Azeez Chinese Restaurant
Azeez Chinese Restaurant18 mins 2.1K 18 mins 2.1K
Siddharth had developed a taste for authentic Chinese cuisine after he had spent around two years in China on an onsite assignment. Consequentially, he used to try out the various Chinese food outlets in the city every Friday night - a new restaurant every week.
The “Chinese” food that is usually served across India is not authentic Chinese, but an “Indianised” version of it. Though most of the style of cooking like high fires, use of ajino-moto and the various Chinese sauces are adhered to, more of the traditional Indian spices are used as well. Siddharth found that he liked this desi version better. But off late he got tired of the monotonous taste and was yearning for some authentic Chinese food…just for old time’s sake. He had exhausted all other options for a restaurant when he chanced to see the “Azeez Chinese Restaurant”, travelling on his bike near the city suburbs. He had not heard much about the place. The name itself had sounded rather unappealing. He asked the online bulletin board at his office for reviews of the outlet. Most of the people who responded dismissed the food as being “terrible” or “too Chinese”. Siddharth was encouraged by this last bit of feedback and decided to give the restaurant a try.
“I’ll have a schezwan ginger garlic noodles and…do you have any suggestions for the side dish, please?”, Siddharth asked the smiling elderly man who was waiting on him.
“Sure. I’d suggest a chicken in the Manchurian style. Schezwan is pretty hot and spicy…the sweetness of Manchurian would go well with it.”, replied the waiter.
“Great then…I’ll have it. And I’d also like a Pepsi along with that please.” Siddharth said, handing the menu back to the waiter.
“I’m afraid I can’t allow that”, replied the waiter.
“It’s not good for you. Cold beverages are harmful to digestion of hot food. I don’t serve ice cold water or cool drinks with my food. You may have warm water if you please.”
Siddharth was taken aback but he wasn’t offended. There was a certain quality in the waiter’s tone that was both polite and firm at the same time. And he was always smiling,a gentle, endearing smile. He noticed the extensive use of the singular on the part of the waiter but he let it go.
“That’s a new bit of information. Ok then…cancel the Pepsi”, said Siddharth.
“Thank you”, replied the waiter and he made his way to the kitchen.
Siddharth watched him disappear into the kitchen. The interiors weren’t pretentious but they were comfortable. It was bright and cheery. A number of Chinese paintings adorned the walls. The traditional Chinese paper lanterns were also hung for decoration. There were only two other patrons apart from Siddharth and both of them were having their meals in silence. The elderly man was the only waiter. Apart from that, there were nobody else in the restaurant.
A quarter of an hour later, the waiter brought the order. He served the noodles expertly onto Siddharths plate and poured the side dish liberally on the side. Siddharth gave him a smile and thanked him. The waiter withdrew and Siddharth took a first bite of the food before him. It was delicious. This was authentic Chinese cooking and not the desi version of it. “No wonder people said the food was atrocious”, thought Siddharth. But he was at ease. This was the food that he had grown to love,the taste he thought he had forgotten, but now was gleefully welcoming back like an old friend. It took him a major part of an hour to finish eating. He relished each and every morsel. Finally he pushed his plate aside and looked up. The waiter was watching him.
“You seem to have liked that very much”, said the waiter.
“To put it as simply as that would be a tremendous achievement of understatement. It was incredible”, replied Siddharth, smiling broadly at the waiter. “The cook could have used more number of schezwan chilies, though. I could find only one petal of it. The flavour hadn’t reached some places. Nevertheless it was good”, continued Siddharth.
“You seem to know your Chinese cuisine well, young man! It’s surprising that you could actually recognize a Schezwan chilly petal”, said the waiter as he slipped into the chair opposite to Siddharth.
“Oh…I’m not a connoisseur. I spent around two years in China. Onsite assignment, you know. Most of my colleagues hated
Chinese food…but somehow, I loved it. I had settled for the Indian Chinese all this time I’ve been back but was getting fed up with it. Today was a blast to the past. Could I meet the chef so that I could thank him?” asked Siddharth.
