A Shaggy Dog Story

K.C. Verma

(This story is taken from K.C. Verm’s second novel Stories in Khaki and Other Colours, published by Purple Peacock Books & Arts). The book is available on the site in Fiction / General section.

Elias had been waiting at tables at ‘The Palace’ for the past two years, having earlier worked in many other luxury hotels in Goa. He could generally predict what kind of food a patron would order. He could also guess quite accurately the size of the tip he would receive. He was definitely more experienced than anyone would expect a twenty-five year old to be.

“If you want to study human nature, there is no better place than an hotel,” Abbu would often say to him. “One learns so much about cheating and bigotry and hypocrisy!

“You don’t have to travel all over the world. Work in any hotel and the world shall come to you!”

Abraham had trained his son well and made sure that he had a more complete education than any that could be imparted in a school or college. He had shared all that he knew – about hotels, about life and much else. Elias thus learnt history and geography and philosophy. He became familiar with archaeology and psychology and economics. He also learnt about the finer things in life - music, literature and art. And wines and foods. His father was a storehouse of knowledge who seemed to know everything about everything.

The father and son were as close as only a son and a single father could be. Elias had always had a great sense of responsibility, even when he was in his teens. He refused to leave Goa to find a job elsewhere and stayed with his Abbu to look after him. He had now decided that he would work in the same hotel as his father, even if he had to turn down better offers.

Elias always took his father’s advice seriously. The hotels did indeed offer great opportunities to study human nature, and he genuinely liked serving the guests. It was a privilege to meet the suave businessman who not only knew his food but also his wines. The touristy kind could be very funny, trying to ‘do’ Goa in two days or less. Elias was exasperated by the upwardly mobile show-offs, with more money than sense. They would usually order a dish only because it was the most expensive on the menu. And if they were with a lady friend, they would make a big performance of placing the order – all the while declaring that the expense meant nothing to them! Elias tried not to let his contempt show when he had to wait on a table with such vulgar persons.

He pitied the gauche patron, who entered the restaurant awkwardly, ordered diffidently and who considered the silverware yet another daunting challenge in his miserable life.

He was amused by the newly married couples; honeymooning in Goa at the insistence of the family or friends. The newlyweds would be uncomfortable not just in the sudden intimacy of each other, but even in their new clothes. They remained self-conscious, presuming that everyone was staring only at them. Elias could almost read their minds as both turned beetroot red, imagining that the whole world knew how clumsily they had touched each other last night. And again this morning! He was sometimes tempted to whisper in the young husband’s ear while serving the soup, “Don’t worry. No one is bothered about you. Everyone is too busy thinking of themselves. Enjoy your honeymoon; it is the only one you might have!”

Then there were the guests who pretended to be married to each other. Elias could have advised them too about how to behave. But it was so much more fun to let them believe that they had everyone fooled. Elias hoped that they were more successful in fooling their spouses back home.

‘The Palace’ was appropriately named as far as Elias and Abraham was concerned. It was a luxury hotel – quite like dozens of others dotting the coastline of Goa. It had all the essentials – a stretch of not-so-clean beach, palm fronds, a swimming pool and a multi-cuisine restaurant. The restaurant at The Palace, grandiosely named ‘The Royal Kitchen’, was always full, even if there were no diners from the many nearby guesthouses or far away Panaji. The large number of guests staying in the hotel preferred to dine in, because the hotel cleverly offered a huge discount to them. Not infrequently, all the tables would be occupied, putting a lot of pressure on the cooks and the waiters. Abraham often joked about this.

“Elias, always remember. It is far better to be dog-tired running from one table to another rather than hanging around all day, waiting for patrons. Because that is how you lose your job!”

Abraham loved the hotel. Not just The Royal Kitchen; he loved every part of The Palace. He loved the hotel because it was so comfortable. He loved it because he earned his living here. Above all he loved the opulence – the chandeliers, the gleaming brass, the rich carpets and the tastefully decorated walls. Abraham loved the hotel with every pore of his being. He had never missed going to work, not even when he was supposed to be ‘off’. He said the hotel was his life. He said he could not live without it. And when he came home at night, he was impatient to return.

Elias too liked being in the hotel. But unlike his father; he needed to get away from the restaurant and be at home, in his own space. Every so often, he thought that his father was a grown-up brat. No one but a child would have a sense of wonder about wide staircases or clear blue water in a swimming pool.

