He felt the usual sense of pride as he looked around his small yet bustling sweets and treats shop. Though the paint had faded and the plaster was chipping away in places, the dull unpolished wooden racks that lined the back had turned wearisome and the glass panes of the display case at the front of the shop badly scratched and almost translucent, his faithful customers always disregarded the ambience – or rather the absence of one – in favour of the goodies he sold. After all, the snacks and desserts were meticulously prepared retaining the same taste and quality that generations of his customers had been partaking at this shop started by his great-grandfather, and which through lineage had now passed into his able hands. He had fastidiously ensured that the kitchen was run to the exacting specifications that his great-grandfather had laid down of each food item and which had been passed down his descendants.
However, the pride of place in his heart belonged to the pudding, the most sought after offering of the shop and which he had heard was the customers’ darling even in the good old days. Though a simple five-ingredient dish, he had endured a lot of pain to ensure that it was made the same exact way every day and he himself would be present in the kitchen while it baked to transform into the soft, delicate, heady, heavenly, delectable delight that it was.
Today, as always, the pudding was almost sold out. It was around closing time and just as he was eyeing the one last remaining bowl of unsold pudding to celebrate a day of good sales, his thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a tall wavering shadow across the street. As the shadow crossed the street, he could make out under the dull orange glow of the streetlight outside his shop, the features of a tall, gaunt man of around sixty, unshaven, unwashed, barefoot and with grimy tattered clothes. As he came out of the shadows, the old man’s hungry eyes quickly scanned the shelves, finally settling on the one last pudding glistening inside the display case. Usually he would have dismissed a tramp by handing over a piece of sponge cake or two; but today God knows what came over him as he without a second thought reached into the display and handed over the last pudding to the old man. Eyes gleaming, the old man accepted the pudding with grateful hands and proceeded to settle into the shadows on the street outside to demolish the bounty.
The episode over, he quickly began going over the day’s sales register before he could close the shop. Just as he had turned to the last page, he sensed someone standing inside the shop. Glancing up, he saw the old man looking at him, eyes keen as if wanting to communicate. Putting down the pen, he walked up to the old man, “Yes Sir, you wanted something?” “An excellent pudding I must say, not had anything like it in years, but…”, the old man spoke up hesitantly, “…but, you see, a bit of orange blossom and lemon zest would work wonders for it, you know!” He was shocked that the old man could say something as sacrilegious as tweaking a family heirloom! And what did he know of such fine ingredients! But the cultured young man he was, he politely thanked the old man and saw him off. That night he could not sleep; the old man’s words kept coming back to him. No one had dare say such a thing of his pudding, and yet, what the old man said was not at all absurd. On one hand while his family traditions forbade him from any tinkering, his culinary sense argued for the old man. He was in a quandary, but finally at dawn he had made his decision. He would make two batches today – one the traditional recipe and another as the old man had suggested. This way his family heritage would also be safe and he could also satisfy his curiosity.
And thus, that morning his display shelf was lined with two varieties of pudding. The news spread like wild fire and very soon his new orange blossom and lemon zest flavoured pudding had outsold his traditional pudding. And for the whole of next month, the new flavour continued to outsell the other one! Demand for the new flavour picked up so much that he had to make two batches of the pudding a day. With the additional income he got a brand new display case with gleaming steel trimming installed at the shop front. A month later, one fine evening, just as he was ruminating on the amazingly pudding sales of the month past, his reverie was broken by the sight of the old man hobbling past his shop. Delighted, he rushed towards the old man and politely brought him into the shop. Eagerly thrusting one hand into the display case, he brought out a bowl of the new flavour pudding and handed it over to the old man, “Just as you had suggested, Sir”, said he. The old man turned around, the bowl in hand, and sitting down on the floor in a corner of the shop, began to savour the delicacy, one heaped spoon after another. Upon finishing, the old man got up and began to hobble out. Calling out from behind, he asked, “Sir, was it satisfactory?” The old man turned slightly and sighed, “Oh, it was heavenly, but try a sprinkling of grated nutmeg on top. It will work wonders”, so saying the old man shuffled away. He was left stunned. But pondering over it, he thought, yes, why not? And the next day the batch of the new flavour had a generous sprinkling of grated nutmeg on top. The sales were even brisker and his customers simply loved the all new flavours!
A few months down the line, the flavoured pudding had set a new record in pudding sales and the demand was outstripping his capacity to make it. The wooden racks at the back had now made way for glass shelves with steel brackets. Time and again he wondered of the old man – who was he? How did he know so much about flavours? Was he a chef fallen upon bad times? One evening around closing time, he was sitting at the cash counter eyeing the stock of unsold meringue pie, vaguely wondering why it never sold as well as the others. As luck would have it, the old man appeared outside his shop just then. Having been offered the new pudding and devoured it without a comment, the old man started to make his way out. Thinking quickly, he reached into the glass display and brought out a huge slice of the meringue pie, “Sir, I thought you would like to try this pie”, he almost shouted after the old man.
The old man turned around and looked him in the eyes. For a moment time stood still and then suddenly the old man’s face broke into a broad knowing smile; and he warmly smiled back…
– Narendra Nayak © 2018