I still remember that day clearly. One cold February morning in the year 2010, around 8 a.m., I heard the familiar sound of one particular motorbike coming at the usual time. It was one of the usual cold mornings of Ladakh. Countless strokes of the freezing breeze were touching my body and were passing away. The sky was gloomy too. I felt it might cry at any time. I was all wrapped up tightly in warm clothes. I quickly looked at the vehicle and the rider too to check whether it was the same man or not. I confirmed, yes, it was the same man. He parked his bike near the ATM that was almost thirty feet away from my food kiosk. The ATM was just opposite my food kiosk. I saw he started walking to the ATM.
" Altaaf Bhai, give me one plate of Momo," one of my usual customers said.
"Yeah, sure, " I said. I opened the lid of the hot case and started keeping those hot momos on a plate.
"Sir, I put extra chilies today in the chutney to make it super spicy as you told me yesterday," I said.
" You are superb Altaf Bhai, " the customer said.
"Thank you," I smiled.
I was the owner of that small food kiosk. I always used to open My food kiosk around 7 o'clock and started selling tea, momos, and pakora to my customers. My food kiosk was in a tiny town. Indeed when we speak about towns, that was not even a proper town. I said it was a town because of the existing seven shops, both big and petty, two government offices, one primary school, one small petrol pump, and some scattered households. Besides, one ATM was also there. That tiny town was somewhere in remote Ladakh. So one can imagine the rest. Anyway, my kiosk was in a good position from a business point of view. Besides, it was under one half-built bus stoppage! Thanks to the government of India for never completing the bus stoppage like many other projects for the development of its citizens. But the good thing was, I got one nice shed for my business. I used to come to this place every morning around 7 o'clock and return to my village at 4 p.m. usually. My usual customers were people working in those offices, salesmen, and customers of those shops, and tourists on the way to their journey towards the Leh district. Apart from the customers of those shops and tourists, my regular customers always used to visit my shop as they were fond of my smiling face and amusing chatter. Afternoon, my food joint used to become the center of gossip as almost everyone from around the place used to come for snacks. Anyway, let us go back to that specific day again. I saw him once again. I mean, the same person who had been visiting the ATM regularly at the same time in the morning almost for the last two months. But he had never visited my shop until now. The same man was going to the ATM.
"Altaaf Miya, how much?". One customer said.
"Ten rupees for two cups of tea, sixty rupees for two plates of momos, that would be 70 rupees".
The customer gave me a fifty rupee note, and I returned him the rest.
"It seems it is going to rain," I said.
" Yes, indeed, let's go back soon." One customer said to another.
" Today the chutney was so good, hope to get it tomorrow also," the other customer said.
" Oh definitely, from today onwards, it is going to be every day."
They chuckled and left. When those people left my shop, I became all alone in my shop. By that time, it had already started drizzling. Because of the drizzle, two lambs came inside the half-built bus stop while meowing.
As that was a cold morning in February, so there was not a big crowd that day. I looked at the ATM. That man was still inside the ATM. Sometimes it takes a longer time to withdraw cash, all thanks to the technical hitch! I did not like going to ATMs. Instead of going there, I would rather withdraw direct cash from the bank. I guess I was still an old school person. Anyway, that time my attention had divided into two parts, both to the man and to the drizzle. Within a few minutes, the drizzle turned into rain. I gave two pieces of bread to the lambs. And then I looked at the ATM again. I saw the man holding the ATM door. Because of the sudden rain, he had to stop at the door of the atm. It seemed he thought for a moment, and then he looked at the half-built bus stoppage and my food kiosk. Seeing the nice roof over my tiny shop he rushed towards it. He stepped inside the roof of the bus stop, took one deep breath. Seeing the man coming inside, those lambs went to the other corner of the stoppage.
He said, " Give me a cup of tea."
I nod my head. That was the first time I got a chance to observe him closely. He was about six feet tall, maybe one inch shorter than six feet, athlete body, short hair, tanned skin tone. His whole appearance was familiar with the people working in the army. He was busy wiping rain droplets from his face with a handkerchief. I poured tea in a cup and gave it to him.
I said, " Tea."
He took the cup and took one sip. He looked at the rain outside and again started sipping the tea. He looked at me.
"If you have bread pakora, then give me one," He said.
I said," Yes sir."
" Make it a little hot."
I put one bread pakora instantly in the hot pan and baked it for a minute, and gave it to him. He took the plate.
I said, " Do you want spicy chutney?"
I pour some green spicy chutney on his plate. He started eating bread pakora with the chutney. His facial expression was revealing that he was liking it a lot.
"This chutney is really good. Give me one more bread pakora please."
"Okay," I put another bread pakora in the hot pan and gave it to him along with some more green chutney.
A moment had passed away. My curiosity started to increase. Seeing him in front of my eyes, enjoying my food somehow triggered me to ask him who he was. It was like I always had one question in my mind and now the book containing the answer to that question was lying in front of me. All I needed to do was just to find the right page for it. I thought for a moment.
I asked him," Sir, are you an army man?."
My utter curiosity combined with my usual talkative nature compelled me from inside to ask the question to him but of course, along with the required amount of politeness. The man stopped for a moment, smiled.
"Yes, I work for the Indian army."
"Oh great, are you new to this place?"
He looked at my face directly.
" Yes, I got transferred to this place three and a half months ago."
" Oh okay, indeed I know almost all of my regular customers, but your face is new here,"
That time the man smiled gently and looked outside. It was raining. although not too heavy, it would be difficult to ride a motorbike without a raincoat. He looked at me again and asked for one more cup of tea. I poured hot tea into his cup. But inside my mind, still, one question was going on. Now that I was sure that he was an army man and not some terrorist to whom I should fear, my curiosity level had automatically increased.
"Sir?, "With a little bit of hesitation, I looked at him again. He also had a question mark on his face.
"Yes, tell me?"
" Sir, actually I have seen you for almost the last two months, almost every day, you come to this place at this time around and..........."
Hearing that he looked into my eyes directly. It was hard for me to understand what was beneath in that glance. Frankly telling, I was a little bit scared also.
" So you have been observing me ??".
I chuckle nervously, " Oh no no! sir it is a very small place, so if somebody always comes here it becomes very noticeable.
Generally, nobody comes to the ATM at this time. But you are coming here regularly. So it has become a very distinctive thing for me."
I bit my tongue after that. I felt as if I had told too much at once. Thinking, now he must be having a clear idea of how much I had been observing his activity, which made me embarrassed and worried at the same time. I defended myself.
"Forgive me for asking you, sir. Maybe I should not have asked you, but I couldn't help it, that too you seem a nice person, so thought of catering to my curiosity once for all".
I had no idea what I was babbling. At all costs, I was just trying to give a justification for my work. The man became quiet for a moment.
He said, " Very well, You can say things quite convincingly. You are a smart person".
I chuckle nervously again. " I am just being myself, Sir."
He looks outside. It seemed the intensity of the rain had started to decrease. After that, he turned to me. He was still holding the teacup. He started slowly.
The short story continues here...