An apparantly homeless, possibly mentally ill, middle aged man walks into one of the chain cafe outlets that are all the rage with a certain section of the young and hip, and the older but cooler crowd. He walks straight back into the little atrium area where the smokers like to hang out. He looks around, and plonks himself on a chair at one of the tables, an occupied one.
The change in atmosphere was electric. The change from light, fun adda to massive discomfort and distrust was so sudden it was like the physical slam of a huge wave bashing into us. A thick, viscous wall of all the nasty possibilities, of instinctive cringeing, caused the worst case of “chhondo poton” i have seen in a long, long time.
He sat next to me, at the table behind me, and leaned over to ask for a light. I am ashamed to say i felt the creeping discomfort too as i handed him the box of matches off our table to light his biri. Conversations, taking place at each table and across tables; vivacious and effervescent, had come to a grinding halt by now. The odd word muttered under the breath, and a lot of looking at each other and at the man was going on.
An employee of the cafe walked out to the atrium area, and i shook myself ready. With all the recent cases doing the rounds on facebook of poorer or homeless people being mistreated by employees of various establishments, i had no cause to expect anything else from this one too. My friend and i exchanged glances, and stiffened our spines to intervene if things went too far or if the employee got obnoxious.
He started with asking the man “what are you here for? Have you come here to smoke?” Something he would never ask any of us, regulars, dressed a certain way, appearing to be from a certain class,even if we had sat there for hours without placing a single order, as my friend P pointed out later. And yet, a couple of minutes into this man's appearence, and here he was. The man replied he was going to order some coffee, at which the employee asked another employee (who had come out in the meantime to offer moral support or something) to get the man a menu card. The promptness of service in the arrival of the menu card to the table would have impressed the most jaded of customers. Luckily, i didnt need to intervene, and the employees went back to the counter, presumably to give the man time to figure out what he wanted.
There were four tables in the outdoor area, two occupied by pairs of people (including ours), one had a young woman sitting alone and one, the one behind me with a young man sitting alone. Mr X (as i shall call him for easier referral) had looked around when he first arrived and sat down with the unaccompanied young man rather than the woman which i thought was rather good of him, and unusual in this country. Plenty of men i know or have had the misfortune to run into would take the situation as an excuse to inflict themselves on the solo woman, and then use that as an excuse to strike up a not- so-wanted conversation or try to instigate unwanted “friendliness”.
The palpable discomfort and mistrust of the other customers (myself included in the discomfort i am ashamed to say) continued, peaking in the young man sitting at that table getting up and walking across the atrium area to join the solo woman at her table rather than share a table with Mr X. While we were all fidgeting, hemming and hawing, and quite unable to relax and enjoy ourselves solely because a particular person is sitting in the same space, Mr X asked me if i would share my coffee with him, “i dont have any money for these coffees, you see”. Given that these coffees start ar 100 rupees, that is quite understandable. I had a couple of inches left in the bottom of my glass of black iced coffee which i told him he was welcome to if he didnt mind the taste (no milk no sugar is not a very Indian way of drinking coffee). He was fine with it, i handed him my glass.
Thinking about wanting to buy him a coffee of his own, i had almost made up my mind to get up, tell him i was going to get him a coffee, and go order, when Mr X said “must go and meet xyz today! Oh! I had forgotten! He'll leave soon!” to general space, and got up to leave. As he passed the solo wioman's table (she was inside at the counter at this point) he reached over to stub out his biri in the ash-tray. The young man who was at that table, having shifted there to avoid Mr X, lunged across the table as the man reached out to SAVE a pack of cigarettes lying on the woman's side of the table, presumably her property.
Mr X simply smiled, said “i wasn't going to take those” and left. The whole thing must have lasted hardly 10 minutes.
The atmosphere changed palpably again instantly. As if the lightness came back, but with a darker edge. Everyone started discussing Mr X. The table next to ours was occupied by a female friend of ours and a man of her acquaintance who we had met there, at the cafe, a couple of hours before, and had the sort of conversation with that you tend to have with strangers in cafes. We spoke of books and music and movies and such. This man now began to talk about how he hated random people just talking to him, and how he was not normally a violent person but “today” he wanted to be violent to Mr X. They left pretty soon after, too shaken i presume to reclaim the jolly night they were having before this rude interruption.
The young man of the chaged tables shoved his oar in a couple of times to the conversation the three remaining women, (me, P, and solo woman) spontaneously started having. Getting not much response, and feeling some disapproval (i personally felt really weirded out by his move of tables), he left too. The three of us talked for a while about how we were thinking of intervening if the employees had misbehaved (all three of us), how we were thinking of buying him a coffee (me and solo woman), how all of us found young man's action extreme (turns out he was the one who summoned the employees to “deal with” the man. He told solo woman he was a counsellor! And claimed that he could tell at a glance that the man was not a “druggie” but simly mentally ill! And then proceeded to inflict himself on her despite her very apparent discomfort with the conversation – which i could see from across the atrium – and tried to get very friendly), and how we felt about everyone's reactions, including our own.
After all, he hadn't done anything the slightest bit out of line. He hadn't misbehaved. In fact he had been more polite and well behaved than a lot of people we deal with on a daily basis. We are all self identified libertarians, liberals, often with a leaning to the left, involved in or in favour of activism and all of that. So, not surprisingly, it was a blow to our self images to see our own reactions, and we could not get away from a feeling of guilt and ashamed-ness.
What was it about a mild mannered, decent acting, middle aged man that rubbed us all the wrong way so quickly and so violently? Just because he looked scruffy and unwashed? Just because he looked down and out? Just because he didnt dress the way we are used to seeing people there dress? (not true since he was in pretty standard clothing, jeans, a t-shirt) What was it about the arrival of this one man that had such an effect on a whole bunch of people? What caused that knee-jerk, almost instinctive, conditioned, instant discomfort?
And --- at the end of the day --- what does that say about me?