Dashrath’s Dinner Party

On February 28, 2013 by admin

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By Amiya Sen

Translated from the Bengali by Bhaswati Ghosh

Originally published as “Dasharather Atithijawggo” in Desh

As she pulled the curtains off the doors and windows and dumped them on the floor, Shakuntala hollered, “Munga, come here, fast!”

Dashrath was at the dining table, shaving. Casting a glance towards Shakuntala, he said, “Why are you taking those off yourself? Have Munga do that…if you fell down—”

“That worthless servant of yours. You brought home a rascal from the orphanage. It’s eight in the morning, and he is yet to finish his work in the kitchen. A heap of clothes remains to be washed. I must load them into the washer myself and wait until the cycle is completed. If left to him, he will ruin the clothes like he did last time. Sigh, your new safari suit and Gudiya’s expensive zari-bordered lehnga-choli.”

“Let it be. Where will you get a servant for 30 rupees in today’s market? We are managing just fine. Hey, Munga, get up on the stool, take down the curtains and pile them in the backyard. Then bring a duster. Clean everything in all the rooms. Khabardar, nothing should break, or else I will beat you to a pulp, you understand?”

Munga, once a resident of a developmental home governed by the Delhi Administration, said with a broad, foolish smile, “Ji.”

Literate and illiterate, rich and poor, all kinds of residents in the capital make use of these homes. Any mentally retarded or low-IQ child in the family is swiftly dispatched to institutions like these. The Delhi administration has opened a lot of centres for the mentally challenged. The poor occasionally come to visit their children (they grow up into young men and women in the homes, though many also die from the ‘care’ they receive from the home staff). They even take the children home during holidays. But well-to-do families are interested in only admitting their children. They return at the very end, honking their cars, to collect the dead children’s bodies. It’s a relief to keep such social disgraces away from their day-to-day lives.

This has been one of the boons of independent India. Alongside running several other types of homes, the Delhi Administration carries out a lot of social welfare activities by instituting shelters for insane and mentally challenged people. This has created thousands of jobs and countless official posts. It is quite remarkable.

Munga is a lucky one. He caught the attention of the superintendent and found a place in his home as a child servant, thus being spared the decrepit paradise of the government home. Of course, the superintendent had to pay a price for it every month–30 rupees. Considering the scarcity and steep cost of domestic servants in Delhi, this is a small amount. Five years ago, Dashrath Sharma, the superintendent’s brother-in-law, brought Munga to his own house. The child grew up into a young adult at his home even as Dashrath’s own fortunes blossomed. The fifteen hundred rupees that he earns as salary for the job he poses to be doing in Delhi Administration’s Social Welfare department is just his pocket money. As with many others, the job is only a front for him. His primary enterprise comprises a variety of side businesses. It began with a scooter dealership that he started with a small investment. Next, he moved to real estate. Thanks to the arrival of Maruti, he now has a dealership for automobiles. Before this, he also dealt in colour television sets for a while, but left that because of the high profitability in the auto business.

In Delhi, money overflows from people’s pockets; there’s no place to store the cash. Black money can’t be stashed in banks either. This explains why even seemingly innocuous looking middle-class people have an underground basement in their house–even if it’s no bigger than a match box. One only has to place a life-size photo of Rama or Hanuman on the wall next to the stairs leading to the basement. That does it. It’s a god-fearing country after all. Even Information Bureau and Income Tax officers are forced to bow down and take leave.

As two-wheelers like scooters, mopeds and motorbikes started becoming vehicles of the lower middle classes, the demand for cars was at its peak. Dashrath made the most of it. Every car brought a fat amount, including the booking cost. Most people didn’t want to remain stuck in the waiting list–they were willing to spend a few extra thousand rupees if that could get them the car faster. When Dashrath hadn’t made it big, he had also opened a marriage bureau. That brought the telephone in his house. But as the phone came to be used more for inquiring the market rates of limestone, sand and cement, the butterfly of the marriage bureau fluttered away.

