Skip to main content


ISSUE:  Summer 2007

Sheela Parekh had learned three inviolable rules about married life from her mother: (1) you must tolerate your mother-in-law; (2) you must protect yourself from a man’s desires; and (3) you must have a good cook. She considered herself moderately successful with the first two. But their cook had just written to say that his ailing parents needed him now in his village and he would not be returning to Bombay after all. And this was causing her a great deal of concern.

The monsoons had not helped. It had been pouring for three months. Relentless downpours with drops like stones. She watched from the windows of their sixth-floor flat with her husband, Arturo, as the shantytown across from their apartment building was washed away into the Arabian Sea. “Where will they go now?” she said to him.

“Here. This is where they will come. To our doorstep.”

Later that day, when she answered the doorbell, she thought Arturo had been right. This was probably the first supplicant from the slum come to ask for food and money. She looked at the man warily. “I am a cook,” he said directly, “and I need a job.” His neatness impressed her, and his cockiness. Since their cook had left, Sheela had kept her ears open for someone who could turn out reasonable meals and take care of the dietary needs of their diverse household without constant grumbling. She watched him rustle through a plastic folder he removed from under his arm. “I have testimonials,” he said, handing her some papers.


“Wait here,” she said. She closed the door in his face and went to her husband. “Look at this.”

He glanced through the papers. “Hmm, very impressive. Probably fake. Still, there’s no harm in talking to the man. See what he wants.”

“Will you come?”

“These things are best done by women,” he said.

*  *  *  *  

His name was Vincent. “I have fed kings and paupers,” he said, showing a shy smile for the first time. “And both have gone away happy.”

She liked both his name and his sudden flamboyance. “You are a young man,” she said. “How would you have met kings?”

He said he had traveled the world in the company of great chefs. “I learned many things in my travels.”

She nodded encouragingly, so he went on. “In Russia, I learned to stuff chicken with butter and parsley, and in Germany, to make onions into a stew. In France they know how to use liver, and in Britain, kidneys. In Italy they use hunting dogs to find a kind of mushroom that costs more than gold, and in Spain I learned fifteen different ways to cook octopus. For five years I traveled through Europe with a band of chefs who needed a quick learner, a sous-chef who cut and cleaned up quietly and wanted to learn as much as he could. Then I came back to Goa, to visit my ailing mother. I got married, had a daughter, and left them behind to come here to earn money to support them.”

Sheela heard him with growing astonishment. Why was this man at her door, seeking work? “You should go straight to the Taj hotel here in Apollo Bunder,” she said. “We could not pay you properly and we have no need of an international chef.” And to further dissuade him she added, “Also our kitchen is very small. Our previous cook used to sleep on the floor in there. We have no separate servants’ quarters.”

“I can sleep on the floor,” he said. “As for hotels, I am tired of working for hotels. I want to be on my own and I want to cook for a family.”

She opened the door wider now, and ushered him in. He had mystified her, and she was curious enough about his intentions to detain him a little longer. “Wait here,” she said to him again, leaving him standing by the windows, which looked out onto a filthy gray Arabian Sea, its surface pockmarked by the pelting rain.

Arturo said, “This is a kitchen matter. I don’t want to get involved.”

Sheela went back to the entrance hall and saw Vincent standing there by the windows. One had been left slightly ajar and a thin ripple of water raced along the edge, trickled down onto the stone floor. He clicked the window shut, and as he did so, she knew, suddenly, that he belonged here, in her home.

“My husband says that he would like to sample your food before we hire you,” she said.

“Yes, that is essential,” he said. “You tell me when I can cook for you. I am ready any time you say.”

“Tomorrow the flat will be practically empty. Only my daughter and I will be here. I can show you where everything is in the kitchen.”

“I will come in the morning, at nine o’clock,” he said.

She took out a small pouch attached to her petticoat. “How much will you need to buy the food?”

“I have to prove myself first,” he said. “The money will come later.”

