He was in his accustomed place every morning: sitting on a stool just inside the kitchen door, cutting up onions or boiled potatoes and dropping them into a huge steel bowl.
Though we usually arrived early at Kirpal Singh’s, it was already hot in this pre-monsoon season, the air in the restaurant thick and close with humidity. As soon as we entered, sweat would begin to bead up on my face. The kitchen must have been even hotter.
The old cook always wore the same thing: a white cotton singlet with a lungi wrapped around his large stomach and stretched tight across his thighs and buttocks that bulged over the edge of the stool, hiding it beneath him.
I would smile and say “Good morning” when I went to wash my hands in the sink beside the kitchen. His eyes would acknowledge me before returning to the task in front of him.
Last Friday morning we entered Kirpal Singh’s about the same time as usual. I spotted the old cook right away, seated on a chair at the very back of the restaurant and facing the storeroom. Two ceiling fans whirred over his head. This was unusual; at Kirpal Singh’s, the fans are turned on only after a customer sits down, and then just the fan closest to where the customer is seated. No need to waste electricity, no matter how sweltering the heat.
But there the old cook sat, under the whirring fans. He stared ahead, his eyelids heavy, no expression on his face. I watched him covertly, noticing the darkness of his skin; I had never before seen him without a singlet. The dark-brown color of the lungi was so close to his skin color, he looked naked at first glance. He sat very still, his hands on his thighs bracing his upper body.
He must have sensed my glances. He turned his bulky body slightly towards me, and I smiled. There was no answer; I was not even certain he saw me. The blankness in his eyes told me he was feverish. That’s why the fans were on full blast, I realized: to cool him.
The tall young waiter who usually serves us came out to take our order. We were sipping on our first cups of tea when the old cook rose heavily from the chair and made his way to the back kitchen, out of my sight. I hoped I had not driven him away with my gaze.
When I looked into the kitchen the next morning, the young waiter was stationed on the cook’s stool, long sleeves rolled up, cutting boiled potatoes into the big steel bowl. He spotted us, wiped his hands and came to take our order. As usual, he placed the things on the table: paper napkins, a spoon for the sugar and a spoon for stirring. I smiled in thanks, but he did not smile in his normal way. His face hardly moved.
“I think he’s filling in for the cook,” I said to Alan after the waiter headed back into the kitchen. “He did look sick yesterday – the cook, I mean.” Alan hadn’t seen him the previous morning. I told Alan the cook was sitting behind him, but looking would have meant craning his body around, a move that was just too obvious.
I wanted to ask Kirpal Singh what had happened, but he didn’t appear that morning. It was the waiter who took our payment for breakfast, accepting without a word the tip Alan put directly into his hand.
It wasn’t until the next morning I found out. I went to wash my hands after the waiter brought my channa-roti to the table. Kirpal Singh was at his desk beside the kitchen, and I crossed over to him. “How is the cook? I saw him the other day and thought he seemed ill.”
Kirpal Singh looked straight at me. He started to speak, stopped and swallowed. “He has left us,” he said. “It happened about three hours after you were here.” His large, luminous eyes were wet.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “So sorry for his family. And for you – it must be hard for all of you.”
It took a moment for Kirpal Singh to answer. His beautiful voice cracked a little. “It is hard. A person who works with us for years, is like our family.”
“I saw him sitting under the fans,” I said. We began to discuss the pre-monsoon heat, which had been intense. Just over the past week, the news had reported temperatures over 50º C in Rajasthan.
“In this weather, so many people die,” Kirpal Singh said. “We served breakfast yesterday, then closed the place down. We had the funeral. When we got to the burning ground, there were ten, eleven, twelve bodies waiting there.”
I could visualize the scene. Alan and I had been to the burning ground in Puri: piles of wood placed at intervals across the burning ground, some awaiting bodies; some pyres already alight, red flames and black smoke streaming around the body, family members gathered around; some pyres reduced almost entirely to ash. The picture before me was so vivid, it brought back the smell of burning ghee mixed with sandalwood, incense and something sharper, more acrid.
Kirpal Singh was looking at me as he spoke. His eyes were still watery. I saw all at once he might be carrying guilt. The old cook had worked in that hot kitchen every day for years, right into this season of insupportable heat, right up to the last hours of his life. He died working; it seemed such a sad thing in this moment.
“It’s natural,” I said, “Death is natural. And grief is natural, too.”
I saw a muscle relax in his brow. “It is natural,” Kirpal Singh agreed.
I thought I had better wind up the conversation. Alan was eating his breakfast, and mine was waiting for me on the table. “Well, I am sorry for all of you. It’s a real loss of someone you cared for.” I wanted Kirpal Singh to feel nothing but sympathy from me.
Walking the few steps from Kirpal Singh’s desk to the table where Alan was eating was like crossing from one country into another. It was strange to tell Alan quietly what had happened, to eat my two rotis and channa, to order our second cups of tea. Something big had just taken place here. And yet the older American couple who came in every day must be served – and would be served – with the usual grace and care.
The next morning, you would never guess anything had happened. Kirpal Singh greeted us with his usual friendly “good morning.” The young waiter gave us a warm smile as he turned on the fan above our table. He brought our tea, meticulously arranged the paper napkins, the sugar bowl and two spoons between us. Politely, he took our breakfast order, even though I am sure he knew already what it would be.