Short story selected for the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
“You know, Garrison sahib came every Friday at five o’clock to have two special fish fries and one cup of special tea to Happis Grills. Mary memsahib came here once every month, her English lace dress rested on these very chairs. What English she talked! Fine English! And she loved Happis Grills. Cheapest and the best quality food. Best fish. Best oil. Ha ha! Those were the days. Tom sahib, Dick sahib and Harry sahib, every white skin wearing a top hat would come here and order…”
Thus rambled on Roy babu. His wrinkled skin trembled with happiness, the few strands of grey hair danced with joy, his hands shook with elation and his eyes brightened as it did every time he got transported back to fifty-five years ago. He relived the glory of Happis Grills, pre-Independence, when globalization had not touched the by-lanes of North Calcutta.
“This same flower vase Mary memsahib had brought from London and gives me as a present when she gone away. I cried when they go. Very nice ladies and gentlemen. Such style, such class, I would never sit on the same table but stand and look. Eat fish fries in the kitchen but never sit on the same table. English people, very fine people. Sahib, you know, your name is Sahib, but you are a class much less, putting your hand on Garrison sahib’s table. How many times have I told you, first table with the table fan is Garrison sahib’s table? Do not touch, you filthy Indian. What will I say when Garrison sahib comes? I will say that a filthy Indian touched your table, sahib, and made the table cloth dirty. He will come one day, before he dies, to his beloved India, to eat his beloved fish fries at Happis Grills. He told me that the day he got on the ship at the port. Never even think in your deepest dream that I will give you a special fish fry just because your name is Sahib, you have never even seen the boot polish of a white skinned man, a true sahib. Which planet was influencing my thoughts on the ill fated day when I hired a good-for-nothing waiter like you for such a good restaurant? What will happen to you? Go and get me some tea, you filthy Indian.”
Sahib, smiled as he turned towards the kitchen. He never really minded the octogenarians’ words. Roy babu loved Happis Grills and had the capability to make Happis Grills sound like a five star restaurant just like he had the capability to make British Raj sound like the Golden Age of India. Everything was romanticized, like in a movie with several lights that add the extra special glow on the heroines face when she falls in love. The cracked peeling walls, the broken tables, the rust on the lamps, the tear on the table cloth, the chipped plates and cheap glass tumbler’s would all disappear. Everything would seem ‘the best’. His underpaid overworked job as a waiter, the mean customers who never tipped him, the meaner Roy babu who would never allow him to even taste a special fish fry, the meanest man, Roy babu’s son who often threatened to sack him if he dared to mention the question of a rise of the salary, the pigeon that often flew inside and decorated the floor with white droppings, the family of cockroaches that would often climb up the table to have a tête-à-tête with the customers, the lone rat that would walk past like a ghost with a mission to scare the world – they would all seem the best.
For Sahib, Happis Grills was his home now. The best home. After working there for years, Sahib could not exactly remember how long he had worked there, how long ago he left Bangladesh and crossed the border to drift into one of the cobwebbed red brick buildings to fry fishes. Or exactly why. Summers and winters made no difference, as his sweat rolls down the forehead to his chin, till he wipes it with the red rag so that it doesn’t fall into the boiling oil of the aluminium frying pan that fried the best fish.
“Happis Grills was the very best, so many sahibs would come. The Indians would look at sahibs eating fish fries at Happis Grills from outside. I made Happis Grills the very best with my own two hands. I bought the best cutlery, the best bone china, the best table cloth. The lamps are the very best; I specially ordered them from New Market.”
The aluminium kettle could not be more battered. It was so dark that it almost matched the colour of Sahib’s skin. As the smoke from the kettle twirled upwards, Sahib’s eyes started watering. In his momentary blurred vision he saw his hands. They were white, whiter than the china plates which acted as a nest to the special fish fries. Roy babu stood in front of him and said, “Sahib, special fish fries?” He nodded. Roy babu rushed off to the kitchen. From behind the flowery curtain, he heard the sizzle. The host of Indian slang was sandwiching an awkward silence till Roy babu smugly emerged with a plate and placed it in front of him. The onion was sliced in perfect rings. The dotted mustard sauce could not be more yellow. The chillies lay curved with a threatening fork, zealously protecting the delectable treat. He knew, this was it. His moment. He would finally taste the fruit of fifteen years of wait.
“Sahib, two plate special fish fry for Biren babu. Pack it in a polythene bag. And yes, get two cups of tea. Biren babu is an old customer, remember, our belief in Gandhi died the same day the British went away, understand?”