She puzzled over his response. “We don’t eat kidney and liver,” she said. “Or feet of any kind. No tongue. No brains. And my mother-in-law will not allow beef or pork. My husband is allergic to fish and all seafood. My daughter will only eat jam sandwiches. Otherwise we can eat anything.”

“What do you want me to make?”

“You are the chef,” she said. “You choose.”

*  *  *  *  

At nine sharp the next morning, the doorbell rang. When Sheela let Vincent in, she noticed the bulging rattan baskets he was carrying. There was also a canvas bag, small and neat like a visiting doctor’s bag. “You are planning a feast, it seems,” she said. “We are simple eaters, and we don’t eat very much.”

He followed her to the kitchen. Sheela saw the tiny, grimy kitchen through the traveled eyes of the chef, following his gaze as it lighted upon every well-worn surface there. There was a gas cooker, three copper-
bottomed pots that had blackened with use, a ladle and a stirring spoon. A flat grinding stone and pestle for masala pastes, a large round tin with small containers of spices on the inside, and two glass bottles—one containing used vegetable oil, the other water—were arranged by the stove. “The old cook was used to his village ways; he didn’t need many utensils or pieces of equipment,” she said. Next to the kitchen was an alcove, which contained a fridge and a large sink for washing dishes. There was an earthenware jug into which water dripped through a filter. “All the water is boiled after it is filtered,” she said. He nodded with approval. “If the water isn’t pure, the food doesn’t taste good,” he said.

She watched him unpack his baskets. Finger-thin eggplants and young baby okra, cauliflowers tight and unblemished, tomatoes lusciously red and ripe, guavas and figs, apricots and lotus buds all unwrapped carefully from their newspaper, followed finally by a chicken that, judging by the drops of blood that clung to its skin, had been plucked only minutes before. With the old cook, she had never bothered to step into the kitchen; all his food tasted the same—edible but lacking in flavor. Now Vincent opened up the canvas bag and removed from it a big wood-handled knife, a whisk, a large four-pronged fork, and a small wooden bowl with a wooden hammer-shaped stick. “I cannot work without these things,” he said.

Sheela said, “You have everything you need?”

“Yes. I will start now.”

She left him to it.

*  *  *  *  

Throughout the day, she wondered at the noises and smells that drifted out of the kitchen. At one moment, she smelled stewing figs, at another cauliflower roasting in aniseed. A sharp smell of lemon rind, then delicate buttery saffron steeping in warmed milk, followed by the winey-sour smell of pomegranate seeds crackling in fragrant oil.

She sat on a sofa in the drawing room and tasted the flavors on her tongue as if for the first time. And simultaneously she contemplated her household, the effects such vibrant food would have on them. There was first of all, the matriarch, Arturo’s mother, a Goan by birth, a Hindu by inclination, now in the temple with her eldest daughter-in-law, whose driver had come early in the morning to pick her up for a day of shopping and prayer. There was her husband, Arturo, an engineer in the railways, a gentle man who did not know how the world worked and was consequently left feeling betrayed by all who surrounded him, and there was her nine-year-old daughter, Nandita, who was pulling at her shirtsleeve and saying, “What are kidneys, amma?”

“Nothing you will ever have to eat,” she replied, realizing that the child had overheard every word uttered between her and their cook-to-be the first time he had entered their home.

The child, satisfied, turned back to her book, and disappeared, as they all did in this household, into her own world.

Her mother-in-law would berate the food, because it was not what she was used to. “At my age, I cannot expect my stomach to handle new things,” she would say. Her husband would smile indulgently and say, “But how are we going to eat like this every day? It must cost a fortune.” And her daughter would reject everything, as always, because it wasn’t what her storybook heroes, George and the Famous Five, ate. She wanted potted meat and cucumber sandwiches and ginger beer, none of which Sheela knew anything about. So whom, really, was Vincent going to please? Her, just her, with her dulled taste buds yearning to be teased.

