Every day at 1:30 in the afternoon he ordered exactly the same configuration as dessert after lunch – sometimes after skipping lunch.
The girl standing next to him eyed him curiously. “Americanized!” she remarked with a smile on her face.
He was jolted. It was a clear intrusion into his privacy. She had no business accosting him like that. He wanted to tell her how annoying her remark had been.
But he didn’t – mainly because the girl in question was Monalisa Kumari. Twice she had been unanimously elected the Crown Princess of SoftSol, the company both of them worked for.
Monalisa was part Indian part Deutsch. She was fluent in Hindi, Spanish and French apart from Deutsch. She was so beautiful that it was difficult to describe her beauty in words.
He would accept any word spoken by this girl. Guys considered it a privilege to talk to her.
She was still looking at him. He realized he had to respond.
“Not exactly. I love black coffee.”
She nodded, “So you are saying, you loved black coffee ever since you were a kid!”
He thought about it, “No, only in the last five years”
“That is – after you visited the West”
He was surprised, “How do you know I’d been to the West?”
“Oh, that’s pretty easy!” she replied casually, “One: you said Black Coffee. No Sugar and not Black Coffee without Sugar. Two: You said Please! Three: You look quite old. Everyone in this firm of your age had visited the West at least twice.”
He laughed, “One and Two are quite good. But I think it is Three which gave me away!”
“Right Dr. Watson. So you started your tryst with black coffee after an expedition to the West! Am I correct?”
“Yes” he responded.
“Quad Erat Demonstrandum” she smiled.
“That doesn’t prove that I am Americanized” He retorted, “It only proves that I was introduced to black coffee’s virtues in America”
“Same difference, ain’t it?” Monalisa gestured him towards a table nearby.
They walked to the table and occupied it.
He sipped his piping hot black coffee and started talking, “You know! It is not the same. Americanization means – a paradigm shift in the way we think and operate. Just liking your coffee black does not mean you are Americanized. It just means that you are familiar with certain Western practices. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
She stared into his eyes.
“Whatever it is. I still believe people drink Black Coffee just because it is the in thing you know… and not because they love the taste of it. Who would love that bitter liquid anyways.”
He was offended. She might be the most beautiful girl of the campus. She might be a swift driver of a Swift. She might be a 99 percentiler. But she still had to respect the tastes of her colleagues.
She knew at once there was something wrong. “Oh I am sorry Srini. I didn’t mean to hurt you. You know I really don’t know why people like this black coffee.”
He composed himself and came up with the most daring proposition of his life so far.
“Why not give it a try?”
She was surprised, “Black coffee? Eeeks! Thank you very much. I am pretty much Ok with my Latte – full of Sugar – Soulful!”
He asked her, “Have you ever tried it?”
“No!” came the emphatic answer.
“Alright. Let us play a little game. Tomorrow onwards, every afternoon at 1: 30, we will meet here and have a cup of black coffee – for five days. I suggest you don’t drink any other type of coffee in this period. If at the end of the fifth day you still don’t understand why people drink black coffee, I will stop drinking it.”
There was silence. Pin drop. She eyed him suspiciously. It was evident that he wanted to spend more time with her. She knew it.
“Tomorrow at 13:30. Same place.” She said.
Monalisa examined carefully the contents of the cup.
“Do I really have to drink this?” she asked no one in particular. He didn’t respond. He knew she cared a damn for his answer.
And then she took the first sip. Her facial expressions changed at the speed of light. He waited. She eventually came back to this world.
He didn’t say a thing.
She silently walked over to the trash can and threw the coffee cup into it.
“Let us get out of here. I want to show you something.” She gestured him to follow her.
Half an hour later – they were seated in a dilapidated dhabha off NH45 twenty kilometers from the office.
He sipped the three rupee coffee sans sugar. It was delightful.
“What do you infer from this?” she asked him.
“That coffee in a NH45 dhabha twenty kilometers from the office tastes really good?”
She laughed, “You do have a sense of humor”
He smiled, “Maybe yes. What is the point?”
She sighed. “One way of looking at it – pay 3 rupees and have a lovely coffee. Or pay ten rupees and drink the rubbish you’ve been drinking till now.”
He was stupefied, “you want me to drive twenty kilometers to this dhabha just because it offers me coffee at 3 rupees?”
“Think about that” she took her purse out.
Srini was curious. Monalisa sipped her black coffee and told him, “You know! We don’t have to do this. I am most certainly not going to like this liquid.”
“We decided. We follow.” Srini was adamant.
Monalisa winked, “All this just for black coffee?”
Srini thought for a moment, “I am enjoying these meetings”
“Friends?” she extended her hand.
