Dwaipayan Bose’s short story with its bizarre ending makes for an intriguing read that includes some unforgettable characters and a ‘Madam’ who promise to haunt you long after the story is over.
EDITOR’S PICK OF THE WEEK
(As the editor’s pick for this week, this article will be available for free reading for a week)
It looked like a one-eyed ghoul. The white round head moving up, down, sideways – sizing up and disrobing all those who stood before it. Mounted on an AI-operated pod and connected to Wi-Fi, this intruder could send live images across continents to any voyeur armed with a phone and a fetish.
“Amazon listing says this can rotate 360 degrees and leaves no blind spot,” Manohar Singh, the supervisor, told his junior Sandeep while inspecting the Kubo Smart Cam 360, the latest addition to Tattletale, the coffee lounge at a flashy business park in Faridabad, a busy industrial town in the northern Indian state of Haryana.
Spread over 800 square feet on the ground floor lobby of a 31-storey tower housing professional services companies, Tattletale could well have been a set from ‘The Great Gatsby’. Colourful sofas strewn (but with care), designer poufs in the shape of coffee beans and tables with bottle green marble tops led to a yellow ochre L-shaped counter bearing coffee machines, grinders, two cold brew towers and an Italian roaster. Below the counter was a display chiller groaning under scores of croissants, vol-au-vents, tramezzini, brownies and pastries. At Tattletale, one could be working or whispering in the ears of a lover or just daydreaming.
In one corner, a vantage point cleared of all gadgets and utensils, stood the camera. “Madam got the carpenter to drill a hole and fix it for good. We can’t move it around,” Sandeep said, pouring hot coffee on inevitable thoughts of shoving the ghoul behind something big and heavy.
“In that case, be careful. Don’t keep talking on the phone. Pay more attention to customers. Remember, Madam is watching,” Manohar said, knowing quite well who she would be watching more closely.
At 54, Manohar Singh stuck out like an old thumb in the café business, presently dominated by 20-somethings who behaved like bartenders on game night and knew how to operate touchscreen coffee machines while shooting Instagram reels. Starting as a waiter at a ‘strictly vegetarian’ eatery in his hometown Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, Manohar crossed a milestone when he landed a job at Flury’s in Kolkata. His acquaintance with coffee and training as a barista took place at the legendary tearoom, founded in 1927 by the Swiss couple Mrs. and Mr. J Flury.
When the Coronavirus pandemic struck, Manohar was in Delhi working with a coffee chain. Unable to bear the strain of lockdown, it shut shop. Confined to home and without a job, the man took to drinking. After almost a year of getting wasted, Manohar got to know from a friend about the coffee lounge that was due to open in Faridabad.
“You’re too old for the latest coffee machines.” The telephonic interview began.
“Madam, one day these machines too will get old. Please give me a chance.”
“What did you do during the last one year? There’s a gap…”
“Kept trying for a job, Madam, but there was nothing.”
“Do you drink?”
“Well, err… occasionally, Madam.”
“In the restaurant business, that means every day. I have dealt with many like you.”
Manohar, not really enjoying this line of questioning, rattled off the types of coffee he could make.
“Okay…okay… that’s enough. It is only because of your time at Flury’s that I am giving you the job. This is your lifeboat, Manohar. Use it well. I shall be watching.”
Here she was, as promised, thought Manohar as the Kubo 360 turned a little and looked him in the eye.
The owner of the coffee lounge was Parvati Khanna, once a celebrated chef. Born and brought up in Mumbai, she spent considerable time at her grandparents’ place on Camac Street (just one kilometre from Flury’s) in Calcutta. When the rage and the beatings got too much to bear, her Bengali mother would seek refuge in Calcutta with a terrified and torn-apart Parvati. The maniacal Maharashtrian father might have regretted his marriage but loved his daughter dearly. He just loved alcohol a bit too much.
When she would be in Calcutta, he would keep calling day and night. “What are you doing now? Where are you? Why didn’t you answer my call in the afternoon?”
“I was with them.” Parvati had to balance opposing camps.
“My baby, remember I am your father. Your mother and your grandparents might be filling your head with rubbish about me, but believe me, you are my everything.”
“Then why do you make me leave you, Papa? Why do you become somebody else?” Tears would flow on both sides of the telephone line.
Parvati’s days as a chef began after she returned to Mumbai from the US with a diploma in culinary arts. While her food was widely loved, she was not. For, the torn-apart and terrified girl in Camac Street had metamorphosed into someone completely different.
“Is that the cut for a Fish Orly? Or are you imagining yourself and cutting something of a similar size?”
The Poissonnier turned to see the executive chef literally breathing down his neck. “Sorry, Madam. Is that too big?”
