Taste by Shikhandin
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Sarita lifted a morsel of cheese from the plate and placed it gingerly on her tongue. She spat it out almost immediately.

 

‘This one has gone bad. Fully!’ she said wrinkling her nose. ‘Why didn’t you check Dimple? They check us, no?’

 

Sarita spoke with the confidence of one who has undergone endless ‘checks’ herself. In reality, she’d only heard stories about the way Indians were treated at immigration checkpoints but the picture in her mind was indelible.

 

Dimple’s mouth drooped. Her eyes turned moist with misery. She poured  sweet milky tea in brand new cups. The cups looked refined and felt satiny smooth. But everybody she’d served tea to had remarked that you could buy the same cups and saucers (with matching dinner plates as well) in India just as easily. Dimple had also bought perfumes and lipsticks, but even those were more or less available. Her friends and relatives had remained unimpressed with her shopping.

 

‘What’s the point in spending so much and going abroad for holidays?’ Dimple had complained to Prakash. ‘We may as well go to Kulu-Manali in winter if we want to ski or throw snow balls.’

 

Prakash however had a different viewpoint, one which he reiterated with increasing force every passing year. According to Prakash’s calculations, you actually paid less on a holiday abroad these days.

 

‘You get better value,’ he said. ‘It’s true Dimple. What are basic amenities abroad are found only in five-star type hotels here. And, mind you, cut throat five-star prices, not like there. But then, of course only those who’ve gone abroad know,’ he added with a smirk.

 

So Dimple and Prakash continued to go overseas for holidays. Bangkok, Colombo, The Maldives, Hong Kong, Singapore, and then Melbourne and Sydney, followed by cities in Eastern Europe. They had just returned from Europe this time, after visiting the fashionable cities of Paris, Frankfurt, London, and Venice. All duly stamped on their passports. Each time they returned from abroad with things for themselves as well as their large circle of relatives and friends. In recent times though, (and Dimple had been noticing with the silence of a helpless sufferer, even though Prakash remained, at least on the surface, oblivious) how the presents she’d brought received little more than cursory glances and a polite thank you or two, if at all. Her happiness over her cosmetics would have lost colour had Prakash not reassured her again and again of their true value.

 

‘More or less,’ he’d said. ‘You get more or less the same brands and the same products. But,’ and here he paused for effect, ‘these are the latest. Factory fresh. The ones here, and don’t let the swanky malls fool you Dimple, are at least six months old. I swear, it’s still like that.’

 

Prakash’s words were comforting and reassuring. Dimple had made wise purchases. Nobody realised what they were missing when they bought imported stuff that was at least a season old, thanks to India’s import policies and the fact that the west could still get away with off-loading products their consumers had moved away from. Things that they paid exorbitant prices for at swanky malls in Chennai and Bombay and Delhi.  She shared Prakash’s sagacious words with Sarita, just in case she planned a trip abroad, and Sarita nodded with the seriousness of one whose tickets and hotels were booked already.

 

And then, Dimple had remembered the incident with the cheese.

 

She could have bought so many other things with the Euros. But her pride had been at stake at that time. The sudden silence, the looks cast their way, as if they were a bunch of savages.

 

‘I felt obliged, you know.’

 

‘Oh?’ Sarita studied Dimple’s face while her own reflected a mixture of sympathy and irritation. ‘Okay I understand,’ she said after a pause. ‘But we Indians are loud only, no? We are not cheater-cocks are we? We are not showing people how cultured we are, and then robbing them of good money! How many Euros did you say?’

 

‘Can’t remember exactly,’ Dimple shrugged. ‘Thirty-Forty maybe.’

 

‘Thirty-forty?!’ Sarita did a quick calculation with her fingers. ‘Hai Ram! You spent three to four thousand rupees on cheese?! Just cheese?! What a waste!’ She shook her head in disbelief. ‘So much money for cheese? Including this half blue, half white, smelling-so-bad fungus-walla cheese! Honestly Dimple this is the height!’

 

Dimple stared at the offending item. All the joy from her Europe trip seemed to have congealed into this single stinky gob.

 

‘Only this one is the worst,’ she said at last. ‘The others are quite nice. Sarita, taste na?’ She pushed another floral patterned plate with small wedges of different cheeses towards her.