In the bedroom, the cleaner had gone under the bed with her long broom, fished out dust and other odds and ends that get swept there by the sea breezes.

“Memsaab,” she called.

Sheela turned to her. “Kya hai?” What is it?

The woman held out a used condom. “Yeh?”

“Yeh kya?” she said. What about it?

“Yeh kya karoon?” What shall I do with it?

“Phenko, aur kya?” Sheela said nonchalantly. Throw it, what else?

The woman stared at her as she swept it up into her pan, her expression curious, challenging. Sheela turned away. Condoms are only used by prostitutes, the woman’s expression said.

My husband visits other women, Sheela wanted to tell to her, and I am simply protecting myself. But the woman would not have understood and it was easier to pretend that she didn’t know what the woman was asking her. Their entire relationship was based on questions not asked, on answers not given. But the woman’s expression bothered her all day. Whenever Arturo asked her why she was being so careful, she said only that they could not afford another child. In her heart she knew it was because of the prostitutes in whose arms Arturo lay, while pretending to her he was examining rail lines in Surat or Baroda.

*  *  *  *  

That evening her husband brought home a high-ranking colleague. “With all this wonderful food in the house, we must have guests, isn’t it?” he said to Sheela, as he introduced the man, a Mr. Vijay Seth.

“Vijay is the big chief in the signals department,” Arturo said. “He is the man responsible for the trains arriving and leaving on time. He knows where every train is at any given moment. Deccan Queen, sir?”

Vijay glanced at his watch. “Approaching Ratlam in four and half minutes.”

“And the Frontier Mail?”

“Leaving Mathura in seventeen minutes, as we speak.”

“You see?” Arturo turned to Sheela. “He knows exactly where all the trains are, minute by minute. And not only that. He knows exactly how many bogies have been attached to each train—which ones are passenger bogies, which ones freight.”

“That’s exaggerating it. I don’t know everything. I am at the mercy of the signal staff and they are all good fellows, I must say. But I, personally, am their manager, not the signal manager.” Sheela liked his humility, so rare in a government body like the Railways, where everyone wanted to be the big man in charge. After Arturo served them drinks—they had gimlets, she stuck to her Limca—“let me spike it, Sheela,” Arturo said; “No,” she said, “I’ll have it straight”—she left them and went into the kitchen to see how Vincent was managing. He was spooning out chicken biryani onto a flat platter; even in the weak fluorescent light of the kitchen, the saffron-smothered grains of rice glistened invitingly, the pieces of chicken moist with browned onions.

*  *  *  *  

As they prepared for bed later that night, Arturo said, “That cook is a genius. Those were not ordinary chickens, Sheela. Anyone could see that. He must have gone to the Parsi Dairy Farm to buy them. And that was not our everyday saffron, I can tell you. Spanish, without a doubt.”

“He knows what he’s doing.”

“Vijay was most impressed. Did you see his face? Every dish fit for a king, and he was the ruling rajah this evening. When Vincent brought out the mousse in that tall crust shaped like a pineapple—how did he do that, all those pastry leaves on the side—I knew the man was flabbergasted. For a change, I was not the ordinary man they think me to be, someone who doesn’t know about good living. Tonight’s dinner will make him see me in a new light.”

“And he is such a good man,” Sheela said. “You know, for tea he gave Nan jam sandwiches. She was so happy, eating everything for a change. We don’t have jam in the house—he must have bought some for her.”

“I was talking about Vijay, Sheela.”

“I was talking about Vincent. What he did for Nandita, did you even hear me?”

“I did. It was very generous of him—but how are we going to afford this man? The ingredients alone will beggar us, never mind his salary.”

Sheela noticed a new confidence in him—he had been proud to show Vijay that his house could turn out the kind of astonishing meal they had had that evening. Perhaps that was all that was wrong with their marriage—he needed to feel important, and this new cook, in one day, had provided him with a reason for claiming proud ownership of his home once again.