“You already have, young man”, replied the waiter, extending his hand for Siddharth to shake. “Allow me to introduce myself. Azeez Mohammed…I am the head chef!!”
“Oh…” replied Siddharth, taken aback.” My name is Siddharth Nandan. Nice to have met you Mr.Azeez. Wait a minute!!! “Azeez Chinese Restaurant”?? You’re the owner as well?? “
“Yes I am”, replied Azeez, laughing at the surprised look on Siddharths face.
“Do you find it hard to believe that the owner of a restaurant can cook as well as wait on tables?”
“Hmmm…yes. It’s not common, you know. But if you think about it, I see there’s no reason why you can’t do it all by yourself…but it still is odd”
“Yes it is. But just look around, Siddharth. Do you see my restaurant thronging with people? Hiring other people to do work which is easily within my capability to perform is rather wasteful, don’t you think?”
“Hmm…I guess you’re right, Mr Azeez.”
“Please!!! You can call me Azeez”
“Naah…I won’t. You’re old enough to be my father. I think I’ll call you Azeezji. Hope you don’t mind”
“Tell me, Azeezji, if you don’t mind me asking…why do you serve authentic Chinese food? Most Indians like the desi version. I asked around about this place before I came here and everybody said that the food was horrible. I see that your place doesn’t have much customers…then why? It hits the business hard, right?”
“Well, Siddharth I respect the Chinese way of cooking. I hate what they’ve done to the food in the name of “Indianising” it. I used to be a chef at a respectable restaurant in Shanghai. Chinese cooking is what I was meant to do…is what I do best and everything that I have become in life is because of it. To alter it to suit the whims of the majority would be blasphemy. It would be sacrilege against the great people who invented this form of cooking!!! Making money is important…but not at the cost of corrupting ones vocation, my young friend.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“And you haven’t”, replied Azeez with a huge smile. “No one has asked me that question before and trust me, it’s something I’ve asked myself a lot. Besides…getting occasional customers like you…who are actually interested in Chinese food…and being able to serve them and win their praise…that’s a reward in itself. I keep the restaurant open so that people who need me know where they can find me!!!”
“You’re an amazing man, Azeezji. I’ve begun to like you”, said Siddharth.
“I can say the same thing about you also.”
“You think I’m amazing?”
“Amazing would be a strong word. What I meant was that you are certainly different. You’re unbelievably frank…most people are not. I can see it in your eyes that you actually mean it!!! And you find it easy to go against the general opinion. The world has become too pretentious these days and this quality has gone for a toss. I guess you’re refreshing. That’s why I like you.”
“Thanks Azeezji. As they said in “Casablanca”, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Both of them laughed aloud.
Siddharth had started coming to Azeez’s every Friday night at first and then this had become a daily routine. He used to enjoy the food as well as Azeez’s company. After a while, the food started taking a back seat. They used to talk on a plethora of subjects. Siddharth never used to talk much about his problems but during the rare occasion that he did, Azeez
was able to give real insights and solutions. He learned a great deal about Chinese food and the intricacies of its preparation. He in turn told Azeez about the books he read and movies and his daily experiences in the corporate world. As the clientele of the restaurant was generally poor, Azeez would always have time to spend with Siddharth. It was a Friday
and Siddharth had eaten his food and they both had settled down in the front porch of the restaurant for their usual chat. The frequent visits Siddharth made had made Azeez think whether Siddharth had any friends. The question had been nagging him for a while and he had decided to spring it today.
“Yes I do. What made you ask about it?” replied Siddharth.
“You always come here alone. And off late you’ve started coming here every day. I thought maybe you don’t have any friends. These days it’s not natural to be without friends, you know.”
“Of course I have friends. It’s just that they don’t share my taste in Chinese food. And besides…” Siddharths voice trailed away.
