Raj loved aviyal, a rich concoction of vegetables in a yellow gravy, especially the discrete sourness of curd, added in good measure, to give it its famed tangy taste. It was his favourite dish in the assortment, served on a banana leaf during Onam, Raj had always enjoyed the feast during Onam, the traditional harvest festival of Kerala, celebrated with culinary cornucopia. Raj wanted this Onam to be special for special reasons and he had insisted that Riya dish out the entire spread on the traditional banana leaf. She had complained that she would be too tired to do the entire cooking after she returned from work and had suggested eating out. But Raj was adamant that the traditional festival be observed in the manner reminiscent of his childhood.
“Why don’t you come and help me with the cooking. I have also been working during the day. And it is you who wanted to have this traditional Onam feast for dinner.” Riya yelled from the kitchen as Raj plopped himself in front of the TV.
"Cooking is your job. Haven’t you seen the new Airtel Ad. The woman who is a boss in the office still comes home and cooks for her husband” Raj retorted.
“Really”, Riya sounded incredulous, “You chauvinist men! That ad was supposed to show that women are now so successful, that they can be right at the top in their careers, and how you men have distorted it to suit yourselves”
"Hah”, Raj scoffed, “Ok. Forget the ad. Lets talk real. Did you not read Indra Nooyi’s interview. How she was sent out by her own mother to buy milk when she returned home late at night the day she was declared the boss of PEPSI, because her husband was busy watching a game on TV. Did you know what her mother told her? You may be the boss at work dear, but at home, you must first carry out the duties of a wife”
“I know”, Riya sounded angry, “and she has received much flak for what she said. That statement has done us more harm and undone all the inspiration that women imbued from her success. “But Raj”, crooned Riya, segueing deftly to the matter at hand, “Come, help me with this, if you want your dinner in time. At least grate the coconut, while I make the Erisseri. I need to cut the pumpkin and boil the red cow peas. I hope I remember the exact mix.”
Raj grudgingly switched off the TV. Anyway the Englishmen were making a mockery of the match and didn’t make for great viewing. The regular trudge of the Indian batsmen back to the pavilion was exasperating. At least he could grant Riya her wish. Everyone was entitled to a last wish. So, if her wish was for him to help her in the kitchen, so be it. Tomorrow he would be alone. And soon Shweta would join him. He loved her cooking, and she never called him to the kitchen. He could watch TV, and she would wait on him, and do his biding. Raj had met her at the gym where she had caught him stealing amorous looks at her well endowed figure. He had learnt that she was a recent divorcee and had just moved into the city. They had bonded well over work-out routines and coffee, and soon Raj was staying over at her place, convincing Riya of important client meetings out of town, which increased in frequency as the days passed. It was a symbiotic arrangement, till Shweta wanted Riya out the equation. It was either her or Riya. It was Shweta, who told him about the new chemical XDN which on entering the body initiates a massive heart attack after 12 hours, and does not leave a trace in the blood stream. He had planned to mix the potion in Riya’s food that night, as they feasted. It was a fool proof plan. He would spend the mandatory month in perceived mourning, after which Shweta would move in with him. Nobody would suspect anything, as the death would be due to natural causes, and he, being in his prime, would be encouraged to begin life anew by one and all.
Raj looked at the assortment of vessels on the kitchen counter. Rice was cooked and was in a large aluminium container next to the stove. The Sambar, a mix of boiled lentils, potatoes, beans, drumsticks and carrots looked inviting in a large Salem steel vessel. The next one contained the Payasam, which was a thick mash of semolina floating on condensed milk. Pappad was fried and was dumped in the plastic bucket. A copper bottomed utensil was placed next to the stove to receive the Erisseri once it was cooked. The banana leaves that they had bought from the local market were washed and kept ready. The Aviyal was already done and was in a small Borosil bowl, which he had gifted Riya for her last birthday. He had explained, that he thought, he should buy her something that she could use everyday, and which he hoped would make her remember him fondly whenever she used it in the kitchen. The look on her face, told him, that she did not believe what he said made sense even to him. But he had spent that evening at Shweta’s house and had only remembered her birthday, when she called him to say that she was waiting to have dinner with him. The only thing that he could find then was an unwrapped Borosil bowl in Shweta’s kitchen, a wedding spoil, which she had brought along with her. The Aviyal in that bowl brought a crooked smile on his lips as he recollected that night.
Raj started grating the coconut. She needed the coconut to make Ishtoo, the potato stew. He always wondered why it was called Ishtoo, and not just stew. It was the same thing except that this was made only with potatoes. Riya loved Ishtoo, but Raj stayed away from it because of all the carbs. He had decided that this would be the ideal dish to add the XDN. Just five drops, Shwetha had warned. Anything more and the taste would be evident and anything less, would not have the desired effect.
Raj helped lay out the banana leaves on the table. The first serving was always salt, which he placed on the left edge of the leaf. Next came a few pieces of banana chips and after that the pappad. Riya brought the rice and served it on the leaves using a steel ladle. “Get the Sambar and sit down” I will serve the rest of the dishes”, she said. After they sat down, Riya picked up the borosil bowl and served him the Aviyal. “. I know how much you love it. So I made this one just for you. You know that I have never liked it”.
“Thank You Dear”, Raj smiled. “Here, let me serve you your favourite dish”, he said as he stirred the bowl of ishtoo once again and served it next to the rice on her leaf. He had been careful to add the drops while she was busy with arranging the dishes. And as he watched her relishing the dish on her leaf, he thought of the freedom that the next morning would usher in.
As he lay on the bed waiting for Riya to join him after clearing the dishes, he felt the need to make love to her one last time. He looked at her as she came in wiping her hands with the pallu of her white set saree. She had always looked good in a saree and this one with the golden border, the traditional dress of kerala, made her very desirable, atleast for now. He grabbed her and as she squealed in mock horror, pinned her down with both his hands. She looked up at his face as he hovered over her, lust burning through his cold eyes. Desire filled her as she held him tight but the face that she saw was not Raj’s but that of Shiv, her colleague at work and recently her soul mate. He had been her only source of comfort ever since she discovered about Raj’s dalliance with Shweta. It also helped that he shared her cab and her shift at the call centre, because his strong presence was a pillar of strength during the initial tumult. He had even followed Raj one evening and discovered the house where he spent his nights with his paramour. Riya had all the evidence, but she refused to confront him and play the victim. She wanted to pay him back in his own coin. She welcomed Shiv ino her bed and her life and soon discovered, that he had all the qualities that she had imagined in a partner. Things had progressed to the extent that they could no longer bear to live without the other. It was Shiv who told her about XDN. He had recently read about it on the net and knew someone who could supply it. Riya had not needed much prompting. She had been filled with revulsion when she opened her birthday gift in utter disappointment, and discovered the faded words ‘To Shweta” on a corner of the hardbound cover. She decided that she would serve him the deadly poison in that very bowl. She had watched, in grim satisfaction, as he savored his favourite dish for the very last time.
And as they lay in bed thrusting at each other, their hate laced with lust, hoping to end the harvest festival with a fresh bounty, the taste of their favourite dishes of the Onam feast came regurgitating back into their mouths. And it tasted like death.