We’ve frequented this particular coffee shop for Sunday breakfast for as long as I can remember. Possibly even longer than that, considering Ma and Papa have been regulars here ever since they got married. The scrambled eggs on toast may have gradually shrunk over the decades, but my family’s loyalty to the establishment remains unchanged. The waiter uncle knows us all very well, although only by face. Ma says he will occasionally ask where I’ve gone off, even though I moved cities a more than a little while ago.
Within my lifetime, the coffee shop has switched locales once. The prehistoric building where it originally existed had to be razed down to make way for a shiny, chrome monstrosity of a metro station. The new space retains all the familiar showrunners, old framed paintings, and formica-topped furniture.
It’s almost clockwork. We don’t bother with menus anymore. Any attempts at experimentation are thrown to the wind the minute we seat ourselves at a table. Waiter uncle recites our order back to us before we can get one word out, and we often have food on our tables because any one of us has the opportunity to start bickering about something inconsequential.
Ma will always ask for one extra chutney. Papa will always ask for two extra spoons, because he’s a proponent of the performance art piece of eating masala dosa with anything but his hands in public. My brother and I are usually occupied with dividing up cutlets between the four of us depending upon who’s suffering is highest at the moment. With everyone’s assortment of breakfast dishes, the ancient salt and pepper shakers, and one wobbly bottle of mineral water cramming the tiny table already, there’s no more room left for coffee cups.
(Concerning the bottle: “Hot or cold?” Waiter uncle will ask. After several moments of deliberation, Papa will always say “Warm” in the most deadpan tone I’ve ever heard.)
The coffees always come last.
Nalku hot. Or mooru hot ondu cold. Ondu swalpa strong. Never tea. Not sure why. It may have to do with the simple, unquestionable logic of not going and ordering tea at an establishment with “Coffee” in its name.
The coffees arrive. No one takes any extra sugar, except my brother, from time to time. My mother will have downed the searing hot cuppa before I can get a full sentence out about the current goings on in the world, or even just my world. My father takes his time with his coffee. Despite the compact nature of the cup, designed to only hold about seven-and-a-half sips of liquid, he’s only ever halfway through it when he loses complete interest. To this day, I can barely remember any instance of him finishing his own cup of coffee.
Instead, the half-empty/half-full cup, without fail, is pushed towards my quietly waiting mother, who then finishes the remaining coffee in one fell gulp. This happens every time, even (or perhaps especially) if they’ve been quarrelling bitterly about something right before the coffees are brought to the table.
I have to wonder how long in the three-decades-and-then-some, that they’ve been coming to this joint, did they take to develop this near-perfectly choreographed coffee-sharing routine. It’s like second nature to them.
A familiar feeling hits: one of being let in on a secret, or noticing something that’s in plain sight that no one seems to have acknowledged yet. A rare bird hidden in the foliage, a wink meant only for me, fingers intertwined in the darkness of a movie theatre, elaborate coffee-sharing routines. I enjoy this immensely, even if I’m not directly involved in the interaction.
I start to say something about it, but have to stop myself from pointing it out to them, because it feels so ethereal that acknowledging it will make it disappear forever.
So we finish our coffees, pay our bills, and go.