“Besides…?? Come on…you can tell me”
“Hmmm…frankly, I don’t feel a constant urge to always be with them. They are just friends, right? People who are meant to liven up one’s life for a short time and then just move on. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, mind you. It’s really fun being with them and all. But being friends doesn’t mean you have to be in some form of contact with each other at all times, does it? That’ll be like smothering them…everybody wants their own personal space, right?”
“I agree. I had to ask, you know.”
“And there is also another thing. I hate saying goodbyes. If I get used to someone, I hate letting them go because if I do, it takes a hell of a lot of time for me to get over that loss. That’s just the way I am. Friendship is serious to me. When I make a friend, I vow to myself to help them in any way I can when they really need me and I expect that in return also. I’m not into
this superficial, showy stuff, you know. I like the mindless prattle and leg-pulling but that should not be the only feature of the friendship…it should be defined by a deep understanding rather than pure levity. If it’s levity that you want, all you need is a television. Most people these days don’t think the way I do…I suppose you get my drift, Azeezji?”
“I think I do. You sometimes feel that you don’t want to burden a person with your friendship because you know you’re putting huge demands of them…demands that may not be easy to satisfy. Am I right?”
“Oh my god!!! I do feel that!!! Spot on, Azeezji!!! How did you know that??”
“I used to be like that. Let me give you a piece of advice, Sidhu. Just don’t refrain from indulging in a bit of mindless prattle and a bit of show now and again. In today’s world that is very much needed. Take it from my experience. Keep this in mind.”
“I know, Azeezji. I can say I have a decent number of friends with me now, but only a very few of them are really important to me. The fact that I survive with the others would tell you that I’m following your advice, right?”
“Yes it does. So…” continued Azeez with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, “…any girl in your life?”
“Hmmm…yes I do. I have a friend. Her name is Veni. We’re just friends…purely platonic!!!”
“Is it??” said Azeez straightening up in his chair.
“Well, she was in my same training batch. We come from the same place also. She’s part of our group and we have a fun time…that’s about it. She’s started getting wedding proposals and will surely be getting married off soon.”
“You sound a bit sad about it??”
“No I don’t!!!” replied Siddharth in indignation.” Why should I?? She’s just a friend!!! Friends leave us…that’s what they do!!!”
“Looks like I touched a raw nerve there. It’s obvious from your reaction that she’s more than a friend to you…isn’t she?? Do you love her?”
“What?? That’s ridiculous!!! Me being in love with her!!!” Siddharth got up and walked towards the railing and looked at the stars above. “I think I’ll miss her, though. She can be a complete chatter-box if she wants to be. I guess she does that with people she’s close to. You probably don’t know how most girls are like these days, Azeezji. They usually are attention
seeking and often silly. Many of them have some selfish needs and they try to manipulate guys so that they can get these needs satisfied. Be it becoming a listening post for their problems or help them with their love life involving someone else or just to satisfy their temporary need of having a male presence in their life…until Mr. Right comes along!!!! Veni is not
like that at all. She belongs to the old school…not running after someone to fix her problems...instead she tries to find a solution herself. One has to earn her friendship and affection and once you do, you get to see a whole different side to her. And her laugh…it’s absolute music, you know? She does have a wonderful smile. As I said…she’s bright as well!!! She can
see a joke coming a mile away. We used to laugh a lot. And occasionally we have these serious chats about life. That’s how I realised she was sensible, mature and has an inner strength. Someday…sooner rather than later…she’s going to make some man really happy…and she’ll leave my life…” Siddharth’s voice trailed off.
Azeez was smiling. He got up from his seat and went next to Siddharth and put his arm around him. Siddharth looked at him. He was in complete surprise…as if struck by an amazing revelation.
“Oh my god!!! I love her, Azeezji!!! I love Veni!!! All this time I’ve been trying to deny it…but I’ve finally found the reason why I’ve been feeling so lonely and miserable. It’s because I love her with all my heart and I don’t want to lose her”, cried Siddharth with tears in his eyes.
