Prashila Naik is a writer, technologist and wannabe minimalist from Goa currently based in Bangalore.
The waves stretch on in endless rows bound by serpentine knots. They seem pleased with their own rhythm and pattern, following each other as if they are part of a marching band, eventually crashing onto the shore in calculated surrender. A melange of human bodies in all shapes, sizes and colours, bustle through the golden hued afternoon, unmindful of the scorching heat or the humidity, interspersing with the wave parade from time to time, merging into and emerging out of it with such ease and gaiety that one would find it impossible not to be sucked into its labyrinth.
But Joel is an exception. A few months shy of twenty, he has spent an entire lifetime watching this perpetual display of a form of life; he has never been able to comprehend it. As he gathers the carcasses of pomfrets, mackerels and crabs off the plates that have just been emptied by a noisy group of Hindi-speaking customers, he can only think of the vulgar ring one of those men was wearing, shaped like a woman’s comfortably open mouth with its tongue sticking out suggestively - a ring that had instantly turned him on.
He had to struggle to stop himself from peering into the cleavage of the only woman accompanying the men as he stood next to her, with his overused notepad and heavily chewed up pen, noting down the food and drink they were ordering off the menu. The woman refused to have anything other than a bottle of vodka, even as the vulgar ring-bearing man, good-naturedly told her how slim she was and that a little bit of “Goa speshial” would only add some spice to the sultry afternoon that it was. He listened to them all bereft of any mirth, struggling to control the still persistent urge to take a peek into the woman’s blouse.
“What is your name boy?” The woman asked just then, her voice both seductive and sweet at the same time, as if she could pull him close like a mother and kiss him straight on his mouth a lover.
“Joel,” she repeated, as she took a long swig from her glass, refusing to look away from him.
Joel looked away, embarrassed and yet excited. He had heard stories of how so many boys like him just got 'lucky' with women like these. Would he get lucky too? He turned his head slightly to get a better view of the woman, but she had lost interest in him. She was busy hanging onto the arm of the man next to her, and that was when Joel noticed the line of sindoor in the parting of her head, and the tiny beads of her mangal sutra peeping out of her blouse. The husband would get lucky. The bastard, Joel murmured to himself as he picked up the last plate on the table and mentally made a note of the three chicken xacutis the woman's husband had ordered.
As he turned to go, the woman called out to him and asked if he had a girlfriend. Joel fumbled as one of the plates slipped from his hands, the one with the most crab shells and landed on the feet of one of the men. Joel apologized but the man had already stood up, his hands wound around Joel's neck. Joel struggled to contain the remaining plates with him, and looked down at the one that was now being stomped upon by the man.
“Saale, cant you see? These are new shoes. And now they will forever smell like crabs, all because of you.”
Joel apologized as he struggled at the gradual tightening of the man's hold, until he found himself suddenly free of it. The man burst out laughing and was soon joined by rest of the table, the woman included. Joel looked at them, the plates in his hands now all scattered around him, and his eyes opened wide as if in a daze. The people on the table refused to stop laughing, their heads rolling with mirth and their bodies unsteady. Joel realized they were all drunk. He took a deep breath and then with a smile, bent down to collect the plates and the leftover bones and shells. The laughter at the table subsided, and soon gave away to declarations of more hunger and more daaru. The woman touched Joel's head lightly and told him to not mind her husband and his brothers. When Joel stood up and looked at her, she was still smiling, as if that was all her face could do.
“You are a very beautiful boy,” she called out, much to Joel's surprise as he turned to go.
As he handed the plates to the dish-cleaner's counter and walked to the cook's room to order the table's dishes, he kept thinking of the woman. You are a pretty boy. But soon she and her words were not enough of a balm. His hand moved to rub his neck; the pain was obvious and so was the humiliation. Instead of waiting on the next table, he sneaked out of the kitchen and into the store room. The store room bulb was bright enough to read the labels on the large bottles. Joel struggled with the smaller bottles, most of them very old and their inscriptions already faint. Just when he was about to give up, his eyes fell on a folded packet of paper. Joel picked it up and brought it closer to his nose. He knew that smell; it was enough for at least ten people.
By the time he was back in the kitchen, the ordered dishes of xacuti had been served up by the cook, along with freshly steamed sannas. Joel pulled out the packet from his pocket and carefully opened it. He looked around to see no one was watching and then mixed the powder in the three xacuti bowls before him.. The powder stared back at first but gradually merged with the xacuti's hot and steaming gravy. Joel shook the three dishes slightly and then with the drinks basket hanging against his arm, walked to the table. As he put down the dishes on the table, no one there showed any signs of recognition. The woman was busy staring into her phone, her face half covered by her long brownish hair. The man who had almost killed Joel had his head bent down on the table. The other men were busy staring into the sea. Joel waited for the group to spring back to life. But when the seconds ticked away and they did not, Joel cleared his throat loud enough for them to take note of him first, and then of the food and then the drinks.
The woman was the first to groan in what seemed like deep displeasure.
“Who ordered so much food again? Who is so hungry?” she said to no one in particular and then just as quickly returned to her phone.
