It was seven in the morning. The fish-seller was holding a chital fish in front of her. ‘Six hundred for a kilo, baideu (sister), take it!’
She checked the gills, held and felt the weight of it and replied, ‘Six hundred? That’s too much! It’s fresh, right? I won’t take yesterday’s stuff!’
‘No, baideu! Would I lie to you?’
‘Okay, then give half a kilo for two hundred. I know about you all. You charge a lot, without reason!’
After bargaining for what seemed quite a while, she bought the fish and happily brought it into the kitchen. She called the maid who was busy cleaning and sent her to the bazaar to get the fish sliced. Chital fish in mustard sauce is simply delectable, she thought to herself. Nowadays, even Baba (her son) likes to have it too. And why wouldn’t he? Where does he get good fish in Chennai? These sea-fishes have no taste at all. Plus, he needs to cut down on his oil and meat intake too. Eating out during and after office hours might not have added to his weight, but it’s going to hurt his system soon. Oh, I should call Moon (her daughter) over. After all, her brother is here. Won’t she even spend a single day with him, without worrying about the husband and the in-laws?
She called Moon over for lunch. ‘Sure! Everyone is going out for work. I should reach by 1PM,’ confirmed Moon. Happily disconnecting the call, she got back to the kitchen. Musing about her daughter, and her son who had gotten home for Bihu holidays, her fingers reached the shelf knowingly. Turmeric, mustard seeds, mustard oil and salt – that’s all. She soaked the mustard seeds for some time and a few minutes later, blended it into a paste for the marinade. By the time, she checked the clock, it was already 10 AM. Where in the hell is the maid? The chatterbox might be chatting up everyone on the way, she thought, frowning. But soon enough, the maid got back with perfectly sliced, fleshy pieces of fish, peeking through the light green plastic bag. It was going to be a hearty lunch.
Her retired husband was already up and about, having a conversation with Baba. ‘Did you check the new video I shared?’
‘Bah, Deta (short for Deuta, meaning Dad), you’re getting very savvy with the internet, huh? Even I am not on Facebook as much as you!’
‘Hmph,’ Deta swelled with pride, ‘what did you think? I am retired, not dumb!’
Within their earshot, she called out to Deta and Baba – ‘Why don’t you guys take a shower? Don’t you have the whole day to fiddle with the internet anyway? I’ve called Moon over. She’ll be here for lunch. Get ready, you two!’
As she shallow-fried the fish pieces on her non-stick pan, she suddenly saw her own mother, leaning on the kitchen door. ‘What are you cooking?’ said Mother, clad in her quintessential crisp-white mekhela chador (traditional Assamese wear for women), not a pleat or fold out place. She seemed to have a glow around her, making the kitchen bright with her presence.
‘Ma! When did you…?’ She was surprised to see her mum, looking so radiant and young, like the days when they were kids.
‘What are you cooking?’ asked Mother.
‘I’m cooking chital fish. You’re going to have it, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, but don’t put too much oil. Chital fish is already rich by itself!’
‘I know, I know!’
Lunch was ready – fluffy white rice, deep yellow chital fish curry, salty fried kerela (bitter gourd) and kordoi (starfruit) pickle! Baba, Deta and Moon, mooned over the chital fish curry, repeating, as they took ladle-full of second and third helpings – ‘Wow, what a lovely lunch! Our hearts will be happy for a long time!’
‘Is it good? Mum told me not to use too much oil. That’s why I made it simple!’
Suddenly, she remembered that Mother was not on the table. She did say she was going to have the chital curry. A breeze of air brushed her hair. She looked towards the balcony and noticed that the railing was broken and Mother’s white chador was slipping over it. ‘Ma!’ she cried out but nobody seemed to hear her voice. Around her, her family was smiling and eating, unaware of her panic.
She woke up with a start and sat upright on her bed. The balcony door was open and a quiet summer breeze rustled through the curtains. It was morning. The clock struck seven. She paused for a moment and then smiled. Someone was cooking chital fish curry in the downstairs apartment!