Food of the Gods

    by Runcil Rebello

    That early Friday evening, while the movers were shifting the items into the house, a few building residents looked on and helloed us. We did not have too many things of our own to bring into the house, a bed, a cupboard, some utensils, and gifts from the wedding—four crockery sets, three bedsheet-and-pillow-cover sets, one air-fryer, one wall clock that had space for a photograph.

    Stella and I had moved into this rented house in a green area of Kandivali, ready to start a new life together after our marriage. The residents were welcoming, smiles stretched across their lips. Some of them congratulated us, already made aware that we had just married. Our landlord and landlady too came to the door.

    “Is everything okay?” the landlord enquired.

    “Seems like it,” I said, keeping an eye on the two movers who were placing the Godrej almirah.

    “Oh yes, always keep the cupboard facing away from the door,” the landlord said teasingly.

    “This front door or that locked one?” I asked. This was not the first time I was talking about that door. Even though Stella was busy in the kitchen, she overheard me well enough to shoot daggers at me.

    The locked door was a wooden one, white in colour, bolted tight and opposite to where we had placed the bed. The landlord and landlady had promised that they only had old clothes and paraphernalia they would never require in the room.

    “Nathan, ya! We should’ve asked them to open the door and show it to us,” Stella had said while we were seated at an Irani café after we had checked out the house for the first time.

    “Perhaps we shouldn’t behave so suspiciously, you know,” I said, holding her hand in mine as I skimmed through the menu.

    “What are you ordering?” the server interrupted us.

    “Yeah, this kheema,” I said, pointing at the menu placed under the glass table. “Is it beef or mutton?”

    “We don’t sell beef here,” he grumbled, suddenly lowering his voice to an inaudible whisper. “It’s goat,” he quickly added, trying to brush off his hands from the entire affair.

    “Oh well. Just get me one plate kheema with four paos.”

    I’d grown up on chicken, mutton, and beef mince, but the latter tasted the best. Beef was tough to get now; buff, as we called the replacement meat of water buffaloes, didn’t taste the same. Disciplining the tongue was not as easy as pacifying the stomach after so many years of saying the word.

    Stella continued, “It was just so refreshing to not hear a no for once. Like 18 houses in two weeks? Fucking crazy, man!”

    “Nineteen, if you count this one. So many just shut their doors on our faces.”

    “Catholics, unmarried, and yes — our meat!”

    “Or the toilet was an Indian one.”

    “Stop joking, Nathan!”

    “Oh, come on. Not everyone is out to get us.”

    “Literally everyone else in that building are non-Catholics. None of them eat meat. Forget meat, I don’t think they eat egg.”

    “So what, Stella?” raising my voice enough that the couple on the table nearby shot a glance at us. I was exhausted. This was not the first time we were arguing over a house during our search for residence. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” I said deplorably.

    “We should’ve left the country when we had a chance.”

    There was silence between us for a while. “We tried, didn’t we? Canada, Germany, and Australia, but we never made the cut. Turns out migrating to Western countries is only for the privileged.”

    “It’ll be fine,” I continued. “The landlord and his wife were sweet. They assured us that we could eat what we want. Didn’t they say some Fernandes, Qureshi and Meshram have lived there earlier?”

    “Yes, I know. That was assuring.”

    “What else? There’s a nice garden. It’s close to work. You can sit and read all day in that beautiful balcony.”

    “Yeah. I think I’m just tired.”

    “Are you scared of that room?” I poked at her playfully, testing the waters.

    “I mean, what if they have corpses lying in there?”

    For a split second, I was flummoxed, just as the boy brought our food and kept the blue bone-china plates on the table. The clink on the glass table disrupted the moment of nervous silence. Stella burst out laughing. I began chuckling too.

    Back in the house, the landlord too chuckled at my gentle ribbing, “The front door, of course. You know this house is Feng Shui compliant too. It faces the south! And we did a Bhoomi Pujan too before constructing the building. You don’t need to worry about a single—”

    “Hey!” suddenly a voice came from near the front door.

    “This is your neighbour,” the landlord offered.

