The tipping point - short fiction

K S Subramaniam

K. S. Subramanian

His distinctive features trumpeted his Assamese background openly and there were many like him working in that posh tastefully designed hotel in one of the central, affluent and middle class dominated areas in Chennai*. He was 22, looking always cheerful humming a song and moving about in that sprawling hall to serve his allotted share of guests in the evening.  Of course, he had a grueling routine, if one may call it so except for the three hour breaks allotted for them from morning till 10 p.m.  He would use it to hurry to his flat he shared with colleagues, chat and laugh and return for the evening stint with fresh infusion of energy.  Yeah… you needed a bit of “josh” to run the course.

Gurmukh Singh from Sualkuchi, a picturesque tourist spot on the banks of Brahmaputra, had a lot to feel nostalgic about.  Its extreme chill in winter or hot summer didn’t matter to him for his family of four – parents and a younger sister – lived in reasonable comfort in a bamboo laden house, walls covered with mud to make winter tolerable.  What he missed most was the crystalline river shining in the early morning rays or the chain of hills shimmering blue on the other side of the bank.   He had played around in the lanes with his mates one of whom worked with him in the hotel.  Why, they had been approached by the agency concerned whether they would like to go over to Chennai to work in a hotel chain that had its fair share of acclaim and paid well.  That of course is defined by the tolerable living standards of the day which is not in anybody’s control.  Well, they dithered, twiddled their thumbs and parents almost bit their nails off.  That was two years ago.

Gurmukh’s father was a skilled worker in a handloom unit at home earning enough to keep ends not burning or singed but a stage came when his son fell in the category of the not so bright.  His sister was a contrast and showed promises of bright days to come.  Gurmukh, a shy, easy going lad, was not given to regretting anything.  His mother was very fond of him and Gurmukh’s incapacity to go beyond pre-degree didn’t affect her in the least.  His father weighed with the idea that if worst came to the worst he could get him into his handloom unit.  Gurmukh felt otherwise.  He wanted to go places, learn a bit of diverse lingo, and he had the uncanny instinct for handling his money well.  And his handsome, smiling visage added a dash of bright colour to his cheek.  So while his parents examined their nails, he triumphed and had his way.  They had reason to because he was going into an unfamiliar, strange land where he must learn to find his way, remain safe.

At 7 p.m in the evening there was  change in shift routine and Sanjay Mishra, Gurmukh’s  close friend and room mate, was to hand over charge of his allotted row of tables to his friend.   It rarely happened that they came on the same routine or served the same allotted row.  “Yaar …..since afternoon I have had a lucky day….the stars are smiling at me,” confided Sanjay, a tall, lanky guy to his friend.  “I have made nearly 400 in tips since lunch time.  Thank God it is a big hotel where people queue up to come and eat.  Had we been caught at a dingy kind of hotel we would have been spitting venom.”

Gurmukh jabbed him in the ribs.  “Hope I am so lucky with only four hours left for the evening session.  That doesn’t matter yaar… because luck is an unpredictable, unfair friend.  There are days when we both have earned well and also days when we haven’t.  It doesn’t jar on me.”
They were standing in the corridor at the far end of the hall, with Sanjay readying to leave for home with a dinner package tucked in his arm while Gurmukh had his eye on the visitors.
“Did you have your grab at dinner?”  Sanjay asked him, rather solicitously.  “I have taken enough dosas and will keep something for you at night.”

Gurmukh nodded.  “Sure, if you can.  Our friends in the room wont be so generous…. you better ensure they don’t grab your share.”  Sanjay grinned.  Their four other room mates, who too worked at the hotel as door keepers or stewards, were also from other areas of Assam.  When birds of the same region flock together perhaps the spirit of oneness and fellow feeling permeates the room.

“Well… boy… I am on my way”  Sanjay raised his thumb to Gurmukh and left. Gurmukh wasn’t listening for his eye was already on the sixty plus old man, who looked lean, well dressed and athletic with a soft, smiling face.  Gurmukh had been seeing him for the past two years and wondered how his waistline was so slim despite advancing years while many others, far younger than him, had to squeeze themselves hard into the cushioned seat.  He would come only in the evening and showed consistent generosity with the same smile of which Gurmukh also had his share.

