The house that he lived in was unremarkable with its black and grey ensemble. It had a beautiful yard which led the visitor into a nice little patio, followed by the living room, with its not so intricate woodwork. All the things in the room fit their places perfectly and nothing stood out. There was a huge CRT television that had gathered dust, its plug dangling on the floor, lifeless. The brass trinkets, the miniature animal figurines on shelves, the rack of books gathering dust, the diwan having pillows with flowers printed on them and an ancient red hardbound book placed under his framed picture. The room was a silent narrative of Sudipto’s story, a reflection of his time and tumult of the intervening years.
The room had not always been like this; it had seen the variants of azure, shades of lilac and hues of ochre until a few years ago. Sitting on the same charred rosewood chair, Sudipto had seen the greens turn to olive and yellows turn to brown while his hair had turned silver. He was now the lone occupant of this ancient house. It was the morning of his 78th birthday and Chandra, the housemaid, had not yet come to clean the house and cook for him.
For Sudipto, birthdays were occasions to reminisce, or in other words, turn a little more cynical. Like every year, he sat down to write a letter to his friend Srinivasan, who lived in Coimbatore now. Both of them had been close friends for over 50 years while the latter was in Calcutta. The contents of the letter had been pretty much the same from the last 10 years. It revolved around weather, politics and increasing influence of the West on our country. But this time, it was different because of the events that had happened a few days ago.
“15th May 2011
This is probably the worst time of our lives.
I am writing to lament the erosion of the Reds from Bengal. The monster in blue and white has routed the party that you and I, along with scores of others, had put our sweat, blood and tears into. This looks like the end. The communist ideology will soon become extinct.
What we had built has crumbled before our eyes and it will get overwritten by the stronger, greedier forces. What are we leaving behind, Comrade? What is our legacy?
He inserted the neatly written letter into an envelope which he would give to Protiti, his youngest niece, to be sent to Coimbatore. He was sure she would come by in the evening to wish him on his birthday. As he got up from his chair, he glanced at the red hardbound book that was kept as a centrepiece for the room. It was the Communist Manifesto in Bengali, translated by him. With its yellow sickle and hammer, it was one of the earliest translations in the country and it had gained instant popularity within the party headquarters. He had become a hero in the local party circles after the success of the book. Enshrined in the living room was one of the first few copies that were printed. The nostalgic moment was disturbed by Chandra who walked in the house and headed straight to the kitchen, mumbling ‘Happy Birthday, Dada’.
Sudipto had only three obsessions in life. Marx, Chā and his late wife, Rinku. When it was pointed out that two of three were dead, Sudipto vehemently argued that Marx was immortal while pointing towards the yellow sickle and hammer on the red book. Rinku had passed away ten years ago due to a sudden cardiac arrest and had left him all alone. As for the only obsession that was alive, he spent an hour, twice a day, meticulously preparing tea (Chā, he’d correct) and drinking it. Protiti had kept a constant supply of exotic tea leaves from darjeeling to feed her kaka’s love for tea.
He heard a knock on the door. He thought of all the possible combinations. Chandra was already in the house, gas cylinder was not due, newspaper bill was paid and his niece would be at office at this time of the day. Who on earth could it be at the door?
Another knock. He walked to the door and opened it slightly ajar. It was the smiling face of a young woman whom he didn’t recognize. Only after she introduced herself as the next door neighbour did Sudipto recognize her and asked her to come in.
The woman had long hair and brown eyes, was dressed in a tshirt and jeans with a large purse slung on her shoulder. She looked very young, but it would be difficult to guess her age correctly. As she walked in, Sudipto noticed that she had a katori with a lid and a plate with a small piece of cake.
“Hello, Dada. Chandra told me it was your birthday today. This is fish curry and cake for you, hope you like it,” she said with a smile.
He had met the young couple a month ago when they had moved in, but had spoken mostly to the woman’s husband. Sudipto remembered being delighted about young people moving into Kolkata rather than away from it.
“Chandra is very talkative. You should not have taken the trouble,” said Sudipto, with a faint smile.
“I am glad she told me. Happy Birthday” she said as she waved goodbye and mumbled that she was getting late for work.
Moved by the young lady’s gesture, Sudipto took the vessels inside and placed them in the kitchen. He asked Chandra to serve their contents for lunch.
