She had said I should be expecting to reach the place soon, but I wasn’t expecting this soon.
I shuddered as I walked through the aisles. The shelves were high and long. The room was endless, packed with shelves carrying those containers lined up neatly. I picked up my pace; the whole room was dark with eerie light given out by those things in the containers. I had reached the end of one aisle and I turned into another, my breath was slow, I felt as if I was breathing in fear instead of air.
The containers in this aisle contained spices, or what looked like spices. I could not recognize more than half of them. Each jar had something in it, suspended in mid air, giving out a light of its own. And I seemed to know only a handful among them. The room was endless.
I walked a bit faster now, squinting in the dark and trying to keep the cold away. The shadows were somewhere around too. I could feel them trying to hunt me down. I was trying to keep myself away from them.
One of the jars grabbed my attention. It had something brown in it with green leaves just sprouting out. It gave out a pleasant light. I was putting the jar back on the shelf when something brushed by me. Nervous, I turned around. Two shadows were right next to me, advancing on me. I dropped the jar and ran like I never did. The jar shattered and something floated out; a voice echoed, but I had no time to hear it. I was running as far as I could get away from them. I did not stop until I reached another room. It was packed with more shelves and containers; the place was huge!
I was overwhelmed by the size of it but fear was gripping my neck so tight that I had the least of space for other emotions. She had said this would happen; she was truly right.
I still remember the day, when I had happened to meet her, as clear as if it was yesterday. It was two years ago, Mumbai, one those weird days when there is this sun peeking out of dense clouds keeping you in doubt whether or not to carry an umbrella (or in case of Mumbai rain, an inflatable raft). I had parked my bike and was walking along the curved lanes of Crawford market looking at what the vendors had to offer at six in the morning when I noticed a small shop with its door closed, away from all the vendors. I had never noticed this one before. Something had made me knock on the door which was already open. A voice had beckoned me inside.
What I saw had taken me by surprise. The shop seemed to be in whole another world! There were wooden shelves carrying glass jars having spices packed in them. Huge bags made of jute were standing with loads of turmeric, chili powders and other such spices and condiments in them. Bright red chilies and fresh garlic and white onions hung from a shelf. Wooden boxes carried damp cloths delicately holding fresh green leaves of basil, cilantro, thyme and other fresh herbs. The whole room had a pleasant smell, a mixture of all those spices, herbs and there had been this touch of sandalwood; just a hint of it.
“Come in, Viraj. How have you been?” the voice was coming from the very back of the shop. There was a lady standing there, tall and slender, draped in a cream sari. Her hair was oiled and tied in a tight knot.
She had her back to me.
“Uh… How do you know me? Have we met?” I had been surprised that she knew my name. And what had been more unnerving was that she had her back to me. I somehow felt she was smiling when I had asked the question.
“You were meant to be here today. The spices know it all!” as she said this she had turned. I could feel she was beautiful. But all that I had noticed were her light brown eyes that were looking straight into mine deeply, as if she was scanning me from inside.
She had continued talking in a smooth tone, “So now that you have entered the circle, how do you feel? Oh well, you are not even aware that you are in the circle. But, not a bad fight you have given. I am glad.”
I remember being confused. Half of my mind was telling me to just run out of the shop but the other half which kept me staying was winning the battle. All I could do was to stammer, “C..circle? Fight??”
“Ha! You are still a child in our world but you are moving fast. And soon you will be there; the room is awaiting your turn. And in there you would meet him and you would still be a child in front of his power. But bear in mind to use the ancient knowledge that lies within you. You have the power deep inside and the tastes will bring the power out; use it then.”
Every word she had spoken had seemed to be coring itself somewhere in the back of my mind. My heart had been racing. “I think I should go.” I had stammered.
“Sandalwood relieves the pain of remembering; Cinnamon is the maker of friends! Fennel nurtures perseverance and Kokum’s delicate flesh bites into the heart. Coriander feeds the passion of the night and saffron attracts the glow and love into life…every spice has a meaning and everyone has a spice. But you my child has none for now, for you, they are all together. Your steel would be made by the master and so would be his, but what matters would be the power of taste. When time comes the five ingredients of life would have no space but for one, fear. Bring out the power and mix them right and then my friend the first battle would be won!”
With this she had grabbed my hand and had placed a small basil leaf in my palm. With a smile she had beckoned me outside, her eyes still looking deep within me. I had walked outside, rather stumbled and slowly had made my pace to my bike. I remember eating the basil leaf; that had been my instinct. The basil had been weird, like one I had never tasted. It had been peppery with a caramel sweetness to it as if she had dipped it in sugar before giving it to me.
Today I was in the room and her words were coming back to me exactly the way she had said them. I looked around for the door that would take me to the other room. I had to find it before the shadows caught me. Once across the other door, I knew the shadows would never come there, for beyond was something more powerful. I turned around another aisles full of shelves, I did not bother even to look at what was in them. As that aisle ended I could see the door at the far end of the room. My heart missed a beat, and I made a run for it. I could feel the shadows sensing my moves and catching up on me. I ran, goosebumps erupting on my skin, I reached for the door, wrenched it open, almost jumped inside and banged it shut.