That night, Nandita, hearing the creaking bed boards in her parents’ room, came in and stood by their bedside. “What are you doing,” she demanded, and their gentle rocking stopped. “You’re making such a racket, I can’t sleep.”

Sheela stared at Nandita. “We couldn’t sleep,” Sheela said finally. “We were tossing and turning like you do when you have a toothache.”

Nandita shook her head. “Can you be quiet, please?” she said to them in her school principal’s voice before flouncing out of their room.

Arturo put his arm around Sheela, as they both burst into laughter. “Shh,” he said. “Miss Jones will be here again, if we don’t behave ourselves.” Sheela wondered at the lightness in his voice. The hopefulness had returned; she looked at him and he seemed to her once again the keen and passionate young man she had fallen in love with a decade ago.

*  *  *  *  

As he was adjusting his tie in the mirror the next morning, Sheela said, “What are we going to do about Vincent? I will have to say something to him.”

“Sheela, we can’t afford him, it’s as simple as that. Tell him to give us a bill for last night’s dinner—and withdraw money from our savings to pay him. It must have cost quite a lot.”

“Art, listen to me. I have thought about this very carefully.” She felt the diamonds warming in her hand, their brilliant light now searing and onerous. “Arturo, we can afford to keep Vincent. There is a way.”

“What?” he asked, surprise in his voice.

“These.” She unclenched her hand and held out a pair of diamond earrings. Arturo’s mother had given them to her when Sheela married Arturo. “I don’t need them. They are beautiful, but they are only stones, after all.”

Arturo gave her an astonished look. “But my mother,” he said. “Nanubhai’s craftsmanship.”

“I know. But what Vincent has given us already is worth so much more.”

“You’re asking me to pawn these?”

“No,” she said. “Sell them outright. We’ll put the money in our savings and withdraw from it every month to pay Vincent’s salary.”

“And when it runs out?”

“We’ll see then.”

“And my mother? What will we tell my mother, who likes to see you wear them every day?”

“Tell her the screws at the back needed replacing. I don’t know, Arturo. She’s your mother. You sort it out.”

*  *  *  *  

So Vincent became part of their home. Sheela asked him to vary the menu to display his experience with international cuisines. “You can show off to us, and Nandita will learn something about how other people in the world, besides her beloved Famous Five, eat. It will be good for us all to learn.”

At the first meal he cooked for them all, Vincent served a warm chicken mould, decorated with carrot slices and tarragon leaves. Mrs. Parekh the elder said, “When my digestive system packs up, you can ask him to cook this for me.” They chewed the mashed-up chicken in silence until Sheela said, “I love the herb sauce that goes with it.” Hmm, Arturo nodded. “It’s different,” he said. “It takes some getting used to.”

Vincent made it a few more times—and then they were asking for it again and again. One by one, he produced dishes that might have been puzzling at first, but then dazzled them all. Cannelloni. Paella. Empanada Gallega. Baked stuffed fish. Lobster Thermidor. Zweibelfleisch with caraway dumplings. Chicken à la Kiev. Mushroom soup, pungent and creamy and earthy. And the desserts: light-as-air English puddings, mousses and soufflés, fruit tarts and cakes, the flambés—every evening he served a sweet dish that made mother-in-law go all soft and sentimental. “This man,” she exclaimed, holding on to Vincent’s arm, “is a gem.” While Arturo’s eyes glazed over and he sighed with satisfaction after a meal, Sheela felt her senses grow sharper, as if life was flowing in her veins again.

Within a few months of Vincent’s arrival, it seemed to her that their table was the most exciting in all of Bombay. She had begun watching him as he cooked sometimes, dribbling olive oil drop by drop into beaten egg yolks, till the concoction became full and fluffy and was used for chicken or egg sandwiches for Nan to take to school. The incredible effort he expended just to make them all happy amazed her. And even as he brought worldly panache to their little home, Vincent somehow managed to bring back some change from the money she gave him for shopping in the market.

