To its owner, a restaurant is just like his baby. He sees it from the inside, in all the fullness of its being, loving the dull moments as much as the bright ones. To customers, it is a source of food, food without a backstory. Food that appears magically from behind a kitchen door on an anonymous waiter’s tray, fifteen minutes after the desire for it bubbled up in their minds. To the staff, it is the place that pays their salaries and the prison where they labour all day long while thinking about other things, like sex, sleep or sabotage. To passersby, it is a name or a landmark. To all kinds of traders of produce and providers of services, it is a business opportunity and a billing address. To officials of the BMC, it’s a place where one can get a free meal any time and a bit of free cash every time a licence is to be renewed, which is only fair as the proprietor is “in business” and therefore “must be making a lot of money”.
But to the proprietor, the restaurant is a living being, a story as dense and as dramatic as layered as the Mahabharata itself, only the ending hasn’t been written yet. Only the proprietor knows a restaurant’s past and the phases of its progression, like the moon through a month. He knows the forces—human, economic, climatic, cosmic—that are supporting the restaurant and those that are undermining it; the exact sum in the cash register and the balance of inflows and outflows; what is going on in the kitchen and what is going on at the tables; the rhythm of the hours and the interplay of the staff. And the sound of the silence that falls when everyone leaves, and only he is left inside, smoking a Classic Milds and making his shopping list for the next morning.
I remember the day the China Dragon did ten thousand rupees worth of business for the first time. It was like the restaurant’s very own Independence Day. On that day the three different kinds of customer needed by a restaurant, the two categories and four grades of orders that make up its business, all of these things arrived in perfect proportion and balance, in a way that indicated for the first time not our good fortune—not something to go to the temple to give thanks for—but rather our potential, our ability, our kabiliyat. On that day I had a vision of perfection, like that seen by the Buddha in Gaya or by Mr Bendre, the resident artist of old Prabhadevi, who came to me one day with the news that the secret of life had been revealed to him and he was painting it in the colour yellow. Even the customers who offered their stomachs and their wallets to the China Dragon that day were from a whole range, like a full pack of cards. Life was very broad that day, very full.
They say it is always darkest just before dawn. Not that I showed it, but for weeks I’d been in a blue funk, wondering if the business was ever going to work out or if I was living a pipedream. Takings were low, costs painfully high. The staff were loving how little work they were having to do for their salaries, and were growing fat on free meals like Brahmins in a temple. Like most other days, that day began in the most silent way. From 11 to 12.30 all of us mooched around doing nothing but shuffling our weight from one foot to another, admiring the beauty of one another’s faces without the slightest pause or interruption. All of us except Vishnuji, the chef, who was conducting experiments with his Pattaya sauce and his black bean sauce. Even he, for want of more work, finally came out to join us. Out of his sleepy, dragon-like eyes, he regarded us all calmly from Table No 2, the closest of our six tables to the kitchen, his chin propped up on his arm.
He didn’t see anything that would excite him. Dozens of people passed by on the pavement without even stopping to look at the signboard. It was as if the China Dragon had become invisible, as if all the flyers I had inserted into the neighbourhood newspapers in the last week had been written in Chinese, as if the people working all around us in the swanky new offices of Prabhadevi had gone on a hunger strike like Anna Hazare.
Of course, I don’t have eighteen years of experience (twenty- eight if you count the years observing my father) in the restaurant industry for nothing. I knew why this was happening. In the first couple of years after a restaurant opens, business is always up and down, hot and cold, before things settle into a rhythm. Sometimes the Dragon was as full as the Siddhivinayak temple on a Tuesday, sometimes as empty as a dead bachelor’s house in Dadar Parsi Colony. There was no pattern, no reason.
But it was one thing to know this, and quite something else to experience it. And even if you were feeling down, you couldn’t go take a break somewhere, as even God can (he goes to the Matunga Gymkhana, where he got a great deal on life membership). You had to keep everybody’s spirits up, make the time pass more quickly till the telephone rang or the hungry faces appeared. Remember, never stop smiling, because that is the beginning of the end. That is when old age starts, when life knows that it is about to beat you.
At 12.45, I said what everyone was thinking. “It’s not looking good. Boys, pack everything up. Screw this business! We’re putting down our shutters and going out for a day on the beach, as long as you packed your shorts when you left home this morning.”
My boys—Bala and Salman and Pintu, the waiters; Dharam, Wellington and Mansingh, the kitchen staff—always laugh when I say such things. Whether out of genuine amusement or just out of respect I don’t know. As long as they get their salaries on time, they’ll laugh even if I read them my will, the bastards.
“Who knows what goes through the brain of the customer?” said Vishnuji. “Just like the good are always made to suffer the most, people eat all kinds of garbage, and don’t care for food that somebody makes with care and serves at a good price. Until business picks up, there’s no way we can start buying flat noodles for Malaysian noodles. We’ll have to use the same kind of noodles for every dish.”
