Dirk thanked the man for the soup. He picked up the spoon, stirred the soup, then took a sip. It was hot, it was sour. It tasted like a real hot and sour soup.
Loud voices came from across to Dirk’s right. There was a table of five young locals, slightly obscured in a back corner of the restaurant. All Dirk could see was the backs of two men. They sounded drunk, but seemed to be having a good time. Fair enough, he thought. The people around here worked very hard. He was glad they got a chance to unwind.
Dirk stirred the soup and let go the spoon. It was very hot, so he turned his attention to his chai. He’d been spoiled for chai in Darjeeling, and this one was OK, but nothing special. There was too much milk and it tasted disappointingly bland. The chai in Darjeeling, along with the street food, had been the best he’d found in India. He picked up the soup spoon again. The dumplings hadn’t arrived yet. All in good time.
Outside the rapid sunset was in its final phase. The touristy streets of McLeod Ganj were already a good deal colder. The day had been quite remarkable; a blazing morning then an afternoon sun-shower, followed by a double rainbow from the valley to the snowcaps. Once the rainbows had gone, Dirk had stayed to watch the play of light and dark clouds, stretched across the rocky peaks. The altitude of the view, the contrast of the green grassed hills before the grey, snow-dusted strata of the peaks had erased his inner disquiet. Before such natural drama he could not but feel reassuringly small. He had come here to work on his patience; to get back his concentration. Not one for meditation or yoga, he was teaching himself to sit and watch.
Dirk sat and watched the drunk Tibetans. In India, people always stared at him and often approached him, but he was inclined to watch much more cautiously; sidelong glances, subtle flicks. Apart from wanting to avoid attracting attention, he was wary of offending anyone.
Two more customers entered the restaurant; a pair of Tibetan monks. They wore the deep maroon robes so prevalent in this home away from home for the Dalai Lama. Dirk felt reassured about his choice of restaurant. The new arrivals stayed in the front entrance area, near the counter, with two small wooden tables. The wooden chairs honked on the tiles as they sat down. Dirk watched them surreptitiously. He was fascinated by the local people; Tibetans, Nepalese and Ghorkas, Indians of the Himachal region, darker skinned migrants from the great Gangetic plain, all here, in the cool, clean mountains. How vast and diverse India was!
The voices of the drunken group grew louder. One of the men was clearly angry about something and banged his fist on the table, rattling the plates. They were more drunk than Dirk had originally suspected. Something was up with someone, and their mood had an urgent air.
Dirk turned away, took a sip of his soup and heard a great shout, accompanied by a crash. One of the young men was on his feet, swinging wildly, and suddenly all the others were engaged. The angry man’s chair flew back on the floor as he lunged across the table at his companions. A glass hit the deck and smashed across the tiles. The table jostled as the men all surged to defend themselves.
The angry young man – the most handsome of the bunch – tall, black-haired and with fine features now distorted by rage, threw a wild punch across the table that was dodged by his would-be victim. Another man grabbed the lunging arm and held it firm, helped a moment later by the target. The angry man was shouting loudly now; a drunken voice full of wild, impassioned rage. He was livid and convulsed with violence. The two other men got hold of his other arm, and, resisting, he thrashed about in their midst, held awkwardly across the table.
The salt cellar now hit the floor and smashed, and a moment later, another glass. The restaurant owners rushed around the corner, having been slow to react at the first crash. They saw as clearly as Dirk did how dangerous the situation was, and did not venture in, but stood watching. Dirk stood up in his chair and moved closer to the wall. He pulled the chair across in front of him and placed his back against the cold plaster. He picked up his soup and continued to sip it, watching the struggle unfold.
All the men were shouting, insisting that the man stop fighting. For a moment it seemed he might do so, and slackened slightly in their grip. Then, after a few seconds’ pause, he erupted again, thrashing his body to break free. It was a clumsy situation, with two men on one side of the table holding his right arm, and two men opposite holding his left. The angry man bent his body forward and rammed his head into the table in protest. Sweeping it from side to side, he managed not only to cut himself, but to send the remaining condiments to the floor.
Slicked now as it was with soy sauce, his feet slid on the tiles and he went down kicking, held up by the other four men. The restaurant owners were saying nothing. They must have seen how little could be done. It was simply a matter of getting the man outside without further harm to the restaurant. Yet, he was strong as an ox, and even with four men holding him, the slippery floor, the table and chairs all about made him difficult to control. They tried now to drag him towards the door, moving thus in Dirk’s direction. Dirk put his soup down and placed his hands firmly on the chair in front of him. If trouble should come his way, he wanted to be ready to defend himself. He tried to keep his face as impassive as possible; looking neither shocked nor curious. The last thing he wanted was to provoke this fellow in anyway.
Again the man tried to thrash his way out of the grasp of the four men. His eyes were red with anger and alcohol, his mouth contorted and chin hung with spittle, blood lined the crease of his frowns. He went down again, sliding to his knees, and this time took one of his minders with him. Another chair went down, and the table next to where they had been seated took a hit, sending another glass soy-sauce container to the floor. It too smashed, adding to the shards and the slipperiness. The man who had fallen cut himself on the glass and shouted angrily. He picked himself up and looked at his hand, then slammed his shoulder into the source of his woes.
The wild-man took the hit in the ribs and seemed to lose his wind momentarily. The other men holding him were talking all the while; angry and soothing, panicked and surprised. Clearly nothing they said was working, for his anger did not diminish.
They now had a good hold of him again, and were keeping him on his feet. They shifted him forward, legs kicking out at the tables. Soon they were onto dry floor, away from the tangle of chairs and tables. The angry man looked ahead at Dirk, whom he was now approaching. He stared straight into his eyes, his rage seemingly magnified, and shouted:
Dirk stood flat and square against the wall and let no emotion cross his face. He did not want eye-contact with the man, but he needed to know exactly what he was doing and was compelled to watch him closely. Finally his captors got him past Dirk’s table and into the entrance area. The Tibetan monks had vanished; having slipped out whilst Dirk’s eyes were elsewhere. The owners of the restaurant, three local men, stood calmly shaking their heads. They seemed more disappointed than anything else; clearly they were wise to human nature.
The group of drunken men now spilled out onto the street. The shouts continued for a moment longer, accompanied by scuffles, then vanished into the quickly cooling night. Perhaps the air would work to heal their tempers. Dirk wondered about the offence and scale of regret.
He looked at the owners and shrugged. He felt sorry for them and had a strange desire to apologise, but merely smiled in sympathy, shaking his head. The demon drink, he thought. The demon drink. He had witnessed such rages before, and had some years ago given up on alcohol as the source of too many woes. Having worked for several years as a barman, he had seen too much folly and bravado to have any time for alcoholics.
The owners moved in to begin the clean up. They worked slowly, almost timidly, still shaken by the incident. No one returned to offer recompense, nor assist with the mess. Dirk stepped forward to offer his help, but one of the men waved him back to his chair.
“Your soup is cold,” was all he said. “This is our problem.”
Dirk hovered a moment, then bent to pick up a chair and straighten a table. The man smiled at him and shook his head, before another man appeared with his dumplings.
“Eat,” said the man. “Eat.”
Cold air blew in from the doorway as the Tibetan monks returned. Dirk felt the wind go right through him, to the sadness he had been trying to fill with majesty. In the night, with the view now invisible, he must instead fill the hole with food.
He sat down and began once more to eat.