Not a big deal. Dashrath harbours no regrets over it. His three older brothers were reasonably well-heeled. He was way down on the scale, a member of the lower middle class. He had funded his graduate studies by offering tuition classes. After searching high and low for a job, he found one with a salary of 35 rupees. To keep the job he had to buy a bicycle in installments. That’s when it struck him that one could no longer get to the top by climbing one stair at a time. In order to succeed, it was necessary to have a political party’s support. So he joined a party. The results were instantaneous. Using the party affiliation he obtained a fake social worker certificate that got him his current job as a probational officer in the Social Welfare department. At the time, his party was a superpower–everything from the corporation to the municipality was in its control. Dashrath had to participate in some party activities, though.

Dashrath Sharma was at the forefront of the mutiny that erupted in the university campus, gunning for the removal of the Vice Chancellor who came from another state. This saw him getting into the police’s clutches nearly thirty times. But who could have stopped his rise when the party stood so solidly behind him?

He is a master party changer, too, depending on the direction of the wind. After the decline of his party, he became a loyal worker of the ruling party. This didn’t affect his bonhomie with the councillors of his former party. They helped him bag cement contracts.

This is Dashrath Sharma–who within a decade of being in service–had established a house worth two and a half lakh rupees in Delhi’s posh Greater Kailash area, thereby equalling his brothers in a single leap. The same brothers, who, taking advantage of his minor status, had swallowed their father’s property, leaving him on the street.

Dashrath Sharma even found his wife this way. They both held the same designation in the same office. Her parents were no more, her brothers, wealthy. A match made in heaven. Despite coming from an orthodox Brahmin family from Lahore, Dashrath ignored the opposition of his relatives and brought home a Uttar Pradesh Kayasth bride who was three or four years his senior. Shakuntala’s job was solid, too, so in his life, even love followed the path of business.

Shakuntala cursed her fate upon landing in Sharma’s house after marriage—what a dreadful temper he had! But she had no choice. Where could she go–no parents, and her brothers had been dead against this inter-caste marriage. So she reconciled with the slaps and beatings. All the same, but for a husband like Dashrath, it wouldn’t have been possible for her to bring home a fat salary by just reading novels or knitting sweaters during office hours. Alongside his job, Dashrath didn’t just manage his businesses; he also managed his wife’s job. Ever since that university agitation such was his notoriety for hooliganism that everyone in the department–low and high ranking–feared him.

“Are all the curtains down?”

Ji haan.”

“Then run along and get a crate of eggs from the grocery store. Mind you, not one should break.”

As soon as Munga left, Shakuntala emerged from the kitchen to stand before the dining table. Dashrath was slathering shaving cream on his face. “I have to leave before 9 o’clock.”

“What?” Shakuntala panicked, “You said you won’t go to work today?”

Dhat, who’s going to the office? The director called up to request five first-class tickets for Bombay. Let me get those. Then I will go over to Seemapuri–Malhotra phoned to say that he is bringing a party for the cement truck I’ve kept there. I think they will buy the whole lot.”

Shakuntala is well versed in matters of business, too. She said, “Oh, then you must go. Only if you had bought the meat before you left. Munga is no good for that. We have everything else.”

As he got up from the chair, Dashrath said, “The dinner is at 9 in the evening. I will be back before noon with the meat. Two kgs, right?”

Shakuntala was startled, “Two kgs? Do you know how many people are coming over? We are five of us, including Munga. Your advocate friend and his wife. Behenji’s group has five people, the Malhotra mian-bibi are two more. On top of that, you invited the superintendent of the head office.”

Dashrath thrust the towel around his shoulder and said with a wink, “Did I invite him just like that? Do you keep a track of how many days you actually go to the office? The full salary that you bring all year round is only because of that man. Thanks to him, all your leave applications are torn to shreds and dropped into waste paper baskets.”

