… and it won First Prize! At the Bru Short Story Contest at Ogilvy & Mather.

THE REGULAR

Mr. Das craned his head to the right, squinted to get a peek of the clock at the far end of this small but awkwardly long and narrow café. He looked down at this fairly large cup of frothy cappuccino and smiled. It was a pretty cup indeed, with an inked drawing of the Victoria Terminus circa 1945. Parts of the cup were faded, but that he thought was thebeauty of it, making the portions still visible, more precious.He glanced at the wooden shelf behind the counter where five others, a part of Café Rustomjee’s vintage collection lay neatly stacked.

11-12-13-14  Mr. Das murmured as he stirred his coffee. Tapped the spoon twice on the rim, before placing it meticulously on the edge of the oak counter. 

Old Rustom raised his eyebrows, adjusted his suspendersand beret. He was at his usual spot across the counter. He looked at Mr. Das and nodded in acknowledgement, as if he had been expecting him.

Mr. Das took a sip of his hot coffee and looked around the café. It was unusually crowded for a weekday afternoon. He wasn’t used to the cacophony and the bustle that messed his thoughts.

He looked up at Rustom What’s it today Rusty, a holiday?’

ahaan, last day of exams Mr. Das. These noisy rich kidsand a lot of money…’ Rustom nodded his head, clearly not pleased when a delighted plump lady walked in through the side door, carrying a tray of freshly baked honey cakes.

Arrey wah, Mrs Rustom, but I have never seen youhappier ’ Mr. Das exclaimed.

Lot of business, lot of action…’ Rustom winked giving her a tiny peck on the cheek. As if he had just remembered something, he reached out to a little bottle of brown powder from the counter and pulled the cup of coffee from Mr. Das. May I add a sprinkle of cinnamon? Freshly ground by the missus. Heaven, Mr. Das…just plain heaven!

Mr. Das shifted uneasily in his seat and pulled back the cup swiftly towards himRusty, don’t ruin my coffee

Mrs. Rustom frownedRustom was clearly offended. ‘Threeyears, fifteen days. Mr. Das, I have kept count…

Mr. Das gave Rustom a curious stare. ‘What..?!’ But Rustom barely acknowledged and continued. He didn’t like the place this conversation was heading, but Mr. Das was helpless.

‘…..Three years fifteen days. Sharp five o’ clock. Never missed a day. You have sat here with the same damn cappuccino, three spoons sugar’ Rustom grumbled.

Sorry baba, I just don’t like cinnamon. No offence to the missus. What’s all this got to do with anything? Mr. Dastried his best to look calm, nonchalant.

But Rustom continued ‘14 times! You stir your coffee fourteen times clockwise, before placing the spoon in the same position, precisely an inch from the edge of the counter.

Mr. Das looked startled. Arey..what are you…’

Don’t think I haven’t been watching you’, Rustomcontinued accusing, ‘and I haven’t finished yet. A minute later you drop the spoon. Pick it up and wipe it with thatstriped handkerchief in your left side pocket.’ he pointed accusingly.

Mr. Das was stunned. He didn’t know that Rustom’s keen grey eyes were watching his every move. For three years!He felt a light chill, goose bumps, vulnerable all of a sudden.But that wasn’t all of it either.

I see you read that book everyday Mr. Das. RoaldDahl eh?, Rustom pointed at the hardback peeping out of Mr. Das’s leather satchel.

And, you read the same page. 213. Over and over again,1110 times by now. Thirty minutes past five, precisely, Mr. Das, you shut the book. You stare at the picture for exactly a minute and a half before you put in back in your bag. Not a second more. Like clockwork!’

Mr. Das couldn’t believe somebody did notice that. He wanted to say something to say in his defense, but the words weren’t coming out.

Rustom ranted onI have watched you do this in this precise order the past three years. Nevermissing a day!Never missing a step. There’s something more. Tell me now!

He looked at Mr. Das with irate yet curious eyes. He had that look of anticipation, like a prosecutor who had delivered an argument of his life, and rested his case, waiting for a response from the defense.

Mr. Das didn’t know what to say. After all anyone in Rustom’s place would think of his behavior as odd. Rather looney. He took a sip. Adjusted his glasses, rubbed his index finger over his brow. Do you remember Rusty, the times you wore that ridiculous red and yellow striped shirt every time there was an India- Pakistan match? You called it ‘the lucky stripe?

Rustom retorted; ‘Bah lucky, yeah that silly thing… haan,but at times it did work you know… hey don’t you change the subject mister!

Mr. Das, taking another sip, Oh forget it, I knew you wouldn’t get it

Rustom frustrated…Get what?

Mr. Das continued, ‘Sometimes Rusty, we just want things to be the way they were. You wear the ridiculous red shirt, because you want today to be just like the other dayAnd, we believe it works.

Rustom looked lost. Mr. Das looked outside the window. It was cloudy. Skies were grey. The air smelled of fresh mud. The music on the radio played an old familiar tune. Mr. Dastook another sip from his cup.

‘Rusty, I first walked into your café on the 20th of December 2008 at five in the evening.  There was Christmas tree in that corner, laced with fairy lights, and those happy kids enjoying their hot cups of chocolate… Mr. Das looked down, ‘… but it was a sad sad day. 

