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Sichuan Chili – Shuvam Das

Jan 15, 2022 | Fiction | 3 comments

Riti needed spectacles to see faces. She had left hers in the consultation room, back at the pharmacy. She adjusted her mask and ventured out into the street to grab a bite before her next appointment. Looking at people across the street and smiling back could wait.
Ever since the pandemic had set in, doctors who would attend house calls were hard to find in Calcutta. But for new doctors like Riti, personal safety came second to building a career.
She stopped at a bright blue wooden stall where a young man shuffled between cooking and serving dishes. It was a tiny stall sandwiched by larger shops, a single wrought-iron bench opposite the shop for the customers. Riti squinted at the menu nailed to a bamboo pole attached to the stall. She decided to grab a cutlet to eat on her walk to the next appointment and stood there rehearsing how to speak in proper Bengali.
“Excuse me.” She didn’t want to embarrass herself. “Can I get a chicken cutlet?”
The cook was busy tossing fried noodles on an enormous black wok. “That’s gonna take fifteen minutes.”
Riti glanced at her wristwatch. “Is there anything you can fix within a couple of minutes?”
“I can get you a plate of momos right now.”
Kishan-da was sitting on the bench with an earthen cup of tea. “Chotu, can’t you fry a cutlet faster than that?”
Chotu smirked. “No, I can’t. I’d like to see you try.”
Kishan-da was the owner of the pharmacy Riti worked at. There was no escaping him at work, but she wished she could at least have a meal in peace. She didn’t want him to start an argument.
“I’ll have momos then.”
Chotu opened the lid of a steamer. The fresh aroma of garlic wafted across the air. He dipped his bare hand inside and began nudging at the momos; his fingers flinched at the touch, but his face showed no reaction. Every time he felt a tender piece, he picked it out onto a flimsy paper plate. He poured a ladle of a light, golden soup into a plastic bowl, drizzled a spoonful of Sichuan chutney on the side, and placed the dish on the dining counter. He beamed.
Riti sat down in front of the plate and blew at it until the steam subsided. The momo surrendered to her touch like a warm animal yearning for love. Its smooth skin gave way to a tender filling.
“Like it?” asked Chotu.
“Yes.”
Chotu smiled. “Please do try the Sichuan chutney.”
Riti said without looking up, “I’m not good with heat.”
“You’ve got no taste.” Kishan-da snickered. “Live here for another year and you’ll fall in love with it.”
The thought of another year away from home left a foul taste in her mouth. Riti devoured the entire serving to ease herself and stood up.
“Hey,” Kishan-da said quickly, “Let me buy you a cup of tea.”
She shifted away. She could buy her own tea if she wanted to. “Thanks, but I have a visit in ten minutes.”
Kishan-da released a disappointed sigh. Riti felt a sense of triumph. She had finally managed to shake off his invitation. But as soon as she felt in her jeans pockets for her wallet, her heart sank.
“What’s wrong?” Kishan-da asked.
Riti felt a lump in her throat. “I’ve left my wallet at the pharmacy.”
“Ah, silly girl.” Kishan-da put an arm around her shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll pay for you.”
Riti couldn’t afford favors. “Oh no, I can’t let you.”
But he was already reaching for his wallet. “Let’s meet over dinner tonight. You can pay me back then.”
Riti was mute. She couldn’t stand the idea. She wasn’t here in this city to get friendly, least of all with her sleazy employer. A glimpse at her wristwatch told her she had to leave immediately to make it on time.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Chotu. “Pay me later.”
Riti exchanged a look of understanding with him and left for her appointment.

