by Srinjay Chakravarti
There is one such bistro in every city in the world, but finding it—ah! now that's another matter altogether.
You might—just might—find yourself in front of it one rainy evening in autumn, when the asphalt on the streets is wet and glassy, and the sidewalks are slick with twilight. It might be serendipity that brings you there, or sheer happenstance.
You arrive there, after having roamed the empty streets redolent with ennui, with the crisp rustle of dried leaves under your feet and a crackle of discontent, like the static on your car radio, deep inside your eardrums.
You think you've never noticed this café before—a small nondescript dimly lighted joint, anonymous in its seedy appearance and its name indecipherable in faded lettering on the board above its entrance.
You drift inside, just like the other patrons who had seeped into the bistro through its door earlier in the evening, and now sit around at the tables disconsolately, nursing their drinks.
Inside, however, you find it's warm and comforting. You take one of the upholstered leather seats, a nice neutral tone of burgundy, and pick up the menu card.
"What will it be this evening, sir?" whispers the lugubrious waiter who has suddenly materialised next to you, quite startling you.
You are more astonished, however, by the fact that he seems to recognise you.
"Oh! Well, um, let's see, how about this—this, uh, . . . , um. . . "
"May I recommend a refreshing glass of fresh lime soda, sir, to start with?" says your waiter in sepulchral tones, unnerving you further.
"Oh! Oh, yes, sure. Of course!"
The lime soda, which comes soon enough, is sweet with the tang of fresh summers and sunny skies, flavoured with just a soupçon of rain, and as you let its savour soak into your tastebuds, a soft feeling of mild intoxication creeps over you.
Without you even realising it at all, imperceptibly, the most painful memories of the past few weeks start evaporating from your brain: leaving behind a pleasant drowsy languor, the mild sensation of the surf leaching sand away beneath your feet at a beach where you are again thirteen years old.
Now that your glass is empty, you sigh contentedly and look up. And there is that selfsame elderly gentleman before you again, as immaculate as Jeeves himself, intoning in his measured cadences: "I trust you enjoyed your fresh lime soda, sir. May we move on to the café au lait?"
You nod, dreamily, not feeling it worthwhile to reply. In the twinkling of an eye your tongue is relishing the rich warm berries of a verdant mountainside, the heavy chocolate earth mingling the aroma of its fertility in sweetened milk, fragrances from a distant plantation in the Nilgiris wafting slowly up your nostrils with each measured sip—aaah!—that delights even as it overpowers your senses.
By this time the feeling of delicious forgetfulness is so deep and heavy on your temples that you hardly notice that even the most bitter and most painful of all your losses have swirled away like mist in the coffee steam, leaving behind only a residuum of happiness, soft and fluffy as cotton wool, a detritus, as it were, of beatific lassitude.
Which is why, even though it seems rather odd that a cup of hot tea should come next, you fall in gracefully with his suggestion that a little Japanese ceremony "would not be out of place here".
Soon on a lacquered tray arrives little pale blue bowls of porcelain, orthodox thurbo Darjiling delicately ravelling your nostrils with the finest aromas of Pleasure Valley. You take sip after sip of that scented liquid slowly, revelling in that almost frivolous fragrance which engenders feelings of melancholy in your brain that you somehow seem to quite enjoy.
The elegant ritual of tea drinking lingers on while the deepening crepuscular violet outside the café paints the pavements as does the ochre of mellow streetlamps, the minutes slipping away like the rustle of bamboo leaves in winter moonlight.
Quite suddenly, though, the waiter reifies in front of you with a hand mirror. "What do you see in this looking glass, sir," he enquires gently.
"Huh?" You look up at him, befuddled, then glance at the mirror. Why, you see the walls, the subdued fluorescent lighting, the upholstered seats, the print of a Degas ballerina on the wall next to you. . . And you see yourself, of course, in the mirror, looking pale and weary, but blissful. But now that you come to think of it. . .
"Well, I can see—yes, everything that's around here, the teacups, the pewter teapot, the decanters, the ashtray—and, of course, myself. But yes, it's all a little hazy. I think my own face is getting slightly blurred, too—as if I'm looking at it from inside a dark dream."
He looks at you fixedly, then lets out a sharp hiss. The ceiling lights glint off his bald pate. "It'll take a little more time, sir, but don't worry, the cure is almost complete."
Cure? What cure? You wonder, looking around at the other patrons, as if for an answer. But they are all preoccupied with their own troubles and their own whiskies and beers.
You don't have much time to pause and think it through, though. Within a few moments the waiter has produced the absinthe, and you watch fascinated as it turns milky while he carefully adds water to it.
You don't hesitate, but drain it a gulp.
"More!" you say, with a grimace.
More wormwood appears.
This time it takes a little longer, but you feel the spray from time's atomiser slowly vanishing from your face, the sea breeze taking away the last spindrift of your adolescence and childhood as the boat you are in pulls away from shore.
A faint stirring of exhilaration ruffles the surface of your imagination, tugging at the moorings of your feet to the floor. You feel light-headed, you feel even—yes, you are giddy.
But it is only when he says, (peremptorily this time), "Now for the aperitif, sir," that you realise how you have forgotten almost everything that you held dear to yourself, the planes and angles of your daughter's face, the contours of your wife's nude body, the arc of the basketball in the college quadrangle, the jerk of the fishing line in your hands, the smell of crushed pine needles in your hair, the cascade of adrenaline behind you eardrums during your first ride on a swing in the children's park—you find that you can't recall any of these clearly any more.
You realise, too late, that you have succumbed to the narcotic of amnesia—and worse, you have even lost your homing signal.
