In another country, and posher circumstances, Baburam would be called the Maitre-de. He doesn't know that, and he doesn't really care.
He is the head of all the waiters at what is called an Udupi eating place near the women's college. Named after a Godess, the hotel, that is. Frequented by the students who sometimes get fed up of the fare dished out at their college canteen, the place consists of an outer "general" area, and an enclosed, air conditioned area mostly frequented, by the girls, and sometimes, families who find themselves in that part of town. There is a huge hospital nearby, and this is probably the only "reasonable " place in the vicinity where folks can drop by for a bite.
Baburam is in charge of the inner " airconditioned " sanctum, as one might call it. A typical lunchtime crowd there would consist of say, a preoccupied single chap, not terribly particular about what to order so long it is brought fast, and is very fresh, as he continues to solve crisis after crisis on his cell phone, talking loud enough for everyone else to worry. Or a gaggle of college friends, on a spur-of-the-moment visit, where they share 3 dosa's amidst 5 of them, that is, when they are not exclaiming about some revelation or the other. Or a family with grandparents, parents and small kids, the latter unable to make up their minds , because they want everything. And then there are couples who saunter in, looking forward to whispering in the entire existing cacophony.
Baburam , known to an entire generation of patrons of the place, often knows what you like and remembers that. He makes a big song and dance about serving icecream to the younger children, and will often cajole, elderly types who come in by themselves, to try the particular dessert that day. He often knows who likes to share the coffee, and an extra cup always appears, without asking. He is very observant, and has his standards. If you share some of your friend's stuff, and take some of it in your plate which originally had something else, he will shake his head, go tsk tsk, and a fresh plate will appear, as if by magic at your table.
Notwithstanding what is today portrayed in Bollywood movies, and certain women's magazines, the standard conservative middle class college going girl does not suffer from the Friday night/Saturday night Syndrome. Socializing with the opposite sex is mostly in groups of friends, and frequently secret wishes and feelings remain secret. Once in a while, things appear to jell, and a young boy and girl walking into such a place for coffee, looking for a place to be together, is not a surprise. Strangely, attitudes and gestures as depicted in movies are a big influence and sometimes, what started out as a thrilling romantic interlude , tends to become a troublesome episode, particularly for the girl.
On a recent trip to the place for a late lunch, we saw a young couple seated at the corner table. The girl was clearly a girl from the college, and observing their gestures and behaviour it was clear that both were in awe of the occasion, rather than each other. Meeting, away from parental knowledge and sanction, alone, and having your friends whispering about you leaving with this guy for coffee , was a new kind of high. He had probably borrowed his friends mo bike, and probably thought of the latest ad he had seen on TV, where the guy went zooming off with the girl into the sunset..
We were half way through our meal, when we noticed the girl kind of cringing, and trying to shift away from the guy. He was sitting beside her, which was , in the first place, a daring thing to do. There wasn't much space between the wall and her, and in all that desperation, a glass of water got knocked down. The cleaning staff, quietly activated itself, and tried to gather the pieces and wipe the stuff, with the girl getting a breather, and the fellow giving them dirty looks. There were several of us at the various tables, but no one wanted to interfere.
About a minute later, word must have reached Baburam, who often went outside to the reception, to finalize the bills before presenting them. The door opened, and Baburam casually came in, checking with each of us if wanted wanted to order anything. Then he relayed some messages outside , and stood around in a corner like he usually did.
Things were getting really troublesome for the girl. Nothing was happening like in the movies or novels. The guy literally had her cornered, and was taking advantage of the fact that she wouldn't shout. There was a film of sweat on the girl's forehead, despite the air conditioned atmosphere.
Suddenly, there was a tap on the boy's shoulder. Baburam loomed over him. Pointed to the other side of the table, and motioned with his eyes, that the boy needed to move over. It took the fellow a moment to understand what was happening. Here was the headwaiter, so to speak, tapping him , and ordering him to shift, so to speak. No words were exchanged at all. Baburam pulled out a chair for him on the opposite side, and very politely gestured that he should sit there. But there was a look in his eyes, that said "Shift, or else".....
The guys bravado had gone for a toss. He quietly got up and moved over. The girl took a deep breath, and sat a bit more comfortably, keeping her purse now where the fellow earlier was.
The two kind of sat in embarrassed silence for a while, paid the bill and got up to leave. The girl had gone out, when Baburam took the fellow aside, an spoke to him. A few minutes later , the fellow left.
Baburam noticed our questioning glances.
"You know this is a women's college. A lot of families , feel it safer if their daughters attend such a college, and are very wary of sending their daughter to co-ed colleges. Then these girls end up making undesirable friends in class, who introduce them to their outside male friends and get into these casual flings. Maybe its a prestige thing to bunk a class and go out like this. And before they know it, things get out of hand. They hardly know the fellow. Some of the fellows take advantage of the girls.
Whenever I see things reaching a point like today, I just interfere. And I make it a point to have a word with the guy. You know, I was also young once. Sometimes the guy listens. Sometimes they abuse me. Back in my native place, I have a daughter a bit younger than this girl. I know times have changed, everything is so "forward" . But basic decency has to be maintained..."
There was nothing more left to be said. Baburam probably never went beyond class 7, and on his meagre savings, helped an entire family back home. While he probably stayed in cramped quarters , nay, room, with maybe ten other folks similarly employed.
But he kept his eyes and ears open, and learned from life around him. A single person like this is probably an inspiration to his colleagues.
We wished him and left. Thinking.
Mumbai is known to be a very fast city, where people are always hurrying to go somewhere. No one has time for idle chitchat. They say there is something for anyone who comes to Mumbai, and nobody goes hungry . It is also very easy to be misled and fooled in Mumbai.
And then occasionally, you meet a Baburam, and feel, the place cannot be so bad after all....