The Girl Behind the Counter

Mukesh Kumar 39
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Read Time:15 Minute, 37 Second

I leaned over the parapet of the balcony of my apartment on the fifteenth floor. The
preparations for the evening bhajan ritual had begun, I deduced from the escalating hum
downstairs. The building watchman was arranging gray Neelkamal chairs in a semi-circle
between a sleek red Honda and a black Chevrolet SUV. I looked back up at the jumble of
skyscrapers. Yardley Gardens was one of Mumbai’s plushest townships that my family had
recently relocated to from the humble cobwebs of Nashik. The westward sun made me
squint and I withdrew to my cushy C-backed bamboo swing, resuming the novel in my hand.
There are few things as relaxing as an evening breeze tickling you while you turn the
delicious pages of Adiga’s The White Tiger.
It was now nearing six and I could hear the boys playing football downstairs. In spite of
wanting to join them, I stubbornly clung on to my novel. I didn’t want to open my mouth and
make a fool of myself. I remembered reading ‘It is better to stay silent and be thought wise
than open your mouth and be proven foolish’. Or was it the other way round? Immaterial, I
wasn’t leaving.
My tenth standard was to start in a few days’ time. You could say I was a little nervous.
The relocation was a little bit of, like they say, a ‘culture shock’ to me. My father had taken
up a new job that offered thrice the pay of the previous, along with a horde of benefits like
company quarters at this place, a Tata sedan and discount coupons at various dining joints.
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 daal, a paneer subzi and roti. I could unblinkingly
order appetizers to overpriced Cokes without a warning eyebrow. Just the very thought of
them now made me hungry. I got up from the swing.
‘Ma, can I have some money? I want to go out, eat something,’ I shouted as I went inside
the house.
‘Why do you want to go outside?’ The voice came from the living room. I spotted her
knitting, red and white yarn balls by her side. ‘Your grandmother has packed us some …’
‘Mom!’
‘These kids of today,’she muttered without annoyance. She was quite jovial ever since
we’d moved in. And in spite of being the unwilling kitchen recluse that she was, she made
me take a plate of parathas to both our neighbours, without paying any heed to my ‘But what
do I say to them?’ What happened next is something I fervently hope that twenty years later I
will look back and laugh at.
She set aside the half-finished scarf for my grandmother and fished her hand into her
purse that hung by the armrest of the couch. All the years we stayed with my grandparents in
my native town, there was a non-stop bickering between my mother and grandma. The day
we left, I sneaked a look at my mother 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.
‘Don’t spend all of it,’she said. A crisp hundred-rupee note, from which Gandhiji
grinned at me.
The elevator doors opened to a shockingly electric environment. I mean, when you come to
such a colony, you expect people to be silent and, what’s the word, ‘sophisticated’ to the
point of being considered curt. But with the noise these kids made with their Ringa Ringa
and catch and hopscotch and whatnot, I almost felt like I was back in Nashik. I avoided eye
contact and went to the main gate. The path to the street was blocked by a team of sweaty Tshirts and delirious outcries of boys of my age and less playing football.
Let me tell you something about me and football. First, I hate this game. Second, and by
no way because of the first pointer, I am no good at it; although, that doesn’t stop me from
admiring a good game when I see one. And admire I did the fat guy in the midfield as he
dribbled the ball between his legs. A tall stick lurched towards him. Our fatso quickly
defected to his left and furiously kicked the ball at a scared teenager who turned reflexively
to his side. The ball hit his elbow.
‘Hand!’ the fatso screamed in delight and duly encashed the free kick. I was impressed.
I looked at them from a distance, hoping they would notice and call me over. Maybe they
were too engrossed in the game or maybe they didn’t care about a stranger gawking at them.
I stood unheeded. Sighing, I made my way to the exit.
Spencer Mall is more of a two-floored convenience store. I was thrilled to spot an
escalator and hopped right on. The first floor hosts a small cafeteria consisting of three
chairs each around circular wooden tables. There is a glass counter on the left where you
get ‘The best Frankies in town’.
Confession—I had no idea what Frankies were. I wondered if they were so expensive
that it would drive my pride of being loaded away.
At the first floor, one takes a U-turn to face the cafeteria. I occupied one of the empty
tables and studied the menu. The contents were reassuring. A basic vegetarian Frankie cost
around forty and went up to fifty five if you wanted many fancy fillings. Schezwan paneer
Frankie commanded my interest. I went to place an order at the glass-top counter and there
she was—the Girl behind the Counter.
‘Hi! And what would you like to have today?’she smiled at me affably. It was almost a
smile of recognition, as if she had been privileged to have known me since ages and that I
was her favourite customer. I bit on my braces—her perfect pearly whites probably never
needed dental treatment. The thick and sleek black tresses almost shone and one lock of hair
hung cutely on her dusky face. Her eyes were everything the on-screen actors swoon to and
poets write couplets about. You get it, don’t you? She was probably a few years older than
me and wore a black T-shirt that read ‘Joe’s Frankies’.
