‘You have to be kidding me Aliya. I mean really!! Of all the places in the world you want to walk into this coffee shop!!.
‘Listen Tanmay, I’m sorry it isn’t up to your extremely high standards but compared to the places we have been drinking coffee, how bad can this place be?’
‘Hey I love the places we go to. This place is in the basement of a building for heavens sake. Can we please go to the usual places.’
Aliya just smiled and walked down the stairs. Tanmay really did not have much of a say here. As they walked down the stairs, Tanmay observed the surroundings and could not believe a coffee shop had survived in the basement of a building in such environs. There was nothing out of place with the building, just that it felt a little ignored and in a little denial of its own existence. Adyar was a suburb of Chennai with a collection of pretty snazzy coffee bars and ‘hang out’ places. Yet Aliya and Tanmay decided to walk into this little coffee shop today.
The walls of the building were not newly painted yet felt untouched. At the end of one flight of stairs there were two doors, one locked and the other unlocked leading into what felt like store rooms or service rooms. Strangely positioned yet that was the feeling the entire building gave out. A feeling of absolute desolation but right in the middle of a very busy street. This strange melange of all the things that you sense when you feel something is out of place.
Yet when they walked in they were in for a pleasant surprise. The coffee shop was well lit, bright pastel shades on the walls, a neat counter with some teasing pastries on display. All the elements you would look for in a coffee shop.
Aliya turned and looked triumphantly at Tanmay.
‘Ahem Ahem. I shall take my appreciation in the form of a free coffee Tanmay, if that isn’t asking for too much.’
‘Well okay ma’am I have to give it to you. Place looks good but trust me the better looking the place, the scarier the food.’
‘Ya whatever Tanmay. Just order now.’
The waiter slowly ambled towards them and kept the menu in front of them. The usual spread greeted their eyes. The long list of cold coffees with every combination of coffee, chocolate, caramel and ice cream thrown in. Burgers and sandwiches of every denomination, quite literally. And the ever youthful list of wannabe sundaes. All in all it was a ‘bread and butter’ like coffee shop menu.
‘Make that two classic cold coffees and chilly fries’
The waiter gave his cursory smile and walked away into the kitchen. Tanmay began to slowly take in the place. He searched it with careful eyes not sure what he was looking for. As he looked around, a gang of three college girls walked in. They walked in a line and quietly placed themselves on a couch and began chatting. Tanmay looked at them for sometime and then just couldn’t stop looking at them.
‘Could you make your interest a little less obvious Tanmay. It’s a little pathetic. They are college girls and you are a little, no make that quite, older than them.’
Tanmay continued staring. Then he turned to Aliya with this confused look in his eyes and proceeded to say something and then stopped. He looked at the walls again and then turned to Aliya.
‘Don’t you feel those girls are a little strange. I mean look at them talk. It seems so practiced, like a routine. Look.’
Aliya turned and observed them for a bit. And then for a while longer.
‘You know what Tanmay. I think you are just bored of my company. I mean I have always been the greatest fan of your imagination but has it really become so desperate for you? Those girls look perfectly fine. Actually they are so lost in their conversation I am so glad they didn’t catch you staring at them.’
‘Aliya come on! Just look at them. They are so controlled and precise in their actions and mannerisms, its bloody unreal. They haven’t even acknowledged our presence even for a second.’
‘oooh Lord Tanmay has been affronted by the absolutely disdainful behaviour of the ladies on the other table who refuse to accept the divine presence of the man himself. Pah, what blasphemy! A terrible day indeed!’ Aliya continued giggling until Tanmay gave up and turned to her.
The coffee and fries arrived and Tanmay took a cautious sip and a wry smile began to appear on his lips.
‘I can’t believe this. It’s actually good. I mean top notch stuff, and look at the quantity!’
Both of them dug into the fries which were also critically acclaimed and they forgot about the girls for sometime.
‘You know Aliya sometimes I wonder to what extent some establishments can go to keep consumers happy. I mean all that we hear about creating loyalty and customer satisfaction and all that eyewash. I mean what is the pinnacle of it all?’
‘I don’t know about all that Tanmay but I mean just look at this place. I really expected nothing. Actually I expected terrible tasting stuff priced exorbitantly, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth and some not so parliamentary comments from you. But the food is just too good and when I walked in and saw the place empty I had my doubts but then thankfully your mystery girls walked in and.. Oh another two guys at the table near the counter too. Not bad, so people do know about this place. We aint the first Tanmay.’