He sat down on the burnt brown rocking chair. The question from the letter that was bothering him echoed again, what would he leave behind when he died. He had become a party loyalist during his time as a lecturer in the government college for arts. He glanced at the red hardbound book and then at the newspapers. The front page was awash with blue and white. He felt his stomach churn with unease. He remembered his wife Rinku, the nonchalant one of the couple, and her disdain for legacy. They never had any children. After countless efforts to conceive in the initial years, Rinku had given up on the idea and had decided not to adopt either. But never had she turned bitter or complained during those intervening years. Sudipto, on the other hand, had grown to worry about this. Rinku would often chide him about this. “So, you think that translating a stupid political pamphlet and attending a few rallies is going to make you immortal, Mr Sudipto Ghosh?” she’d say playfully. Rinku’s interests had lain elsewhere. The Reds and blues of politics could never attract Rinku’s attention like the crimsons and purples of chiffon or silk. Giving sarees close competition were the yellows and browns of turmeric and cinnamon, from the kitchen. She spent hours in experimenting with the recipes that she knew or in learning new ones. He’d often criticize her for spending a lot of time on such petty endeavours, when there was so much to do for the things that mattered. She used to brush these comments away with something witty leaving Sudipto tongue-tied. The passage of these decades had been made breezy and light by having Rinku by his side, despite the trying circumstances and hardship. He should have died before she had, he thought. This was not the first time he had wished this in vain.
It was time for lunch. Chandra had set the table for his lunch and had left for the day. He saw the bowl and a piece of cake from the morning along with the other food that had been prepared. He added a heap of rice to his plate and topped it with the bright ochre gravy and a piece of the rui maach. In the first bite, he felt the pungent taste of mustard along with ginger. The flavour of the spice was strong and the marinated Rohu fish was perfect. Sudipto felt his stomach churn instantly. This was exactly how Rinku used to make the curry!
He took another mouthful. The generous dose of mustard, the absence of garlic and the familiar taste of pepper and chat masala in which the fish was marinated was unmistakable. This was certainly not the traditional recipe. He was never a particularly emotional man, but this was an exceptional instance. He was sure this was Rinku’s recipe.
Sudipto was unsettled. Usually, he would have shrugged off such an instance as a coincidence, but not today. Then an idea struck him; Protiti was coming home later and she could confirm his premonition.
“It has a lot of mustard, kaka. It’s marinated differently. It tastes good, but odd,” Protiti answered when asked to describe the taste of the curry.
“Does it remind you of anything specific?” asked an earnest Sudipto.
“This is just like how Rinku used to prepare it. It used to taste exactly like this!” he exclaimed.
“Aww, kaka,” she said with a wink, “You’re missing her on your birthday. That’s cute”
She won’t get it, he thought. Protiti gifted him another huge box of tea leaves which he gladly accepted and she left after dinner. He downed the drapes, shut the doors, turned off the lights and went to bed. Rolling around uneasily for a long time, he couldn’t figure out why the rui maach was not letting him sleep that night. So what if it was the same recipe, he had reasoned with himself over a hundred times now. Yet, peace eluded him.
He woke up tired the next morning but decided not to skip his morning walk. His mind was off the trivial fish curry that had bothered him the previous night. On his walk back home, he saw his neighbour leaving for work. He walked up and thanked her for the kind gesture and the food. He also mentioned that Chandra will be returning the utensils, in fluent Bengali.
“Sorry, I don’t understand Bengali,” she said with half a smile.
Sudipto realised that their conversation the day before had been in English.
“Oh! I assumed you were Bengali given how good the fish curry was,” He said, smiling.
“I am glad that you liked it. I belong to Madhya Pradesh, we moved here recently for work,” she clarified.
“The preparation for the curry was interesting, though,” he couldn’t help mentioning, “It didn’t seem like the traditional recipe”.
“Yes, I’ve heard that a lot. Actually, my mother taught me this preparation. She lived in Kolkata for a few years and learnt this from one of her friends who used to conduct cookery classes.” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Can you ask your mother if she remembers the name of the person who taught her this recipe?” he asked, half pleading.
“Yes, I can give her a call right now,” she said, puzzled. She walked to a side to make the call.
Sudipto didn’t need to wait for the confirmation. Rinku used to mention about these classes time to time, but he had barely listened to her stories. All that he knew was that she used to go to a house near Esplanade where a bunch of women used to meet and talk about cooking. This was a time when he was deeply involved with party work. He didn’t have to wait for her to confirm, he knew this, as she finished the call and approached him.
“Tilottama,” the young woman said.
That was the name the world knew Rinku by. He was right about the cookery classes. The mention of her name aroused mixed feelings in him, partly because it had been years since he had heard that name and also because this was the first time he got a glimpse of how the world saw her.
The fish curry was her legacy that had found a way back to his palate.