows all the standard things - dinner dates, movies, vacations and buying me expensive things. He's good in bed though but still when will men understand that we need more than all that? Who will feed the soul?” Red winked and looked to Rukmini for a response.

Rukmini stifled a grimace and asked sweetly, “What does your boyfriend do?”

This was the opening Red was waiting for. Raj, as the boyfriend was alluded to, was the CEO of a software company. He had started it from scratch, right after completing his engineering. It was now one of the top 5 tech companies in the country. They met at a mutual friend's house. He was a shy man so it was she who first approached him. They chatted desultorily for a while, till she suggested that the party was the drag and if wanted to go somewhere private. That time, the only she could get him to agree to was a walk on the beach. That was a year ago, and today they are inseparable. Well, as inseparable as other responsibilities in life would allow. She has rolled her eyes upwards at this point. They vacationed often together and had just returned from Bali. She was trying to convince him that the relationship had potential for the long term. He has disengaged from this discussion and here she was.

Rukmini decided to be mean. “Yes, it is hard to be on the same page sometimes, isn't it. My boyfriend and I went through a similar process, but we are getting married now. We are planning to honeymoon in Bali. Is it nice this time of the year?”

Red pouted for a short second and then exclaimed loudly, “Congratulations! When are you getting married? How long have you been seeing each other?” She bluntly left aside answering about Bali.

“For 3 years. We were both undecided about marriage as an institution but after a while it just made sense. He proposed six months ago and we are getting married next month.”

Red slumped on the bar counter, her face in her hands, “You are so lucky. My boyfriend loves me a lot but he just doesn't mutter the m word.” Rukmini nodded sagely before indicating that she had other customers to go back too.

At the other end Blue was sitting up straight despite the three drinks. When Rukmini had brought the fourth she asked Blue how she was getting home. A driver with car waited outside for her. Then without preface, she became blunt with Blue, “So what's the plan?”. Blue looked hopeless and tired before saying, “I want to meet the woman. Maybe she and I could come to an understanding? After all he is using her as much as me. Why should he have everything? I think that if I talk to this woman face to face, heart to heart, we will be able to sort this out.” Rukmini did not offer advice unless explicitly asked of her; keeping with this policy she only acknowledged the plan.

Blue drained her drink. She asked for the total. She didn't have cash so would a card do? “Yes”, said Rukmini, “A card would do”. She took the card from Blue and walked to the till. Red too wanted to settle her bill. She had cash. So Rukmini settled with Red first and then went to swipe Blue's card.

In the brighter light of the till she saw the name on the card: Bharathi Nataraj. It was a company card and imprinted below was the company name: Raj Technologies Pvt Ltd.

After Blue signed the bill, Rukmini watched as she gathered her belongings and walked toward the exit. Red followed her. For a brief moment their eyes met, they checked each other out, smiled perfunctorily and exited together.

As Rukmini shuttered down for the night, she thought about Red and Blue, and what could have been. All in a night's work at a bar called Shantam Pappum.

4 September 2011

A bar called Shantam Pappum - Short Story

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Rukmini saw the red brake lights in the distance and scowled. Nothing seemed to be moving on the road ahead. She came to a grudging halt, placed her hands impatiently on the steering wheel, observed her nails and then cursed. If traffic was held up this far away from the intersection it only meant that an accident had happened, and a drama with all involved must have ensued. She only hoped that the accident did not involve the summons of an ambulance or a tow truck because then, she might as well hop over to the beauty parlour on the side and get her nails done. The vermin like two wheelers were still moving; trying to occupy every available lacunae between cars. It incensed her even more. She was going to be late and she didn't like it. The bar would have to open later than usual.
Luckily her ire was short-lived. Shortly after she had exhaustively tested every available frequency on the FM radio for decent music or news, hand brakes were released, ignitions turned on and traffic started to snake ahead. Indeed, it was an accident that held up things. A tomato truck had over turned and created quite the scene; “One bloody Mary” would probably have been Murugan's quip at this point.
Ah, Murugan. Rukmini was not a wistful woman so she didn't prolong the sigh of thought that threatened to slip into a vortex of nostalgia. Murugan was her husband, now dead.
At 20, mid-year through college, Rukmini decided that she didn't want to follow the preordained path that defined women in her family - marriage, children and death. How this came about remains a mystery to her and everyone around her. In her orthodox Brahmin home she quietly but steadily rebelled, with the winning play of marrying Murugan: college union leader, 2nd Class BA graduate and out of caste. Doom. That's what her family foretold. Rukmini on the other hand saw opportunity and at that time, love. Murugan and she set up a small home separately, ostracised by both families, but content in their own company. Three years of marriage flowed past, but before Rukmini could identify the monotony, Murugan was run over by a truck.
Her family rallied around on their own terms: not abandoning their “I told you” stand yet insistent that she should now come back to the fold. Surely a older brahmin man, perhaps divorced but with children could use her? Murugan had left Rukmini some money and more importantly, confidence and self-esteem. She decided that she would celebrate Murugan's memory by setting up a bar since he liked drinks and he liked people. And that is how, the bar was born. The name too was important to her. While with her family, many people stopped in to pay condolences but actually to pass judgment and pity. The older ladies would tut-tut when her mother recanted the story of Murugan, the elopement and subsequent death. When informed that Rukmini intended to start a bar, they would touch both sides of their cheek and exclaim, “Shantam pappum”.
Rukmini started her business with gusto. She bought a small place, decorated it modestly, invested in music and to create a niche, decided that her bar would be for women exclusively and serve vegetarian food only. At first it was slow and hard to break even. But as word spread about her service, the privacy afforded and the piping hot vadas, clients became regular and she started to do well. The bar kept her happy, occupied and focused. Not in the least because she always had stories to tell and stories to listen to.
As predicted, Rukmini was late opening the bar that evening. Couple of clients and her staff were already at the door. They greeted her with warm smiles as she unlocked the premises and turned on the warm lights. Music started to filter through, a string quartet she enjoyed and Thangan had begun to heat up the oil for the vadas. It was Thursday so she didn't expect a crowd. She settled herself behind the bar and watched life unfold around her.
NB: N and I were driving to a restaurant in Hyd and lamenting that our destination probably would not serve alcohol since it was "Pure Veg". Why is that this combination is so prevalent? Are drinking and being vegetarian of equivalent "moral" value in our society? If one were to look at it biochemically alcoholic drinks for the most part are pure veg. Think of the ingredients of beer: Hops (flowers), malt (fermented barley), yeast and more barley. Yet killing another being and drinking an alcoholic beverage in the restaurant business is equivalent sin! Go figure.