Arturo came home in the early evenings now, in time to do some homework with Nandita. In the past, he would return only when the household slept, and Sheela would hear the old cook shuffle to the stove to warm his dinner. Now every meal had become an adventure and, like them all, Arturo wanted to be there as Vincent unwrapped his treasures at their table.

Nandita followed him like a puppy. When she had to choose between French and German at school, Vincent said, “French is better. Their food is more imaginative.” His statement was the deciding factor. Geography quickly became her favorite subject. For her tenth birthday, Vincent’s present was a map of the world, with pasted-in spices, herbs, flowers, and fruits for the countries he had visited and learned to cook in. They invented a game that involved rubbing one’s fingers over a country and doing a lot of sniffing. “Cloves!” someone would shout. “No, cinnamon!” “No, juniper berries!” Vincent joined in, often pretending he couldn’t identify the smell of something, when everyone knew he had done all the pasting-in himself. Arturo thought the game was silly, but he played it with them all anyway, always losing by a large margin.

*  *  *  *  

Soon all Arturo’s colleagues were clamoring for invitations. In the year he had been with them, Vincent’s food had only got better. Every dinner party was a triumph. When the chief engineer of Western Railways hinted through his underlings that he, too, was keen to sample the food at the Parekhs, Arturo came back from work more excited than she had ever seen him. “Sheela, the chief engineer has asked to come to dinner here. How could I have been so remiss? But at the same time, you tell me how someone in a subordinate position like me could invite the chief engineer to dinner? It isn’t done.”

Sheela and he puzzled over what should be done about this new turn in events. As it was, the many parties they now had to give had taken their toll, and she had cut back on other things. The money from the diamonds had long gone. She hadn’t had the heart to tell Arturo that they were now dipping into their emergency funds. Nan’s uniforms, a new mattress for her mother-in-law’s bed, her monthly visits to Olga the hairdresser and Madame Marcel’s beauty salon, such things had drifted away as easily as dreams about holidays away from the city. She had learned how to manicure her own nails and sent Arturo’s shirts to be darned to spare the expense of buying new ones. And she had taken other salable bits of jewelry to the pawnshop herself, to the odious Mr. Patel, who took them but always exclaimed, “Such a tregeddy, from people like your good self.” The parties went on, for they gave Arturo much pleasure, and Sheela loved his new sense of well-being with the world.

But now came the chief engineer’s dinner. Sheela took Arturo’s gold cuff links to Mr. Patel. “No good,” the pawnbroker said. “Eighteen karat.” They were Victorian, family heirlooms. “It’s not the gold,” she said. “They are antique.”

“Antique shantique—whatever it may be, we don’t know anything about that. The gold has no value.” She reminded him about the great deal he’d got two weeks earlier when she’d brought him the solid sterling silver candlesticks. “I let you have them for peanuts—I needed the money,” she said. As if shaking off a guilty feeling, he reached for his wallet, licking a thumb with which he peeled off five hundred-rupee notes from a wad. She took the money with a hanky and hurried out of his shop. It was the exact amount needed for the chief engineer’s dinner.

*  *  *  *  

“This chief engineer is a bully,” she said to Vincent. “He terrorizes everyone who works for him—he knows that ultimately he decides who stays and who goes.”

Vincent understood the importance of the dinner immediately. “Leave it to me,” he said.

Vincent began preparing for the dinner a week in advance. Small glass jars of pastes and marinades lined the kitchen windowsills. Fruits steeped in fragrant liquids and herbs filled bottles containing vinegars and oils. On one side of the kitchen floor, ripening on a bed of hay, lay mangoes, green figs, and pomegranates, which he turned daily to distribute their increasing sugar equally. Against the constant noise of chopping, grinding, and beating, Sheela cleaned the silver, ironed napkins, and filled the vases with tuberoses, humming all the while.

