Four tiny vadas, and one sticky, steaming hot idli, eaten at a stall, sitting on a narrow bench that had turned black with dirt and grime, with just a few street kids playing across the road, and the family of three — mother, father, son, — taking turns at the stove, the tap, and the cash box, was the most satisfying meal I had eaten in a long, long time.
Part of it could be the setting. I was right in the middle of the French Quarters in Pondicherry, and right behind the roaring ocean. The sun had been up long — about two hours — but had yet to catch up on its strength, and sea breeze flew in gently. I had been out since five in the morning, had sat by the sea for over two hours, walked along the promenade twice and was famished when I spotted the family setting up the stall in the lane adjacent to the main avenue.
Just when I had finished polishing off the piping hot idli, served to me right off the steamer, and had started licking the plate clean of the freshly grounded coconut chutney — an act which I otherwise never indulge in — I noticed a man on the other end of the street looking at me intently. He would not have been a day over twenty-five and was perhaps waiting for his plate of idli. I was suddenly embarrassed of what I was doing. I left the remaining chutney as it is and finished the coffee in one long gulp. As I got up to pay, I was conscious of his eyes following me.
Growing up in North India, I have experienced everything from roving eyes and curious looks to lewd remarks, cat calls, and even accidental brushing and deliberate groping, but I am used not to a set of eyes following me. I looked at the man again: I wanted to make sure I was not making this up. And sure enough, he was looking at me. Now I was even more awkward and uncomfortable. He had seen me seeing him.
In the past twelve years, I had seldom been on my own. Either the husband or the girls had been stuck to my hip, and in such a case two things happen: a) you are too preoccupied with people around you to notice others, b) others don’t pay attention to you. So the feeling of being observed that morning was alien, and, unnerving. At thirty four I felt like fourteen, unable to decide how to deal with the situation.
And so, even though I was thoroughly enjoying sitting on the grimy bench, soaking in the sight and smell of the freshly cooked food and wanted to hang out there doing nothing, I left abruptly.