June 4, 2015
Mukta read without full stops. She didn’t realise that it was half past eight until the door bell rang. It was Gaurav. "Khaanaa andar rakha hai," (The food is in the kitchen) she said, not taking her eyes off the page. "Tumne khaa liya?" (Did you eat?) he asked, smiling. Gaurav loved Mukta’s pronunciations; she spoke like a true blue Delhiite. Mukta also knew German and Turkish; she had a flare for languages. "What are you so engrossed in?" asked Gaurav. "It’s just a book, Gaurav. Let me read," replied Mukta, impatiently. Gaurav left her to herself. He knew her too well; Mukta hated anyone talking to her when she was reading or trying to sleep.
After a quick shower and dinner, Gaurav sat next to his wife. She was lying down on the couch with her feet in his lap. He massaged her feet, mechanically flipping through the channels but nothing caught his interest. At around 11.45pm he decided to call it a day.
"Good night," said Mukta as she fanned the pages of her new novel with her thumb – she had devoured more than half of the book. It was interesting because Neville was always up to something. She had discovered so much about him, right from his love for books and his favourite foods to his belief in humanity and that he went to church every Wednesday and Friday. Though, she sensed there was more to him, and was excited and curious to find out. She was tired but just one more chapter wouldn’t hurt, now, would it? She rubbed her eyes, adjusted the cushion beneath her head, for comfort, and opened the book again.
It was pouring heavily; Neville could hear the rain beating against the windows. It had been yet another long day at work. He sipped on his Scotch as he watched the cars on the road splashing across puddles, honking, with their wipers on full-speed. "Bar bandh ho raha hai, aur kuch chahiye?" (The bar is shutting down, would you like to order anything else?) enquired the waiter. Neville nodded in the negative, his gaze still fixed outside.
Neville smiled at himself. Finally, there was someone who understood him, struck a chord with him. He wondered how she’d be if he met her in person. He knew she was married, but it didn’t matter. After all, he was only looking for platonic friendship, someone to enjoy life’s pleasures and adventures with; it felt anything but wrong.
Neville liked how she loved books just as he did. He admired how she thought humanity was above everything and possibly all that mattered – something he believed in, strongly, as well. He took another sip of his Scotch and a sudden warmth spread through his chest, a contrast to the weather outside. Swirling the glass’s golden contents, listening to the ice cubes clinking against each other, he contemplated asking her to join him for a cup of coffee at Coffee Castle. She didn’t live too far away and he vaguely knew her schedule, she had the mornings to herself. The café didn’t get crowded until around 11am and so he’d have a good two hours from the time it opened to when the first customer walked in. The waiter placed the bill on the table, and cleared the glass and bowls of peanuts and cheeselings. Leaving a 100 rupee tip, Neville headed out of the bar to light another cigarette.
The streets were empty except for an occasional taxi that drove by and a couple of stray dogs barking into the silence. It had stopped raining but the cold breeze made Neville grit his teeth. He paced up in a futile attempt to fight the chilly weather. He had only taken a few steps when something – must have been a stone – rolled under his right foot and he slipped and fell in a puddle of water.
Mukta jolted forward and hit her right foot against the glass table next to the couch. She had woken up with a start and her head hurt; almost like someone had sliced it open. She kicked the book as she stood up to go to the bedroom. It must have fallen from her hands when she dozed off reading that last chapter.
In the kitchen, Gaurav had left her a note on the fridge: "Saved you half my bread and butter sandwich. Love you." She smiled through a yawn, still confused about what was happening, when the door bell rang.
"Aa rahi hoon," (I’m coming) she hollered as the door bell rang incessantly. She wondered if it was the paper wala (man who delivered the news paper) but then he never showed up until the end of the month when he collected his dues. "Ji madam, aaj paani aur light ka connection aath baje se leke teen baje tak bandh rahega." (Madam, there will be no water and electricity from eight to three today); it was the watchman. Mukta lived in a residential colony with around five to six houses within close proximity of each other.
She glanced at the clock; it was half past seven. After a quick shower, she prayed and cooked a simple rasam-saadham meal (a tomato-based broth and rice meal, a South Indian staple). Gaurav would have to do without his rotis today because Mukta wanted to get out of the house. What would she do without any water or electricity? She decided to head to a coffee shop and read her book. That’s when she recalled reading something about a coffee shop the previous day. She got into the first pair of jeans she could find, pulled over a white kurta (Indian top) – it was Gaurav’s but then she didn’t have the patience to change into another one – picked her purse, grabbed the book and left.
When the cab driver asked her where she wanted to go, Mukta asked him to follow her directions. She hadn’t really decided on a destination. Out of the blue, Sector 14 popped into her head. She’d seen quite a few interesting food joints punctuating the side streets there. Moreover, The Bookcase was there too; maybe she could stop by to pick another book if she finished this one.
The roads were empty; India was playing Australia in the World Cup semi finals and many had stayed back home to watch the match. Mukta thought about Gaurav – he was a workaholic and nothing in the world could keep him away from his desk. Besides, he wasn’t much of a cricket fan; Gaurav loved motorsports. Mukta recalled how he’d gone out of his way to arrange for tickets to Buddh International Circuit’s debut race in October 2011.
