She sat looking down at the tablecloth, slowly biting into the toasted omelette sandwich and sipping tea from her favourite bone china cup saucer. Every night as the restaurant closed, the same routine followed.
At first she thought she’d sell off the place. She almost found a buyer but never connected. Her heartstrings tied to this very place where she remembered spending time growing up each day of her life.
Head Chef Noshir uncle taught her to recognize her own taste buds. To swirl the milky sweet chai before the bun maska found its way. To treat eggs like some delicacy. To tuck into the mutton dhansak, chicken berry pilav, gravy cutlets, patrani macchi and the kheema pav before it went cold on the plate. To savor the delicate flavor of the lagan nu custard before it melted away.
And while those taste buds were growing, so was she. As soon as she finished grade VI and the summer holidays started, she was nudged to work at the café. The only child was meant to learn the ropes. How hateful it appeared then; the hard work, the sweat, the long hours and the constant demands of customers. If it wasn’t for Badru, him chopping my share of onions, helping me grind the masala on the grinding stone, helping me with the dishes, setting the tables late after the diners left, I would have run far far away.
By the time I finished the next grade, it was time again for training in the kitchen. Cook Guruswamy who was well trained by Chef Noshir now became my Guru. The secret Parsi Irani recipes were slowly bared to me. While I tried my hand at each and failed a hundred times, Guru only patiently tasted every dish, chucked it away and encouraged me to start all over again. Till over those years when I almost got it perfect!
My 12th results were out. I was an anxious distinction student ready to seek admission into the Management Degree College. It happened quickly but college didn’t feel like what one had heard. Bunking lectures, watching a movie from the last row, going on long drives, dating was only just hearsay. After college every evening I was to sit on the till to relieve old Rustom Uncle. He had served my father and his for over 40 years now. From annas and pai to rupees he had everything calculated in his head in seconds. While our duties changed, those 30 minutes as he sipped his Pallonji’s raspberry soda, he shared with me lessons on cash management, trust, love for the place and complete dedication. One had to be vigilant and swift at the till and keep an eye on everything that went on. I did but never 100% since I knew Dad was in the restaurant and Mom in and out of the kitchen often talking to customers who had been patronizing the place in decades.
While my eyes rolled in search of handsome acquaintances and my ears tuned to share bazaar tips and gossip, Tony and Pakya the restaurant cleaner boys often slipped away for a smoke. Salim bhai who was the server sometimes got into heated conversation with customers. The elderly server Dilkhush’s hand shook with the weight of the trays as he trained Ballu to balance the delicacies from the kitchen counter to the tables without hitting the swinging partition. In the kitchen, Guru’s assistants Tambya and Chottu fought over who was asked to do more chopping and peeling. Kalio the vasan ghasva walo in his hurry to clean up the deep bottom handis along with English crockery and cutlery often broke moms prized pieces.
At the start of every day, Dad and Mom sat with everyone including Chef Noshir uncle, Head Cook Guruswamy Uncle, Balance sheet Rustom Uncle, the servers and the kitchen helpers sharing chai and hot brun pao while discussing ‘Today’s Special’. They remembered to thank each of them, they forgave mistakes, they taught with love. Everyday promised to be a vigorous day at Goolistan (Named after mom’s favourite Gool granny who was just as vibrant and dynamic). On weekends mom’s lessons were often more caressing since everyone needed to put in additional efforts and hard work to face a long tiring day. And days and months went by. Between my semesters I had learnt various Management lessons more at Goolistan than in the college classroom.
And then it happened. It was about 20 minutes to finish the last exam paper in the Management College. In my effort to crack the paper, I did not see the Principal come and stand beside my desk till I heard my name softly called out. I stopped writing. The look in his face scared me. I was asked if I had completed my paper. I knew I could still write for the next 20 minutes but I halted.
Noshir Uncle and Rustom Uncle along with my paternal uncles whisked me away. My parents were no more. What a freak accident that was. My world had come tumbling down. Life was shattered. Goolistan no longer held anything for me. For the next 7 months, every morning Goolistan watchdogs brought with them the brun pao maska to discuss ‘Today’s Special’ in the quiet sadness of my home.
By the time I woke from my slumber one day, I had realized, the red-checkered tablecloth was calling out to me. Mom and Dad had left but not leaving me alone. I had my watchdogs. Mine was this very pack at Goolistan, most of whom I had grown up with!
Alone but not lonely as I sat looking down at the tablecloth, slowly biting into the toasted omelette sandwich and sipping tea from my favourite bone china cup saucer, I realized Goolistan had completed 97 years. Long live Goolistan, I muttered.
God above my watchdog and Goolistan on earth!