A few words from the author:
I am in a self-congratulatory mood right now. I swear guys, the more I tried to hunt for a light peppy stuff to write, the worse my ideas became. At one point, I couldn’t think of anything. But again, impulse, good fortune and free time coincided and I finally achieved one of my holiday objectives.
With this, I come back to my at-one-sitting mode i.e. I start writing and stop only when it ends. Like for this, I started roughly at 10.30 pm yesterday and I completed it at around 3.30 am today.
About the story- This is mostly me, again. The girl I am talking about is a real person, though of course, I have amplified her character taking liberty granted by the fiction genre I write. There are many similarities with real places as mentioned in the story but I don’t think that should be a problem because this story has its heart in the right place.
I want to acknowledge the real girl behind the counter, her dazzling smile and extremely warm demeanor. And of course, my garden friends, mainly Champi for teasing me so much that she got embedded in my mind.
I got up and leaned out over the parapet in my balcony, stretching my body and yawning, my eyes closed. The not-so-harsh setting sun cast its influence on me making me squint a bit when I opened my eyes. I looked down at many of the old ladies preparing for their daily evening bhajan ritual. The watchman was helping them bring chairs from the lobby and assembling them in a semicircle. I withdrew my gaze, uninterested and curled back on my swing. Man, reading on a cushy bamboo swing, with evening breeze tickling you is sure a heavenly experience.
The swing suspended from the ceiling was the best part of my new house we moved in just a couple of days ago. The house being on the 15th floor had a splendid view of the, for once, unexploited cliff behind our building. That was the only reason why the perennially cool temperamental me almost fought with my parents to get my way. I could so imagine myself sitting here with a White Tiger in my hand while sipping coke. I went back to doing the same.
My college’s first year was to start in a week from now. New people, new atmosphere…was I nervous? Hell yes, most definitely I was. The biggest problem being that I was self-consciously introverted. It is always a bit of a handicap when you are trapped in a bunch of strangers and even bigger when they you are the only one stranger to them. In other words, joining college in the midterm sucks. But the main problem was a bigger one- I was intimidated. The new township I lived in had everything I had seen in movies. Later I found out, many of the movies were shot in this locality itself. The Bapat Township was a kingdom and I had come from a peasant class, if you speak metaphorically. Dad had switched over to a new company that offered almost thrice the pay of the previous along with a whole range of benefits like a Honda sedan, company quarters in this place, travel and petrol allowances. Life had acquired a new meaning now. A personal pizza was no more to be shared by the family. The visit to the restaurants no more meant a strict decorum of mere Dal, one paneer subzi and Tandoori Roti. Now I could unfalteringly order from the appetizers to the overpriced coke without a warning wiggling eyebrow. But all this didn’t change me as a person. I was still the shy old me. The shy old Nikhil.
The sunlight was getting dimmer and I had to adjust myself in order to not strain my eyes. The jeering and squealing of the kids and guys playing had been bothering me since an hour but I had stubbornly clung to my novel. I didn’t want to go down and make a fool of myself. I vaguely recollected the proverb ‘It’s better to stay silent and be thought wise than open your mouth and be proven foolish’. As I mulled more over it, I realized that it was actually the latter part that came first because that meant one is in the pursuit of knowledge. But I was already pursuing knowledge, wasn’t I? What do I read these novels for, I counter-questioned my scruples. You are hopeless, they retorted. I smirked at them and continued reading until it was dark and I was feeling lethargic. I opened the door of my room and went up to Mumma.
“Aw, there comes my Nikki,” she said fondly as she rose from her knitting. I hate her when she calls me that.
“Mom,” I felt like telling her off for what she called me but then recalled the countless times I had done it. I changed the reply- “Can I have some money? I wanna go out. Eat something.”
“Why outside? Your grandma has packed us some…”
“Mom,” I said appealingly with firmness in my voice.
“Okay okay,” she gave in. It wasn’t difficult to extract the Gandhi out of her lately. She had been in quite a jovial mood ever since we moved in. So much that the unwilling kitchen recluse that she is, she made me take a plate of fresh Parathas to both our neighbors the day we moved in without paying any heed to my “But I feel awkward.” She went in her bedroom as I took a look at the scarf she was knitting for my grandma, her mother-in-law, and smiled to myself. It was her favorite pink but the amusement was for another reason. All the years we stayed with my grandparents in my old town, there was a non-stop bickering between my mom and grandma. The day we left the down, I sneaked a look at my mom crying in my grandma’s lap and the usually stoic lady that my grandma is; even she couldn’t hold back the Ganges streaming down her eyes. My reverie was broken with my mom placing a crisp hundred rupee note in my hand. “Don’t spend it,” she instructed, as usual. I bade her goodbye and proceeded to the elevator.
