It never ceases to amaze me that my frequent eatery, cozy and air-conditioned on one of the arterial roads in Chennai, is frequented by several elderly faces, often single or in groups. I acknowledge them with a smile or nod of the head when I am busy digging into spicy or delicious stuff to stimulate my gastric juice. I have spoken to some, keep exchanging smiles with others but have picked up a modicum of info about how well the joint is doing in its business. These days info travels a lot in social media or personal meets with lesser cloud around their credibility. Yeah, they do matter a lot, right?
I met that benign, smiling face of a gentleman who appeared to be visiting the joint for the first time, at least to me. It may not be so and it is not axiomatic either for him to know me before making his appearance there. That was in a lighter vein, of course. On the first occasion he smiled in a pleasant way and I responded. He always seemed in a hurry and gave his order in a flurry as if he was to catch the next flight in a few seconds to his home a couple of streets away.
As it happens, we were silently aware that exchange of smiles was no precursor to breaking the ice. When my bill came and I paid I had accidentally kept a Rs.20 note in excess which was a sleight of the mind. As was customary in that joint where the stewards were meticulously honest and officious about all, including expecting tips, one of them returned the Rs.20 note with an apology - “Sir! It was found along with the other note. I am returning it to you.” Slightly abashed I took it when the elderly gentleman in front smiled and said “It happens to all. Thank God, it was only Rs.20.“ I grinned and joked “Hope it does not happen to me again like the saying goes – if you stumble once you do so again.” We broke the ice.
On the next chance meeting a few days later the initial reluctance to open the vocal chords was there. The chat drifted to hotels that had been there for ages and he seemed to relive his age by going back on the memory lane. “Friend! I don’t know how old you are but had you been born in the 50s you would have delighted in the typical south delicacies which cost not more than 50 paise or half anna as it was called in those days. It included filter steaming coffee. I used to visit a hotel near a popular cinema close to Mount Road where a delicious masala dosa cost 25 paisa. Can you believe it now? That hotel has grown to have several branches and is much sought after still. I still remember the joints in Mandaveli or Mylapore where on hygienic plantain leaf breakfast used to be served. And filter coffee would stay in your stream for hours.”
I cut in. “Those days business environs had been governed by some ethics. Or some balance, to put it right.” He pounced on it. “Exactly. Some of those joints are still there in new environs, bricks and mortar, and you pay ten times the price or even more. I am not on that point. What I specifically remember was a small businessman with whom I worked without pay as an accountant for some months in the 60s. He was a thoroughbred honest guy who never took a penny more than he was worth nor did he leave anyone unhappy. There used to be a small café near the theatre on Mount Road where a sumptuous dinner would cost 50 paise. Every evening when I returned home he would stuff me with 50 paise to let me have dinner there. Those days 50 paise meant a lot, friend.” I nodded.
As if to assuage him I told him that the joint where we were eating also had endearing, warm stewards though it cost 10 to 20 p.c. more compared to others in the area, including the traditional ones he spoke about. He grinned. “Friend! The stuff may be palatable to you because you have no choice. But my gastric juice does not react the same way as it did 50 years ago. I am 75.“ His age slipped naturally out of the chat. The bill came and I paid.
When I got up after polite pleasantries he came with a parting shot. “Never forget the tips, friend because tomorrow you have to face them, unlike the old days.”