Nero (name changed) is not a great-looking restaurant. It is located right opposite the main entrance of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi, Thrissur, which my father headed at one time, long before Alzheimer (it’s a rat, he said once) started nibbling away his brains. Soon I will remember nothing, he said, and they will remember nothing of me either.
The eatery then was depressing and dark. But their food was good, and the tea excellent, and it was run by an imposing man who used to tell everyone, big pudgy hands kneading coins in a drawer, that he had never been young: he had begun working at the age of six and had become 60 overnight.
Decades later, yesterday, I walked into the Nero. It was now garish and dark. And the man behind the counter doing the same thing with the coins was his son who looked exactly like him. Right across the counter though they had now set up an open kitchen. Beef was roasted in a large pan at all times. Spicy fish eggs were minced and fried in another. Chicken boiled in a cauldron. It was that circle in hell that Kerala reserves for all edible animals. And some not so edible as well.
Moothedam (a rather common Namboodiri honorific), formerly an insurance agent and now, like most Malayalis, a writer, and a potential documentary filmmaker ordered tea for both of us, glancing at one waiter with consternation. The waiter had his mask wrapped around his long chin like a bandage.
The waiter answered him with silent scorn and placed the glasses on the red Formica table with a loud bang that rocked the tea from side to side.
‘You know why he is so arrogant?’ Moothedam asked when he had left.
‘No. Because you are a writer?’
‘No, he is used to be that. Everyone writes in Kerala. Most of them are poets. But this man here thinks I have betrayed him. He knows me from before, his name is Yusuf.’
‘How? How did you betray him?’
The day before, when I met Moothedam for the first time at the local barber’s and we became friends, we had decided to have tea the next day, but Moothedam had called in and canceled the appointment as there was an impromptu Clubhouse meeting on the Taliban’s storming of the Afghan security forces’ strongholds.
‘I should not have asked you to come to the Nero.’ Moothedam said. ‘ I can’t suffer the non-vegetarian smell.’
‘But why is Yusuf so arrogant?’
‘Did I say he was arrogant?’
‘Hmm.’ Moothedam drummed on the table. His fingers were short like stubs and their nails were mostly chewed. ‘There is some support here for the Taliban. In pockets, of course. I am not accusing anything of anybody, of course.’
‘But they are enforcing the Sharia in Afghanistan.’
‘Well, the Sharia was the rule for long, you know. The secular law is only a recent invention. So for the Taliban, it is a return to the normal.’
‘Normal is not cutting off hands and stoning people to death.’
‘It is normal. It all depends.’
‘You are saying this as a liberal?’
‘No, that is what Yusuf said.’
‘At the Clubhouse discussion.’
‘Ah. He won the argument?’
‘He always enters the discussion room with his friends. This is not the first time he has done this. We go back a long time, really. ’
Yusuf, who was leaning against the wall and staring at us impassively. ‘They will take over Kabul in no time.’
‘The Americans don’t want to die for democracy anymore. They used to die for democracy, but now they don’t want to.’
‘It’s crazy how the Americans used to die for democracy,’ I said.
‘They don’t want to die for free speech either.’
‘They used to die for free speech.’
Moothedam considered his chewed nails. ‘Whenever I have a Clubhouse discussion, I wish for long fingers.’
‘Well, you do have short fingers. That can’t be denied.’
‘You have no idea why I want long fingers.’
‘Because I want to stick a long middle finger on Yusuf’s face.’
‘Is Yusuf for the Sharia?’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘The point is I really can’t stick a finger on his face.’
We drank the tea and I found mine too sweet, an endemic Thrissur problem. ‘They are generous with the sugar here.’
‘It’s not them. It’s him, Yusuf.’
‘But I have never met him before. Why should he have anything against me?’
‘You don’t get it, do you?’
‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ Moothedam pushed his glass aside. ‘He is insulting me by putting too much sugar in your tea.’
‘Yours is OK?’
‘Yes,’ Moothedam said. ‘He knows I have diabetes. And if he sweetens my tea, he knows I will complain against him.’
‘I don’t get it. Why did you choose this place?’
‘I wanted to show him I am not afraid of him. There’s another discussion tonight.’
‘Related subjects. Would you like to join?’
‘I am not good at these things.’ I looked around.
‘Don’t look at him.’
‘No, I was looking at the man behind you eating.’
‘Looks like it’
‘I am a vegetarian. I have been a vegetarian for 22 years. It’s cruel to kill animals for your eating pleasure. It’s disgusting how Kerala consumes so much meat.’
I thought of the woman on the plane once to Dubai who when the air hostess asked her food preference, said: “‘I am both veg and non-veg.’” ‘But that is fascism! You know, interfering with others’ personal menu?’
‘So now, I am Hindu Taliban because I want to save animals from pain? And Yusuf is secular because he is against me?’
‘You should be joining Yusuf’s team at the Clubhouse.’
‘Is he for the Sharia?’ I repeated my old question.
‘He is against me.’
‘You must excuse me. I have a prostate condition.’ There was no restroom in the restaurant. I watched Moothedam dribbling himself past the crowd at the open kitchen and make his way across the road to the Akademi where there was a great restroom which, if I remembered right, my father built when he was the secretary.
Yusuf ambled up and slipped me a bill. ‘That guy is a fraud,’ he said.
‘He is just a vegetarian and a writer.’
‘ I know he was a fraud, what, for some 22 years now? He is an insult to the community.’
‘What did he do 22 years ago?’
‘Ask him, I am not a snitch.’ Yusuf turned, then looked over his shoulder. ‘He will try to recruit you for his Clubhouse team. Humiliation awaits you.’
‘Are you for the Taliban?’
‘Go to hell.’
I picked up the bill and made my way to the counter where the son who had begun to look even more like his father was squashing coins and looking at the stuff being quartered, curried, and cooked.
Moothedam came along.
‘I thought about your question,’ Moothedam said.
‘Why is Yusuf against you?’
Moothedam nodded. ‘Because I am too good a liberal.’
‘What did you do 22 years ago?’
We stood by the busy road and watched cars and bikes dodge people.
‘Did Yusuf talk to you?’
Moothedam waved down an auto-rickshaw with a mini-door. He got in, and as it started, put out his head.
‘I became Hindu.’
‘You became a Brahmin?’
‘I tried. But people like Yusuf and you won’t get it.’
I crossed the road and entered the gates of the Sahitya Akademi. I wanted to see if they had hung my father’s portrait on the gallery wall after all these years. But it was not there.
(CP Surendan’s novel, One Love, And The Many Lives of Osip B, is now available on Amazon)
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