#

The next day, she made sure to carry her purse on her way out of the pharmacy. Her spirits fell when she saw Kishan-da at the stall again. Was this going to be a routine? He saw her too and was about to greet her from across the street.
But before he could, Chotu called out to her with a big smile on his face. “Momos again, today?”
Kishan-da turned to Riti. “Let’s have a proper meal. Chotu! Put on a batch of fried rice.”
Riti struggled to smile. “No, I’ll get too full. Momos please.”
Today, Riti had her spectacles on. Chotu was an entire head shorter than Kishan-da and had no semblance of facial hair, but his eyes looked worn.
Riti didn’t want to risk calling an older man by name. “How old are you?”
“You look like a fresh graduate.” Chotu boasted. “Y’all should call me Dada[1].”
Kishan-da laughed. “And when did you become old enough to be called Dada? How can we break tradition? You’ve been Chotu ever since you started serving tea to my father at the pharmacy.”
“I was twelve back then. I’m a married man now.”
She felt bad for not standing up for Chotu, but Kishan-da was her employer. Chotu set a stockpot filled with soup on top of the fire, two layers filled with momos on top of it, and then put on a lid. Riti had seen her mother make momos the same way back home every Sunday morning for breakfast.
Riti lifted a momo and considered it for a moment, then dipped it into the Sichuan chutney and thrust it into her mouth in one go. It exploded, the heat amplifying the flavors.
Chotu laughed with an innocent chuckle, completely unlike Kishan-da’s proud laughter. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“It hurts-” She sucked for cool air. “But it’s good.”
“That’s because it’s no ordinary sauce. It’s my signature Sichuan chutney.”
Kishan-da leaned over the counter to take a peek. “You don’t use Pou Chong hot sauce like the other stalls?”
Chotu’s face lit up as though he’d been waiting for this question. “Ma used to tell me that I need to do more than everyone else if I want to stand out. Sunday mornings, I visit a seller in Chinatown to buy imported Sichuan chili. In the evening, I make a big batch of my signature sauce, and store it for the week.”
“Thank you for the meal,” Riti had to show him respect. “Chotu-da.”
“It’s his job. Why did you thank him for it?” Kishan-da laughed at Riti. “Nobody thanks people here. Where did you come from?”
Riti did not want to get into specifics. “A small town near Siliguri[2].”
“Oh! No wonder you like momos. North Bengal[3] is like my second home.”
“Where in North Bengal?”
Kishan-da shook his head. “No, not in a literal sense. I’ve been there often on trips. Dooars, Darjeeling[4], you know.”
She knew. Riti lived in Sevoke[5]. You could see the Sevoke bridge from her house, with plains on one bank of the river and hills on the other. Her studio apartment in Calcutta had bare whitewashed walls and a floor mattress. All she had was a microwave and an electric kettle. Lately, she’d been eyeing an induction cooker at the shop next door.
Kishan-da interrupted her thoughts. “You had an appointment yesterday. How about dinner today?”
Riti paid for her food, thanked Chotu, and left without a word. She knew this wouldn’t be the end of it.

#

The next day at the pharmacy, Kishan-da waited in front of her consultation room.
“A few patients had complaints about you.”
Riti squeezed past him to get into the room.
Kishan-da’s voice rose. “She doesn’t have any manners, they said. These people don’t know how to behave in the city.”
She stopped unpacking her bag and shot a sharp stare at him, challenging him to continue.
“Of course, I said that’s impossible.” Kishan-da’s face eased into a sarcastic smile. “Riti is a new doctor. She would never act in a way that could threaten her position in the pharmacy.”
She lowered her gaze, running numbers on her mind. How much more before she could pay the rent deposit and set up private chambers?
Kishan-da moved away from the door. “Don’t bother putting your things down. I’ve texted you an address. Someone called Orchi Paul needs a doctor immediately.”