*  *  *  *  

The chief engineer brought his wife and two guests from the Middle East, bright-eyed sheikhs with turbans and djellabas, and slippers with pointy curled-up toes. They were brothers and owned a couple of shopping malls in Dubai. They had come to find cheap labor. “Our country needs Indians who are prepared to work hard,” one of them said to Sheela. “We give them houses and food and good salaries. They send money back home. Everyone is happy, isn’t it?”

As they sat down to dinner, Sheela wondered whether the Arabs could eat the food. The chief engineer said, “We have heard so much about your new cook. Everyone marvels at his meals.”

“Yes, we are lucky to have him,” Sheela said.

Vincent brought in his first creation: a thin layer of flaky pastry on which lay a bed of fragrant creamy mushrooms, still bubbling in their sauce. Fresh mushrooms from the cool moist forests in the Ghats—how had he got these, Sheela wondered. They all ate in silence, chewing the mushrooms as if they had never tasted mushrooms before. Sheela saw the chief engineer grin, then his wife’s thin grimace widen to a beaming smile. She was the kind of woman who seemed to exist merely to affirm everything her husband said or did. “Wonderful,” the woman murmured, parroting her husband’s pleasure. The complete turnaround was breathtaking, and Sheela could manage only a superficial nod of acknowledgment.

Next came a baked whole fish. A spicy sauce oozed out as Vincent filleted it at the table. For Arturo there was chicken marinated with figs. Besides being beautifully flavored, everything was cooked to the perfect consistency and texture—crunchy or crisp or melt-in-your-mouth or soft and creamy. As the platter of rice with pomegranates and nuts and saffron went round the table, Sheela noticed one of the sheikhs close his eyes, as if he had suddenly glimpsed heaven.

The chief engineer said, “Mr. Parekh, I have decided that our dinner for the GM will be catered by your wonderful Mr. Vincent. You must tell him he will have plenty of help, but it is his hand we want guiding the final preparation of the food.” Then he added as an afterthought, “And don’t worry about the cost. After all, it is the General Manager, not some petty official.”

The chief engineer was notorious for getting his subordinates to prepare, and bear the cost of, special dinners given by his division. He somehow made it seem like a privilege, so that no one would protest. Sheela, who had heard tales of his proverbial miserliness, said, “Vincent only cooks for us, Chief Engineer, he is comfortable here. He won’t cook in other people’s homes.”

“Fine, then we will have the dinner here,” the chief engineer said. “No problem.”

In the stunned silence that followed, Arturo said only, “It is an honor, sir.” Sweat had gathered in little drops on his forehead.

Sheela stared at the rose-pink strawberry soufflé that Vincent carried in for dessert. While everyone else at the table sighed blissfully with every spoonful they raised to their lips, Sheela had to force each bite down. They had exactly five rupees left from the sale of Arturo’s cuff links.

The chief engineer took out a pouch of tobacco from his jacket pocket and filled the bowl of his pipe. Sweet tobacco fumes surrounded their table. “I must say, this is the best meal I have ever had,” he said. “Arturo, you are a man of the world. I have underestimated you.” Sheela saw her husband’s face light up as soon as the chief engineer addressed him by his first name, and knew that the evening had surpassed his wildest imaginings.

“We must congratulate this chef,” one of the sheikh brothers said, rising and rushing to the kitchen. His brother followed behind. Sheela rose, feeling estranged from everything around her. She went to the kitchen, to tell Vincent that tea would not be necessary, and saw that the sheikhs had put a small red velvet pouch on the preparation table. “You can open your own restaurant in Dubai,” one of the brothers said. “We will rival Caravelle’s cuisine. You will better their Monsieur Roux.” To Sheela’s surprise, Vincent replied, “I will need some time to think about this.”

“We are at the Taj hotel for another three days before we fly back to Dubai. Come and see us there,” they told him.

Later, Sheela saw Vincent empty the velvet pouch in his hand. Gold guineas filled his palm, clattered down to the stone floor. She stood there, watching him pick them up one by one. He was shaking his head sadly, as if a decision had already been made.

