She couldn’t believe it. She blinked her eyes several times which zeroed on the man standing beside her, who was looking more troubled as seconds passed by and he got no reply from his silent companion.
“Any problem?” he asked.
“No, no…..it’s nothing…..umm…….you took me by surprise actually!” Mina confessed, “how come you are here?”
“I followed your auto. Just to check that you will reach here properly” he said distractedly.
Mina quickly recovered her composure and sat straight.
“I am fine, you know. You need not have come” she replied calmly, eyeing him curiously.
She was impressed. After nearly avoiding a collision, most people on bikes run away and never look back. But this man here had not only apologized but also helped her and followed her auto to see that she does not come to any harm.
“I just wanted to make sure that you reached here safely” he repeated.
Mina stared. He sat down on the opposite seat without waiting for any invitation.
“I am Gopal” he introduced himself.
“Mina” she replied, looking at him closely.
He was wearing a casual printed t-shirt. His hair waved and covered half of his forehead under the rotating fan. His eyes were dark brown contrasting his dark black hair which made him look more handsome. How she had missed that before, she wondered. Maybe it was the treacherous rain that had made her half blind.
The waiter appeared with 2 cups of tea. Without any explanation, he put it infront of both of them. Mina looked enquiringly at the waiter. She had ordered only one cup of tea. So why had the waiter brought two? Gopal had just come and never had placed any orders infront of her. But the waiter did not look at Mina. He arranged the cups, put down some more napkins from his tray and went away after giving a brief glance at Gopal, who ignored him.
“Have you come for a visit here?” Gopal asked, sipping his tea and eyeing her heavy luggage on the floor.
“No, it’s my best friend’s wedding after two weeks. So I have come in advance on her invitation” she smiled and added, “I have done lots of shopping for her in advance.”
“I can see that with the size of your suitcase! So, how are you planning to go to her place?” he asked with a grin.
“She was supposed to meet me at the bus stop. But she was in the middle of some meeting and my bus came ahead of schedule…..….”
“Yes, but after so much time, still she is not here” he cut in.
“I expect she is very busy. I told her to relax a bit when her marriage is so near. But you know, she is kind of a workaholic. She won’t bother even if anyone dies. She will go to work even then, no doubt” Mina shook her head as if this behaviour of her friend’s amused her a lot.
Gopal laughed. Some of the waiters passing by looked back at the pair of them. Mina sipped her tea and made a face.
“What happened?” he asked.
Mina sighed, pushing her half drank tea cup away and said, “I like to have more ginger in my tea than sugar. But never get it so outside in any restaurant.”
Gopal immediately stopped a passing waiter and ordered a ginger tea with less sugar.
“No need, Gopal. Don’t bother” Mina hurriedly interfered.
“It’s OK. What’s the use of a restaurant if it cannot satisfy it’s own customer’s needs?” he said and sent the waiter away after Mina pleaded to cancel the fresh order.
Gopal didn’t seem to be convinced and kept asking her to change her mind. But when she did not budge, he came up with a new idea.
“Don’t you want to eat anything?”
“Yes, I would love to. In fact, I’ll order something now…..” Mina said realizing that she had been very hungry all this time.
“Tell you what; try one of the veg cheese sandwiches they make here. It’s always fresh and tasty” Gopal said with a smug expression.
“Do you come here often?” Mina asked intently.
“Yeah, now and then…you see, this restaurant is closest to my home. So I ONLY eat here” Gopal answered without looking in her eyes directly. Somehow, she felt that he was not being truthful.
They ordered sandwiches. Plus, Mina couldn’t help ordering some Jalebis.
“Do you like it?” Gopal raised his eyebrows. Most of the girls he had met would shun away from any type of delicacies because of weight issues. Let alone in the early morning.
“Very much” Mina replied happily.
Soon after, sandwiches were laid and Jalebis arrived more quickly. Gopal and Mina enjoyed their breakfast silently, nodding occasionally at the crispy bread or delicious chutney served. But Mina did not like the Jalebis.
“It shouldn’t be like this” she grumbled, irritated at the sweet dish infront of her.
“What?” Gopal managed to speak with his mouth still full of munching sandwich.
“These should have more of that sweet thick liquid around it. You know, chasni” she explained, “Or else how are you supposed to enjoy it?”
“Oh…right” he muttered.
Mina’s mobile began vibrating. It was a message from her best friend. About time too, she thought.
“array…..whr r u?
i m at d stop!
red ford, cme fast”
Mina turned a beaming face at Gopal and then sent a message.
“I m nt on d stp!:)
cme forward, i m stndng
outside d frst restrnt u c”
“I got to go now. My friend is coming” Mina said and got up.
“Sure you don’t me to drop you?” Gopal insisted.
“No, she is coming here. So I just have to stand outside till I see her car” Mina replied and began arranging her luggage. She held her suitcase and turned for a final goodbye to Gopal.
“Nice to meet you then” he said, holding out his hand.
Mina smiled and stretched her hand. They both had a warm handshake but none of them wanted to break it first.
“It was nice meeting you too” Mina replied earnestly, breaking the handshake finally herself.
“Goodbye and have a safe journey. Watch out for the bikes on road!” Gopal grinned.
“I will! So…goodbye. And take care” Mina said with a small ache in her heart.
She turned and went on the counter at the reception area. She waited for a few seconds till a customer infront of her finished paying his bill. She moved to pay her bill when the man behind the counter refused to accept the amount of cash she was extending.
“Your bill is already paid madam” he said cordially.
“Already paid? Who paid it?!” Mina asked, quite surprised at the news.
“That Sir, sitting with you madam” he replied, lowering his voice. He was astonished at the lady’s ignorance.
Mina turned and looked at the table she had just left. It was now occupied by some other customers. Gopal was no where to be seen. She scanned the whole area. But he was not there. How could he disappear so suddenly?
Meanwhile, a small queue had gathered behind Mina. She moved away, ready to go outside. She was nearly at the door when she saw it. There was a small portrait next to the counter amidst various awards and achievements, hanging on the wall for public display. She went towards it to have a closer look and gasped. Her eyes widened in shock. She turned to scan the place one last time but couldn’t find the person she wanted to see. Clearing her throat, she dragged her luggage and came to the counter again.
“Excuse me?” she nearly shouted at the man behind the counter.
“Yes ma’am, what is it?” he asked, perplexed at her scowling face.
“I am sorry. But….Who is that?” she asked pointing at the portrait.
He looked at it and then at Mina. He answered softly.
“Our boss. The owner of this restaurant, madam”
Mina became confused. She looked madly at him thinking him to be joking. But when the man refused to break his composure, she decided to leave him at it. She went forward, pushed open the door and got outside. It was not raining. She walked a few feet away from the restaurant and then looked back at it again. Her eyes went up to the disbelieving name on it for the first time and she mouthed the words.