#

Riti hurried off without a word to Kishan-da. Just a couple more visits and she would be free. The address led her down to parts of the neighborhood she had never seen before. The alleys narrowed with every turn. People on the street directed her to a tiny house with abandoned construction of a second floor on top. A short, stocky, middle-aged woman in a nightgown greeted her at the door.
“Are you the doctor?” The woman inspected Riti’s wrinkled shirt and jeans.
“Orchi Paul?”
She swung open the door. “That’s me. You’re here to see my mother. Shoes out front please, by the doormat.”
It took a few moments for Riti’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was small, with a single bed and a CRT TV beside it. A sorry excuse for a living room. There were three plastic chairs stacked against the wall. The lime green paint on the naked wall had started to crumble, leaving a layer of dust that stuck to her feet as she followed Orchi.
The end of the room led to a corridor with two bedrooms opposite each other. The next room they entered was just as small, but brighter. An old woman lay on a single bed, covered in white sheets.
Chotu kneeled at the foot of the bed. Riti felt a punch in the gut—Kishan-da must have known. She was about to call out to him but stopped herself. She was not the girl he served at the stall anymore. Now, she was a doctor. Chotu looked up at her, cheeks smeared with dried tears.
“She’s dead.”
“Tsk-tsk, get a hold of yourself.” Orchi said, “Let the doctor have a look.”
Riti moved closer to the body. Even before she took the wrist of the old woman, she knew that the body was cold. The loose hand collapsed as she let go. She turned away from the body and shook her head.
Orchi grew stiff. “She’s alive! How much do you need to cure her?”
A younger woman rushed into the room, wearing a neatly ironed Kurti with slacks. She took a moment to scrutinize Riti and then turned towards Orchi.
“A doctor? This is unnecessary.”
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, Eka? She’s my mother, not yours.” Orchi turned to Chotu. “Take your wife out of the room.”
Eka said, exasperated, “Why don’t you understand? She’s dead!”
Riti cut off the argument. “I’ll see what I can do. I need some space. Please.”
Silence settled down. Orchi and Eka left one after the other. The signs on the corpse were clear. The old woman had died from asphyxiation, lack of oxygen, the same as ten other corpses she’d seen the same week.
Chotu said, “Please excuse my sister. She’s not taking this well. I came in here the moment I heard all the shouting. Seeing Ma so still, I had to check immediately. She wasn’t breathing.”
Riti couldn’t meet his eyes. She looked around the room for a place to sit. It had two wooden windows and a low-hanging ceiling fan that had a drone that your ears got accustomed to. You forget it’s there until it’s gone. An oxygen mask lay fallen by the side of the old woman’s bed, the tube still attached to a cylinder at the corner of the room. She took an empty stool set next to Chotu. She set her faux leather briefcase on her lap and took out a pad of paper and a plastic ballpoint pen. Time of report? She glanced at her wristwatch. Half-past 3 pm. She was already late for lunch.
Without looking up at Chotu, she asked, “Name and age of the deceased?”
“Oindrila Paul, 70.”
“Did she get the virus?”
“Yes.”
Riti flinched. She noted the parts of her body that had touched the contents of the house and drew a bottle of sanitizer from her purse.
“When was she found dead?”
“I can’t be sure, I was out. And then I came back, maybe around 3. A little after that. It was horrible, all the shouting. I kept saying there’s no hope. We couldn’t do anything to have her back. But Orchi wouldn’t listen, she had to call a doctor.”
Riti could end it here as a simple case of an old woman claimed by the pandemic. A number to add to the thousands. A statistic, a tiny percentage of the infected that would die from the virus.
Yet, her pen refused to budge. “You said something about shouting. What happened here before I arrived?”
“I-I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry for what you’re going through,” Riti looked up at Chotu and hesitated. “But I’m just doing my job. If there’s been any violence-”
“No, no violence. What do you want to know?”
“A few details. When did your mother get the virus?”
“A couple of weeks ago. She’s been getting worse ever since.”
“Was she healthy before that?”
“At her age, you know what it’s like. It all started with her knee pain. The year after that, she couldn’t walk straight. A couple of years later, she couldn’t walk at all. She wasn’t happy. She’d forget about the day; she’d forget about family. When I took her to a big doctor in a taxi, she got diagnosed with dementia. Not much to do about it.” Chotu held his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes. “If there’s nothing else…”
“There is. Mr. Paul, I’m sorry, but you have to be honest with me.” Riti repeated her question. “What happened here before I arrived?”