As the doors opened to the ground floor, I was almost shocked at the noise. I mean, when you come to such a locality, you expect people to be silent to the point of being considered curt. But whoa, the noise the kids made with their ringa ringa roses, chase games, catch, I almost felt being back at my native place again. But what was so surprising in that, I thought. Even though rich, these are still humans. Why do you have such a complex? Smarting from the self induced insult, I couldn’t believe what I did after that. I went up to the partially empty area of the parking lot where guys my age were playing soccer.
Now let me tell you something about me and soccer. Firstly, I hate this game. Secondly, I am not good at it. Thirdly, I hate this game because I am not good at it. And that’s the end of the story. But somehow, I liked the way the fat guy in the midfield dribbled the ball between his legs. A tall stick lurched toward it and tried to trick him but the fatass was too smart and furiously bounded towards a player to his left who was from the opposing team. This guy was a small kid and was scared at the globe bounding toward him. The fatass kicked the ball hard straight towards the kid. The kid turned around and as the ball hit him hard, the fatass screamed “Hand, hand!” I admired his trick. Now, the free-kick time which was encashed upon even as the goalkeeper dove to his right to save the ball. Cheers roared and I admit- I had to smile. I was impressed.
I observed the game from a distance, hoping they would notice me and call me over but maybe they were too engrossed or maybe they didn’t bother at a stranger gawking at them and I lay unheeded for. Sighing, I made my way for the exit gate of the building.
The road was sparsely crowded and mostly the traffic consisted of a few rickshaws and sometimes a bus. The best part about my residence was that it was just about a minute away from Eternia mall, more of a two floored convenience store. The ground floor had the grocery, stationery and the foodstuffs while the first and second had clothes and electronic shopping sections. The first floor also hosted a small cafeteria consisting three chairs each around small circular shaped wooden tables and a small glass counter on one side where you get ‘The best frankies in town’. No, that wasn’t a recommendation, but the outlet’s subtitle. I went up the escalator, deriving an alien thrill. Okay, confession time- I had no idea what frankies are. I wondered if it was so expensive that it would drive my pride of being loaded away. I prayed it wouldn’t because my tummy was grumbling.
I had to take a U turn after reaching the first floor to face the cafeteria. I took one of the chairs and started studying the menu. The cover page had ‘Self-service’ written on it. Damn it, I thought. But the contents were reassuring. The frankie cost around twenty five if you chose the basic veg. one and went up to forty five if you wanted many fillings. The Schezwan Paneer frankie looked appealing. I made my decision and went to the counter when I saw her for the first time- the girl behind the counter.
She smiled at me affably. It was an almost familiar smile. A smile of recognition, as if she’s been seeing me since ages and I am one of her personal favorite customers. Her perfect set of pearly white teeth made her face look radiant. She had a pair of the most expressive eyes that guaranteed to speak volumes mutely. Her hair, just a few inches from her shoulders was tied by a ribbon of a color that contrasted beautifully with her black t-shirt with ‘Joe’s Frankies’ written on it. The thick and sleek black tresses almost shone and one lock of hair hung cutely on her angelic dusky face. You get it, don’t you? She rendered her last stroke of making me dumbstruck when she said in her politely soft voice, “Hello Sir, may I take your order please?”
I tried to kick start my brain. Speak up, I screamed inside and repeated what I had to say. Just order as you would normally do and say a ‘Thank you’ when you get it. How hard was it? Wait a sec, how is schezwan pronounced? C and h are silent, duh, came the answer. How can two consecutive words be silent, I wondered. Well, it just sounds better, doesn’t it? ‘Sez-waan’, I reasoned. But this contemplation took some precious moments between determining a moron from a customer. I was growing more and more apprehensive. Was it sweat that was on my forehead?
“Sir?” The girl seemed unflinched. I liked that. She had repeated politely without pressing a probable alarm button under the counter. It really lifted me up.
“One plate schezwan paneer Frankie,” I said and instantly felt proud I didn’t stutter. Suave, I praised myself.
