That Girl in the Coffee Shop…
I saw her even as I went in. Though I didn’t pay attention then. She looked the same. Like all the regulars I was used to seeing, at Mocha Adyar. She fit right into the familiar, and my eyes let her blend in. Into dim lighting and low voices, into the smell of coffee beans.
As they say, the human eye sees only what it wants to.
I was looking for the corner place I loved, where I could put my feet up on the couch and read.
I found it.
My fingers went to the Flipkart bookmark. And Turkey came alive. I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’. It’s a stunning tale, told from viewpoints of paintings, dead men, dervishes, dogs, colors, artists and murderers. Delicately written and intricately detailed, the book represents more than the story itself – it shows us the evolution of Islam as a religion, the interpretations of its beautiful teachings into something darker, it shows us the art of the miniaturist, the skill of an artist. It had me captivated.
I only looked up because my coffee had arrived.
And there she was again.
She wore glasses. That’s the first thing I noticed. Duh, of course. There was a jute bag on the table. Must have been something handmade. Um, I don’t really know. She looked like she’d value something like that. I’m just guessing.
Long, black hair, a strand of which she was twirling with her finger.
Feet on the table.
In the other hand – a book. Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead.
Now if you haven’t read ‘The Fountainhead’, you certainly should. It’s a seminal work by one of the world’s most revered writers. Ayn Rand was a firebrand, and her philosophies, contained in her books, are the same. Objectivism continues to thrill, enrage and move people to this day, and I myself have been witness to charged discussions on it at the Romain Rolland, Pondicherry’s old French library. I should warn you that reading the book is not easy at all. It took me more than a month and I had to go back to certain passages again and again. But you should take that time. It’s an important book.
She had a faint smile, eyes down, a finger holding the corner to turn the page. I wondered which one of Roark’s antics she was smiling about. Then it disappeared, that hint of tiny delight. Her expression went neutral, then serious.
I sipped my coffee.
The finger kept twirling the hair. Pretty as that was, I hoped she’d let that strand rest. But no. She kept doing it.
And she kept reading.
Writing is, by definition, a very lonely exercise. It needs concentration, imagination and practice. It needs hours of dedication, hours of devotion.
Reading is different. It’s not lonely, in fact, far from it. When you read, you are with the characters, within stories. Actually, you don’t ‘read’, it is the tale that takes you along, drags you in, slowly, unconsciously, opens your eyes to places you have never seen, or indeed, might never see.
The irony is that something so lonely can produce something so comforting.
You can get lost inside a book. I know. I have.
She was lost. I could see it. In her gleaming eyes as they moved across the timeless print, in the way she leaned forward into the book as if she wanted to fall into it. I watched her in intervals, tearing my eyes away from my book, and I could see myself in her sometimes, in the way that we see mirror images of ourselves in puddles of water as we walk in the rain, snatches of reflections caught in traces of time.
She was in New York, in the 1920s. I was in 16th century Istanbul. And we both were in Chennai, in a coffee shop in a quiet street, with an old tree arching over the door, in the 12th year of the 3rd millennium.
As I walked out into the night, I stole a last glance at her. She looked up then. And gazed straight at me.
I stepped outside and kept walking.
I did not know her, that girl in the coffee shop, but I sure would like to.