I’m on holiday at a very famous hill-station in India called Darjeeling and so far, nothing really interesting has happened, well, apart from a scary ride on an evidently annoyed horse and an incident with a lizard in my toilet. It was only earlier tonight that I had a fascinating encounter with an equally fascinating man.
I went quite late with my family to a highly acclaimed restaurant here called Glenary’s the second night in a row and ordered dinner. Then “he” caught my eye. He is a man who I’ve noticed sitting at the same table during the closing hours of the restaurant every single time I’ve gone there. I’ve been to Glenary’s four times now counting tonight and he’s always there. It’s not him being there at the same time as me that fascinates me, but he himself. He has this air of tranquillity about him – he never has company, he’s never preoccupied by anything other than the beer and appetizers on his table; he just sits there looking around, taking in the ambiance and occasionally smiling to himself. Moreover, he seems to get special treatment from the waiters, but he certainly doesn’t look like the owner or anything of that stature. His “story” has fascinated me for some time and I finally thought tonight’s the night I get to the bottom of it.
I sat glued to my seat just assessing him from a distance for a while. He had ordered a bottle of beer and was munching on some chips while staring in front in deep thought. He was insouciant to everyone around him and everyone to him; no one really seemed to notice him and vice versa. He was like a ghost and the longer I thought about him, the more mysterious he seemed. Every now and then a waiter walked up to him and asked him if he was comfortable, but I never caught the reply. Eavesdropping on others’ conversations is something I sneer at, but I had to make a hypocrite of myself tonight for this man.
It was getting very late by hill-station standards and the always bustling restaurant was now nearly empty; if I had to make a move, it would have to be now. So I walked up to him and introduced myself. He stood up and offered me a firm handshake and followed that up with the statement, “You seem like you’re into sports.” I replied, “Yes” and he quickly added, “I’ll give you a tip – always keep your eye on the ball.” We were still standing – he hadn’t offered me a seat, neither did I ask to sit in the case he might disapprove of my intrusion. He simultaneously effused kindness and sadness and this made his character even more complex to me. His English was good and he had a clear accent, so I could discern every word he spoke. However, he was dressed quite shabbily in what looked like very old clothes that have been patched up several times. But much like judging a book by its cover, judging people by their outward appearances is a cardinal sin because such appearances are always facades hiding the real person. He asked me where I was from and I replied, “Calcutta.” He assumed me to be a Bengali and wittily said that he liked Moon Moon Sen and Sushmita Sen who are Bengali actresses.
I smiled at his comment and then told him of how I always see him sitting here whenever I come to Glenary’s. Finally, I asked him the question whose answer I was so eager to know that it had me on the edge of my metaphorical seat – “What’s your story?” He paused for a while, gave me a melancholy smile and replied, “My story… I’ll tell you maybe another day.” I was unsatisfied with his answer and pried deeper, “Do you come here everyday?” “No, not everyday… I’m not loaded enough with cash to come here everyday, just twice or thrice a week.” came the reply from him. I could make out that he was a little tipsy, but the alcohol hadn’t adversely affected his manners and thus, he was very courteous. On asking one more question, he seemed to be getting a little annoyed and cut me off midway to say, “It was a pleasure meeting you. See you.” He was clearly trying to get rid of me and I wasn’t oblivious to the message; I politely said, “Thank you for your time. Bye.” and walked back to my table. On sitting down, I looked towards him and saw him looking at me with a kind smile on his face. My father suddenly called the waiter and asked him to serve the man a beer from us. This gesture came out of the blue but I felt good about it.
I realized that I had found out almost nothing about him; I didn’t know his name, why he came here and more importantly, who he is. As far as I know, he can be anyone – maybe he’s millionaire who’s lost most of his fortune but still comes here to relive his heydays; maybe he has a much more touching and personal story to tell; maybe he’s just an ordinary guy who just happens to be here at the same time as me. It can be any one of these and it can also be none of these – it’s this mystery that just enthralls me.
Just as I was about to leave the restaurant, the man walked up to me, thanked me for the drink, slowly glided back to his seat and resumed sipping from his beer mug and looking deeply into an imaginary abyss. I didn’t find out who this man was, what he did, why he was always there, but to be frank, I don’t care – sometimes life’s many mysteries, like this one, don’t need to be solved to enjoy them.