Still, you console yourself, there are things that you still remember. You remember, for instance, that there was this waiter who served you—and before you can say "Hey!" that sinister steward is by your side again. He lifts you up by the arms, none too gently, and takes you, staggering, to a full-length mirror at the end of the carpeted aisle.
"What do you see now, sir?" he smiles with a superciliousness that would have been quite annoying if you weren't so distracted.
"I can—I can see—everything—I can see you. . ." you whisper, "I can see the chairs, the tables, the aisles—the carpets and the upholstered seats, the mirrors—the paintings and murals on the walls—it's very strange, I can see everything, but I can't see myself!"
You turn around to him with a shudder. The waiter smiles broadly, almost genially. "Welcome to Café Amnesia, sir!"
Your brain is like quicksand, into which memories are disappearing rapidly, whirling into a bottomless pit. And you look down at your hands, and find they are shaking.
He leads you back, his hand firm under your arm, your feet unsteady with vertigo. He makes soothing noises, but you can sense the insincerity behind every word: "Don't worry, sir, you're perfectly all right, the cure is almost complete. Just a little sip of our special sherbet now, and you'll find you have forgotten all your troubles. Here, sir, take this glass. . ."
You are too distrait to even notice what you are drinking. You take the glass from his hand and sip cautiously. At first it tastes sickeningly sweet, then it is mildly dizzying, and finally it is totally numbing.
The savour is elusive, exquisite, and recondite—rather like a ghostly bouquet that haunts your tongue, a taste that makes you forget taste itself.
You realise that you are without your passport of your self, on which your visas of memories were stamped, in an alien land where everything and everyone is foreign, even your own body, your own hands and feet and face and clothes.
You can no longer remember who you are or where you came from, but at least you know what you're doing—though it is more like a succession of reflexes and a gestalt of primordial instincts.
You try to get up, now groggy with loss of memory and sensation, but it is as though you are wading through a sticky fog. Yet, the selfsame steward again pushes you down firmly on to the seat.
"No, it isn't over yet," he tells you brusquely.
You seem to remember, then, that something still needs to be done—oh, yes! you need to pay for your drinks. When you fumble for your wallet, he exclaims, "No, no, you don't have to worry about that, sir, the bill's been paid for already."
But the panic rushes in only when you see your waiter, smiling grimly, pop open the champagne cork and pour the bubbly into the tall crystal glass before you. In your desperation, you struggle with yourself, but find yourself gulping down the fizz, gasping as it hits where it hurts the most—a final core of realisation that you've lost all that you had. You have forgotten which city this is, where your home is, what your name is—you are just a shell, a hollow mannequin of a man.
The waiter now leads you to the door, his face an impassive mask embroidered with the sneer of a grin, rather like a death's head, and he scornfully propels you out of the café.
You are now desperate to leave this wretched place, this oh-so-warm-and-comfortable café, with its muted mauve lighting and delicate string music, scented with moonlit roses and chiaroscuroed with velvet shadows, where you come to lose whatever you have gained so far in your life.
You stumble out into the street, where a mild rain is still gossiping with the gutters, and you lurch forward, your head fuzzy and grey at its edges.
Seven weeks, your wife tells you later, seven weeks you spent at the hospital. And a few more days after that at home, recovering from the effects of what the doctors described as a "severe concussion". In the meantime your firm has lost three clients, five contracts, and an expensive lawsuit.
All you can tell your boss at the office, who stares disbelievingly at you, that "there was this café. . . "
But where was it? On which street, in which quarter of this vast city, replete with secrets and mysteries?
For the first few weeks, convalescing at hospital, while the memories start resurfacing, bit by bit, you dread the prospect of going near that café—The Café With No Name—and a horrible nausea grips you whenever you think of that loathsome waiter, his leering face staring at you from out of your nightmares. It is as if his features have been stamped deep inside your temporal lobes.
But gradually, as the wounds heal, your mind goes back to that autumn evening, when the sky was a parchment on which you had scribbled your glyphs of oblivion and had let the clouds wash them away with perfumed rain—and you wonder.
You wonder how it would be like to revisit the café, where you went to lose all that you had gained, absolutely gratis, because "it had been paid for by someone else"—who could it have been, by the way?
So you sometimes go wandering around the less familiar streets of this metropolis, into strange uncharted territories of dockyard or slum or ghetto, this unfamiliar boulevard or that unknown red-light district—hoping against forlorn hope that you might pick up a clue where that café—The Café With No Name—might still lie.
Till at last the pain starts to sear your throat, just the way acid burns metal, and you begin to yearn more and more, desperately now, for those elixirs of forgetfulness, which would heal all your loss and take away all that you have gathered so far. And you start hunting all over for that mysterious café, ready to give anything in the world to go back there again, to taste once again its bittersweet opium of amnesia.
And you keep searching for the rest of your life, not knowing that you can visit the Café Amnesia only once in a lifetime.
For, don't you know, even if you found it again, you wouldn't be able to recognise it.
Story Copyright © 2009 by Srinjay Chakravarti. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Srinjay Chakravarti is a 36-year-old journalist, economist, writer and translator based in Salt Lake City, Calcutta, India. He lives there with his wife and his parents.
His poetry has been published in numerous journals worldwide, and much of it is available on the Internet. He has won one of the top prizes in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Poetry Competition 2007-08.
He has recently branched out into short fiction: 'Café Amnesia' is his first story written in a magic realist mode. His journalistic columns have ranged from the arcana of Kondratiev cycles to the darker matters of astrophysics.