By: Prashil Kumar
That day Anil peered into his own bedroom. The coast was all clear. There was nothing to worry about. At least not in the present moment. Or in the future few.
Anita was busy. Too busy actually. Too engaged with herself to notice him standing by the door. Too occupied to realise it was dinnertime. She wouldn’t know.
She sat at the bed’s edge; it had taken two long hours to get that thing up and assembled. She was girded by a store of miniature bottles, frosted and clear, and tubes, punctured and bloated, and oval tubs and cylinderical vials. She selected each one carefully; her index and thumb plucked and planted it away onto the dresser top, before an oval mirror. There were balms, mascaras, blushers, brushes, foundations, gel, lotions : it required to be organised in some order to ensure convenience at the time of use. Anil retreated back into the kitchen. Luck was on his side.
It didn’t take long. In less than five minutes the countertop was lit with corriander and chilli powder, and mustard,cumin, and fenugreek seeds, and mung. Fresh chopped onions sautered in a pot greased of canola oil, like raindrop remnant bouncing off water puddles. The aroma of browning onions watered the tastebuds. And then the flame went out.
Anita retreated her hand back from the burner knob. She lifted her eyes up slowly and gazed into Anil’s. It seemed she was about to wail and beat her hands onto her chest. She was a petite woman: short and plump; very much in contrast to Anil’s tall and slender physique. And Anil imagined her exploding and shrinking into types of things that girded her on the bed.
Anita picked up the seeds, cooking powder and mung, and chucked them into the sink. She scooped out the tender onions from the pot and tossed it with the other things. Water did the rest. It ran all over the ingredients and flushed it down the pipe, into the gutter. Never to be retrieved back again.
Anita wasn’t like this at all before they moved at this new address by the Newmarket shopping mall, and the on-ramp to the Northern Motorway, Anil thought. It was very strange of her; she needed talking to. But perhaps it was fatigue from the loading and unloading, and packing and unpacking the almost three dozen ‘eco-friendly’ Kiwi cardboard boxes. Perhaps she would be back to normal sooner or later; she needed time to recuperate.
And so Anil stayed quiet. He never confronted Anita. He let her return to her waiting miniatures. He never followed her into the bedroom demanding an explanation as to why the poor little silent spices and mung. He remained quiet even when later that night, for the very first time in the five years and nine months that they’d been married for, she served them food not in a dinner plate but in a bowl.
“Potato salad,” she whispered in a firm tone, and thrusted a ceramic into Anil’s hand. This was new stuff; they ate together each night, at the four seater lancaster table, sharing between them a figurine of a New Zealand native holding a conch to his lips, by whose feet was a burnt wick that no longer had any wax left. After setting a fork into Anil’s bowl, Anita settled into the grey sofa flanked by a bubble-wrapped lampshade, and dug straight into her bowl of salad.
It was cold food. Chilled were the lettuce, baby spinach and tomatoes, and so were the potatoes and hard boiled eggs. Plus a winter night gust blew into the room from window left deliberately open to let whiffs of cigarette smoke and alcohol out. It was hard to swallow and when Anil did his throat dried up. The tomato and lettuce juices backlashed with egg fat and tasted putrid.
Anil rinsed his mouth in the sink, all the while deliberating if he ought to stick his index finger down his throat to rid his bowel system of all that he’d consumed. How could Anita have done this to him? Didn’t she know him enough? Didn’t she know his taste and eating habits enough?
“Anita. What have you?”
Anita never replied. She whimpered on the sofa, hugging her knees. Her lashes were damp and black. Her cheeks wet and pink. A lock of hair fell by it stuck, pasted itself on the skin as if an incision on her. Anil peeled it back over her ear : it looked better now, her round plump face, the way she always was, clearer. Anil noticed her lips moving; she was mumbling.
“We will be evicted.” Anil figured out her words at last.
“I am positive. No.”
“I am sure. No”
And Anita sobbed through the night in Anil’s arms.
The next evening Anita handed Anil his meal before he stepped into the kitchen. It came not in the ceramic bowl but a bread plate. “Sandwich.” Anita said, and took to the sofa. Her knees stiffened up to where her chin found its pillar of support, as though it would wobble and shed if it weren’t for it.
The sandwich bread was dry and frosty. The cheese and tomatoes rattled Anil’s teeth, his jaws shivered, the tongue died instantly, refusing to declare taste of any sort. Anit glanced at Anita. She wasn’t having anything. She sat bracing her feet, poised to attack the spices and seeds and sweep them down the drain should Anil start a fire in the kitchen.
Anil didn’t give her a chance. He boiled water in the electric heater and prepared red tea in two ceramic bowls. Tea is a universal concept, fortunately. People of all race and colour enjoy flavours of tea. The eighteenth and nineteenth century colonisers did; they established and operated hectares of plantations. Paul, or any other rental agent for that matter, would be okay too.