“Oh yes, you poor fool!!!” said Azeez with the ferocious loving intensity of a father. “You’ve wasted time already. No one can blame you…one tends to miss a lot of things in the fast life these days. The Quran says “And of His Signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves that you might find peace of mind in them, and He put between you love and compassion”. You’ve finally found the person Allah has put in this world for you. And I’m really happy for you, Munna!!!”
Siddharth looked up, wiping his tears, “Munna??”
Azeez looked away. “Did I say Munna?? I meant Sidhu!!!” he replied with a strained laugh. Siddharth thought he heard pain in that laughter.
“Is anything wrong, Azeezji?” he asked.
“Nothing Sidhu. Now…aren’t you going to tell her?”
“I must…I mean…do I have to? What if she rejects me? What if she despises me for breaking our friendship? I don’t think I can stand such a rejection, Azeezji.”
“What does your heart tell you?”
“To tell her everything…” whispered Siddharth, his head down.
“And that is what you should do. Trust me Sidhu. You’d rather not spend the rest of your life thinking -What would have happened if I had told her? - trust me it would be a torture beyond anything you can ever imagine. Bring her here for dinner tomorrow and tell her. Ok?”
After what seemed like an eternity but what was actually a minute, Siddharth looked up at Azeezji…and smiled.
Veni readily accepted Siddharths invitation for dinner. They made their way to “Azeez Chinese Restaurant” and when they entered, Siddharth had a real shock!!!
Azeez had made a lot of changes to the interiors. The Chinese lamps that were previously hung just as decoration, now covered the overhead light bulbs, throwing the restaurant into a romantic twilight. He had brought a music system and it was playing soft-music.
“Nice ambience”, observed Veni.
“Ya. That’s what I like about the place apart from the food. It’s actually quiet surprising that you too like authentic Chinese food. How come you never told me?” asked Siddharth.
“You never asked me”, replied Veni with a twinkle in her eye.
Azeez approached them.
“Ha…Azeezji!!! This is Veni. Veni, this is Azeezji, the owner and chef of this restaurant”, said Siddharth.
“Hi”, said Veni to Azeez.
“Nice to have met you, Veni. Sidhu has told me so much about you. He seems to have forgotten to mention that you are also a beautiful woman?” said Azeez.
“Thank you, Azeezji”, replied Veni who had gone slightly pink.
“So Sidhu, what will you have today?” asked Azeez.
“What will you have, Veni?” asked Siddharth.
“Ummm…I guess I’ll just have what you’re having”, replied Veni.
“Ok then. Azeezji. We’ll have Chicken in the Hunan style and rice of your choice.”
“Fine Sidhu”, replied Azeez withdrawing from the table.
“I like the way he talks”, said Veni, looking after Azeez. ”So…what have you told him about me?”
“I told him that you were downright annoying at times. Like to nag occasionally…etc.”, replied Siddharth with a mischievous smile.
“You are a complete idiot, Siddharth Nandan!!!” said Veni with mock anger.” Besides, you bring out the worst in me. I can see that you and Azeezji have developed quite a friendship. I better warn him that you could be downright unbearable at times".
“Takes one to know one”
“What?? You think I’m unbearable?? Really??” said Veni, suddenly looking concerned.
“I was just kidding!!! Relax!!! Anyway…this is a joke I got as a forward today and you got to hear it. This man says - I bought a self-learning record to learn Spanish. I turned it on and went to sleep; the record got stuck. The next day I could only stutter in Spanish”
They both erupted in uncontrollable laughter.
