The Fish Curry

    by Archana Nair

    My stomach grumbles as I wake up to the scent of coffee and toast wafting through the open bedroom door.

    “You have not eaten anything yesterday,” Deb walks in and sets a tray of coffee and toast on the floor. It’s only been four days since we moved in and the mattress on the floor is all that we have furnished the house so far with.

    “Are you leaving for work?”

    “Yeah, I am having breakfast with my students.”

    Deb is always hanging out with his students whom he teaches creative writing twice a week. I take several sips of the coffee and debate how it feels to wake up to the smell of food each day.

    “Hello fiance,” Deb smiles.

    My right hand quickly reaches for the ring that hangs loose on my bony finger. It’s a soft thin band of gold, subtle and less declaratory. Yesterday night comes back to me, the housewarming party, the poem, the promise to cook for me always, and the proposal.

    “If you had given me a warning, I wouldn’t have been so drunk.”

    “It was my way of taking advantage of you,” Deb winks and pushes the toast towards me which I take a small bite of.

    “I want to cook for you tonight,” I say, as a thank you for asking me to marry him and for keeping it simple.

    “Can you… do that?” He asks with a raised eyebrow.

    I laugh. He is not to blame, I haven’t stepped inside the kitchen for god knows how long.

    “Fish curry, I will cook Amma’s fish curry.”

    ***

     

    I remember my mother’s fish curry vividly, having seen it cooked every Sunday in our backyard kitchen in Kochi. My father is a vegetarian so my mother cooks all her meat in the outdoor kitchen. Watching my mother lather pieces of cut meat with masalas disgusted me as a kid, but I always sat next to her as her shadow, following her around the house, watching her cook, clean, pack lunches for everyone.

    I put the pan on the stove and fry the fish that Deb has marinated. I add everything I remember from watching my mother, some grated coconut, raw mangoes, chilies — slit open into the angry gravy full of masalas, tamarind, and the fried pieces of fish in the end. I add some water and close the lid. I feel like there is a spell I need to cast after everything. And I am right, when I taste the gravy poured over rice, it’s not the same. I do not know the spell.

    “It’s good,” Deb tells me.

    “It’s not.”

    I take a tiny bite of the fish and push the plate away, the fish is sitting away from the curry like it never was a part of it.

    “Take it from a Bengali, honey, this is good and spicy. I love it.”

    He isn’t lying, he always finds something good to appreciate, the exact reason why I have been dating him for two years. The kindness is all I have searched for in countless boys, and later men, in the busy streets of Delhi ever since I moved here when I was twenty.

    “What sort of wedding are you thinking?” Deb asks me.

    I have been anxious since the proposal. I haven’t told Deb that the ring is loose, the idea of a wedding is scary and that I have not seen any happy marriages. All my friends have also started pestering me with the same question.

    “Something small?” I check if the answer is right.

    “Yeah, I don’t mind, why spend unnecessarily? Close friends and family only right?”

    I gulp at the word, ‘family’.

    “I was hoping smaller,” I say in a small voice, as I push my plate away, the untouched rice and fish staring at me accusingly.

    “What’s smaller than that?” Deb asks, “Could you please eat some rice?”

    ***

     

    I call my mother in the evening after returning from the designer store that I manage in Khan Market. Calling her is uncomfortable as we always run out of topics in the first two minutes. I start with the topic of the fish curry.

    “Do you add coconut milk to it?” I ask her about the recipe.

    “Yeah, I don’t remember.”

    I don’t understand why she is reluctant to share the recipe. I am her only child. She retired five years ago from her work and ever since then she has stopped cooking. Every time I go home to meet her, breakfast is boiled bananas and puttu, dinner is kanji — as this helps with everyone’s digestion, and lunch is always rice and an indifferent sambar. I hardly touch anything, often skipping meals, but I feel bad for my father, though after a few drinks, he could hardly tell the difference between a sambar or parippu curry.

    “Who are you cooking fish for?” She asks.

    “Why do you never go to the kitchen like before?”  I ask her back.

    “What do you mean? Who cooks the food here then, if not me?” She snaps.

    “Not like that, you know what I mean. Now you cook the same stuff always.”

    “Who has the appetite for something new?”

