Short Story: Alone in a Crowd

15Jun06

It had already started drizzling by the time I walked out of the building that Friday evening. Refreshed moderately after a drowsy afternoon work by the little droplets falling over me, I walked rather briskly into the cafeteria.

The cafeteria was crowded as it usually is, with perceptible mood swings of a typical weekend eve. Noisy rattling of plates and spoons, people seated in groups with animated discussions and naive grapevine gossips were doing their rounds. I got myself a plate of Bhel Puri and slowly walked past the long queue and through the chaotic crowd to the other end of the cafeteria to join my little group of snackers. As I walked, I went past a Coca Cola machine, where a middle-aged vending lady sitting next to it was following me as I walked beside her.

She was wearily traversing her dim eyes across various corners of the cafeteria, expressionless at the busy sight all around. People were engrossed in talks, why did ‘Swades’ miss out on its Oscar chance, the Government always dozes, the Reservation thing is all crap, Performance appraisal is a joke, why we lost that project, will Ganguly be back for India’s next series, what plans for the weekend, and some inexplicable gossips extrapolating into an incoherently audible din.

The lady was not busy. She was waiting for someone to come over for a cup of coke and she gets busy only for the moment she pulls the flap to pour out the drink and give back the change. Once that is done, she rests again, waiting for her next customer. There was some kind of pain in resting. She would rather prefer to be busy. She would ask people to please form a queue so that she could serve them in order. She would be worried if the Coke runs out fast, because she would need to change the vending cylinder at the bottom of the machine before the queue becomes impatient. She would keep counting and arranging the currency so that it gets easier for her to find change.

But that was not the case. There was never any queue for her to attend to. Some customer came in every few minutes and then until the next one comes, she would rest, her eyes traversing with a bemused interest across the array of animated faces in the cafeteria.

I began to wonder what she was actually looking around for. A person who might show the slightest indication of his interest in drinking a cup of coke? A distant hope that the next step of the guy who just rose from his chair would be towards her vending machine? A wild thought if some isolated group is talking about the coke from her machine? A chance to momentarily exercise her vocal chords by talking with someone even if it’s the routine few words of selling a cup of drink?

She sat there all alone, all day, every day amid the increasingly familiar yet glaringly alien crowd, swamped in a private zone of her own, oblivious to the shared world. She thought of her school days, her marriage, her family and the kind gentleman who helped her set up this shop. She played those scenes from her life over and over, everyday. She found a strange comfort in the clichés of her contemplative livelihood.

It was more than 15 minutes since she made her last sale. A coke was not in my snack menu for that evening, but I found myself walking up to the vending machine. There was an unassuming spark on her eyes as she saw the prospective customer walking steadily towards her. The spark camouflaged a prayer that hoped the guy was actually walking to the Coke machine and not walking past her to the wash. She felt the urge to stand up as a mark of welcome to the new customer, but she remained seated until she was sure it was really a customer. Pessimism seemed to help her from disappointment.

I stood next to her and asked for the 10 rupee large cup, taking out a currency note from my wallet. There was a gratefulness in her eyes as she held a cup under the valve and began to fill it. Suddenly she held the cup away from the valve to let the froth settle down and then pushed it under the valve again and refilled it up to the brim – a sequence she can repeat even in the middle of her sleep.

I got the cold overflowing cup, paid her the change and let out a thin smile, “Thank you”. She smiled back.

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5 Responses to “Short Story: Alone in a Crowd

  1. 1 vijay babu

    kichu unnoda rasikarkalai yemathathe..

  2. I have had such thoughts when I see small vendors awaiting business too as you have wonderfully written.. And I used to buy something just to give them some business.. Is this empathy for some situation of theirs that we are not aware of anyway? Or are we just plain helping them out? I dont know.. I just buy something from them.. :-) I feel I have done my part though I am unsure of what it is. :-)

  3. 3 Kishore

    VisBabu,
    yemathhala da venna.. re-wrote it for desicritics, so crossposted here also…

    Thiyagaraj,
    That’s what they call little untold acts of kindness

  4. me and my vending machine will be eternaqlly grateful :)

  5. vending machines are great pieces of technology that we enjoy today, they are made for the purpose of giving us convenience :


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