Anil split Punja’s breakfast crackers into careful little quarters and soaked it into the bowls. These were made from baked flour, without kicks of red and green chillies, and the tantalising hot of masala and garlic, or the drive of tamarind and fenugreek and mustard. When soggy enough, Anil and Anita fished the bits of crackers out with teaspoons. That was dinner.
And not only that night but the following nights too. It turned out regular. They never visited the table anymore; the chairs loomed by the table like purple-brown ghosts. The Maori with conch to his lips, deserted and forgotten. The spices hid indefintely in the cupboard, the cooking seeds and lentils in the glass jars, securely lidded, out of sight. The price of ginger rose and fell through the season, from eight to eighteen dollars a kilo, but they never gave a damn. Anil never drove by to the Indian grocers down Gillies Ave to fetch fresh coriander anymore. And Anita never landed opportunties to argue with shopkeepers over the price of fresh yams, beans, eggplants and ocra. It was all history now.
Anil and Anita now bunked into the sofa during dinnertimes, sharing a duvet between them, sipping red tea from bowls and fishing out bits of soggy crackers. The lampshade still bubble-wrapped. It annoyed Anil. But he kept quiet about it; he knew that its present state somehow enabled Anita to seek refuge into.
“We will be evicted.” She would sob in Amit’s arms.
“No. Why would we be?”
“I am positive. No.”
“I don’t think from here.” No.”
“Don’t worry. No.”
The rental agent showed up in early spring. The routine property inspection was due. He introduced himself as Paul. His sideburns, the first thing Anil noticed, had turned grey from black, giving the impression of his aging in contrast to his taut skin and athletic built. Sports seemed a grand factor in his life; he was dressed in shorts and tee, and wore white golf shoes, grass and clay at the heels.
He neither asked nor took them off; it was yet another Kiwi culture that Anil reasoned he had no idea of. “And what do we have here?” He said to no one in particular as he looked about the house. He pressed a cardboard enveloped wallet under his arm and suck-held a blue Bic pen onto his lips. A combination of sweat and deodorant pervaded the house.
“That looks interesting.” He said gazing at the figurine on the dining table. “Is he a tribal Indian?
Anil and Anita couldn’t reply as Paul had moved into the kitchen before finishing his sentence off. He retrieved his pen from his mouth, and put it to a “Hays Real Estate” stamped sheet of blank paper he’d produced from the wallet. He eyed all four corners of the kitchen ceiling. His eyes searched.
The pen and paper were kept handy all the while he ran his hands over the cupboards and its knobs; he stroked the burners and prodded the stove top. He pressed fingers at the wall adjacent to the electric kettle. He rubbed his golf shoes onto the tiled floor as if to gauge whether the friction was sufficeint, or whether a slippery hazard. He started off slow and gentle but resorted to heavier thrusts. The rubber beneath his shoes squealed. At last he inhaled through the kitchen air, taking deep breaths and pausing at intervals.
Anil and Anita watched him from by the sofa. That was how inspections were executed in Auckland : thorough and professional, nothing left by to chance. “That will be all. Thank you.” Paul said, at last, passing them by. On his way out, he glanced at the covered lampshade and commented : “We haven’t quite finished unpacking yet, I see.” He held the pen close to the piece of paper, still blank.
The eviction notice arrived by post mail three days later. Anil and Anita were given three weeks to vacate their home and find someplace else.
Anita took to the sofa and refused to pack or eat. She wept inside her duvet, and mumbled to herself. She blew her face into tissue and had several of them going down on the carpet. Her flushed cheeks had several locks of her hair sweeping down onto. Too many thick black incisions that Anil looked away, unable to bare the sight. Whether it had been her intuitions or something else, but she needed to move on. Now. Time was flying; they needed to act fast. But nothing was pushing her.
Anil grabbed his arsenal of ingrediants out of the cupboard. He heated a dash of oil in a pan as he chopped onions on a board and ground ginger and garlic in a pestor mortar. In half an hour, the chickpeas came to a boil as the pressure cooker hissed. Garam masala, tumeric, and cardamon gravy trickled and dripped through countless peas.
But Anita refused to taste it. She blew into the tissue and looked away, the locks of hair damp on her face. She kept her mouth closed each time Anil raised the spoon her way. She sat there, statued. There was no frown nor any apparent emotion evident on her face. There was only a dampened Anita. Expressionless. Mumbling.
Anil leaned foward and kissed her forehead. “We have to be strong to pack and load. And for that we have to eat.” Anita opened up a little, and he tilted the curry in.
Prashil is always keen to write on cultural and social nuances of society. He is fond of telling stories close to his heart in an attempt to celebrate human nature and planet earth. This story illuminates the stereotype prevalent overseas regarding immigrants of Indian origin.