Fiction: DREGS

Lakshmi Kannan

 

Sheila looked out of the window in her bedroom. The Canterbury Cathedral glowed with a coppery pink light in the half darkness of dawn. How fortunate I’m to see this hallowed ground the first thing in the morning, she thought.

She recalled her visit to the Cathedral as soon as she arrived in Canterbury. The majestic sweep of the arches, the classic symmetry, and hanging like gossamer, a certain brooding grandeur that spoke of the tragic history wrapping around it. Silently, she stood at the eastern crypt that was believed to have the remains of Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was assassinated by the knights of King Henry II even while the vespers were going on. Soon after, he was canonized as Saint Thomas of Canterbury by Pope Alexander III. According to history, the king did penance in the lower crypt. It sent a shiver through her body.

Then, as now, the tussle between religious institutions and political powers continue unabated. Sheila went to her living room and opened the window. A steady drizzle of snow fell on the bushes, trees and walkway.

 Oh no! Today being Sunday, she had planned to walk up to the big departmental store, and then walk beyond to the small Asian shop that sold a few Indian things. Luckily, she had bought some extra grocery the last time she went shopping.

 Let me cook something simple and get on to writing the papers I’ve to present at the universities of Leeds and Hull, she thought. From tomorrow she would be sucked into the week-long academic program of the University of Kent.

 After a shower and prayers, she was about to enter the kitchen when she heard the phone.

 ‘Hello’.

 ‘Good morning Madam, how’re you?’ said a voice in Tamil.

 ‘Fine. Who’s on the line?’ she asked, in Tamil.

 ‘Arunagiri, Madam. Remember, we met briefly in our Residence Hall? You had come to see somebody, Miss Betty…?’

 ‘Betty Cunningham, that’s right. How’re you Mr. Arunagiri?’

 ‘Just call me Giri, Madam. Do you also remember my friend Raman, Sundara Raman, who was with me?’

 ‘Ah…yes, now that you mention.’

 ‘Both of us thought of visiting you today, Madam, being a Sunday. From tomorrow, all of us will get busy.’

 ‘Very sorry, Mr. Giri. I too will get busy with the departmental program from tomorrow. Also, I’ve to prepare for my talks.’

‘Oh. Madam, you see, our tongue is dead,’ he said in Tamil.

 ‘What!’

‘Yes,’ he repeated in Tamil. ‘Naaku setthupoivittadhu’, meaning his palate was as good (or as bad) as dead, for he had lost all sense of taste. ‘The food in the Residence Hall is so bland and insipid that we just don’t feel like eating at all. We stay hungry, not knowing what to do. I’m longing to return to Chennai in another ten days. I’m fed up of bread and butter,’ said Arunagiri, sounding heartsick.

So, that’s the reason he called, mused Sheila. First, when they met at the Residence Hall, it was the pleasure of talking in their mother tongue. Now the same tongue has ‘gone dead’ and is craving for ‘proper’ food.

Sheila thought of the advantages she had, as an invited Resident Writer for a longer term. She was given a nicely furnished two-bedroom flat, a kitchen and a dining area. A housekeeper was assigned to clean up her flat three times in a week. Arunagiri seems to have adossieron her already, with details about her program and accommodation in the university.

 ‘Well Mr. Giri, like I said, I’ve a lot of pending work. I wasn’t planning to cook anything elaborate. Just want to wash down rice with some rasam.

‘Rasam!’ he shrieked at the other end. ‘O Madam, that’ll be like amirtham for us. We can help you with the cooking.’

 ‘Madam, have you disconnected?’

 ‘No.’

 ‘Please Madam, let’s come over. We’re not here for long. We’ll soon be gone.’

 ‘Yes, I know. You told me. Come over then, at 12 noon sharp. I want an early lunch and then resume my work.’

‘Oh thank you, Madam, thank you so much! We’ll help you,’ said Giri, sounding jubilant.

 ‘No need. I’ll manage’. She hung up and returned to the kitchen.

 

 What an enforced cooking, she frowned, putting on an apron. Sheheated water, measured rice that could be enough for three, plus a little more for herself for her mealsat night and tomorrow and put it inside the vessel. She paused a bit when she took out dal for rasam. It doesn’t look nice to give them just watery rasam. Let me make some sambar and one dish of vegetables, she thought. That’ll take care of my meals too, for tonight and tomorrow. No time for cooking. She took out a larger measure of dal, washed and soaked it in water before cooking it in the pressure cooker she had borrowed from a colleague. She soaked tamarind and sat down to chop vegetables. Will fry some appalam too, she thought, digging into some of the things she had packed from Delhi.

 

She chopped some carrots, mixed it with shelled peas, broke the flowerets of a cauliflower as recalled the day she had met these two Tamil men in the Residence Hall, after returning from Betty’s suite. ‘Vanakkam, Madam,’ said Arunagiri in Tamil, his arms folded in greeting. ‘I could guess that you’re Tamil the minute I read your name in the News Bulletin Board at our Residence Hall.’

 ‘Yes Madam, I could also guess. Vanakkam, I’m Raman,’ said the other guy. ‘I thought it’s sonice of the university of Kent to have invited a Tamil and English Resident writer this year as a Resident Writer. Would like to read your books.’

