Bhalla sahab was a dapper little man, always in immaculate suits and peering intensely through his fashionable gold rimmed spectacles. He was very popular among the students due to his conscientious, yet slightly eccentric personality. He would walk casually into the department with his hands held behind his back and looking around as if looking for something.

His name was Asghar Bhalla and he was a lecturer in the English department of the local university. He lived with his widowed mother and never socialized. He was content with his work and the company of his mother.

Shamoon had recently joined the faculty too.

Shamoon noticed that he would sit in the staff room quietly when not taking his classes and did not mingle with the other lecturers.

‘Sir, would you like a cup of tea’? Shamoon asked him as he went to the tea trolley for his tea.

‘Thank you! Yes, I would love it. Thank you,’ his eyes smiled through his glasses.

Shamoon sat down next to him with both the cups and informed him, ‘I have just joined the faculty and teach second year students.’

Bhalla sahab smiled.

Shamoon soon realised that he barely spoke and mostly communicated with his smile. It was a laugh, a grin, a broad smile or just a hint of it communicated by the twitch of his lips. His eyes were remarkably expressive; dark and twinkling with his smile or piercing and sombre.

Shamoon talk about the mundane and then touched on poetry and soon Bhalla sahab became animated. He would talk and gesticulate with his delicate, sensitive hands and move up and down while talking at length about different poets and reciting their poetry. His eyes would twinkle and glare and laugh!

Shamoon sat there fascinated. ‘What an animated and alive man,’ he said to himself; a treasure trove of knowledge and bursting to share it.

Shamoon would seek him out often after that first meeting and spent hours listening to him and watching him.

Bhalla sahab, though, always maintained a certain detachment. They never became friends.

♦♦♦

Shamoon entered the gates of the university and walked towards the English department. He had returned after seven years to this place which was very special to him. This was where he had commenced his career, and had taught for three years; three delightful years of the onset of a journey of learning from his students as he taught them.

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Gowri Kishore

Karthi was in love.

Whether it was right for him to be in love, being only eight years old, was a different matter.

He thought Mari was the most beautiful thing he had ever set his eyes on. And though he was trying hard to do his maths homework (the terrifying prospect of facing Varadarajan sir with a blank notebook urged him on), he just couldn’t. He had been sitting in the corner of appa’s room with his back against the wall, his books spread out around him, chewing the end of his pencil and trying to focus on the problem at hand.

‘Joseph had three dozen roses. He gave half of them to Alice. How many roses did each of them have?’

Oh, lucky boy Joseph! He had three dozen roses to give away to whoever he liked. Whereas he, Karthi, could not find a way to get hold of just one rose to give to Mari. It would look beautiful in her hair that swung down her back in a thick, long plait. She would pin it just behind her ear, like the heroines in the black and white film songs paatti watched on TV.

But where could he find a rose?

There were all sorts of plants in the yard outside, but no rose among them. On his way home from school, he had seen women selling large, colourful baskets of roses. But the school bus did not stop anywhere near the market and asking the driver to let him down midway was out of the question. The driver was an annoying fellow with a knowing laugh and a hundred questions; he would want to know what business R. Karthik from III-B had in the flower market, whether his parents knew he was making such a strange request to the bus driver, and what the school principal would say if he found out.

No, it would be foolish to even try.

Getting an auto from the stand outside the school was also risky—the auto drivers had regular riders and knew most of the students by name. They knew he usually took the school bus and if he dared ask one of them to take him to the market, there would only be more questions. Briefly, he considered walking to the market but no, it was too far—even by bus, it took twenty minutes. He wished he had a cycle like some of the older students—that would make things so much simpler.

The curly white shavings fell in clumps onto the metal plate with each aggressive scraping. Slender hands grasped the coconut shell and with mechanical motions scraped it on the sharp edge of the grater. She sat crouched on the narrow wooden board and wiped away a stray bead of sweat from her brows. Her long thick hair was knotted into a low bun and her starched white mundu had stains of coal on it. Despite being tired from cooking since morning, Devi had a shy smile lingering on her lips as she picked up the plate of coconut shreds. The big mound of shredded coconut was set aside and she blew through a long pipe into the fireplace to get the fire started. She set the vessel of water to boil on the fire stove and dissolved two handfuls of ada in it. The preparations for the Ada Payasam had just begun.

