Coffee Chronicles Episode 6: ‘Shamu’

I still remember the first time when I  heard of Shamu.

I had, as a child, read about a star orca called Shamu, with a distinct curved dorsal fin in SeaWorld, San Diego. Shamu was the first orca captured intentionally to be trained for shows. She also became a study on how captivity can affect the behaviour of  orcas, after she attacked a trainer, some four months before her death. The draw of Shamu is still so great that SeaWorld has named its show for performing orcas as the ‘Shamu Show’.

I had hence, never thought, that I would find namesake of this celebrated cetacean in India, and more so, on the office floor.

I was in the washroom, at the basin. I was splashing water onto my face, trying to rid myself of sleep when all other fluids designed to keep men awake had failed.

Suddenly there came upon the scene a gentleman whose countenance always bore an expression that can only be described as most singular. It was a very disagreeable mixture of confusion and anxiety. It gave him an air of an acute helplessness, along with his baggy trousers, squeaky sports shoes and round spectacles that seemed to be too uncomfortable being where they were.  Eyes wide, clouds of distress hovering on his forehead, I have before and since seen said gentleman walking around the floor, infecting every chair he passes with the same astounded perplexity as that nests between his brows.

I, whilst valiantly fighting off sleep and water, looked up from the basin into the mirror, seeing there the gentleman waiting at the door of the washroom, looking into the mirror as well. He then stepped forward, exclaimed, “Shamu!” and looked around. It was difficult to classify his utterance as an exclamation, for it had a distinct air of interrogation hanging over it. His striking cameo thus being exhausted, the gentleman left as suddenly as he had appeared, still calling out “Shamu, Shamu” in a tone reminiscent of the plaintive cries of the hungry hatchling of a crow on a hot afternoon. The door closed behind him, and cries of ‘Shamu’ still rang in the air in the wake of the exit of our hero, diminishing in intensity, but never in its degree of despair.

Needless to say, I was left stunned. My mind was still occupied in a struggle with a very determined slumber which threatened to overpower me in spite of the water. This incident that had happened took some time to be processed by my mind, but once done, it proved too strong a reinforcement against the wily enemy. Suddenly, I was wide awake.

I followed the dying echo of ‘Shamu’ out from the washroom and there I found the perennially surprised gentleman moving around rather unsteadily, still looking for the apparition named Shamu he had so summoned.

True to the reputation that preceded the existence of his name in my universe of awareness, Shamu remained an enigma to me for quite some time. I would sometimes hear his name being shouted here and there, never without alarm, but I would never be able to catch a glimpse of the man himself. I figured, from conversations with various people that he was an attendant, eccentric in ways and sharp of mind. However, an encounter with the man always eluded me, until that fateful day.

It had to happen in the mini-kitchen. I had gone in for a cup of cappuccino when I found that there was no milk. A man walked in, whom I had not seen on the floor before. He was short, rather unimpressive looking and had a walrus-esque moustache. He wore glasses and his mouth was curved into a permanent smirk. He had quick movements, and was very thin.

I noticed from his uniform that he was an attendant, and asked him to refill the milk. I also told him that we had run out of stirrers. A reserve stock of stirrers and cups was normally kept in the cabinet beneath the microwave oven but it was locked.

He did not say a word in reply. He first tried the cabinet, then finding it locked went out and came back again. Then he opened the top cabinets, murmuring to himself and dropping things. Then he opened the refrigerator. No doubt for the milk, I thought.

He fumbled around the shelves, and then, to my surprise and disbelief, took out a bunch of keys.

He then proceeded to open the bottom cabinet and after rummaging through all that there was, closed it. He then opened the refrigerator again, took out a packet of milk and then picked up the scissors. He had considerable difficulty making the scissors work as per his will but once his nimble fingers had tamed the beast, he cut the top of the packet and poured its contents into a bottle. Then he took the bottle and placed it inside the milk container for the coffee machine.

I realised my brain had never been conditioned to react to such rapid and varied stimuli so I just stood there observing the spectacle unfold itself before my very eyes.

Someone called out, ‘Shamu’ and the man left immediately to the call. As he left he turned around and said something which I assumed was the negative to the question writ large over my face- where on earth are the stirrers?

Thus concluded my first encounter with Shamu. I have seen him rarely since then. Whenever I have, he is always moving about. He seems to keep himself busy.

But all I could think of that day, while I was pouring the coffee from one cup to another to stir it, that Shamu lived up to the reputation that echoed ahead of him. And like his namesake, he too, is every bit the performer.

P.S.: I  walked to the washroom the other day, a problem heavy on my mind, and found Shamu there, doing his thing, standing with his back to me, his face turned sideways and buried in his  raised arm, his eyes closed in peace.

Needless to say, I hurried out.

**End of Episode 6**

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