Sahib looked at his hands again. They were dark, much like Biren babu’s. Biren babu, who loved the special fish fries served at Happis Grills. He knew Biren babu. His spectacles were circular, much like Gandhiji’s. His moustache was like that of Charlie Chaplin’s. He always tipped him. Whenever he came, Roy babu started his Great Indian Debate show, debating upon the most mundane topics. It was during one of these debates when Sahib got to know about Tahib, the terrorist whose claim to fame was that, he never attacked a woman. The name Tahib fascinated Sahib. It did sound a lot like his own name. He knew how to write the English alphabet and knew how to write his own name. Roy babu had taught him. Roy babu loved English. He loved sahibs. And though he didn’t publicly admit it he loved Sahib, the all rounder of Happis Grills waiter-cum-cook-cum-cleaner, who could speak in English and who fondly fried the fishes Roy babu’s wife still prepared at home.
If there was anyone who loved Happis Grills as much as Roy babu did, it would be Sahib. Sahib had turned into a diligent student and had memorized the English alphabet in one week. So he knew that after the letter S came the letter T. What if, he wondered on lazy summer afternoons, the letter T had replaced the letter S in his name? Would his life have been more different? Would he have been the badshah of dark underworld activities who would conjure up in his mind violent terrorist acts? Or would Tahib be frying fish all his life in a dilapidated restaurant that hosts a hundred years of secrets?
“Sahib, oy Sahib! Are you catching fish in the Ganga?”
Sahib never really cared about Roy babu’s taunts, especially when he was busy in the kitchen. The fishes frizzled in yellow oil. He loved the sound. He carefully fried them, till they turned a dark shade of brown and the edges turned slightly black. That burnt bit brings out real taste. And he would never take the fishes out of the pan till the edges darkened. His mouth watered. Like it did every time. Roy babu never told Sahib to fry a fish for himself, never even gave him a piece. That is a business technique, Roy babu used to say. In heart of hearts, Sahib knew, Roy babu felt that those fishes were meant only for the Englishmen. The tiranga flew proudly. Roy babu had learnt the national anthem by heart and on every Independence Day, croaked it out loud. Yet, on Sunday afternoons he missed seeing the Englishmen walk into his restaurant. He loved the way they spoke, the way they dressed and their white skin. He loved the way they sniggered at Indians and called them filthy. It established their superiority and at times when he did look at himself, he found himself filthy. Sahib used to wonder at times whether Roy babu’s love for Happis Grills began because that was the only way he could connect to his beloved sahib’s.
The burnt fish fries were made special for sahibs and, although Sahib had never ever seen them, he still fried fish the way they had liked it. They had to be wrapped in tissue paper before being served with onion rings, curved green chillies and home made mustard sauce. Sahib used to take a long time to choose the perfect chillies to serve the delicacy with. At this point, Roy babu, impatient with age would rush into the kitchen, abuse him, and then leave with the plate full of special fish fries. Today he didn’t rush in. Sahib took his time in cutting the perfect onion rings. Roy babu didn’t even shout abuses at him from outside for being late. Sahib took a whole minute to search for a polythene packet to pack the fries in. He even threw the aluminium spatula to create noise. It would be comforting to hear the abuse now. He peeped outside from the kitchen to see whether everything was alright. Roy babu was sitting in his usual place, in front of the cash counter. But his head was drooped. If Sahib would strain his ears, he would even be able to hear soft satisfied snores. But this atmosphere of calm was as uncomforting as a tuxedo, a size too small. Sahib quickened his pace and quickly packed the special fish fries and hurried outside.
Biren babu was standing near the doorway, looking quite blankly at the many passers-by, all of whom were hurrying off somewhere. Sahib loved doing the same thing. He would conjure up stories about these people who were hurrying off somewhere. Their entire lives, past, present and future would be in his hands. He would make some ladies queens of distant districts and some foreign return-wives while some (only if they shot him a disgusted or angry look) would be witches from the east or a beggar at railway stations. Sahib wondered if he should disturb Biren babu from his people watching spell. He, himself, hated it when someone disturbed him during such a time. But then again, if he did not interrupt, then the fries would get cold. So he went ahead and stood next to Biren babu with the polythene packet.
Ha-ha! Wonderful! Ha-ha! Sahib wonderful! Good fries it smells. Achcha, Roy babu is sleeping, so I won’t wake him up. I’m thinking he is not good. You take the money, forty eight rupees and give him. I am giving fifty rupee note; two rupee is for your tea. What happen if you forget my tea? I never forget you tea. Ha-ha! Thank gods Roy babu is not knowing, else he is giving you such a bamboo! Ha-ha!
