Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Everybody Loves A Happy Ending - Of Chalks & Chopsticks
When the sweet-faced teenager navigating a shopping cart in the narrow aisle asked her to “excuse me, Aunty”, she turned and stared. “I’m not your aunty,” she told him severely, and as he watched the boy’s face fall, Amar turned away and smiled to himself, but not without some exasperation.
Why couldn’t she let things go? Did she have to kick up a fuss all the time? And it wasn’t as if she wasn’t of Aunty-age, after all … As if she had heard him, she came up to him, wagged a finger and said, “I’m Aunty only to my niece and my friends’ kids, not to every Tom, Dick and Harry in the supermarket.”
Amar knew the quality of the time they would be spending together would deteriorate rapidly if he continued the conversation. They had lost enough time, and he wasn’t prepared to let her slip through his hands yet again.
It struck him that this behaviour was a pattern - he’d say something, she would respond, and a few lines later, he would shut up, for fear of putting her off. When he had finally gathered the courage to tell her he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her and did not shut up easily, it hadn’t worked.
They had spent hours in the miserable canteen, eating those erosive, grey dosas and a chutney which tasted like it had been fermented with great deliberation. Often, the cook would draw off a line of sweat from his forehead with his thumb and flick it off nonchalantly, and continue frying his work of art. Amar had gotten inured to the sizzle of sweat on the canteen-sized tawa but the day she noticed this was the last day both of them ate dosa there.
“Good riddance, at least now you won’t go after those dirty dosas!” she had said, and he looked at her, astonished. Wasn’t it for her that he had gotten used to those foul pancakes, hadn’t it been she who had declared, in that opinionated style of hers, that nothing else in the canteen was worth eating, and how could any sentient human being eat anything but those?
Amar smiled at the memory. Then there was that incident where she had railed, raved and ranted for an entire week because “that debauched lowlife” had asked her to go out with him. He had been pleased, of course, but pretending to be a selfless friend, he’d egged her on gently. “You shouldn’t be so inflexible, he might be worth it, so what if he smokes and drinks a bit?” he’d said.
“Other things aside, did you know kissing a smoker is like licking an ash-tray?”, she’d retorted, and he’d felt himself go red. He didn’t want to ask how she knew - was it from the funny sticker with that line they had laughed at in the gift shop or did she really have some experience …
When Amar looked back on those four years that they’d worked together, his eyes would twinkle at the memories. Maybe he shouldn’t have given up so easily - at least that’s how it felt, though he had then believed he had tried enough.
His mind cast back to the day he had invited her for dinner, all ready with the proposal. He knew she loved good food. Was that the way to her heart? Would a sizeable chunk of velvety rich chocolate cake have her eating out of his hand? Amar caught himself laughing at the incongruity of it - people would have you believe that was the way to a man’s heart, and here he was, wondering whether it would work in her case. Ask her, and she would be certain to say the surest way to a man’s heart is through his chest!
She was bad at remembering birthdays, so he could pretend it was his birthday soon, ask her over for a home-cooked meal and ask her how she felt about him. Thus a Saturday evening three weeks later found him cooking up a storm in his apartment. His roommate had made himself scarce but he had had to keep the door open to let the neighbours, and her, know there would be no hanky panky …
He arranged the meal with great care. He knew of her love for salads, so he’d made a salad of French beans topped with grated hard-boiled eggs. He’d scoured the cookbooks for an exotic recipe and put together another salad made with roasted sweet potatoes, carrots and crunchy, raw chow chow. He knew she liked unusual combinations of ingredients, and he hoped he’d got it, get it, right with this one. This salad had its origins in Brazil. (Now that would be an interesting place to honeymoon in!) Then there was a shrimp and avocado salad. How he had tended to the avocados, pressing them gently everyday to see if they would give just that little bit, had attained the perfect stage of ripeness! Then, for dessert, there was rich chocolate cake, and bread pudding with chunky, bitter marmalade.
She was right on time, with two bottles of non-alcoholic wine in hand. (She had to do that even for his birthday, didn’t she, stick to her no-booze principles!) She pushed the door a little wider open, and made herself comfortable in the sofa.
There was no conversation for a few minutes, then he switched channels and a rain dance from a popular movie came on, patches of the heroine showing through her wet, transparent clothes as she and the hero, wig and false moustache askew under all that water, whirled and twirled around each other. She launched into a diatribe on “exploitative film-makers and ageing, randy heroes” and “heroines who didn’t know any better”. Not the mood he intended to set at all - he jumped up, went into the kitchen, served the tomato soup - and changed the channel. He asked her how her day had gone and managed to steer the conversation to the food.