“That would be forty five rupees sir,” she looked into my eyes, smiling all the time. Now, I must tell you, that’s the worst thing about pretty girls. You see, girls are not intimidating, but pretty ones are. I mean, it’s a simple do-it-yourself test. Suppose you are in a train and a lady comes and sits right opposite you. If the lady is ordinary, even if you happen to take a second glance at her, deliberate or not, it’s not like it will bother you or anything. But suppose you substitute this ordinary looking girl with a pretty damsel, even if you want to take a second look, you immediately feel self-conscious. You’ll try stopping yourself looking in her direction not because you are a snob but due to the fear of not appearing as if you are checking her out. You can’t drift away in your thought by unconsciously staring at her thighs as you could or might in former case. You would think she’ll feel you are a pervert. Even in a crowded bus, if you want to move ahead, you’ll think twice before nudging a cutie and resort to “Um, excuse me…”
And so happened in this case. She was looking in my eyes all the time but I feigned interest in the pile of waste tissues in the dustbin behind her as I dug in my pocket. Finally, I produced the hundred rupee note and she stretched out her hand to take it. I extended my hand too and for a brief moment, her fingers brushed against mine. I would love to cling on the every little bit of masculinity left in me and not appear loser-ly romantic but then I would be lying if I say that wasn’t the moment-of-the-day for me. My fingers tingled and I lie you not when I say that in spite of being a right handed person, I ate the Frankie with the left hand and after safely getting out of the vision of the cafeteria counter, hunted my right hand for a faint trace of fragrance.
As I waited for my Frankie, I sneaked glances at the girl. Today was a pretty busy day for her. She greeted all the customers with the same smile but with a little less radiance. Was she tired? Or was it me that she glowed up for? Man, that’s some serious self-flattery, I playfully chided myself.
“Excuse me, sir,” I heard a voice. It was her voice. It was her voice meant for me. Me! She was calling me. Hurriedly, I went to her.
“One schezwan paneer Frankie,” she gave me a rolled roti with stuffing inside.
She had pronounced ‘Schezwan’ as ‘Shej-waan’. My heart sank. I felt like drowning myself for making a complete fool of myself. Suave, I mocked myself.
As I was feeling all puddle-y, I heard her again. “Thank you Sir,” she said. “Hope to see you again.”
That night, I slept smiling ear to ear. But this is no clichéd Hindi film saga, so I had no dreams involving her. Rather, there was one with me watching sunset from the lakeside near my native place. I woke up fresh as a deodorant.
The next day was the same. I couldn’t get for the day to get over. Watching my favorite sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S. didn’t interest me. Even the endearing delivery of the pick up line “How you doin’,” didn’t stretch my facial muscles. Man, I couldn’t wait for the afternoon to get over. The evening drew on and the heartbeats grew on. I borrowed a fifty from mumma and pressed the elevator button. The same noise on the ground floor lobby, the same guys playing the football and now the penalty shootout. I had to stop as I saw the same fatso take his position in the D. The goalkeeper screamed “Ready” and an instant later the ball was kicked. The fatso used brute force and jerked the guys on both sides aside and jumped high, his head making contact with the ball and the next moment, the ball was in the goalpost with people screaming “Foul, foul!” Fatso was bent double laughing. Even a kick on his butt by an opposing team person didn’t help zipping it close. Clearly, he was having a time of his life. I smiled. I was impressed. Again.
The same situation of the traffic, the same pedestrians in a hurry, the same road, the same mall, the same second floor but an oh for the same frankie girl. Bless her. I walked up to her and went straight to the counter. Today, I had taken some extra measures, extreme by my standards, to make myself presentable. I had worn the only branded tee I had and had perfectly coordinated it with blue denim. I was wearing my best pair of sport-shoes and my wrist sported a Sonata watch (my dad’s, actually). I had taken the pain of applying small amount of face powder, just the perfect amount that separated fairness from appearing tacky. Psst, I had applied some in my armpits too. My gait was confident and tone smooth as I approached directly to counter and ordered without referring the menu. She gave me her known-you-since-ages smile and I wanted to live up to the tag bestowed upon me. She instructed her colleague accordingly. Today, there were hardly any customers and the mood was relaxed. I took the seat diagonally opposite to the counter, facing her.