‘Ha-ha ha-ha…’ laughed Sahib. Biren babu amused him at times, especially with his ‘ha-ha’ expression. Why on earth did he have to use such an exclamation so frequently was something beyond his comprehension. Yet, he was one of the very few people Sahib knew who was comforting. His broken English for example, always reminded him of Roy babu and his ‘wanna-be Englishman’ dream. Was it true that most old people were wanna-be Englishmen? Most old people who had seen the British Raj? But if the British Raj had been all that great, then why did they have to go? To leave India in a shamble like little diamond pieces that can never even dream to be a solitaire?
On summer nights he would often sleep on the pavement outside Happis Grills to save himself from feeling like a fried singara that Ram bhai fries every evening before retiring to his job as the local paan wala. Ram bhai would also sleep next to him on such nights and together they would brave the sultry damp nights filled with buzzing mosquitoes and with nothing but the huge expanse of the sky filled with a million stars and the solitary moon to soothe them. He would wonder, that current day India was like the million diamond like stars and the British India was like the moon, big and beautiful. He would wonder why pearls, which looked like the moon, were cheaper than the diamonds. He preferred pearls any day. Yet, the stars hypnotized him. He kept on looking at them and the moon would fade away into ignominy.
Sahib knew of the constellations, the great bear, the little bear, Orion’s belt and many more. He used to lie down on his back and try to spot them. At times he would create his very own constellation. A rhombus created by four stars at four directions created the special fish fry constellation for him. This thought of the special fish fry constellation brought him back to Happis Grills and Roy babu. Roy babu never slept or napped in the shop. He was always alert. This abnormal behaviour of Roy babu’s irked Sahib. He wondered whether to wake him up. The fire engine drove by ringing its bell. At other times, Roy babu would have had got up from his chair behind the cash counter, stepped outside, and would have waited looking at the direction it drove off in till the bell could be heard no more. Then, he would nod his head and walk off to buy a paan from Ram bhai, and discuss with the people gathered nearby about the whereabouts of the fire. Today, he just slept through it.
The snores were quite loud now. He suddenly felt he had to take action. Roy babu never slept. He quickly went to the kitchen and took out the tin box where he kept his treasures. From beneath the ivory pen a customer had unmindfully left while relishing with satisfaction the culinary delights of Happis Grills, he took out a piece of paper. It had on it, the emergency number. Choto Roy babu’s mobile phone number. He looked at Roy babu again. He sat there, head drooped as if someone was scolding him and he was ashamed; his eyes were half closed like dead dogs whose last living experience was an automobile accident and his snores sounded like that of a dinosaurs sneeze! He felt something was terribly wrong with this old man. Sahib quietly and steadily walked over to the red public telephone booth and dialled the numbers.
Choto Roy babu?
Yes? Who is it?
Um… Sahib. Sahib from Happis Grills.
Oh! Say, what happened?
Um… Roy babu is not well.
What? Could you be a bit louder? I can hardly hear a thing. What did you say about baba?
Um… I said, Roy babu is not well.
Why? What happened to baba? Accident? Hospital? Why are you not talking? Don’t fumble with words! What happened to baba?
He is not well.
You said that already. Why are you fumbling? What has happened to my baba? Is he dead or something?
Na Na! Not dead. He is sleeping. Sleeping like a buffalo. He never sleeps. I have never seen him sleeping in twenty years! First time ever. Choto Roy babu, take him to the hospital. I am sure he is unwell!
What? Sleeping? Ah! That’s a relief! You stupid buffoon, your Roy babu is an old man, he can sleep! Uff!
Na Na! Roy babu never sleeps! He is always wide awake. He is in the daytime like an owl at night.
Array, Sahib, don’t worry. Your Roy babu is acting like an old man his age. He can’t always act young. Can he? Now, don’t worry and don’t call me up and disturb me with such silly stuff. Any excuse to stay away from work even for two minutes! Lazy bum! Now go.
But… but… you don’t understand… Roy babu is not well…
I understand my father Sahib, you go! I am ordering you down the phone, let the old man sleep in peace if he wants to, understand?
Sahib understood something even more. That the son doesn’t understand the father who dreams not of Ganges but of Thames, to whom pictures of the London Bridge is far more valuable than both the Howrah Bridges combined. He walked back to Roy babu, who was still sleeping. Maybe he is dreaming white skinned dreams, thought Sahib, but I have to wake him up, he can’t sleep much longer, if he does, he may never wake up again. But how? How do I wake him up? The whirring of the table fan, whirred his brains.
