Saturday, January 21, 2006


In the beginning, there was Tofu. The colourless, damp, slightly rubbery texture of it that Radha's knife sliced through with practised ease. Radha liked tofu. It was her field of expertise as a cook, even if she said so herself. Her tofu makhani was considered a minor miracle by all those who had tasted it, and her kadhai tofu was a favourite among friends and family alike - a staple at every dinner party she gave. Even her mother, who on general principle approved of nothing Radha did in the home, had to admit that she knew how to cook tofu. The thing about tofu, Radha reflected, was that people had no preconceived notions about it. Because it wasn't exactly a traditional dish, there were no grandmother's recipes floating about, and people savoured it for itself, not searching in it for the half-remembered taste of their own childhood. It was this absence of history, as though the past had leached out of tofu along with its colour, that made Radha so partial to tofu. She thought of it as the unformed poetry of her life - so blank, so easily cut down to size.

That was the other thing: the pliability of it, its protean nature. The way you could cut it to whatever shape you wanted - dice it, grate it, fillet it - and there was none of that annoying peeling and scraping to be gone through first. Today she was making tofu matar. She finished cutting the tofu into cubes, then put half a pat of oil in the pan, watching the yellow sun of it melt slowly to a neutral day. The first rays of morning were streaming through the kitchen window. Yielding her face to them, Radha reminded herself, as she did every morning, how lucky they were to have this apartment.

It was a beautiful apartment. One massive master bedroom, on a scale unheard of anywhere else in Bandra; a second room, equally large, that was used a study, its walls lined with old walnut bookshelves; high, cool ceilings, a massive living area and a true delight of a kitchen in gleaming black marble; and the most glorious view of the sea from almost every room. There wasn't a friend of theirs who didn't envy them this house, this apartment that felt as though it had been transported there by some genie, placed among the crowded architecture of Bombay by mistake.

It was Harish who had found the apartment for them. This was before they were married. Harish had mentioned to Michael, his immediate superior at work, that he needed to move out of his bachelor quarters and was looking for a nice apartment, not too expensive, preferably in Bandra or thereabouts. It turned out that Michael's aging grand-uncle had just such an apartment lying vacant, so Harish went to see it and fell in love with it almost instantly. Among friends, Radha still jokes that the only reason she married Harish was because of the apartment, and the friends laugh and assure her that it was an exceptionally good reason.

There is the landlord himself, of course. Not Michael, even though he seems to feel it his right to take a proprietal interest in the place, poking about the house every time he comes to visit. (Radha, does not like Michael - he strikes her as too brash, too arrogant - the kind of man who walks about with an exaggerated swagger, as though his genitalia were too big for his shorts). No, the real landlord, the grand-uncle. Radha is afraid of this landlord, though she will admit it to no one. There is something about his bushy eyebrows, his deep, hoarse voice, his condescending manner, that makes Radha feel that she is disapproved of, that she has said or done something to harm him, though she does not know what. He's a kind enough man, Radha tells herself, always correct and courteous, always listening patiently when they have a complaint, but something about him just strikes her as sinister.

Fortunately he doesn't interfere much. Almost never visits the house, usually contenting himself with quick phone calls to them when he's in India (he lives in Rome) and never asking any questions about the house even when he does occassionally stop by, more interested in the two of them than in his own house, so unlike Michael in that way. His only stricture, as he informed Harish before he signed the lease, was that no flesh would be cooked or eaten in the house, nor must the people living in the house eat non-vegetarian food outside. There's actually a clause about this in the rent contract. He seems obssessed about it, the old man, but for Radha and Harish, both life-long vegetarians, acceding to his condition is hardly a hardship. As Harish puts it, laughingly rebutting Radha's point about marrying him for the house, he would have considered giving up sex for a house like this, so giving up the meat that he doesn't eat anyway was hardly going to stop him.

So, here we are, thinks Radha, adding the tofu to the now sizzling pan, twenty-eight years old, in perfect health, with successful careers, a beautiful home and a loving marriage. Yes, we're lucky, she thinks, watching the cubes of tofu sputter in the pan like dice from which all the numbers have been erased.


At two that afternoon, Radha is sitting in an unfamiliar Colaba cafe, and wishing she'd gone to Churchill's instead. This cafe is a new place, serving, her friend has assured her, the most delightful vegetarian Italian food with an exquisite selection of breads, but Radha is tired after a morning of hectic meetings, and is looking for the comfort of the familiar. Besides there is something about the cafe that doesn't feel right to her. Not that it isn't well done up, the light coloured tables are arranged in careful disarray, the soft strumming of the guitar on the music system is soothing, the whole place has a sunny, weightless feel. And the waiter, she notices, is extremely good looking, though in a brutal sort of way. Yet something about this place menaces her, some premonition that hangs in the air like stale cigarette smoke.

Nonsense, she tells herself - she is here now so she might as well try the place out. Besides she will never get a table elsewhere and she is hungry. She orders a glass of carrot juice and a soy lasagna, and pulls out a book to skim while she waits.

The lasagna, when it arrives is exquisite. There is no other word for it. She takes one bite and feels the shock of the taste coursing through her, the flavour of it so thrilling that it is all her mouth can do to contain it, to keep from exclaiming in joy. She eats greedily, in a frenzy of disbelief, each new bite making the denial of what her taste-buds are telling her a little weaker. Nothing she has ever tasted before in her life has felt this rich, this succulent. As she savours the last few mouthfuls of this revelation, she makes a mental note to drag Harish here the first time they go out for dinner again, perhaps even tonight. She is supremely happy.

When the cheque comes, she looks at it carefully, then calls the waiter over to point out to him that she has had the soy lasagna and they have billed her for regular. The waiter looks at her out of those smouldering eyes of his, clearly puzzled. "Soy lasagna?", he says, "no ma'am, that wasn't soy lasagna - that was regular lasagna, I thought that's what you wanted. At least, that's what you told me", he adds, sounding defensive. "Regular lasagna?!" she half screams, "you mean, you mean the kind with MEAT in it". The waiter smiles sadistically at the sight of her obvious horror. "Yes ma'am", he said, "one hundred percent pure beef. Best Quality. Imported all the way from US". Then he laughs.


That night, at dinner, Radha can't eat a bite. The memory of what she has eaten for lunch seems to linger in her mouth like a stain, turning the sprouts and salad they are eating to ashes in her mouth. Here's the smell of blood still. The words from Macbeth that she performed in college come back to her. Who would have thought lasagna could have so much blood in it?

Harish, intent on describing a tricky deal he worked out for a client, notices nothing. She wonders if she should tell him about the disaster that has befallen her. But what if he should turn against her? Surely he wouldn't. It was an honest mistake, it could have happened to anyone. And besides, she is his wife, it's not like he's going to leave her because she made a mistake. What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? But what if he were to think she had enjoyed it? How could you eat that disgusting thing and not know? he will ask. He will try to be supportive, of course, but he will not be able to keep from feeling the disgust for her body that she feels herself. They will drift apart. The day will come when he will ask her for a divorce and she will not, in all conscience, be able to say no. Her life will be over. No, better not to tell him. No need really. It's all in the past anyway. Better to let bygones be bygones.

Three days pass. Radha cooks all her favourite vegetarian meals, taking her skill with tofu to levels it has never known before. Harish remarks on it, delighted, though a little incredulous. By the third day, having thrown a good portion of her tofu hariyali into the garbage, Radha is forced to admit to herself that bygones are not bygones. Her guilt has settled by now, has turned into anger against that stupid waiter. After all, it was all his fault, wasn't it? She clearly TOLD him she wanted a soy lasagna. She's the victim here - no reason for her to feel guilty.

But still her appetite has not returned. She tries dish after dish that used to delight her but they all seem bland, insipid. The taint of the flavour is gone, but the memory of it lies aching on her tongue, like a longing, and in comparison with it everything pales. Horrified with herself, she is forced to admit that she craves another taste of meat. She has no sooner articulated this thought in her head than she shrinks back from it. What would Harish say, what would her mother say? She thinks about the stories she heard as a little girl, about tigers who, having accidentally tasted human blood once, turn irrevocably into man-eaters. Something similar has happened to her. She is cursed. She dreams of herself tearing into live chickens, her mouth emerging from their innards caked with feathers and blood. She wakes up in a cold sweat.

When a week has passed without blunting this new appetite of hers, she starts, very furtively, to do some research on meat-eating. She reads about proteins and what the lack of them can do to the human body. She studies people at work who are, by their own admission, devoted meat eaters, and convinces herself that they are not, after all, raging and violent demons, but in fact are people just like her in every way except in diet. Slowly her resolve starts to weaken. She finds herself opening recipes of lasagna on the internet, staring at them with the saliva gathering in her mouth (Her aversion to eating her normal diet has caused her to lose three kgs in a month. She has told everyone, including Harish - who finally noticed - that she is on a diet. But the truth is that she's just hungry).

