I was walking along the streets of Kolkata one day, when I saw about fifty people crowding around a street vendor.
“What’s going on?” I asked a kid who had just made his way out of the crowd.
“The Puchkawala uncle is giving free coupons. One plate each.”
The kid showed me a paper-plate that he had folded into his shirt pocket. On the paper-plate were two lines, written in Bangla:
“Please accept this as my apology. If you bring this to me again, I will give you one plate free.”
Below these lines was a signature with a date.
I gave the paper-plate back to the boy and chose to wait around till the crowd thinned a bit. Something was telling me that I would miss out on a good story if I walked away.
There was a bookstore nearby, so I browsed around its shelves, keeping an eye on the corner where this puchkawala had parked his cart. When there were only four people left, I walked up to him and asked for a plate.
“Forgive me, brother,” the man said folding his hands in a namaste. “I cannot offer you anything today.”
“I heard you were giving out free coupons.”
“Yes, brother, I was. But I just gave out the last ones. I don’t have any more left. But do come tomorrow. I will serve you the best puchkas you have ever tasted.”
“Okay. If you don’t mind me asking, I saw your message and was wondering why you are apologising with free plates?”
“Brother, I did a big mistake today. In my haste to leave the house in the morning, I accidentally spilled the tamarind water on the puris. They were all soaked and spoiled.”
“The whole day’s stock?”
Even as he told me this, I could see how painful it must have been for him to go through that in the morning. He must have spent at least four hours preparing his stock for the day. And to have it all spoiled…
“But why are you apologising,” I asked. “You could just have stayed at home, taken the day off and come back here tomorrow. Why are you giving out free coupons? Wouldn’t you have more loss this way?”
“How can I not show up, brother?” the man said holding his ears in apology. “I owe my family’s well-being to the people who come to me for a plate of puchka. The students from the tuition classes, the office babus from the next street, the young lovers from the park — they all come to me everyday. They go out of their way, walk over a kilometer to come here. Imagine how they would have felt if they came today and did not find me here. I owe it to them to be here.”
“But, you could have just apologised to them. Why the free coupons?”
“Brother, there is no weight in spoken words. What we say today will fly away in the wind. No apology is complete if we don’t atone for the mistake. A free plate is my atonement.”
“But you’ve given away all your coupons. And I am sure many of the people crowded here were just freeloaders who came only for the coupons. What will you give the regular customers when they come?”
“I have special coupons for them, brother. They get two plates. All the other people who came for the first time, I gave them the one-plate coupon. All my one-plate coupons are over, brother. So I can’t give you any. But you come tomorrow. I will serve you the best puchka you have ever tasted.”
“Okay. I will come tomorrow. You have to live up to your claim, though.”
“Yes, brother. You will yourself say that you had the best puchka.”
I offered my hand for a shake and he took it between both his palms. As I was leaving, he folded his hands in a namaste again and smiled.
“If you don’t mind,” I started once more, “can I ask you why you bothered with the new people at all? You could have just given the regular ones the coupon and turned everyone else back.”
The man held his ears again and shook his head.
“I haven’t read much in school, brother, beyond some letters and numbers. But I can sometimes read God’s messages. When He arranged for me to spoil my stock today, He was giving me an opportunity to serve more people. So many people came to me today to take the free coupons. These people had never come in the three years I have been here. But they came today. And I know, when they come to claim their free plates, God will guide my hands to serve them the best puchkas they have ever tasted. And once they have tasted my puchkas, they won’t be able to stay away.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the innocent joy on his face. I knew in that moment that I would come back the next day to try out what he had to offer.
“I don’t know about your puchka,” I said as I turned to leave. “But you are definitely the best puchkawala I have met. See you tomorrow.”
“Not just tomorrow, brother. See you everyday.”