He rushed into the kitchen, took one set of fish and started frying them. Frying fishes had a soothing, calming effect on him. It was what he loved doing most in the world. He loved to see the yellow bread crumb coated bhetki fillet toss about in the boiling hot oil. He loved to see it make love to the oil in the battered frying pan. The sizzle would be like the first shrieks of a virgin in her nuptial bed. Then slowly the sizzle would sizzle down, as shrieks become soft moans. The edges of the fish would soon turn black, black and tasty. So many times he had dreamed of taking a bite out of the thousands of fishes he had fried. He had often saved up enough to buy one. But he never had the courage to tell Roy babu or hide one or merely sneak one – Roy babu kept on reminding him from time to time, how those fishes were fit only for the taste buds of white skinned people, and how derogated he felt having had to succumb to the pockets of the brown skinned people to keep the sale going.
Roy babu often felt that he should stop this business. But then again, if all those people who had promised to come back – Tom sahib, Dick Sahib and Harry Sahib came, along with Garrison sahib and Mary memsahib, what would they say? They would be highly disappointed with their Roy babu for denying them the pleasure of their special fish fries. And if there was anyone in the world who understood how Roy babu felt, it would be Sahib. He would everyday oil his hair so that if the white skinned brigade came, they would be really impressed by the slick, well groomed waiter-cum-cook of their favourite Happis Grills. The mere thought of these people coming back, sent shivers down his spine.
The edges of the fish were black enough and the middle part was golden brown. It seemed as if yet again he had made the perfect special fish fry. And like always he dreamed of taking a bite and he knew Roy babu would invariably wake him from his day dreams. But he didn’t this time. Second time in the same day. The silence of the snores seemed almost unholy to Sahib. He rushed the fry in and placed it in front of Roy babu, like they place offerings for prasad in front of the many gods. The aroma of the special fry was intoxicating, Biren babu used to say. He also often said that it could wake up the dead. And it almost did, Sahib thought when seconds after placing the delicacy Roy babu’s droopy eyes began to flutter. Sahib smiled the first real smile of the day. Happis Grills seemed such a happy place again.
Array! Sahib, what did you do? Got one for me now? Uff!
Roy babu was smiling. But this was strange. He never reacted like this. He always shouted and screamed and abused Sahib. Never did he smile or allow the show of any kind of emotion. Sahib was comfortable with that. Roy babu could never be soft, much like the white-skinned people who had even spat at Indians.
So, tell me how you liking Garrison sahib and Mary memsahib? Ha?
Sahib was confused. What was Roy babu talking about?
Array, son of a pig! Tell me how is Garrison sahib and Mary memsahib? They come to my Happis Grills after such a long time, sixty years almost and you are quiet? I trained you to fry fishes according to their taste only. Ha? They told me they loved it. It was perfect. I tell them, you are good cook, they feeling happy. I is happy. Now you is happy too. I know. They is old now. They is dying. Then I am meeting them in heaven, to have coffee and muffins. I am growing old. I is happy, they came here as they had promised. Now I can die happy.
Don’t talk of dying Roy babu, was what Sahib had wanted to say. But he hardly spoke in front of Roy babu. He was content being abused. In fact, when Roy babu called him son of a pig, he was so glad. But this talk of death disturbed him. And what was he talking about this Garrison sahib and Mary memsahib having come to visit? It had merely been Biren babu. Had he forgotten? What was happening? And Roy babu only had special fish fries, if he had ordered them. If Sahib got him one, like once he did almost twenty years back, he got in trouble. There had been Sikh riots in India and one of Roy babu’s friends, Balwinder Singh, had somehow died. Sahib had heard the news from Biren babu, and voluntarily brought Roy babu a special fish fry, to cheer him up. Roy babu had almost tried to hit him. How dare he, being a worker, make decisions? The hour long row of endless abuses had been hurled at him.
In fact, now when he did fry the fish, he had done so with the intention of agitating Roy babu. He had thought or, perhaps wished, that Roy babu would scold him because that would be so much better than a sleeping old man. But Roy babu was relishing this fry, the unwanted fry. Something was terribly wrong with him, thought Sahib. He was even licking the mustard sauce with his fingers. When one of the customers did this, Roy babu would have sniggered at them. How unmannerly, how un-English? Why do they come here? This used to be the haunt of Garrison sahib. The Great Garrison sahib. What happened to the society now? No respect. And his audience used to be none other than Sahib.