“Without any bribe?”

“No bribe. Occasionally I buy him chai-paani, though.”

“Why, didn’t you give him a hundred rupees some time ago?”

“Ah, that’s because he was in deep trouble. His coffers had dried up after the wedding of his daughter. Then his son had typhoid. He had no money to buy medicines. I went and saw his condition. When I know I’ll need his services…”

Not even his biggest enemies will accuse Dashrath of being charitable. He doesn’t spend a naya paisa without a vested interest. Had he done that, he wouldn’t have been able to raise this palatial house within such a short time of his service. But yes, he does throw parties in his house every now and then to flaunt his wealth and also for attracting greater success in business.

His elder sister and her family–husband and two children–are visiting India from Singapore after nearly ten years. They are stinking rich, with a flourishing business in Singapore. Conventionally, one has to shower gifts to relatives visiting after so long. But Dashrath doesn’t have that obligation. Not when his eldest brother, living in Defence Colony, is the principal of a big school. His ‘M.A. English’ wife has a school business, too. She owns five Montessori schools in Delhi.

Dashrath is hosting his sister’s family for a different reason. When he was just a government servant with a meagre salary, Shakuntala almost died at childbirth. Short of cash, he had requested his brother-in-law to lend him two thousand rupees. On a pretext of “bad business,” he had denied the loan to Dashrath. With tonight’s dinner party Dashrath wants to avenge that insult. He will show them his house. His car. His son, who goes to St. Columba’s School. His daughter, studying in Queen Mary School. His servant, Munga. Shakuntala will adorn an 1,100-rupee sari while overseeing the dinner.

“Okay, I am off to the bathroom. Make me a couple of phulkas quickly. I will go and return soon. Then help you here.”

Moving towards the kitchen, Shakuntala turned around, rolled her eyes and said, “Help and you?”

Slapping the towel on his shoulder with a laugh, Dashrath moved towards the bathroom. Minutes later, his roar was heard, “Hey you Munga ka bachcha, come here, fast!”

As she fried a double-egg omelette in the kitchen, Shakuntala could hear the sound of a cracking slap along with her husband’s yelling, “Badtameez, ullu ka pattha, didn’t I ask you to switch on the geyser in the morning? Why didn’t you do it, answer me!” One more slap followed.

When he was younger, Munga used to wail terribly on being beaten. Now he doesn’t. He has become rather slap-proof. This is one of the advantages of bringing a servant from a beggar’s home or a developmental home. With no place to go, they continue to serve despite all forms of abuse. In fact, nowadays Munga feels happy to receive a beating. It means an extra egg for him with the meal that day. This is Dashrath’s rule. Food is the end-all for Munga, and this is more than he can ask for.

Shakuntala, too, has moulded Munga with her soft and tough strategy. Dashrath slaps him at the drop of a hat, and Shakuntala, with her sweet talk, gets the work of five servants out of him.  Just give him a toffee or a couple of lozenges in bakshish, and he is happy.

Dashrath finally returned at 2 o’clock. Shakuntala had put special, expensive curtains on the doors and windows, replaced the covers of sofa set, tables, radio, T. V. and VCR. She was now busy frying a heap of lentil fritters for dahi-vadas. Casting a glare at Dashrath, she said to Munga in a stern voice, “You are still not done with whisking the curd?”

Munga brought  to Shakuntala a big saucepan of whipped curd, into which she started dipping the fried fritters. “Have you readied the spices?” she demanded of Munga.

Handing the bag with the meat to Munga, Dashrath said, “Wah, that smells first class! Honestly, I am only tied to you because of your seasoned hands. Here, pass me a plate, let me do a test tasting. Then I will start helping you…”

Shakuntala sprinkled some masala over a plate of dahi-vada, then replied in a sombre tone, “If you take a couple of hours’ rest, that will be enough help.”

