From the time I’d learnt to understand temperature from places other than my under-chin, I’ve known Chennai to be this hot place, humidly so. On an afternoon, all one would just need is water,vessel and some suspension of shame to prepare Maggi on a terrace. I don’t actually need a widget on the phone or a news flash to know that I live in a city where the sun’s love fluctuates between 42 to 45 degrees. I just need to observe as to how long it takes for the beads of precipitation to form around my neck to go on and smoothen my shirt’s creases, moments after I step out. So not much of a surprise that Chennai has always been this hotbed for all forms of ice-cream activities.
So I was outside Cream Stone, one of the better places carrying out such activities. I had initially found their ice creams to lack that character. The character that elevated some ice creams from a flavour to a favour. But like in a mature relationship with an average looking person were one slowly starts noticing the other good stuff, with time their cold stone preparations started growing on me as an acquired taste. I felt like a composer inspiring an orchestra with his stick’s wield; each time I told them to add more nuts, mash up a chocolate or leave the ice cream stiff from the other side of the counter.
It was a calm Wednesday night, well past eleven. Not the time of the day you expect to stand behind a multitude of men out to get their dessert fix for the week. But there I was, one among two dozen patrons, most of whom— I’m sure —didn’t go out to vote in the last election to avoid crowds. Probably getting an ice cream is far more rewarding than a chief minister.
So after elbowing past a few hapless gentlemen, I managed to make eye contact with my friend behind the counter.
“French vanilla and dark chocolate, right?“, he yells to be heard over the raucous.
“As always.“, I smile back.
In the next few seconds, roasted almonds and cashews get thrown into the cold pyre of ice cream without their consent, before a Ferrero rocher can further contribute to the collective identity crisis. And like that my favourite dish is prepared the way I like it on a priority basis without even having to intervene once. I smile again at my friend and he waves back as I walk out with my sin on a waffle.
Coming to think, things weren’t this Jarvis and Stark like between us some time back. In fact on my first visit, I was this standard template asshole who expected to be treated like royalty for stepping into a new franchise and he was this new guy from another part of the country, learning his job and the shenanigans of a new demography on the go. So what happened next was what usually happens, when high handed consumerism comes face to face with lackluster soft skills of cheap labour- Shopfloor friction. I lectured his manager about how to run a shop. Threw a tantrum. Created a scene that almost would’ve prompted a demigod to intervene as a civilian, only to walk away with a half paid bill.
A few hours later, I felt embarrassed by my performance earlier, especially the soliloquy on “customer is God”. I especially felt bad for cornering the poor guy who had served me.
He’s my first or on a really unethical meal day my second ice cream maker in a week. But I’m like his 100th bickering customer since morning, who’s been waving an invoice copy at his face with entitlement. Think about your favourite ice cream flavours. Now think about them surrounding your work station. You can do a lot of things with them: scoop them, whip them up, refill them, adorn them, take in their flavor, conduct an inter-flavour marriage and ogle even; but not have them. How thankless should a life be where all you do is deal in myriad flavours of ice creams with exotic toppings for a day job, only to give the resultant work of art to a person who’s riding the high wave of capitalism. And still we go about wondering how the crime rate keeps going up.
I could’ve handled it so much more better.
The next time I went there, few months later, I was conscious. I didn’t want an encore. I went up to the same guy who I had picked on last time. Don’t know if it was the number of people he had attended to in the past few months or the fact that the composition of my facial hair had changed since then; but he somehow couldn’t place me as the charlatan from last time.
I started the transaction with a sheepish wide smile. He smiled back. Then I audited the flavours and made started making some small talk.
“Where are you from?”
“I thought you were from the north, given your Hindi.”
“I was in Hyderabad for a few years. That’s where I picked it.”
“So have you seen Bahubali?”
A movie buff, I’ve often felt the way to a man’s heart is through inquiry about movies in the language he speaks.
“8 times already. Will watch again.”, his face lit up like Anupam Kher on a Newshour debate.
“I can totally relate to it.”
And like that we became acquainted over Telugu movies and Hyderabad landmarks. This was so much out of character, initiating conversation and all. But I was glad I did that. And it felt nice talking to him.
That tête-à-tête not only made my portion bigger that day, it went on to establish a bond between us. Be it tossing in a few nuts, suggesting a new flavour to try, giving preference during peak time; he started doing these little things to make my visit special ever since. And I continued to ask him about things other than the ice creams, like his shift timings, his girlfriend or the last movie he had watched.
All I had to do was just step a little, a tiny weenie beyond the line of “just-business” from where I could wipe the designation to see the person behind . From there I could see an anxious sweet guy who had left behind his friends and family, in the hope of a better life here. Not just another ice cream-sculpting- pixie who was supposed to attend to my cravings within a reasonable window. This shift in perspective definitely didn’t make me a bigger person, won’t flatter myself about that. If anything, a lesser asshole than I was. A better version of myself. The one I should’ve been since much before.