As usual, Mihika was the first to arrive.
Korner Kafe was, at this hour, buzzing. Conversation and laughter flowed around Mihika as she paused just inside the doorway. The aroma of coffee was a warm welcome. She spotted an empty table at the far end of the brightly lit space, and made her way to it quickly before someone else claimed it. She settled into a chair facing the door and looked around.
This place is really full of energy, she thought. The energy of the young. The youthful.
A boy in a grey and maroon uniform came smiling up to her, and handed her a menu.
“A little later, please,” said Mihika, looking up at his fresh, cheerful face. “I’m waiting for some friends to join me.”
“Of course Ma’am, take your time,” he said courteously. His smile was quite genuine. “I’ll bring you a glass of water, shall I?”
The water and Tara arrived at the same time. Mihika saw her standing at the door, looking this way and that, till their eyes met. Mihika watched her as she negotiated her way through the crowded space. Tara was the slimmest in their group, but in this space full of teenagers and people in their twenties and early thirties, she seemed, in comparison, large.
“Waiting long?” she asked as she pulled out the comfortable chair, and settled in. “Sorry, I was caught up in traffic. It’s this evening rush.” She looked around and asked, “Where are the others?”
“Coming...Shagufta called when I was on the road, she said she’d be a little late, she had some visitors dropping in. And Triveni, she’s always late, isn’t she?”
They smiled at each other companionably.
“Nice place,” commented Tara.
“Yes. And popular. Look at the crowd.”
“All young people.”
“Well, it gives the place energy. Vibrancy,” pointed out Mihika. “Or would you rather that this place be filled up with oldies? All sitting around, talking about illnesses and bad-mouthing the young people?” She changed her tone, and mimicked, “Really, things have become impossible these days...In my younger days, this would never have been allowed.”
Tara smiled. She knew exactly whose voice Mihika was imitating. “How’s she, your neighbour? The terrible matriarch, Shrimati Ranjana Das?”
“Flourishing. Getting louder, if anything. And more nasal. Such a grating voice, I can hear her from my bedroom all the time. Luckily for her daughters-in-law, she spends a lot of her time peering through the hedge between our houses. She’s always kept tabs on what I’m doing. Now that...now that I live alone, she feels it’s her responsibility, as a pillar of society, to see to it that I’m not up to any hanky-panky. So what if I’m over fifty.”
Tara laughed. “You should be flattered, Mihika. She thinks you’re still capable of leading a shockingly licentious life.”
“Her ideas of shocking and mine don’t match. To talk to a man, to take a lift back from work from a male who is not related, is shocking for her.” Mihika’s voice had an edge to it. Tara reached out a hand and patted her arm consolingly.
Triveni and Shagufta came in through the door together. Mihika waved out to them. The two made their way towards them. Triveni had to move sideways a couple of times to be able to walk through the narrow gap between the tables. “Well, hello,” she said as she reached them. “Why are the tables placed so close together here? I could barely make my way through.”
“It’s because the target clientele is not us, Triveni. We, with our middle-age spreads,” laughed Shagufta.
“Hah, you can afford to smile, you’re slim still,” said Triveni, settling into her chair. They knew each other too well and had been friends for too long, to take offence at such comments.
“Pallavi’s still away, right? When is she coming back?”
“Next week,” said Tara. “Shall we order?”
Mihika looked around while the others studied the menu. This was the first time that the four of them had come here. Only Pallavi had been here once before, with her daughter, and had recommended it to them for their occasional meet-ups. It was done up in a style that would be attractive to the young people, but was muted enough to find acceptance with people her age, too. She liked the quirkiness of the brightly patterned kettles that hung down from the ceiling on thick ropes. And the music was nice, too. Soft, with several songs dating back to her own time. Of course they were remixes, but it gave her a warm feeling of nostalgia to recognise them. The Beatles, Eagles, and the occasional Kishore Kumar, blended together into a soft romantic atmosphere.
“What will you have, Mihika?” asked Triveni. “I’m for the chocolate pastry.” She looked defiantly at them and said, “Okay, okay, just this once. My sugar levels are under control, and I only let go when I’m with you girls.”
“Don’t say we didn’t warn you when you have all kinds of horrible diabetes-related problems later,” said Tara cheerfully.
“I’ll have a chicken salad, I think.”
“Me too,” added Shagufta.
“Just a coffee for me, I think,” said Mihika absently. Her mind was on the scene before her. “Cappuccino.”
“You’re not getting any portion of my pastry, Mihika, I’m warning you. Make up your mind,” said Triveni.
Mihika smiled, but shook her head. “I had a heavy lunch,” she said. “You go ahead.”
Most of the other customers were clustered together in groups, like them. But several were couples. Young people, out for a coffee date, maybe before going for a movie later. Or perhaps they were just getting to know each other, and preferred this bright space, full of other people, for this stage in their relationship. Or maybe they were already very comfortable with each other, and just wanted some coffee and snacks before they went to one or the other’s place for a more intimate time together.
No older couples, though. Of course not. Indeed, their table was the only one where the combined ages of the customers ran into three digits. She smiled.
Excerpted with permission from What Will People Say?, Mitra Phukan, Speaking Tiger Books.