After Taste

By Mahesh Rao 1

Penis-shaped cakes, gourmandising matrons, chorizo-stuffed baby squid at a child’s birthday: Mahesh Rao teases out the flavours of excess in this Delhi triptych about people you may know

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 9.15am, Mayur Vihar

She prefers her customers and assistants to call her “SJ”, rather than the long and rather florid name with which her parents have burdened her. “SJ” is sharp, streamlined and efficient, a perfect sobriquet for her business persona. She glances at the timer in front of her: seven minutes, thirty-two seconds to go.

Her notebook lies open on the counter top, its pages stippled with the weak winter sunshine making its way into the room through the sole window. She looks down again at her series of confident sketches: penises of various girths and elongations, sometimes with a hint of curvature, a careful arrangement of veins, ridges and furrows, testicles supporting these superstructures. She has always been meticulous about her designs and, for this set, spent hours looking at websites, some medical, others more recreational.

She draws well. It is a skill, she supposes, that could have been an advantage had she wanted to become an architect or a graphic designer. But she has only ever wanted to bake, to feed people, to watch with solemn satisfaction as a mouth clamps shut on a sugary, pillowy confection. She likes to wring pleasure out of her customers, especially the cautious or the uninterested ones, the ones who fear food. She spends hours establishing the precise combinations that will defeat any resistance.

Not that this customer offered much in the way of resistance. Her enthusiasm was boundless, her requirements specific. She had written to say that she wanted her husband’s birthday cake to be “dark, rich and sexy, just like him”.

As SJ had explored the options, her customer’s responses had been helpful and forthcoming.

“Please use the edible gold dust, not the glitter.”

“Can you make the balls bigger?”

“Maybe five or six drops of semen. Not more, thanks.”

“No hand holding the dick. Just the dick.”

She prefers contacting her customers only by email or WhatsApp, particularly when it comes to what she calls “erotic baking”. She has no intention of turning a commercial transaction into an invitation to a certain intimacy, a saucy conversation about the proclivities of a certain kind of man, say, or a heartfelt confessional. Boundaries can be easily blurred—but not hers.

A sudden shower of sparks outside makes her move towards the window. The great tangle of electricity cables is throwing off flashes of blue and gold, with a dangerously celebratory crackle. Three floors below, at street level, a young man is test-driving a motorbike from the showroom at the end of the road, his white shirt billowing behind him as he weaves carelessly around the dawdling cycle rickshaws and handcarts.

She moves back to the bank of four ovens, their gleaming doors reflecting the neat stacks of muffin trays and cake tins, rolls of parchment paper, spatula and knife sets—and finally, her own face; her ponytail high, her cheeks flushed, her eyes, as ever, watchful.

The buzzer sounds.

She eases the cake out of the oven and tests it. The skewer comes out clean, the crust springs back from her finger. She only uses single origin chocolate sourced from a manufacturer in Lyons, which she breaks into cool shards with a delicious snap. As it begins to melt and ooze over the heat, she whips some cream, her eyes occasionally drifting to the window, wary of more sparks. She whisks some cream into the chocolate and then folds in some more, her strokes slow and studied. She imagines the moment when her customer will slice into a piece of the finished cake, a smear of velvety buttercream, the grip of the rich cocoa, crumbs that cling to the fork. How exactly the penis will be carved up is not something she dwells on—that is for others to worry about. Pausing, she tastes the ganache. It is, of course, perfect.

She doesn’t feature her risqué cakes on her website or in her promotional literature. She makes no judgment on people’s tastes but does not wish to invite others to do so. And, this being Delhi, she fears it will lead to late-night calls from men who want to gasp foul words at her. So these cakes are invisible, but word gets around. Word always gets around.

The smells of warm butter, vanilla and chocolate continue to unfurl around the room. She moves on to the strips of fondant lying on the worktop, rolling them out, flatter, thinner. She has in the past moulded bows and daisies, owls and pirates, handbags and castles—and many, many penises.

The revving of the motorbike engine has been getting louder, beginning to deafen her even at this height. She looks at the testicles she has just shaped and wonders if they are too big. She decides that they are exactly what is needed—a pleasing symmetry.

Her phone lights up with another message from her customer. “Is it too late to ask you to supply a gold cake stand?”

No, it is not. Where her customers are concerned, it is never too late

*

12.30pm, near Connaught Place

There isn’t much of a lunchtime rush at the restaurant, not on a Tuesday. One long table is, however, fully occupied. The women are dressed in colours that would look fairly homogenous to a civilian eye but that any one of the party could identify with a keen precision: fawn, taupe, khaki, oatmeal, buff, nut, sand, ecru.