    Growing up, I remember her cooking biriyanis, and experimenting with chicken stews, mutton soups, and beef olithayathu in the second kitchen. We always had so much food in the fridge. Vegetarian section for my father and the rest of the space for all her experiments. She was always running late for the office, but she never forgot to pack tiffins for the three of us. The soft dosas always accompanied two chutneys — coconut and red onion. I never found out how she found time for this. She baked birthday cakes and looked up recipe books for north Indian cuisines. Once she cooked paneer with cashew gravy to impress her vegetarian husband.

    “This is very chewy,” he said about the paneer, “Are you sure this is veg?”

    I always imagined that when she retired, she would cook more and my parents would get fat. But it looks like she left her passion back at her office desk at the SBI Bank, Aluva branch. It’s as if she enjoyed cooking when she didn’t have time for it.

    After telling her how the fish curry was nothing like hers to which she doesn’t respond, I break the news to her gently.

    “I am getting married.”

    “What does he do?” She asks.

    “Debjit is a writer and translates Bengali books into English. He has many books published.”

    “Translator? Bengali?”

    I almost know what she is going to ask next.

    “Non-vegetarian?”

    ***

     

    My father calls me the next day and asks more about Deb. He wants to come to Delhi to meet him.

    “I have a few friends who I want to catchup with as well.”

    I always grew up quite distant from my father because he was my Maths teacher at school first and then my father. Even at home, I called him ‘Sir’. All he wanted from me was to get a Government job, marry his best friend’s son at twenty-five, and settle next door. Instead, I dropped out of college, ran away to join a Fashion course at Delhi University, and I am unmarried at thirty.

    “Where will you stay?” I ask him, looking around at our unfurnished house.

    “At a hotel obviously, you don’t have to worry about all that.”

    I finish the glass of wine and reach for more. I do not know how to not worry, Deb is also pacing the room, waiting for me to finish the call. He was probably a good son, I wish my parents were also dead.

    “Do you need money?” My father asks before he cuts the call.

    “No sir.”

    ***

     

    Every time Deb starts talking about the wedding, I zone out. I have been drinking more ever since I learned that my parents are coming for a week. We have bought a dining table and a sofa, just in case they end up visiting us. I have kept them at a distance all these years, and suddenly the thought of them in my new house is unsettling.

    ***

     

    We receive them at the airport and later take them out for lunch near their hotel.

    My mother is wearing a plain kasav saree paired with a red blouse. My father is dressed in a crisp yellow shirt and black trousers as if he is on his way to work.

    They both look like a celebrity couple, with only a few grey hairs, lean, beautiful, and handsome. Only I know that they don’t talk to each other. They have never slept in the same bed for as long as I can remember.

    My father is talkative and Deb has parked himself next to him, indulging him by laughing at all his jokes.

    “Congratulations, you will be Ammu Chatterjee now?” My father cracks a joke and both my mother and I cringe inwardly. Deb’s last name is not Chatterjee, but he laughs out loud.

    Amma watches me push the food around on my plate.

    “You have grown so thin,” She says.

    In reply, I take a spoon of rice, put it in my mouth, and roll my eyes.

    I am a spitting image of her, with the same curly hair, big eyes, sharp nose, long neck, and jutting collarbone, but while she is softer around the edges, I am sharp and pointy.

    “She barely eats,” Deb tells Amma.

    “Not true,” I snap at Deb, the betrayal stinging me.

    “Always a picky eater Ammu has been.” My father says.

    “Not always,” Amma mutters.

    After our goodbyes, when we reach back home, I run to the balcony to light a cigarette. Deb joins me a minute later.

    “They seem nice.”

    “Oh boy, so nice.”

    “We should call them home for dinner, I will cook.”

    ***

     

    I don’t remember them not fighting ever. I sometimes wonder how they came together to have sex and make me.

    My father used to be out drinking every night. I saw him more at school than at home. I thought my mother could fix it, like she fixed all my other problems, from torn skirts to late homework. Instead, she cooked and cooked in her second kitchen like she was celebrating and preparing a feast every day.

    “Come taste this,” she held the spatula with a tiny piece of fried chicken sitting on top of it.

    “Amma, don’t bring this here, you are supposed to cook on the other side.”

    She always crossed lines in his absence. I found this selfish. Sometimes a chicken curry tiffin would be found in the vegetarian section of the fridge. I inspected the fridge daily to see if all was in place, in the hope that fixing this would keep my father at home more.

    “Oh, don’t be silly, come taste this,” She insisted.

    “I hate chicken,” I told her.

