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Buying pleasure

  • Published at 07:45 pm October 4th, 2016
Buying pleasure

Neela smelled out cooked vegetables as she entered the common room. She could not locate the source of the smell for she knew that the group of four women -- two Americans, one British and one Swedish -- were all vegetarians. She knew the word vegetarian, though back home, she had not seen one. She had read in many Bangla novels that Hindu women were forced to be vegetarians once they became widows. But after coming here, she learnt that these smart, ready-for-the world young women, doing their PhDs, were vegetarians by choice. She also learnt a new word: vegan. Vegans are extreme vegetarians; they do not even eat eggs and milk. They search for various alternatives to protein derived from animals.

Neela threw a mild “hi” to everyone. One American -- Steffi -- was munching on a carrot stick dipping it into a pot of peppered hummus. Hummus was also a new word to Neela; she was not quite sure how it was pronounced. She called it ho-mos, but she knew that native speakers pronounced this Middle Eastern spread in a different way -- something like hou-mous. She could not quite figure it out. Her skill of twisting tongues for new words was limited. The Swedish woman, Ana, held a pot of Greek yogurt; she always ate yogurt during her lunch after she'd had her green-garden salad: a combination of cucumber pieces, sweet corn, and cherry tomatoes. The British woman, Jackie, was having soup, taking sips from her purple-coloured mug that had an embossed “eat healthy, sex healthy” slogan. Neela could not see what the other American woman, Jody, was having.

Their bland diet embarrassed Neela. She was holding her box of lunch, and she was here to warm it up in the microwave oven. Every day she brought her bhaat, daal and chicken in her lunch box. This was cheap and also very easy. She kept the leftover food from the previous night in her box, and in the morning she just tucked it in her backpack. She had convinced herself several times that she'd take it as an opportunity to get rid of the habit of eating bhaat for lunch since she was in a western country where students usually have light lunch. She had tried out some of the options. For a week, right after she had started her PhD, she brought green-salad with a boiled egg. She liked it but soon she started feeling that she did not have lunch. So she had to eat an oat bar and a pack of jelly beans to compensate for the empty stomach. Then for seven days, she ate flat bread wrapped in chicken curry. She liked it as well but she did not make flat bread herself, and she preferred to have home-made food. So, after a few test and try with her lunch, she returned to bhaat again.

There were other non-western students in her department; they were doing much better in avoiding their traditional food for lunch. There was this Indian woman, doing MA here, who ate either a slice of pizza or a pack of instant soup with a bun. And the Nigerian young lady -- oh how Neela loved her hair and figure -- she starved herself all day to have a big but early dinner at six in the evening. Only Neela ate bhaat twice a day, without any change.

She felt embarrassed because of the strong curry smell that swirled off the oven whenever she warmed her food. She knew not everybody liked the pungent curry smell. There was this old professor who would open the kitchen windows if she found anyone warming up anything with strong smell. Neela also started to keep the windows open, until one day the cleaner lady gave her a round of advice on the hazards of this. There was a health and safety issue about an open window, the cleaner woman explained to her. Neela understood her advice partly as she found it extremely difficult to follow local English accent. One minute in the microwave made the food piping hot. She got the container out of the wave, the curry smell rolled out like a jinni from a pitcher. She felt embarrassed.

"Oh! It smells lovely--what are you having, Neela"? Jody said curiously.

"Er…curry, chicken curry," Neela answered.

"I used to love chicken curry before I became a vegetarian," Jody said. “Though only on Friday nights. My stomach was too delicate to digest it every day.”

Neela said,"It is pretty mild, full of onions, much like chicken dopiaza." The last word Neela learnt recently when she had gone to an Indian curry restaurant with students from her department. Back home, she only knew fish dopiaza. Here, they made dopiazas of chicken and lamb.

"I used to love chicken jalfrezi, my ex-boyfriend loved chicken dopiaza,” said Steffi. "Back in my undergrad uni, we had a housemate named Zahir; he was of Pakistani origin. His parents used to live in New Castle; every weekend they came to meet Zahir, and his mother would bring curry in a big casserole bowl. He would share the food with us, and his mum's cooking was amazing," she said, gulping the last bite of her carrot stick.

"Oh! Authentic Indian curry is home-made curry. I always tell my Indian friends that before I had homemade curries, I used to love chicken curries from the local restaurants. But when I had home-made ones, I stopped going to the restaurants," Jackie added.

"In Sweden, we now have a lot more curry houses than before. Even in my own town, which is small compared to Stockholm, there are at least ten restaurants. They are pretty good; I always go for their vegetarian options,” said Ana. Steffi nodded her head, and in a serious tone she started to tell a story of how one of their neighbours once had a severe nut allergy attack after she had had chicken korma from a local takeaway restaurant.

Neela realised the four women were no longer interested in her or her curry. They were lost in their own streams of conversation. She said a mild "see you soon" to them, and slipped out of the room.

Neela sat at her workstation -- there should be two more students in her office, but they hardly came. They worked from home. So Neela was the sole occupant of the room. She read online newspapers, her Facebook newsfeed when she ate her lunch. A month ago, she promised to herself that she would only browse through her Facebook page during the lunch break. She had even stopped using Facebook on her Smartphone, and she considered herself successful in overcoming her addiction to Facebook.

It was a year since Neela had started her PhD. She was not quite sure why she was doing her PhD. She was never a brilliant or meritorious student. She always had good results, but that was because of her capacity of rote memorisation. She could memorise things well and she studied hard all through her life because she never had had any chance to do anything exciting. Thus, she concentrated only on her studies to obtain good results. But she had never dreamt that one day she would do a PhD or be a shining academic. Her dream was immediate and small -- getting good grades in math, perhaps an 80% in English, and then a decent degree in a good subject. Life had its own course, Neela thought, and she should be only happy to get this opportunity that many would just love to grab. But she found this highest step of academic ladder very isolating and scary, as though she had reached this point randomly, without any training or skill, and she might just fall off one day. Neela lingered on with her last morsel of already-cold rice and curry, because she did not want to finish her eating. This fifteen minute was the pleasure that she had bought for herself in the world where pleasure was abundant, though, she did not quite find it anywhere. Like the strong curry smell, she wanted the moment to be here, standing still.

Rifat Mahbub is assistant professor at the Department of English and Humanities, BRAC University.