“Not just big, also too thick. Like that skull of yours which flaunts, to my ceaseless wonder, a chef’s hat.” The Poissonnier was just another cook in the many kitchens that Parvati ran over the years – their ventilation systems resembling the insides of a pressure cooker. To a young reporter on the restaurant beat, she once said, “Best sauces come from the most white-knuckled kitchens.”
Now 62, Parvati was five feet eight inches tall, had long hair and wore a forbidding snigger on an oval face of considerable artistry. She was heavy set but shrinking rapidly. Her house in Colaba, South Bombay, was dark, cold and closed to outsiders. To Parvati, everyone was an ‘outsider,’ except her cats. The husband was with merchant navy, living more on the high seas than dry land. Her son was studying in Australia, too busy to call. The former celebrity chef lived alone, ate food that came freeze-dried in cups and rarely stepped out.
It was a busy Monday morning at Tattletale. Manohar was taking orders at the counter, while Sandeep was busy working the coffee machines. The camera kept vigil, turning its head from side to side like a ventriloquist dummy. After servicing the first wave of customers, the two made themselves some coffee and started sipping from takeaway cups.
“You can drink my coffee, but not more than two to three cups a day. Now finish up before any customer walks in.” Manohar, who had not read the full description of the camera on Amazon, jumped, spilling some of his beverage on the floor. “Yes madam, sure madam,” he blurted, looking at the camera that could speak. Also hear.
“Now clean that up,” it crackled.
As the day unfolded, Parvati’s leash grew shorter.
“Use the stronger beans for Cortado. You’re not dumb, are you?”
“Why are cups and plates lying on table 3? Should I fly down to pick those up?”
“What is that sweaty food delivery guy doing so close to the counter? He’s messing up the ambience.”
“We don’t do ketchup. We don’t serve anything that calls for ketchup. For ketchup, tell that lady to go to Starbucks.”
“Why are you going to the restroom so many times?”
Manohar felt that it was all directed towards him, she was constantly watching him. “Why? Is it because I drink too much? Perhaps she wants to check if I am drunk during duty hours. Is this payback for giving me the job despite my age?” Paranoia spiked his drinks. Rage, building through the day as the camera violated and enslaved him, would ignite the alcohol in his body at night. The flames would singe his wife and daughter.
“Nobody tells me what to do. Arrghh… nobody. I will do whatever I want to, I will drink as much as I want to. Go to hell,” Manohar screamed at his wife one night, after a 10-hour shift of doing everything that Parvati wanted him to do. His daughter cowered, even though she knew he loved her deeply. Alas, like another father from another time, Manohar just loved alcohol a little more.
“Why has the camera been moved? Why am I not being able to see the full lounge? What have you guys done?” It was 5 in the morning.
Jolted awake by the harsh ring of his cellphone, Manohar snapped: “The café will open after three hours, Madam. What is there to see now? The whole building is shut.”
“What did you say? You are still drunk, you swine. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have dared. It is my coffee lounge, and I will see it any time I want to.”
“Sorry, Madam, I am so sorry. I will go in early and check the camera.”
“You talk to me like that once more and I will kick you out.” The line went cold.
Manohar reached the coffee lounge one hour earlier than usual. The camera was at its place, but the one-eyed head was twisted at an extreme angle – a copybook head wrench. “Looks like it had been moving all through the night, till the ball bearings couldn’t take it anymore,” a nonchalant Sandeep remarked.
Parvati Khanna was diagnosed with metastatic cancer when she was in the middle of the paperwork for setting up Tattletale. Her husband and son told her to walk away from the deal and stop dreaming about a coffee lounge that she wouldn’t even be able to visit. They also threatened to reveal her medical condition to the brand-owner with whom she was about to sign a six-year agreement. Finally, her oncologist intervened.
“Parvati might live for six years or six months or six days… we do not know. She will need a reason to live and that can’t be battling a disease.”
“I understand, doctor, but starting a venture now? At this point?” Parvati’s husband got restive.
“You will go back to your ship and your son to his university. What will she be left with?”
Cutting through the sentiment and sagacity, Parvati’s husband and son saw an escape route in this. Couple of weeks later, they took flight – leaving behind promises of returning by the “first available plane” if she needed them. Parvati did not. There was a coffee lounge to build, time for her a tightening noose.
Tattletale took four months to come into shape, a monument to long distance micro-management.
The cancer didn’t waste any time either. The pain came in waves, Parvati’s body shrank, skin loosened, and the long flowing hair grew wiry. Except while on chemo trips with her driver, she would keep staring at the screen of her smartphone – beaming images from a faraway coffee lounge, sometimes alive with people and laughter, sometimes desolate and dead.
“Something is not right with Madam,” Manohar told Sandeep one day after work. “I hear she is seriously ill, never leaves her home. When neighbours come, she would abuse them and slam the door. You may be old and sick, but no one takes shit.”