She conversed with them in Tamil. They looked so overly happy about the opportunity to speak in their mother tongue on that cold, wintry campus. Within a few minutes of their meet, their mother tongue also gave them the freedom to openly complain about the food served in the Residence Hall that was like a dormitory where each person had a room. ‘We don’t have a facility even for using an electric stove, Madam,’ lamented Arunagiri. Her friend Betty Cunningham had an administrative position, so she lived in a comfortable suite with a small kitchen and a wash room.

The two men held forth on food, like they were famished! I would also feel awful if I were to eat that awful food every day, she thought. And there were no good Eateries within the campus. One has to take a bus to reach the large shopping arcades that had some small Chinese, Thai or vaguely Asian joints. Tamil? Impossible! Thank god, I’ve this kitchen where I can fix up small dishes for myself.

 Sambar took a longer time. Cooking done, she fried a few appalams. She put out three plates, glasses and spoons on the small circular table that doubled up as a writing desk whenever she was in the room. She took out a packs of yoghurt from the fridge and a bottle of pickle that was her prized possession. On second thoughts, she scooped out a few spoons of the pickle in a small cup and replaced the bottle in her kitchen cabinet. She tidied up her hair and changed her dress when she heard the door bell

 Arunagiri, Raman… who was the third one behind them? Giri gave a sheepish smile.

 ‘This is Senthil, Madam. He is also here on a short program. You didn’t get to meet him the other day. We brought him along.’

 ‘Oh. Come in.’ How could they bring another friend without as much as asking me? What if we run short of food? She quietened her mounting irritation.

 ‘Vanakkam, Madam,’ said Senthil, hands folded. ‘I hope you don’t mind my joining them. I heard a lot about you,’ he said.

 ‘Really?’ said Sheila, amused.

 ‘Yes Madam,’ he went on. ‘We heard there’s a Tamil lady from Delhi for this year’s program and that you stayed here. Felt so proud,’ grinned Senthil.

 ‘Oh Madam’, said Raman. ‘The entire flat has such a wholesome aroma. We could smell sambar right from the stair.’

 Sheila brought some soft drinks and sat with them in the living room.

‘How is your family doing Madam, in Delhi?’ asked Raman.

 ‘Everybody is fine.’

 ‘How does Sir manage, without you?’ asked Giri.

 ‘Which Sir?’

 ‘I mean, your husband Madam. Who cooks for him?’

 ‘Why, we’ve a cook. How’s your program going?’ she asked. ‘What have you seen so far?’

 They recounted their trips to various places.

 ‘Haven’t you seen the Canterbury Cathedral, which is right here on the campus?’ asked Sheila.

 ‘No Madam, not yet,’ said Giri.

 ‘Let me put out the lunch,’ said Sheila. ‘No! Don’t get up to help me. My kitchen is very small, there’s no space.’

 

In the kitchen, Sheila took out a few serving bowls from the wooden cabinet to ladle out the rice and other things and glanced at the window. It was now snowing heavily. Even if it stopped snowing, it would be difficult to walk to the departmental store or the Asian store. She had already used up the dwindling supply of provisions for this unexpected lunch that was imposed on her. A third guest, totally unexpected! Let me reserve my food before putting these dishes out on the table.

She took out three more utensils into which she scooped out some rice, sambar and rasam, covered them before keeping them in the fridge. She stashed away a few fried appalam for herself in a plastic container.

 

 ‘Hmm. The food smells divine,’ said Giri.

 ‘O Madam, the sambar is super, tastes just the way my mother makes it,’ said Senthil, wolfing down the large heap of rice on his plate.

First it was the mother tongue that drew them to her. Now it has morphed into a tongue that tastes food ‘like mother makes it’. Seems to be the mother of all needs.

Sentthil was totally focused on eating. Giri devoured all that was on his plate and walked up to the table for more. The only sounds were of food being gobbled up, sambar slurped from cups and the noisy crunching of fried appalams. No one spoke or even looked up from their plates. Not one of them asked her join. Let me eat before the entire meal is finished, she told herself, and went to the table. There wasn’t much left in the bowls. There was a little bit of rice at the bottom of the bowl, some dregs of rasam, and no sambar to speak of. There was not a piece of broken appalam left on the tray, as a token. The yoghurt pack was totally empty. She took a plate, poured the dregs of rasam over rice and joined the group that was eating in total silence. They didn’t as much as glance at her. They’re educated enough to get a chance to come to attend a program in Kent, but they didn’t look up even once to see if there’s enough food left for me!

‘Fantastic lunch, Madam,’ said Giri. They cleaned their hands in the washroom and returned to their chairs. ‘Please pick up your plates, cups and glasses from the table and wash them in the kitchen sink,’ said Sheila. ‘I don’t have a maid to help.’

 ‘Huh? Sure, sure Madam,’ said Giri. All three of them washed their plates in the kitchen.

Sheila was still hungry after eating the scraps of food on her plate. She cleaned the small table with a sponge, then deliberately kept standing, sponge in hand. They took the hint and rose to leave.

