Monday, September 7, 2015


"Boki". The load rebuke sent tiny fissures of fear slithering down the new recruit's spine. And she almost dropped the large basket she was holding in her hands into the humongous wok as a cloud of steam erupted from it and threatened to engulf her. Lost in her daydream, she had carelessly tipped the freshly rinsed vegetables into the smoking hot oil without keeping a safe distance.

Kaki walked up to her and inspected the scene of the crime. But not before asking the young woman if she was alright. A few more words of warning were issued and then she walked back to her own cauldron. The lunch had to be ready on time and non of it could be wasted in bickering when the hundreds of hungry laborers would march in any moment now.

Kaki. That was what everyone fondly called her. A septuagenarian who walked around with a twinkle in her eyes and a spring in her gait, she had no family left of her own. Her husband had died more that a decade ago. They had moved into the industrial tiny town of Rourkela and set up a hole-in-the-wall eatery almost fifty years back. This place had kept the fires burning in the bellies of the numerous workers who in turn shoveled the coal the fed the insatiable appetites of the blast furnaces.

The years spent in the kitchen had sharpened her senses. Her ears were fine-tuned to pick up the slightest noise, with every hiss, splutter, crackle or splutter conveying a different message. And she possessed a sense of smell that could shame a grey hound. Whether it be spices roasted for a few seconds more than necessary or a few grains of rice catching at the bottom of the huge cauldron, she could pick it's scent much before anyone else could.

But she was no longer sure about her eyesight which had started failing her. And hence she was in a hurry to look for a recruit who could manage the kitchen that she had run single-handedly for so long. She cast a glance at Rupa, a hard working assistant. but one who had a lot to learn. "Will she pass the test tommorow?", she posed a rhetorical question to herself. She had trained and then tried atleast a dozen of them but none had proved themselves worthy enough to take over the reins.

Morning dawned, its brightness turned down a few notches by the coal and iron dust in the air. After cleaning the floor, the two of them sat on the floor chopping vegetables for lunch. Rupa was halfway through her pile of greens when she sensed that some of them had insect eggs and larvae clinging to them. She shook them vigorously and even beat them on the floor to dislodge the pests. She then proceeded to chop them and add them to the basket containing the chopped greens. Kaki kept watching her from the corner of her eye as she finished the chopping and proceeded to wash all the vegetables rather carelessly.

"I think the oil will be not sufficient to cook today's meal. Go and buy another can from the Old market. Get it from Babu's shop and ask him to put it on my monthly account. Hurry up. I will start the fire in the chullah's", Kaki instructed her assistant. Once she was out of the door, Kaki did not waste time any before picking the offending basket of chopped greens and threw it out of the backside window. She quickly locked the shop and went out to buy another bunch. Thankfully the vegetable market was in the next lane and she was back with a fresh bunch within a few minutes. Even though she had asked the vendor, an old tribal lady from whom she regularly purchased vegetables, to check it for insects, she strained her old eyes double checking the luxuriant bunch that had clearly been drawing nourishment from the soil a few hours ago. She then chopped and rinsed it properly and kept the basket in its original place.

Rupa returned from the errand and went about her chores as usual. The lunch was ready and bubbling in the huge pots even before the bull-horn announced the lunch break and the gates of the plant opened to let loose a sea of humanity wearing the trademark pale yellow helmets.

More than cooking the humongous quantities of food, it was tough to manage the crowd. Everyone was eager to get back to their stations after a quick meal. The duo continued to dish out the food in a frenzied manner for the next two hours. Only after the last of the customers had paid for his meal and left, the two ladies sat down to take their meal.

As they laid out the plates and helped themselves to the simple fare, Kaki noticed that Rupa had abstained from serving the stir-fried greens on the plates. They continued eating in silence except for a few occasional comments made by the older woman. Once they finished and had washed their hands, Kaki reached for a small bundle that she kept hidden inside her blouse. The small bundle turned out to be a red handkerchief that held a few rolled up notes. She counted two hundred rupees and handed it to Rupa. "You need not come to work tomorrow".

Rupa stared at the old woman and then blinked a few times. Tears threatened to flow down her face. She mustered all her courage and uttered a single word. "Why?"

"The greens. Why did you feed them to the workers ?"

A blank stare followed. Then she blinked again as realization dawned upon her. "They could never have seen the insects."

"But you could. And you still fed it to them."

Another one had failed the litmus test of character.


  1. Towards the end something snapped within me. Well written.

    1. thanks for dropping by and a bigger thanks for reading through this piece

  2. Very well written.... keep it up.

  3. Very well written.... keep it up.