Thursday, 9 July 2009

Devappa's Story

I often wonder about him.

When I first met him, he was one among the many boys who used to clean the tables in the busy Udupi restaurant we frequented as bachelors. Clad in khaki shorts and a matching shirt, he will pick up the dirty plates and dump them in a plastic tray and then would do a perfunctory swipe of the Formica tabletop with a rag dipped in soapy water. We noticed him because he was a friendly lad and was always smiling in spite of the long hours he worked.

In Udupi restaurants, as you might know, there is a well-entrenched hierarchy where the cleaning boys are at the bottom of the pecking order. Above the cleaning boys are the water boys—these are the lads who plonk down a steel tumbler of water in front of you the moment the cleaning guy has finished the swipe. Very soon, our friend, let’s call him Devappa, was promoted as a water boy, no doubt a just reward for his hard-working ways.

We were regular visitors to the restaurant and almost always used to troop in after 10.30 pm; on most weekdays, the restaurant was half-empty by that time, which gave us a chance to exchange friendly banter with the water boys and the waiters. That is how we learned that Devappa came from a small village near Kundapur in South Karnataka and that he was pursuing his studies by attending night classes in a school close to Santa Cruz railway station.

Almost a year after we first started noticing him, Devappa became a full-fledged waiter. He was immensely proud of his white and brown uniform and starched white cap. He continued to be his friendly and smiling self, even during weekend nights when the restaurant was packed with families with large women and screaming children and people standing behind seated customers, ready to pounce the moment a seat or a table was getting vacant.

A few months later we moved out of that suburb and stopped frequenting that particular restaurant. We were busy with our own lives—some changed jobs, some left Bombay for good, and some, like me, got married and moved to more distant but affordable suburbs—and gradually, Devappa became a dim and distant memory. Gradually, I forgot all about him.

Two years later, while seated in a swanky, Chinese restaurant in Andheri, who should come up to me and smile broadly but Devappa, but this time clad in a two-piece suit! He is the chief steward of the restaurant and converses with me in fluent English. I feel so happy and proud of him and my mind is so flooded with memories of my bachelor days that it takes a while to register that my former acquaintance is earnestly recommending me to try the shredded lamb in oyster sauce.

It has been almost twenty years since that meeting.

Where is Devappa now, I wonder. Given his hard work and dedication, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the owner of a chain of restaurants in Mumbai.

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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.