It was strange really. They lived in a small two-room apartment. Yet, his father said that low ceilings suffocated him. He would loudly complain that the temperature was set too high – even though they had no air-conditioning in their house. The complaining, the frequent resetting of the imaginary thermostat – all of it was Abbu’s way of escaping from his small house to his palace, the hotel.

Thus Elias was a bit taken aback when Abbu said he would not go to work for a few days because he was ill. He had never known his father to be ill – not in the last twenty years. He might have fallen ill earlier, but Elias did not remember. That was when there was Ammi. She had looked after Abbu. Then suddenly Ammi was no longer there. From then on, Elias had tried to look after his father, but it was so difficult when Abbu got drunk!

It had not always been like this. Elias had vague memories of his mother. He could not recall what she had looked like, but he remembered a sense of comfort, of security, of peace. His father never talked about the old days or about his mother. Maybe he had left her. Maybe she had left him. Maybe she had died. Elias did not know. But he desperately wanted to. The only person who could tell him was his father. But Abbu always changed the subject if he ever mentioned the word ‘mother’. And he would drink much more that day.

Elias wondered why Abbu was pretending to be ill; because that is what he was doing. Others might not know it, but how could Elias be fooled?

“What is the matter, Abbu? You hardly had your usual quota of drink last night!”

But Abraham refused to be drawn into a discussion. “I need to take a few days off. I have been working too hard. Can’t I even be ill for a few days without my own son making fun of me?”

Elias went to work alone that day. Not that he always went to work with his father; there were days when they worked different shifts. But for some reason, Elias felt as lonely as he had felt in his childhood when he stayed at home while Abbu was at work.

He met the restaurant manager to tell him about Abraham not coming to work for a few days. The manager was taken aback too.

“That is unfortunate. He is the best we have. I had intended assigning him to look after a party of six, which has checked in just this morning. For some stupid reason, they call themselves the Shaggy Dogs,” said the manager.

“They are here for three days. They seem to be some big shots because the general manager himself asked me to make sure they are comfortable. Now it shall be you who will attend to them whenever they come to the restaurant. Be careful!”

When the group came for lunch, Elias straightaway categorized them as ‘puppies’ – the loud Punjabi nouveau riche. All six appeared to be in their early fifties and were clearly old friends who were meeting after a considerable while. Elias mentally dubbed them ‘the old boys’. Their back-slapping and boisterousness elicited some comment from other guests, but they did not seem to be at all concerned. He was sure they would really test his patience with their boorish ways.

His apprehensions, however, were belied and he found the old boys to be quite pleasant; even lovable. They placed their order without fuss and with authority. Everyone in the group knew exactly what he wanted. Elias had got so used to people who did not know what they wanted that he always waited a short while after taking the order. Most people changed their order at least once. Some changed it twice or even thrice. But not these men.

The old boys had all their meals in The Royal Kitchen throughout their stay and not once did any of them change an order, even as they sampled a wide selection of the menu. Elias was surprised to note that their choice of food and drink revealed not just good taste but much cosmopolitan flair. The old boys went up higher in his esteem when they refused to touch the house Port. It was somewhat disloyal on his part but he could only respect anyone who refused their Vinho do Porto because it clearly showed that the person had a good nose and an educated palate.

Their conversations were laced with colourful phrases and they seemed men who had conquered their worlds in their own ways. As far as Elias could make out, one was a politician, another was a high government official and a third was an investment banker. He could not guess the profession of two others, who appeared to have arrived from Dubai. The sixth, the loudest, was clearly a prosperous farmer from Punjab. It was his demeanour that had made Elias initially apprehensive that he was stuck with a boorish group.

The Punjab farmer was the first to speak to him, and his accent indicated a long stay in England. The rich baritone belied the thin frame.

“I say! What’s your name?”

“Sir, it is Elias D’Souza”, said Elias.

“Ilyas? How can it be Ilyas and D’Souza?”

“No Sir, my name is Elias,” he said.

“Are you sure? You look exactly like our friend Ibrahim. We called him Pugsie.”

The politician laughed. “Yes, he does look like him.”

“You are right!” said Dubai number one. “I hope you won’t mind if I call you Pugsie?”

“Sir, my name is Elias”

Unlike most visitors, this group did not indulge in any touristy activities. They did not ask where they could buy good Feni. They did not go for tours of Old Goa or spend hours on the beach in the blistering sun. Instead, they displayed a certain dignity and gravity, sitting for most of the day under the huge palm frond umbrellas; sipping their cocktails.