“Wow, this is delicious! What else have you cooked? I hope Jijaji doesn’t ask to pack you along to Singapore because of your cooking. Eh, give me a couple more here. Malhotra brought a fat party. Got a profit of 30 rupees per sack.”

Once the fritters were done, Shakuntala put the palak-paneer on the stove. By now, her anger had melted. Any woman can be won over with compliments for her culinary skills. Moreover, Dashrath had returned with news of profit. “Did you purchase the tickets for the Director?” she asked.

“That’s what took me so long. I also have to drive them to the station tomorrow. The Director’s official vehicle is out of order.”

“I have noticed, since you bought the car, his office car is often out of order.”

Jaane doh. If I can bring home a handsome salary without going to work, I don’t mind giving a few free rides.”

Dashrath Sharma’s office is located inside New Delhi Railway Station. His duty includes collecting beggars for a beggars’ home, the targets being migrants who come in search of work and are instead forced into beggary. But Dashrath Sharma isn’t too serious about his office duties. He dumps all these activities on his colleagues’ shoulders and rushes to the head office at Old Secretariat. Every small and big department head there is reasonably satisfied with Dashrath’s ‘services.’ Therefore, Dashrath Sharma always gets positive confidential reports. There’s no threat to his job.

“Okay, I’ll rest for a while, if you insist. Get Munga to clean the mutton. It’s good quality–got it from Chandni Chowk. Make sure you are ready by 7:30 pm. Jijaji and company will arrive before 8 o’clock. They eat dinner by 9 o’clock. I guess you still need an hour to wrap everything up.”

“All under control. As soon as the paneer is done, I will start cooking the meat. We can make the pulao and the paneer pakoras an hour before dinner. Oh, just taste the raita and see if it’s okay.”

“First class!”

“Memsaab, it’s done,” Munga said, extending a big tray carrying roti dough.

“Good. Now keep it in the fridge. The phulkas will be made only when the guests are ready to eat.”

“What? Will you be in the kitchen then?” Dashrath is alarmed.

“Why, isn’t your Malhotra’s wife coming? I will get her to make the phulkas, pulao and pakoras.”

Hemlata, Malhotra’s wife is the superintendent of Delhi Administration’s Patitoddharini Seva Sadan (destitute women’s shelter). A few years ago when Shakuntala was posted at that shelter, Dashrath had made Hemlata his sister in order to manage his wife’s absences. He has more than one sister of this kind. It’s yet another of his business policies.

Probational officers at the home for destitute women are required to visit slums where illiterate and non-registered sex workers live in order to enrol their minor daughters in the government shelter. This is meant to prevent the girls from stepping into their mothers’ shoes. The government spends generously on this home, providing good food, clothing and education for the girls. Nobody knows if any of them grow up to be call girls, but the government sure spares no effort to ‘cleanse’ them.

It’s a tough job. The mothers don’t easily agree to let go of their daughters. The probational officer might have to spend an entire month to convince just one mother. Shakuntala had no such worries. She read novels, played carom, and during winters, knitted to spend her time in the office. Initially Hemlata used to rebuke her, but once Dashrath made her his sister, she gave up on Shakuntala. And although Shakuntala has now been transferred to a different home, the two women still share the same relationship, thanks to Dashrath. Malhotra, Hemlata’s husband, is a mid-level clerk in Dashrath’s office and also the unofficial agent for bringing business-related news for Dashrath. Whenever Malhotra visits his home, Dashrath generously feeds him with egg pakoras, rum and Sherry. Malhotra is more than happy with this. Dashrath is prosperous, and one has to be fortunate to have him as a friend.

Dashrath’s fortunes took even his elder brother-in-law, Mohanlal by surprise. He’s just a petty government servant (even a four-figure government salary is mere dust for Mohanlal). To have such a flashy lifestyle just on the basis of that!

