Online Exclusive: Men at Meal Time by Uthaya Kumar

2011 Asian American Short Story Contest Honorable Mentions

May 17, 2012

By Uthaya Kumar

“I just gave the last meal to him,” said Gopal in exasperation, the roadside restaurant owner, pointing his finger at me. 

Reflexively my right hand fingers stopped mixing the sambar with the rice on the banana leaf in front of me and looked up to find the most exhausted, withered and shriveled-up man, at the door.  The figure looked more like a ghost than human.  As he shuffled laboriously forward I could see that he was not old but extremely tired.  The salt from his sweat had made white semi-circles under his armpits on his khaki shirt.  A thin layer of dust had turned his long black wavy hair golden.  As he came closer, I noticed that his whole body, from head to toe, was enveloped in a thin, uniform layer of golden dust.  In all he appeared like he had been walking through a desert for days with neither food nor water.  His face was so lifeless and frozen that, if his eyes were not moving, he could be declared dead.

Where did he come from?  He was wearing khaki; was he a government employee?  I looked at Gopal and knew he had the same questions.  Knowing Gopal, I knew the man made him feel uneasy, even unhappy, I could say.

Strangely, at that very moment, another image kept cropping in to my mind.  It was that of a gigantic road engine, much larger than any I had seen before, must be about four times the size of a normal road engine.  Over the last several days, as I was travelling by bus to and from work, I had noticed this ungodly machine moving at a snail’s pace westward along the road every day, toward Alangulam.  A huge steel blade, measuring four meters or more in width, hung from its belly, scraping the earth that lay to one side of the road, presumably to level it for future expansion.  I had wondered why they did not use a bulldozer for that purpose.  As the hot summer days progressed the engine moved only a few miles each day, but despite my efforts, turning and twisting my neck from the fast moving bus window, I never got a glimpse of the lonely soul that worked on that noisy machine in that hot dusty desolate place.

While those images were running in my mind, the man whispered, “I work the road engine.  I would appreciate anything you can give me to eat, even if it is not a real meal.”  His voice was hoarse and weak, and his tongue, which was golden from inhaling the ubiquitous dust, was sticking to his palette from being dry. 

My fingers were still touching the food, but I had not put any of it into my mouth.  Our eyes, mine and Gopal’s, were darting like rays of light bouncing between parallel mirrors.  I looked at Gopal and he looked at me and we both looked at the engine driver and then we looked at each other again. 

Gopal’s face was getting the twisted look it occasionally gets when he was desperate and helpless.  He seemed like a mother with no milk left in her breast to feed her incessantly crying infant. 

Like a thief before the crowd that had caught him, Gopal spoke, “If only you had informed me a bit earlier I would not have eaten my own meal.  I just finished my meal and served whatever was left to him,” he said pointing at me.   “I should have known, I saw your engine on the road.  I should have known that you might come here for meals.  I am sorry.”

Before me lay a full meal on a clean banana leaf, ready to be mixed and swallowed in little handfuls, that could quench the flames in the belly that arises when the body had burned the last morsel of food and is craving for replenishment.  For a moment, I thought of offering it to him, for I was sure he was way hungrier than I.  I get a glass of buttermilk here or a cup of tea there, offered by the farmers, as I pass through villages on my duty as a village veterinarian.  Besides, I could take the bus to the town, which was only an hour away, where I was headed next, and eat my meals there.

I had only put my hand on the food but I had not taken a bite out of it yet, but I was afraid to offer it for fear of offending him.  The food looked delicious, but I could not bring myself to eat it.  I had lost my appetite and the rice and sambar, enticing only a minute ago, had turned into an uninteresting mush, like the child’s play dough left all mixed up at the end of play. 

The engine driver washed his hands and face and drank three tumblers of cold water at the water faucet.  Then he sat at the table opposite me and asked for a glass.  When Gopal brought a glass he asked for a few murukku, a dry and brittle snack like pretzels, hardly an appropriate diet for a hungry mouth, and completely unsuitable for a man dried out in the sun like he.  Still playing with the rice on my leaf, I wondered how he was going to eat that dry murukku with his tongue and throat as parched as they were.

When a few murukku were brought and placed before him he asked for a bottle of color, aerated colored sugar water.  When that arrived, he poured the color into the glass, broke the murukku into small bits, dropped them into the color, and began eating the mashed-up murukku with a spoon.

While he ate the only edible item he could get, I had no appetite for the full meal served in front of me.  Even though I had not taken a bite out of it yet, formality and etiquette prevented me from offering it to him and him from accepting it.

For a second I wondered if I should just get up and throw the unappetizing meal away, but when one man was trying to quench the flames of hunger with the humblest of all meals, if another man threw away a real meal, it would be a great insult to both of them.  I began to mix the rice and sambar and eat one mouthful after another as the engine driver ate one spoonful after another of his color-soaked mrukku.  If ever a meal could be called difficult, that was one.

