SOUR FISH CURRY: ANURAAG BARUAH
Anurag Baruah has done his post graduation in English Literature from University of Delhi, India. His writings have been published in Himal Southasian, Assam Tribune, NE Lit Review and Kafila.
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"Niharika, My name is Niharika. Yes, I am heading for Delhi" She was getting her boarding pass at the Indigo Airlines counter inside the Guwahati airport. Niharika couldn't decide whether she was excited or sad about her shifting to Delhi. Her brother came to drop her in a hired taxi. She became nostalgic as the taxi drove through her familiar university area. She could see young pairs basking in the winter sun on the university lawns. The sight took her back on a short stroll down the familiar memory lanes. The steep speed breakers on the entry point to the airport brought her back to the present as the car wrestled past.
"Twenty kilos. Just within limit, Ma'am" the lady at the counter gave her a smile, the one she reserved for the guests. She would have to practice that smile too, she made a note in her mind. She got past the security check easily. Few passengers had arrived. She had reached early.
She decided to browse through the few newspapers at the lounge as she waited for the boarding call. Most of the headlines talked about the recent success of the counter insurgency operations of the Indian Army. Success is a relative thing. That was what her father had said once, she remembered.
"… outside temperature is 27 degree Celsius…" The passengers had already started fumbling with their cell phones. A cacophony of human voices filled up the air. Family, friends, agents, drivers were being contacted. Few like Niharika just sat motionless, waiting for the din to go down. Akash wanted to come over to pick her up from the airport. But she insisted on going alone. She would hire a cab. After all she would need to adjust to the city life all by herself keeping in view Akash's busy office life.
Two years ago when they had got married, Niharika was reluctant about the idea of leaving Assam for Delhi. Akash came away to Delhi after the marriage and she stayed back with Akash's parents in Assam. It was an arranged marriage after all. It takes time to find love, they used to say.
"You people should stay together now, that way you will be able to take care of each other," Akash's parents forced them in a way actually. So there was she, in Akash's city.
Akash gave a few directions over the phone to the driver and she was soon standing outside the small apartment on the second floor of the last building on the lane next to the Krishna mandir in Malviya Nagar. She found the key under the only earthen flower pot near the entrance and unlocked. The place was swept clean recently but a slight smell of dusty corners lingered in the air. The first thing that had caught her eyes was the heap of brochures and menus from nearby take away food joints. Free delivery with discounts, the letters were bold and colourful.
Tired from the journey, she wanted to lie down for a while. But she chose to clean up the place instead. Dusty corners were swept and the take away menus found place in the garbage bin. She cooked simple egg curry and waited for Akash.
"Sorry Nihar, I couldn't turn up at the airport. How was the flight?"Akash asked as he took off his shoes before entering the house. His eyes looked tired but his face still young. She admired his boyish looks and thought she looked older somehow.
"It's ok Akash. The flight was ok too. Shall I heat up the dinner?"
"Please do. I am so hungry"Akash replied and went off to the bathroom to freshen up.
They had a quiet dinner. Akash relishing home cooked food and she mulling over the things that needed to be bought for the house. They retired to bed early. Akash had an early meeting and she was tired with all the exertions of the day.
"Here is the money that you asked for and don't get lost. The supermarket nearby is the place where you will find most of the things." Akash jostled through his breakfast- bread toast and fried eggs. Soon he was out, already late for his meeting.
She found most of the things at the supermarket except a few. For fresh fish, she was told she would have to go to the INA market near Delhi Haat. She fetched an auto and soon was wading through the smelly alleys of the fish market in INA. Rohu fish, fresh and pink along with some prawns went into her shopping bag. She also found some shiitake mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Akash had a liking for fish while she loved mushrooms.
She cooked masor tenga- sour fish curry for dinner. The salt was a bit on the higher side but would be ok with rice, she presumed. Akash arrived late and apologized about it a dozen times. They relished on the masor tenga at the small kitchen table over chitchats about Assam.
Days passed and Niharika soon got accustomed with the locality. Her frequent outings for bazar filled up the house with a range of things. Akash was forever busy with his office. He would often turn up late and leave early morning again. Nights were silent, interspersed with heavy breathings of Akash in deep sleep and her silent stares at the ceilings. They need time, she would often console the sleepless nights. It takes time to find love, they used to say.
She saw him first when she was letting the blankets out in the sun. Her tall, thin frame still resembled a young girl perhaps. She saw him staring at her with an impish boyish smile in his face. His age would be thirty, perhaps twenty two. She could not guess, for his boyish looks. Something about him gave her a thrill down her body. She didn't mention anything about this to Akash, a fact which often made her feel guilty. They didn't chat, though these silent stares were often repeated. Sometimes she would retrospect- she hasn't done anything wrong.
