From the time I was 10 until I was 16, my school bus more or less took the same route everyday. Barring a few months of changes here and there due to bus strikes, bus burning, reversals of one-ways or big ditches in the road, we always passed along the length of RT Nagar main road en route to and from school. On the way back, towards the end of the long road, we’d approach a speed bump and slow down to assuage it.
The back of the bus, the footboard and the floor space behind it, lined up and paused directly in front of a Sreeraj Lassi Bar. One random day when I was twelve or thirteen, a few of us were sitting on the floor, daydreaming out the open doorway, when we found ourselves making eye contact with the Sreeraj Lassi Bartender. We gave him a thumbs up. He gave us one too, immediately. He did not hesitate. I think we had been trying to mess with him. The bus came down the other side of the bump and we were hurdling toward DD. The next day, we yelled out for our buddy and this time he threw in a complimentary Sreeraj smile with the thumbs up.
Two weeks later, he had become a mild phenomenon on the bus and we were counting down the minutes between Hebbal Main Road and the best damn Lassi bar in town. Vying to get his attention and see what he’s going to do today. We didn’t care how busy he appeared, how many customers were in his bar, whether he had his back to us or whether he was in the middle of preparing a Sweet Lassi. When the bus driver began breaking for that speed bump, we were standing up. The front tires climbed the sleeping policeman and that set in motion three seconds of excited anticipation before we would be shouting for the Lassi man.
Without exaggeration, we yelled at him everyday for a year. Maybe longer. And without fail, he would acknowledge us. A wave, a thumb, once in a while an exasperated look.
These fellows again?
Sometimes he would point at us and start explaining to his clientele:
These school fellows simply shouting hello everyday this time. Crazy fellows. Look, that big fellow is still shouting something…
There were times a crowd of Lassi regulars would turn and wave at us – but their faces revealed they thought we were absolutely jobless.
We weren’t, you know.
In fact, it was my job to remember to give this guy a thumbs up five times a week.
When we’d get lost in other things, someone would say “Shit! We forgot that guy” and you’d know you dropped the ball. Terrible guilt when you came upon the TV tower and realized you missed the stranger. What if he saw us pass by and threw up a thumb? Getting sloppy old chap.
It was an exercise in discipline. To get him every day, for him to catch us, one of god knows how many buses on that road, for that many days in a row – was the prank in itself. Except it wasn’t even a prank now. What had begun as a playful prank had become an inside joke between strangers. It eventually turned into a legendary streak which in turn became a sort of ritual. A brief tradition, even. While I always enjoyed jokes and pranks, this was something else. Nothing beats a running joke between two people.
Today, when someone fails to run with a joke, and it happens all too often – I sometimes think of how game the Lassi man was. When I recognize a stranger making a return appearance in my daily routine, my thumb flies up in accordance with the RT Nagar Main Road tradition. But these clowns get confused. They aren’t on his level. Lassi man was up for anything, anytime. Nothing psyched him out. I’ll bet anything you could roll any creature real or fictional past his shop, and he’d wave at it and sell it a goddamn Salt Lassi.
We finally made it in there one day. And the Lassi was damn good too, by the way.
If you’re ever in the mood:
The inimitable taste of tradition. http://www.sreerajlassibar.com/