by Susmita Bhattacharya
She marinates the fish in salt and turmeric. The cat rubs against her leg, purring loudly. Shoo, she mutters. Filthy creature. She kicks it away, her eyes darting to the door to check no one sees this. She drains the rice in the sink, the steam enveloping her in its warm, aromatic plumes. She prepares the table and then announces that lunch is ready.
The family rush in, talking all at once — discussing the cricket match they’ve been pulled away from, commenting on the smell of the fried fish. Wiping her turmeric stained fingers on her white sari, she expertly whisks the golden-brown pieces onto their plates and watches them eat. The master — he chews quickly, the oil sliding from the corner of his mouth to his chin. He wipes the oil off with the back of his hand and spits the pulp of fish bones into the plate. The children eat less and talk more. The mistress sucks the bones till they resemble hair combs made of ivory.
She turns her face away and tries to think of something else. But images of her own kitchen in the village, the mud-baked walls soaked with the smells of her cooking, fill her brain. Her tongue longs for the texture of the meat, the melting flesh of the fish. Her eyes are desperate to see colour on her body instead of the widow whites. He took everything with him the moment he was gone. In that second that he died, she became a shadow — to not have any desires, any comforts, any say in anything. She now cooks for others to survive but has to starve herself of the food she loves.
The master clicks his tongue and the cat, who has been sitting under the table, licking its paws, runs to him. He places the leftovers from his plate on the floor and it pounces on the scraps, finishing them off in no time. The children laugh and offer titbits until their mother tells them to stop.
The family finish their lunch and hurry back to the cricket. She clears away the table. The children have not eaten their food properly. She stops and stares at the pile of bones with generous helpings of flesh still attached to them. Her tongue screams for just one more taste. She is shocked by her own craving. What would her husband say? Oh, he’s dead, woman. Her mind cries out. No one will know. She quickly places a fragment of fish into her mouth. She closes her eyes and relishes the taste. It has been too long. The cat protests — she is stealing what is rightfully his. It jumps onto the kitchen counter, trying to reach for the scraps. She eyes him, sucks out a fish bone and places it in front of him. The cat sniffs, then turns away. She watches with satisfaction. She isn’t going to let that creature enjoy what she cannot anymore.
Susmita Bhattacharya’s short fiction has been widely published, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her novel, The Normal State of Mind, was published in 2015 by Parthian (UK) and Bee Books (India). It was long listed for the Words to Screen Prize by the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI). Her short story collection, Table Manners, is out from Dahlia Publishing in September 2018.