The Community Chef
The last time I saw Thilake, a fire blazed between three hardy rocks that were shouldering the large cauldron of rice, kindled by Thilake’s funny Eslon tube. There were three other rocks soaking up heat from the glowing red-hot wood and dry coconut husks, ready for another course. Other clay pots full of spiced vegetables and coconut milk were placed in a circular pattern next to the furnaces, waiting for a turn. Each pot had its own aromatic scent that would stimulate the taste buds. Further down the garden, which stretched from the backyard where the cooking tent was set up, was a disdainful gazebo filled with some occupied chairs, chuckles and whispers. The whole occasion was marked by a clattering of china, low and high pitched tones and whining of children of mothers running and disappearing into the kitchen.
Thilake wiped his damp forehead with the back of his palm and stirred the rice in the cauldron. The wooden stirring rod made its way through the rice submerged in water. Thilake’s reddish brown face wore an emptiness and passivity. His arms did not let the stirring rod change its course, until the water started to simmer.
His orders were readily answered by the others, especially the women prepared to serve him, despite their place in the high society. Thilake, the chef, whose decision was the last, had become the mast of the sails. But other times when he passed across the village on his two-wheeler, hardly anybody took any notice. On one side of the tent was a table for Thilake. Placed here were knives and mixing bowls alongside condiments in labelled jars and curry leaves and onions which are proportionally added to curries. He seemed to indulge in a culinary meditation rather than joining in light-hearted humour of the women.
‘Thilake is a family man now, ha. So working hard’. One of them would make an attempt to break the silence Thilake had imposed on them. A beam across his face would be his response, nothing could stir him except an order from the housemaster. There were days when Thilake’s eyes would land curiously on young female faces and his occasional remarks made the lasses chuckle. Thilake was successful with only one, a coquettish but naïve lass.
The food needed to be prepared before the monks visited by midday. Fourteen monks and hundreds of people would come – at least one representative from each family in the village. This was the extremity of hospitality and the height of religion. Extravagant generosity was made to gain prestige.
Thilake charged for his culinary prowess, which was in high demand in the village at least once a month. He also had bookings to travel around sometimes. One thing he did not want to miss wherever he went, was a sealed bottle of spirits to heal his tired muscles. The hosts always knew the limit when offering him this special drink.
Other days of the month Thilake’s name was never mentioned in the whispers or rumours. Occasionally stealing was reported from backyards of isolated houses. Hardly anybody cared to go further than just mentioning it to a neighbour.
A time came when we were preparing for our fathers’ annual Remembrance Day. Mother was trying to match her budget with the number of guests we were expecting. She had already commissioned Thilake as the head of the kitchen for the day. Many letters were written and sealed, while the walls stood brilliantly in the new layers of Dulux colour code. The air ruffled the lace curtains that still had the smell of Rinso. The store-room was like a small outlet of a big retail store with dry food orderly packed in. We were sneaking around when it was time for the postman to come with news from our relatives on the guest list.
Counting down made us impatient for we were just kids wanting the things to happen instantly. The smoke of the kitchen fire started to waft in the heady smell of freshly fried sweetmeats. Two days before the occasion, we heard news about the father of my sister’s friend, a man with a helping hand and a soft heart. The previous night, following an argument with somebody, he was stabbed to death.
For a moment the air, the wind, the heat of the sun and our breathing could not find their way. Rage as a destroyer was rare in that territory where peace whirled around all through the hills and meadows and in and out of the kitchens.
The following day we were expecting Thilake. Mother’s restless gazes at the clock almost stopped its running. All she talked about was Thilake’s culinary reputation, and how hopeless she could be if he had not come and how ruinous the situation would be. The sun was going down, our mother was like a bird on the road jumping in and out to avoid vehicles. She was in the kitchen when the clock struck four and would have walked miles when it struck again, making sure she got everything Thilake would need. After a while she seemed to have had enough of that and called my brother to ride to Thilake’s house. She was pessimistic. After whining for some time, my brother promised to bring Thilake back on his push-bike to end mother’s suspicion and restlessness.
Our waiting was filled with the beginning of hopelessness and uncertainty. Nothing could be started without Thilake, except the basic preparations. About half an hour later, my brother clinked the bell continuously. Halfway through cutting onions, washing big pots, dumping firewood, the eyes from the kitchen peeped through the back door while the giant fish lay with its eyes pointed to the blank spaces of the sky. Then there was a moment of silence and disbelief when my brother said Thilake was arrested last night. My brother explained the incident of the man who was stabbed to death and Thilake’s argument with him.
For a moment there was no breathing and no blinking of incredulous eyes but someone had to smash the dumb silence. Plans were rescheduled so fast. They wished they could steal Thilake’s culinary secrets. I heard the fire crackling in the small inferno, the hammering of a cleaver on the bonito sounding inept but the whole movement seemed to ease the tense air in the kitchen. In no time, pounding, grinding and stirring took over the light-heartedness and whispers.