The ordering of the food is brisk and unequivocal. One woman asks if it is possible to have just some grated kohlrabi; another asks for a large glass of warm water, as a sip after every mouthful aids digestion. Only one member of the party orders pasta, although not, as is wickedly suggested, because the shade of the black tagliolini matches her onyx bracelet.

The conversation drifts around the subject of the latest private viewing, the tyrannical impositions of personal trainers, the capriciousness of husbands. It floats over the smarter boutiques of Portofino, wafts past the south-facing chalets of Verbier, and settles over the exclusive rooftop bars of Los Angeles. But above it all there is a distinct top note.

“How are you finding the carpaccio, Kalpana?”

“Here, Kalpana, she sprayed a little on my wrist, tell me what you think.”

“Kalpana, you did get my email?”

Kalpana is mostly silent, a woman who is judicious with whole remarks, but not averse to rewarding select friends with the occasional nod or half-smile.

She puts down her fork. “I am thinking of inviting a few people to Mount Kilimanjaro for my 40th.”

The effect is immediate. Other forks are also laid down, a couple of women lean forward a few inches, another dabs at a corner of her mouth with her napkin.

“When is it?” someone asks. “Mid-March,” says Kalpana.

One woman shows herself to be more daring than the rest. “How many people were you thinking?”

A waiter makes a minor adjustment to the arrangement of wine glasses on the next table.

“I don’t know,” says Kalpana. “Let’s see.” The women lean back again.

Across the lobby from the restaurant, the lift doors open. An elderly woman with a walking stick is helped across the marble-floored expanse by a much younger woman in a snuff-coloured shalwar kameez. Their progress is slow and laborious: they stop every few steps and the older woman tilts her head as though she has heard a sudden, unsavoury remark. The doorman spots them and rushes forward to help. A waiter springs forward to take his place at the entrance and another one hovers a few feet from the door. A current of cooler air seems to drift through the restaurant.

Further assistance is provided near the old lady’s table, which is her usual table, in fact, the very best table. It takes several more minutes for a shawl to be discarded and for an appropriate place to be found for the walking stick to rest its beautifully carved head. Within seconds the manager has made an appearance. If this were a musical, he would have clicked his heels.

The party of women pretends not to notice. It is not, they seem to say, any concern of theirs.

“Don’t you think the food here used to be better?” asks Kalpana, addressing her scallop.

In due course, a bread basket arrives at the senior lady’s table, followed by a large plate of antipasti, a bowl of soup and a salad. Wine is poured, a fork replaced, the air-conditioning turned down. Two plates of pasta arrive, still steaming, and then side dishes of artichokes and broccoli. Her face is impassive as she grinds her way through the food, her eyes lustreless.

The old lady’s caretaker can be seen through the glass doors, sitting on a ledge by the lifts, her eyes closed.

More food arrives. There are splashes of dressing on the white tablecloth, slivers of prosciutto on the floor by the lady’s chair, a spray of crumbs over her bosom.

It is solemn and ritualistic: a bounty of offerings disappearing into the maw of an oracle. And it continues. Another bread basket appears, pert rolls with their dusting of poppy seeds, slender grissini flavoured with rosemary, crusty pagnotta. The elderly lady continues to eat, now barely chewing, a champ or two before each gulp, as prawns and clams and mussels glide down her throat. Drops of sauce from the seafood ragout spatter her chin. In her lap lies a sardine.

The women at the large table at first pretend not to notice, then exchange troubled glances and then, giving up all dissimulation, watch in anguished fascination.

The manager makes another visit, giving the table of women a hurried smile, before

planting himself in front of his favoured guest, who barely acknowledges him. He orders the duck and the lamb for her and leans forward for a delicate whisper.

Kalpana tries to catch his eye. He seems to see her but then, bowing a little from the waist, simply addresses another quiet remark to the old lady.

Kalpana’s friends glance at each other. She waits a moment before raising an elegant arm. A waiter heads in her direction but she waves him away and continues to look at the manager. This time he does notice and gives her a gentle, conciliatory nod. But he stays exactly where he is.

Kalpana finally says: “Excuse me.”

The manager looks up again and says, “I’m sorry, madam, I will be with you as soon as I get a chance.”

He turns away and begins a new series of murmurings.

“Yes,” Kalpana says.

No one else at her table speaks. The only sound that can be heard is the clink of cutlery at the best table in the house. Kalpana’s solitaire gives off a sharp glint. A chill descends on the group that can only have come from the higher slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.

