Heartbreak Hotel: How little conversation over coffee and idlis in a small cafe touches our lives

In an increasingly isolated world, the humble Udupi restaurant stands as an island of diversity, harmony and tolerance.

Written by Zainab Sulaiman | Updated: November 27, 2016 7:08 pm
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The young couple sits opposite me; both are thin and wear a cowed-down look, one that is born out of an intimacy with poverty and hardship. I try to smile at them, but only the man meets my eye, and, with a fleeting half-smile half-grimace, quickly looks away. The woman stares down at the shiny steel table, waiting for the waiter to approach.

I use my position of old — rather painful — regular, who insists on “three cups of sambar and no chutney please”, and motion to the waiter to come over. The waiters all wear white lungis and smart white and red-tipped tunics with a shawl thrown over their left shoulder in a nod to their historical past — they were among the first Udupi restaurants in Fraser Town in Bangalore and have served the locals for more than 30 years now. He comes over and takes their order. The woman shakes her head at all the man’s suggestions and, finally, he gives up and orders a plate of idlis and two coffees.

The man looks at me shyly and I give him a reassuring smile; I like making friends with strangers, exchanging fragments of my life with theirs, passing ships that may never cross paths again, perfect in some ways, because, in anonymity, there is freedom, security, release.

“Is she ok?” I ask in broken Kannada.

“No,” he answers in Tamil, shaking his head.

“What happened?”

He pauses. She looks up now and looks at him.

“Our baby died,” he says, and she nods and looks across the room at the waiters yelling their orders in the direction of the kitchen: “Two masala dosa!” “One kesari bhat!” “Three cups of coffee!”

I’m horrified, and it’s apparent.

“Only six months,” the father continues, and the mother looks at me and then down at the table again, a restless gaze that searches for a gurgling, smiling, squealing thing that filled her arms a while ago, arms that now ache with emptiness and longing.

“I’m so sorry…” the food is tasteless in my mouth. “How?”

He explains something about an illness and how they tried very hard to save him, but that he died anyway.

“Only child?” I’m instantly horrified at what I’ve asked, but it’s too late to take it back.

But they both look at me now and nod; yes, he was their first-born.

The waiter arrives with the idlis and coffees and the man coaxes his wife to eat. She pushes the plate away after the third bite.

“It’s too sweet,” he explains to me apologetically; they are from a village in Tamil Nadu and their sambar has no sugar in it.

Over coffee, he tells me he’s brought her to the city to spend a few days with their relatives who live here; a change of atmosphere might do her good, he hopes. She tries to smile at him, but the attempt fails and she looks away again, her eyes blindly roving the room.

I’m oddly comforted by the thought that they have taken time to recover, to heal, to find the strength to go on. Often, life does not allow many such privileges. We sip our coffees in silence and occasionally one of them sighs.

The room resounds with the usual cacophony of humanity rubbing shoulders against each other — from tempo drivers to young IT professionals, their dog tags dangling from their necks even at 8.30 in the morning. A gaggle of middle-aged women in mismatched T-shirts and bottoms, hungry after their morning walk around the park where more talking than walking has happened, sit a few tables away; and a sprightly 80-year old is instructing the waiter to parcel hot idlis and crunchy vadas for his grandchildren. At the entrance, the local gang of municipal cleaners wrap up a morning’s work over tumblers of “by-two” coffees and a couple on their way to work, helmets in hand, steal a moment before they get lost in the whirlwind of the day. On my left, a father scolds his eight-year-old son, radiant in a Nirma-white uniform, to eat one last bite of the sunlit kesari bhat and stop fooling around with the raisins that are buried deep inside, which the boy is trying so hard to excavate.

In a world that seems to be falling increasingly short of empathy, the humble Udupi restaurants seem to be the last few spaces where one can rub shoulders with the “other”; they remain islands of diversity, harmony and tolerance that are all but lost in the Indian landscape today. The public park might still be one such space, one might argue, but its charm is rapidly declining as the middle class aspires to hang out in malls built for the rich and super rich.

So, is this why I come here, to be a voyeur, to eavesdrop on the lives of people I would otherwise never meet? Or is it a fundamental need to connect with people who are different from us, those who allow us a glimpse into their worlds, and, thereby, enrich us forever? Maybe, this is why the truly great pilgrimages are about reaching God, but only alongside other human beings, who, for a few precious days, hours or minutes, are all equal.

My bill arrives first and I put an extra twenty bucks in to pay their tab. They are embarrassed — she shakes her head and says it’s not required; but I insist; it’s not a big amount.

“Ok…all the best.” I’m struggling for words.

“Thank you,” they whisper and we nod at each other.

I walk back home, the sharp morning sun in my eyes, and my heart pours over: “Please, God, let them have another child, please.”

And just like that, over a plate of Rs 20 idlis and two filter coffees, they have one more person in this broken world that feels their pain.

 

Zainab Sulaiman is a special educator, who now leads HR at a sports company in Bangalore. Simply Nanju is her debut children’s book.