I stopped a rickshaw and said "Hotel Ellora" Within a few minutes the rickshaw stopped near the hotel. I entered the hotel.
I had a feeling that the man at the counter looked at me with a particular attention. I know it is natural for any proprietor to look at a new customer. So I did not pay any heed. I stood near the counter and asked, "What do you charge for the meals here?" I was about to open my purse when the man at the counter held my hand tightly. "After a long time, Ram babu. I am Saththiraju. Just look up," he said. I did not know how to respond, how to express my surprise. I stood motionless, staring at that person "Hey Chitti, bring that chair for the master." He stood up and made me sit in the chair. "Go, bring some badamkhir (almond pudding)" ordered Saththiraju.
I emptied the glass and said "I was indeed stunned, but this drink has a very cooling effect." Saththiraju laughed. I understood that his laughter was a prelude to a volley of questions he would subject me to.
I told him all the details about myself. When his turn came he took me to the interior part of the hotel. "Do you think the walls have no ears here?" I asked. Saththiraju laughed louder. "No worry. Everyone knows about me here. But when it comes to narration, I pretend as if it were a secret. What actually happened was ..." (Then Saththiraju narrated how as an unemployed youth he started as a server in the hotel, won the confidence of the proprietor and how he ended up marrying the ugly daughter of the hotel owner.)
He pressed the calling bell and summoned the head waiter. "Bring a plantain leaf. Serve special meals to the master." "What about you?" I asked. "First, let me honour my guest. The host can wait ..."
Eyeing the dishes served on the leaf I said, "There seems to be a similarity between our two lives, Saththiraju. I joined the military force and you are running a military hotel."
"Then show your military valour on the food."
He got the dishes served again and again and strictly supervised my eating. "Eat this, why don't you? Taste that one. Why have you not touched this? You finish that item first ..."
When I returned after washing my hands I saw the table had been cleared. There was a plate in front of Saththiraju and a small paper packet. The waiter came with a small dish of sambar.
Saththiraju opened the packet which contained a piece of chapathi. "This is all for my food. I am supposed to eat with sambar in which salt and chillies are minimal. Eating more than this is dangerous to my own life, say the doctors. So, in sum, the matter is I derive my satisfaction by watching those who enjoy a sumptuous meal .." Saththiraju smiled -- a smile that looked as pale as the paper flowers which were hanging at the entrance.