I tried to power up. Speak up, I screamed inside and mentally rehearsed what I had to
say. Just order as you would normally do and say ‘Thank you’ when you get it. How hard is
it? A question popped in my head—how is schezwan pronounced? C and H are silent, duh,
came the answer. How can two consecutive letters be silent, I wondered. Well, it just
sounds better, doesn’t it? ‘Sez-waan’, I reasoned. But this is taking too long, way beyond
the line that separates a customer from this pint-sized nincompoop. And was that sweat on
my forehead?
‘Sir?’ the girl asked unflinchingly, her expressions intact. I hoped she wasn’t just
pretending to be calm while hunting for an alarm button under the counter.
‘One plate schezwan paneer Frankie,’ I said and instantly felt proud that I didn’t stutter.
Smooth, I praised myself.
‘That would be fifty rupees, sir,’she looked into my eyes, smiling all the while.
I must tell you, gentle reader, that continuous eye contact is worse than browbeating. You
see, girls are not intimidating. Only pretty ones are. I understand I sound shallow but I call
upon the puberty-license.
Yours truly is no exception to this rule. I feigned interest in the pile of tissues in the waste
bin behind her as I dug into my pocket. Finally, I produced the hundred rupee note and
extended my hand to pay. At the same time, she stretched hers too and ended up accidentally
touching my fingers. I cringed as my fingers tingled, feeling like a biscuit that’s been dunked
in the tea a bit too long. I went back to the table with eyes squeezed shut hard.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ I heard a voice in a couple of minutes. It was her voice. She meant me.
Me!
‘One schezwan paneer Frankie.’ She gave me a roll with salad and cubes of cottage
cheese lathered with sauce and gravy peeking out of the open end.
She had pronounced ‘Schezwan’ as ‘Shej-waan’. In spite of the culinary wonder in front
of me, my heart sank. I felt like stabbing myself with a spoon. Smooth.
‘Thank you, sir,’she said. ‘Hope to see you again.’
That night, I slept smiling ear to ear. In spite of having absolutely no dreams involving
her, I woke up fresh as a deodorant!
The next day I borrowed a fifty from mother and pressed the elevator button. The same
noise on the ground floor lobby, the same guys playing the football, and this time, a penalty
shootout. I saw Fatso taking his position in the D and stopped walking. It was the Tall Stick
taking aim this time.
‘Ready!’screamed the goalkeeper from Fatso’s team. The next instant, the ball was
kicked. Fatso used brute force and jerked aside the guys from the opposing team standing on
both sides and jumped high, his head deflecting the ball to a corner.
‘Foul!’ alleged a hysterical bunch. Fatso couldn’t care less and bent double laughing. Tall
Stick pushed him to the ground but Fatso was clearly having a time of his life. I grinned at
him. I was impressed. Again.
The same traffic, the same pedestrians, the same road, the same mall, the same first floor
and the same Frankie Girl. Bless her. I walked up to her and went straight to the counter.
Today, I had taken special measures to make myself presentable. I was wearing my best pair
of shoes and my wrist sported father’s metal-strap Sonata watch. I had taken the pain of
applying a small amount of face powder, just the perfect amount that separated complexion
from make-up. My gait was confident and tone smooth. I went up directly at the counter and
ordered without referring to the menu. She gave me her known-you-since-ages smile and
asked me to take a seat. Since there were hardly any customers, the mood was relaxed. I
took the seat facing her, careful not to slouch.
She was an epitome of effortless grace. The way she fluently dealt with cash, her easedout demeanour as she mimicked one of her colleagues, the elegance with which her features
aided every word of hers and the voice that wafted, like an elixir to the ears. The more I
observed, the more I was drawn towards her. Ask what her name is, I scolded myself. It
won’t compromise the national security. But I knew I wouldn’t. I dreaded the moment I
would finish my roll and walk back.
Finally, she summoned me and I went up to the counter. Taking the Frankie, I turned back.
I wanted to disappear from the spot that made me feel like a coward. I hurriedly walked to
the escalator. Even when I heard a minor commotion in the background, I didn’t bother to
check it. Like I even cared. As I was just stepping on it, I felt a pat on my shoulder.
It was her.
My heart violently jolted into a see-saw. She smiled at me. The same sunny smile. I
smiled back stupidly, not knowing what else to do.
‘Sir, you forgot to pay,’she said.
As I lay on my bed that night, I wondered how I could have been so foolish. It was
embarrassing. Or was it? She gave no other indication of my lapse. What she did was
exactly the opposite. She accepted the money and said, ‘See you tomorrow, sir.’
I felt so invited!
