The crimson waves peeped through the tiny holes of the bamboo-wall and aimed at the large eyes that were the nearest targets. The eyes remained closed peacefully, but with the growing strength of the waves’ power, they began to twitch constantly until at last the eyes were irritably flung open and the curtain drawn over the entry holes. Instead of the gradual opening of the eyes generally, today they were suddenly forced open and caused them to burn slightly. This hindered the vision of the eyes and only with some difficulty could they direct the body towards the bathroom. After the first few flashes of water, the eyes could recover their strength to bear the full strong rays of the angry sun and prepared the body for its daily regime: bathing in the cool water drawn from the well; wearing a clean pair of clothes; enter the kitchen and begin the cooking.
Chopping onions watered the previously burning eyes, but now they were not angry at the onion; only sniffing the strong smell and wondering whether mashed onions too should be added to the curry. Deciding against mashed onions, the rest of the onion halves were kept aside. The wok was already giving away hot oil vapours and as soon as the chopped onions were gently dropped into the oil, they began to sizzle. The sweet aromatic smell of fried onions always brought back the memories of Mother. She always told that the oil should not be heated for far too long or else it burns the onions and taste bitter which in turn spoils the curry completely. Mother’s advice was crucial for the perfect curry, but today this advice was not followed as done at other times. Within the next two hours hot, steaming, fluffy rice; dal with tarka; a spicy potato curry; fried potatoes; squash chutney were elaborately prepared and stacked in a safe spot at the corner of the kitchen, away from the nosy and gluttonous cat. Raju said he sent his pet to smell the menu for him and only then decided to jump over the half-length picket fence to the kitchen. Pets always act as their owners after all. Can’t blame the cat!
A gentle voice cooed, “It is already 7.30. You get ready. I will serve you breakfast.” The previously burning and watering eyes turned in the direction of the voice and with a smile turned away from the kitchen corner towards the bed. His shirt and lungi were already neatly kept on the bed; he undressed quickly and put on his work clothes. Radha was waiting with the steel plate and a glass of water for him to sit for his breakfast. As he sat down on the wooden pidi, the aroma of the curry travelled towards his eager nostrils. “Today the curry did not cook well, the onions were burnt.” As he took small morsels of rice into his mouth, he could taste the whole spices and the sweetness with a slight bitter taste. “The other day when I went for lunch to Anwar’s house, they served me a tasty meal. But did you know what I noticed? They don’t use sugar in all dishes, especially in curries, like we do. So their curries are only spicy hot without the sweetness that we like.” His wife craned her neck towards him as she washed the utensils and said, “Yes. The sweetness in our souls seeps into our curries too” and smiled so sweetly towards him that he could only be grateful to have such an understanding and loving wife. After his breakfast, he left with his rickshaw towards the market square where the rickshaw stand was.
His neat shirt and lungi were in stark contrast to the dirty, tattered lungis all around him. Customers approaching the rickshaw stand sought a clean rickshaw-walla of course when the option was before them, instead of taking a dirty one. And as such, he had a pretty decent income daily. “Enough to lead our humble life”, he would often say to his wife. Earlier, the other rickhaw-wallas would notice this and next day turn up in neat lungis, but before the day was over, their lungis were already folded up to their mid-thighs instead of the long length they wore in the mornings. They tried this quite a few times and ultimately left copying Santosh and settled in their comfortable, dirty, tattered, tiny lungis.
Every man has at least one secret if not more. Just so, he too had one. He didn’t know if it was wrong so he hid it, or he hid it because he was scared he might be laughed at although he doubted he was not wrong. The secret was nothing but a simple desire. Every man has the inherent quality of attaining success in whatsoever field they could. Sometimes this success comes to someone without much effort, that is, success comes to some (very few actually) whose hard work is the dint of that although they could perhaps attain higher success in their lives if they followed their heart-felt desires in which case they would have both talent and hard work by their side. Now, this secret desire of this man here is a simple nothing, may be quite absurd to most people. Actually to almost everyone around him but a great thing to him! When he had first come to the city, he stayed with his neighbour from his village who he called mama. While staying with mama, he had heard that big-big hotels would always employ only male cooks who are called ‘shefs’ and that they receive at least ten to thirty thousand rupees with eyes closed. Such was their demand that if one was a very good ‘shef’ then they would have many assistants to do all the cooking for him and he only had to order and shout at them and at the end of the month draw his salary just for screaming at the new ones. What a life! He used to think. Mama had also told him that these ‘shefs’ had many-many certificates from here and there and from all over, sometimes even from outside the country. And the far away country your certificate is from, the more is your demand. When his mama told him that, he simply laughed at him and said, “Go far-far away to learn cooking! What a waste of time! Is there any scarcity of mouth-watering dishes in our country? Thousands and thousands of dishes are right here, then why to go all over the world? Yes, I know that every place has its distinct dish but this country doesn’t need those. Such a country like ours doesn’t need