    She winced in shock, “Since when?”

    I stopped eating chicken and beef first and then fish later. But Amma would still cook in full swing as if she was cooking for a family of ten, most of which she carried to the office for her friends.

    I started sniffing her tiffins to check what she packed for herself.

    “Amma, you made pathiri in the morning?”

    “Yeah, just a few for the office party.” She said. She was cleaning the utensils after our dinner. She opened her tiffin, and the beef curry grease oozed out, she quickly rinsed it with soap.

    “So Pathiri and beef for you and chapati with yesterday’s potato curry for us.”

    “There was a potluck at the office, so I had to make something special, Ammu. What are you, a detective? And it’s not like you eat beef now.”

    She opened my tiffin to wash and found the complete lunch intact as she packed it.

    “I had food at the school canteen,” I told her.

    When this repeated several times, she cut my allowances. In anger, I stayed hungry but never ate her food.

    She continued to cook aromatic biriyanis in the second chicken. Once I saw my father looking longingly towards the kitchen, with probably a doubt himself.

    She made rice and sambar for us and filled her tiffin with tender chicken biriyani.

    “Can you make us something else?” My father asked her in anger.

    “I don’t have time,” she thrust a tiffin at me, that I had no plans of opening.

    It was easy to starve in school, I enjoyed the pang of hunger coiling in my tummy and how it sucked in my waist inch by inch. At home, when I opened the fridge full of food that she cooked for others, I shut it with a force that I made sure she noticed.

    After I left home, I found the meats and vegetables of Delhi foreign, so I chose to eat less and stay thin. Designers loved to style clothes on me during my college days and asked me to walk the ramp, I have always been size zero.

    Till I met Deb, who made sure I had one proper meal a day. He cooked for me like it was his job to feed me right. Every afternoon, he sent a hand-cooked tiffin to my store that reminded me of my mother’s lunchboxes, only these ones I chose to eat.

    So when Deb asks me, I don’t like the idea of him cooking for my parents at all.

    ***

     

    My parents have been touring Delhi for three days. I see all the pictures my father posts on Facebook. We meet them two more times for dinner, the same routine — food, drinks, and the same jokes. While Amma goes over the menu at every restaurant thoroughly, we end up ordering some vegetarian food that my father dictates.

    “Do you want something?” Deb asks my mother.

    She blinks at him in surprise before muttering a no.

    “I am going to Agra for two days, your mother can stay with you till then.” My father declares.

    “No, I am good at the hotel,” My mother says before I can think of an excuse.

    “Whatever suits you,” he turns to Deb, “so what have you thought about the wedding?”

    “We are still discussing the details,” Deb says, looking at me.

    “Maybe Jaipur, they have palaces there for weddings now.”

    “No, it will be a small thing at Delhi, no family, just a Register Marriage,” I say.

    ***

     

    The next day I call Amma to check up on her.

    “Your father was pissed yesterday,” she says.

    “When is he not? What are you doing?” I ask her.

    “The hotel is comfortable, I am okay here.”

    “Come for lunch with me, I will show you my store.”

    She agrees. She is impressed by the Khan market – the designer shops, the cute little cafes, the bookstores. I feel a little taller as I show her around and we stop at a bakery for a bite of a rainbow cake that has her in awe.

    “It’s unbelievable,” she says, taking pictures of the pastry from different angles.

    When we come to my store, all my four friends are waiting to greet her. We have been running this store together for five years now. She browses through the store and checks the price tag of many gowns.

    “These are expensive,” she stares at me.

    All of us giggle.

    Her eyes land on the row of money plants I have planted along the window sills.

    “It reminds me of your bedroom window, it has spread wildly, every six months, I have to cut it down,” she says.

    “Ammu and her obsession with money plants,” Aleena says, “the plant that grows its own roots, she is quite philosophical, we think it’s Debjit’s influence.”

    “We should take your mother shopping,” Shalini says.

    “Why don’t all of you come home, I will cook,” Amma says.

    I am hurt that she has extended the invitation without asking me.

    ***

     

    It’s a Sunday. My father is still in Agra, and Deb is busy with a meeting with his publisher, which I think is an excuse for giving me some alone time with Amma.

    I am perched on our dining table, watching my mother cook for my friends.

    I had forgotten how messy she made the kitchen while she cooked. She needs things within an arm’s distance so everything’s out of its drawers, shelves, and packets. She is making ghee rice, avyil, fish curry and paysam. We went over the menu several times to keep it short.