*  *  *  *  

When Vincent told them all he was going to Dubai, Nandita asked, “Why are you leaving us?” Vincent looked as if he was about to cry. He said, “It’s because I want to come back.” He left soon afterward, refusing his pay for the month, a man heavy with burdens and anxious now to make a name for himself in one of the few places in the world he’d never been.

*  *  *  *  

In a matter of weeks after Vincent’s departure, Arturo’s mother announced that she was moving to her daughter’s flat. “Anita says that once her baby arrives, she wants me there and Ashok is a very good son-in-law. He, too, is insisting.”

They went through the obligatory protests but Sheela could barely hide her relief. Sheela said to Arturo, “You must tell your chief engineer immediately that Vincent has left, thanks to his guests at our dinner, and that you cannot host the GM’s dinner after all.”

Arturo nodded. “Yes, I will have to break the news to him. Let’s give it a day or two.”

*  *  *  *  

As she shopped for vegetables at Crawford Market, Sheela saw among the crowd a face she thought she recognized. It was Mrs. Mendoza, the chief engineer’s wife. Accompanied by her cook, she was making the rounds past the vegetable and fruit stands, stopping to examine an apple or an eggplant with a long look down her nose. When she saw Sheela, she came toward her and said, “Poor pickings today, aren’t they?”

Sheela nodded, feeling a slight twinge of guilt. Once this woman was as nothing to her. Now she was grateful to be acknowledged.

“How is your wonderful cook?” Mrs. Mendoza asked.

“He is no longer with us,” Sheela said. “He has gone to Dubai.”

Mrs. Mendoza said, “What a pity!”

“Yes,” Sheela said.

“Did he go with the sheikhs my husband brought to your party?” she asked.

“It was bound to happen at some point,” Sheela said. “You can’t stop a man who wants to make his fortunes elsewhere.”

The chief engineer’s wife narrowed her eyes and scrutinized Sheela. “That’s quite true,” she said. “We are ruled by our circumstances.” Then, abruptly, she gave Sheela a parting nod, and swept past her as if the small window for social banter between them had now closed. Sheela saw the driver open the door for her, the cook get in at the front. They were going home, she felt sure.

There and then she decided that she would apologize to the woman, make a plea to her for her help. Without giving it much thought, Sheela stopped a cab and gave the driver the chief engineer’s address. Inside the cab, hemmed in by the surge of traffic surrounding them, she felt confused and uneasy at the thought of trying to engage the sympathies of a woman she had openly ignored at her dinner party. Vincent’s savoir-faire had rubbed off on her, and she had taken it on like a mantle, used it to moderate her own attitudes to all around her. While Vincent had come off brilliantly that evening, she herself had not. She had compromised the first duty of a good hostess—to make everyone around her feel welcomed and at ease in her home. The thought of bowing before this woman rankled her, but she knew what she had to do.

*  *  *  *  

A maid let her in through the door of the chief engineer’s flat and gave her a glass of water to drink while she waited in the drawing room. Sheela suddenly felt unkempt, awkward. She was wearing an old pair of trousers and a chikan kurta, and her feet were clad in fraying leather chappals fit only for shopping in markets.

Mrs. Mendoza swept into the room in a blaze of gold. She had on a saffron yellow sari with brilliant white borders and her shiny black hair was swept back in a French twist. Small golden pearls gleamed at her earlobes. “Yes?” the woman asked. “What can I do for you?”

It was the way she said it, that long look down her nose, as if Sheela were an eggplant she didn’t like the look of. Mrs. Mendoza was sleek and resplendent, fresh and crisp in her starched, crackling sari, every inch the chief engineer’s wife. Sheela rose. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m very sorry. I don’t know why I came.” She made her way to the front door, aware of her leather chappals flapping loudly against the marble floor. “I shouldn’t have disturbed you,” she said, backing out of the house.

