“Vermillion. That is the color. Not red, no, …definitely not an orange.” Amma liked to draw attention to the nuances while narrating a recipe. She would dip her index finger into the thick paste and show it to her elder daughter. “Once you have ground all the ingredients, this should be the color.”
The clock struck 4 and her colleagues rose for their regular chai and cigarette fix. Oblivious of her surrounding, Lata started at the keys of her typewriter, mentally making a list of all the ingredients for the nth time. Sardines, Pearl onions, Ginger, Garlic, Pepper, Chilly, Turmeric.......
Her husband and his guest sat down at the table and leered at the plate of seafood placed in front of them. She smiled at both the men again and chose her next words purposefully.“Let me serve you some fish first”
As a child, Lata always looked forward to Wednesdays. She would wait for school to end and walk back home twice as fast longing to taste her mother’s signature dish – crispy fried sardines. The wafting aroma of sardines dowsed in oil was the first to greet on her on most Wednesdays and she would run into the kitchen breathing the warm goodness of her mother’s cooking.
But that was more than two decades ago.
The clock above her office desk showed five minutes to four. Oddly, everyone seemed (atleast pretended) to be busy at work and the only sounds in the room emanated from a few stubborn typewriters and a rickety old fan. Lata fidgeted in her seat, distracted and restless. Ever since the cookery show last evening on Doordarshan, all she could think of was frying sardines just like how Amma used to. Numerous office files lay scattered on her desk screaming for attention as Lata toyed with the idea of cooking the dish that same evening.
Lata closed her eyes and visualized the scene again. Sardines drowned in vermillion paste... the spluttering of oil getting louder each time the fishes were flipped over ... Amma narrating the recipe holding the steel spatula in her hand.... Lata loved the smell of fried fish unlike her sister. No sooner had her mother put them on a platter, her young and greedy fingers would reach for them. “They are hot!!!... Have some patience child” Amma’s oily hands would reach for Lata to reprimand.
Her mind refused to concentrate on anything else. When she closed her eyes, the image of a plantain leaf laden with rice and fish fry tickled her taste buds. Her heart longed to savour every single bite and the imagination only seemed to heighten the craving. She opened her eyes and it was twenty minutes past four. Lata gulped down a glass of water and shifted in her seat, trying to focus on the sheet of paper which stared back at her half typed. She looked at it for another 30 seconds and then abandoned it with a shrug. Lata glanced at the wall calendar and smiled to herself. Wednesday! It is a sign!
She had bought exactly four pieces of sardines from the local fish market the previous evening thinking she would fry them the following Sunday. Hari preferred to eat them during the weekends, that too maybe twice or thrice a month. As much as he loved seafood, her husband preferred to stick to a monthly budget.
Lata looked at her colleague Shyama who sat typing furiously at the opposite table. Then she turned to look at manager, whose cabin was diagonally opposite to her desk. Thankful that no one was watching her, Lata rose from her chair and walked composedly towards the door. The bus too was on time. Perfect!
On reaching her house, she turned the lock as fast as she could, threw the umbrella and her purse onto the sofa and rushed to the kitchen. Pleased that her plan was about to bear fruit, Lata arranged all the ingredients and quickly got started on her soul food.
Two hours had passed when Lata heard voices outside. One belonged to her husband and other did not even sound vaguely familiar. She opened the door to face her husband and the guest. "Ah Lata good you reached early , see who has decided to join us for dinner .” Her husband announced cheerfully. She greeted the men with a meek smile, the picture of her perfect evening steadily diminishing to a blur.
“You are frying fish??!”. Her husband puckered up his nose and sat down on the sofa beaming. He turned to his colleague, “Today is your lucky day Ravi….my wife makes excellent sardines. In fact I am famished, shall we talk as we eat?”
Lata fingers played with rivets of the sofa, her discontent growing. Her thoughts of savoring every bite suddenly seemed so futile and her plans was thwarted in seconds. Trying not to let the disappointment show, she quickly composed herself and decided to make polite conversation with her guest. Lata prayed that her body language did not make him feel uninvited. “Glad you came by Ravi. Please make yourself at home. I will set the table right away.”
As she carried the plate of fried sardines to the table, she was reminded of the squabbles with her sister for a bigger piece. A lump formed in her throat as she looked at the four pieces of neatly arranged fishes on a clean white plate.
Grow up foolish woman! The words in her head repeated.
The men looked famished and seemed to be oblivious of her while they ate their meal quietly. Obviously neither of them cared for a discussion of any sort while relishing a home cooked meal. Lata leafed through a magazine trying to distract herself.
The guest was the first to speak after licking his fingers clean. “Simply delicious, Lata. You have no idea how much I have been craving for fried fish……...”
The lump in her throat suddenly felt bigger. She swallowed hard before uttering the words.
“ I can only imagine….”