They ate leisurely, discussing the food, especially the Brazilian salad. She had talked non-stop, had something to say about everything: Chow chow! Really? I can’t believe you used it in a salad, and I can’t believe it doesn’t taste crappy; The sweet potatoes don’t really do it for me, though, maybe you didn’t roast them well enough; That’s grated egg? I thought it was coconut!; I love shrimp, but I dislike the smell of fish; You’d have made a great chef, Amar, maybe you should write a cookbook one day! She ate the last of the chocolate cake and the bread pudding, lapping up every crumb, licking the spoon clean as he looked on fondly.
They went back to the living room, the clock had just struck nine. He offered mints, she didn’t want any. He placed the dish of mints on the table, took a deep breath and leant towards her.
“Deepti, I need to ask you something,” he said.
“Ask away,” she said, eyes fixed on the TV.
“Look at me, it’s serious,” he said.
“Okay, what?” she said, turning to face him.
“Let’s get married,” he said, bluntly, even as he wondered how he’d managed to strip the moment of all romance.
But her reaction puzzled him. She didn’t look delighted, nor did she look offended. She smiled, rather sadly. “I can’t, Amar, I’m not the marrying type,” she said.
“Why not?” he asked. “I’m quite a good catch,” he joked, knowing how it burned her up that traditionally it was the man who was supposed to be the prize.
“Oh, stop joking, Amar! I’m serious. I’m not sure I won’t get bored with the whole thing. And I don‘t like the gender imbalance in a marriage.”
“Gender imb …? Listen, you know you won’t have to bother about that with me. And we love spending time with each other, don’t deny that.”
“Yes, Amar, but we aren’t married yet, that’s why. Marriage kills romance and friendship, and I would hate to hate you,” she said, getting up and collecting her things. “Thanks for dinner, I’ll see you Monday.”
He couldn’t persuade her, though he tried over the next few weeks. Then family circumstances forced her to move back home, and any hope that he had of convincing her died slowly. He didn’t think he could ever look upon her as merely a friend …
But here they were again. He looked the same, but there was a fair sprinkling of grey in his hair. She had greyed too, but her haircut did a good job of masking it. In the same city for the last three years, and neither had known, till they ran into each other in the supermarket. There was only the slightest hesitation before they’d enveloped each other in warm hugs. They had abandoned their shopping, gone down to the cafeteria and caught up with their lives over a cup of coffee, till the waiter finally interrupted them to say it was past 10 p.m. and closing time. The manager looked at them pointedly - the bill wasn’t proportionate to the amount of time they had spent there - and they hightailed it out of there, suppressing laughter and vowing not to go back for a while.
Neither had found a partner, Deepti because she had had no reason to believe her reasoning was wrong (“just look at my friends, caught in a rut, stuck in monotonous matrimony, I enjoy my solitude”) - and Amar because he believed it was wrong to look for a ‘next best’ when he still missed Deepti. Two decades had taken the edge off the ache, but seeing her - and her warm reaction - had rekindled hope.
Two months later, he was again cooking a meal for her, to celebrate her getting a raise and a new assignment at work. She still loved salads, but was going easy on the puddings, she said. And she had allowed him to pick up a bottle of wine, though she wouldn’t drink any. Had she mellowed at least a little bit? You wouldn’t think it given the way she had glared at that boy in the store. And to their utter amazement, the Golden Oldies programme on TV was playing the very same rain dance that had made her erupt the last time they ate together.
“Switch off that darn thing, Amar!” she yelled, even as he scrabbled for the remote control, “I can’t believe this revolting song is haunting us again!” Silence reigned for a while as both of them fell quiet.
Looking at her watch, Deepti got up. “I’ll leave now,” she said.
“Not so fast!” he said, reaching for her hand. “Let’s get married, I’m still a good catch.”
“So’s a haul of smelly fish,” she said, with a straight face, even as she took his hand in hers.
This goes off to Desi Soccer Mom who is hosting Of Chalks and Chopsticks, Aqua's brainwave.
This story is for all of you who were disappointed with the not-so-happy ending in the previous story.
The grated egg salad is here.
The shrimp and avocado salad is here.
And the salad that did not do its intended job, of getting Deepti to say yes to Amar's first proposal (do you think it was because he was clueless, which guy would woo a girl with chow chow anyway?), will come later. Until then, sweet dreams!
Of Chalks and Chopsticks Food fiction Humour Romance