 Vishu was the day when Devi took control of the entire kitchen. She would have wrapped up lunch with a simple milk payasam, but today was extra special.  Ada Pradhaman was his favorite. She wanted to take her time and celebrate this year’s Vishu in the most auspicious way. She had arranged a beautiful Vishukkani for herself and her three kids before the first ray of sunlight and had given each of them five paisas, which was much more their usual Vishukkaineettam (pocket money given on Vishu). It had been a whole year since she had enthusiastically taken part in the preparatory activities in her kitchen. She took the vessel off the stove when the water started boiling, set it on the slab and covered it with a small plate. The ada had to soak in it for a while. She looked down at her charcoal stained mundu and the old blouse she was wearing. It was almost noon and she needed to change. ‘Ammini, ithuonnunokkike!’ She called out to her maid who was sweeping the ground right outside the kitchen back door, asking her to keep an eye on the preparations while she changed.

She ran through the kitchen doors to the inner ara. Her henna painted feet skipped across the polished black stone floors and the clinking anklets came to an abrupt halt on the wooden boards of her bedroom. Her daughter had laid out a beautiful, cream-white settu saree with a dark green blouse for her. She held the saree on her and looked at her reflection in the oval mirror leaning against the wall. The woman standing in the mirror looked very young. Days without him were adding more years to her face than time, but today the sleepless darkness around her eyes was replaced by a heavenly glow, the gold border of the saree throwing a faint glow on her creamy skin. She closed her eyes and reminisced how she’d stood before the steps of the house for the first time, next to him, holding the lighted nilavilakku. She’d taken her first step into the threshold with her right foot, her fingers tightly entwined with his. The saree she was holding in her hands was a gift from him on their wedding day. She opened her eyes and wiped away the droplets of tears that were threatening to spill onto the spotless fabric.

I look around and find myself in a big room with white walls and a red sparkling floor. I love it and secretly want to put my cheek next to it, to feel its cool, red surface. It is a room that I am going to share with my aunt and her daughter. For the next three years I am going to live with them. What fun! Everything is so different here. I don’t miss home at all. And tomorrow I will see my new school too!

♠♠♠

It’s my first day in school. I have never seen such a huge school building before. They tell me it is a hundred and ten years old. The staircase that goes up to our classroom is in a dark tower with a tiny yellow bulb fighting a losing battle with the darkness all day long. I get a magical, frightening feeling going up them, as if I am in a storybook castle.

My English teacher, Miss Tring, is very dainty with china blue eyes that sparkle dangerously when she is angry. Miss Wilson is Irish with sooty blue eyes and the loveliest smile till she is offended; she is our head mistress and also our Mathematics teacher. The Science teacher is Miss O. Massey, a Goan Indian. I love her dark skin and tired beady eyes.

The sun was a ball of fire shooting white-hot needles over the limitless stretches of Jornada Del Muerto. The dead man’s desert.

It was a terrain of sand and salt with causeways that lead to a kind of nothingness only dead men know of. The salt-washed mountains surrounding it used to be volcanoes, raging and spewing streams of lava into the desert sand thousands of years ago, carving out canyons and arroyos in the ash-brown malpaise that interspersed the sandy stretches. The hills are silent now, their jagged peaks sandpapered away by dust and brine flung on their faces by the relentless winds.

All that remains is the quiet fury of the desert, pulsating in the heat like the belly of a beast. The old farmers revere and fear it. In earlier times, they journeyed to the Parajito plateau through the treacherous landscape of Jornada Del Muerto to escape the impossible heat and grow summer crops and berries. They corralled together during the journey, a retinue of nervous travellers, each murmuring a silent prayer to be able to pass through its pale gold expanses.