She was an epitome of effortless grace. The way she used her hands while joking with her fellow employees, the way she fluently dealt with the cash, her flawless English, her facial expressions that contorted so elegantly as she mimicked her colleague teasingly and her voice that wafted, sounding like an elixir to the ears…the more I observed, the more I was drawn towards her. Once or twice, I even saw her looking at me. She was still smiling. I wondered if the smile was directed towards me and looked away both the times. Make a conversation, dammit, I endlessly scolded myself. When will you grow up? But I knew I couldn’t and waited for the dreaded moment for me to go. Finally, she summoned me and I went up to the counter. Taking the frankie, I turned back, inwardly cursing myself at the cowardice. I wanted to disappear quickly from the spot that made me feel small, again. I hurried towards the direction of the escalator. I heard a minor commotion in the background but didn’t bother to check it out. Who cared, anyway. As I was just stepping on it, somebody patted on my shoulder.
It was her.
As my heart violently jolted into a see-saw, she smiled at me. The same sunny smile. I smiled back not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do. She told me my next step.
“Sir, you forgot to pay,” she said.
I lay on the bed. How the hell can I be so incredibly foolish, I shook my head, smiling. It would’ve no doubt been very embarrassing experience had she made me feel that way. But what she did was exactly opposite. She accepted the money and said, “See you tomorrow, sir.” I felt invited!
Today’s gonna be the day, I resolved. The day when I am gonna open my lips and…and what, speak up. I had already practiced it.
Me (smiling): Hi there.
She (smiling): Hello, Sir.
Me (confidently, one hand over the glass top counter): Nikhil’s the name.
She (shyly): Oh, sure, Nikhil Sir.
Me: (raise the left eyebrow, a trick I had learnt lately, at ‘Sir’)
She (still coy): I mean, Nikhil.
I (relaxed smile): And you are…
And so on and so forth went on my day-dream.
I went down the elevator. I ignored the kids, ignored the soccer, ignored the traffic, the road, the pedestrians, the fat ladies emerging out of the convenience stores and went to the first floor. My palpitation was on rise. But I couldn’t afford to be nervous at such a crucial time. I had to make a move. She had given me ample indications and I was in no mood to act myself. I had to make a drastic change. I paused before I took the escalator and cajoled myself saying that even she was a human, that she was not gonna eat me up if I strike conversation with her, or make fun of me. She was a well mannered, well educated, cultured girl and she knew how to talk to people. Besides, Shakespeare was on my side. Didn’t he say ‘What’s in the name?’
I stepped on the escalator. The heart rate was increasing by the moment but I didn’t care. It was now or never. I went up to the counter. She saw me approaching and smiled. That did boost my spirits.
“One paneer schezwan Frankie?” she asked, smiling.
“Yes,” I said, smiling back at the unexpected.
“Sure, sir,” she said. “Please take a seat.”
What? That so didn’t form part of the plan. What am I supposed to do now, I was perplexed. I trusted my instincts, that is, I obeyed. Damn, I obeyed! DAMMIT! Not another day!
That night’s theme was self-bashing. I cursed myself for the way I am. Even though I was pretty decent looking, a golden person from the inside, mildly talented and mature, I was introverted which made most of these qualities veiled. Why the hell can’t I speak up? How hard was “No, thank you, I am okay,” in today’s case and then striking up a conversation? I had to grow up and quick. I repeated to myself all my good qualities and academic achievements. That made me feel good about myself and a bit confident too, if I may. I woke up next day with a furious resolve.
I can. I will was the day’s mantra. I lived in the moment. I enjoyed the movie I saw, laughed hard at Joey’s dumbness in the sitcom and in an uber-confident mood, practiced “How you doin’?” in front of the mirror. I enjoyed the familiar noise of the children downstairs, enthralled at another one of the superb goals scored while observing from a distance, relished the evening chirping I had unnoticed as yet and also helped one of the ladies from the store with her shopping bag. There was no way in hell that I would not talk to her today I thought as I took the escalator. There was hardly anyone on the first floor. My heart leapt up as I noticed her. She was not behind the counter but sitting on one of the chairs, deeply engrossed in a conversation with a guy. She looked as stunning as always but today her smile was extra broad while she talked. I saw her affectionately pinching the cheek of the guy as I came nearer, still being unnoticed. It was only when I reached the counter that she saw me and hurriedly got up.
“Customer, sweetie,” she said to the guy. “Gotta go.”
“Hey, wait a sec,” the guy insisted, catching her by her wrist.
“Oh no,” she protested. “I have to…”
“Oh c’mon,” the guy was persistent. “I am sure he won’t mind giving us a minute. Would you, kid?”
That was my call. “Oh, n-no. Carry on.” I somehow mumbled. I wanted to look away. I didn’t. I should’ve. I didn’t.