“Don’t worry, Vishnuji,” I said. “Just keep going with plain noodles for a couple more months. Then I’ll get you not only flat noodles, but round noodles, noodles with boobs, noodles so long they curl all the way around the world and back.”
“In Hong Kong they make a kind of green noodles,” mused Vishnuji. “You don’t have to put spinach on top—they already come with spinach. I saw them at a Chinese restaurant in Calcutta.”
Bala piped up: “Noodles are….”
“Noodles are what?” I said.
“Noodles are…they’re nice.”
“Noodles are nice? What a genius. No wonder God’s placement agency marked you out as a sure-shot waiter.”
So there we were, drawing out our thoughts like noodles to pass the time. Then suddenly everything changed. It was exactly 12.57 when three salesmen from the Audi showroom across the road came in.
“Can we go upstairs? Or is there no table free there?” said one. “Please, if you could. We have something important to discuss.”
“We have a couple of lunch reservations for 1pm, but no problem, sir,” I said. “The customer is king. Go right ahead. I’ll manage somehow.”
And I trooped up after them with my notebook and pen. At least we had broken our duck for the day.
As I led them through the menu, trying to slip them something a bit more expensive than the usual, I heard more voices downstairs. I peeped down the spiral staircase and saw an elderly gentleman in a suit, with a beautiful young lady alongside, asking the waiters if the restaurant was open for lunch. My boys were so star-struck by the girl that they couldn’t say a word in reply.
“We’re open!” I shouted. As Table No 5 was taking so long to decide and looked really as if what it wanted most was to be left alone, I excused myself and half-tumbled down the stairs. I sat the couple down at Table No 3, and sent Bala upstairs to lay the table for the Audi men. Just as I took the downstairs order and sent Salman into the kitchen with it, the phone rang. It was suddenly raining orders! It was Mrs Chawla from Pine Tree Apartments, saying her four teenaged nephews and nieces had come visiting from Ahmedabad and she’d sent them to eat at the restaurant, but they couldn’t find it and had called her. Could I quickly run out to Century Bazar junction and find them?
“Of course, ma’am, my pleasure,” I said. More customers! Now, was I to attend to Table No 5, or go and find the kids? In this line you have to think on your feet, not sit on your gaand and babble the rubbish you’ve learnt in management school. I figured that Table No 5 had had its chance for my undivided attention three minutes ago and hadn’t taken it, and there was something important being discussed upstairs anyway. If the kids came in and wanted to go upstairs—young people always want to go upstairs—then that would disturb the peace, so they could use a bit of private time till I got back. I stuck my head into the kitchen and saw the flame flaring beneath Vishnuji’s wok, heard the oil hissing in the pan. “Keep going, boys, I’ll be back in a minute!” I went out towards Century Bazar junction, but there was no sign of four hungry teenagers. I used my brain a bit and figured they were probably at the next traffic signal a little way down the road. Teenagers are so much trouble, and not just to their parents. Babies are better. Now I was upset, because this meant I was going to be away for far too long from Table No 3. I’d have to offer them a discount for bad service—that is, if they hadn’t left by the time I came. I prayed that Bala would have had the sense to take the order by himself. I was right. At the next junction I found my four young customers. Each one of them was talking on the phone, completely absorbed in his or her own world. I half expected that they would place their order right there, to save themselves the trouble of walking to the restaurant.
“Come! come! come! bacchas, hurry! hurry! hurry!” I cried. “Why didn’t you ask someone for directions?”
Herding them and hassling them, I got them back to the Dragon in three minutes.
Or did I? Was this really the same Dragon I had left?
At Table No 1, a little squeezed for space because of its proximity to my computer table, an old Parsi couple sat next to one another, holding hands like newlyweds, laughing at the spelling mistakes in the menu. (I will correct them when we print the next batch, I promise.)
At Table No 2 there was a Gujarati, or possibly Marwari family, all dressed in bright clothes as if for a wedding, but adding reds and golds to the green walls and blue ceiling of the Dragon and the jingle of bangles and anklets to the beating of metal and tinkling of spoons from the kitchen.
At 3pm, the couple whose order I’d taken were entreating each other to begin with the prawns in black bean sauce that Vishnuji had whipped up. Looked like they were having an affair.
Upstairs the Audi salesmen were still at No 5, because Bala was carrying down the wrapper of the Kit Kat bar that one of them had been eating. And clearly some others at either 4 or 6, because the most thrilling, high-pitched feminine laughter came wafting down, making my blood tingle.
And all the voices mingled together to make the most beautiful, vivid sound, the sound my ears had been dying to hear all through the longest year of my life. These were the people whom China Dragon had always longed for. It took me a few moments to realise that, under the happy hadbadi of talk and music, the phone was ringing! I ushered the teenagers upstairs and grabbed the phone.