Today is when this phoenix shall soar into the blue skies of hope, I decided the moment I
woke up, making up in clichés what he lacks in style. She was not going to eat me up if I
strike a conversation with her. Being well-mannered was her job description. Being myself
just won’t do. Besides, there is no big deal in asking a person’s name. I had Shakespeare to
endorse that.
‘I can, I will,’ was the day’s mantra. I enjoyed the movie I saw, chomped up some more
Adiga, laughed hard at the silliest of sitcoms and in an uber-confident mood, practised pickup lines in front of the mirror. I enjoyed the familiar noise of the bhajans, was enthralled by
one of the superb goals scored from a distance, relished the evening chirping and even
helped one of the ladies from the store with her shopping bag. This is it, I thought as I went
up the escalator.
It was yet another slow weekday. My palpitation jacked up as I noticed her. She was not
at the counter though, and occupied one of the tables with a guy in his early twenties, deeply
engrossed in a conversation. As I walked towards her, as if almost on cue, I saw her
affectionately pulling his cheek. It was only when I reached the counter that she noticed me.
‘Customer, darling,’she whispered to the guy, getting up in a rush.
‘Hey, wait up,’ the guy insisted, catching her by her wrist.
‘Oh no,’she began to protest. ‘I have to.’
‘Come now,’ 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 by whispering something in his ear.
‘See you soon,’she said, waving him goodbye.
She went behind the counter and adorned her position. Giving me another of her wellpractised smiles, she asked, ‘A paneer-chilli Frankie?’
I didn’t know what to say. Somehow, I managed a, ‘Never mind,’ and started walking out.
‘Oh, I am so sorry,’she said apologetically behind me, her voice dipped in desperation.
‘It’s schezwan paneer, isn’t it?’
I didn’t respond and followed a chirpy middle-aged couple out on their grocery shopping
down the escalator. I rehashed the events in my mind and tried to articulate what I felt being
the unwilling witness. Was I sad? Nope, that was not what it felt like. It was a funny feeling.
I cursed myself—funny won’t do, such words are what stupid people resort to.
I did like her, yes sir, most definitely I did. Or did I? What was it that I felt for her? I
stopped on my tracks as the word hit me between the eyes—fascination. I turned and looked
at one of the stained glass windows of Spencer Mall. I was captivated by her, by the novelty
she was, like a Da Vinci painting, like an amazing novel. I turned to look at the stained glass
facade of the mall. She was my white tiger. So why did I turn back? Wasn’t today one of the
most confident days? Why should it be a ‘was’? What if she has a boyfriend? What was I
hoping for anyway?
Nothing! a happy voice rang inside me. I like the Frankie, I like the Frankie Girl; so
what’s stopping me from having both of them just now?
Nothing! came the reply again, even happier.
I retraced my footsteps. There was no audible heartbeat this time, only pangs of joy, of
inexplicable ecstasy. I went to the counter and smiled.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Hi, sir,’she replied, for once, more surprised than rehearsed happiness.
‘Name’s Arora. Nikhil Arora.’ I am the king of clichés, I smiled wider.
She followed suit. ‘Right, Nikhil,’she said. ‘And you will have one schezwan …’
‘… paneer Frankie,’ I shared the moment with her. ‘That’s right.’
‘Right away, Nikhil,’she said. ‘Please have a seat.’
‘Sure,’ I said and waited till she called me.
And eventually, call she did. ‘Nikhil, your Frankie’s ready.’
‘Oh yes, thank you,’ I took the roll from her. ‘By the way, there’s something I’ve been
meaning to tell you.’
‘Yes?’ She looked into my eyes inquisitively.
I took in a deep breath. Yes, I can. ‘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 football players had evaporated but for one guy. Fatso
was shooting against the wall and chasing the ball as it bounced back. I felt inclined to talk
to him but zeroed on procrastinating it—I had socialized too much for a day already. As I
walked towards the lobby, I heard a ‘Dude!’
I turned around to see the fatso calling me.
‘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, no? Don’t be so selfish,’ he said and grabbed at it. I didn’t mind it.
Nothing about his tone 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.
‘Good, man,’ Aditya said, almost moaning at the taste. ‘This shit’s good.’
I was amused. The guy was ravenously friendly. Somewhere, not far off, I saw a figure
running towards us. That thing was skipping, almost bounding toward us in excitement.
Aditya recognized the figure and his eyes lit up as the figure too gave a squeal of joy.
‘Dude!’ 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’ve you been for 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 going to run and get one for
each of you. Hang in there. Won’t be long …’
‘Well,’ the girl turned from a scampering Aditya to look at me. ‘What’s your name, did
you say?’
‘I didn’t,’ I said almost reflexively. ‘Did I?’
‘Let’s try again,’she chuckled. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Nikhil,’ I said.
‘I am Roshni,’she said, extending her hand.
My face brightened. ‘Roshni, did you say?’
‘Yeah, why?’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ I beamed and offered my hand. She shook it.
Was it a tingling sensation I felt?

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