Dashrath has not only invited his sister’s family of her husband and children, but also her father-in-law, Ved Prakash. The gentleman lost his wife a month and a half ago. As is the case with people who lose their partners in old age, he is lonely. And helpless. Social gatherings provide at least some relief. Which is why he is here. He is delighted at Dashrath’s success, too. He is even happier to find the company of Dashrath’s advocate friend, Sukhbir Chawla. During the British raj, Ved Prakash was a practicing lawyer in Lahore High Court. As Dashrath’s children got busy with their older cousins, he started narrating stories from his days of yore in exchange for Sukhbir’s account of Delhi’s current state of courts.

While listening to the 70-plus man’s snatches of experience, the 40-plus Sukhbir laughed and said, “Zamaana badal gaya hai, Uncle ji. That was angrez raj, this is desi raj.”

Ved Prakash let out a laugh, too and said, “You are right. The difference between the two times is astounding. The British ruled this country with just a handful of people, yet nothing was seriously amiss. People didn’t shirk work that much either. Now as the number of workers keeps multiplying, so does pending work.”

“Well said, Uncle ji. Tell me, if work isn’t kept pending, how will one earn a few extra bucks?” Sukhbir said with a guffaw. Then, as if to change the subject, he said, “Did you notice how much Delhi has progressed?”

“Oh, yes indeed! This place where we are sitting now was once just scraggy land–I saw it when I returned from Lahore in 1946.”

“Delhi’s Ramakrishna Puram is Asia’s biggest colony. Have you seen all of it?”

“Nah, not all of it, but whatever I saw is quite impressive. So well planned, surrounded by a green belt.”

Kamla, Dashrath’s older sister, emerged along with Shakuntala from the inside rooms and said, as if to address her husband and father-in-law, “What a fantastic kothi Dashrath has built. It pleases the heart to see this.”

Munga followed them, dressed in a new attire, holding a tray with mugs of coffee and a saucer full of biscuits. Looking at the tray Dashrath said, “Why only biscuits? Where’s the namkeen?”

Arrey, no need for namkeen. Shakuntala was bringing it, I only stopped her. If we stuff ourselves now, we won’t be able to enjoy dinner. Here, have a seat, Shakuntala…” said Kamla as she plonked herself down on the sofa with a cup of coffee. She dragged Shakuntala next to her and admiring her sari said, “Lovely! How much did it cost?”

Shakuntala gestured at Dashrath and said, “He gave it for karva-chauth (a fast kept for husbands’ well-being, karva-chauth is a major festival for Punjabi Hindus and most Hindi-speaking women in north India) this year. Didn’t tell me the price.” (A lie).

Dashrath said with a chuckle, “I dare not mention the price or she will be furious.”

“Are you serious? Women love to receive saris. Why should your wife get angry?”

“She thinks we won’t have enough for our daughter’s dowry.”

Arrey, why do you worry about Gudiya’s dahej? Her uncles are all so rich.”

Shakuntala understood this was an insult aimed at her family. Because of crossing community and caste lines in marriage, she didn’t enjoy a good rapport with her brothers. Besides, unlike among Punjabis, it isn’t expected of maternal uncles from U. P. to shoulder the lion’s share of finances for their nieces’ wedding.

Her face darkening, Shakuntala said, “Why should I depend on my brothers! She is my daughter. I will gift her a dowry of my choice. I don’t care for anyone’s charity.”

Shakuntala earned a salary of 1,600 rupees and was, therefore, entitled to speak with authority. Kamla took the hint and was ostensibly dampened. She had become conditioned to support customs of the Punjabi society, even if she didn’t like them. But despite being wedded into their family, Shakuntala wasn’t a Punjabi and subscribed to a different set of rules. Patting her on the back (patting his wife’s back was in order, given the remarkable ascent of Dashrath, once the poorest of all the brothers) Kamla said, “Of course, you will. After all, you don’t depend for pocket money on your husband like we do; what do you care?”

