It was dark and cold outside, the kind of cold that makes birds afraid of venturing out of their nests. Not a soul was to be seen for miles around, except for him. The man was in ratted old jeans that were torn up to his calf. His feet were blessed with gray shoes, if they may be called so, which were broken and torn from a hundred places. But at least they covered his toes. He wore a blue sweater to which years had given a white tint. He had covered his head and neck with a black muffler, his only possession which looked less than 2 years old. With these bare necessities he sat on the bench, shivering in the biting cold. His lips were turning blue. He pulled his feet up, hugged his knees, and continued shivering. Hours passed and he made no signs of moving. He sat there, looking into darkness, as if waiting for a life that didn’t come.
“Mohan!”, called out a voice.
A young man, maybe 19, rushed outside the kitchen.
“Yes sir.” , he said in a voice too mature for his child-like face.
“This lady has something to say to you.”
He stood to face the woman standing next to his boss. She seemed to be rich, with her fine saree and diamond earrings. Then of course, all customers who came to eat here were rich, the prices of every dish soaring above the reach of a common man.
“Did you make the Chicken Malaya?” , she asked, surprised.
“Yes mam, I did.”, came the reply in a broken accent.
“Where did you learn it from?”
“Local restaurants near my village. I changed a few things though, which I thought made the dish better.”
“It was very good. I will definitely recommend it to my friends. Mohan, was it?”
The woman thanked Mr. Bisla, returned to join her party for desserts, and Mohan went back to his work.
This wasn’t the first time his dish had been praised, not even since he joined Moti Mahal exactly a month ago, and definitely not since he started cooking, at the age of 8.
Mohan was raised by his father in Haridharpur, near Shimla. His mother had died when he was one. His father told him of her, how kind she was, and how Mohan refused to spend a minute without her. His father told her of how he cried when his mother did not come home to hold him in her arms, when she was found lying dead beside the road that night, hit by a car whose driver didn’t care to check if her could be saved. Her life held no importance in his, so he didn’t stop. Her life had no use for the people who walked by, so they didn’t stop.
His father used to wonder how different their lives would have been if she hadn’t gone to buy medicines for his fever. But Mohan never wondered. To him, his mother was just a ghost created by his father’s words. His earliest memory was of his father singing him to sleep at night. It was his father who taught him to read, to write and to cook. Flavors came naturally to him. He would see a dish being made, and recreate it, somehow making it taste better. His father had recognized his talent and given it the much needed boost.
Whatever little his father earned in his shop, he spent on cookbooks and groceries, which Mohan loved experimenting it. Occasionally, he bought Mohan some new clothes, but rarely did a day see light, when his father spent a rupee on himself.
Mohan started working for free at street-side stalls when he was 10. When people started appreciating his food, he started getting paid. Of course the village didn’t bring a lot of money, but enough for his occasional surprise for his father. He still remembered the first gift he ever gave his father. A blue sweater for which he had been saving for months.
Mohan had held out the sweater for his father and said, “I’ll make you proud someday.”
His father, for some reason Mohan didn’t understand, had tears in his eyes.
“I’m proud of you now. You are your mother’s son.”
Mohan had come to the city to find a good job. He could no longer bear to work in sweaty stalls. So he left, promising his father he would come for him in 6 months, which would have been today. But his life was finally moving in the right direction. He had been picked up for this restaurant a month ago when Mr. Bisla had come to eat at a friend’s house, where Mohan worked as a cook. Luck was finally working in his favor. How could he take leave now? It had only been a month since he started here. Surely his father would understand.
And so a week passed. A month. Within a month, he had been promoted to Main Course In-charge.
Soon, I will be head chef, he told himself.
So he worked, till another month passed. Mohan was now earning very well. He had settled in his new life, but somehow, he felt empty.
“Sir, I want a two-day leave to go back to my village” , he said to Mr. Bisla one day. “I have enough to support my father. Will you grant me leave so I can bring him here?”
And so, he was granted leave.
He took the evening bus that day. Throughout his 5-hour journey, Mohan thought of his father. He reminisced about his childhood days, and how he could repay his father’s love after all these years.
When the bus stopped, Mohan got down, a feeling of joy overcame his heart. How happy father will be to see me. And that was when he saw him, the old man, lying down now, not shivering anymore. Mohan went towards the man, and his heart took a leap.
The old man smiled sadly.
“I knew you would come today, son.” And those were the last words his father ever spoke.