*  *  *  *  

That evening she told Arturo their financial situation was dire and that something would have to be done. “We need a transfer out of here. They must have so many postings in far-flung places—let’s go and make a new life somewhere else, Art. Bombay is beggaring us.”

He said, “How much money do we have?”

“Not much,” she said, fearing the consequences of telling him the truth.

“How much, Sheela?”

“We are broke, Arturo,” she said, suddenly bursting into tears. “There is nothing left to sell.”

“I see,” he said. Then he walked out of the house.

*  *  *  *  

“It’s twenty-four miles off the coast of Africa,” Arturo said to Sheela. “It’s a small island. Zanzibar, it’s called—yes, Zanzibar.” He had been to talk to the chief engineer. “The Tanzanians want to link the island to the mainland by rail. No harm in giving it a shot. Look at our toy trains on those narrow-gauge tracks going up the mountains, right?”

Arturo forced a smile.

“That’s right, Art,” Sheela said. “That’s right.”

“Good engineering can achieve miracles, I always say.”

“That’s right,” Sheela repeated.

“But you—you can’t cook to save your life.”

“I’ve been picking up things, Art. I can manage.”

That night Sheela consulted Vincent’s map. There it was—she could see it clearly. Just as Arturo had described it: a tiny island nestled against the coast of Tanzania. One of the places she had tasted at her own table, but never been. She ran her fingers across its surface and when she held her fingers to her nose, she smelled cloves, chocolate, oranges, myrrh, and something else that puzzled and delighted her—some mystery that she held on to.

It stayed with her through the dismembering of their home. One by one their cherished possessions went to other, less loving hands. Mrs. Barucha complained about the Grundig radio—“So big, where will we put it?”—even as she directed her servant to carry it away. Arturo’s cherished Rolleiflex with the light meter suffered the same fate. “Who uses such contraptions these days, saab?” Mr. Singh said, putting down a few rupees for it. “These days it’s all instamatic. Instamatic, saab, you know—click and out comes your picture. These things are from another age, saab. No value.” Soon there was nothing more to sell or give away.

*  *  *  *  

The night before their departure, Sheela went into the kitchen to make scrambled eggs. As she spooned the eggs onto paper plates and placed some slices of bread on each plate, she caught sight of a familiar bag sticking out from under the kitchen table. She brought Arturo and Nandita their meals, then hurried back to the kitchen. As she pulled it out, she knew it immediately. Vincent’s canvas bag. She opened it up and there were the implements—the same five things he had produced the day he entered their home: the wood-handled knife, the whisk, the fork, the wooden bowl with the hammer. She stared at the objects as if they were relics from some long-gone era. He’s forgotten them, was her first thought. Then she knew that a cook as careful as Vincent would not have forgotten these things behind. He’d left them behind because he was coming back, as he told Nandita. And perhaps also for her, Sheela, for their new home, in a place none of them knew. Wondering, she went to the suitcase marked “Household goods,” unzipped it and slipped the canvas bag in, a good omen for an uncharted future.

They ate sitting on the wooden chests that would accompany them to their new home. Chests filled with things they would need there—carpets and lace curtains, blankets, sheets and pillows, books and objets d’art. Sheela looked around the emptied hall and tried to remember how only a few weeks earlier it had been a place of plenty, where people had come to be filled with the tantalizing flavors of the food and the warmth of their hospitality. How could something good like that have ruined them, she asked herself.

Later, seated next to Arturo on the plane, she observed his tense, worried face. His eyes were moist as he watched Bombay recede from view. Nandita was reading, curled against the crook of Sheela’s arm, buried in a world of lighthouses and pebbly English beaches. But for Sheela, the low thrum of the plane’s engines was musical and lovely. She held her finger to her nose and breathed in the smell that still lingered there—that same mysterious aroma. She inhaled deeply and appreciatively. In Zanzibar, she would find that scent for herself.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading