Clarity, there was no clarity in life; her life. It was a disease that seemed to plague most of her generation kids when it came to their career choices. Most of them, specially the likes of her, confused and lost but performing decent throughout, finished school and went on to do engineering at college level. It acted as a safety net, and gave them another four years to contemplate life. In other words, it was the perfect escape mechanism to blow off steam and ward off pressure for an indecisive mind. They all however, invariably, enjoyed college life way too much to remember why they landed there in the first place. Forgetting the past, unwilling to consider the future, they lived in their own sweet world only to be cruelly woken up in the end to jobs they didn’t understand, higher studies or the never ending software jobs.
To her, this was how things stood. Some of her friends however did not agree. They told her to stuff it and do what she truly wanted to instead of cribbing. One or two of these friends, who got placed in software jobs couldn’t be happier. She’d visited them, she knew about their families and the adverse conditions that made them love and respect the software jobs. She understood all that but she couldn’t accept herself working there. Most of her other friends had all applied and got through top colleges around the world. Everyone seemed to be going places, and here she was, track pants and running shoes on, running helter-skelter in the opposite direction.
For the confused souls that don’t achieve clarity even after an undergraduate degree, there seemed to be two options. Scratch, three. First would be, stick to the job you have, i.e software for her. The second one being, pursue a higher degree in the same subject as undergrad. Go abroad if you have to. That wouldn’t work out for her, patience for subjects beyond her comprehension was zilch and given her track record she wouldn’t fall in love with popular subjects. The subjects and courses that seemed to put people ‘at the top of the ladder’, or enable them to earn enough to feed half a state. Not that she begrudged money; on the contrary she appreciated its value. She did want enough to be independent and happy. The last, that one forceful concept for Indian girls: to get married. She was still kid enough to not want to consider it an option. At 22, it was not what she wanted. Yet, if something didn’t happen, or doors didn’t start flying open magically (for she was tired and lazed out of trying) these options would become life. Her life.
It was these thoughts that circled her head as she entered the college hostel and waited for the lift. The gods must really love messing her head up when it came to her career and eh bah! One couldn’t meet a more fickle minded and confused person!
“Aah! How lost could you possibly be Adira! Could you be more indecisive? ” she groaned.
There was Ritu who got placed in Pennstate, Manasa in Princeton and Ayesha in Oxford. They waved and held the lift open for her. That is one successful lift, she thought. Suddenly, worn out mentally as she was, she waved them to go on without her. She turned around and walked into the hostel garden instead. The wind was just picking up and everyone seemed to be in a hurry. She went and sat next to the notice board, on the stairs leading up to the stage. By default her eyes scanned the notices put up, her mind shut and not registering what she read. Suddenly, she saw something that made her focus. The hostel mess owner was asking students if they’d be interested for an internship cooking over the summer break. It was his daughter’s wedding and he could use all the help he could get. He ran a catering business outside, in the outskirts of town in a small farm like place. There would be no pay, instead, materials and stay would be free of cost.
On a sudden impulse, she snatched all the pamphlets regarding the internship off the wall and ran to the mess.
She HATED cooking. Actually, her Ma forced her to try, and like all kids she hated anything she was forced to do. Plus there was an attached tagline she felt conveyed quite implicitly *you need to cook for your husband* that was too corny and repellent.
Therefore, in all, she had no idea why her heartbeat started racing the moment she read the flyer. All she knew was that the owner knew how to make people swoon with his cooking.
Well, it’s not like she had path breaking options in life, might as well give it a shot. Also, it was food. She was food-o-holic enough to put all effort to learn what he taught; or at least eat her heart out in the process.
“Hi uncle!” she ran up to the owner.
They spoke for a while.
“So it’s decided then, you and two other people will join me on the last academic day. Oh, you might not get sufficient mobile receptivity there. So please ask your parents to clarify safety issues with me right away. Bye ma” he said.
“Bye uncle!” she replied.
She was graduating with a Bachelors in Technology degree, had a software job that almost every fifth person seemed to work in, her parents weren’t really proud of her current standing. She used to be exceptionally good in school, so in their eyes she had failed in college. Or so she thought. Anyway, this chef stint seemed more like the exception than the rule, and that made her very happy.
She could only hope they took it sportingly; she was going definitely. She missed being that unpredictable ball of energy; of late life had drained her of interests and direction. She needed something to rock her world into meaningfulness. This cooking stint could be just that.
The house was abuzz with people. In the one month she’d lived here at Uncle’s, there was never a dearth in the huge number of people bustling around. Most were relatives from far off places stopping for a night and a chat and the rest were servants from high end homes come to place catering orders. Ten days ago however, uncle had stopped taking orders. So these people right now must be wedding related people. Adira had no problem with weddings; she harboured no great love for the tradition either.
Uncle didn’t seem to mind the distance she maintained from all the preparations outside the kitchen.
There was much to be said about uncle. He was a well educated man, who seemed to know much about everything. He reminded Adira of her own father. It seemed but natural that he’d land up in the catering business; Adira’s extra five kilograms was an attestation to that fact.
The other two interns, Hari and Maya would swear by it too, though both of them combined healthy eating with a good dose of exercise and went out for morning runs with uncle. In Adira’s case, laziness ruled, and she chose to sit with Aunty during these runs. That’s how she understood their culture, uncle’s engineering career before the catering business and much else. It was this past month, away from the peer-ever-active buzz, in the lull of the village that she understood that life doesn’t all have to happen at 22. That at different ages, new ventures and interests could blossom. That it was okay to be confused. That she was okay, she would be okay. For a month now aunty and uncle had been petting her mercilessly; it was easy to love them. They were authority figures she grew to respect consciously, and their reproving glances at her wasting time lazing around, or sitting with yet another sitcom got her off the couch like even her mother could not. She couldn’t say much about the dishes they made, suffice to say it was yummy and vegetarian. With the D day approaching uncle was losing patience faster and aunty was the only one who could keep him in check.
As she sat she smiled in response to the servant’s smiles as they went about doing odd chores. One or two of the kids always landed up near Adira and initially, had tried to talk. Soon the language barrier ensured that they just curled up against her and slept in the warm sun.
Nobody rebuked her for not giving a hand in the preparation frenzy, especially in the kitchen. They had all discovered well in advance that Adira couldn’t cook; not for lack of trying. The cooking bone was just non-existent. Her enthusiasm however, to learn something new, ensured her stay at their house. So by and by, though at an extremely slow pace, she had learnt a few worthwhile dishes. While the others seemed to master a dish an hour, she loved going slow and steady. Uncle used to be extra calm and patient with her, but of late the teacher-student duo wasn’t doing too well. Aunty tried teaching Adira, but she was hooked on to uncle’s mode of teaching and new influences did not help a bad student.
So tallying it all up, it had been one month since the internship had started, half a month now since uncle had taken a break from the catering business, and another half month to go before the wedding.
On this inauspicious day, she had walked up to uncle and said “Morning uncle. You aren’t being calm with me and that isn’t helping my learning and cooking powers. Also, we get it, it’s your daughter’s wedding but I’m betting you have the perfect menu ready already! In your head you must have played it out a million times! So, what I cannot seem to comprehend is, why the tension? Why are you being so churlish!”
It hadn’t helped her when uncle, already bristling about knuckleheads not understanding ratios and ingredients, had promptly ordered her out. Not before he’d muttered in a furious whisper “You think I didn’t have a planner where I had every single detail mentioned explicitly… old age… forgetfulness… stupidity…lost cause”.
She’d almost not heard that murmur.
So here she was, sitting outside the guesthouse. The main house, the guesthouse and the catering block were a few fifty steps away from each other, all mere specs in the huge garden like farm. The morning joggers apparently jogged about the circumference of this huge green land but Adira hadn’t seen the boundary wall yet.
As she thus sat getting baked in the slight noon sun with three kids huddled around her, still more people came in. Ambassadors still seemed to be the ‘it’ vehicle. This must be the advent of the son’s family; they’d come a week too early. Aunty must have got her dates wrong; she went to warn Aunty. When she had done so, she had to get out of the house for too many people always made her feel claustrophobic, so she decided to take the walk to the perimeter that she never did. Adira picked her knapsack from her room and soon was off.
She was happy in general. Nothing to dance a roulette over; but calm nevertheless. In this state of mind she found the perimeter wall growing with trees. There was a slight breeze, the sun not too hot, in all a mild afternoon. She sat down beneath a tree to rest, and her small head soon wobbled fast asleep.
She dreamt of ingredients, ratios and imaginative dishes. Uncle would be oh so proud of the exact detail. There was a rough hissing voice narrating it all to her in her dream; and when she woke up, she dug into her knapsack produced a small notebook and pencil and noted it all down. This must be something like Glossolalia, she mused when she was wide awake and conscious of what she had just done. She checked what she’d written; maybe her head was concatenating something Uncle had already taught her? Not so, it didn’t resemble any of the dishes she’d heard of, eaten, or learnt so far.
Lost in thought, she walked back to the catering house and found it empty. With the enthusiasm that throttles amateurs, she got down to following the raspy and rough voice’s instructions to the letter. Hours later, everyone returning from their afternoon nap found Adira deep in thought and kneedling dough.
“Hey! Where were you all day?
You remind me of a nutty professor. What are you doing?” asked Maya.
Adira gave them a noncommittal answer in reply. They weren’t offended; college takes in school kids and makes them professionals who are relaxed and unaffected by others.