“Good afternoon, China Dragon…”
And suddenly I saw a new meaning in these words that I hadn’t in the thousands of times I’d said it before. Because it was as if I was addressing not my customer, but my restaurant. The restaurant had come alive. We were speaking to each other, my baby and me. Good afternoon, I could hear it saying back to me. Let’s get cracking, handsome.
How the hours passed by till 3.30! It was a dream, I tell you, a waking dream. There was no letting up for even a minute. As a table fell empty, so some more arrived to take it. Each one of us had to help the other out. We even cursed and swore at each other, but it was all in the heat of the moment, forgotten the next minute. I knew that Vishnuji was under pressure, so I got an order for Beijing Rice out of each one of the tables, so he could make one big batch and send it out to each table, the way the same sunlight streams out to the different countries of the world. I took note of which table was getting impatient and which one was relaxed, and sent the information in so that what was happening inside was responding to what was needed outside. Bala, who is usually too scared of people to speak properly, answered two phone calls while I was upstairs and wrote down the KOTs all by himself, and sped down the streets of our neighbourhood for parcel orders and was back again like a spirit. I don’t know whether it was the presence of the girls upstairs or not, but Salman, whose technique is very bad and awareness not better than average, gave his most polished performance ever. His noodle-serving in particular was a joy; he did it with a flourish, the way I do, but of course it’s a risk—if you send noodles flying into the customer’s lap, you get a flourish in turn, of a weight much greater than noodles. And in the kitchen Dharam was as always Mr Reliable himself. But what amazed me was that Wellington let go of his passion for his mobile phone for the first time, and washed and dried the dishes as if it was his own wedding he was preparing them for. Time rolled on, people kept coming in; in my head I kept doing rough sums, totting up the figures past two, three, four, five thousand. Our record for the day at this time was Rs 7,150, and now we were nearly there by the end of lunch. Even as we were putting down our shutters at 3.30, three short, fat men turned up and said they would eat anything we could give them. The staff were tired and hungry, but they’d seen the hard times we’d gone through, so they all went to work again.
After that, what a staff lunch we ate! What jokes passed around the table! I’m telling you, energy creates its own energy, happiness seeds more happiness. The trouble is getting the machine started up in the first place. The staff went home to sleep till 6.30, and I switched off my phone, lay down on the long back seat of Table No 6 and slept like a king.
And then the evening was just the opposite. No big orders came in: no six hundreds, seven hundreds, thousands. From 7 to 11 only two tables were occupied. But the phone rang every ten minutes, as if on a timer, and each time it was somebody wanting some small little thing: a soup here, a starter there, one fried rice, or a gravy dish to go with their own rice at home. These orders don’t change anybody’s life, don’t make anybody a Tata, Birla or Ambani, but they keep everybody working, they keep time moving. They show that people are thinking of you. We crept forward, past 8,000 and 9,000. I told the staff where we were heading, into a place we’d never been before. That way they became part of the quest, each one peering at the orders and doing his own sums in his head. We were all as focussed on the goal as Arjuna was on the clay bird in the Mahabharata. At nine-five, the figure, and ten-thirty, the time, a guy came in with his girlfriend. I thought I’d swing them past 500, but they turned out to be vegetarian, and finally, even after they had a sizzling brownie for dessert, their bill came to three hundred and fifty.
By this time it was nearly 11pm. We’d just fallen short and everyone knew it.
“No worries,” I said. “This is an occasion to celebrate, not to be disappointed because we missed five figures by a whisker. In a little while we’ll have moved on so far, ten thousand will be just the start for us. It’ll be foreplay, not the climax.”
But to be honest, even I was a little bit disappointed. How couldn’t I be?
Couldn’t somebody, somewhere, over the day, have ordered just one more thing?
And then, right at the stroke of eleven, something happened. All through the evening people had been going in and out of the banquet hall across the road from the Dragon. There was some kind of reception on there. From the kind of kurtas or suits that the men wore, and the way they carried them (some had the thin end of their ties longer than the thick one), from the way the women all wore bright chiffon or silk sarees and carried shiny handbags and had tied back their frizzy hair, I could tell that the bride and groom were from somewhere in the middle third of the Maharashtrian middle-class.
Just as the whole reception was coming to an end and the last people were trooping out, a couple in their fifties arrived, wearing their best clothes, and went in. I was reading a letter about a dispute about car parking space sent to me in my capacity as secretary of the Three View Housing Society, the ground floor of which is occupied by the China Dragon. But even so I kept an eye on the scene across the road. (The proprietor of a restaurant should always have a third eye, like Shiva.) Five minutes later, the couple emerged again, unhappy and irritable. The husband scolded the wife; the wife turned away and sulked; they stood at the bus stop for five minutes, then when no bus came they began to bicker again.