    The neighbour was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. A tulsi mala hung from his neck and a saffron scarf was draped across his shoulders. He detected that I had noticed his garb but did not say a thing while I shook his hands. “If you ever need sugar, stool or a screwdriver, just let us know!”

    I nodded my head in approval as they left. After the movers were finished, I began to unpack a couple of the cartons. Stella went out to the balcony. She looked towards the compound; a few children were playing cricket while the older men chitchatted. The women sat in a circle under a shed singing a bhajan, Aayenge Mere Ram Lalla Aayenge. The landlord looked up and nodded at Stella, who smiled back.

    “This balcony is too clean,” Stella noted as she entered the room. “The entire house is, in fact.”

    “The owners have ensured that we can eat food even after it has fallen onto the floor.”

    “That won’t be needed,” Stella rebuked me. “Anyway, let’s go to that seafood place in IC to have dinner today. You can spill crab curry all over yourself there.”

    That night we had fish and chips, crab curry with neer dosa, and fried pomfret at Cove. Even though Bombay was a coastal city, one could be surprised at how often big restaurants find it difficult to cook seafood well. Cove, situated in IC Colony, a predominantly Christian area of the neighbouring Borivali, fortunately, was an outlier. Their crab curry was their most well-known dish—“as saffron as that fellow’s scarf,” Stella had remarked rather mockingly. Not for the first time did we overestimate our stomachs’ capacities and got so much food that we had to get the fried pomfret packed.

    When we reached home and turned the lights on, I felt a strange feeling calling the house a home. My home. Just as it was taking me time to admit that I was now married. We tucked the pomfret into the fridge and tossed ourselves onto the bed.

    ***

    I woke up with a piercing headache. I hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep. I had kept tossing and turning in bed. Stella too had a splitting headache. She began telling me about her dream, where someone kept calling out her name from behind the locked door. The door opened and sucked her in. There was a large chimera of pomfret inside with a cleaver stuck in its fin. She winced in pain, the cleaver cutting off her legs, slowly moving to her arms and head.

    “We need to cut back on having so much alcohol.”

    “Yeah,” Stella giggled. “What do you want for food today? The pomfret’s still there, but that’s just a side dish, and now I don’t know if I’m still into it.”

    “Don’t exert yourself much today. Some simple food will do. I can go and get chicken if you want.”

    “If it’s not too much trouble, I wouldn’t mind. It’s easy to cook and easy on the stomach.”

    Stella checked the fish in the fridge and realised that it was spoilt. She threw it in the dustbin. I was putting on my clothes to go to the butcher’s shop when the bell rang. Stella opened the door to find the landlady at the door.

    “Sorry, I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she said, balancing the two Tupperware boxes that she had brought with her.

    “Not at all,” Stella said, and then called out for me.

    “We have a tradition of cooking for newly married couples. I know you don’t eat the same food, but I’ve cooked some dal-chawal for you today.”

    Arre, nothing like that,” I offered, almost apologetically. “We eat vegetarian food too. I love paneer and I only take ginger tea.”

    She laughed sarcastically and handed over the containers to Stella. Once she left, Stella opened the boxes. Dal-chawal was truly an understatement. The landlady had used basmati rice with a generous sprinkling of saffron on top of it. The dal was rich with ghee and smelled unlike any plate of vegetarian food I’d ever had. We sat down for lunch and gobbled it up in no time.

    “Last night the dream of a pomfret chopping me up… today, vegetarian food tasting like never before… are these connected?” Stella snickered.

    That afternoon, I lay on the bed, Stella by my side, under the whirling fan. I had never felt this lethargic before.

    Later that evening, Stella and I decided to take a walk in the building compound. The sun was on the verge of setting; the children were arguing about whether the shot one of them had hit was either a four or a six; the women sang jarringly; the men talked about the local politics. Our neighbour called out to us.

    “Have you watched The Goa Story?”

    Without having had a chance to see Stella’s face, I could sense her discomfort. The Goa Story was a film filled with propaganda and lies that had recently released in theatres about the Church in Goa converting people to Christianity forcefully.

    “No, we haven’t watched that,” I replied as politely as I could.

    Dekh lo,” the neighbour replied, while the others nodded their heads like puppets whose strings were being pulled together. “It’s really good. Such accurate descriptions.”