At the end of the day, Adira was genuinely enjoying the various modifications of the original dish plan. The best part was whatever she did she didn’t seem to be wasting any material – surprisingly her efforts weren’t detrimental to the stock quantity or quality, and allowed her to do as she pleased. So she experimented. In the mornings, what she’d prepared the previous night was always missing. Since it didn’t resemble a sophisticated dish, Adira knew the others must have used it up somewhere as raw materials for the day’s cooking.
Soon, it was the norm for Adira to take off walking to the perimeter just before noon and come back in a few hours and try cooking. Aunty and uncle were too busy to care, Maya and Hari were too absorbed in their class; the whole household had a wedding to host. The sheer number of people in and around and about the house gave her the perfect opportunity to slip away unhindered. Some days she had the same raspy voice dictating fancy unknown dishes, most days she just enjoyed a deep sleep.
She concluded that most days were revisions of previously tried dishes, revisions to attain a specific attribute. After tasting each sample at night Adira knew that unattainable attribute to be edibility. There was no semblance of anything tasty in all her endeavours. Still she tried, for there was a magical aura around the whole deal.
She never confided to anyone about the source of her recipes. The odds that they’d believe in such a thing were next to zero; and the same from a mature graduate student would turn their normal world upside down. Poor things, they did expect a certain level of sanity from educated people, she didn’t want to let them down.
On the eve of the wedding, when the whole house was abuzz and everyone frantic, Adira kept to her small corner of the kitchen and kept at modifying the recipes, which by midnight turned to the most savoury dish she had ever tasted.
Or it maybe exhaustion and sleep playing with her taste buds? She couldn’t be too sure. Adira decided to keep it safely in a corner and go to sleep.
She woke up to drum rolls and trumpets and every other music instruments she hadn’t heard, and loud incessant chatter.
“Quick, get ready Adira! I’ve been trying to wake you up! The wedding vows have to be taken within ‘Nala nerum’, which is in another half an hour. Hurry!” said Maya. Adira checked her phone, it was 5 am. Maya was dressed and ready, adding flowers to her extravagant hairdo.
Never a morning person, she managed to get dressed and join Maya and Hari.
Some of the space behing the main house had been used to set up a huge shamiyana. The reception hall was nearer to the house, now empty and deserted. Next came to food and dining area, which was empty too. They walked on, to where the musical instruments where blaring. There set up, was a mini marriage hall like arrangement. It looked cosier than the city halls, and the weather supported a non ac gathering. Adira wanted to go check her dish but she was sleepy, and for Uncle’s sake she wanted to be a part of this day completely.
She must have dozed off, for it seemed to be time for breakfast when Maya nudged her awake. “Hmm? Breakfast? Arrey nice. Let’s go!” she said. The dishes were exemplary and everyone walked up to uncle to tell him so. Uncle smiled and took us along to the stage and announced to the gathering – The food that you taste, it’s made by my interns here, with little help from me. We all smiled I think, and got off the stage. Or tried to; Uncle wouldn’t let go of me. Wait beta.” he said. The caterers were passing on a bowl to every single person in the tent. I saw Maya and Hari taste and go ‘Wow’ with their eyes popping out.
Uncle then said, “What you have just tasted is something Adira here made. She kept tinkering in her corner of the kitchen, and we all thought it was just a random whim of hers. When I tasted it, I just had to pass it on to everyone; don’t you all just love it?” he asked.
“It’s so tasty!”
“How did you make it?!”
“What is it called?”
“What are the ingredients?” voices called out.
We got off the stage, and I stared at Uncle. While the bowl in my hand had the exact same thing I’d made, the taste same as last night, I knew I hadn’t made enough for such a gathering.
“I lost my diary remember? And it had this perfect recipe that I wanted to serve on my daughter’s wedding day. I’d written it a long time ago, and didn’t remember the exact ingredients or the proportions, anything concrete.
So the other day when I’d ordered you out and you’d called me churlish, I took a walk to cool my temper. I was unsuccessfully trying to remember the recipe when I saw you sleeping peacefully under the tree at the east end. I don’t know what made me narrate different ingredients each day when you made your trip to the tree. As I tasted the samples each night, and it went farther from anything taste worthy, I thought I should stop. But you were so enthusiastic so I kept trying, and you kept trying. And yesterday night you hit on the perfect concoction! I saw your measurement notebook and had it made for everyone. I’m so thankful beta” he said.
It was so bizarre, I simply stared at Uncle for a while. Then we both promptly started laughing.
I was glad that Uncle had his perfect day. I owed the man a beautiful summer, a bountiful experience, calmness of mind.
I got back to the hostel and gave away most of my belongings. A bag or two was all that I carried back home. When I reached the city, the hustle and bustle, my mind didn’t go crazy with thoughts and negativity. I felt calm and at ease.
I had finally learnt that I’d be just fine. And that life doesn’t get stubbed out at 22.
Other short stories can be found at https://www.chatterboxerr.wordpress.com/short-stories