Chotu looked like he’d aged ten years in a day. His eyes shot an accusatory look at her. She had eaten his salt. If there was foul play in the house, would she report it? The looming question weighed the air down upon them. Chotu gave in.
“Ma couldn’t sleep last night. She struggled for breath. We rented the mask from your pharmacy and then arranged an oxygen cylinder around 11 in the morning. It worked like magic. She fell asleep immediately, better than she’d slept for days. I’d gone out for some work. She was still asleep when I returned. Ten minutes later, I heard shouts from her room. Eka was angry. She tried to shake her awake for her medicines. Orchi tried to stop her. My ears were bursting, but Ma lay still.”
His voice broke into a tremble. “She is no more. I’ve lost my mother this morning. Isn’t that enough for a death certificate?”
Riti finished making notes and got up. She stopped at the door and thought about sharing a few more words with him. She turned to see Chotu stare out of the window with his worn-out eyes, the innocent smile from the previous day, now alien to his aged face.
She turned away and stepped into the living room. All she needed was to confirm the facts from the others at the house and leave. Orchi stared at a news program with absent eyes. Broadcasts from a crowded bazaar, shopkeepers refusing to wear masks, an indignant anchor wearing a navy suit. The Pauls’ living room, lit by the flashing lights of the television, had no windows.
Orchi got up and set a plastic chair in front of herself. Riti sat down and opened her pad.
“There’s nothing I could do,” She repeated the script she’d taught herself. “Your mother is no more.”
Orchi looked away. Her voice welled up with contempt. “It’s all Eka’s fault.”
“How so?”
“I saw her. When I entered, she was about to hit Ma.”
Riti’s pen came to a halt. She was here to collect facts. Facts had to add up, but they didn’t. There was no violence, Chotu had said. She could lie on the report, leave with her fees, make it easy on herself.
Orchi continued, “She must have hit her before I entered, too.”
“But I saw no signs of violence on the body. She died from lack of breath.”
“What if Eka choked her?” Orchi insisted. “Ma was getting better. She wasn’t that sick, to begin with.”
Choking would leave fingermarks around the neck. Riti looked up from her pad.
“Two minutes ago, you refused to admit she’s dead. Why are you making this complicated?”
Orchi seemed to scan through her face, assessing her reaction. Riti tapped the nib of her pen against the pad without breaking the silence. Orchi released an abrupt sigh.
“I knew that she was dead. I knew that as soon as I looked at her.”
“Then why did you call for me?”
It was a dilemma. Orchi was a barker. Leave this unresolved, and there would be rumors about a new doctor not doing her job right. She couldn’t ruin her name before making one for herself.
Orchi dug her face into her palms mechanically, feigning to sob. “If we cremated Ma before a doctor saw her, they would write it off as natural death from the virus. Eka was terrible with her. She’d yell on top of her lungs. Day after day. She must be the one who drove her mad!”
“Mad?”
“Yes!” Orchi sniffled. “She’d gone mad. She thought she was expecting, and that’s the reason why she couldn’t move about.”
“I heard about her dementia.”
“Those diseases are for the rich. We call it madness.”
Riti did not argue. “Did she ever forget who you were?”
Orchi brought her hands down, dry. Riti thought so.
“Yes. She’d say she’s hungry, and then I’d cook her rice with her favorite curry. By the time I brought her the food, she would have forgotten all about it. She’d call me a stranger. She’d refuse to be fed by her own daughter.”
“Did she forget about the others?”
“No.”
“Why only you?”
“Ma married me off at twenty-two; before I could graduate.” Orchi’s voice was distant. “My husband was a drunken brute of a man. For fifteen years I struggled to breathe in that house, all the while gathering my courage to leave. I only came back home last year.”
“Did you blame your mother for forcing you into it?”
Orchi buried her face in her palm again, tears streaming down her cheek this time. Riti had no words of comfort that would sound genuine, nothing to make Orchi feel better. She stood up and moved away.
There was still one last person to talk to before she could leave. Hearing whispers from the other bedroom, Riti knocked. Chotu swung open the door, standing face to face with her.
“I need to have a word with your wife.”
He moved aside. She entered, then added. “Alone.”
Eka sat on a queen-size bed. This was the largest room, but no less congested. A clothes line with linty shirts and dull Saris ran across from wall to wall. The air was damp, heavy with a stale odor.
“Orchi says you hit your mother-in-law. Your husband says you were trying to shake her awake. What’s going on here?”
Eka averted her gaze. “I don’t see how this is relevant.”