    We began walking away. Our neighbour followed us and enquired about the dal-chawal.

    “Oh yes, I know about it,” he said looking at our dumbstruck eyes, “Your landlord told me about it. They cook such good food. Simple but awfully wholesome.”

    ***

    In the night, we decided to visit Lemon Rind, a cosy family restaurant serving Continental food. We ordered calamari rings to start, and then a meatball spaghetti for myself and a salade niçoise for Stella as she wasn’t hungry. I asked for white wine as an accompaniment.

    “I don’t like our neighbour,” Stella blurted out suddenly.

    “I think he’s just being a curious cat, like most neighbours.”

    “No curious cat shoves a film that villainises people from our religion down our own throats.”

    Dinner was mostly a silent affair though I did try to make the mood lighter by comparing Stella to a cow because she was eating a salad. By the time we entered our home, the wine had loosened us up. Stella pinched my bum and nuzzled my nape, and I didn’t need an invitation. I’m not sure when we got to sleeping, but when we woke up in the morning, we were fresh and beaming.

    ***

    Owing to it being a Sunday, we were invited to Stella’s aunt’s house for lunch in Bandra, a post-marriage ritual so that her family could learn more about the new member. Stella and I woke up early to go to church. I was more of an agnostic and wouldn’t have minded sleeping till the sun was way up, but Stella had made it clear that I could stop going to church the day I lost my faith completely and not a second before that.

    When we reached home, it was way beyond dusk and we both were exhausted. The fact that we were restarting work the next day had suddenly dawned upon us, making this Sunday evening quite a wretched affair.

    “Let’s order Chinese today?” I almost pleaded. “I don’t mind a good hot chicken soup too along with some hakka noodles.”

    The good thing about ordering from roadside Chinese stalls is that such joints never take too much time. The delivery boy was at our door in exactly 12 minutes. He seemed a little surprised seeing us.

    “What happened?” I asked, taking the polythene bags from him.

    “No, no, nothing. I thought someone else stayed here. Must be the older tenants.”

    As he left, I noticed the neighbour’s door was open and he stood staring at us through the crack.

    “What’s on the menu today?”

    “Chinese!”

    “Ah, nice. I love paneer manchurian. What do you have there?”

     ‘Chi—cken hakka noodles,’ I hesitated.

    “Interesting. I eat jackfruit sometimes. People say it tastes the same as chicken.”

    “Perhaps the texture is the same.”

    “I’m starving!” Stella took the bags from my hands as I shut the door and served the food in the steel plates. We both appreciated that this joint—calling it a restaurant would make it sound more respectable than it is—used boiled white chicken instead of deep-fried red in its soup and noodles. The food was, like most roadside Chinese food, filling.

    “There’s enough for you to take in the tiffin tomorrow,” Stella exclaimed.

    With our stomachs bursting at the seams, we decided to lie in bed. Of course, that meant that I actually spent about half-an-hour on my phone while Stella read her book.

    “What did that curious cat want?”

    “Na, nothing.”

    “I hate him. I don’t like this place much.”

    “He was just talking about jackfruits, dear,” I tried to change the topic. “These algorithms are really creepy at times. I’m getting advertisements to buy jackfruit from FruitKart,” I turned my phone’s screen displaying the fruit in her direction.

    “Yeah, I know you don’t want a confrontation,” Stella said, keeping her book down. “Fine, fine. Let’s sleep.”

    “Good night,” I said and leaned forward to kiss her, which she reciprocated after a brief pause as if she were considering the consequences.

    As soon as I slept, I began hearing a high-toned voice calling out my name. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the closed room. I could see a white light emanating from its edges. The screeches continued, getting louder with each call. I tried to wake Stella up but realised that she wasn’t there. I shouted her name, but it got drowned in the catcalls. The door swung open. The white light blinded me. I was getting sucked into the room, the way Stella had described it. I tried holding on to the bed, but I could feel the bed being dragged along too.

