Sunday, 4th September 2011

(Short story, based on a true incident)

I stepped out of the Metro train and watched, with much boredom, as a sea of people ran towards the exit gates. The imaginary race to get out of the station is something that most people on the Delhi Metro participate in. I usually loiter around the station for two minutes after getting off, sometimes watching the race with amusement. The exit queues are full of interesting people — nervous young girls, nonchalant men, aged chatty couples, a few kids, the occasional mother with a baby — a perfect slice of the city’s varied population.

I glanced at the clock as I got out of the station. 2201 hours. It was late by mom-standards, but I wasn’t worried. Mum wasn’t home, she’d gone on a holiday for ten days. I would’ve headed home on any other day, but I was hungry and I did not have dinner waiting for me at home. The Sector 50 market is just two kilometers from the station. I decided to have dinner there, instead of fixing something myself.

Ten minutes of brisk walking later, I was standing in the market. I surveyed my choices. I didn’t want to eat street food, otherwise I would’ve gone to my favorite place that makes excellent egg rolls. It was then I realized it was a Saturday. Saturdays mean one other thing — cheap Sub of The Day offers at Subway.

I walked into the restaurant, headed straight for the vegetarian counter and said, “Bhaiyya ek Veg Shammi band dijiye”. After not getting an acknowledgment for two full seconds, I looked up. I was taken aback to see this girl staring back at me with big, black eyes. I’m a regular at this Subway; I had never seen a female employee here before. “I’m sorry, I was expecting one of the regular people”, I said. She gaped at me, then broke out of her stare and said, “Sorry sir. One Veg Shammi? Which bread?”. “Parmesan oregano, with cheese, heated”, I answered. She smiled and gave me a nod. After carefully placing two cheese slices on the bread, she put the bread in the oven and set it to heat for a while.

I noticed the badge on her t-shirt said, “TRAINEE”. Oh, so that’s why she was acting odd. I continued observing her. Jet black hair, tied in a bun. Long, thin fingers that she kept tapping on the granite platform, while glancing at the oven… and arrestingly beautiful eyes. Even in her boring black Subway uniform and at 10 in the night, she looked graceful. She would have fit better as a concierge in an upscale hotel.

The oven beeped and she took out the bread.

“All vegetables?”, she asked, as she placed the bread on the platform.
“Yes please, with extra lettuce and tomatoes.”
“With or without onions?”
“With onions.”

She paused for a moment, and then proceeded to make the most beautiful Subway sandwich I have ever seen.

I say beautiful because there is no better way to put it. She carefully put on a fresh pair of gloves, picked a generous helping of lettuce and spread it evenly on the bread. Like other Subway chefs, she did not throw the toppings in quick, repetitive fashion. Instead, she mentally measured everything before using it. Tomatoes and cucumber slices were placed at equal distances from one another. Jalapeño and black olives were given due respect and placed in a straight line, surrounded by capsicum shreds. She was slow, but I did not care. I could not stop myself from staring at the sandwich and her hands which moved across the platform with careful precision.

“Which sauces would you like, sir?”

It was my turn to feel lost, but I quickly answered “Mayo, southwest and a bit of red chilli and mint mayo”. Then, as an afterthought, I added “Extra mayo, actually”. She gave me another smile and picked up the mayo bottle. I wondered if the sauces would get the same attention and respect as the vegetables. I was not disappointed. She spread the mayo evenly on top of the vegetables. Hints of chilli and southwest were dropped between the mayo. Mint mayo was added last, and unlike with every other chef, I did not have to tell her to go easy with the mint. Too much mint destroyed the rest of the flavors and she obviously knew that.

I wished I had my camera with me. I would have shot the entire preparation and her too. I cursed my luck.

She wrapped the sandwich carefully and asked “Take away or have it here?”.
“I’ll have it here”.

She put the sandwich on a tray, generated a bill and said, “That will be 99 Rupees”. I paid, picked up my tray and walked to the table. I slowly opened my sandwich and there it was. It looked perfect. Barely any sauce dripping at the sides, no mess, just simple culinary perfection. I took a bite and it tasted as good. I could have jumped with joy. I looked up and she was looking at me from behind the counter. I smiled at her.

Then, with sudden inspiration, I called out to her, pointed to the empty chair across me and said, “Have a seat?”. She looked taken aback but said, “Sorry sir, we aren’t allowed to sit when the restaurant is in operation.”
“Oh come on, it’s almost closing time and it’s a weekday. Sanjeev, do you mind?”
Sanjeev was the other chef standing at the non-vegetarian counter. I knew him well. He gave me a look that said, “Yeah, right, go ahead, flirt with the trainee”, but the word that came out was just, “No.”

“This is by far, the nicest Subway sandwich I have ever had. You are awesome.”
She laughed and said, “Thank you. Par maine abhi last week hi join kiya hai.”
“Maybe that is the reason. The experienced chefs have speed and don’t really pay attention to, uh, shall I say, beauty?”
She gave me a sharp look. “Beauty?”
“Yeah, you know, careful preparation and not just throwing everything in. I would have clicked a photo of my sandwich, had I got my camera with me.”
She laughed again.
“Where are you from?”
“From Delhi only. Ghar ke pass kaam dhoond rahi hu, but abhi ke liye, this is the only option I have.”
“Ahh. Yeah, happens.”

She kept touching her hair nervously. I tried not to stare at her, but she was strikingly pretty and it was tough not to. I quickly finished my sandwich.
As I was picking up my tray, she said, “I’ll take that”. I politely refused and said, “Thanks”. I threw the tray paper in the bin and kept the tray on the stack. She was still standing next to me.

“Nice sandwich and nice talking. Good night!”, I said.
“Good night, sir”, she replied with a smile.
I opened the door and stepped out but I did not walk.
I turned around, looked at her and said, “You’re very pretty.”

She blushed to the color of a tomato and I walked away.