“If you’ve got a problem with me, maybe you’d like the police to question you instead?”
Eka sat mum for a few moments and then looked up at her with piercing eyes. “So what if I did hit her? She would not live. She would not die. She was a parasite.”
Riti wanted to hold her breath. She was a doctor paid in cash to prescribe medicine for people’s coughs and headaches. She could still walk out. This was, after all, an old woman infected with the virus.
“You wanted her dead. Is that what you’re saying?” She could not believe her own words.
“She was a handful. Her treatment, her medicines; it costs money.” Eka snapped her finger at Riti. “You cost money.”
She took a seat beside Eka. “It’s difficult to get by. Are you working?”
Eka’s voice softened. “Yes. At a call center.”
“Did she ever have a problem with that?”
“No, she knew we needed the money.”
“The food stall doesn’t pay well, does it?”
“Look at the state of this house. What do you think?”
Riti couldn’t look away from her eyes. To deny her, to shy away would be an insult. No, she had to look into Eka’s eyes to listen to the words that told her this wasn’t her home. She had to see the years of her lost youth trying to keep up the house. She had to smell the putrid air that wafted from every corner no matter how many days after work she spent wiping it clean.
Eka continued. “My husband must keep going to Chinatown to keep making his stupid sauce, even if there’s a pandemic. I’ve begged him: don’t take a bus, let’s save up to buy a scooter. No. There’s not enough money, except when it comes to his mother.”
“The oxygen cylinder,” Riti said, “That cost a lot, didn’t it?”
“He stayed up all night yesterday calling suppliers. Most didn’t pick up, and those who did were out of stock. After hundreds of calls, he found a black-market dealer who agreed to sell him a cylinder, for thirty thousand. That’s about all we had saved.”
Thirty thousand would mean the world for this family. It would be enough to get a scooter loan as well as renovate the house. When was the last time they had it painted? Years? Decades? Chotu had rented an oxygen mask—yes, rented, not bought—a medical supply that cost less in retail than to rent it for a couple of weeks. But when means were low, you don’t think a week ahead all the time. And yet, thirty thousand, for a cylinder of breathable air.
“Are we done?” Eka held out two hundred rupee notes.
Riti took them, nodded, and walked out.
She hesitated in front of the room where the deceased woman rested, Chotu still at the foot of the bed. The light from the windows now lit the room sepia.
Riti had picked and probed for too long. She took the old woman’s hand to extend her parting apologies. A hole swelled up inside her chest. The hand was stiff, curled up into a fist. Rigor mortis had set in. The hour hand on Riti’s wristwatch struck 4. Five hours since the old woman had been put on breathing support. Five hours was perfect for rigor mortis to set in. For the body to turn tense, tightening a lifeless fist for the last time.
“Where did you go when you left in the morning?”
“I left after Ma fell asleep. I wanted her to rest.”
She let go of the hand and strolled over to the cylinder. “Where?”
“To a used-car showroom. I booked a second-hand scooter. I can’t keep relying on buses anymore, in the middle of the pandemic.”
Would Eka be happy to hear? The thirty thousand was spent on a scooter after all. “How long did it take your mother to doze off?”
Riti crouched in front of the cylinder and read the label. Nitrogen gas, Rs. 600.
Chotu’s voice was stiff. “Only a minute.”
Riti couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes as she made for the door. Eka and Orchi waited for her. She left with a promise to have the certificate sent soon. She couldn’t be sure what she said. Conch shells rang through the neighborhood, one after the other. The Pauls’ house remained silent.
Riti made her way back towards the pharmacy one last time. The shadows of tall bushy trees danced across dark sidewalks. Chotu’s stall was shut. There was a painting on the shutters: a silhouette of Calcutta. Fort Williams and Howrah Bridge loomed over the skyline. Riti sat down on the wrought-iron bench and wondered if she’d ever get to see all those places in person.

[1] Dada in Bengali means elder brother

[2] Siliguri is a town in the northern region of the state of West Bengali, India

[3] The northern region of the state of West Bengal, India

[4] Dooars, Darjeeling are tourist places in North Bengal

[5] Sevoke is a Siliguri locality

Shuvam Das

Shuvam Das

Shuvam Das is a graduate student of Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University who likes to write sometimes.

3 Comments

  1. Anuska Barik

    Good story, really liked it.

    Reply
    • Anindita Das

      It was an amazing read. Kept me engaged throughout.

      Reply
  2. rahul kumar

    Good one.

    Reply

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