I was struggling to find a story for this week, when, while rummaging through what I’d already written, I found the story I wrote with a lot of heart. I write all stories with a lot of heart, but this one was different. While reading the responses for it, I decided to continue the story, even though I am a little too pressed for time. Be gentle, reader, for my heart will have to race through the continuum of this story.
Bhopal’s winter begins with timidity, some hesitation, but increases its vigour as weeks dissolve. The morning nip gently embraces the skin’s warmth, the air lends crispness to all things around. It is beautiful. For Shivani, it was even more delightful, because Jack was coming back to India after two years of their accidental introduction during a train journey. Two years? She never failed to stop at the irrelevant number. It seemed as if she had known him for as long as she’d known herself. How wonderful it is to find someone you didn’t even know you were looking for?!
“Didi, cooker chada doon?” The cook was asking unnecessary questions, as she was wont to whenever they were expecting guests. Of course she should put the bloody pressure cooker on the stove! High time, too.
“Haan, Lata,” she mumbled while kneading special dough for the onion paranthas she had planned to serve Jack and his wife Cathy. During their numerous email conversations and text chats, Shivani and Jack had learnt much more about each other and themselves than they would ever reveal to anyone else. That Jack onion paranthas would probably be a common knowledge, but the tiny detail that he liked a little milk in the dough to make the paranthas a tad softer was maybe privileged knowledge. Maybe it wasn’t, but Shivani treated it like a secret only known to those who know.
Dough done, she carefully put a damp muslin over it, and went on to check on the pressure cooker Lata had reverently put on the stove. Shivani wasn’t a good cook, but she was a particular one, and she made sure the cook she’d hired to help find some free time for her landscaping projects respected the things she was particular about. Like the rajma should never be boiled on its own. Let the onions look like they’ve been sauteed with love. Clear, pink, mushy. Put the rajma, and then pressure cook. Lata, if left to her own devices, would do the other way round, ruining the entire dish. But she couldn’t let that happen, could she?
Never. Leastways today.
The phone rang when she was least expecting it, and it shook her a little. Phone calls shook her a little or a lot ever since she had received that fateful call telling her about her parents’ accident. She had put it behind her, but it had become like a long shadow that follows you when you face the sun. She ran to the mobile phone, leaving the flour uncleaned on the platform, the kitchen wipe in her hand.
This time it was Anant, her husband.
“Do you need anything for tonight?”
“Yes. Vanilla essence. I forgot to tell you I’d changed my mind about the dessert. I’m experimenting tonight,” she chirped.
“When will you stop experimenting? It can be torturous.”
“Can be, but isn’t always.”
“What are you planning to make? Should I eat it?”
“Your wish. Caramel custard with sooji halwa,” she said.
“What? Are you out of your mind?”
“Well. You know me,” Shivani ground the napkin in her hand.
Anant asked questions when she wished he’d listen. He pretended to listen when she wanted some curiosity from him. Conversations with him were bolstered with the immense love they had for each other, nothing else.
She chucked the now-shredded napkin in the rubbish bin, and said, “I need to get going. What time will you be home?”
“Six tops. Think again about the dessert!”
The sabzi was going to be methi-matar-malai. Fenugreek greens with peas and fresh cream. Though Jack was a vehement vegetable-hater, Cathy liked peas a lot, he’d told her. Both were vegetarians, but one loved vegetables, while the other was looking for something to like in them. Or had given up. Shivani had argued with Jack a number of times about the logic of disliking vegetables in reverence to his very-active sensory perceptions. She insisted like a harried teacher that he at least give them a chance. Neither had been able to convince the other.
Shivani was beginning to get worried about the dessert combination now. She already knew that it was a weird combination. But she liked weird. Jack did, too. Did Cathy? Anant didn’t. Would Jack like things this weird? No one must have thought of serving caramel custard with the crumbly, sweet semolina very-Indian dessert. But this is how brilliant things are invented! Surely the rich, bitter-sweet mush of the custard must taste interesting with the crumbly, graininess of the halwa? And the gentle winter will add to the intensity. Yes, she’d serve the combo. Critics be damned.