“No” He was firm.
There was a stunned silence. She was swept off her feet. “What did… why?”
“I don’t think we can ever be friends. You are too beautiful to be a friend.”
She stared at him, “When Harry Met Sally?”
“Partly yes” he responded.
“More than twice?” she asked.
“More than twenty times. I own the DVD.”
“Aren’t you taking it a little too seriously? It is possible for a girl and a boy to be just friends. Give me a break. We see so many such friends in the food court everyday.”
He shook his head, “I don’t want to talk about others. Myself – I am attracted to you. Wait! I am not saying anything wrong here. All I am suggesting is that we can never be friends.”
She finished the black coffee in three quick gulps, “Goodbye Harry!”
She was dressed in a black chudidaar. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“You are staring.” She said gently.
He was caught off guard. “Not my mistake”
She smiled and sipped the black coffee. “You know what! This is turning out to be a very interesting incident.”
“Drinking black coffee?” He asked her.
“Drinking black coffee with you.” She looked into his eyes. He lowered them.
“Why are you so nervous when I am talking to you?”
He looked up. “I told you yesterday.”
“Srini, you do realize this is not a movie.”
He nodded. “Yes”
“Real life is not reel life.”
He cringed, “Thanks for the cliché Monalisa!”
Her face turned red. She kept the black coffee cup on the table and stood up. “What do you think you are Mister? Just because I am drinking coffee with you – doesn’t give you the right to say whatever that comes to your mind.”
He was surprised, “All for that pathetic cliché?”
For a while neither of them talked. “Coffee’s on you.” She said.
“As such life is a great mystery.” Srini told her.
They were driving down the highway NH45 to the dhabha. It was a pleasant afternoon. Traffic was scarce.
Monalisa laughed, “What a cliché”
Srini shook his head, “It is the truth.”
“So you speak truth and nothing but the truth. When I say something I speak cliché and only clichés”
He smiled. “You have a way with words.”
She didn’t reply.
“What are you thinking Monalisa?” He prompted her again.
“Mona. Call me Mona.” She deftly swerved right throwing Srini off the seat.
“What the hell was that?” He was dismayed.
“I was avoiding a speeding buffalo you idiot.” She yelled, “God! I hate driving in India.”
Srini was silent. They reached the dhabha.
She ordered two cups of coffee. He observed silently. She knew there was something wrong.
“OK. What is it?”
“Why are you so silent?”
“Nothing. I am OK.”
“Can’t I call you idiot, dear?”
“How can you? I want to be treated with dignity…” He abruptly stopped and stared at her. “What did you just say?”
“Can’t I call you idiot, Dear?” She ruffled his hair, “Can’t I?”
“Wait. Whatever happened to being platonic friends?” He asked her.
She didn’t reply.
“So Harry met Sally?”
She nodded. “I saw the ending again yesterday.”
Srini couldn’t suppress his quirky smile. “A lovely little fool I know told me sometime back that real life was not reel life.”
“Yes. Don’t push it though.” She sounded cold.
“I still don’t like this black coffee. Will it really make a difference? It is the final day – right?” She pleaded with him.
“The agreement is binding Ms Monalisa Kumari” He was ruthless.
“No way out?” She wouldn’t give up.
“There is” he smiled.
“Great! What is it?”
“Number one: Since you don’t want to finish the fifth day black coffee, I need not stop drinking black coffee”
“With no sugar?”
“Or without sugar.”
“OK. What is number two?”
“You tell me what made you talk to me on the first day.”
She didn’t expect that. “What?”
He was serious. “Tell me Mona. Why did you initiate the conversation on the very first day?”
“I thought you were cute”
“Bulls. There were many more cute guys around. More handsome and dying to talk to you.”
She looked around. “I can’t see any?”
“Don’t change the topic. Tell me what made you talk to me? A bet with your friend?”
She stared at him. “You knew!”
“Yes. Unfortunately your friend is my friend’s girlfriend. He told me last night when I was raving about you.”
She stood up; held his hands and said, “It all started because of that bet I agree Srini. However our black coffee encounters introduced the real Srini to me. The bet did not govern my actions after the first day. Please believe me.”
He shook his head. “And all the time I thought you were really interested in me.”
She was horrified to see tears in his eyes. “Srini please. I like you. I really really like you. I am extremely sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. But tell me Srini… How would I ever have known the real Srini if it were not for the bet with my friend? You are an introvert. You don’t talk to girls. How
He kept his black coffee on the table and walked away. “Srini. I said Sorry.” She shouted completely ignoring the other people in the cafeteria.
He stopped, turned back and told her – “Convince me.”
She went to Café Coffee Day and said – “One black coffee. No sugar please”