 

Sarita looked at the plate. ‘Very pretty designs Dimple. Just like the one at Popatlal Jamal’s. Only that one was a lovely purple shade. But I didn’t buy. I have too many purple things,’ she said with a giggle. ‘Anyway, which one will be safe to eat?’

 

Dimple said nothing. Sarita pondered for almost half a minute before selecting a cream coloured piece with holes in it. She took a tentative bite. ‘No taste ya. So bland.’

 

‘It’s nice with coriander chutney,’ said Dimple pushing a small porcelain bowl towards Sarita.

 

Sarita chewed a bit, considering the combination in her mouth before letting it slide down her throat. ‘Better. But give me Amul any day!’

 

Dimple took a piece. ‘Kraft is also good.’

 

Sarita, busy working her tongue on the bit that had got stuck to her upper palate, said, ‘Kwaft is evwyware ya.’ She finally managed to get the cheese unstuck. Swallowing it, she continued, ‘And that one also, what’s it? That pizzawala cheese.’

 

‘Mozzarella.’

 

‘I know babba! I know. It’s everywhere these days.’

 

‘You know why I went to the shop Sarita?’ said Dimple peeling a piece off the plate. ‘Because Kraft’s so good I thought the ones in their shop would be even better. It’s only for cheese, just imagine! A whole shop just for cheese! And so many types. My God Sarita, they were giving samples for tasting. Free of cost!’ She studied the cheese for a few seconds before placing it on her tongue.

 

‘That’s why your group members scrambled, and let their children loose!’ said Sarita. ‘It’s this FREE mentality! You can take an Indian out of India but you can’t take the free mentality out of the Indian. The kids vomited also no? Chhi chhi! Big shame for us. What those foreigners must have thought!’

 

‘Only one kid vomited. His father got so angry with the shop keeper who was shouting in French. I don’t know what all he said in French. All the people in the shop looked at us like we were… I can’t tell you how bad I was feeling, you know.’ Dimple shuddered at the memory. ‘What could I do? At least you understand. But Prakash was so angry. Oh you and your pride, he said. Wasting good money!’

 

Sarita nodded in sympathy. ‘Men don’t understand ya. They think more of money. But you know Dimple, I agree with him also. See, this is plain cheating, isn’t it? Look at this cheese, such nice packaging, and you said this one cost more right?’  Sarita thrust the cheese plate towards Dimple. ‘Outside looking good. Inside all bad!’

 

‘In India we are exact opposite.’

 

‘Yes!’ said Sarita, and her smile expanded into a broad grin. ‘And nothing beats Indian food! Whatever you say. Our taste is best.’

 

Dimple grinned back, relieved the conversation had turned away from cheese. ‘Correct! After three days we were hunting for Indian restaurants there! Anyway Sarita let’s leave this cheese weez now. It’s been so long. Chal, let’s go eat some Pani Puri.’

 

‘Ya I know. Two weeks you spent there no Dimple?’

 

‘No it was a twenty-one-day package. Europe with one day shopping bonanza in Dubai. Free.’

 

‘Free shopping in Dubai! Which travel agent …?’

 

‘No. No ya. Only the trip; the stopover in Dubai was free. Some promo you know.’

 

‘O ya ya. I know. Off-season package.’

 

Dimple was about to protest, but Sarita hurried on.  ’I have to relieve Vipin. Let’s hurry. There’s a new shop near my house. Just opened. I heard their Chhole Bhatureys are to die for! And of course the Pani Puris.’ She took her purse and stood up.

 

‘One minute,’ said Dimple and began clearing away the cups and plates.

 

She carefully dropped the cheeses into a Tupperware container, and closed the lid firmly, checking to see if it was air tight before placing the box in the refrigerator. Next she placed the new cups and plates gently into a large plastic tub, which she hefted onto the kitchen platform. These she would wash herself when she returned; they were too precious to be entrusted to the maid. Dimple smiled to herself as she went about her chores watching Sarita shuffling her feet near the door. On the way to the Pani-puri shop she would get to hear Sarita’s latest edition about her impending move to the US.