Today the mighty desert was subdued by another force. A force born out of insatiable amounts of energy. Its image was etched onto Robert’s mind like a daguerreotype, even though fourteen hours had passed since The Test. It had been another long excursion to Alamogordo for the team. July afternoons were bad days for experiments in the heart of the desert, but they were running out of time. The war had gone on for way too long, and matters were now passed on to unlikely soldiers like him, who toiled far away from the battlegrounds for a permanent solution.

The makeshift quarters of their base in Alamogordo were bursting with an assemblage of people, a cortege of junior scientists with knotted brows and voices trembling with anticipation, the porters with weather-beaten limbs hauling equipment, the poker-faced guards, barely twenty-something who guarded the precinct. The device rested on Ground Zero like a giant steel orb, nestling in its womb, coils of plutonium ready for implosion. It was time. A trill of anxiety buzzed in their ears; they tried to quell it with superfluous jocularity and mock sparring, but the collective thump in their hearts they couldn’t ignore. Be it Robert, Giovanni, or Leo, each one of them, handpicked from various universities for this singular purpose, was acutely aware of it. Would they succeed? Could this be The Weapon to end the war?

‘I believed, like everyone else, that the stories about wild creatures, particularly about Rantas and Wan-Mohneu, were only myths, created to scare children. Until I was lugged here.’

‘Would you like to share your story?’ Talib asked. ‘How did you reach here?’ asked Hamid, Talib’s master. They lowered their gazes, stealing the odd glance at the Wildman.

‘My name’s Bashir. It was sometime in the winter of 1998 or 1997, no, 1999. No! I don’t remember the exact date. I awoke in the middle of a night. My wife Laalie and my little son Aalim were fast asleep. I didn’t bother to wake them and went outside to check the cow. Snow fell heavily, making the trees arch. There was a thick white blanket of snow in my lawn.

‘I took my umbrella in one hand and lantern in another and went straight to the cowshed to check if the cow was fine – she was to give birth to her calf soon. She seemed fine, so I locked the cowshed and began walking back to my house, stopping a while to watch the whirling snow. What an amazing sight it was!

‘As I tried to shake off the snow from some trees, I heard a woman’s voice calling out my name. I thought it was Laalie and responded but recalled immediately that I had locked the main door of the house from outside. The voice wasn’t Laalie’s. Couldn’t be. I waited. The voice called out again. Afraid but excited, I looked around, trying to locate the voice as I walked towards the pomegranate tree. There was so much snow on the tree’s leaves and branches that the main branch had snapped and fallen on to the snow-covered ground. As I went closer, I saw what I thought was a woman dressed in white, looking at me. It was a mere illusion created by the snow, I told myself, but the lantern slipped from my trembling hands and the light went out. Was it an evil spirit or an apparition? Then, just as I began to run towards my house, which was only a few steps away, she called out, ‘Stop!’ My pounding heart, quivering legs and the deep snow made the few steps to my door seem like a thousand miles. With great effort, I managed to reach the steps and breathed deeply in relief. I had escaped her!

‘I was wrong. As soon as I tried to push open the main door, a huge hand grabbed my left shoulder; I struggled to free myself but it was no use. Even as I cried out, a hand capped my mouth and another clasped my head. I struggled; I even managed to kick the door but the powerful hands dragged me back. I could see her closely now. Her stench filled my nostrils. She had a hairy face, a huge, dirty, hairy body with heavy breasts and long nails. Her untidy hair fell over her shoulders. I noticed her feet last: they were turned backwards.

I was terrified. Rantas! She was exactly like the creature whose stories grandmother told me in my childhood, to distract me whenever I cried or wanted something that was not available. For some time, I thought she would eat me alive. I had lost all my strength and began to think she had cast a magic spell on me. Helplessly, I let her tie me to her back with her long hair. I could have cried or made some noise, asked for help, or at least struggled to escape.

‘I…

‘Yes, carry on, what happened then?’ asked Talib, listening keenly to him. When the Wildman didn’t reply, the young man looked towards his ustaad.

‘It is clear she brought him to this cave then, isn’t it?’ Hamid remarked loudly, hoping to stir the Wildman from his thoughts.

