FLOWERS AND SPICE

by Anjana Basu


There was once a retired couple who lived happily in Upper Shillong. They led contented lives, marked only by the soft pastel shadings of certain annual events, like the descent of their children from their American universities. The other important date on their calendar was the Flower Show at the Botanical Gardens.

The gentleman, Colonel Sood, a retired army officer, had a passion for flowers in every form. The Flower Show gave him the opportunity to indulge this passion to the hilt. His wife went with him because she loved him and because there was a Piedmontese restaurant near the Shillong Club, run by an Italian who had exiled himself to exotic India, that enabled her to indulge her passion for food to the hilt. Mrs Sood never confessed this to her husband, of course, as good wives rarely confess anything that touches them deeply. Instead, she allowed him to believe that she did it purely out of love or duty or any particular combination of virtues that made him happy. And so their lives passed. Mrs Sood cooked and kept their small bungalow redolent with spice. The Colonel pottered around his pocket handkerchief garden, occasionally took clippings from the head mali at the Botanical Gardens, and went for long walks on tweedy spring afternoons. In thirty-five years of married life, nothing had changed.

But then, one year, something different happened. The Flower Show, Category Rosacea was won by a woman. She was very unlike her passionate purple brown blooms. As starched and as delicate as a lily in her white pinafore, she received her silver cup and shyly acknowledged the applause. "Old Ramsay's daughter by his Khasi maid," someone murmured near the Soods, quite destroying the delicacy of the moment.

"Really, the people that grow flowers these days," Mrs Sood observed indignantly to her husband. "However, that accounts for her lovely blue eyes and that dress." Mrs Sood did not approve of the white pinafore, but she knew better than to say so.

After the prizes were distributed, Colonel Sood somehow wandered into conversation with the rose growing lady. Her name, he learnt, was Aimee, a name that was entirely soulful and suited to her occupation. His wife was at his elbow throughout. The conversation was entirely proper: the types of roses, their blooms, and the persistent black spot problem. The rose growing lady recognised another flower lover and asked him to her greenhouse to view some of her choicest blooms. Mrs Sood gracefully acquiesced, hiding a yawn. And so, the Colonel fell into the habit of visiting the rose grower: after Mrs Sood's yawn, the question of her accompanying him did not arise. He returned from his first visit with several sprays of Marechal Niels that Mrs Sood ordered into a silver vase." She sent them for you," Colonel Sood told her, watching the ordering - she did it efficiently, without reverence, the way she would have handled a bunch of spring onions.

"How kind of her. Is she really a planter's daughter?" If the Colonel had only realised it, the question was merely a prelude to uncovering Aimee's marital status - divorced - but Mrs Sood soon found herself losing the thread of her queries in her husband's ecstatic recounting of hundred petalled Cherokees and the efficacy of old mutton bones as mulch. The rose growing matters were so much more focussed and intense than his detailing of the divorce that she finally shrugged her shoulders and retired to bottling her home made tomato sauce. The Colonel took that to mean that his visits could continue unhindered.

It was ground for romance, Aimee, lily white, artistic, musical and botanical, abandoned by a husband with a violent temper and a predeliction for alcohol -she confessed that to him in the course of her conversations; the Colonel, equally artistic, equally botanical, married to a woman whose soul, he was suddenly aware, flourished only in odours of garlic. It started with a walk through the pots of Agnes Sorels, a meander into the thorny fairy tale dog roses. It started with a glance at a certain bloom, then strayed into a visit to watch buds flower and ended in a whole fragrant season when the greenhouse was delirious with perfume and dizzy bees strayed in from the garden outside. It was nothing that the servants could whisper satisfactorily about, just a hint, a nuance, a whisper on the perfumed breeze of a moonlit night. He could return home to meet his wife's eyes over her copper saucepans and mounds of saffron and cardamom with perfect tranquillity.

This blissful state of affairs continued until his birthday came around. The Colonel's wife clattered her saucepans and conferred with her bawarchi for days. She had invited all his most intimate friends for dinner - being sensible, she had told him all about it beforehand. He was knotting the heavy silk Paisley tie she had given him, when the call came. His wife was a little less than gracious when she thrust the cordless into his hand. It was his love of the roses. Aimee earnestly begged him to see her once before he sat down for dinner.

