Friday, July 4, 2014

The Happy Cafe

How happy we were in Mumbai! We both had high-flying (read well-paying) jobs on weekdays and friends and family to get together with over weekends. It was a place we grew up in and absolutely loved. And we both looked forward to settling in the city of dreams for a long time. Then came the day when Ravi got his promotion. There were subtle hints at taking up a bigger role and before we knew it, he was asked to move.
I was almost in tears the day he left. We had spent a good deal of time living away, traveling over the week and this movement was supposed to be a cakewalk. I had planned to shift my base and move in with Ravi in a month's time. I took two weeks off to pack and prepare for the move. Those were depressing days. I missed him terribly in every place I went and everything I did. And the non-stop rains added to the gloom. Finally one evening, the downpour stopped. Even the rain Gods need a chai-break once in a while.

I decided to take a walk around the block not knowing this was about to change something in life. It was one of those moments when Destiny takes control of your life and resets a few applications, closes down some long running ones and changes the wallpaper. But I did not know this. I pulled up my sneakers, put on a windcheater and trotted off down the lane. I walked for quarter of an hour and it became cloudy again. Fearing a downpour, I took a hasty left and started looking up  for a place to park myself for some time. 'The Happy Cafe' it said. "I had not noticed this one before", I thought pensively as I stepped in. It was empty save a couple of tables and a smiling lady behind the cash counter.
"Did I carry my purse?”, I wondered as I looked at the menu placed before me.
"I'll have a glass of water", I said with a nervous smile praying that the waitress does not guess my predicament.
"A cup of lemon tea will be better", chirped the waitress with a smile. "I recommend it in this weather. It makes you happy".
 I nodded with a hint of embarrassment.

I fumbled in my pockets for a while hoping there would be at least one bit of currency left carelessly somewhere. I found five. At times like these, I do not resent anyone being disorganized or sloppy. 

As the waitress went behind the counter to brew my cup of tea, I gazed at her. She was in her mid-forties, or late forties at worst. She had a frizzy mane of salt and pepper and the wrinkles around her eyes and lips had begun to show. She moved her stout frame slowly behind the counter, almost as if preparing for a ballet, while humming a tune I did not recognize. Soon she got me the cup of tea.

"Enjoy your tea", she said with a smile.

I smiled back. I wondered why she was so happy serving me tea. As I sipped the hot concoction, I shot an anxious glance around. Had I had entered a lunatic's lair? I had watched enough movies to believe that this is possible and happens to good, unsuspecting people all the time; more so on a rainy day.

But people around looked quite normal. There was a group of three teenagers at a table chatting happily. It looked like a long awaited reunion. There was a young couple at the table in the corner talking nervously. "Arranged marriage", I smirked. That brought an end to my unwarranted suspicions. "I watch too many movies", I told myself admonishingly.

"Happy place, isn't it?" I darted at the chair next to mine. The lady from behind the counter had seated herself near me albeit surreptitiously. My nervous twitching resumed.

"I always like to surround myself with happy faces. That is why we called this The Happy Café. My husband started it 20 years ago". 

I smiled. "Here comes another story", I sighed inwardly as I braced myself to endure another sob story.

"My husband was very fond of this place. You see, it belonged to his grandfather. He had a very happy childhood here. When we inherited it, he said to me, Suzie, I want people to be as happy here as I was. And so we decided to start this cafe with our little savings. We did not have any children and it gives me joy to see kids like these come here. On hot summer afternoons, many kids from the college nearby gather here to write their assignments. How boisterous they are! And I feel so lively watching them laugh. Fali would be so happy if he were here".

At this point, she wiped an absent tear from her eye.

"Are you new to this place? I have not seen you around much", she pressed on.
I had hoped to nod through this conversation, wary as I was. But here was a question I had to answer.

"I live a few blocks away", I said cautiously.
"I’m glad you came today. I am shutting this place down, I can no longer afford it", she said. "The movers might be here any minute”. She looked at the window.

"You must have some more tea, you are almost shivering", Suzie went back to being the gracious host.
"I sure could", I replied. It was true.

Suzie got up and walked over to the couple. She poured them some coffee, said a few words and laughed aloud as they smiled at each other.
"Do you kids want anything?" she asked the reunion members with a genial smile.

I felt a strange sense of warmth. While Suzie brewed another cup of 'Happy Tea', as she called it, I looked around the place. It really did have an old-world charm to it. I could imagine the young couple struggling hard to set up this cafe, finding solace in each other's company as the day ended and spreading good cheer in a world where worries and anxiety are ubiquitous. Suzie got me my tea, we chatted pleasantly for a few minutes before the movers started coming in. I pulled out my 100-rupee note.
"I don’t have any change", I said. Suzie shook her head.
"I am sorry, but I don’t have any change".I repeated.
"No, no", she said. "No money. We don’t charge anything."
Now I was really shocked. Suzie sensed my amazement and went on.
"You see, Fali's grandfather also left him a lot of money along with this place. It kept us very well off. But not anymore, that’s why I am moving on".

I was truly touched. I had never seen anyone go to such lengths to spread cheer on a gloomy day. I shook hands with her warmly and walked back home with buoyed spirits. It was true; she had made me a happier person. All my gloom of the past few weeks had receded and I felt confident of taking on anything in life. I walked around the block for another hour thinking of Ravi and all the happy times we had spent together. Life was so beautiful.

I was humming a song when I turned the key to the door.
"Oh good you are back. I was worried", my mom-in-law quipped. "Singh Aunty from next door just left. She was very upset. You know their Happy Café? Part of their Happy Singh chain of restaurants? It was robbed today evening".

I stared at her.

"Singh Uncle and Aunty had returned today from a 3-weeks Europe tour to find that the thieves had taken everything. There were only some used plates and cups on the tables. The rascals must have had a tea party after the robbery". 

I started laughing nervously.