Her husband looked at the dishes and then at the beer bottles. His eyes seemed to light up at the latter, as he picked one up and put it to his mouth. Joel took a few quick breaths waiting for them try the xacuti, but the table stayed silent and his dishes grew cold. He gave up, and turned to look at the neighbouring table who had begun to gesture for his attention. He let go of the urge to dip the sleeping man's head into the xacuti gravy, and instead he walked towards the other table. He didn’t think much of this group either: four Indian men, possibly in their mid to late-twenties, and two white girls with curly blonde hair and shiny bright mouths that he for some reason imagined had being kissed by every filthy man on the table. Joel watched them with the same disdain he had been feeling a few minutes ago. He wrote down the order, spat at him by the men on the table. Joel thought of the other packets of powder in the storeroom.
A family of four was seated on the next table Joel attended. He noticed with a start how good-looking the entire family was. He had never seen so much beauty concentrated in a single place outside of a TV screen. Despite himself, he felt himself stare at the father first, his long olive coloured face and straight brown hair, the cheekbones aligned just right, the light pink lips pulled together to form a mouth that was as tough as it was relaxed. And then the mother, so beautiful she could be a Hindi movie heroine. Even Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta would pale into insignificance in front of this stunning woman. And the elder daughter! Joel blushed as he noticed how she was closer to his own age than anyone else on the table. An exact replica of her beautiful mother and yet so much more prettier because of her youth. Joel imagined touching the girl's hair, letting his fingers move through its entire length. He imagined kissing her red lips for as long as the girl would allow him, and if she allowed him, letting his hands do some more stuff to the rest of her that was at the moment hidden by the table.
Joel's heart skipped a beat; some of the bitterness inside him melted away as if the images in his head were all real, when the girl noticed him staring at her. She instantly straightened up, her eyes wide with defiance at this daily nuisance. She stared at Joel until he was forced to look away, more ashamed than angry.
Just then the table with the two white girls screamed for his attention. “Hey waiter, where is our order? Order kaha hai? Madams are hungry yaar.”
Joel ignored them as he began walking towards the kitchen, still thinking about the good-looking family when he realized he had not looked at the younger daughter. He turned around on an impulse and found her sitting next to her father, seeming so much like him, and yet so different. Joel felt pleased at that discovery. At least there was some form of justice. Life wasn't fair. Maybe the girl would eventually end up resenting her whole family, especially the sister... His heart ached at the thought of that girl, even as he allowed himself a glimpse of her hair.
The table with the two white women came to life again, this time their general annoyance giving way to easy abuse. Chutiya. Joel had heard that word before but wasn't sure what it meant. The men were wildly gesturing with their hands, attracting the attention of other tables as well. Joel felt his knees wobble as he rushed to the store room and then back to the kitchen.
His heart seemed to fall back right into its original place just as he was done placing the last dish on the table with the two white women. The men were distracted with the smell and colour of the food, the two women desperately trying to share the excitement of their male counterparts. Joel wondered how much longer and he would find the men running around holding their stomachs. And that is when he remembered the first table he had attended to. The vulgar ring, the man's almost deathly grip around his neck, it all came rushing back.
Joel ran in the direction of the table, only to find it empty, most of the food and drinks untouched. For a second, he was worried that the group had taken off without paying. But just as he was about to utter expletives, he noticed three shiny new notes of Rs. 1000 neatly placed under one of the xacuti bowls. Joel looked around and ensuring no one had noticed him, pocketed the money. Everyday at least two tables left without paying, would this runaway table really be of any surprise then?
He began cleaning the plates, when he noticed again the beautiful girl from the beautiful family running away from her table, her face half-covered and her head bent low. Joel almost dropped the plates in his hand, as he struggled to resist an urge to follow her. But the girl's younger sister had already beaten him to it. Joel watched her get to her sister, stop her, and then do something like console her, all in a few seconds. And in no time the two sisters were back with their parents, the tears magically gone and replaced with sunny smiles.
Joel looked away and then smiled, as he thought of his own house a few miles away, where his mother would be at this very moment having a lie down after finishing her lunch, and his father would be in the verandah, complaining about how the curry was laden with more salt than fish and soon his stomach was going to become one big salt pit. Joel hated them both, with their incompatibility and their inability to rise above the obvious; their wasted lives lived largely in denial of their less than modest ambitions. But then he wasn't much different either, was he? He caught a glimpse of the beautiful girl and felt consumed by bitterness. Years later she would probably visit this very beach with an equally good-looking husband and a couple of fair-skinned kids, and he would still be here, serving her and others like her. Or would he...
The table with the two white women intruded on his thoughts. The laughter erupting from there made him jerk his head in their direction. One of the men was holding his stomach, his face contorting into spasms of pain. Joel could see him trying to hold onto his dignity with such desperation that for a moment he felt ashamed of his juvenile indiscretion. But as the man, now unable to bear his discomfort, got off his chair and started to run, almost letting the chair tumble in the process, Joel decided it was all worth the effort.
He piled all the bowls one on top of each other, careful to not let the gravy spill, and with a soft whistle began walking towards the dish-cleaning counter, suddenly remembering the three notes of rupees thousand in his purse. Maybe he would give one of those notes to his mother, one to his father, make the two old bastards happy. And the leftover note, he would keep for himself even if he was not sure about what he would do with it.
But the day was only halfway done and he was only nineteen, and there were so many things one could do with so much money. He whistled some more and let his thoughts drift to the beautiful girl's face till she and he were lying down on the beach and the girl was telling him, “Joel you are a very beautiful boy”.