The Celery Stew

An arm wedged behind her, Titli stoops over her stew to sip from the wooden ladle. Mmmm, a sound of approval rises from her throat. Her short silky black hair, pinned neatly over her ears, Titli feels a rush of contentment. In that very moment, she realises how wonderful it is to just be, to savour a single moment for what it offers. The cool breeze wafting in from the open kitchen window adds flavour. It’s early and the heat hasn’t quite set in. The usual chirpings are heard. Titli barely notices them till she hears footsteps behind her. Rati. “Hello Madam.” “Hey, how are we?” “Good, good, I see you’ve been rustling together some interesting stuff,” bending over the pot. Titli hums along even as she stirs up the bits at the bottom of the pan. “Not bad at all,” she murmurs to herself, “I think I’ve outdone myself.” Her eyes dart to the sudden appearance of a raven outside the kitchen window, now perched upon a branch of the gulmohar tree, in full orangey bloom. “You're not getting any of this stew honey!” she says smiling wickedly, as she sinks most of the ladle in the stew, its arm resting on the pot’s interiors.

When Rati pinches her derrière, Titli momentarily breaks free from the taste buds. “Ah so there you are…wolfing down our dinner as is your won't,” a very naughty smile playing along the corners of her mouth. Titli looking injured, opens her arms wide and hugs Rati. “You know how I love food, and how terrible I am at cooking, unlike you, sweetheart. I wanted to surprise you tonight. Stew is your all-time favourite, especially when it has celery, tomatoes…” Rati interjects, “And parsley, and cinnamon and freshly-plucked basil.” The doorbell rings. They both look startled, and Titli’s arms fall free of Rati’s waist. Their gaze meets. Questions hang limply, unsure and hesitant. They let their gaze drop to the floor.

Titli pushes Rati back, points at the pot and hands her the ladle. Neither speaks as if the interloper is right there. Rati stares at the ladle. Titli urges her gently and turns down the heat. The door-less kitchen suddenly seems much too small, much too open. Titli walks towards the home entrance as the doorbell rings a second time, unrelenting.Whoever it is, needs to be addressed now.
“Papa!” An unexpected visitor. A male voice is heard, “Yes, it’s me. Sorry beta, I hope
I am not intruding?” “Of course, you are papa, you know it, but you are here.”

Rati recoils to the back of thekitchen, where it’s darker, to remain unseen and unheard. The raven caws unexpectedly and more of his friends join in the unmelodious chorus. The leaves rustle madly under their feet. There is quite a flutter. Just as they begun, they suddenly take flight, leaving the tree to glow quietly as dusk gradually descends. Rati leans against the kitchen sink staring at the heat that rises in a steady steam from the stew.

Papa looks just as surprised to find himself in his daughter’s home. They exchange embarrassed glances. “Your mother wanted me to bring some freshly-made laddoos that she prepared last night,” handing over a steel box, hurriedly wrapped in newspaper with the edges shining through. “Time to speak out,” yell the dark letters on the crumpled paper. Titli takes the box from papa.

“That is wonderful, thank you so much. Baithiye (sit), papa.”

Papa glances around him, taking in the messy environment. Most chairs are strewn with clothes. His eyes dart here and there, the ambience, subtly dominated by a presence he does not quite recognise as his daughter’s. There is a cuckoo clock on the wall and not much else. He recognises the dhurrie rolled up in the corner of the living room as an old one from their servant quarter, a reject. He pierces every nook and corner even as his daughter follows his eyes closely. As he takes in the lack of space, and the clutter, his own intrusion starts to cause him discomfort. He shifts from one foot to the other. There is no more said to indicate a welcoming gesture towards him. An evening birdcall is heard. As dusk settles, the room wears a sombre look, resonating that time of the day when everything points towards closure, towards ending what may have begun in the day.

A scooter passes by, whirring rapidly, a honk follows and a door opens somewhere in the neighbourhood. The crank of the door is loud and jarring, a stark contrast to the apartment’s silence. Titli feels a bead of sweat trickling down her spine as she awaits further exchange. Her pulse beats in her temple, a jab of a needle. She shuts her eyes, and smells anew the celery soup’s aroma which a sudden breeze wafts into the living room. Mmmm, nice. For a minute there, she derives joy in forgetting. Food, such a comfort, she tells herself. But for papa, this aroma is just as unfamiliar as whatever meets his vision.

“So, that was it, beta,” he kindly breaks the awkwardness. He has still not sat. He wrinkles his nose in what could only be interpreted as an unpleasant acknowledgement of what the waft carried. Titli watches him and winces anew. He plays with his collar and opens his mouth, only
to shut it.

“Some water, papa?” and he hears what Titli dare not say.

“Maybe some other time. I should leave, beta. I just had my full bottle of karela (bitter gourd) juice before leaving home. But, maybe some chai?” He has changed his mind. Papa is breeding familiarity with this curious exchange, and he wants to know more. He moves as if to grab a chair. Titli continues to stand still and tall, right hand in her pocket and the other hand on the back of a chair. Her forehead gleams with sweat. Her faded jeans and her full-sleeved shirt look dirty. Titli, belying her name, is not feminine and does not feel the need to button up.

Some rattling is heard in the kitchen. Both Titli and papa turn their heads in the direction of the noise. Then both turn again to face each other. Questions are hanging like old, damp clothes. Putrid. The monsoon does that.

“Go Titli beta, let me not stop you from your dinner. Your kadhai (wok) might get burnt.” Papa pushes Titli. While both are aware that there is someone else in the house…silence hangs in there.
Just as he is about to sit on one of the stools, he sees Rati. She just walks into the living room, emerging from the dark kitchen. She appears pretty, petite and strange. His expression, from one of paternal affection turns to acidic in a matter of moments. He stops an inch short of the seat, and is standing again. “Actually, I think your mother may not approve of any delay in our evening meal.” His tone is acrimonious. Papa leaves, abruptly. The entrance door, with its excellent Godrej automatic locking system, swings back into place without much ado.

So, there you are Rati. You could not remain concealed in the stew for just a bit longer, could you? Dad would have left. He did not really want chai, did he? You too, Rati, my sweet, have succeeded in snatching your moment. No more of any parental-affliction, no more intrusions, no more hints of allegations and no more the urgency to banish a life of ‘Titli is a titillator!’ and ‘Titli is a bad girl’ or ‘Is Titli a girl at all’. You have freed me darling, you have. Well done!

Titli’s sagging shoulders feel the weight of Rati’s arms reaching out to her longingly. Titli shrugs them off defensively but without success.

Deep affection in her eyes, Rati continues to embrace Titli, cocooning them instantly.
“Guilty as charged my love.”

The tall Titli then breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably…as the celery stew stands witness, still simmering away, its consistency now that of a thick broth.

  • Kamalini Natesan

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