The food was almost ready. Lata had done a good job helping her. They’d make paranthas around 6:30. The guests were expected around 7.00. Shivani had enough time to bathe, and then sit with the window to look at her garden in its 5 o’clock best.
That’s when the phone rang again.
“Hello, dadu,” she said, recognising the number of her parents’ long-serving, loyal housekeeper. He still lived in their house, keeping it safe and maintained until they found a buyer for it.
“Beti, aaj tumhari photo dekhin. Bahut purani wali. Socha phone kar loon,” dadu said. He’d found a stack of old photos of her and wanted to talk to her.
“Accha dadu? Kaun si?” She was curious to know which ones.
She smiled. Their holiday in Kashmir years back had been like a trip to wonderland.
“Tum badli nahin. Har photo mein tumne dono pair mein alag-alag moze pahne hain,” he informed her, and laughed. She laughed with him. The pressure cooker seemed ready to be opened and inspected, so she told him that she’d call him back later. Probably in the morning, since she was expecting someone for dinner.
“Thik hai beti. Khush raho,” remain happy, child, he said, and hung up.
She smiled again at the thought of familiarity. Dadu had become her link to the past, to her own self, since her parents’ death. Now that he’d mentioned about her not having changed at all, she felt comfort in knowing that someone knew, and accepted. He’d told her that in all the pictures, she was wearing mismatched socks. Wrong combination.
She was still smiling when she came to sit by the window after her bath. Sipping her favourite mint tea, she looked at the marigolds outside and thought about how much her friendship with Jack had enriched her. In the two years they had known each other, they had exchanged thoughts, ideas, fears, dreams, crabbiness, love, hate, back-biting. She loved him like a friend, she loved him like a companion. It was miraculous to have found such a friendship that had developed in spite of the long distances between them. Perhaps it had developed because of the distance.
With Anant, she had made a home; with Jack, she’d found the enrichment to furnish it. How lucky she was! Or was she? Would she be allowed this secret love for two? Even though in her heart she knew just where each love began and ended? Is there a beginning and end to a love? She was weird, perhaps.
The bell rang and she went to let Anant in. She sometimes wished Indian couples kissed hellos and goodbyes like the couples they showed in western movies. It sort of built love. But Anant thought it was inconsequential. Just a touch here or there, now or later, was enough. He pushed out a lock of hair from cheek, and went to the kitchen for some water and to keep the vanilla essence on the breakfast table.
“You haven’t changed your mind, have you?”
“Well, you can usually pull off weird. Let’s see what happens tonight.”
“Yup,” she said and got busy with the eggs.
Jack and Cathy arrived with a big bunch of tuberoses, Anant’s favourite. Shivani took one look at Jack and her heart stopped at the thought of how much they had shared. Jack smiled at her and hugged her for what seemed like a fraction of a second, and an eternity all at once.
“These two are impossible, don’t you think?” Cathy said to Anant.
“I think they are possible,” quipped Anant and laughed with the rest.
Didi, cooker chada doon? – Didi, should I put the cooker on the stove?
Haan, Lata – Yes, Lata.
parantha – flat bread cooked in oil.
rajma – kidney beans
sooji halwa – semolina (cream of wheat) sweet. A little like thick paste.
sabzi – vegetable
methi-matar-malai – fenugreek-peas-cream
Beti, aaj tumhari photo dekhin. Bahut purani wali. Socha phone kar loon – Child, I saw your photos. Very old ones. Thought I’d speak with you.
Accha dadu? Kaun si? – Really, dadu? Which ones?
Tum badli nahin. Har photo mein tumne dono pair mein alag-alag moze pahne hain – You haven’t changed. You’re wearing mismatched socks in every picture.
Thik hai beti. Khush raho – All right, child. Keep happy.