Sitting at a distance, Dashrath listened to and enjoyed the exchange between the two women. At one point, this sister of his had tried to dump her skinny, good-for-nothing sister-in-law on Dashrath’s shoulders. They were rich at the time, Dashrath was lower middle class. They were looking to save on dowry by spending less on the wedding. Dashrath’s subsequent marriage to a working, lower-caste woman had infuriated Kamla. Not only did she stay away from the wedding, she didn’t send as much as a reel of thread as gift to the new bride.

Shakuntala brought a cup of coffee and stood next to Kamla. She said softly, “You asked so I will tell you, Didi, the sari is worth 1,250 rupees (a lie). Nice, isn’t it?”

“Just 1,250?” Kamla jumped up on her seat. “Are you serious? That’s really cheap! I thought it must be at least 1,700-1,800.”

“It would have cost that much had I bought it from some other store. That shop belongs to her brother, you see…”

Looking at her sister-in-law’s bewildered face, Shakuntala broke into a smile. “Didn’t you know, Didi, all shopkeepers in Delhi are my brothers.”

Kamla started laughing and said, “He’s like that since childhood–always pulling people’s legs.” Looking at her brother, she said, “You are into so many businesses. Why don’t you open a sari shop? Then, I will also get saris for less from you.”

Hemlata emerged from the kitchen after all this while. Although she is about the same age as Shakuntala, she isn’t that plump. Rather lean and fit. Her round of introductions happened when she came to the living room to have coffee.

Ved Prakash said to her, “Where were you?”

“Er, just giving a hand to Shakuntala. So will you stay in Delhi a while or return to Singapore with Kamla didi?”

Before Ved Prakash could respond, Dashrath’s whole house was plunged into darkness. The guests didn’t drown, though. Battery-charged light lent a soft luminescence to their faces.

Ved Prakash turned to the past and said, almost to himself, “When we were growing up in our village in Lahore, we used to have a kerosene lamp. You people will call that backward. But despite being backward, we had peace of mind. We didn’t know what loadshedding meant.”

“Sukhbir said with a cackle, “Every amenity is bound to have a few strings attached, Uncle ji. No fan, no light, no T.V.–oh how horrible that would be! The current generation can’t imagine such a life.”

The April day had ended a while ago and evening galloped like a horse. It was quarter past nine. Not a good time for a power cut. Hemlata felt a bit restless. She had just put the pulao on the stove. The paneer pakoras had to be fried next. Then, once everyone sat down to eat, she would have to make the phulkas. Dinner was delayed, and she had to go back to Model Town, quite a distance.”

Power returned at ten to ten. Dashrath was kicking up a fuss, commanding Munga to set the dining table. In the ensuing chaos, a flower-filled vase dropped to the floor and broke into pieces. The shattering sound made Shakuntala run back into the room. It wouldn’t make a nice scene if the host began thrashing the servant at this point. She immediately dispatched Munga to the kitchen and began clearing the broken pieces of the vase from the floor. She had just stood up after clearing the floor and dusting the table when she saw Hemlata at the kitchen door. She said with despair, “Your cooking gas has run out, Bhabhi. The pulao is half done. Please take out your kerosene stove.”

“Stove? What for?” They hadn’t noticed Dashrath entering the kitchen.

With a resigned look, Shakuntala said, “No gas. What will we do now? You gave all the kerosene to Govind (unofficial neighbourhood watchman) the other day.”

Dashrath sank. Their neighbours were new–on one side was a Malayali family and on the other side, a Kashmiri household. Dashrath’s family hadn’t yet been acquainted with either. What was one to do now!

Shakuntala whispered, “Get some big loaves of bread.”

“But what about the pulao? Do one thing–put in on the heater. You can also heat the mutton and the other curries on the heater.”

“Saab, shall I bring the heater from Sharma’s shop?” While wiping the dinner plates with a kitchen towel, Munga reminded them that the heater had been sent for repairs.