For the first time, he was reluctant. The Colonel was an honourable man and he appreciated his wife's efforts to make his birthday memorable. However, he was unable to say no. He muttered an assent into the receiver, told his wife he was going out to the Club for a bit, he had to see a man about a dog, well perhaps not exactly those words, but that meaning, and went out. Aimee had birthday rose for him, one of the new angular French types, in a shade as soft and glowing as her joy. She had cherished it for three weeks and brought it to this peak of perfection. The Colonel received it with less admiration than he would normally have bestowed fidgeted for five minutes on her overflowered overstuffed sofa, the first time he had ever thought that, before rising to take his leave. She caught him by the arm and begged him to stay. He protested. She implored. Finally, grudgingly, he sat down again. She had an additional surprise, she said, her cheeks still radiant with anticipation and she bustled into the kitchen and returned with a plateful of something. She had sent away her cook, she whispered, and made it entirely for him, from the grinding of the masalas to the stewing of the mince.

She had sent away the servants too, he thought, with a trace of irritation, trust women to think only of themselves. There had only been the gatekeeper salaaming him in and not a trace of her sandalwood scented Khasi ayah. He spooned the stuff into his mouth, hardly noticing what it was he was eating. Visions of disaster were dancing in front of his eyes: an angry wife, a tableful of hungry guests, an evening of feminine hysterics and, he had to admit, justified ones. Ungraciously, he swallowed the last spoonful, leaped to his feet and bade her a curt goodbye, trying not to notice the way the light in her eyes suddenly died.

He was home in time and safely seated at his dining table, at the cost only of a questioning glance from his wife. The atmosphere was warm and secure and his wife had surpassed herself in the kitchen. But in the middle of her whisked seafoam orange soufflé, he suddenly found himself remembering how the roses had bloomed and died in a pair of delicate lily-white cheeks. It took away his appetite and completely ruined his dinner. Afterwards, his wife asked him, with her usual frank glance, whether he had drunk too much at the Club. He said no, turned over abruptly and ended the conversation and his birthday. The next day, when Mrs Sood was out shopping, he borrowed her recipe book, looked up a suitable recipe, bought the ingredients and went over to his love's bungalow. The durwan told him that the memsahib was out, as the sahib knew, Saturday most women in Shillong, including Mrs Sood, shopped and met at the Club for a tall nimboo pani, but the sahib was welcome to wait. The Colonel went straight to the kitchen, ordered out his love's treasured Malti - he was annoyed to see that the woman whisked out giggling - and busied himself with whatever pots and pans he could lay his hands on. What eventually came out of those pots and pans bore very little resemblance to the meal his wife had cooked the night before. Some of it had stuck to the pan and he was busily covering the burnt bits with sauce when he heard the click of the door latch. Caught off balance, fumbling, he dropped the plate with a clatter. The kitchen door swung open, squeaking angrily on an obstinate hinge.

The hall light dazzled his eye. Behind it he caught a flutter of white. Then the doorway darkened and his wife walked in in her Saturday morning go to Barabazaar white check. She cradled a bursting brown paper bag in her arms. Caught on his knees, pants down, so to speak, he could only drop the plate again in a helpless clatter. She took in the kitchen with a purse of her lips and a tap of her sensible stubby heels. Then she carefully walked over his shambles and plonked the paper bag down on the kitchen counter. The next hour passed in something that could have been an idyll or a nightmare. She flitted back and forth before his eyes in a haze of gravy smoke, cooking, stirring and cleaning without a flick of the pages of her recipe book. Once he tried to ask her what it was all about, what she was doing there, but she silenced him with a look. After that, he took himself miserably to the stripped steel kitchen chair and half strangled himself with the tie around his neck.

When she had finished her preparations, she wiped her hand and came and stood rather wearily in front of him. A crooked smile turned up one corner of her mouth. "Do you think I didn't know what you were up to?" she asked. "In 35 years have you ever kept a secret from me?" She rubbed her flushed face and began to gather her things together. "I hope she enjoys the chicken."

Then she walked out of the kitchen with a decisive air, stopping once to say, "Next time shut the door behind you. I keep telling you that." And she was gone.

The word that floated up to him through his reverie nightmare was: decide. A decision had to be made – that much was obvious: but which, roses and raptures or spice and sense? That much was not vouchsafed to him. Had she done this out of a sense of revenge more subtle than he had thought she possessed? In a dream he heard the hall door close.


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Flowers and Spice, 1 March 1999