The guy kissed her on the cheek and she responded lovingly by hugging him. “So long, darling” she said and waved him goodbye as they un-embraced.
She went behind the counter and adorned her position. She gave me another of her well practiced smiles and asked “A paneer chilly frankie?”
I didn’t know what to say. “Never mind,” came out and I went out.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” she said apologetically behind me, her voice dipped in desperation. “Its schezwan paneer, isn’t it?”
I didn’t wait or respond. I went down the escalator. There was a funny feeling inside me. It wasn’t devastation, it wasn’t sadness just a strange weird feeling. An inexplicable never-before-experienced feeling. I tried to reason with myself on the way back. I did like her, definitely. But it was more of an attraction that stemmed out of fascination than a real thing. So why was I disappointed? Why did I turn back? Wasn’t today one of the most confident days? Why should it be a ‘was’? She has a boyfriend, so what? What was I hoping for?
I stopped walking. Nothing, came the answer. It was a happy voice that rang inside me. I like the frankie, I like the frankie girl, so what’s stopping me from having them both just now? Nothing, came the reply again. I U-turned and retraced my footsteps. I went up again. There was no audible heartbeat this time. Just pure joy. Unexplained ecstasy. I went to the counter and smiled.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hello, Sir,” she replied, for once, more surprised than the put-on happiness.
“Name’s Arora. Nikhil Arora,” I smiled wider.
“Right, Nikhil,” she followed suit. “And you would have one schezwan…”
“…paneer frankie,” I resonated with her. “That’s right.”
“Right away, Nikhil,” she said. “Please have a seat.”
“Sure,” I said and waited till she called me.
“Nikhil, your frankie’s ready,” she called out.
“Oh yes, thank you,” I took the frankie from her, gently touching her fingers. “By the way, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
“Yes?” She looked into my eyes inquisitively.
“I love your smile,” I said.
“Thank you, sir,” she beamed, gracefully bowing her head a little. “Oh and there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you too.”
I stared at her. This was unexpected. “Yes?”
“My name’s Roshni,” she grinned, extending her hand forward.
I shook it. This time there was no long lasting tingling sensation, no desperate urge to smell the palm for a residual fragrance. It was just a warm handshake, the way it is meant to be.
I went back to my building. All the soccer guys had evaporated as expected. There was one guy still practicing though, shooting against the wall and chasing the ball. It was the fatso. I felt inclined to talk to him but zeroed on procrastinating it- I had a novel to finish. Besides, I had decided the next day to be socializing day. As I proceeded in the direction opposite to the soccer court, I heard a “Hey, dude!”
I turned around to see the fatso calling me. I obliged and started walking towards him. Even he neared.
“That,” he said, pointing at the frankie in my hand. “That has paneer in it?”
“Yes…” I said, slowly, wondering what the guy was up to.
“Then share it na, how can you be so selfish,” he said and grabbed at my frankie. I didn’t mind it. Nothing about his tone or grabbing was forceful. On the contrary, it was friendly.
“By the way,” he said, his mouth full, “I am Aditya. And you?”
“Nikhil,” I said and extended a hand forward. The same hand I shook with Roshni.
“Good, man” Aditya said. “This shit’s good.”
I smiled at him. The guy was ravenously friendly. Somewhere, not far off, I saw a figure running towards us. That thing was skipping, almost bounding towards us in excitement. Aditya recognized the figure and his eyes lit up as the figure too gave a squeal of joy.
“Its you,” he said and dropping the frankie, hugged her. The girl was about my age, a few inches shorter than me but extremely attractive. She hugged him back. “Oh my God, where were you since so many days?”
Awkwardness started flooding inside me again. Aditya noted my presence and quickly released her. “Dude,” he said. “This is my cousin.” Then he noticed the mess he created by dropping the Frankie. “Oh shit, I dropped it, did I? Wait, I am gonna get one for each of you. Hang on there. Won’t be long…” and scampered away.
“Well,” the girl said. “That’s just the two of us now. Anyway, what’s your name, did you say?”
“I didn’t,” I said almost reflexively. “Did I?”
“Oh, you’re funny,” she chuckled.
Was I? “No, actually, I’m not funny. I’m Nikhil.” I was!
“Okay,” she laughed. “And I am Roshni.”
My face brightened. “Roshni, did you say?”
“Pleased to meet you,” I beamed and extended my hand forward. She shook it.
Was it a tingling sensation I felt?
- Omkar Khandekar