He had spent all day preparing the feast. His servants would have done it for him, but this was something he must do himself. The only concession he made was the cake. For as long as he’d known her, Sudarshana had loved the spice cakes from Sarpah’s Choice, and he saw no reason to disappoint her. The proprietor knew him by now, and had greeted him by name when he’d stopped by earlier in the day to pick up his order from earlier in the week. “Another year, eh?” the bullfrog had asked. “How the time goes!” He’d smiled and said yes, it certainly did, and had left with the cake and a couple of the spiral pastries that were the teahouse’s specialty. A little extra dessert wouldn’t hurt anything.
Since he didn’t usually cook, he went slowly and deliberately. He’d made beginners’ mistakes in the first few years, like thinking a clove of garlic meant the whole bulb. The first taste of that curry had practically left blisters, and the smell had lingered for days. And he’d discovered that taking shortcuts could be disastrous. Root vegetables really did need to be cooked longer than other vegetables — trying to cook them all together in the same skillet meant that parts of the dish would either be inedible or burnt, or perhaps both, as had happened one year. But although no one would ever mistake him for a chef, he had at least become competent, and there were a few dishes that he’d gotten quite good at, like the curries, once he’d cut back on the garlic.
On these days he gave the kitchen staff the day off. Most of them would spend it out of the house, but Tanu would always stay behind to “catch up on the cleaning” or some such excuse. Although she never disturbed him, she was miraculously easy to find if he ran into any trouble, or if the smell of burning became especially noticeable. When he’d finished, she’d insist on doing the cleanup, which he tolerated. He knew his ideas of order and cleanliness were quite inferior to Tanu’s.
He frequently had to do a lot of peeling and slicing, which was not only time-consuming but also occasionally resulted in a cut finger or two. One year Tanu had asked him beforehand what he was going to prepare. He had told her, as the question seemed innocent enough. When he had come down to the kitchens that morning, he had found all of his raw ingredients already measured, chopped, peeled, grated, or otherwise prepared. He had stared at the neat bowls and cutting boards full of vegetables and spices, and then he had taken them behind the house and thrown them into the refuse bin. He hadn’t finished that day until long after Edü had set since he’d had to go out and get a few things at the market. Tanu had been very subdued. That had never happened again.
As he worked, he would catch himself humming songs that he’d heard Sudarshana sing a hundred times. She loved to sing, and he loved to listen to her, as did their little girl. She and her baby shared the same birthday, which Sudarshana thought was a good omen. Her life had been full of joy, and perhaps that meant her daughter’s would be too. And maybe, she would add with a sly look at Nanda, when their little girl grew up, she might be lucky enough to find a husband as wonderful as hers.
He had started the tradition in the first year of their marriage, although it had grown since then. That year, before they had known she was pregnant, he had gotten up very early and made his way down to the kitchens, startling the staff. He’d wanted to make his wife an elaborate breakfast, but fortunately Tanu had steered him to some easier dishes. She had hovered over his preparations, making helpful comments, until he’d shooed her away. Breakfast had been late, and the naan had been a bit burnt, but Sudarshana had been delighted. At the end of the meal, he’d presented her with the spice cake, cutting her an enormous slice. She had laughed and laughed, protesting that she couldn’t eat cake for breakfast, cake was for dinner! So the next year he had made dinner instead, and with a new baby in the house, that had actually worked out much better.
That was ten years ago. He found that he rather liked cooking, as long as he didn’t have to do it every day. Even the chopping and slicing, although repetitious, were soothing in a way. He liked watching the neat mounds of vegetables (though never as neat as Tanu’s) grow higher and higher. Sometimes he had to remind himself to stop and get on with the more complex parts of the meal.
That first year, when he’d been racking his brain for what to give his new wife for her birthday, he had gone down to the market a few days before in the hope that he would be inspired by something. Among the aromatic piles of spices and the mounds of suthra leather, he’d found a vendor who sold dishes made with sarva crystal. They weren’t fancy, but they were certainly colorful. There was one particular set that was a brilliant deep green, with the edges in white. Somewhere on each piece was a white six-armed spiral. He knew that Sudarshana’s favorite color was green, but they already had at least two sets of dishes, and he didn’t think they had the space for yet another set. But they certainly had room for one plate and one bowl and maybe one or two or even three little saucers… And just like that he’d gotten the idea to cook her a meal. He’d picked out several pieces with all the care of a finicky grandmother, going over every dish for cracks or imperfections, and carried them home himself, hiding them in a chest until that morning. She’d loved the dishes almost as much as the food.
Those dishes were only used on this day. The plate had broken during the second year, but he had carefully glued it back together and he could hardly see the cracks, except for one place in the spiral. One of the saucers was chipped as well, but he couldn’t bring himself to replace it. It would be flying in the face of tradition.
Now he was almost done. He piled the steaming saffron rice into a bowl, and two different curries, red and green, onto the cracked plate. Pickled onions and carrots and a few other condiments went onto the little saucers, and he wrapped the long flat bread in a clean towel. The tea water had been boiling for a while now, so it was the work of a moment to pour it into a jade-green mug. Finally, he cut a large slice of the spice cake, big enough for two, and put it on another large plate, this one all white and carved into the shape of a lotus. It had been a wedding present, and it seemed appropriate that the cake that he hadn’t made should go on a plate that he hadn’t picked out. Besides, he was out of green dishes. At the last minute he realized he’d forgotten the spiral pastries, which he managed to squeeze onto the lotus plate as well.
He put everything on a large tray, hefted it experimentally to get the balance, and left the kitchen. He had a little trouble on the stairs, but nothing spilled, and he got safely to the second floor. His footsteps were almost noiseless on the hallway carpet, and he carefully set the tray on a small decorative table near the door so he could open it. Then he picked the tray back up, took a deep breath, and marched in.
The smiling face of his wife looked out at him from the portrait he kept on a shrine in the far corner of the room. He carried the tray over to the table he’d set up earlier next to the bed and began unloading the dishes. As he did, he hummed a birthday song. When all was laid out, just so, he took the plate with the cake and pastries over to the shrine and set it in front of the portrait. Then he knelt and began saying the prayers for the dead. He had said them so often they came easily to his lips, and his mind was free to wander. If only she hadn’t gone out that day… If only she hadn’t taken the baby… If only she’d learned to swim… If only… If only…
He had no portrait of their baby girl, since she had died before they’d ever thought of having one painted. When they’d pulled them from the river, however, she had still been held tight in Sudarshana’s arms. Her face had been peaceful and serene. The Devah had blessed him with that last memory of her, a memory that had not faded over the years. He hoped that her last moments had not been filled with terror and pain — perhaps the presence of her mother had shielded her from the worst of it.
He got up, knees protesting a little, and sat at the little table. He’d done a good job, he thought. Everything looked and smelled as it should. He picked up a spoon and, moving from dish to dish, took a small bite from each. It was all good, though the red curry could have used a few more spices. He’d try to remember that for next year.
He sat staring at his wife’s portrait, lost in memories, until the jugánu worms fell asleep and the food grew cold. Outside the window he could see Rrísi and Kamádi, and in his head he heard his wife singing a lullaby to their little girl on a night when it seemed none of them would ever get any sleep.
Moons, oh dear Moons, You have robbed us of our sleep. Why do you keep us awake all night? I will tell you stories to take away your sadness, But who will do the same for me?*
Finally he stood up and stretched. He had been sitting so long he’d almost lost the feeling in his legs, and had to stomp about a bit to wake them up. Leaving the cake plate where it was, he piled the rest of the dishes onto the tray and left the room, leaving the door open behind him.
Tanu was waiting for him in the kitchens. She took the tray from him without a word, and began scraping the food onto rough planks of wood. The leftover chopped vegetables were already piled onto one of the planks. These she would carry to the Outcastes later that evening, and ask them to say a sutra for her master’s wife and child, who now danced at the Edge of Heaven.
He was exhausted. The day always took a lot out of him. He told Tanu goodnight, and went back up to his bedroom. Quickly stripping off his food-stained clothes, he fell into bed. Within minutes he was asleep. In his dreams, the purple moon Kamádi cuddled the smaller Rrísi and sang to her, while Máynatah, the largest of the three moons, looked on and smiled.
*Liberally adapted from “Chanda O Chanda”, as seen in the 1971 film Lakhon Mein Ek