You know Sahib, I am, the happiest man today, Garrison sahib and Mary memsahib came, na. See how beautiful they are. Smiles are like fresh hibiscuses from my garden that my wife every morning places in front of Kali ma. For years I am telling, they will come and no one believed me. Today you see with your own two eyes. Happy, na? Everyone at Happis Grills is happy and shall always be happy like me. You know Sahib, I have to go home now. I have to tell your boudi Kali ma has listened to my prayers. Garrison sahib and Mary memsahib had come back. You manage the shop now. Sell the fries and yes, I have never treated you, so take the profits. I am going. Joy Ma!
Sahib, sat there bemused. Roy babu seemed well, but he was not. Sahib had not seen any Garrison sahib or even the faint trace of Mary memsahib. Sahib had a good memory. He went through the words of Roy babu again. It was the most amazing feeling Roy babu had ever felt in his life. Sahib realized, Roy babu was suddenly free from everything. The fact that he had been a devout communist broke like a glass pane, when he said those two words – Joy Ma. He had been praying. He always prayed. To Kali and Jesus. He had at last decided to take off the mask he had been wearing for many decades. He had suddenly won the world. It must be this feeling that the river feels when it meets the sea. Or the rain drops feel when they finally fall on parched red earth. It must have been this when Susmita Sen won the Miss Universe crown or when man stepped on the moon or when school pupils pass their final exams. He realized that Roy babu would never come back. He would soon be having coffee and muffins with Garrison sahib in heaven. Sahib wondered whether to alert Choto Roy babu or not. He decided against it – Choto Roy babu had never understood his Roy babu and probably never would.
Two special fish fries please.
Two customers had come. Quite young. College students must be. Lovers must be. The boy wore a checked brown shirt, un-matching blue ill fitted trousers and kohlapuri chappals. The girl donned a long yellow skirt and a long red top. For some reason she had a white churni spread over the chest. She had put on a bindi and had a rose tucked behind her right ear. Sahib would have on other days, admired the girl – the skirt and all was Western enough and the rose, churni and bindi was so Indian – he would have thought she was the perfect blend, the perfect fusion of West and East. Today it didn’t matter. He went into the kitchen and looked at the steel tiffin carrier which Roy babu had brought in the morning. He looked at the remaining three yellow fish fillets. Should he fry three instead of two, he thought. Two for them and one for him? If he had read Shakespeare, he would have felt like Hamlet. But he hadn’t. Yet he still felt like Hamlet facing the “to be or not to be?”
Dada make it three special fish fries, I shall take one home.
It was the boy in the ill fitted blue trousers. He seemed like Roy babu, beckoning him to reality when he was immersed in his dreams. Sahib wanted to say, only two left, but a small voice from deep inside crawled up to his mouth and he heard him saying, OK. Sahib knew life offers you something and some other things are merely meant for shop windows to be bought by others. He smiled. He was happy, very happy. He was happy creating the special fish fries whose edges turn from yellow to golden to brown to black. He really was happy. Roy babu had himself said: Every one at Happis Grills is happy and shall always be happy like me. And Sahib knew Roy babu was happy now…
babu: a word, signifying respect, usually used by someone of a lower class to address someone of a higher class.
bhetki: a type of fish
bindi: a forehead decoration; traditionally it is a dot of red colour applied in the center of the forehead close to the eyebrows, but it can also consist of a sign or piece of jewellery worn at this location
churni: a piece of light material, worn over the chest
Ganga: Reference is made to the river Hoogly, a tributary of Ganges that flows through Calcutta.
Give you such a bamboo: Give you a beating
Happis Grills: Aping the English, the native Indians often kept English names for their establishment and often got the spelling and grammar horribly wrong, as we find in Roy babu’s spoken English. Happis Grills is an example of such.
Joy Ma- Reference to the Mother Goddess
Kali ma: Mother Goddess
kohlapuri chappals: leather sandals
New Market: A market where the finest things were available in pre-independence India, usually reserved for the elite Europeans.
paan wala: the beetle nut seller
prasad: food shared by devotees after the acceptance of the same by gods and goddesses
sahib: Used formerly as a form of respectful address for a European man (or memsahib for a woman) in colonial India, it was also used as a proper noun.
singara: A fried delicacy with potato fillings
tiranga: The tri-coloured Indian National Flag.
Illustration by Katherine Jones
About the Author:
Joie Bose Chatterjee is twenty five years old and currently lives in Calcutta, India. She has degrees in English Literature from St. Xaviers’ College, Kolkata and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has previously worked as a freelance journalist with The Telegraph and is a regular contributor to The Statesman. Her stories have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul series. A social worker, she was earlier involved in teaching English and Dramatics. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories.
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