The Inn around the Corner
The Inn around the Corner
The evening eatery was crowded as usual. People of all walks of life – businessmen, government employees, students and shoppers were packed in the small inn. The inn was located on a prime location of the town. The noise of moving vehicles and street vendors by the street corner was all the more domineering inside the inn as well. Nevertheless, the customers, mostly regular ones, were relaxing at the inn in spite of the stuffiness and noise. Some hissed into the ears of their companions as though someone in the crowd was spying on them; some indulged in serious discussions as if the outcome would instantly solve a long-pending problem; some laughed aloud hysterically and certain others shouted over mobile phones while eating or waiting for their turns to get a seat to have the evening diet at their favourite inn of the town.
The inn was famous for its Aapam, a pancake made of rice and coconut popular in South India, and chicken kurma. Though the old tile-roofed building that housed the eatery had limited capacity, even as the neighboring buildings had undergone a series of metamorphosis over the years, including renovations and change of enterprises, the inn looked the same for many years. It appeared as though the narrow building had earlier housed a family, which took up the enterprise as the town developed.
Owing to its limited size the narrow façade of the inn was always thronged with customers till late evening. It was the place for political arguments, gossiping, quarreling and reconciliation to many of its customers. Many customers, whose taste buds could not settle for anything less than the Aapam and chicken kurma of the tavern and who did not have to do anything while waiting by the facade, would shop around the corner. Hawkers by the roadside, selling a variety of artifacts and paan, owed their gratitude to the old inn. A couple of boys selling lottery tickets would find many a prospect among the patient customers waiting by the frontage. A blind beggar, who regularly sat by the rusty gate of the tavern, would get a handsome collection on the piece of rag he unfurled before him.
Even though there were many landmarks in the town located close to the inn, the area was famously known after the inn as Aapakadai junction.
The middle-aged man sitting at the cash counter, a slim and raised booth to save space, was also the owner of the most sought-after eatery. He was a replica of the man in the old garlanded portrait hanging on the wall above his head. At the bottom of the portrait was recorded the dates of birth and death of the senior and founder of the inn – information that would help a curious customer from mistaking the portrait to be that of the one sitting below, collecting money with a smiling face. The brisk waiters, who were either old or middle aged and were mostly addressed by their names by customers, bespoke the uprightness and business acumen of the inn-keeper. Mostly the inn-keeper too would wait on the regulars in between fulfilling his responsibility as a cashier.
The interior of the tavern was kept tidy even though the tiles, the wooden rafters and joists that together made up the roof were smoked black by the kitchen fire. Old ceiling fans, rotating noisily unendingly from the rafters, tried to diminish the tear-inducing effect of the smoke that mostly sneaked into the dining area through a nylon veil that separated the cooking and consuming quarters. Small windows, painted green, did not serve the purpose of lighting up or aerating the hall; instead, old fluorescent lamps with resounding chokes and bulky ceiling fans did the jobs to some extent. The dining tables with sun-mica finish, though pealed off at some edges, and black fibre chairs were no match to the glazing tables and cushioned chairs that prettified the nearby big hotels that had comfortable family rooms and exclusive parking spaces.
The inn had no name now. After the old wooden board proclaiming the name of the inn, nobody remembered now, placed above the gate was vandalized by miscreants who were on a rampage at the death of their leader due to natural cause, the inn never carried its name. Nevertheless, that part of the town had been famously known as the Aapakadai junction for a long time.
It was business as usual at the inn in the late evening. Even as most of the establishments by the corner, including the big hotel with ample parking space, were pulling down their shutters, the inn was thronged with customers. Street vendors, mostly selling fruits and vegetables, swarmed the neighbourhoods, looking for prospects to sell out the perishable commodities at discounted prices. The dim light by the frontage of the inn made the area vivid as lights of the nearby stores were put out.
The vehicular movement on the road gradually thinned down and so was the crowd waiting in the frontage of the inn.
Somewhere in the town a political meeting was underway. The roaring of a local leader reverberated by the Aapakadai junction as the cold late evening in the premises was about to settle down into silence. When the last of the customers departed the inn, the roaring lion was challenging his enemies through the public address system, which made the late dinners laugh for the rest of the evening.
Most of the seats inside the inn were empty and a waiter was cleaning the empty tables as another one was catering to the few sitting by a corner. The others were inside the kitchen involved in cleaning up operations.
It was then two SUVs pulled in near the inn. The vehicles carried small flags of a political party on the bonnet. Doors banged as some young men stepped out and advanced towards the inn. Inside the inn, they sat at the tables that were cleaned up a while ago and demanded food rather authoritatively. Almost every one of them was under the influence of liquor and some were swaying their heads spontaneously, unable to control their movements.
It was the policy of the hotelier and his team to entertain all the guests to their fullest satisfaction and hence the last guests were served with the remaining food that could have generously fed the workers for the night.
The waiters’ patience was challenged by the group that ate the food like hungry dogs devouring food remains deposited by a street side garbage bin. One repeatedly exhibited a symptom to puke.
The authoritative late guests did not pay any heed to the bill that was kept before them. When reminded by a waiter as they walked out, they laughed as if a joke was cracked by the hungry waiter. The hotelier, who had been counting the money in the cash box, joined his employee and demanded payment. The youngsters seemed to have been offended by the request.
“You know our Thalaivar! (meaning leader) He will finish you if you do not let us go,” cautioned one of them as the others stood mockingly around the speaker.
The waiter took the ignored bill and tried to hand it over to the one who argued with them. No sooner he held the man’s hand to pass on the bill than the rogue grabbed him by his shirt and pushed him towards the counter. By now the fellow workers from the kitchen joined them and tried to intervene. Realizing the situation getting worse, the hotelier tried to pacify his team, “let them go,” he shouted.
“You mean we cannot go if the slaves of yours do not let us go,” bellowed the man. By now the other rascals picked up verbose fighting with the hotel staff. Suddenly one of the drunkards picked up a chair and threw it forcibly at the portrait of the founder of the inn. Pieces of glass fell down on the cash counter and the photograph of the founder, having peeled off from the cardboard, hung loose on a tag at the bottom of the board.
Soon some resorted to vandalism. Chairs flew in the air and tables were overturned. Mobile phones came in handy for the attackers and many reached Aapakadai junction in more cars carrying party flags and joined them in the rampage.
As per the order of Thalaivar the police intervened and arrested the hotelier and his men for attacking his party workers.
The next evening when the blind beggar turned up by the gate of the inn the area was unusually quiet. The lottery ticket boy informed him of the destruction of the inn by Thalaivar’s henchmen the previous night.
“Son of a bitch,” yelled the old man before beating his chest and crying hysterically.