Unknown to both, Azeez was observing them from the kitchen window. He had hired a person to cook today. He was too excited to cook today and badly wanted to know how things would go between Siddharth and Veni. He just couldn’t keep his mind on anything else. He couldn’t help giving an occasional peek through the window to see what was happening between them. When he saw that they were laughing he felt really happy. He had forgotten what being happy was for a long time now. He too had had a loving family…a wife and a boy…once. His sons name was Munna. They were happy with their life in China. It was bliss and there seemed to be no end to the happiness…until that fateful day in 1976. The Tangshan earthquake. Statisticians say this was the largest earthquake of the 20th century by death toll. His family was among those who lost their lives. He had survived and for a long time after that calamity, he kept wishing he hadn’t. He had spent a long time seeking refuge in narcotics and alcohol. These helped him dull the ache. Then one day, somehow, someway, he wanted to stop this kind of an existence. He felt as if Allah had spoken to him…it had been a miracle. He went through the painful rehab procedure and had spent almost a decade volunteering for the Peace Corps and the UNICEF. When he finally realised his body was not what it had used to be, he had come back to India and had opened the restaurant with the money he had saved. But he was always lonely and yearned for company. When Siddharth had unexpectedly walked into his life, he saw in him, his son Munna. Munna would have been Siddharths age had he survived. With Siddharth, he had found a renewed chance at fatherhood and happiness…a chance he had never quiet expected to get and he was thankful to Allah for that. He had believed that Allah had forgotten him all these long years…but now he knew he had been wrong. Allah had sent Siddharth into his life when he wanted it the most. Helping Siddharth in any way possible would be his repayment.
He shook himself from his reverie and placed the dishes on the tray. He served the children and went back to the kitchen to watch them.
“You seem to be a bit pre-occupied…want to talk about it?” asked Siddharth.
“Naah…not disturbed!!! Another proposal has come up. Achan had called. Software engineer in Pune. He’ll be sending me the photos tomorrow.” replied Veni.
“Great!!!” said Siddharth, concentrating on a spot on the table-cloth,” Good for you!!!” His voice had sounded a bit too gay.
“You sound unhappy”, said Veni.
“No I don’t. It’s good for you. Let the photo come and all of us will talk about it.”
“Oh…ok!!!”, replied Veni.
Siddharth failed to notice that disappointment in Veni’s voice. Though he had decided to tell her his feelings during the course of the dinner, he still wasn’t able to work up the courage to do it. He felt he had too much to lose if he got rejected. He looked at Veni. She hadn’t eaten anything and was simply playing with her food.
“Hey…how come you haven’t eaten anything? I thought you said you liked Chinese food”, exclaimed Siddharth.
“I lied.” whispered Veni. She looked up at Siddharth and continued,” I absolutely hate Chinese food…I came here only because you liked it and asked me to come with you!!!”
They looked at each other. She gave a little smile. To Siddharth it seemed as if the world had stopped and everything had frozen into that single point in time. He didn’t feel any doubts anymore. The angelic face looking at him had made things crystal clear. He vowed to surrender himself to her from then on. To him, both of them had ceased to exist…in that stretched second…they had become one!!!
“I love you, Veni”. Siddharth was surprised by the clarity in his voice. He didn’t need a response from her…he already knew. There were tears in her eyes…tears of happiness. “Don’t ever leave me, ok?” she said. He took both her hands in his and held it towards his face in reply.
They were interrupted by a cry of happiness that came from the kitchen.
Azeez came rushing out towards them. Siddharth and Azeez hugged. Veni laughed watching them and Azeez gave a pat on her back.
“Thank you, Azeezji”, said Siddharth, his voice breaking a bit.
“No Sidhu…thank YOU!!!” replied Azeez.
“Why?” Siddharth asked surprised.
“Some other time!!!” replied Azeez with a broad smile.
Siddharth and Veni got married three months after that night at the restaurant. Siddharth insisted on having Azeez by his side throughout the function. When asked who he was, Siddharth replied that Azeez was the man who had given him Veni…a father figure. They remained friends and Siddharth and Veni used to pay him frequent visits. Azeez was fortunate enough to play with their children who called him Grandpa. Siddharth was by his side when Azeez breathed his last…a contented man…in peace with the world.