The entire family disappeared within minutes. By then, Kamla had left the drawing room to come to the kitchen. It didn’t take her long to figure out the problem. “Oh, so this is the issue,” she said, “Why worry? Just get some bread loaves. You have cooked so many dishes; we will manage just fine. It’s 10 o’clock so there’s no question of getting the heater back, the shop must have closed.”

The market was a two-minute walk. Dashrath dashed out in his car. But even after scouring three markets, he couldn’t get a single loaf of bread. At the time, Delhi faced an acute shortage of bread. The official line was a scarcity of flour. But that wasn’t really the case. As Russia invaded Afghanistan, droves of Afghani people took refuge in Delhi. They were believed to be getting a dole of thirty rupees from the US Embassy. Champion bread eaters, all of them. Apparently, they were buying off a fifth of the breads from bakeries. Some smart traders had started cashing in on the opportunity by hoarding bread loaves. These were then sold to the bread and meat eating refugees at double the market price, while the aam aadmi sighed in agony.

Half an hour later, Dashrath returned, empty handed. All his plans had been razed to the ground. Shall the guests be fed on just meat and vegetables?

No, Shakuntala couldn’t let that happen. Handing the dough tray to Munga, she knocked on the Kashmiri neighbour’s gate. The house was dark. The family seemed asleep. A great deal of pounding later, the servant came out and unlocked the gate. He remained transfixed at the sight of Shakuntala in a glitzy green sari with a green bindi on her forehead. Without any thought, Shakuntala pushed the gate aside and marched ahead to stand under the canopy. Munga followed her with the dough tray.

“Call your memsaab, fast.”

The Kashmiri memsaab turned out to be a nice person. Despite being woken up at such an odd hour, she didn’t get upset. Instead, on hearing of Shakuntala’s trouble, she took her straight to the kitchen and said, “No worries, Mrs. Sharma, you keep making the rotis here and send them along for your guests.”

Punjabis are used to being served one hot roti at a time as they eat. This didn’t happen that night. Nor could Shakuntala oversee the dinner, showing off her gaudy green sari. The palak paneer and mutton had gone cold a long time ago. Many a royal ingredient remained congealed in the half-cooked pulao. Dahi-vada is usually had cold, though. But the paneer pakoras couldn’t be fried.

Hemlata brought and placed the food items on the table. She also placed plates along with knives and forks before each guest.

Shakuntala kept making the rotis in the Kashmiris’ kitchen, and Munga kept shuttling between the two houses–to deliver and to bring more delivery.

Punjabis like to have not just rotis, but everything hot–be it summer or winter. Every food item–rice, roti, daal, curries–must be piping hot, with smoke swirling off the dishes to make them tantalizing. Therefore, the mutton curry and palak paneer remained almost untouched. The dahi-vadas went like anything, proving to be the saving grace for whetting the guests’ appetite.

When Shakuntala returned to the dining room, her bindi had melted, enveloping her entire face in a green darkness. She seemed to have emerged from some primordial darkness into light, yet her face didn’t light up. The guests had finished eating in her absence. Hemlata wanted to wait for Shakuntala, but Dashrath didn’t let her. It was late and everyone had to travel far.

After exchanging thanks, the guests all left by bidding smiling good nights. Dashrath and Shakuntala had to smile too. Wan smiles. The revenge didn’t turn out as planned. The Vesuvius in Dashrath’s heart continued to smoulder.

———————————

Amiya Sen is a Bengali novelist and short story writer. Her writing has been published in various Bengali journals, including Desh, Jugantar, and Basumati.Aranyalipi and New Delhi-r Nepathye are her non-fiction books. She also wrote a children’s book called Shonai Shono Rupkatha.

Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English–My Days with Ramkinkar Baij–has been published by Niyogi Books in January 2012. This work also won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation in 2009. Bhaswati blogs athttp://bhaswatighosh.com/

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