    Once I was inside, the door slammed shut. The cries stopped. I shivered. The room was blinding white. A chicken appeared. It was almost thrice my size, almost a larger-than-life figure, like Stella’s pomfret. The chicken started crying out my name; it was the same voice. It held me upside down against a giant tub of water. Heat radiated from the tub. The water looked scalding hot, with bubbles forming and bursting on the surface. I was sweating as if it were the middle of a very humid May. I stopped moving, not wanting to fall into it while struggling to break free. The chicken began lowering me slowly, my head a finger’s distance away from the hot water. The chicken squawked my name one last time and dropped me into the tub. It burnt. I could see my skin peel off, the tendons and bone showing. Just then, I woke up in bed.

    I was sweating. I could feel my heart racing against my chest as if it would burst out of my body. I looked at Stella, sleeping on my side with a frown on her face. It was 3:23 am on my phone. I turned and looked at the door. It appeared normal. I tiptoed towards it with my phone’s torch and tried pushing it open by twirling the knob, but it didn’t move. I wondered whether I should wake Stella up but I went back to the bed and closed my eyes. Sleep soon washed over me again.

    ***

    When I told Stella about my nightmare the next morning, I could see slight terror in her eyes. The casual tone of her voice during the pomfret episode was gone.

    “What the hell is going on?” she shrieked.

    Her sleep had been rough too, though she couldn’t recall whether she had had a nightmare. I considered taking a leave briefly but the fact that I was returning from a long vacation weighed on me. Stella made us some strong black coffee. I gulped it down hastily thinking of all possible reasons for our nightmares.

    “We have to talk about this when we’re back,” she stressed as we alighted from the elevator and entered the compound. The air now felt different. Orange flags were hung up in most houses’ windows, in the compound, and at the gate. We saw the residents of the building participating in yoga under the shed, busy carrying out the Virabhadrasana, their eyes boring into our bodies. The children were playing cricket again, but instead of stopping as we walked down their path, they continued to play, the ball almost hitting my stomach. We met our landlord who was entering as we left the compound.

    “Good morning,” his voice was curt. We greeted him back with tentative smiles.

    ***

    Half the day at work went by in meeting people I hadn’t seen in a while, including my closest friends at work, Aadil and Candace. Before lunch, I was called for a meeting with my manager, who asked me in a rather skeevy manner and lecherous tone about my honeymoon. I couldn’t have wanted to break for lunch more.

    I hurried to the cafeteria and saw Aadil and Candace at our usual table. They both appeared peeved and in the middle of an angry back and forth.

    “It’s demeaning,” Candace said, as I reached the table.

    “What happened?”

    “They’ve now kept two microwave ovens at the counter. Some vegetarians complained that our meat and fish are polluting their food.”

    “Ridiculous,” I said, as I went to the counter to heat my tiffin. The old oven was now labelled “NON-VEG” while our pure vegetarian colleagues got a swanky new one. Without wasting much time, I opened my tiffin and a putrid stench emanated from it. The food was spoilt. A colleague I didn’t know, standing close to the vegetarian oven, looked at me with disgust. I shut the tiffin and headed to the canteen, making a mental note to empty the tiffin later and wash it thoroughly. Truth be told, I was still put off by the nightmare and I was not in the mood to eat the noodles anyway. But now I had to satiate myself with sabudana khichdi the canteen was serving for our fasting colleagues this Monday.

    Aadil and Candace asked me about Stella and our new society.

    “But only vegetarians live there, na?” Aadil asked.

    “Yeah, but they’re nicer.”

    “Now I’ve seen everything!” Candace smirked.

    “No, really,” and I began telling them about the food they cooked for us while leaving out the discussion about the film. Talking to them made me feel much better. The rest of my first day back at work moved by quickly, mostly thanks to an inbox filled with 759 emails that I had to get through.

    ***

    When I returned home that night, Stella had concocted a Long Island iced tea for me, while she had her black coffee. I washed up and quickly drank it. I could smell mince being cooked.

    “Is that beef kheema?”

    “Yes, I stopped by at our usual fellow’s place in Orlem; he managed some jugaad and got it from Goa yesterday.”

    For a second, my hairs stood on end, but the alcohol in the tea had begun to take hold too and a sense of ease swept me.