Winter had set in and the evenings turned misty and chillier. They would sometimes take a walk on the park outside- Akash puffing out cigarette smoke while she imitated him with smoke that came out from her mouth. They chatted about every other thing. She would often wonder about taking up the subject about their non-existent sexual life but he seemed not to care. She talked about Assam instead, about the extremists and the army operations, about her dead parents. Her only brother seemed too busy with himself to talk about them. Life teaches one to move on- she often concluded.
She first saw the ad in the newspaper and had ignored it altogether. In the evening when she was cleaning up the shiitake mushrooms placed on the newspaper, she saw it again. It was an opening for sub editors in a national daily. She could apply as the eligibility cited included English graduates. While cooking the shitake mushrooms with sliced bacon, she decided she would apply.
When Akash came back from office, she told him about the job opening. He did not sound too eager but agreed. She typed her own resume in Akash's laptop and got it printed out. The interview went well and she had hoped for the best. The news came after a week. She got the job and needed to join in a week.
She had at first thought that the job would be a change from the monotony of home, that she would still have time for herself at the end of the day. But soon she found herself too caught up with her job. She would often bring assignments home and work through weekends while Akash cooked egg curry on Sundays. At times Akash talked about taking a vacation, going to the hills perhaps. But she couldn't spare a leave at the office. She was just starting and soon could be an assistant editor, she stressed.
She was enjoying the change too. She could spend money as she wished now- no longer having to wait for Akash. At night she would often doze off, even before Akash would finish his goodnight cigarette. Mornings were like preparing for a war, frantic and fast.
"Excuse me! Could you spare me some sugar please?" The deep voice had startled her as she sat on her balcony sipping drags of tea over a weekend assignment that she had brought home from office.
"Hope I am not disturbing you. By the way I am Rohit" It was the same man with the boyish impish smile across the corridor.
"Of course not," she smiled back and got inside to get him some sugar in a cup. "You can return the cup later."
He waved and went away leaving her wondering if she sounded too eager or friendly. She did smile a bit too much, just like that lady's smile in the airport. He had a deep voice unlike Akash who often sounded childish to her. Deep voice and boyish looks, she felt that thrill down her body again.
Akash came back a little early that day and found her lost in thoughts. "Nihar, what's the matter? You seem a bit down. Missing Ma-Deuta?" He sounded concerned.
She shook her head "Nothing Akash".
She found the faint hint of a woman's perfume for the first time when she had decided to wash some of their clothes together in the washing machine. She had at first negated the whole cheating husband theory believing it must have been some accident. She would often come across female colleagues gossiping about alleged extra marital affairs in office but never thought she would experience something like that in her own marriage.
Things took a turn when she came across his mail box accidently as she was using his laptop one day. It did not take many mails for her to put two and two together and add up to the final result- Akash was having an affair.
She contemplated a range of reactions that will best suit the situation. For once she even thought about going across the corridor to fetch the unreturned cup. She did think about hearing the deep voice again and sharing the impish, boyish smile. Somehow the whole idea didn't give her that familiar thrill down her body anymore. She chose to forget about the cup.
Akash's aloofness in the bed, her sleepless nights suddenly appeared meaningful after all. Why couldn't he be more vocal about his preferences? What was the need for all these pretensions? -Questions that came without answers.
They had the altercation soon. Akash denied it in beginning but eventually relented. He had no emotional ties. It was just the physical thing, he admitted.
"You seemed to have a problem with me in the bed. I am humane too Nihar. I have my desires and needs."
"But you never said anything Akash. How will I know that you wanted to say the same things?"
"I am sorry Nihar, for everything. I promise not to repeat my mistakes again. Can we please move on?"
They did move on, tried to forget things. Forget everything to be a misunderstanding. But every time they got closer, she could smell that faint hint of the perfume lingering around. They got busy with their lives instead. She became careless with the kitchen, often ordering food from home delivery joints. No more shiitake mushrooms and no more masor tengas. They would eat at their own preferred times alone in their own preferred places. A heap of take away menus and brochures soon collected on the kitchen table. It's almost as if two complete strangers lived alongside each other. They adjusted their schedules so that none had to face each other. She preferred to sleep in her own room by her work desk while Akash would doze off before the TV on the sofa. Silently they moved on.
Then one day, suddenly she spoke. She asked him to come back a bit early from office. Akash obliged. He collected some fresh fish on his way back. Masor tenga perhaps- he kept thinking. He reached quite early and found the house mute and silent. Nothing occurred to him until he reached the kitchen to drop the fish. Besides the heap of take away menus and brochures on the kitchen table, a file stared back at him. He knew its content even before he grabbed it. Flinging open the pages, he found that she had already signed it and it's his turn. They are filing for divorce. 'Success is a relative thing'- her neat handwriting on one of the home delivery brochures was clear enough for him to see.