Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Zanzibar

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Zanzibar

Article excerpt

Sheela Parekh had learned three inviolable rules about married life from her mother: (i) you must tolerate your mother-in-law; (2) you must protect yourself from a man's desires; and (3) you must have a good cook. She considered herself moderately successful with the first two. But their cook had just written to say that his ailing parents needed him now in his village and he would not be returning to Bombay after all. And this was causing her a great deal of concern.

The monsoons had not helped. It had been pouring for three months. Relentless downpours with drops like stones. She watched from the windows of their sixth-floor flat with her husband, Arturo, as the shantytown across from their apartment building was washed away into the Arabian Sea. "Where will they go now?" she said to him.

"Here. This is where they will come. To our doorstep."

Later that day, when she answered the doorbell, she thought Arturo had been right. This was probably the first supplicant from the slum come to ask for food and money. She looked at the man warily. "I am a cook," he said directly, "and I need a job." His neatness impressed her, and his cockiness. Since their cook had left, Sheela had kept her ears open for someone who could turn out reasonable meals and take care of the dietary needs of their diverse household without constant grumbling. She watched him rustle through a plastic folder he removed from under his arm. "I have testimonials," he said, handing her some papers.

The letterheads were impressive enough: TAJ HERITAGE hotEL, GOA. PENINSULA HOTEL, HONG KONG, MANDALAY HOUSE, CALCUTTA.

"Wait here," she said. She closed the door in his face and went to her husband. "Look at this."

He glanced through the papers. "Hmm, very impressive. Probably fake. Still, there's no harm in talking to the man. see what he wants."

"Will you come?"

"These things are best done by women," he said.

HIS NAME WAS VINCENT. "I have fed kings and paupers," he said, showing a shy smile for the first time. "And both have gone away happy."

She liked both his name and his sudden flamboyance. "You are a young man," she said. "How would you have met kings?"

He said he had traveled the world in the company of great chefs. "I learned many things in my travels."

She nodded encouragingly, so he went on. "In Russia, I learned to stuff chicken with butter and parsley, and in Germany, to make onions into a stew. In France they know how to use liver, and in Britain, kidneys. In Italy they use hunting dogs to find a kind of mushroom that costs more than gold, and in Spain I learned fifteen different ways to cook octopus. For five years I traveled through Europe with a band of chefs who needed a quick learner, a sous-chef who cut and cleaned up quietly and wanted to learn as much as he could. Then I came back to Goa, to visit my ailing mother. I got married, had a daughter, and left them behind to come here to earn money to support them."

Sheela heard him with growing astonishment. Why was this man at her door, seeking work? "You should go straight to the Taj hotel here in Apollo Bunder," she said. "We could not pay you properly and we have no need of an international chef." And to further dissuade him she added, "Also our kitchen is very small. Our previous cook used to sleep on the floor in there. We have no separate servants' quarters."

"I can sleep on the floor," he said. "As for hotels, I am tired of working for hotels. I want to be on my own and I want to cook for a family."

She opened the door wider now, and ushered him in. He had mystified her, and she was curious enough about his intentions to detain him a little longer. "Wait here," she said to him again, leaving him standing by the windows, which looked out onto a filthy gray Arabian Sea, its surface pockmarked by the pelting rain.

Arturo said, "This is a kitchen matter. I don't want to get involved. …

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