I didn’t know how long I had been driving, but guessing from how exhausted and hungry I was, I think it had been over three hours. I was returning from an official trip to Kolhapur. I was slightly on the outskirts of Pune, but wasn’t sure where. All I knew was that I needed to stop for refreshments and some rest. I peered out the window of my dusty maroon Linea. The surroundings were starting to look green. All through this drive, I had found nothing but barren land. Yes. I was lost.
What I was beginning to see was a treat to my eyes. Trees with leaves that looked like they had just come out to see the world, a few flowering shrubs scattered on the sides of the road, a few tiny houses amidst this greenery added to the beauty. I turned off the air conditioning and let the fresh air come in. There was a hint of jasmine in it. I drove ahead and was sure I’d find a place to eat. I came across tiny shops that had colorful bells, ghungroos, toys, incense, fresh marigolds, roses, lilies, some strung into garlands, others lying in a graceful pile sprinkled with water. I understood why. There were numerous temples in this place. I wondered what it was called. As if in answer to my question I saw an almost fading board which said ‘Alandi’. Working in the IT sector never let me explore the city much, so I had no idea about this new-found land.
The huge river ahead of me explained the pleasantly cool weather. ‘Indrayani’, yet another worn out board said the name of the river was. Still looking for a hotel, I continued to drive slowly until I spotted a little brown framework that resembled a cottage. It looked brand new and there were tiny tables and chairs arranged on the patio that gave it the resemblance of a restaurant, but no board. A restaurant without a name?! I hesitated wondering if I might be mistaken, but before I made up my mind to leave, the door opened and a short pudgy man walked out with a smile plastered across his face.
“Looking for a place to eat? Come on in!”
I thought I saw his jet black moustache move as he spoke. You’re delirious because of hunger, I told myself and got out of the car.
I followed the man inside who I thought was a waiter. He showed me a nice place near the window,
“Make yourself comfortable, I’ll get you some cold water.”
I sat down on a straight-backed chair that was rickety. It looked like it didn’t belong in the neat looking space. I looked around – nobody. There wasn’t anyone at the front desk; there weren’t any other customers either. He brought me some water and I couldn’t help but ask,
“Pardon me, but are you the only one at the restaurant?”
He chuckled and said, “You see, this is a new restaurant. Customers are just starting to come in and I am still looking to employ people. So yes, I own the restaurant, I sit at the desk, I serve and also cook.”
He winked and went in without taking my order. Ten minutes later a delicious aroma wafted from inside and I felt my tummy rumble. Thankfully he walked into the room with a huge tray of steaming hot food. He served my food and began to answer my questions about Alandi. I learnt that it is a popular pilgrimage place with many dharmashalas. This also attracted many tourists. A lot of the town’s activities were around pilgrim activities such as the popular 150km walk from Alandi to Pandharpur called as Palkhi. He kept me occupied with his chatter until I finished my meal and got up to leave. “Well, you not only are a good cook, but quite an entertainer too. I will be sure to visit again with friends.” I shook his hand, asked for directions and left with a smile.
After a couple of minutes on the road I realized that one of the cufflinks from my shirt was missing. It had probably fallen off at the hotel. I began to head back in the direction I had come. I drove really slowly so I wouldn’t miss spotting the nameless hotel. Over two minutes had passed and there was no sign of the hotel. I turned off the engine and got out of the car, completely puzzled. I couldn’t have gone past it. It wasn’t so far away. I walked a few steps away from my car. The sun was setting; it was going to be dark soon and I needed to reach home. Suddenly I spotted something shiny on the ground reflecting the soft evening glow. I bent down and found my missing cufflink. Before I could fasten it again, I noticed a very ancient looking cottage, crumbling to the ground. The dilapidated cottage looked neglected and abandoned for years. The patio was covered in dust and dry leaves, and pieces of broken wood. Shards of glass lay beneath the broken windows. I treaded carefully and looked inside the window. It was dark.
I clenched my fingers around the cold metal that was the cufflink as I saw a straight-backed chair standing alone in the room.
A gentle wind filled with the fragrance of jasmine blew into the room and the rickety chair shuddered.