A couple of days later, I went to Gopal’s restaurant.  As it was on most afternoons, the place was deserted.  Gopal told me it would take a few minutes for my tea since he had to heat the water.  I had all the time in the world as I had just missed my bus and the next bus was not expected to arrive for three more hours.  So we started talking while he heated the water on his wood stove, which seemed to take more then half an hour and gave us the feeling of waiting for something fruitful.

I asked how he started a restaurant in such a remote place at the Sivalarkulam vilakku, the point where the village mud road met the main road connecting Tirunelvelli and Thenkasi.  The village was located half a mile to the north, and people used Gopal’s restaurant as a resting place while they waited for the bus. 

Fifty years ago, when Gopal was only a few years old, the bus started running on the main road, and there was no roof for people to rest under from the hot sun or rain.  Back then there were only few buses and a very few people waiting for the bus, but many years later numerous buses started plying the route and every day many people waited for the bus.  Someone foretold that it would be an ideal place to start a tea shop.  They said that people would buy a cup of tea and a snack while they waited for the bus, if only someone opened a shop.  One day Gopal decided to fulfill the prophecy and started a roadside tea stall. 

At that time Gopal was twenty-two and single and started it on a whim.  He worked at his tea stall from morning till night, seven days a week.  He had no break but thoroughly enjoyed meeting the many varieties of people all day long, chatting with them and giving them a moment’s relief from thirst and hunger, and saving their heads from an occasional shower of rain and the usual scorching tropical sun.  It suited him like a prophecy come true.

Through hard work and delight he transformed it into a roadside restaurant.  With his newfound status, he became a sought after bridegroom and soon he got married.  His beautiful new young wife helped him run the place and business was ablaze.  With money came all comforts, but they did not have a child for many years and were worried.  Like others in their situation, they went on pilgrimages to all the temples in the country, leaving the restaurant to relatives to run.  They met many a medicine man and sage, but still his wife did not conceive.  Business went down, Gopal did not care.  He soldiered on, determined to have a child by his wife.  Finally, out of frustration, they went to a doctor in Tirunelvelli.  Gopal could not tell if it was the doctor’s treatment or by chance, but his wife conceived.  They had a son.  At last they were proud parents and they felt washed off of all the sins.

For several years, everything went well for Gopal, but then his wife suddenly died of cholera and Gopal was alone with his two-year-old son.  After that, Gopal ran this place by himself, and now has the help of his teenage son.  Although business never returned to the glorious days when his wife had joined him, he has been the lone savior of many a tired and weary traveler in this remote village area. 

On the rare occasions that I happened to arrive there early in the morning, I had noticed that it was very busy.  People from Sivalarkulam village waited their turns to get their cup of tea.  A little later, while late risers and people wanting a second cup were still ordering tea, others were sitting at the wooden tables and having their breakfast, consisting of idly, dhisai and vadai, served on banana leaves. 

After ten, the business would slow to a crawl and stop at eleven o’clock.  At that time, Gopal would switch gears and start cooking lunch for the few travelers who passed this remote area.  Lunch was usually very simple: rice, a watery thin sambar, a faint rasam and a bit of fried vegetable, like cluster beans, okra, egg plant, or any seasonal vegetable available locally.  This poor meal was god sent for the hungry mouths with nothing to eat after many-a-miles journey through villages on some errand. Though Gopal’s food was not of high quality, he compensated immensely by his motherly hospitality, and genuine love and care for people.  His smile and meager meal calmed many a hungry stomach and heart.

As we were talking, I asked, “Why don’t you cook a better meal and charge more.  Or, at least you could cook more food so everyone who comes here can get something to eat?”

His answer was simple and practical.  “On any given day I do not know how many people would show up at this place for lunch.  Sometimes there are five, and even ten, but other times there are one or two and occasionally none show up.  I cannot cook a lot of food and afford to waste it.”

Despite the uncertainties he told me he had his regulars, a bachelor teacher who worked at the village elementary school and a couple of vendors who go on bicycles selling candy and toys, his three regulars.  Then there were the irregulars; they were government employees working in the area.  They do not visit the village daily but of the six of them, two were sure to drop in for meals on any given day.

Out of curiosity, I asked him who they were.  He said, “The VAO (village administrative officer), the agricultural department man, the Grama savak (village worker from the block development office), the health department worker, the family planning official and you, the village veterinarian.”

I understood Gopal’s position: any uneaten meal would not only go to waste, it was an encroachment into his already meager profit.  From then on, whenever I happened to stop by I was glad he was there and relished his food, however simple a meal it was.  I began to regard it not as a business transaction, but as an act of kindness and hospitality on his part.  Moreover, his smile was proof enough of that.

Life lingered on and I enjoyed Gopal’s hospitality for several more weeks and had forgotten the poor road engine driver.  On that day, while the sun still ravaged the earth and few rain clouds appeared above, I had come just after two, and was pleasantly surprised that Gopal had a meal available so late and I sat down and to enjoy it.  My regular bus, Ambika Transport, was broken down and the KTC (Kataboman Transport Corporation - a government undertaking) bus drivers would not stop at that stop.  The next private company bus was Narayan bus, and it would not come for three hours.  So there were a few people waiting and I knew I would be joining them soon.