“Sir! It’s my turn to serve you today.  Want to have something different or the usual dosas, idlis or chola poori?”  Gurmukh grinned, opening the chat in his effusive, affable way and the old man instantly understood that he had come in at the time when the change in shift happened.  He also knew that this banter was a diplomatic ploy at which these waiters outdid one another.  He didn’t mind it nor the regular tips he gave them every day for in his heart he understood that it took all to make a living in this world.

He smiled.  “So Gurmukh… did you write home?  How are your parents?  Are you sending them money?”

“Yes sir…. I do every month though my dad is against it.  He tells me he doesn’t need my money and wants me to spend it on myself and stay healthy.”

The old man nodded, “He is right.  We have seen our lives and are close to taking care of ourselves.  You have to make yours still.”  He didn’t sound consciously philosophical which made Gurmukh like him all the more.  He was earthy when he said it.  “Any way get me your dosa special today. “ Gurmukh nodded, kept him a couple of glasses of cold water which he always demanded and went his way. 

Gurmukh did notice an eerie, absentminded air about the old man though the latter looked free of any problems that could lead to signs of torment, turmoil or disorientation in face.  “May be that’s his look” he thought.  In a few minutes dosa was on his table and the old man dug into it after flashing a smile of appreciation to Gurmukh for the instant delivery.

The old man loved the ambience, well regulated spreading of cool air from the ACs and kept looking here and there while gorging the stuff slowly.  Gurmukh got busy with the ambling clients within his border limits, checked with his immediate supervisor about the bills and cleared them at the counter.
He had taken no notice of the old man who tugged at his shirt sleeve for coffee.  Gurmukh nodded, smiled and rushed inside.  The old man took his time relishing the filter coffee and found the bill in a leather case as was the hotel’s practice.  He slipped a Rs.2000 note (for which change these days was far less a problem) and Gurmukh took it with him to the counter.  A couple of fellow stewards were already transacting the bills at the counter and Gurmukh got into a banter and bonhomie with them.  It took a few minutes when he returned to the table to find the old man … gone!

Instinctively he rushed out and found him ambling his way up a few paces in front. “Sir!  You have forgotten your change.” Gurmukh was slightly breathless because of the scare that he might not find him and recovered on spotting him.  Stunned and crestfallen the old man suddenly found himself in the wilderness for words.  Then he found his voice.  “Gurmukh!  How silly of me!  I just forgot”  He looked annoyed with himself and was visibly embarrassed.  Smiling sheepishly he said “Thanks so much for rushing behind me… ridiculous that I left a 2000 rupee note and was even more foolish not to have taken the balance.”

Gurmukh spoke soothingly.  “Never mind sir… it happens.  check the balance.”  The old man did and pressed a 500 rupee note in his hand.  Despite remonstrations from Gurmukh he insisted on him taking it. But Gurmukh held his ground. 

Back in the hotel the young waiter felt happy that he saved the old man a lot of embarrassment and pain on recollecting what he would have possibly lost.  He felt impelled to speak to Sanjay about it and the latter’s instinctive reaction left him stormed.  “You dumbo!  If you had taken the money would the old man ask for it tomorrow?  No… no… even if he does you would be serving different people tomorrow and could always pretend or act as if you didn’t know about it.  You should have been richer by Rs.2000 tonight.  No…don’t waste my time talking about it.” 

Gurmukh was not perturbed so much by the response as the fact that his friend had a convoluted view of the incident.  “God!  Whatever it may be, I don’t have to lay my finger on any dirty money… that’s not how I have grown.  Have I?” He might see the old man with the same smile the next day but the experience had already notched its footprint in his memory.  But he asked himself “which road will I take in future?  Was I right in doing what I did? ”

Ah!  That’s the tipping point Gurmukh!  Which will you choose – the long road enmeshed with bristles of the pain of honest, hard earned, peaceful life or the other of debauched deception, disturbed nights and desultory dawn?

*Chennai is a city in the southernmost tip of India.

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