Oh marriage, marriage, you sweet and beautiful thing.
Anyway, what business was it of mine? Vishnuji came over to discuss the next day’s shopping.
As we were going over the China Dragon’s inventory item by item, just after I said cabbage, just before I was about to say coriander, Vishnu suddenly looked up.
I turned around, and there they were, the couple who’d come late to the wedding reception, like characters in one TV drama who suddenly turn up in another.
I didn’t know them and yet I knew them. Everybody who works in a restaurant that has mid-range prices and above recognises a certain kind of patron, and that is the kadka. This is the customer who will order only the cheapest thing on the menu, because he is frightened by the numbers to the right of everything else. He or she also stays the longest, eats plenty of the free things like table sauce, wants to know if a half-plate of this or that can be had. Everybody laughs in private at the kadka, even the waiters. Half the jokes that hoteliers tell each other over drinks are about kadkas. In fact a restaurant can be destroyed by too many kadkas occupying tables at peak hours, while the big bills wait impatiently outside and then after a while scoot.
But I’m not done yet. You see, even within kadka kingdom, there are two classes. The first are just kanjoos down to their bone marrows, but the second class…I have some sympathy for.
These are the people, usually in their fifties or above, who simply never went out to eat because they grew up when no one in the middle classes had money to spare for wasteful things like eating out. To their parents, going to a restaurant and spending twenty rupees a head on food when the whole family could eat at home for half that amount was no different from throwing money from the rooftop of your building. And so too, in turn, for them. Because they don’t like spending money on eating out, these older kadkas, they can never enjoy such a meal either, even if it is a king’s feast. They eat all huddled up, their faces drawn with anxiety. Even if their grown-up children are treating them, they might still say at the end, “What we make at home is ten times better!”
The reason why I sympathise with them is that these people are not so much miserly as marked. Marked by a place, a time, a situation, the India of old. What we had in front of us now, at the fag end of the biggest day of our lives, were a husband and wife from the second class of kadka: worn down by life, by Bombay, by waking up at 6am all week long, by being squeezed on the train or bus for two hours every day, by living in some tiny sarkari quarters with a generation above and a generation below, by putting children through school and college and saving for gold for their daughter’s marriage.
And I had never been so delighted by the sight of kadkas in my life, because even the smallest order from them would carry us across the border. It was as if God himself had appeared in the shape and form of these two people. They sat down at Table No 1, they looked at the menu, they huddled, they mumbled to each other.
The staff hovered around them.
In the kitchen Vishnuji stood on alert.
Finally, the man motioned to me.
“Yes, sir, what would you like? Some sweet corn soup? Some nice noodles? We’ll give you ten per cent off on anything.”
“Actually, I wanted to ask you…”
“Is there an Udupi restaurant in the area that might still be open?”
“An Udupi restaurant?”
“You see, we don’t actually like all this Chinese-winese. It’s more for young people. What we wanted to eat was a dosa or a thali. But we don’t belong to this area.”
They wanted to eat a dosa!
These are the occasions when a hotelier’s moral fibre is tested, like when an attractive woman puts a hand on your knee at a party and you have a wife waiting at home. I took a deep breath, and thought about how I was going to persuade them to eat Chinese. But over those three seconds I felt bad for them too, and also a bit ashamed of myself, because they were almost as old as my own parents. On any other day I would have happily sent them on elsewhere because there was no money to be made from them, but today it was only my own need, my own greed, that made me want their custom. Even if I sold them a single order of rice, one by two, that would get us up to ten thousand. But what would be the meaning of our reaching that target when the food was bitter in their mouths, and they went home still hungry? And so I said: “Yes, actually there is, sir. If you just go down this road, past the junction, then to your right you’ll see a place. Asian Restaurant & Stores. If you hurry, you’ll get there before it shuts. Come, I will show you.”
“Thank you so much. Aami aabhari aahot.”
And I escorted them out, and I came back in. Dharam was just about to say something rude about kadkas when I put my finger to my lips and said, “No, no. Let it be. Wellington, down the shutters. Let’s eat a big dinner. Ten thousand or no ten thousand, life has been good to us today.”
Welly was just about to pull down the shutters when he cried, “Sir, sir! They’re coming back.”
“Must’ve left something behind.”
Praise this city for how it wears out its people! The two elderly ones pushed open the door, and the woman said with a tired smile, “It’s too far to walk. Today, chalo, we are going to eat Chinese.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure. But we are vegetarian. You tell us, what should we eat? Something really spicy. Otherwise, what’s the pleasure of eating out?”
And that was how, with the sound of the sizzle of extra mirchi upon the happy wok, the China Dragon raised its snout and touched 10,000 for the first time.
This short-story was published in the Oct-Dec 2016 issue of The Indian Quarterly.
Illustration by Salil Sojwal