*

3.30pm, Chhattarpur

The people of this house are sticklers for time. To be more accurate, they insist on punctuality at events that they host, but think nothing of dropping in to a dinner party at midnight. It is one of their many idiosyncrasies, quirks that their friends and associates have persuaded themselves are eccentric and charming.

The party planners have been busy with their final inspections. Bolstered by multiple espressos and, in one case, a fair number of TED talks, they finally feel that the situation is under control. The fairground rides have been set up and an assortment of stilt-walkers and acrobats weaves around the carousel, the fun house and the ghost train tunnel. The goody bags containing personalised iPad minis have been counted and secured in a cloakroom. In each of the bathrooms there is a vase of Casablanca lilies.

Little Hriiyaan, the youngest resident of this house, turns eight today. Hand-crafted cards have been sent to the 40 special guests who will naturally be accompanied by the usual phalanx of ayahs, maids, drivers and bodyguards. But, since the invitations have been issued by the people of this house, it is only to be expected that quite a few of the parents will be in attendance too.

Invisible in the distance are the heavily patrolled perimeter walls that separate the vast tracts owned by the people of this house from the land that, sadly, they don’t. In amongst these acreages lie scatterings of pools, pavilions and paddocks. Today, great drifts of bubbles float over them as the bubbleologist begins his warm-up act. Across the lawn a donkey brays in the petting zoo.

The people of this house have naturally given much consideration to the manner in which they live. They see that it is grand and sumptuous but do not consider it to be in any way ostentatious or self-indulgent. It is a marker of their diligence and talent, and serves to harden their belief in their own rectitude.

The people of this house are ready and waiting but none of the guests has shown up yet.

In the kitchen, salmon mousse is being piped on to organic crispbreads and the chorizo-stuffed baby squid kept warm in the oven. The people of this house are aware of the fact that children will, given an opportunity, cram any number of cheap, doughy hunks covered in sugar or stringy cheese into their mouths. They will swallow packet after packet of bin-end candy. They will probably suck on bits of cardboard. But food is, after all, an education, and the people of this house see no reason why young people’s palates should not be trained and tested in the same way as their language or fine motor skills.

A couple of children have arrived with their parents and ayahs. There are the usual tales of frightful traffic jams but this is nothing new in this city. It does not explain the continued absence of the other guests. The party planners cast their eyes over the trays of almond financiers and passion fruit macarons that are making their way to the large marquee. Behind a tinkling water feature, a balloon artist lights up a joint.

Earlier, there was a bit of a hiccough with the H-dollars, fake currency featuring the smiling face of little Hriiyaan, which the guests will be able to use as legal tender for the rides and shows. A workplace accident at the printer’s meant that the notes have only just been delivered, but there is still a half hour in which the H-Bank can be set up.

The people of this house are displeased. It shows on the brows of those who are able to furrow them; others have to rely on the delicate curling of a lip. Moments later the first messages begin to come through. Roads have been closed, with little or no information on diversions. Guests may have to head all the way back to the flyover and take another route. They are doing everything they can to be there. Nothing to worry about, they will get there in 20 minutes, half an hour, 45 minutes tops.

The sun dips further and the late afternoon light glances off the endless rows of French windows. One set of sprinklers sputters to a halt; another set begins to throw off its silvery jets. On the nearest terrace, a servant continues to polish the leaves of a frangipani tree.

More information filters through, although no one can say whether it consists of rumours or facts. There has been violence, agitation, perhaps a death. Shops are shut, people are turning back. The people of this house make a few more calls—the news is not good.

No one has been informed in the kitchen and the giant cake is wheeled nearer to the door, its rows of soldiers glistening.

Ice cream left on a table has turned into a vanilla soup, and crows have wheeled in to attack a platter of fresh figs. The party planners are apologising to the people of this house, even though law and order could hardly be said to be part of their remit. Their apologies are stiffly accepted. Overhead, the sky turns violet.

The people of this house have gone indoors, all except little Hriiyaan. Perhaps the others will come when the bad situation outside has settled down a little, he thinks. He climbs on to a horse on the carousel. He reaches for one of the H-dollars that he has stuffed into his shirt pocket. Smoothing out the creases, he stares at the note. His own face, chipper and gap-toothed, hair falling over one eye, smiles straight back.


This article is published in the July-September 2016 issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue is “Feasting”. You can get your digital on Magzter here, but we love print more and if so do you, subscribe here.

Illustration by Nityan Unnikrishnan


One Comment

  1. Shila D July 16, 2016 at 8:56 am - Reply

    A joy to read! And discover a writer to seek out

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