those. I can assure those big ‘shefs’ that there are still hundreds of dishes undiscovered to the whole country even now…” His mama tried to explain him, “Arrey, people want to try foreign dishes. They hear from their foreign-returned friends about this dish and that dish and they have to, and absolutely have to try those too. It’s all for the rich you know, not for us.” But Santosh pointed out “Why for the rich only? Don’t we cook and eat food too?” and ignored to see the bigger and more corrupt facts behind a thing as simple as eating a meal! This had taken place quite a few years ago, even before his marriage and before he took up the rickshaw business. This conversation never went beyond his neighbour mama but the seed of desire did not die by the end of those conversations. Instead grew more subtly hidden from everyone’s imagination within his psyche alone. He did not want to talk about it to Radha although she was very understanding. Something stopped him from disclosing his cooking adventures venturing outside the four walls of their house. As if it was a taboo itself! When he went for tea to the tea stall nearby the rickshaw stand, he would try to discern what separated him from the chai-walla. He knew he was in a little, if not great, better social position with his own rickshaw than the chai-walla with the five feet stall with torn cloth overhead attempting to protect the maker as well as the drinkers of tea from the downpour but failing quite miserably. The chai-walla most probably owned nothing other than the stove and the tiny cans of tea leaves, sugar, and milk respectively in the whole world. And here Santosh had a rented but comfortable house with a wife and future children too. His house was moderately filled with items both necessary and some of luxury too like the radio and two cane chairs and the tea table. His wife was planning to get some more things too. And he owned his own rickshaw most importantly. But such better social and economic circumstances seemed to diminish his secret desire by and by rather than make it happen. How strange, he used to think during those hours of sipping the awful tea. Perhaps the chai-walla could do what he did as a lack of any other alternative to earn money. But then other folks too did such things, people doing much better than him, then why not he? He supposed that they could do such things to earn money and so they were not much embarrassed as him because at home they would never ever pour themselves a glass of water even. The suppositions never ceased to entertain his feeble mind.
One June morning as Santosh reached the market square, he could not find any empty space. Alas! His space was taken up by another man. Yet he walked towards his spot and noticing the man occupying his place, his fellow rickshaw-wallas all turned towards him awaiting his reaction. He could see that the new rickshaw-walla was a sturdy fellow and stretched out on his rickshaw in the most relaxed way possible — stretching out his legs and letting his lungi hang mid-air. The physical strength did not scare Santosh but certainly made him walk to the other end of the rickshaw stand. Customers did not generally go to the end of the stand because of the disgusting smell erupting from the oozing dustbin.
With the approach of July, monsoon flooded in and the demand for rickshaws grew high due to the flooded streets all across the city. Every year, water seeped inside his home and those days he could not cook elaborately, nor brought his lunch box for his lunch. He would eat bread and tea from the tea stall as a plate of rice in the tiny dhaba across the street cost full fifty rupees. The third time that year when he went for his tea and bread lunch to the tea stall, he noticed that sturdy, new fellow observing him. After finishing his tea when he went to his rickshaw, that fellow paddled towards him in his rickshaw. “I hear I have taken your spot. Do you mind?” Santosh was stunned at this sudden interrogation and shook his head left right. “Okay then, it’s good we cleared the air. I came from Nagaon to the city last year. My hut is just behind the hospital. Let’s go.” Santosh managed to utter the words “Why? Customers will come anytime…” but the sturdy fellow broke in “Customers will come, but without strength you won’t be able to pull the rickshaw. I will lead the way.” Santosh was about to protest feebly when his stomach growled strongly. He followed the fellow as an obedient pupil. The hut seemed dark and tiny from outside. A cot was laid out under the shed of the thatched roof. The food was not satisfactory — spices were missing, it almost tasted bland. It was impossible for him to force down such food down his throat. A chilli helped during such unavoidable circumstances. “May I have a green chilli please?” the fellow called out to his wife in a rough voice and she produced two-three chillies while her upper body beginning from her head and face was completely covered with the end of her saree. That entire rainy season he lunched at Ramesh’s house.
But yesterday when he took the first morsel of rice, he could not bear the bland curry. He asked for his customary chillies. And for more water. Ramesh began, “You can hardly have your tea without lumps and lumps of sugar then how come in my place you eat so many chillies?” Santosh was wondering what to say and then came up with the reply that changed him: “Some star anise should be grounded with garam masala to bring out the flavours of the curry. The vegetables taste a lot better and the curry thickens.” Loud roars of masculine laughter and usually meek feminine giggles followed and silenced him.
The crimson waves peeped through the tiny holes of the bamboo-wall and aimed at the large eyes that were the nearest targets. The eyes remained shut. The growing strength of the waves’ power failed to twitch the eyes. When the gentle voice cooed, “Won’t you wake up? Its five already…” the eyes remained shut forcefully but only the never-used harsh tongue uttered the new bitter words, “Do your own cooking, lazy hag!”
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