Sad??..why??’ Rustom enquired.

I had marched out of the hospital upset, it was the day I knew Rosie was going to leave me forever.’

Rustom interrupted ‘Rosie? Your wife?

Mr. Das continued.. The cancer was eating her, little by little. The doctors had done all they couldHer condition had worsened that morning. I was sitting right there, helpless, angry, desperate clenching her limp fingers, bony and frail. And I choked. I had to get out of there. I needed some air, a smoke. And coffee.

Rustom placed his hand over Mr. Das’s trembling fingers‘I’m sorry for your loss I didn’t know….

Mr. Das interrupted no Rusty, let me finish. That’s when I came into your cafe, and ordered a coffee. Read my book. At five thirty, I walked back to the hospitalbackto her ward. And there she was, smiling. She was smiling! She could recognize me! She was hungry; she wanted misthi dohi! For the first time in weeks she felt hungry.

Rustom heaved a sigh of relief what had happened? What did the doctors say?’

A Christmas miracle…that’s what they all said. Her condition miraculously improved within that one hour. They told me not to get too excited; maybe it was just atemporary condition.  But then, I HAD to get excited, for her, for hope was all I had he looked up, towards the brightly lit tree in the corner.

Rustom smiled…. I never believed in miracles, but this….’

Mr. Das continued, now taking out a book out of his satchel. ‘The next day, I thought I should come to your cafeagain; maybe it was my lucky place! After all, my wife did come back to life while I was here. I must have done SOMETHING RIGHT in here. Or was it the cappuccino that was lucky? I tried to recollect everything ‘right’ I had done the previous day, and wanted to do just that the next day, and the day after that. 

Rustom looked puzzled‘You mean to say, it can’t be….’

Interrupted by Mr. Das. ‘I created a routine, and I keep to that as closely as possible. Because I believe that a part of Rosie’s fate was linked to the actions I performed that day. For the next one week I started to bring in the same bookread her same story, the one from a collection of ‘Short stories by Roald Dahl’.  Page number 213. She loved that story. I was reading it in your café that evening as well.’

Rustom nodded his head in disbelief, looking at the book. And you’re still reading it today! My friend.’ Rustompaused. ‘ I love, admire and respect what you have beendoing. But Das, mere bhai, this is crazy, and we both know it. You’ve got to get out of this trap. YOU, a physics professor, of all people’

‘But it has worked for me, it’s the reason she’s still alive. I know I’m a man of science, but… there are still things out there Rusty, that science doesn’t explain’ pleaded Mr. Das‘Faith, belief, hope, are science- proof’

Rustom nodded his head in disbelief, got up and went inside. Shutting the door behind the counter with a loud thud.

Ms. Das looked defeated. Had he said too much. He felt foolish. 

But just then Rustom walked back in with a piece of fresh honey cake. It was a lovely sunshine- orange, kissed with snowflakes like sugar icing on top, and golden honey oozing between the layers of the soft sponge pastry. Rustomsmiled, ‘A bite of this piece of bliss, will take your mind off anything in this world Mr. Das’

Mr. Das was taken aback for a moment ‘Yaar, Rusty… After all that I’ve just told you. You know I can’t have this. I can’t risk changing the ‘routine’. It has to be the damn cappuccino. He looked anxiously at his watch. Fast approaching a quarter past five.

Rustom was in no mood to give in. He clenched Mr. Das’sshoulders and shook it hard. ‘Listen to me, SIR! YOU are not responsible for your wife’s condition. She is. Not mycappuccino, or your Roald Dahl, nothing. Das, you’re a man of SCIENCE! Not mumbo jumbo. One bite, sir. For an old friend’; and he handed him a fork.

Mr. Das knew somewhere in his heart Rusty was right, but he just couldn’t accept it. He looked around the café. The crowd was just a blur now. Maybe it was all just plain stupid. A belief that had taken over him, made him delusional. Made him think he could control fate, by following a bunch of rules. Gosh it had been ages since he broke a rule, but should he try? After all how could something as sweet as honey cake harm his wife?

Rustom, as if he had read his mind smiled. ‘You know you want it…

Rustom watched with contentment as Mr. Das dug through the soft layers with his fork and put a slice into his mouth.

Mr. Das closed his eyes, savoring the gentle flavors of sugar and honey melting inside. It felt heavenly. He opened his eyes slowly. He looked around. Nothing. He had just broken a big rule, ‘his routine’ and he didn’t feel a thing. Nothing had changed. It was sort of underwhelming. What was he thinking anyway? 

He felt strange sense of relief. Thanks Rusty. Wow!, itfeels like a giant weight has been lifted off my back. The world hasn’t changed. Rosie would be waiting for meI can feel it. I feel good. A free man.

Rustom smiled with satisfaction. He knew he had done a good deed today. For life. He watched Mr. Das pick up his bag, and stride out whistling. 

Rusttoooomis Mr. Das around …has he left already?Rustom could hear his wife call out from the other end of the café, holding up the telephone receiver. There’s a call for him. It’s the hospital. They saying it’s, it’s about his wife….’

——*——-

 

 

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