Today, Amarjit was making Hardev’s favorite dishes. She wanted to make them perfect. She would prepare his favorites, masalah chicken with red and green peppers, lamb kebabs with yoghurt and mint, moong dhal, Aloo Gobi, rotis, and for dessert, she would spoil him with gulab jamuns. Peace offering.
Amarjit sautéed the onions, garlic, and ginger in the hissing oil in the frying pan. She looked at the washed pieces of chicken in the sink—ah, the hen—and recalled her reaction at the butcher shop when the young man said, “Very good choice. Fresh young hen!” Amarjit started at the description. That was what Amro, her mother-in-law, had said about her all those years ago: “Just like a fresh young hen,” and cackled, showing her betel-stained lips.
Amarjit vividly remembered that rainy December in her village in Punjab. Barely sixteen, she was making chai for her father when the lazy afternoon was disrupted by the arrival of the foreigners from Canada. She heard her name lovingly called out by her father. With her dupatta covering her head, she barely raised her eyes to catch a glimpse of the smiling face of Amro and the leering look of the man, ten years older than Amarjit, that she was destined to marry. Just like that, her voiceless fate was sealed in the arranged marriage proposal. Those were her last days in Punjab before she became the wife of the rich Canadian wallah, Hardev.
“Lucky,” everyone in the bleak village had whispered, their eyes flashing with envy. “Going to Canada!”
Now Amarjit brushed her tears, still bitter, with the back of her hand and turned her attention to tossing the perfect proportion of pungent spices into the masalah chicken.
Twelve noon. Hardev banged the door open and thundered in, sitting down at the dining table, looking older than his sixty years. She noticed his deep wrinkles and bushy brows. With bulging but approving eyes, he surveyed the food she had slaved over all morning. Hardev piled his plate and noisily began shoving his mouth with pieces of roti wrapped around chicken, pausing to bite into the lamb kebabs. He noisily slurped the dhal from the bowl, scooped the cauliflower and potatoes with his fingers. A beast.
Amarjit never ate with him. He complained she was too noisy. He complained she was eating too much. He complained she was eating too little. She just sat across from him and watched like a sentinel, noting each approval and recoiling at any dissatisfaction. Sitting back, Hardev pushed his plate away and said, “I knew that when I saw you in your father’s kitchen all those years ago, it was a good omen. You must have learned to cook from the gods.”
Amarjit could hardly believe her ears. Praises. Hurriedly, she waddled into the kitchen and brought out a big bowl of warm, fragrant gulab jamuns. His eyes widened in appreciation. He knew that she had been too busy all morning to have gotten into any mischief. “Acha. Wonderful,” he spat out. She glowed. This one day of praise was akin to months of bliss. Hardev washed his hands and left. No goodbye. No word.
With a sigh of relief, Amarjit cleaned up the mess, humming a Hindi movie tune. She silently savored Hardev’s praises. Thankful that the thali did not fly at her in unprovoked anger. No bitter words slammed into her gullet. Now, she looked forward to solitary bliss. First, she relaxed in the prayer room and chanted the beautiful scriptures from the Adi Granth that transported her to her father’s house where she sat at his feet as they prayed together. Then, she sang a hymn on her waja, turning her head towards heaven, forgetting her worldly sorrows.
Suddenly, the peaceful afternoon was shattered by the angry shrill of the telephone. Amarjit grabbed the receiver. For a few brief moments, it appeared that Amarjit had frozen into time itself. Her face drew a blank look, and her mouth kept gaping. There was not a single sound from her. When she put the phone down, she hung her head for a brief moment. Then she ambled into the kitchen.
She went to the leftover ball of atta and turned on the flame to heat up the pan. She slapped the atta between two palms and doused it in flour. She put it on the counter and deftly rolled it out to the size of a dessert plate. Again, she gingerly lifted the flattened roti and tossed it from one palm to the other before placing it on the hot black pan.
Amarjit watched as the brown spots emerged on the outer side, and she flipped it over as it puffed. With a dishcloth, she pressed the outermost sides of the roti, making sure all parts were nicely browned. She tossed the perfectly speckled roti onto her thali. She reached out for her homemade jar of mango achar on the counter and heaped an overflowing tablespoon onto the compartment next to her roti. Then, she opened the fridge door and took out the leftover bowl of fragrant chole and homemade creamy dhai that she had made the day before. Hardev had refused to have any because she had not made chicken to go with it; he had stormed out, as usual.
She never cared for the fancy food that Hardev craved and insisted that she cook—all that never-ending preparation. Amarjit loved the simplicity of her village food: roti, chole, dhai, and achar. Divine. For the first time since she had arrived in Canada, Amarjit ate with gusto in Hardev’s house, their house. She savored every bite as if it were her first. Only when she had satiated her hunger did she finally allow herself to think about the phone call from the emergency room of the hospital barely ten minutes away. The caller told her that Hardev had collapsed in the parking lot of the shopping center. The voice on the other side of the phone whispered, “I’m sorry. It was a heart attack. Just like that. He died immediately. He did not suffer.” Could she please come down to the hospital and make the necessary arrangements?
With a deeply drawn sigh, she put on her sandals and decided to take a slow and leisurely walk to the hospital. She wondered if she would miss cooking.