 

*

 

One look at Sarita’s face and Vipin knew where she had been. He retreated into his laptop, even though his work for the day was over. The company he now worked for had recently started something called flexi-time, and Vipin took advantage of it more than he ought to. Sarita didn’t complain. He could stay home and baby-sit while she got her much needed break from housework and her minimum wage online job. The real reason why Vipin stayed at home was less pressure at work. The matter was worrying on one hand, but Vipin preferred to keep the worry part to himself. He’d rather change nappies and get baby food on his shirt than watch Sarita’s blood pressure go up. Right now, since the baby was asleep, and the dishes done as well, his only escape route was the laptop. He needn’t have bothered. Sarita ignored him and went straight to the kitchen. She banged the pots around for ten minutes before coming out to say that she wasn’t in any mood to cook, so could he please go out and get something? ANYTHING EXCEPT PUNJABI, SOUTH INDIAN, MULTI CUISINE, ITALIAN, CONTINENTAL! She was sick of the same menus, so could he for a change use his imagination and get something that looked and tasted more like food and less like oily-spicy-glop in foil boxes with wannabe-westernised labels?

 

Vipin nodded and shuffled out of the room. Dinner was still a couple of hours away, but he’d rather be out driving in spite of the rush hour traffic in Adyar than deal with Sarita’s mood at home. He could use the opportunity to go to the Eswari lending Library and grab a couple of books, the latest Jeffrey Archer if he was lucky. Vipin picked up his wallet from the cupboard, and took a quick look at the infant sleeping on the bed. He was grateful her pot banging hadn’t woken him up. It had taken him more than an hour to get the little fella to sleep. He was also grateful Sarita hadn’t vetoed pizza. That meant while any kind of pasta was out, pizza was in. Thank God for small mercies! Pizza didn’t count as Italian, in an Italian-Italian sort of way. Pizza was universal food. Neither fast nor slow. Smartly American, but fulfilling in a nice Indianish-spicy sort of way; especially the spice garden vegetable pizza.

 

Vipin smacked his lips despite the tension trailing him like damp wood smoke from their balcony. He wished she’d stop hanging out with Dimple, but Sarita seemed to be addicted. She had to have her Dimple fix every other week, especially after she returned from her twice a year holiday. Sarita always claimed afterwards that she’d put Dimple in her place, but Vipin knew better. He’d told her innumerable times that their time would come, sooner than she thought; he was only waiting for the right offer. That seemed to keep Sarita going, until she returned from Dimple’s house, discouraged and unhappy, and the whole cycle would start all over again.

 

Vipin felt sorry for her. But more than her he felt sorry for himself. It would have been good for their son to have been born in the USA, but the previous offer had fallen through even before Vipin had reached the crucial physical interview stage. Things had become so much tougher these days. Jobs were scarcer abroad than in India. Applying for an H1B Visa was almost like asking for the moon! He should go to Hyderabad and pray to Visa-Balaji there. He had heard about that deity’s fabulous boon granting powers. It was worth a shot.

 

Vipin sighed as he eased the Maruti Swift (another bone of contention because Prakash and Dimple owned two cars, one of which was a Mercedes) into the only space left with barely a foot and a half’s gap between the parked vehicles. He wondered what today’s story was going to be. Sarita’s degree of unhappiness would depend on the intensity of her perceived humiliation.

 

*

 

Sarita moved listlessly around the house. She knew Vipin was trying, really trying. And she shouldn’t be so hard on him.  Besides, there was still a big demand for his line of work abroad, especially in the USA. Who cared about Europe if you could go and live in California or Los Angeles! Once there, who cared whether you were a manager or not, or what your rank was. She’d heard that those things didn’t matter out there, and that it was only in India that people asked about designations and so on. Of course it would be tough, but in no time at all they would be settled with a car and a house, just like the pictures her friends were posting on Facebook, all the time. They were still young. Sarita had faith. She knew it was inevitable; she could almost taste the future. Even though the future seemed frustratingly fuzzy at this point in time. Even though so many Indians were returning despite having changed their citizenship! Sarita knew better. One had to live abroad for a few years at least. If you stayed long enough for a green card and even better a citizenship, and then returned, there was nothing like it. No holidays abroad could make up for having been a real NRI. Sarita sighed. She went and stood at the balcony.

 

She knew what Vipin was going to get. They could have ordered home delivery or take-out as Dimple had begun to call it these days. But unbranded pizza was half the price, and tasted even better. At least they put more peppery pieces of paneer and mushrooms, though less cheese. But that could always be rectified by grating generous helpings of Amul Cheese over the piping hot pizza.  The thought of cheese took her back to the horrible thing she’d tasted earlier in the day. She almost gagged at the thought, and then a chuckle escaped her throat. Stupid Dimple! Sarita began to hum a song as she waited.