I was in no hurry to finish my delicious meal, yet I could not prolong it much longer.  When my leaf was almost empty, two young men, tired travelers, who seemed to be brothers, came in and asked, “Do you have any food left?”  Both looked tired, their legs below the knee, exposed by their dhoti folded and tied half, were scratched leaving white marks on their dry skin and I could tell that they had been walking though fields and bushes under the hot sun for a long time.

“You are lucky,” Gopal said.  “I have two more meals left.  I cooked more then usual because of the broken down bus, but a lot of people came and ate today.”

“That will suit us.  What do you have?” the younger brother asked.

“Rice and chicken curry.”

The older brother smiled.  “Very good,” he said.  “We thought you would be sold out by now and we would have to go home for food.”

“And how lucky to get chicken curry on top of it in such a remote village,” said the younger man.

They washed their hands and sat on the wooden bench in front of the wooden table.

“It will be a minute,” said Gopal. “Let me warm up the curry, it has gone cold,”

“We have waited for so long, we can wait another five minutes,” said the older man.

As the chicken curry was warmed up the aroma spread in the room and the two men smiled.  The younger brother swallowed his saliva and sipped the water; the older brother licked his lips.  They seemed like lions waiting for the kill.

Gopal put a banana leaf in front of each man and served fried cluster beans followed by rice.  Then he went to the kitchen and brought two bowels full of chicken curry; he poured one bowl on top of the rice in the younger brother’s leaf and was about to serve the second bowl to the older brother, but stopped when he saw someone enter.

“So you have any food?” said a tired looking, middle-aged man wearing a dark blue shirt.

Gopal looked at the man and shook his head. “No, I just gave the last two meals to these men.”

Then he poured the chicken curry on the older brother’s leaf.  Just then, a boy came in with sunken eyes and parched lips, looking extremely tired, and stood beside the man with the blue shirt.

The younger brother, unaware of the boy, eagerly took his right hand to the food in front of him to mix the rice and chicken curry.  In a flash the older brother grabbed the hand of his brother and stopped him before he could take a bite.  He then stood up.

“What kind of meat is this?” he asked Gopal.

“Chicken, I told you.”

“That I know.  Is it from a hen or cockerel?”

“From a cockerel.  Is there a problem?”

“We can’t eat this.  We don’t eat cockerel meat.  You should have told us,” said the older brother.  In agreement with his brother, the younger brother stood up too. 

“I didn’t know you didn’t eat cockerel meat, otherwise I would have told you,” said Gopal.

“Why won’t you eat cockerel meat?” I asked, unable to control my curiosity any longer.

“Because, it is the mascot of our family god Murugan,” the younger brother explained.  Haven’t you seen Lord Murugan’s flag with a cockerel on it?  In our family we don’t eat cockerel meat.”

“The food is going to go waste,” said Gopal.

“But we haven’t touched it yet,” said the older brother and looked at Gopal.  By now, his brother had stepped out from behind the table and was standing in the middle of the room.

Gopal looked at the blue-shirted man and his son.  “Would you like to eat the meals?” he asked.  “They haven’t touched the food at all.”

“Oh! We do not mind.  We are famished.  If we don’t get a meal here we won’t be able to eat till six or seven in the night,” said the father.

“Thank you very much, you have saved us.  Otherwise, we would have felt very bad to waste two meals in a place like this,” said the older brother and they both walked out.  Immediately they came back in and asked Gopal for water and each man drank three tumblers full and bought some fried chickpeas to eat on their way out and left the place. 

I had just paid my bill, when they were drinking water and followed them out.  Once outside the older brother said, “That boy worked very hard today with his father.”

“Where are you from?” I asked interjecting myself in the middle.

“We are from Odaimarichan.  We are sheep merchants and we are on our way back from Mesiyapuram after buying twenty-two sheep at the weekly sheep market,” said the younger brother.

I took the opportunity to introduce myself, but they said they knew I was the veterinarian, and introduced themselves as Raman and Lakshman.

“You both look very tired, when did you leave home?”

“We left at four in the morning.  We had to walk ten miles to the market.  We were so busy and had no time to look for food.  But we got a good bargain, that is what matters; food we can eat any time,” said the older brother, Raman.  Their village was about five miles from Gopal’s place and they had no choice but to walk.  

“How long will it take to reach home?” I asked.

“Our sheep are grazing near the trees and a friend is watching them,” Lakshman said.  “We have to take them home, letting them graze along the way.  We cannot drive them fast.  They need water so we also have to visit a pond or lake on our way, by the time we reach home it would be five or six o’clock.”

“Do you know the father and son team that came after you?”

“They are from Atayampatti, a mile farther than our village,” Raman answered.  “The man normally brings his cousin with him; today he had brought his son for some reason.  The boy looks about ten years old and is famished and dehydrated after all the work and walking.  Even though they are our competitors, we cannot eat the food and let the boy go hungry for another four five hours. We can’t be that heartless.”

“All right, good luck with your journey.  I hope a nice dinner awaits you both at home,” I said.

“My wife asked me to come home soon.  She said she was going to cook the cockerel for dinner tonight,” said Raman and gave a broad smile.  


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