The waiters had appeared, setting glasses upside down in preparation of early evening diners. But mainly the restaurant was empty. Tea. A cup of tea is a good idea at this hour. The tea arrived brimming hot in white ceramic. the waiter laid the cup slowly, and delicately like an artist, took a step backward to examine its position at the table. Like still life, in which the stranger was just an object. An object in someone else’s painting.
As if acknowledging this idea, the waiter nodded at the stranger and smiling went away.
A few tables away a young guy with blue spectacles sat looking prettily at his date. A light jazz played in the restaurant. “Strangers in the night” the stranger could hear in his mind. It was hot day, by Srinagar standards. And the air was dusty. The many ornamental plants and the air conditioning did nothing to improve the air. Across the lawn trimmed to perfection, beyond the edge, traffic rumbled by. Its many sounds barely audible over the music in the café. A small marquee had been set up inside the hotel to give it a Middle Eastern feel. The curtain around the marquee looked untidy and unwashed.
The stranger had wandered into this place looking for company. He realized that he stayed there for too long. He looked at his tea cup. Empty again. It was Eid and he had nowhere to go.
After the Eid prayers, a random person stepped forward from the throng of strangers at the congregation and hugged him. The stranger hugged him back. It was Eid after all. But the man was gone before the stranger could see his face. He was lost in a throng of onlookers and bored people waiting to get out of the mosque. He had thin shoulders and deep black eyes. He disappeared in the crowd.
There was a moment of happiness and the plain joy of it bounded onto him. This would be over soon, he said to himself. There is a fire on the mountains. A long road leads up the hill. If you make it through, the air is fragrant with burnt roses. The singed petals pave the way up.
The stranger smiled at the empty cups. The top of the mountain is an unknown place. It may have roses, luscious and covered in dew drops. Or nettles, grown over the years.
The music in the café changed, to a deep soulful violin. The boy across the table was still smiling at his date. The stranger thought of the man who had hugged him. In a city of unknown people, someone had tried to make a connection. But then he had disappeared. May be for all the warmth of his heart, he had found the stranger cold, and withdrawn. The stranger was still thankful for that. In the weepy sky that overcast the city that day, he wrapped his hand round the cup of tea. It had gone cold. Now it was just porcelain.