I had to stoop down to catch my breath. As my breathing eased out and I looked up I could see a huge circular room with two wooden altars right in the middle. The room seemed devoid of any air but different smells and aromas were blowing here and there. Overall, it was completely dark with faint light near the wooden altars. On the other side I could see yet another two doors. I knew one was open and I was free to walk through it. But I knew my destiny was across the other door, which was locked. And I knew what I would have to go through to reach it and open it. My only hope was my survival. I walked down the few steps towards the altar. My legs were numb, either from the running or from the fear.
“And so we meet.”
He was there; His voice as cold as ice pierced through my ears. I said nothing but continued to walk. As I neared the altars I saw him. He was nothing like I had imagined. He was tall; slim, his ‘white tuxedo’ gleaming with an eerie darkness. His face was lost behind the dark but I could sense his expressions, and they were anything but pleasant.
“It would only be prudent if you accept your foolishness and walk out of the other door. It is open for fools like you and you will walk out without harm.” His sneer was evident in his voice.
I mustered all the fragments of energy and courage that seemed to have scattered into tiny pieces all over my body.
“I have not come so far to walk out of the other door. And I am no fool. I have chosen this path since long and I choose to stand by it and walk through it.”
“Well then my friend” his sneer more pronounced and anger imminent in his voice, “Let us both bow to what they say A’ La Cuisine!”
Those last words made me bow; it was a bow to hope, a bow to the immense power that the last word that he said carried, it was a bow to the faith in cuisine.
He took out his steel from his tuxedo, I removed mine. Both our steels were crafted by the same master but his was a Nenohi with a dragon core, its shine was sparkling the room; mine was a Gyotou with an eagle core. I cannot deny that it had its own shine and I was proud of it.
He gave me no time to spare. He raised his steel and screamed, “Feur et la Chaleur!”
My head seemed heavy as the room suddenly turned hot. Dry heat was increasing; fresh flesh was being burnt; a steak being roasted.
I raised my steel and retorted, “Aqua e schiuma!”
The heat turned moist as tiny water droplets started bursting. The heat was still there but it wasn’t dry anymore. It seemed to be blended with water. Flesh was being delicately handled; a fish being poached.
He seemed to be surprised a bit by this. I could sense him looking around. I used this gap to catch my breath and search within me for the power she had spoken about. But he had his steel up.
“Rare carne e pepe!” his voice boomed.
I tasted blood. I sensed it. The flesh was burnt but it was rare; it was a trick. The steak was kept rare!
I searched with hope and the words just flowed, “Zaffran mayona!” The room turned mellow, it seemed to cool down faster and was filled with an orange glow. Fear seemed to dissipate replacing it with bit of warmth and love. Even before he could respond I raised my steel again, “Peppero en mild…flora avec zinnamon!”
The room still carried the glow but had a touch of spice to it now. Aromas of the spring flowers breezed in and out. I could sense his anger melting away. But it was for a fraction of second.
“Trying to end this, are we? Luck seems to be seasoning your life till now my friend; But no longer!” He laughed. “Wasabi e’ crème de menthe!”
The air vanished again and it stung my eyes, it pierced my throat! There seemed to be a teasing smoothness as if cold milk was blended into the surroundings; but so mild. I could feel myself gasping for breath. It was different; the flavors seemed to be playing tricks.
I thought I lost. I could not even speak, I was just gasping, awed at the simplicity in front of me. Some things were simple, they are meant to be realized. Now was not the time to think all that!
I searched within me for a hint of an idea, a simple one yet powerful enough.
“Aah…. Asafetida para Minta!” I gasped. And the sting vanished. Air flowed again and the room had a different glow, a mild one. Fresh smell of garden herbs mingled here and there, teasing out a smile.
I could breath freely again. I looked ahead at the end of the altar. He was there, silent and then suddenly, he vanished. My body lightened but a pain suddenly shot up, it grasped my body tightly making me hard to think anything. The ingredients of life seemed to be all in me, I could feel them but the pain was overpowering.
And in this I heard his voice boom, “Luck has seasoned your life yet again and I need to go to destroy more fools like you. But we will meet again and then you will have no time!”
I tried to think of all things I could remember, my first chocolate truffle, my first taste of mushrooms, my first milkshake and my first of all food things, and with that courage I felt myself speak, “ I have been no fool! I am no fool! The ingredients have chosen me since I was born and I know them as much as I know me. I know we will meet again and not just once but many a time more. And each time I will be prepared well than the first, for my path is not just seasoned with luck but with all those other ingredients that ever exist. And I have the power of those others who have brought me till here. And with those I will always be ready to face you.”
He seemed to have disappeared just as I completed my sentence. My pain was easing too; I managed to stand up. My steel was blunt but it would regain its shine soon, it needed its deserved rest. I walked towards the other door. I knew it would be open.
I opened it wide; I had to shield my eyes as the evening sun hit me in the face. I walked right into the crowd of New Yorkers that were rushing to catch the metros back home. Nobody noticed me walking out of the alley, my face covered in sweat, my body slightly trembly. I was soon inside the train that was rushing towards my station. I got down and took my time to walk back home.
I reached my room, tired. The sandalwood essence sticks had aromatized my room. I changed
into my nightdress and warmed up a cup of milk. I tossed in a few sprigs of saffron with a spoonful of sugar and allowed the tasty liquid to flow down my throat.
Then I just fell onto my bed…smiling…a deep breath and I was soon asleep. I had a long day ahead tomorrow.