Mukta walked by the many food carts and small-time snack shops at Sector 14. The aroma of freshly plated street food assailed the senses of the passers-by and Mukta was no exception – she loved chaat! It was tangy and spicy, quite different from the South Indian street food she’d grown up eating. The golguppa (a type of tangy, spicy Indian street food/snack) wala had just beckoned to her when a shop across the road caught her eye. Mukta froze. She read the shop’s name again to make sure her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her. There, in broad day light, stood Coffee Castle. Mukta hurriedly crossed the road and walked up to the café. She read the ‘Open’ sign hung on the door as she entered. The café was empty. Mukta looked at her watch - it was exactly nine.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, resting her head against the pillar. It had to be a coincidence! How could Coffee Castle exist? But then again, her novel was the work of a contemporary Delhiite author, and using real life people and places wasn’t uncommon with modern fiction writers. Though Mukta convinced herself with logic, she felt queasy. She was just about to reach out for the novel in her bag when she noticed someone moving behind the counter.
A tall, slim man was working on an Espresso. He wore a red cap and black t-shirt. Could this be a dream? A baritone "Hello, ma’am!" brought her out of her reverie. She turned around to find a barista boy, no more than 29, flashing one of the most electrifying smiles ever. She noticed his black trousers and black apron with red borders, just like it had been in the novel. "Can I get you something?" he asked. Mukta could barely talk. "You must be?" she enquired. "I’m the owner of Coffee Castle. I am also the waiter," he said, yet again flashing his heart-warming, boyish smile. "You look really disturbed and flushed," he added. "Why don’t I get you a coffee and we talk for a while?"
Mukta was sweating despite the air conditioning. She rolled her hair into a bun. "Here you go," he said handing her a tall mug of freshly brewed coffee. "Thanks. I didn’t know you’re the owner. Is the café new?"
"No, we’ve been around for a while. And yeah, I haven’t told anyone I’m the owner; most customers think I work here."
"Then why did you tell me?" asked Mukta, surprised. "You asked," he said, simply. Mukta took a sip of her coffee; it warmed her up, making her feel more relaxed. "What happened to your hand?" she asked, noticing it was wrapped in white bandage. "Oh, I fell down a few days ago. I was a little tipsy and tripped over a stone." Mukta recalled reading that bit in the book. She also recalled that Neville was about to meet a lady friend at the café. Could it be that she was that lady friend?
"You don’t look like a Northie."
"Northie! That’s politically incorrect," she taunted, jokingly, "I’m from Tanjore. My husband is a Delhiite."
"Oh, so you’re married; interesting! I’m a Delhi boy; been here all my life."
"Do you have your parents or family here?" Mukta asked. She had read about Neville being an orphan and was hoping to find out more. He simply looked away and smiled, reaching out for the pack of cigarettes in his pocket. Mukta’s heart was racing. She noticed how stressed he looked as he puffed on his cigarette. Immediately, she regretted questioning him about his family. How could have she be so insensitive! After all, she knew Neville was an orphan. "Do you sing?" she asked, trying to change the topic.
"Yeah, I do! I play for the church choir every Wednesday and Friday."
"Oh! So, you’re religious."
"Nah! Just spiritual. Those are the only two days I go to church. Do you want to sing?"
"Yeah! Why not?" He looked at his wrist; it was 10.45am. "There are fifteen more minutes before guests start walking in," he said and dashed to the counter. A second later he was walking towards her with his guitar. "It’s something I made up for the kids in church."
I was walking along a long dusty path
And I passed by a workshop one day.
In it was a tall, dark and handsome young man
With black hair and a few strands of grey.
I had to stop by and check out His work
So I walked in and asked Him what it might be.
Strangely, He looked up as soon as I'd asked
And gently He smiled at me.
His nail, I saw, was in a crimson pool
Yet He hammered away without a frown.
After what seemed like ages, He was done with His job
"'It's finished’," He said and sat down.
I took His hands in mine, while tears filled my eyes
For I couldn't believe what He'd done for me;
He'd carved my name on His soft tender palms
And He'd done all of it for free.
"I'm a carpenter boy," He said with so much love
And my masterpiece is you,
For the world you may be just another work of art
But for me you're too good to be true.
Mukta smiled. She really liked him. Finally, she had found the friend she had been longing for. Time seemed to fly by in his company. Mukta was glad she’d picked up the novel at The Bookcase. If she hadn’t, she probably would’ve never found Neville.
"You sing very well! By the way, I’m Mukta!" she said putting out her hand. She couldn’t wait to surprise him by telling him she knew his name. "And you must be Ne…" The café door swung open, cutting her sentence midway. "Am I late?" asked the young lady at the door. "Not at all," he answered. "Come in." She was wearing a sky blue skirt and white tank top. A lemon yellow stole was wrapped around her neck and she walked towards him, smiling. Mukta kept staring at them in confusion. She had been sure that she (Mukta) was his lady friend. The book couldn’t lie, could it? Was she reading too much into this? Though her heart sank, Mukta managed to smile. "Meet my new friend Cheryl," he said.
"Hi, Cheryl! How are you?"
"Hey! I’m good, and you?"
"Give me a while…what’s your name again? Ah! Mukta. Give me a while, Mukta and I’ll be back," he said.
"Sure, take your time."
Mukta watched them walk towards the table at other end of the café. She couldn’t believe she had been so naive as to believe some silly co incidence; she was so upset with herself. Irritated by her own stupidity, she picked up her bag, ready to leave. "Are you leaving?" he asked.
"Yeah! Got to get home," she said, trying harder to smile and look normal.
"Alright then; it was nice meeting you, Mukta. Hope you’re feeling better now. See you around soon," he said, flashing the same old, charming smile. "And by the way, I’m Neville, Neville D’Costa."
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