‘Thank you, Madam. We’ll never forget this tasty meal.’

 ‘Yes, Madam, you’re a super cook!’

 ‘If you need any more provisions from that Asian store, please tell us Madam. We’ll get them for you.’

 ‘Mr. Giri, I don’t want any more provisions because I don’t intend to cook a Tamil meal anymore. I’ll manage with bread, pasta, rolls and so on.’

 ‘O Madam, we fully understand,’ he clucked sympathetically. ‘How can you cook just for yourself, when your husband and children are not here?’

 ‘Madam, next time you feel like having a proper Tamil meal, call us. Only then you’ll get the mood to cook,’ said Raman.

She bolted the door after they left.

 ‘There’ll never be a next time, you ill-bred sappattu ramans!’ she said aloud. She tidied up the kitchen and took out the apple-cinnamon cake from the fridge. She cut two large pieces and put them on a plate. Thank god I had the good sense not to offer this as dessert. Humph! There would’ve been no cake left for me! She poured a glass of cold milk from the carton, slid one cube of ice in it and took the tray to her study.

Apple and cinnamon, you’re such a well-matched ‘couple’ for baking, she smiled, enjoying her cake. She recalled her sisters-in-law in Tamil Nadu who slaved all day in a sooty, primitive kitchen, cooking elaborately for a large extended family. They would serve two batches of people - the sons of the household with their mother, aunt and elder siblings in the first round, then their younger siblings including sisters in the second. Both the batches devoured large quantities of food gluttonously and demanded more until there was nothing left for the sisters-in-law. Nobody cared to know if the women who had cooked their food, had enough to eat. They were left with the dregs of what they had cooked. They ate the scraps of left-overs, went to bed hungry, got up the next day to repeat the same dreary work. The next day and the next… What was more appalling, all of it was taken as a `normal’ life for women.

Until the day Sheila fictionalised this stark truth in a story that had the women readers seething with rage. The story was published in original Tamil, and in English, Hindi, Marathi and Urdu translations. The editors of the magazines got a huge mail from women from across the country saying it was ‘their story’. Some of them had said they had filed for a divorce. Does truth sting only if it’s dressed up as fiction?

This is what happened to you too, Rasha Sundari Debi, Sheila thought, reflecting on the remarkable self-taught woman from Bengal who described her life in Amar Jiban, the first autobiography by a Bengali woman. She cooked endlessly for a large family and guests who dropped in without informing her. They ate up all the food until there was nothing much left for her. Too tired to cook something again for herself, she ate the left-overs. Sheila recalled Tanika Sarkar’s sharp introductory observations on the strange, unstated equation between women and food in Words to Win: The Making of Amar Jiban, her English translation of the original Bangla.

Debi, Rasha Sundari, unlike my sisters-in-law who had no space in the modest house to hide some food for themselves, you lived in a large house as the wife of a prosperous zamindar. Why didn’t it ever occur to you to hide some of the food for yourself, at least as a legitimate fee for having cooked it? Why did you normalise hunger?

 Sheila ate the last piece of apple-cinnamon cake and sipped her chilled milk. Ah! The quality of milk in England is beyond compare. It’s so genuine, she mused, wiping the creamy white moustache over her lips with a tissue.

 ……………………….

Glossary

‘Tongue is dead’. In Tamil ‘naakku setthu poivittadhu’means the palate has become jaded.

Amirtham: Food for celestial beings. Ambrosia.

appalam: papad in Hindi.

dal: lentil

rasam: A soup-like dish made with tamarind, lentil and tomatoes.

sappattu ramans: Gluttons

Thomas Becket He was canonised as a saint by Pope Alexander III

vanakkam: A salutation expressing respect.

Zamindar: Prosperousland owners.

 

 

 

Lakshmi Kannan has published twenty-seven books till date that include poems, novels, short stories and translations. The Glass Bead Curtain is her snovel that has been reprinted this year in a second edition. Sipping the Jasmine Moon (New Delhi, Authors Press, 2019) is her latest and fifth collection of poems. Lakshmi was a Resident Writer at the International Writing Program, Iowa, USA; a Charles Wallace Trust Fellow at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK; Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and a Resident Writer, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. Besides English, she has also published fiction in Tamil in the pen-name of ‘Kaaveri’.

4 comments :

  1. A marvellously nuanced examination of a deeply entrenched patriarchal thought process that clouds the minds of the characters far beyond geographies and callings…. The author’s allusion to Rasa Sundari Debi’s Amar Jiban underlines the persistence of certain social norms coopting both sexes until an outside force under whatever garb, unsettles its placid acceptance.

    ReplyDelete
  2. A marvellously nuanced examination of a deeply entrenched patriarchal thought process that clouds the minds of the characters far beyond geographies and callings…. The author’s allusion to Rasa Sundari Debi’s Amar Jiban underlines the persistence of certain social norms coopting both sexes until an outside force under whatever garb, unsettles its placid acceptance.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Amazing story. Will make people ruminate if they have some inner conscience..I wonder how those gentlemen silently ignore the creative work in which she is indulged. Their focus is completely on the traditional role of a woman - a cook,nothing more than that.

    ReplyDelete

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