“But we do, don’t we? Every minute. That hag and her camera keeps watching and barking. Imagine, she keeps staring at the empty café late in the night!” Sandeep said. “Probably she has gone crazy. Let’s quit.”
Manohar felt the coldness of the chain that bound him to his ‘lifeboat.’
The way curtain often falls on sick and lonely people living in big and impersonal cities, the body was discovered several hours after it had succumbed to the inescapable. Parvati Khanna was lying on her bed staring at the ceiling, her hands and legs spread – a Vitruvian woman who wrestled death but fell in a heap when the final, devastating blow came. Her phone, hermetically linked to the Kubo Smart Cam, was lying beside her. It was dead too. The maid who found her called the driver, the driver called the neighbours, the neighbours called the police, the police called her kin. Everything happened fast, as if there was a template. Even the cats acted their part – they disappeared.
“Parvati had lost her will to live. When a terminally ill person gives up on life, what can medical science do?” her oncologist remarked. The husband and son performed the last rites in a hurry. A small obituary came out in the Features section of an English daily. Some famous chefs, once trainees in Parvati’s kitchen, expressed remorseless regret. In Faridabad, the one-eyed ghoul stopped moving, but kept staring.
“What do we do with Tattletale now? I can’t run it from the middle of the Pacific,” Parvati’s husband said.
“Why are you even saying this to me, papa? What do I know?”
“I never wanted it in the first place. I knew from day one that something like this could happen. Your mother just swept her cancer under the carpet and went ahead.”
“That is how she was. Anyway, let’s just shut it down, sell it off… whatever.”
As always, it took far less time to break down than it had taken to build. The lease agreement was terminated, with the parent company making a packet as the franchise-owner breached the lock-in period. Manohar and Sandeep were given two months’ salary and told to clear out. The colourful sofas were dragged away, the coffee-bean poufs done away with, and the tables got stripped of their green marble tops. The garage sale of the high-end coffee machines and the Italian roaster somewhat compensated Parvati’s husband. He wrote his son a cheque for half the proceeds, pocketed the rest, locked up the Colaba house and left for the sea.
For the security guards at the sprawling business park in Faridabad, night shift on Sundays was a welcome change. The dinner crowd, in a cluster of restaurants opening into an oblong arena with fountains and artful installations on the ground floor, would depart early. Shutters were downed with unusual promptness, even the 7-Eleven convenience store would turn 7-Ten for a night. The chief of security, enjoying his off day, wouldn’t even bother to call. A perfect setting for snoozing on duty.
That was exactly what tower guard Kallu Yadav was doing, when a swaying Manohar Singh approached him.
“Why are the damn lights out? I need to start roasting the beans, let me in.”
“Beans? What beans? What are you doing here? How did you enter?” Kallu recognised the drunk barista from that overpriced coffee place that shut down some time ago.
“What do you mean? I work here. I am reporting for duty. If I don’t keep the coffee ready, then how will we serve? Madam will call anytime.”
“What Madam? Which Madam? Bastard, you are pissed. You don’t know what you are talking about. That ‘Ta-Ta Tell-Tell’ shut over a month ago.” Kallu touched the company issue gun hung around his shoulder.
Minutes later, as he was dragged out by Kallu and two other guards from neighbouring towers, Manohar kept mumbling,“Madam is watching… she will call.”
His snooze rudely interrupted, Kallu carried out a perfunctory check of the lobby, had dinner and decided to retire next to the empty L-shaped counter, the vestige of Parvati Khanna’s coffee lounge. “How did that guy really enter? Did he use his old ID card? Who was this Madam?” Kallu had no answers.
The sound that woke up the security guard at around 3 in the morning was mechanical, its shrillness amplified by the ambient silence. Jumping to his feet, Kallu picked up his gun, only to drop it in nervousness. Just as he was about to bend, he saw it. At the darkest corner of the counter, a one-eyed head was turning and twisting violently, a robotic yowling coming out from the pod on which it danced. The Kubo Smart Cam 360, a late addition to the coffee lounge and too deified to be marked as an ‘item’, had never made it to the inventory list. The clearance sale missed it. Nobody mentioned it, nobody looked for it.
Then everything stopped – the twisting, turning, screaming. It became a Sunday night again, the lobby barren, Tattletale history, peace restored. Kallu stepped closer.
Breaching the stillness of night, shattering the concrete quiet of a locked building, paralysing the unsuspecting security guard and proving the drunk trespasser true, came a voice from the depths of the one-eyed ghoul: “Manohar, Manohar… Why is it so dark?”
Dwaipayan Bose was a journalist for over two decades. He traversed the road from trainee to editor-in-chief of a national daily hopping and skipping through jobs and cities. Mid-career, he went to the University of Oxford as a Thomson Reuters Fellow. He has also done an internship with the Sunday Times in London. His reports, edits and comments have been published in major Indian newspapers and websites.