The hotel staff got rather used to seeing the six men; usually moving around within the hotel with an affable air or sitting in the lounge. Their presence in the lounge or veranda or by the pool was usually noted because of the laughter. They seemed to have an infinite capacity to talk and share stories. Punctuated with much backslapping and guffaws.

On their third day, Dubai number one informed Elias at the dinner table that they would be all leaving the next day. Elias smiled. “We will miss you all, Sir.”

Elias never bothered about the conversations at the tables. If it were a couple, especially a young one, there would be much whispering and giggling. If it were a family, it would be largely idle chatter, with people exchanging notes on the day’s outing and plans for the next. The Bengalis and Gujaratis usually spoke in excited outbursts, so there was no point in trying to understand what they were saying. In the same manner, Elias disregarded the tourists from Israel and Russia because they always spoke in their own languages. And he did not have to make any effort to follow what any tourist from North India was saying because it was likely to be yelled over and over.

He was quite surprised to discover that over the last few meals, he had been actually trying to pay attention to what the old boys were discussing. They seemed to exude a certain confidence and energy. Even their banter was clever.

The six men did not talk of Old Goa or the humidity or the bikini-clad foreigners on the beach. Instead they talked of other things, and Elias tried to follow their conversation as much as he could.

Half way through dinner, the Punjabi farmer suddenly stopped eating and stared at Elias. Elias could make out that he had had more than enough whiskey, because he had that peculiar look.

“I say, everyone,” declared the farmer somewhat loudly. “This chap looks like Pugsie. He was such a lively guy. I still remember that it was he who started our Shaggy Dog Club. Does anyone know where he is now?”

“I thought everyone knew! Don’t you?” asked the banker. “Pugsie married a Konkani Christian girl, much against his father’s wishes. The old Nawab Sahib was so angry, he disinherited the son. It was said that Pugsie discontinued his studies and started working somewhere. Just imagine! The rich brat had to work!”

“Yes, I met him once in Nagpur, long long ago,” said the bureaucrat. “He was working as a clerk in some office. He refused to recognise me when I called out to him. The sad thing is that he really had no skills and, without a college degree, he couldn’t get a good job. I guess this is what a royal lifestyle does to you. Too proud to beg, too unfit to work! But he was such a nice guy. And he was so rich! In school, he would always slip some money to me whenever I was running short.”

“We shared a room when we were at Pembroke,” said the banker. “Pembroke was not too well known in India then. I dare say, even now, it is not one of the more popular colleges. But we were both there and it was then that he met this nice girl. I don’t remember her name but she must have been from these parts.”

“Was she too studying at Oxford?” asked Dubai number two.

“Not as far as I knew. She came like a whirlwind and dear Pugsie never knew what hit him. Within just a couple of weeks he had married her and returned to India. It was only later that we learnt that he went to Sikandargarh, to meet his father. But the Nawab never forgave him, even though Begum Sahiba was inclined to welcome a Christian daughter-in-law to the Sikandargarh palace.”

Elias overheard snatches of the conversations and warmed up to this absent friend, Pugsie. It was clear that these six had been in school with the absent Pugsie, who seemed to have been their leader. After school they appeared to have kept in touch, but only intermittently. They must have planned much ahead to get together at The Palace; because the rooms had been reserved in the name of the Shaggy Dog Club more than a month in advance. Elias had wondered why any group would call itself the Shaggy Dog Club; much less book rooms with this name in a hotel for its members.

Late at night, when Elias returned home, Abraham was sitting before the television. Elias drew up a chair next to his father’s.

“How are you, Abbu? What did you do all day?”

“Oh, nothing! Nothing at all.”

“So how are you feeling?” he enquired.

“Much better today. I think I shall return to work tomorrow. But just now I think I have a hangover.”

“But Abbu, I have not seen you drink a single drop these last three or four days. Maybe for the first time in my life! And you say you have a hangover?”

Elias started taking his shoes off. Very slowly he untied the shoelaces.

Still bent down to untie the laces, he asked, “What is Pembroke, Abbu?”

“Why, it’s a college in Oxf….” Abraham stopped. “Why do you ask?”

Elias straightened up. He looked at his father and remained silent for some time. Then with a sigh he said, “No reason. None at all! But were you called Pugsie in school?”

“Was I called what in school? What kind of a damn fool question is that?”

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