The strange looked returned to Tanmay’s face and this time he had his sights levelled at the new guys in the joint.
‘Ok just stop it now Tanmay. This whole thing you are trying to do is getting a little old now’
‘Listen Aliya, just shut up and listen to me. I don’t know why I’m getting the same vibe from these guys as I was from the girls. Ok wait.. Ok I know I’m not going to make too much sense but I’m going to read into this situation we are in a little more than required. Bear with me.’
Aliya just gave a puzzled look at Tanmay who had a slightly distant look on his face but that was something she was used to by now and knew something beyond the ordinary was going to follow.
‘ Ok picture this’. And this was how it always began.
‘So not many people walk into this place and yet we walked in today like many other people on many other days. When we walked in, the first thought we had was; Strange place, wonder if anyone comes here, should we really eat here, food will surely be crappy and with the bright lights and all the prices will surely be beyond comprehension. Then we walked in and saw nobody and immediately you begin to wonder the credibility of a coffee shop that is empty at 7 in the evening and as you begin to juggle these thoughts, 3 college girls, a typical sight in a coffee shop walk in. You settle down a bit and order the food which is surprisingly good and then another two guys walk in and start talking about mobile phones and the latest mobile app and behave like they have been coming here forever. There is something clock work like about it all, something pre planned, like an act from a play playing itself out.’
‘So what’s abnormal about that Tanmay? Except for your highly far fetched description of the people sitting at the other tables. I mean they can think the same of us too.’
‘Quite possibly they might. But that’s for a little later. Now for the even more absurd side of this entire setting here and I really need you to wait for me to finish.’
‘Just imagine if all this was planned. A little act to convince us that this place is actually good. Not many people will walk into a coffee shop that is in a basement of a pretty run down building. So when they actually do, you have just one chance to grab their attention forever. Now imagine these three girls and those two guys were actors who maybe lived in a room behind those two doors we saw while coming down the stairs. Maybe it is a dark room where they live and plan different ruses for the day, different settings, new conversations, observe people walking in, check if they have visited before, ensure there are no repetitions, exchange ideas and clothes and topics and sitting positions etc. Imagine that in that dark room whenever they need a couple of actors to take their place on stage, a red light begins to flash and the number of flashes signifies the number of people who are walking in, a quick check of the CCTV outside the building verifies if the people have visited before and accordingly they decide who goes and does what. In turn they ensure that no new customer feels this place is unknown and no repeat customers feel like they have made a mistake coming here again.’
‘You know you are giving me goosebumps now Tanmay. And I hope you know it all sounded like a whole load of dosh. Whatever you just said now.’
‘Well ya I know I sounded like a nut job but just imagine if it is true. I mean won’t that be the ultimate example of customer satisfaction. An establishment going that kind of distance for the sake of making a customer feel at home.’
‘Tanmay creepy people who spend entire days in a dark room with red flashing lights really isn’t my idea of comfort.’
‘Ya Aliya but you obviously don’t know that. These people are just any other people like us. I mean isn’t that the obvious brilliance of it all.’
The waiter came and placed the bill which Tanmay pulled and paid.
‘Well I must thank you for bringing me here. Besides some good food you really have given me a great idea to lick my brain with Aliya. Just the thought that something like that could be possible is so interesting. I mean imagine the possibilities and permutations available to the owner to experiment with people’s opinion of a place. It would be such a remarkable social experiment. Damn I’m just in love with this idea.’
Aliya picked up her bag as the two guys at the other table walked out and headed towards the door.
‘Tanmay if you are done imagining and contemplating your completely lunatic ideas, can we go?’
‘Sure Aliya. After all we have played our role haven’t we?’
‘Oh stop it already Tanmay’.
Aliya led the way up the stairs and stopped in front of the door on top of the flight of stairs and stared at it. She then turned to Tanmay and smiled.
‘You know that truly was an awesome conversation. Loved the way I could just sit and listen today unlike other days. Glad you took the lead.’
‘You were pretty good too Aliya, what with your goosebumps and all the drama at my so called absurd ideas.’
They both smiled and Tanmay opened the door and looked in to the darkness.
‘After you Aliya. And what would you want your name to be next time?’
‘Well I quite like the sound of Ahana. Never tried that before and can we please talk about something romantic this time. Act like we are a couple or something. Just to try something new.’
‘Sure thing and next time, call me Neal. Kinda like the ring to it.’
They both smiled and shut the door behind them just as a red light began flashing. This time it flashed thrice…