The last time he saw her, they were around 20 years old. Her lip had curled in derision when she saw him playing kabaddi along with the other village boys on the beach. He should have known then, that he couldn't expect to be anything to her but a rustic.
"But I'm going to be an engineer," he had protested silently, and could hear her retort, loudly in his head: "So what, you don't have the style!"
He knew she would be married off in the next couple of years. This village visit, he was certain, was to indulge her passion for photography, he was sure it was nothing to do with getting in touch with her roots - she was never to be found without her camera. Every little thing found its way into it - the ixora bush in his house, the haystack, the paddy fields, even the vividly painted staircase.
Though he resisted it, his parents' secret hopes began to rub off on him - that she would become their daughter-in-law, bring home a fat dowry and he would never have to worry about working hard, making money and supporting a family. Her wealth would take care of all that.
Her parents remained mute to the suggestion. She had gone abroad to study and was now a celebrated photographer. Her subjects had changed to more serious ones - ethnic conflict, migration, famine, women's empowerment. He would never have guessed it was more than a passing fancy but who was he to say? Was she as surprised to know he was no longer a dusty, rural lad but a chef in a fancy restaurant in the country's Capital, much celebrated for his innovativeness? "Simplicity, improvisation, imagination," was his favourite, oft-quoted line. Oh yes, he had learnt the English alright, he'd show her!
Would she like to join him for dinner, he'd mailed back. She said yes. Had she turned vegetarian? No, but she liked inventive vegetarian and vegan food, could he come up with some? Had her tone turned teasing? Was she testing him? Flirting with him? Did he have a chance, after all? He'd heard she wasn't married either ... His parents' unrealistic expectations for him had ensured he hadn't gotten married, but of course, they, him included, went around telling people it wasn't easy to find a girl for the likes of someone as talented as him.
He planned the menu with great care. He remembered how she had come upon a pale, coral shell on the beach and said it resembled an ice-cream cone.
Should he serve her ice-cream in a cone-shaped shell? Would she remember those rare moments of pleasantness that had passed between them when she was not being her haughty, city-bred self? The only time she had exhibited any interest in him and his family was when they had their meals - she was full of questions as to how a certain curry was made, why their rice was brown, why their food tasted better than in the city.
He planned a feast. And he served up one that was much appreciated. She asked him about his choice of a career. He lied and said he'd chosen to go into catering because it was creative, and that engineering was run of the mill. (In truth, he gave up after the second year.)
"What about you? But it's not surprising, I suppose," he said.
"Yeah," she said with a laugh. "You know me, I was a shutterbug, but somewhere along the way, I decided to combine it with a greater purpose than pure pleasure, so I specialised in photojournalism," she said. Then both fell quiet. He wanted to ask her about herself, but the gauche village boy surfaced.
"So what brings you here? Work?" he asked.
"No. Life," she said.
His heart leapt in excitement. Would there be a romance ... and marriage, at last?
"Really? What do you mean?"
"Guess! I bet you can't," she said.
"Are you coming back to these parts, hanging up your boots?"
"Not really." (So there was still hope that she COULD be hanging up her boots, after all.)
"You came here to see someone? Someone special?"
"No, no one special. Just you."
Disappointment, nay, despair, filled his heart. Thank God he had bowed his head and she wouldn't be able to make out how hurt he was.
"What is it then?" he asked, with a smile he knew was too bright, tiring instantly of the guessing game.
"You know your signature apple and paneer stew? I want the recipe," she said.
"You came all the way to meet me for a recipe?" he asked incredulously.
"Well, yes. I'm taking a break from all the tragedy I cover. My partner and I are producing a coffee table book on traditional and innovative recipes - and when I came across a mention of you somewhere on the Internet, I knew I had to have it for the book. It's too zany to go without mention," she said.
He realised he'd been nodding weakly. Partner? What sort of partner? Life partner? Business associate? Another journalist? And zany? His recipe was zany? But was any of this more cruel than her saying, "No, no one special. Just you."?
"One minute," he heard himself saying, and then he found himself printing out the recipe. He didn't hear her thank him, didn't hear her tell him how she didn't expect he would part with it so easily. All he could hear was a voice in his head saying, "This too will pass."
Disclaimer: The above piece, purely fiction, has nothing to do with the photos in this post, I just used the opportunity to show off my photographs - from my much-awaited, much-enjoyed recent vacation. It also does not have much to do with what I think of rural lads or kabaddi or the male of the species in general. I wish them the very best - but that doesn't include wives and easy money they don't deserve.
I came up with this wacky recipe this morning when I over-salted the paneer and the only thing that struck me as remedial measure, besides sugar and jaggery and amchur which I didn't want to use, was lime, and then when it didn't work, apple and some tamarind. It turned into a faintly tangy but mostly mellow dish.
Paneer, cubed: Two cups
Whole cashew nut: Four
Roasted sunflower seeds: A fistful
Onion: 1, sliced
Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tsp
Peas: 1/2-3/4 cup, boiled
Apple: 1/2-3/4 cup, diced
Watery, thin tamarind extract: 1/4 cup
Salt, turmeric and chilli powder
Soak the cashew nuts and sunflower seeds in a little water for about 20 minutes and grind to as smooth a paste as possible.
Saute the onion, then the ginger-garlic paste and then add the ground paste.
Let it cook for a while and then add the peas and paneer.
Mix well and then add the salt, turmeric and chilli powder. Add some water if it's too thick and let it boil well.
Add the apple and cook on low heat, just a tad above 'simmer'. Once you feel the apple softening, add the tamarind liquid, bring to a gentle boil and turn off the heat.
This is for Of Chalks and Chopsticks, the event created by Aqua, which I'm guest-hosting this month. Hurry up and send me your entries, the deadline has been extended to July 31.
Of Chalks and Chopsticks Vegetarian Fiction Humour Paneer Apple