Dearest Pyari Amma,

As salaam alaikum. I hope this letter finds both you and Baba Jan in the best of health and spirits. Please let me begin by apologizing for not writing earlier. Pinku and Bablu have both been under the weather with recurring cold, cough and chest infection all winter. Thank God for the long winter break or they would have missed most of school the past month.

Besides being so busy with them, I…

 

As salaam alaikum again. I am sorry it took me two whole days to get back to writing this letter. There was a loud crash in the kitchen followed by some screaming and I was sure the new cook had done something to anger the old territorial dragon Ami and Abu are trying to replace. Luckily, it was just a frying pan which had fallen down and scared Bashiraan the cleaning woman who had screamed so loudly that the old man had told her off in his usual, extremely vocal fashion. Thank God I arrived in the nick of time to diffuse the tension. By the time Ami and Abu came back from the Club, all was peaceful. Just the way they like it.

Ooof! The dramas in this house never end. I often think of my childhood growing up in our house with only Baba jan, you and the four of us. What a perfect life it was. Of course I am extremely grateful for you to have picked such a good family for me to marry into. Just last week at Ami and Abu’s anniversary party for 100 people I realized how lucky I was to be part of this family. All the guests were so khaandani, the women wore huge, old jewellery and everyone praised my cooking. I met three women who had once been potential prospects for Salim. They are married now. But so thin, Amma Jan, I don’t know how they do it after children.

I tried to go on a popular diet a fancy nutritionist gave me but…

If you ever asked Ruchita and Sharath what they had in common, you would find none of the usual suspects in terms of common backgrounds, shared hobbies, or synergistic traits. Ruchita is a Marwari, Sharath a Malayali. Ruchita is a vegetarian, frowning upon even the consumption of egg; when Sharath heard of the beef ban, he began to consider emigrating from India. Ruchita has no head for business or taste for numbers; she’s a painter. Sharath, the son of chefs, is a financial analyst.

So what brought them together, you might ask, and rightly so.

Ask them, and they will give you a surprising answer. Onam Sadhya!

The first time Ruchita and Sharath met was at an Onam Sadhya, or feast, at Sharath’s place. Ruchita was 15 years old, Sharath 16. His family had just moved to Chembur from Kerala, and since this was their first Onam away from their extended family and friends, Sharath’s mother had invited their entire building to the Onam Sadhya at their place. It was Swastik Society’s first introduction to the delectable delights of Kerala food, and it led to two long-term consequences for our protagonists: It inculcated a life-long love for Kerala food in Ruchita, who could not imagine what her life had been before she had sampled those heavenly dishes.

It heralded the start of two sets of beautiful friendships – between Ruchita’s Maa and Sharath’s Mom, and, of course, between Ruchita and Sharath!

 

When Sharath saw Ruchita licking her fingers after the feast, he immediately fell in love with the North Indian who could show so much love for what he believed was the best food in the world. He approached her boldly and started explaining the name of each dish, the history and significance of everything, and even the recipes involved in preparing them. Ruchita found herself getting impressed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge about food, as well as his apparent passion when he spoke about it.

The rest, as they say, is history… till the time their relationship almost became history.

They began to meet outside school, made trips to different Kerala restaurants each week, then graduated to bunking school in order to meet, and finally found themselves in the same college for their graduation. Even after he went away to Hyderabad for his CFA and she left for UK to study painting at the Royal College of Art, they made it a point to return to Swastik Society in Chembur for Onam, for the legendary Sadhya at Sharath’s home, feasting their hearts along with the entire building.

After their studies got over, they began to work in Mumbai, and their weekly meetings over Kerala food continued seamlessly, as if it had never been interrupted by life.

The old city rises out of the mist on the Buriganga River on a cold wintry morning. Slowly, it gropes its way into the many byzantine alleys that are proverbial for their lost tales and histories. After a long, chequered life, these alleys still contain old houses with frieze cornices, fretted eaves and worn out wooden doors and casements; mosques with egg-shaped domes and towering minarets; centuries-old red forts; kattras and landing ghats — all witness to many generations of local and foreign rule.

