Short Story: Wearing The Rags Of Friendship by Smitha Murthy
In this short story, Smitha Murthy explores the fragile and tenuous relationship that develops between a lonely woman and the cleaner at the restaurant she frequents.
There’s nothing glamorous about this restaurant. It’s a regular highway restaurant you might find on many an Indian road, serving cheap food. You are meant to walk in and walk out fast. No romantic lingering, and asking for a menu is unheard of. The tables are granite, and the plastic chairs squeak when you pull them out. But the place is busy. At all hours. Every day, hundreds of people pile in and out of its open doors. As you enter, on the left is a chaat and juice shop. The watery juices it makes are only for desperate times. The chaat stall only opens up in the evening, and the food there is no better than the beverages.
But considering where I stay – in Bangalore’s “emerging” suburbs – this restaurant is all I have. It meets my needs just fine. A quick bite or two. A sip of coffee. Maybe, chapatis for takeaway once in a while. It is enough.
There’s a fine rain in the air when I walk over to the restaurant one evening. The clouds are hanging heavy. The day had been suffocating – I had spent most of it staring at the laptop screen, blank words ricocheting off the empty walls of my mind.
The air inside seems even denser than usual. I sit down at the table closest to the entrance and wait for one of the ‘boys’ serving there to notice me. They do, sure enough. “A masala dosa,” I say and open my book. Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’
“Coffee, madam?” the boy asks. His red shirt looks incongruously bright in the general grime of the place. I shake my head.
He yells out the order. Minutes later, I am gazing at the dosa. It is roasted crisp. Just the way I like it. I open up the book again and forget the world outside.
“You know, it’s not good to read while eating,” a voice says above my head. I look up. A man in his 40s or 50s, I have never been good at figuring ages towers over me. He is wearing the same red shirt – the standard uniform of the restaurant – red cleaning rag in hand. A cleaner. His face looks unshaven with that day’s memories. Years of life have left creases in the skin. Mottled. Dark. Patches of grey in the beard and hair. I blink in confusion. He smiles. The rag cloth hovers over my plate. I want to shoo it away, like I might a stray dog. He doesn’t go away, nor does the cloth. Instead, he peers at my book.
“Ah, I see! Virginia Woolf. Her stream of consciousness takes you into another world, doesn’t it?” he adds. I stare. How can a cleaner at a roadside restaurant on Kanakapura Road speak to me in heavy Brit-accented English? About Virginia Woolf?
I try to squash that thought. But I can’t. I hate myself at that moment. I hate my upbringing with its cultural constructs and societal concepts that makes me think that a cleaner should not know about Virginia Woolf. I don’t remember now what I said in response. But as he gazes at me, I can’t read anymore. I nod. I keep the book aside.
I concentrate on the dosa, at the butter running off the edges, at the delectable masala that leaves my taste buds tingling, at the crumbly crispness. He seems pleased. For some inexplicable reason, I am too.
From then on, every time I go to the restaurant, I notice him. I gaze more deeply at my masala dosa and take deeper sips of my coffee. I leave my books behind at home. I take to observing him as he goes around, cleaning tables, stacking the plates, and carrying them over to the kitchen. Again and again. I never see him in anything but that awful red uniform. Red shirt and red trousers. Like some ghastly relic from Mao’s army.
But no matter what he is doing, Uday always comes over to my table to chat.
We speak about books. About poetry. About words. He tells me about Edna St. Vincent Millay. TS Merwin. He recites from memory this poem while wiping the table furiously:
Your absence has gone through me. Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.
I show him poems on my phone in return. I share my love for Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson. He goes ‘humph’ over Oliver, much to my irritation, but bursts into rapture at Dickinson. “Old memories,” he says. “Such old musty dank memories.”
I start going to the restaurant when I know it won’t be crowded just so that he has time to chat. I change my eating habits to suit his work timings. My lunch is now at 11:30 am, and I run over to the restaurant for dinner at 4 pm. I don’t know if Uday looks forward to my increasingly frequent visits, but I do. I snuggle up to the mellow warmth of our conversation.
Uday admonishes me gently when I say I read only English books.
“Why not read a book in Kannada? Ah, the words of Anantha Murthy! Divine!” he exclaims, hugging the rag cloth close to his chest, as if that were a book. As if that was Anantha Murthy himself.
Where does he live? I ask him that once on a particularly lazy day when the crowd was thin and the onion dosa fluffier than usual.
“Just outside. At the back,” he replies, gesturing vaguely to the back of the restaurant.
One evening, when I know he will be at the restaurant, I go over to the ‘back.’ This ‘outside.’ A dorm greets me. About 10 bunk beds in a room. Typical ‘worker’s quarters.’ A bathroom outside. This? This is his place? Where are his books?
“I don’t have any,” he shrugs when I ask him the next day. Of course, I don’t tell him I went to see his ‘place.’ “The books are all here,” Uday gestures, tapping a finger against his head. I must have looked disbelieving because I can’t remember half the books I read. In answer, he disappears into the kitchen for a while. I am almost about to leave when he comes back with a piece of paper.
“Uday’s Recommendations,” it says. Listed there, in a tiny ant-like script, are 50 books. I scan them greedily and hastily. I have read a few -‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina.’ But there are others I don’t know of. Masti Venkatesha Iyengar’s short stories, Buddhadeva Bose’s ‘It Rained All Night,’ and ‘Sitt Marie Rose’ by Etel Adnan.
He is watching me with a grin and that odd shyness we have when we recommend books. I grin right back, folding the paper neatly.
