“This establishment is no longer open,” the notice outside Mathura Bar proclaimed to its regular patrons one morning. Written in green ink on the thick cardboard of a liquor carton, it had been nailed to the door. Those who had been at the bar till closing time the previous night stared in astonishment. One of the men leaned over and touched it to be doubly sure. Everyone saw his hands quiver. He turned and said in a thickened voice, “No way! This must be a joke.” Nobody responded. There was something about the writing on the notice and the way it was displayed that suggested it was not a joke.
Moreover, the bar had remained closed past its opening time.
The man who had touched the notice slowly moved away and stood behind the others. His moustache, dyed black, was surrounded by the grey stubble on his cheeks and chin. His shaking hands reached for a cigarette and lit it.
Behind the bar was a little window that was used to serve liquor to regulars who came late at night or in the wee hours of morning. One of the men had come that morning and knocked on it for a long time. He now stared blankly at the cigarette smoker. Then he roused himself and began searching for cigarettes and matches in his pocket. He couldn’t find any.
“Damn it!” he muttered to himself.
“Maybe they’ve gone on strike,” one of the men said. The others looked at him with pity. He immediately corrected himself, “But there’s neither a flag nor a poster.” Silence again.
All of a sudden, someone moved forward and climbed on to the bar’s veranda. His eyes were on a switch on the wall. In what seemed like a gesture of defiance, he put his finger on the switch. Instantly, the colours of the huge neon hoarding atop the bar came to life with a hum. The letters emerged. The assembly stirred and stared at the hoarding. The man who had switched it on appeared jolted and switched it off. He stepped down, smiling awkwardly. The night watchman, whose duty it was to switch off the hoarding at dawn, stood staring at the man as if he was a ghost.
A regular, who had been at the bar until closing time the night before tried to remember if there had been any signs that foretold such a closure. He felt that the three partners who owned the bar, the four waiters and the sweepers – a man and a woman – had betrayed nothing, given no indication that it was the bar’s last night. He couldn’t decide if he was right or wrong about that.
Last night, one of the partners had sat on a plastic chair behind the bar amidst packing cases. He was dozing, head drooping on his chest. An old newspaper lay open on his lap. In one hand, he held an inhaler for nasal congestion. The other hung loose.
Another partner sat in a less crowded corner of the bar, having his dinner. On his table were plates of mutton fry, ghee rice, chicken curry, fried king fish, assorted pickles and onion rings in vinegar. He gulped down a glass of steaming rasam greedily.
The third partner approached a table where a man who owed the bar a lot of money was sitting, and spoke to him in low tones. The debtor kept staring at his glass and repeated, “Yes, yes, okay, okay.” Suddenly, the man put his elbows on the table and lowered his head into his hands. The owner waited there for a while, then walked to a less crowded place, sat down and asked the waiter for a drink.
The owner heard the debtor snoring. He poured some soda into his drink and sat there, looking at the bubbles rising in his glass like rain flies. Then he gulped down his drink in one go and wiped his mouth and moustache with the back of his hand. He lifted the bottom of his glass slightly and twirled it on the table.
The waiters were wiping the tables – except those occupied by a few stragglers who normally finished late – and placing the chairs face down on the tables, filling the room with much noise. The workers were sweeping up the soda-bottle lids, meat and fish bones, cigarette stubs, burnt matchsticks and crumpled paper scattered on the floor. The sweeper woman was around forty, nearly six feet tall, with large, heaving breasts and legs like banana trees. Her eyes appeared languorous with thoughts or dreams, especially when she gazed into the distance. The other sweeper was an elderly man whose grey-stubbled face was lit by a contented look. His lips were red from chewing betel leaves.
Caught by the tip of a broom, a lid had wheeled away and tumbled, hitting the feet of a man who was singing to his friend. The man, startled, stopped singing and looked down to see what had hit his feet.
When he sat back up, he couldn’t remember the song he’d been singing. Neither could his friend. “In that case, let’s go,” he said. As they were leaving, they stood looking at the man who was sleeping with his head on the table. “Terrible!” they said in unison. The owner who had been eating was now washing his hands. After washing them with soap, he sniffed them. He rubbed his fingers together to check if they were greasy. He opened the tap again and washed his hands with more soap. He sniffed them and rubbed his fingers together again. Then he pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his hands dry. He glanced at the mirror for a minute and then went to his office, closing the door behind him.
The owner who had been sleeping behind the bar had disappeared. The one who was drinking raised his glass for a refill. When one of the employees locked the bar and put the keys in front of him, he shook his head. He gestured to the employee to wait, finished his drink and handed over the glass to him.
At a corner of the bar, a spider was resting in the centre of its web – which it had spun between the wall and the ornate false ceiling above the cracked door that opened to the washbasin and the toilet – having rolled up its prey into tiny bundles where they had been trapped. A man who walked towards the toilet with unsteady steps noticed the web and stopped to look at the spider. He lifted one hand, brought it close to the web and, with his index finger, gestured to the spider invitingly. The spider pressed itself to the web uneasily. The man walked away.
The sun was shining now and the man who recalled all this left the crowd gathered in front of the bar, crossed the street and sat on the veranda of a shut shop. Next to him, a dog lost in thought and contemplating the street with its head lowered onto its stretched forelegs turned its head, looked at him and wagged its tail. He caressed the dog between its ears. The dog turned away and continued to gaze at the street.
One by one, the crowd began to disperse and new onlookers gathered in front of the bar and stood staring at it in bewilderment. After brief discussions, they carried on under the scorching sun to other bars. The day passed and dusk set in.
Night advanced. The street grew empty. The city lights cast a dim veil upon the dark clouds. The sound of footsteps could be heard in the distance. They belonged to the man who had tried to recall the events of the night before. He came walking, glancing at the dark clouds and the night that had come to a standstill around him. The dog from the shop’s veranda accompanied him.
They arrived in front of the bar. The man smiled and stood looking at it. And then he stepped forward, got onto the veranda and pressed a switch on the wall. The neon hoarding above flared to life with all its colours, like a new constellation rising. The words, “Mathura Bar and Restaurant” blazed against the night sky like a sacred sign.
The hoarding shone over the empty streets like a gigantic invitation. The shimmering colours of its flamboyant beckoning to a bar that was closed forever spread pulsating shadows all around. The man and dog bathed in the colours appeared like magical beings from heaven. The hoarding glowed like a miraculous billboard of prayer against the dark sky, summoning its regulars. Then, footsteps and voices were heard approaching quickly, eagerly. The man went back to the veranda, switched off the hoarding and walked away slowly down the pavement. The dog crossed the street and settled down to sleep in its usual spot.
As for the regulars of the shut bar, they had long since reached places that were hidden and impregnable. Enchanting dreams caressed their deep slumber.
“The Bar”, by Paul Zacharia, translated from the Malayalam by Anupama Raju, excerpted with permission from Out of Print – Ten Years: An Anthology of Stories, edited by Indira Chandrasekhar.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.