“Please bring me a bottle of kaachup with the fries” was the final instruction for Javed as he scribbled the order hastily in Urdu.
He had just been waiting the table for “Memsaab” and Sir; for him they were all the same.
That the guests seated at this particular table were newly weds was lost on him. He should have noticed that the husband’s purpose for wearing a shalwar kameez was to hide the layer of lard that the laziness of marriage had wrapped around his person.
Only a month ago, before his marriage, the husband would frequent this very restaurant, experimenting at the time with a most unhealthy obsession — that of wearing polo shirts with large obnoxious horses on them.
That the wife was expecting was hidden from view under the loud bellbottom pants she wore, which despite being the latest fashion were still unapologetically unappealing.
Lost on Javed too was the audacity of the makeup that hid the recent bout of acne that childbearing had brought with it. And yet these aesthetic accouterments refused to cover up the painful reminders of new money that shone through when she spoke.
But Javed hadn’t the time to reflect on these delicate nuances for another couple demanded the attention of his little white notepad. Their order was largely liquid, though they shared a macaroon between them (to Javed’s dismay, for here was a word that sounded different to his ears at every telling).
Javed repeated the order in his head until he reached his manager and said it verbatim, to the best of his ability.
As he observed the boy and girl sharing the caramel macaroon over steaming coffee Javed looked towards them with a blank expression, and an even more vacuous mind. He could not see in the expressions of their eyes what the future laid in store for them.
That this relationship would slowly creep on them — on her like a slow panic, on him like a drifting wind, both caught unawares of its progress. Until one day the panic would grip her, and to remain tied to it a moment longer would be one moment too many. For him, that day would mark the end to the cool feeling on his forehead that he would have unwittingly grown used to, for the drifting wind would drift his way no more.
But for Javed they were simply another couple, luckily for him a new one. If nothing else Javed could tell new love from the size of his tips.
Unconcerned by the stories that brewed on the many dark-brown tables with ill-matching wrought iron legs, Javed laboured through his shift. With one final sweep he finally changed into his greasy shalwar kameez, after litigiously counting up the tips he had earned that day. So close he hovered to the lives of his customers, so easy an access he had to their torments and delights. His disinterest in them beyond servicing their appetites was almost criminal.
And without a word of familiarity spoken between him and his manager, he hitched a ride to the Kalma Chowk Metro Bus Station and waited there in silence.
Both manager and subordinate wore a similar variety of tattered, dirty and greasy clothes, once more equals in the eyes of the city. The black suits and clip-on ties that they wore five minutes prior had to be deposited at the door of the restaurant.
As he stuffed his tall, though lanky and underfed frame, into the sea of humanity that covered every inch of floor on the bus, Javed once more committed the sin of insouciance. But the lack of care with which he kept to his own quiet thoughts was almost defensible inside the bus, for every passenger there was doing the same. There were wage-labourers squatting and covering their tired foreheads with handkerchiefs; there were others who played old and rustic Punjabi songs on the speakers of their brick-like Nokia phones.
There were even a couple of first-timers. Dressed in jeans and polo shirts, their facial expressions betrayed their efforts to hide the disgust they felt with the overbearing smell of sweat and men. When they would get off at the Azadi Chowk they would be surprised and, perhaps, secretly comforted, to find that they are the only ones to disembark.
The rest of the bus will remain packed beyond the Timber Market and Niazi Chowk Station, over the Ravi, until it reaches its final stop at Shahdara. There Javed and the countless others that travel into our city of Lahore, and fix our broken pipes and phones, wait our tables and drive our buses will slowly walk to a hard-earned sleep.
Javed walked home in silence to find sitting atop his bed waiting for him his nephew and niece. To them before going to bed he will tell the story of the macarooned lovers who are soon to be marooned, and the newly wed couple who will over time balloon. And they will laugh and smile, and yawn and all finally fall into a deep slumber.