The next day, I order the first 10 books on the list from Amazon.
The days of monsoon shift to the quirky heat of September. By now, I have grown to look forward to the quirky warmth of our friendship.
We always meet in the restaurant, never outside. I do invite him home once. But he doesn’t accept. He would never invite me to the ‘back,’ I know. This space was fine, though. The clatter and clutter, the relentless noise, and in the middle of it all, I had this. This effervescent thread of conversations.
Slowly, our conversation grows to be more than books. Uday tells me he was an artist. I note the use of the past tense with pain. What did you do? I ask. That most banal of questions. But he doesn’t mind. “I used to be in branding,” he says. I flinch. Rag cloth. Dirty tables. Dorm beds. Branding. It doesn’t fit.
I don’t doubt his story. It’s reality that I doubt.
Hesitantly, over many masala dosas and idlis, I come to know more about Uday. He has a Master’s degree in Fine Arts. More plates pass by. I learn of his years of lost wanderings in Mumbai. A few more cups of coffee pass before I learn of a career creating logos. A life afterward that moved around art and design. Then why are you here? I want to ask. But I stop myself. What makes me think he should be anywhere else? Isn’t this his life? Isn’t this his brand?
Uday reveals he practices yoga and Transcendental Meditation. “I used to teach it,” he says nonchalantly. “My darkness masks the light. I know the light is there. But how do we see it?” he asks. I have no answer.
I don’t ask him why he stopped teaching meditation.
Because you see, our conversations veer around the familiar, skirt around the edges of certainty, but stop at the personal. The pain and the personal are just shadows. Until one day, when I feel the cares of the world hang especially heavy and dark. I sit at my favorite table, my back to the screeching highway. Uday comes over to my table, as usual, rag cloth in hand.
“Ok?” he asks. I nod, but I can’t stop the tears. I want his rag cloth to wipe those tears away. To wipe away my mind of the filth of ugly memories, of the breakup that I can’t just seem to get over. But I don’t tell him that. He stares. The ‘boys’ shout their orders up at the counter. “Two idlis, 1 kesari bhath.” A couple laughs at the table next to mine. A kid behind me kicks his chair, making my table shake. Why does life have to be this unbearable, Uday? I ask when I look up finally. What do we do with these painful memories? He doesn’t say anything still.
I want him to utter trite words of comfort. Anything to rescue me. But he picks up my plate instead. I am not done yet, I protest, looking at the rather soggy idlis in a heap of sambhar. It’s almost like he doesn’t hear me. He deftly balances the plates on one arm and cleans my table. Again. And again. I watch. The black granite gleams. Red. Swirl. Black. Red. Swirl. Black. His arm is a whirr. I see the tiny hairs on the back of his palm. I see the faint sign of a ghostly ring on one finger. One final flourish, and he walks away. I stare at his retreating back in silence.
I pay the bill and walk away angrily. So much for friendship, I think.
I haven’t gone to the restaurant for a month. I cook maniacally. I make elaborate lunches and dinners and have them alone. I don’t want to think of him, but I go through 14 of the books he recommended. I seethe in the righteous wallow of my anger. Until one day, I go to the supermarket and see a pack of cloth rags. I forget the Mexican rice I had prepared with such care earlier in the morning. I don’t want lunch. I want to feed my mind.
I walk out of my apartment complex and go to the restaurant. It’s peak time. I sit at a table close to the kitchen. The boys are too busy to notice me. I wait. Then I see him. An old man with a rag cloth. He comes over to my table, and half-heartedly wipes the table. You are not as good as Uday, I sneer in my head. Where’s Uday? I ask him. The old man shrugs. I call one of the boys over. Uday left, he says.
I know this story now. After all, that’s what stories are. Regrets and remorse. The memories of longings and the loneliness of separation. It doesn’t surprise me. Where? The boy is about to reply when another lad comes running over. “He left this for you,” he says, breathlessly. I gaze at the packet. Cheap yellow plastic cover. Inanely, I think, plastic bags are banned. I peer inside. A clean rag cloth.
I turn it inside out. Nothing. No letter. Nothing. The boys look at me nervously. Where did he go? I ask again. This time, they both shrug. They don’t know. They never knew Uday. Not the way I did, I think possessively.
I get up then. I clutch that damn rag cloth tightly and walk home. I don’t cry. No.
I hang the rag cloth on a rack near the sink in the living room. I keep it pristine. I don’t use it for cleaning.
I read TS Merwyn’s poem again and again. Its words stitch new pain into my heart. Time floats into a blur of days. I reach Book No. 22 in ‘Uday’s Recommendations.’
Until one day, when the rain clouds gather and the coconut trees outside sway, I pick up that red rag cloth. I hold it in my hands. I imagine the tables in that restaurant. That granite. The leftover remnants of food. The saliva. The sweat. The cleaning of it all.
The scrubbing. The wiping. The shine and the black. Scrub. Wipe. Scrub.
I see Uday. I see what he left behind. I see what he didn’t tell me.
Slowly, I turn the rag cloth over in my hands and start to scrub the pain away.
Memories dust down from my mind. Old pain cascades down my shoulders. Loneliness pours its sweat down my neck. Scrub. Wipe. Scrub.
Smitha Murthy writes from Bangalore, India. She is the author of “World’s Apart,” a book based on the real-life epistolary correspondence of two friends who hadn’t met, which was published in 2012. She was also the 2018 winner of the Deccan Herald short story writing competition, where her story, “Meeting Old Age” captured a daughter’s journey to coming to terms with her father’s ageing.