Yes, that’s me.
I hover about tables, take orders, serve people. My presence is very often taken for granted. Nobody notices me.
Then one evening, I was noticed. It was too much to take. You know, you kind of get used to being invisible. When you are noticed you realize how much you have become part of the décor. And that hurts.
The conversation was muted at most tables. The obnoxious man was on his phone, oblivious to the other diners. Fortunately, he was accompanied by an elegant woman, draped in a black silk saree, who quietly told him to put his phone away or take his call outside. I swooped in as soon as he left. ‘More Jasmine tea, Madame?’
Madame nodded and pulled the ends of her shawl around herself tightly, while she studied the menu. Madame looked as if she didn’t want to be here. Sometimes I get the feeling people would rather stay home and have leftovers for dinner than make the effort to dress for dinner. Nobody dressed for dinner anymore. Nobody dressed up anymore. Don’t get me wrong. Madame was dressed up alright. In fact Madame was the best-dressed lady in the restaurant that evening. But she seemed to be distracted, lost in her thoughts elsewhere.
The toddler in the corner found great joy in throwing assorted cutlery to the floor. Firdaus winced as he bent over a hundred times to pick up the same spoon. The toddler chortled in glee. The doting parents said nothing and Firdaus managed to turn a wince into a grin every time the supervisor looked his way. Hey, great acting Firdaus!
The supervisor noticed Firdaus’ agony and sent young Tony his way.
Firdaus ambled my way and mumbled within earshot, ‘Parents these days spoil children. If that kid were mine…!’ His thinly veiled threat trailed away and he was no longer audible because Mr. Phone sauntered back to his seat and called Madame ‘Darrrrrling’ in a louder voice than before. I could imagine Madame cringe. I did not look their way, especially when he said, ‘Darrrling, are you ready to order?’ I busied myself filling water in glasses at my tables, when the dulcet tones of Madame reached me, ‘Excuse me, we are ready to order now.’
‘I will have cream of mushroom soup and hot and sour chicken soup for my husband.’
‘Any starters, Madame?’
‘Prawns tossed in garlic herb butter and steamed chicken wontons please.’
‘What? Garlic herb butter? What in…’
‘Bottled water? Or…?’
Mr. Phone blustered, ‘We will have regular water. We are Bangaloreans!’
I smiled politely. Evidently Mr. Phone thought that was a witty answer and chuckled to himself.
He demanded, ‘What did you order? Is that enough? What is herb butter?’
Madame looked my way and said, ‘That will be all, for now. Please give us a few minutes to decide on the mains.’
I walked away to the counter to give their order as I heard her voice trail away. ‘Herb butter is butter which is infused with herbs. The herbs and garlic highlight the sweetness of the prawns….’
When I returned with the soup and starters, Madame was sipping at her Jasmine tea and Mr. Phone was checking messages on his phone.
Madame touched her plate to check if it was warmed. I liked that. She was somebody who knew what was expected in a good restaurant. Plates had to be warm before food could be served.
Mr. Phone put his namesake away and bit into a succulent prawn that was drowning in butter. He made a face and insisted that all the prawns be heaped onto Madame’s plate. Madame raised a bejeweled hand and Mr. Phone looked up, livid.
‘Give Madame all the prawns. I don’t want any.’
‘Please doggie bag the prawns.’
‘Do you fellows even know how to prepare prawns? That’s why I told you not to order anything fancy.’
‘Darrrrling’ was forgotten as he spat the last sentence out at Madame. Madame ignored him and smiled at me.
‘Please could you doggie bag the prawns? They are delicious. Perfectly sautéed.’
Madame’s attempt at salvaging the prawns infuriated Mr. Phone as he raised his voice and a few diners looked their way.
The supervisor made his way to the table while I went to the kitchen to get the remainder of the dish packed.
When I returned the supervisor’s supercilious smile had been wiped off, quite effectively, I must say, and he was being dismissed perfunctorily by Mr. Phone.
‘Darrrrrling, you know I don’t like stuff like that. Now these wontons…’
He took the sauces- soy, chilli and hot garlic and doused his portion liberally.
Madame was using her fork and knife and placidly biting into buttery chunks of prawn.
She wiped the corners of her mouth with the napkin and said, ‘Not all sauces at the same time, oh dear!’
‘That’s how I like my food. Waiter, come here! Get us the menu again.’
I took their order. This time Mr. Phone took over.
I turned and caught the surly eye of my supervisor. He didn’t look pleased. He was not having a good evening. His charms had not worked on most diners in the room. Obviously! He had a terrible knack of walking over to people who were in the middle of a conversation and asking them if they were enjoying their meal. He tried that with a couple of parents who were seriously giving a sermon to their disoriented teen who looked as if he were a ready candidate for Death’s next kiss. They gave the intruder such a glare that he shriveled up visibly. The teen surfaced momentarily and catching sight of the Grim Reaper again, collapsed like a deflated balloon.
Mr. Phone and Madame had not made him feel good either. Mr. Phone had been downright rude. Madame had not spoken at all. In fact she had not even looked up till it was time to ask for the check. My supervisor skulked in the shadows, wounded.
I presented the check. Mr. Phone exclaimed loudly at the bill, cursed service charges and, predictably, did not leave a tip. He walked out speaking loudly on his phone and I was clearing the plates away when Madame walked in, a few minutes after leaving, under the pretext of picking up her doggie bag and slipped a hundred rupee note into my palm.
I murmured a hasty thank you. It was time to welcome the next guests who had been waiting for twenty minutes for a table.
She was a vision in white and seated herself. Soon she was absorbed in the menu. The woman with her asked for Jasmine tea. I poured the fragrant brew into the cups when she looked up and asked, ‘Have you had your dinner yet?’
I looked at her, a surprised drop of tea splashed onto the tablecloth spreading into a huge blot. I looked in the direction of the supervisor who was flashing an ingratiating smile at a couple who obviously wanted to be left alone, having requested the discreet corner table.
‘Have you had your dinner yet?’ She asked again with a smile and I realized she was asking me, of all people.
You see I was so used to being unobtrusive, almost invisible even.
‘Yes, Ma’am,’ I said, though that was far from the truth.
I filled her cup and turned away before she could see the little drop that escaped my eye, trailing its way down my cheek. More importantly before it could plop itself, to drown deliriously, in her cup of tea.
That wouldn’t be acceptable now, would it?