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Anna’s Lunch

by Jessamine Mathew

It seems strange that such diversity could exist in the same few square kilometres. Jessamine’s story is about the ignored origins of our food, food that we celebrate and use to venerate our cultural leanings. It walks down the paths of where our food comes from and more importantly, looks into the faces of those who make it possible for it to be eaten.

Malik had recently begun keeping the window open at night despite the fear of thieves. Bangalore was unnaturally hot that December and neither he nor his two brothers could afford to pay for electricity in their tiny house. On a particularly sultry Saturday, he woke with a start to the sound of birds squawking and a blaring car horn that effortlessly shot in through the open window. Muttering a few choice curses under his breath, he blearily got out of bed to receive the consignment of turkeys for his roadside abattoir in Shivaji Nagar. As he gingerly handled the cages filled with closely-packed birds, he wondered why they could not tranquilize the birds, at the very least for this infernal squawking to stop. He would soon have to transport them to his meat shop and he began to dread what would follow once customers began to approach him.

Eager to push these unpleasant thoughts out of his mind, Malik started to cook breakfast for the three of them. His youngest brother Adnan would soon return from his night shift at the local cake factory. His job was no less strenuous as he had to pour all the cake ingredients into a giant churning cauldron. Adnan would have to ensure the production of 50 cakes in each batch of batter. This meant cracking 70 eggs, throwing in kilograms of flour, dry fruits, molasses and butter, and pouring in endless streams of milk. The machine would mix these ingredients for 30 minutes before the batter was emptied out into moulds for baking in the factory’s extra-large ovens. The night shift was chosen so that he could still go to evening college and earn a degree – he was everyone’s golden ticket to more money and a better life. He usually applied for sick leave off work during his college semester exams but December was a big month for the industry, with plum cake forming a major part of the production, and so he tirelessly worked for the pittance that it would give him.

Malik rummaged through the shelves in their makeshift kitchen, looking for a pan. Once he found it, he lit the gas stove and poured some oil on the pan. While the oil heated, he counted his earnings from the previous day. They needed supplies urgently and he made a mental checklist of what he needed to get from the market – tomatoes, potatoes, some garlic, some lime, one kilo of rice, a handful of jaggery for their morning coffee. Was there any money for some eggs? Before he could finish his train of thought, the oil began sputtering and he almost automatically scooped some pearly-white dosa batter out and dropped it on the hot pan. The pan began to sizzle and he quickly spread the batter out in a circular motion. It began to fry with a satisfying crackle and the thinner parts began to brown. He flipped it over and the sound of a fresher crackle commenced, accompanied by the smell of dosa flooding the room. “Couldn’t you start a bit later?” came a disgruntled voice from a corner of the room. Iqbal, his older brother was awake at last. Despite his visible irritation, he found himself next to Malik, holding a plate and waiting to be served.

Iqbal thanked his stars that he was not required at the vineyard that day as the local trade union had demanded this weekend off. He thought back to the day before when he was assembling countless wine bottles onto the machine that would cork and label them. He cared very little for the deep red liquid inside. It could be tar for all the attention he paid to the contents. He once registered with considerable shock that one bottle cost as much as their monthly budget for groceries at home but his mind had long since made that revelation recede into irrelevance. For now, he would mechanically place the bottles in a line, only careful not to break them and have an obscene amount cut from his salary.

Just as Iqbal finished eating, there was a tired knock at the door. Adnan had come back, looking exhausted. “Had to finish almost double the normal amount because of tomorrow”, he said, as if offering an explanation for his extra-fatigued visage. Malik and Iqbal nodded grimly and watched Adnan as he began to tear apart the brown dosa and dip its parts into a pale green chutney.

**

Malik arrived at the Shivaji Nagar market early to set up his stall. All his turkeys were lined up and while he waited for his customers, he started to boil a large pot of water. Not long after, a middle-aged man arrived at his stall with his teenaged daughter. The girl stared at the turkeys lined up and pointed at one in the far left corner. Malik took a deep breath and lifted it gently out of its cage. In a flash, Malik broke the bird’s neck and drowned it in the boiling water. The girl let out an audible gasp and her father stroked her hair to calm her down. Malik did not react outwardly but could not understand whether she was astonished at the death of the bird or the fact that he was made to do it for them. He quickly packed the raw bird and gave it to the girl. Her eyes were fixed on his as she took it and in them, Malik saw a rare form of understanding. Young as she was, it was as though she had perceived the difficulty of his job and weighed it against what it would result in for her.

**

On Sunday, after morning mass, Anna’s mother called the whole family to help with their Christmas lunch. It was the most special day of the year and there was much work to be done. Anna and her family quickly got to work, looking at multiple recipe books for the afternoon’s spread.

Late in the afternoon, Anna’s family sat down to eat. Her father set out two regular wine glasses and two smaller glasses. They had bought expensive wine for this and he uncorked it with flourish. He tilted the first glass towards the bottle and began to pour out the rich, red liquid. The wine fell gracefully into the glass, forming small ripples and releasing a gentle alcoholic smell that seemed to already intoxicate those seated with anticipation. Anna started to serve her family the sides with the main dish. There was a vegetable stir-fry with colourful carrots, onions, cherry tomatoes, boiled baby potatoes, capsicum that looked like all the traffic lights, and deep purple cabbage. The entire mixture sat demurely in a bed of olive oil, begging to be eaten. Next was a dish of creamy, seasoned mashed potatoes, almost as fluffy as clouds and soft to touch. Then came Anna’s favourite – pigs in a blanket: small chipolatas fried to the point of almost splitting, wrapped in syrup-soaked bacon, with the salt and the sweet perfectly melding into each other. Her sister brought out the Christmas stuffing, milk-soaked bread cooked with cloves and pepper. Finally, her mother began carving the magnificent turkey that sat at the centre of their table. It was almost a masterpiece in their Christmas meal, baked for over three hours and cooked in parsley, rosemary, and thyme butter. The meat was soft and the smell of the wine was suddenly overpowered by the buttery, spicy smell of the turkey. The meal was the one they had waited all year for.

At the end of their lunch, with stomachs begging for respite, Anna said, “Since we were all too tired to make dessert, is it all right if we have some plum cake that Daddy and I bought instead?”

Jessamine Mathew is a final-year law student from Kolkata. Like many others, she inadvertently gave up writing creatively in exchange for five years of the law during the years of university, but hopes to make up for that very soon.
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