It cannot be called a restaurant. It was at best a small eatery, somewhat like a way side dhaba in a thatched shed. There was nothing presumptuous about the place, no name board, no bright lights or clang of china. But there was a steady flow of customers because of its location at a vantage point near the bus stand and the affordable prices. It had only tall benches serving as tables with short ones doing the duty of chairs. It boasted of no big variety in the menu. There were a few ordinary people having their dinner of roti and sabzi, vegetable briyani or aappam, a dosa like rice preparation.
Gopal who owned the place has been noticing for a long time from his cash counter one young woman with a small bag in her hand seated on a culvert near a lamp post on the opposite side of road. She did not look like a passenger waiting for a bus but someone in poor circumstances with nowhere to go. It was nearing the closing time of 11pm.There was none eating in the eatery and the day’s left over was there. He beckoned her to come and when she looked hesitant summoned her by gesture.
“I have been seeing you since evening sitting at the same place obviously with no place to go. You must be hungry. Be seated and have your meal,” Gopal said
Unsure but with a surprised look, she sat in the corner of a bench. A small boy brought her roti sabzi and briyani in ample quantity.
“I have no money to pay,” she said almost inaudibly.
“Who asked you for money? Eat as much as you want and tell me later about yourself,” Gopal said
He was watching her eat gluttonously as one who had been starving for days. She must be in her mid thirties, good looking but with a worn out sari and a wan look. Her hair was disheveled as if it had not seen oil for years and her skin appeared dry.
As he was looking at her sideways, his thought went back to his wife Thamarai who must be of the same age as this woman. He wondered where she would be and whether she would also be roaming like this woman in the streets.
Thamarai was 19 when they were married and a year since then he lost her. She went out to buy provisions in the nearby store, his mom had said, but she never returned. Someone had said she was forcibly pulled into a van in a matter of seconds and taken away while another saw her walking along with a middle aged woman. The store boy affirmed that she bought the provisions from the store. Searches were made and police complaint registered, but there was no trace of her.After a couple of years his mother nagged him to marry someone else but he was adamant not to marry. Thamarai, he knew, was a good girl and loved him deeply. He was sure that she would never have deserted him. He decided to wait and was even willing to accept her without asking her questions about her absence.
He felt Thamarai may not return. He remembered the happy days with her and one particular incident very well. They had gone to a local fair moving around arm in arm buying many small stuff, eating cotton candies and having various rides in merry-go round, giant wheel and such. There was one stall where a middle aged woman was putting tattoos. On an impulse Gopal proffered his arm and asked the woman to tattoo a lotus (Thamarai) on the upper arm. When finished, he asked Thamarai to have one.
”I am not a man like you. I cannot also have one openly in hand and that too your name,” she said
The tattoo woman smilingly said with a wink ”Pappa (child) your husband is wanting. Have one in your calf muscle and only you two will know”
On his insistence, Thamarai had a tattoo of Krishna with a cow (Gopal) put on her leg.
He would often ask her when both of them were alone “Let me see my name on your leg” much to her shyness and then caress her leg lovingly.
He woke up from his reverie when the woman after eating came and stood before him deferentially.”Be seated,” he said as he showed her a stool.
”You don’t seem belong to this town? I don’t think you have anyone here from your appearance. Are you single or married? What is your name?”he asked.
She kept silent for a while and when prodded said” You can call me Mangala.Please do not ask me anything more. I have nothing to tell except that I have no one. I thank you for giving me food when I needed it most. Allow me to go.”
“If you do not wish to tell, it is ok.But where will you go at this hour? It is not safe. You better stay in this dining hall and leave in the morning” he said
She remained silent unsure of what to do. “Whether it is tonight or tomorrow it is the same for me. I have no place to go,” she replied
”Ok you stay here tonight. You can decide where to go tomorrow,” he suggested and went to his portion on the rear.
.It had rained heavily nonstop in the night with one foot deep water everywhere in the morning. Gopal standing outside the eatery was surveying the area seeing the water receding slowly in many places from the pathway.
It was then Mangala came out of the eatery and said to him”Thank you again. I have no words to express my gratitude. Let me go on my way.”
Gopal gave her a hundred rupee note and bade her good bye.
As she was wading through the water towards the gate with her sari lifted up knee high, he had a fleeting glance of the tattoo of Krishna with cow on her slim leg. Shocked beyond words, he continued to stare at her leg. As she turned at the gate and saw him gazing at her leg, she instantly put down the sari in disgust and hurriedly walked away.Gopal opened his mouth to call her Thamarai but his voice choked in emotional indecision even as he continued to stare at the fading figure with tears flowing from his eyes.