    “What did you do all alone in the evening yesterday?” I ask her.

    Maybe it’s the aroma of all the spices that has my tongue loose or the third glass of wine I gulped down or watching her cook after ages, not for me but for my friends.

    She looks up in between stirring the paysam. Then she watches me pour another glass of wine.

    “Can I have some?” She asks.

    I give her the glass, she sniffs it and takes a sip.

    “It’s not as bitter as the ones your father has, it’s much…friendlier,” she says. “I ordered a lot of food to my hotel room yesterday.”

    I don’t know why but this makes me angry. Her obsession with food always made me angry. It’s like we are back in our home in Kochi. She is in a trance, talking, cooking, cutting, stirring, frying, all at once, and I am sitting across, watching her, judging her.

    “I thought you had an affair at your office,” I tell her.

    The doorbell rings and I jump to open the door. My friends have come early as they want to help in the kitchen, and my mother accepts the help wholeheartedly, giving each of them something to do.

    “You can fry the pappadams,” she tells Aleena.

    I can tell she likes Aleena the most. I take out another wine bottle and pour myself another drink. There is laughter, banter, and loud questions in the kitchen. I stand in the middle, aloof, exactly like how I felt growing up under her.

    “What’s the matter,” Shalini asks me and takes the bottle from my hand.

    “Nothing’s the matter, I am enjoying this family time,” I say with a chirp.

    Aleena walks over to me and whispers in my ear, “Behave.”

    It’s funny how my friends are asking me to behave in front of my mother. I help them set the table and we start eating. All of them gush over her fish curry and she is blushing.

    I take some fish curry onto my plate and mix it with a tiny serving of rice. I have not eaten my mother’s food in a long time. I am hit with a strong flashback of my childhood as the soft tangy meat melts in my mouth. The gravy is velvety and firey, but the ghee rice compliments it by mellowing down the spice. My hands have turned turmeric, as I take a mental note of saving some for Deb.

    “Uncle’s so lucky to have this every day.”

    “Men are always lucky when it comes to food.”

    “Other than my dad, he is the best, he cooks more than my mom.”

    Everyone’s talking aloud, but my mother is looking at my plate and my mouth. I ignore her and talk to my friends.

    “Deb cooks all the time, I am lucky too.”  I chip in and then we all dive into Deb’s cooking.

    ***

     

    “You eat fish now?” Amma asks after everyone has left and she is cleaning the kitchen.

    “You never told me you ate fish, I would have cooked for you when you came home, how many times I tried to feed you fish, you always made a disgusting face.”

    Amma has started to clean the utensils now. I take them from her. A headache is developing at the corners of my head from all the food and wine.

    “You rest, my househelp will do this tomorrow,” I tell her.

    “It wasn’t an affair, just a…friendship. It was not like what you think.”

    It takes me a while to understand that she is answering my earlier question. She is slurring and I realize that someone kept refilling her glass of wine. She comes down to sit next to me.

    “Did you like the fish curry?”

    “It was lovely… some days I dreamt of it.”

    This isn’t an exaggeration. Most of my childhood was spent watching her cook, all my dreams of her are from the kitchen.

    “I will tell you the recipe, I want you to make it for yourself, not for someone else.”

    “How does that matter?”

    “Because when others stop eating, you lose your appetite too.”

    ***

     

    My parents leave the next day and I hand my mother two bottles of wine as a present. She blushes and slips a piece of paper to me with a few recipes.

    Always add the coconut milk, she underlines for the fish curry.

    As Deb and I drive home from the airport, I find myself close to tears. We haven’t discussed the wedding since the meeting with my parents, I should have properly discussed this with him before telling my father.

    “Are you scared that I am like your father?” Deb asks, patting my hand.

    “You are like my mother, so I am not scared at all,” I answer and hold the paper full of recipes to my heart. I feel the wall between me and my mother fall down brick by brick, and what is left is a clear view of her, standing young and alone with a spatula, waiting for me to come taste her food.

    Archana Nair works as Project lead in the Tech world of Bangalore. She is a passionate storyteller who strives to capture the angst of the current generation of women. She enjoys long walks, worrying over small things, and traveling far and wide. Her stories unpack intense layers of family ties and relationships. Her short stories and book reviews have been published in Outofprint, Spark magazine, Muse India and Scroll.

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