    “I thought you deserved something nice after last night,” she ruffled my hair. Perhaps I was fretting too much. Then she broached the topic I knew was coming.

    “This can’t continue,” she said as she sat on the floor beside me.

    “They’re just dreams, Stella. Maybe it’s because we are living in an apartment complex that’s fully vegetarian.”

    “Maybe… But they felt real. I’ve never had such vivid dreams before.”

    “I won’t deny that, dear,” I said, pulling her closer to me.

    “We should start looking out for a new house. I don’t mind if we shift to Vasai… to Panvel even! I can commute to work, so can you. It’s not just the dreams, you know.”

    “Yeah, I know,” fully knowing what she was talking about.

    We arose to get our plates and the doorbell rang. I glanced at Stella and then walked towards the front door. Our landlord, adorned with a saffron scarf acting like a cape around his shoulders and back, stood almost too close to the entrance with a grimace on his face.

    “I’m sorry to interrupt—oh, what a lovely smell! Wish I could have whatever that is,” he started, even though the way he spoke belied his words. “Your next-door neighbours complained about the fragrance of your food wafting into their home through the windows,” he admonished.

    “We could keep the kitchen windows closed while cooking.”

    “We respect your beliefs; you should respect ours too.”

    He left as soon as he said those words, not giving me a second to react.

    “What the fuck was that!” Stella said, peeved at him.

    “Leave him. Let’s eat.”

    We sat in the balcony and had supper. It was the beginning of December and an evening chill had begun to set in. I couldn’t enjoy my meal fully.

    “They’ve really let their masks come off, haven’t they?” Stella asked.

    “Hmm.” I sighed. “I think I’ll take some melatonin to sleep tonight.”

    We lay on the bed in the darkness for a while but sleep wasn’t difficult to come by. Slowly, I felt it getting cooler around me. I cosied up inside my bedsheet, and that’s when I heard the voice again, almost a baritone, calling out my name. I woke up. The voice came again, but now it called out for Stella. It was not long before she was wide awake too.

    “This does not feel like a dream. Nathan?”

    The cries continued. Nathan. Stella. Stella. Nathan.

    “Stel, pinch me.”

    “What?”

    “Pinch me, slap me, whatever, just do it. I’ll do it to you too. We have to wake up.”

    I pinched her. She slapped me hard. Nothing happened. The cries were unceasing. We could see the light around the edges. And then, on cue, the door opened, our room filled with light, and we began getting pulled in.

    No sooner were we inside the room, the door slammed shut with a loud thud. There was silence for a brief second, but just as I had anticipated, a cow, a huge one, appeared. It called out our names. A chant was also being murmured. Then our landlord, landlady, neighbours, and other residents of the apartment emerged, intoning our names, like they were chanting at yoga that morning.

    “Mr. Upadhyaya, Mrs. Upadhyaya,” I cried. “What’s happening? Is this real?”

    They continued to chant.

    “Mr. Thakur!” Stella screamed at our neighbour. “Help us!”

    Nothing.

    The cow picked us up with its left front hoof. In its right front hoof, it had a butcher’s knife. It set us down mid-air, but we did not fall. It felt like we were on an invisible solid surface.

    “We respect your beliefs,” Mr. Upadhyay bellowed. “You should respect our gods too.”

    Down came the knife, chopping off our legs as our cries overpowered the chants. Last night’s pain was nothing compared to this. I held Stella’s hand but in a few fell swoops, those limbs were dismembered from our bodies. I was conscious and could feel everything. A meat mincer appeared and the cow put us in it, limb by limb. Bone and blood, enamel and keratin, everything formed a pulp as unimaginable pain enveloped me. I lost consciousness.

    ***

    I—rather my soul—stands still on the other side of this door now. Alongside us are the Qureshis, Meshrams, and Fernandeses that Mr. and Mrs. Upadhyaya spoke about, or are speaking about, to a single woman named Faiza Ali, as she walks around the house, quite impressed by them.

    Runcil Rebello is a writer, born and brought up in Bombay, India. His daytime job involves wrangling with others’ words on a page while in his free time, he tries to make sense of his own. He loves films, the local train network in the city, and cats, though he is overwhelmed at the thought of taking care of the latter.

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