The fact is that Radha has never questioned, before now, the meaning of her vegetarianism. She did not turn vegetarian, is not vegetarian for any particular reason or principle. She is vegetarian because that is what she has always been - to question her vegetarian status would have seemed to her as odd as questioning her name or the place that she was born. Being vegetarian is not a way of life she has chosen, it's just who she is.

But slowly, she is beginning to question, is beginning to wonder what lies behind her choice. There are so many foods out there that I am depriving myself of, she reasons - fish, chicken, bacon, pork, ham, turkey, veal, beef, mutton - endless sources of fibre and protein, all crucial to human health. Isn't my denial of these things simply a form of close-mindedness? Don't we owe it to ourselves to make a more informed decision? I'm not saying that I want to turn non-vegetarian necessarily, I'm just saying that one needs to try these things and then come to an objective decision.

So, one day, four months after the Colaba Incident (which is how she now thinks of that day, capital letters included), Radha takes the day off from work and walks into a butcher's shop. The smell is overwhelming and turns her stomach, but her resolve is firm now, and she perseveres, coming away with a slab of boneless fish. Back home she anxiously pulls up a menu from the Internet, proceeds to try cooking the fish herself. To her surprise this turns out to be a lot simpler than she expected. It turns out that there are no exotic rites to be performed, none of the mystic libations she has pictured to herself. After a little initial preparation, the whole thing is surprisingly similar to the way she makes tofu. Radha sees this as an affirmation, a sign that what she is doing is meant to be. Dish prepared, she waits anxiously for Harish to come home, forces him to sit down to an early dinner, and plies him with the dish, watching tensely as he eats.

This is the moment that she has feared most of all - the true denouement that will either expose her or prove her right. She has pictured to herself a million times the revulsion on Harish's face as he turns away from the meat, showing her that it is she who is abnormal, she who is at fault. This does not happen. Instead Harish's reaction closely mirrors her's at the cafe, all those days ago. His face lights up as he eats, he devours a plateful, asks for seconds, and loudly praises her cooking, proclaiming that this time she has totally outdone herself. Finally, towards the end of the meal, he asks her what it is. She tells him.

For a moment, there is dead silence at the table, so that it feels as though Harish has dropped his fork, though it's still there, held tightly between his fingers, suspended in mid air. Then the questioning starts, the bewilderment, the recriminations. What is she thinking of? What does she mean? She tells him all about the last four months - the regular lasagna, the haunting of her appetite, her resolution to try something new - pointing again and again to the meal he has just eaten, and evidently enjoyed. Understanding takes time to digest however, and neither of them gets any sleep that night, their voices raised and lowered in that medley of accusation and tenderness that only two people deeply in love with each other are capable of. By the time the morning arrives, he has accepted, a little sullenly, that this non-vegetarian thing may be worth trying.


And so a brand new world begins. As their inhibitions gradually leave them, Radha and Harish indulge in a frenzy of eating, discovering a wealth and range of delights that their innocent palates had never thought possible. Every day is a new adventure now, every meal is a new find. It is such a thrill to be able to walk into their favourite restaurants and be able to order from the entire menu, instead of limiting themselves to one of the four selections in that green-coloured section on page 4. Radha's tofu skills are soon forgotten, as the couple turn into meat addicts, junkies of the flesh, incapable of going a single meal without something non-vegetarian (even breakfast is bacon and eggs now). Radha buys a mini deep freeze for her kitchen and stocks it with all sorts of goodies - sausages, salami, cutlets, kebabs, drumsticks, chicken breasts, steak, chops. The smell of sizzling flesh fills the house.

And that's where the trouble starts. In the urgency of their exploration, the young couple have completely forgotten the condition laid down by the landlord. One day, just as they are sitting down to hearty meal of tandoori chicken, he arrives in person, looking wrathful and suspicious (did Michael notice something and tell him? did one of the neighbours call him and report the smell? or was it just an accident that he happened to stop by? no one will ever know). Walking in, he took one look at the meal growing flagrantly cold on the table, stomped into the table and saw the KFC carton lying by the trash, the peeled strips of this morning's salami still lying on the kitchen slab, and began to shout at them. My house has been polluted forever, he screamed. I gave you the house on trust, you promised me that not even the slightest taint of flesh would come near it, and then I find you with this abomination on the dining table, committing sacrilege after sacrilege in this apartment that I have built with the sweat of my brow? I want you out of here at once. I don't care about rent or anything like that. I just want you to leave. Now. Tonight. And take your dirty food, and your clothes and your things smelling of dead flesh with you. Go. Leave now. This minute. I demand it.

