(Written for Weekly Writing Challenge)
It was a cold day.
Little children shivered to the bone as their fragile mothers held them to their bosom, in an unsuccessful endeavour to keep them warm. It had just been two days since the fire had broken out in a Mumbai suburb – killing, plundering and destroying thousands of innocent lives. Two days – but it felt like a lifetime ago. Firemen and locals tried in vain to save the cotton mill, but all in vain. All that was left were burning timbers and ashen faces. Set aglow by the blazing memories of the fire, two nights ago, which caught the fancy of the mill and spread its tentacles across the neighbouring hutments. A merciless orange-red devil which destroyed everything in its wake, sparing no mercy for the kind old blind lady or the wailing child. Nobody knew what had set off the fire. Maybe a naked wire or a heated generator.
Through this ruckus walked Gustav. Untouched by the fire which had taken places on the other side of town, he silently said a prayer for the unfortunate and made his way to the restaurant. ‘Please God, not my restaurant. Not my restaurant!’, he thought. Two nights ago, news of the fire had broken out and Gustav had broken into sweat. What if his restaurant had been destroyed? How would he rebuild his dream of owning the finest Italian restaurant in Mumbai – the land of dreams, aspirations and Bollywood? Would this foreign city be kind enough to give him a second chance? The entire area had been cordoned off and he had no access to his restaurant till today.
All morbid thoughts were laid to rest as he stood in front of “D’ Angelo”. The restaurant was now the only vertical structure in the area which stood untouched. A stark comparison to the dreary surroundings. It’s bright red walls presented a horrible contrast to the sea of burnt grey that swam around. An eye sore. A happy smile escaped his lips – and was immediately killed by the guilt of his selfish thoughts while so many sat listless.
He shut the doors of the restaurant and some of his guilt remained on the porch. He was welcomed by a babble of his staff members, mostly foreigners with a smattering of locals. He tried shutting his mind to the occasional groan that would slip through his panelled windows. But the groan remained. Louder and louder it grew till he could bear it no more.
“We should help those wretched people out there. Get on your aprons to whip some of the finest pizzas and pastas we’ve ever made. We’ve got more than 500 people out there. Let no one go hungry tonight.”
Everyone looked at Gustav blankly. Was he out of his mind – thought most of the staff. He wanted to feed a throng of people who have been hungry for 2 days straight? That would require truckloads of food! After confirming that Gustav was in no mood to answer questions, the group set about the task for preparing the food.
Three hours later, the first batch of food to serve 70-75 people had been laid out. Several trips were made to and fro till every last bit of the pizza had been served. As the team got together to make the next batch of food, there was a faint knock on the window. A ragged looking boy having a tear stained face stood with a plastic bowl full of pasta in his hand.
“What’s up buddy? You want some more of that pasta, eh?”, called out a sous chef.
The boy shook his head, placed the bowl on the window sill and walked away without a word. Gustav peeped out of the window and saw several of the homeless people ignoring the food.
“What’s wrong with these people?”, he fumed. “Ungrateful people, is this how they thank us for the food? Look over there – that entire group is sitting with their back towards the pizzas. What is wrong with these people?”
“Sir, may I say something?”, called out the voice of a non-descript local commis. “These guys haven’t eaten for two days. Their homes have been devasted and it will take a long while before they are able to rebuild their lives. Do you remember what your mother did everytime you felt low?”
“She would make my favourite chocolate pudding”, reminisced Gustav, not knowing where this discussion was heading.
“That’s right sir. Food. When you feel happy you celebrate with delicious food, when you are low, you eat the get-well-soon food. What these people need right now is the kind of food that reminds them of home.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is they need dal (lentils), chawal (rice) sabji (vegetable preparation) and maybe some roti (Indian bread). Food that reminds them of home. Of a time that they once spent happily as a family. Food for the soul. Not some food that is alien to their culture. Look at those people out there – living life below the poverty line. They’ve probably never tasted pasta in their life. You need to feed them with what they want to eat.”
Gustav got the point. He immediately ordered his team to prepare the required meal under the guidance of the Indian commis.
Next day the newspaper headlines exclaimed “Humanity prevails: Italian chef and his team serves Indian meal to 500 homeless people”
Gustav did not remember the accolades. He did not remember the recipes. All he remembered were the 500 smiling eyes. His day had been made.