Vishnu Sandwich Stall by Altaf Tyrewala

The problem is, there isn’t just one sandwich vendor outside the gate of this office complex, there are five of us. Five overweight, middle-aged men vying for the patronage of an ever-decreasing clientele.


To make matters interesting, the five of us are brothers. Better yet, we hate each other. We despise each other. We want to squirt green chutney into each other's eyes and toast one another's testicles.


Two things prevent us from rioting on this footpath every day. One: Other vendors who interleave between our five booths, thereby serving as barriers against each other and as channels for our taunts. Two: A clear-cut warning from the security head of the office complex: 'I am sick of sending my men to breakup your breakouts. One more fight and I will evict all five brothers from this footpath.'


We brothers haven’t fought in months. The glares and name-calling have sunk to abysmal depths. Urgent requests for change to appease impatient customers – previously merely refused – are turned down with a ferocity bordering on fratricide.


It is lunchtime right now and the air is viscous with malice. We brothers want nothing to do with one another, and nor with each other’s customers. If you have eaten from, stopped at, or even mulled over the sandwich-stands of Hari, Om, Jai, or Shiv, I will not serve you. Even if you are dying, even if you and I are the last people on this planet and a sandwich from my booth is all that’s left between you and starvation, you will not be served. My customers know it, all our regulars know it, and today lunchtime has passed off smoothly. That is, up until now.


'Seth,' my sidekick murmurs. I turn my head. I see two unfamiliar men approaching our footpath. With five sandwich-stands to pick from, they seem confused. I drop the bread I am buttering. 'Make the sandwich,' I whisper to my sidekick. I wipe my hands on my trousers. My heart beats faster. I eye my brothers. They, their sidekicks and their customers eye me.


'Saaandweeeeeess…' the war cry goes up, and all five of us simultaneously charge towards the two men. The commercial neighbourhood comes to a startled standstill. The two potential customers first freeze, then grab each other’s arms, and as the five of us draw closer, the two turn around and start running.


'Come back sirs!' I shout.


'My sandwich is best!' Om shouts.


'No, mine is best!' Shiv and Hari shout.


We run like bulls. We chase the two men to the end of the street and would have chased them to China had Jai not abruptly turned around and started running in the opposite direction. Not trusting our brother with our booths or our customers, we also make an about-turn. Jai slows to a jog, and then a trot. The four of us follow suit. Our sandwich-stands are just across the street.


'All your fault!' Hari says to Om. There we go.


Om removes a tattered stamp paper from his shirt pocket. He still carries it around after all these years. 'See, see your stupid signature,' Om says to Hari, 'don’t forget, you also signed the document.'


Jai makes a face at me, ‘You signed it first, didn’t you? Are you happy now?’

It’s true: I was the first to bequeath Uncle my share of our father’s fortune. But how was I to know that Uncle was lying. He said once everyone had assigned their share to him, he would make me the sole heir to father’s estate. 'We all fell for it, we all signed the document,' I say.


Shiv points to Om and says, 'He should have known better; he’s the eldest!'


We return to our respective sandwich-stands. The thought of Uncle lording it over our estate in Bhagalpur makes my eyes smart. I slap my assistant. 'Why aren’t the tomatoes sliced?' Jai and Om slap their assistants too. What we have come to: from moneyed Bihari brats to quarrelsome Mumbai hawkers. It’s good our parents aren’t around to see this state we’re in.


A short, curly-haired, underweight woman comes up to my sandwich-stand. 'How much for plain vegetable sandwich?' she asks.


'Ten rupees,' I say.


'I’ll have one,' she says. I bring out two bread slices.


'Put extra butter,' she says.


'And extra chutney!’


‘What are you doing? Put some more tomato! And some more potato. More beet, more beet.'


I am almost done, but she isn’t. 'Bhaiya, can you put an extra bread slice on top?'


I wrap the sandwich in two pages of an old magazine. The cheapo pays me ten rupees – for a sandwich that should cost at least fifteen – and walks away without so much as a thank you.



Altaf Tyrewala is the author of No God in Sight, Penguin India, 2005, Ministry of Hurt Sentiments, HarperCollins India, 2012 and Engglishhh, HarperCollins India, 2014, and the editor of Mumbai Noir, Akashic Books, 2012, a crime fiction anthology. His works have been published around the world and translated into numerous foreign languages. He lives in Mumbai.