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Saturday, May 25, 2019

Fade In, Fade Out...!—Part-3

The eatery seemed to me as an Italian food joint with largely fast food items most of which were not even known to me. People were crowding, leaning and craning over the counter for buying order coupons since it was a self-service restaurant. However, to my surprise, there was hardly any noise, an eerie silence prevailed. Surprisingly too, members of the student community were missing conspicuously. Of course, I could never be sure about differentiating a young man from a student, it was only subjective. For my comfort, if it did matter, most of the customers were young.

As I approached the counter for a look-in at the items available the nagging thought came to me again; since checking in I didn’t call my even once wife informing her of my whereabouts, even though I wanted to tell her first thing after arrival; but somehow, I never cared to take up the mobile and dial her number. Let me order the food first and then I’ll call her, I assured myself again.

I looked for the menu, but there was none; only names of some dishes were scribbled on the black board behind the counter. I squeezed my eyes to focus on the items, but could not read properly, and the real problem was I was not at all sure what ingredients those dishes were made of. I looked here and there for some kind of help and guidance. My eyes riveted on a small boy, in early teens, standing in front of a table in the eating area beckoning to me to come to him. I found him too young for a waiter, and immediately warned myself that he could be part of a racket to fleece vulnerable customers. So I decided to ignore him, and pushed my way through to the man behind the counter.

I asked him for a menu card or to tell me about the ingredients used in making various items on display. He looked at me a bit oddly, called someone from the backside, and instructed me to follow the man for the advisory. The man was tall and had an athletic build with bulging biceps and chest muscles threatening to tear through the light T-shirt he wore. He sized me up haughtily and ordered me to follow him. Is he going to take me to the kitchen, I wondered.

I followed him obediently as he walked by the side of the restaurant that led to a wooden staircase. He climbed briskly up the stairs and I had trouble keeping track of him as lots of people were either going up or coming down the stairs, I failed to understand why. We arrived at a broad spacious wooden platform crowded with people scattered here and there. I froze as I managed to take a closer look.

Most of the people there were physically deformed or poor beggars or both. I guessed some of them could be leprosy affected too. They were lying on the floor in helpless sprawls making odd noises. Some of them were moaning, some crying and some shrieking out in agony, ‘Help us...help us...help us...!’ Some other able-bodied guys were trudging through the fleshy spread of human bodies, examining them, taking photos...but making no effort to help them in any way.

My moment of the paralysing shock cost me dearly. I lost track of the muscular guy. He seemed to have vanished into thin air. How is it possible, how a bulky bodybuilder like him can vanish like that, I had a sense of panic rising within me. There was no exit from the platform on the other side as there were brick walls around with a few wooden windows strewn here and there, mostly closed; any visitor must use the staircase for departing too. Now, the disfigured, the agonized and the helpless bodies on the floor suddenly became aware of me standing there uncertainly, and their noises began to be directed at me. I shook myself out of the paralysis, and started looking for a quick escape.

Luckily, I did not lose my way and the staircase was still there. I almost ran towards it and plummeted down the steps like a cursed shooting star. An overwhelming sense of relief flooded my whole self as I arrived back at the front side of the restaurant.

With relief the hunger pangs returned too. As I contemplated my next move I noticed a person, dressed in a civilized manner and bespectacled, taking a lot of interest in me and was coming towards me. I took him for a professor of the institution, and was not at all averse to meeting him.  In fact, I thought, a local professor could be a very good guide for me. I waited for him to join me.
He was lean and of medium height; smiling eyes behind the glasses and black curly hair. He said to me immediately,
“Hello, you seem to be a stranger in this part of the globe, I suppose! I’m Akhter, a businessman from Mumbai.”
So he was not a local professor and an equal stranger like me, I thought dully. I said to him loud,
“Well, not exactly. I visited this place earlier, but this time I’m finding it a little strange. Anyway, I’m Hridayesh from Kolkata. Nice meeting you!” We shook hands.
“You look a bit ruffled up, are you in some sort of trouble?” he asked. “I know this place well. Tell me, I can help you out.”

I told him about my predicament finding a supper. He took me to a nearby shop, bought cigarettes, lighted his and offered me one. I politely refused. He relaxed, making me relax too. We continued our conversation, but I lost track of the thread apart from the fact that he promised to take me to a good food joint. After finishing his fag he asked me to come with him. We hit the main road and walked in the direction which I thought took us farther away from the guest house. This time I felt confident of finally quashing my hunger protests. A few yards on the main road we turned right towards a lane, at the end of the lane I could see an illuminated restaurant. His steps became quicker as I followed him in.

The one-storied longish block housed a store on our right and a restaurant cum bar on the other. The kitchen was most probably located behind the store, because I saw several waiters coming out with loaded trays and some going in perhaps for more food orders. My friend seemed to have locked his eyes with big-bellied elderly manager at the cash counter which served both the bar and the store. Suddenly, Akhter began shaking in excitement.
“This is a decent place, have your drinks and food in comfort,” he said to me. “I must go now. Sorry not to be with you. Because I must have a one-night-stand with my packets...” and with these strange words he vanished behind the store...

                                                                  (To Be Continued...)

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