 

*

 

Dimple massaged hand lotion into her palms and feet. She smelt her arms, inhaling the faint floral scent pleasurably. Her pale pink nightdress was short and she was glad she’d taken care to wax her legs the day before. Prakash had picked up the set for her in a little shop in Paris. She wanted him to see her looking pretty in it.

 

Afterwards she gossiped softly about her day, and Prakash listened, drowsily at first, but suddenly he was awake again, and alert.

 

‘Popatlal my foot!’ said Prakash. ‘She’s plain jealous. Next holidays we’ll go to Canada. Tell her that.’

 

‘Really?’ said Dimple snuggling closer.

 

‘Now we are doing business with the Canadians, remember? I told you!’

 

‘Oh yes. Chhi! Forgot to tell Sarita,’ Dimple hit her forehead.

 

‘Good you didn’t,’ said Prakash. ‘This dose should last for some time. Next time … did you show her the videos I took?’

 

‘Oh! Forgot that as well! All thanks to that cheese!’

 

’Offo! Dimple. That would’ve put her in her place.’

 

‘I know. I know. She was so … Prakash you should have heard her!’ Dimple sat up impatiently. ‘I feel for her and Vipin, you know. But she can be so irritating! Why’s she like this only?!’

 

Prakash drew her to him and squeezed her waist, ‘Arrey who isn’t? You tell me, is there anyone who isn’t jealous of the other guy? Hanh, tell me? Anyway that’s her problem. You don’t go feeling sorry for her now Dimple. Remember how people were to us? Remember?’ And he gave her waist a little shake.

 

Dimple nodded. She hugged Prakash fiercely. A slight tremor rippled through her body. They rarely mentioned the early days.

 

‘We have enough in the bank now, no Prakash?’ She said with a quiver in her voice.

 

Prakash hoisted himself on his elbow and looked at her with serious eyes. ‘Have faith in me and Satya Sai Baba, Dimple. Have faith in Lord Venkateswara. Company’s doing well. You wait and see,’ Prakash stroked her hair. ‘Don’t worry, just enjoy now, before our family grows.’

 

Dimple smiled at him, her eyes grew soft with love and faith, and the moment shimmered around them. But Prakash sat upright again, and slapped his knee, breaking the tender cocoon into which Dimple had let herself go.

 

‘So we’ll invite them over for dinner, na?! I’ll put on the videos. The look on their faces should make up for the Euros we had to blow on your stupid cheese!’

 

It took Dimple a couple of seconds to understand what he was referring to. ‘That’s a good idea,’ she said, more out of duty than anything else.

 

Prakash turned on his side and drifted off to sleep. Dimple stayed snuggled next to him, trying to find comfort in his warm body. But there was a sense of disquiet around her. There was this lingering feeling, an aftertaste in her mouth. Dimple wondered what the future would bring. A child, yes. And then? It was nice to dream. Prakash was also a lot more confident these days. But there were moments when Dimple wasn’t so sure. How much of her destiny could she be in charge of? How much could their Gods protect them? She wondered. They were after all just another couple among the billions sending prayers and donations to temples. Did Prakash understand? Perhaps they ought to buy more gold instead of squandering the money on foreign trips. And, another house.

 

‘Yes’, said Dimple softly to herself. ‘Land and gold. Goddess Lakshmi’s true gifts.’

 

Not perfumes, clothes and knick knacks from abroad. Who cared about western food anyway? They would always return to the comfort of dhall-roti-sabzi. And hot gulab jamuns. The thought of the syrupy sweets warmed her. She would broach the subject tomorrow, she told herself, as she slid a hand under Prakash’s elbow and threaded her fingers into the wiry hairs on his chest.

 

‘Perhaps a farm house,’ she mused drowsily.  Farm houses were the trend nowadays. With organic vegetables growing in your own garden. For better health, for better taste. And to show the world you’d truly arrived.

 

*


Shikhandin is an Indian writer. A book of stories, Immoderate Men was published in March 2017 by Speaking Tiger Books. Shikhandin's fiction and poetry have been widely published, and have won a few awards and accolades in India and abroad.