It took a while for Harish to calm him down, to make him see that it was not reasonable to expect anyone to vacate a house instantly at 10 o clock at night. Sullenly, the landlord agreed, but remained adamant that they must leave, giving them, grudgingly, till the coming Sunday to clear out. When Harish tried to point out that it would be almost impossible to find a new place by then, he flared up again. "I don't care where you go", he said, "you and your damn wife can sleep on the bloody footpath. What's that to me? I just want you out of my house - every additional day you spend in it is a desecration". So there it was. Radha and Harish had three days in which to wind up the house they had lived in for four years now, and in the meantime, while they stayed there, they were not to cook or bring any meat into the house (the meat currently in the house would be thrown out immediately - a concession both Radha and Harish granted quickly and guiltily, hoping to use it to pursuade the old man to let them stay). He would hear no more.

Come Sunday, it was Michael who showed up to see the couple out and take the key from them (apparently the old man could not stand the thought of seeing them again; he was busy organising a massive pooja to purify his house the minute Michael confirmed that they had left). Michael's manner was disapproving, almost hostile. He told Harish that he was disappointed in him, that he had always considered him a trustworthy man and had been shocked to hear of his duplicity. Things at office would need to be reconsidered now, he implied. When the last of their boxes had been taken out, he locked the door of the apartment firmly, accompanied them down in the lift, and stood by the door of the building, watching them drive away, as though to ensure that they didn't sneak back in somehow.

In the years to come, Radha and Harish lived in many apartments, some pleasant enough, some frankly squalid and inconvenient. After the first flush of their excitement over meat-eating they settled into a more balanced diet, coming to see even such exotic delicacies as seekh kebabs as a matter of course. In fact, when a fad for avoiding red meat swept the country, Radha resurrected her skill with tofu, and dazzled their friends anew with her proficiency. Like the flats they moved into, their marriage soon settled into a more ordinary mould as well, they grew more negligent of each other, quarrelled more, took notice of each other more casually. Whenever they would sit down to reminisce about the old times, however, the topic of that apartment would always come up, and they would retell the story of it, sometimes whimsically, laughing at their foolishness, sometimes with genuine regret for what they had lost.



J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Nice read. The first section is in your normal close-up style, the rest seems a trifle hurried. Would you consider re-working the last section?

And while you're at it, do look up a lovely piece of horror writing called "The Speciality of the House", by Stanley Ellin. Point of similarity.


DoZ said...

Wow. Very, very nice.
I recall an incident from my own life - am a veggie myself, and once devoured a chicken tikka pizza without noticing it until a good half the pizza was consumed. Like Radha, I felt rotten about it afterwards, and no one knows about it till date... But unlike her, the experience did not turn me into a raging carnivore, and I continue to be a veggie.

Inkblot said...

Write another story ,please? About what they discovered and didn't share.

meditativerose said...

Guess there was no need to worry about being too obvious ...
and yes, the Micheal bit was a cool touch :)

Falstaff said...

JAP: have read Speciality of the House, though quite a while ago now.

Agree that the last section is a little hurried - largely because I decided I didn't want to spend my ENTIRE Saturday putting one blog post.

Doz: I'm not going to ask how you could not notice that a chicken tikka pizza was, well, a chicken tikka pizza. I suspect almost every veggie I know has had at least one experience of eating something non-vegetarian without realising it.

DoZ said...

I'd ordered a Paneer tikka pizza, and was quite ravenous by the time the wrong pizza was delivered... cubes of chicken / cubes of paneer, they're all alike to the hungry eye... it was after my stomach was half-filled that I noticed the funny taste / smell... but as my parents would say, that's no excuse...Am sure to burn in hell for all eternity (and not for eating some chicken by mistake - so there's always that consolation)

Falstaff said...

MR: thanks. Though I discovered that Genesis itself doesn't bring Michael into it. I guess I was influenced by that final scene from Paradise Lost more than anything else.

Doz: Oh well. Think of all the things you can do now that you know you're going to hell anyway. Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a chicken tikka pizza.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I'm old and blond and senile and stoopid! How could I miss the allegory?


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

AND dyslexic. Of course I meant blind, though blond works in this case.


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tangled said...

Ooh, I kept thinking "Pig".

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