The alleys of this part of the city are packed with people and shabby tea stalls, groceries and trinket-selling vendors. Houses with one or two feet frontage scrabble for the sun all year round. Throughout the winter their residents come out on the street to gather in the narrow, twisted alleys, to squat by small fires. Children hopscotch all day and chase after stray dogs that are periodically inoculated by dog catchers.

Today is such a dog inoculation day. A small group of dog catchers gathers at the intersection of Dhakeshwari Temple Road. A faded blue jeep waits for them. They carry odd instruments: three hand nets with wooden handles and large hoops; a long pincer that closes on hinges made of iron clamps; and an obsolete rifle equipped with darts to tranquilize dogs that bark too much or are identified as disease-stricken.

There are five dog catchers in the group, all wearing white caps with an embossed seal on the front panel that reads: Mosquito Repelling Department. Since the city is yet to diversify its Animal Control Department, which is supposed to respect differences between the canine and the mosquito world, these men will always masquerade as catchers of the entire animal kingdom, except their own species. The youngest one in the group is a little boy in grey sweater, who carries a frayed leather bag with many pockets. Each of them is full of syringes and vaccine-filled vials that will inoculate dogs against rabies. The little boy seems to be excited and hoots like an owl. The eldest, the leader of the group — a middle-aged man with a thick beard — hushes the boy, slapping the back of his head, ‘Save it for when you notice a dog, you little punk!’ The other dog catchers, of mixed ages, notice it and remain silent; they haven’t been able to rub the sleep from their eyes yet.

A small crowd, amused by the dog catchers’ instruments and the little boy’s hooting, swirls around them like bees. They swarm the group on all sides until the blue jeep driver revs up the engine and whooshes past them. But before it reaches the next bend that leads to the Lalbagh Fort, a three-and-a-half-centuries-old architecture, the driver stops the car. The little boy in grey sweater hoots cheerfully as he spots two half-asleep dogs lying curled up on the pavement.

His dreams were still nascent. Titi told Mama that he wanted to be a zoologist. He elicited quiet fulfilment from watching chameleons catching stick insects with their tongues and gulping them whole and ostriches campily gorging star fruits. Mama said that he should stow his dreams for later and wait for the dough to leaven; for the yeast in his mind to breathe and bloom, for him to turn plump, ready to be baked. He chuckled.

And he watched, quietly (well not really), as she plucked the fruits of her dreams. His hands hovered over the preheating oven, despite his mother’s constant reproach. She kneaded cottony dough with her gnarled but tender hands and folded it into itself. The furrow blended seamlessly and disappeared, before she wrung the dough to fold it again. The scattered flour he tried to swipe surreptitiously with his finger. Powdered sugar, he thought as he sneaked a pinch into his mouth. It exploded in his mouth as he puckered his lips, never to permit flour onto his sensitive taste buds again.

Beads of sweat lingered on Mama’s skin as she kneaded and kneaded in the kitchen, with its windows open to the sun-baked outside. Cracked streets and faded sign paints littered about as Aunty Norma, her head covered in a batik tudung of teal and navy blue, doled out nasi lemak, wrapped in newspaper, to passers-by on their way to the bus stop hidden in the far corner of the road. The oven emanated even more heat waves, preparing for the dough’s entrance. Soon, the dough, coated with glistening egg yolk, would bloom. It would turn crisp and fluffy, like a pillow waiting to be pinched and pulled. The boy salivated as he thought about the savoury patches of salt and butter that would soon linger on his tongue. The yolk sheen reminded him of lumps of peanut cookies with their brown egg coats on top, baked by Mama during Chinese New Year; the pasty lumps that crumbled in the boy’s mouth, unlocking sweet, savoury and a child’s gaiety. The boy could not wait for Mama to fire up the ovens for the next batch of CNY cookies again. Few more weeks and he would have school off, with nothing but he and the food.

Mama looked at the little plump 7-year old and smiled as she wiped off her sweat with the apron. Her smile faded as she considered her son’s dreams. She turned to start the laundry.