Mr. Chow

I saw Slumdog Millionaire.

I saw the Hindi version. We were five of us. I and two others worked as waiters in a suburban restaurant & bar in Mumbai. The other two worked as lathe machine operators in a shop in a suburb closer to where I worked. How we know each other is complicated; I wouldn’t want you to be entangled in that complexity. We were friends — you could say that, and let it go. Like you, I know that trying and defining friends is quite a big deal. I see friends gather every night at the place that I work.

But, yes, I saw Slumdog Millionaire.

Between the protagonist and me, there is one difference. His difficult life is speckled with adventure. Mine has been “only” a difficult life. There is, obviously one more difference. He has ten million rupees. I don’t. But, you know, I could have been him. I have learned more about this world as I served beer and poured a soda in a whiskey glass. Quiz competitions require facts, not knowledge. Except, that I did not have the sense to apply for the programme. But when you start thinking about it, there are many differences between the hero of that film and me. We are quite different — but one thing binds us together – I could have easily won a quiz like that.

This is a long story. So feel free to pause, take the beer (or whatever your poison is) out of your fridge, make your drink, and give me a patient ear.

A few kilometres north of Dharwad, there’s a village called Byahatti. There’s a good chance you have never heard of it, and I don’t blame you. It is not known for anything that you would care about. I am from that place. Twenty-two years ago, I was born there on the outskirts of Byahatti. To a mother who loved me more than anything else and a father who I seldom saw. When I think back, I seemed to be the fulfilling future of their life; a hope, almost. Lot of things transpired, which I will exclude from this personal history. But for the sake continuity, let me say that I went to school till the seventh class, I can read some English and do some basic maths. I do not how it works in the schools in the city, but, because I couldn’t see the blackboard very well, my teacher thought I was never paying attention. Much later, much much later, I realised that I had a defect in my eyes. We had a rich guy in the place where we stayed – and liked helping us poor people. He had got a doctor from a place called Bombay, which I had read of only in textbooks, to our village and had all children examined. We were supposed to look through a glass and identify letters. I was scared, at first — I thought it was a school test — but later, I found out that the doctor did not mind if I got it wrong.

I am probably rambling now, but feel free to open the next bottle or fill up the next peg. I can do it for you, you know, I work as a waiter in a bar.

Coming back to the Slumdog, my education has been very similar to his. See I wait tables. Different people come to the place where I work. Few of them are nice – they talk to me. The others, they just want me to get their drinks. Most of them don’t bother that I am around. If I haven’t mentioned it before – I don’t obviously, appear as a smart person. So they keep speaking, I cannot but help overhear. I am enriched. When they drink a lot — and even if I don’t make any mistake — they shout at me. I become the punching bag of their suppressed emotion. The captain and the manager have to intervene, sometime.

It must be my face and me.

I am short, dark, have pouting lips and I wear a geeky glasses. I have heard these words and I know what they mean. How else do you think Slumdog Millionaire got there. Not all my customers are rough drunks. Some, actually take the time to speak with me. I wonder what the difference is between geeky and dorky. I should ask that regular who comes often. He speaks a lot about computers and technology.

He was at our bar today. And he seemed to be at ease. I knew today was the day when I could ask him few things. Then a friend came along — someone I had never seen before, with him. Yes, I know who he comes here with. I also know which of his friends come with him at what frequency and leave at what time. He is a constant and the others are variables. You can always predict the behaviour of constants, and after observing for a while, you can predict the behaviour of the variables. Some leave at an exact time. Some stay back, with pressure. Some, you can sense – want to be elsewhere.

He ordered his usual, for himself and his friend. I kept a tab on his table, he has always been a good customer and treats me with some respect, even if the respect is from a distance. Every half an hour or so, I was replenishing their beer. All was good and I was waiting for the moment to speak with him.

As I served them their last beer, I overheard him and his friend put up a wager. On me. Both of them challenged each other to blog a character sketch about me. I was standing a couple of feet away from their table. They agreed that they will have a common title to a post while they independently sketch my character, and then compare notes. At first, I felt like a piece of furniture being reviewed. They paid they bill, and went away.

It is 3:00AM now. For the last 4 hours I have forgotten about them. As I lay down on this thin blanket I wonder about them. Our regular, promised to write about me as soon as he got home. His friend needed some time. I know people write things on the Internet — I have no way of reading what they write. As I look to this dark ceiling, I wonder what they have thought and wondered about me. Did they take me at my “face” value? Was I consigned to be a dork? Or a geek? Not that I know the difference. How will they ever know about my life? Is my unwrinkled face able to tell a story of a lifetime? Do they know of my ambitions that have been diluted as much by the soda I serve to the guests here? Do they know my mother? Will they say how much she loved me? How much I miss being away from her? Aspirations? My wages? What will they write about? I wonder. I wonder. I shed a slow tear.

And then, I think it is just amusement for them. A way to indulge in an activity that allows them to be far away from writing a character sketch about themselves.

Perhaps, my apparently empty, mission-less, menial life is some sort of an inspiration for them. Perhaps they can fill their lives with my nothingness. As I thought of this, I smiled, turned to a side and slept well.

My life is worth more than I thought.

PS: Title of this post has been borrowed from Red Dust And Spanish Lace, the first single, “Mr. Chow”. The wager mentioned in this post is real. When the other blogger completes his version, it shall be linked. Both bloggers agreed on the title, so that we can keep our independent opinion about this character sketch.

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