A Jar of Friendship
Crash! The shattering of glass against a ceramic surface startled me awake. I dozed off while compiling textile trade statistics. I was still 3,000 words shy of the 10,000-word target for a client’s academic paper. But, it had to wait. There was a new problem to solve.
The pungent aroma wafting from the kitchen led me to a puddle of shatkora achar below an open window. The squeaking hinge was slow to recover from a gust that toppled the upcycled marmalade jar. My wits abandoned me. The vibrant mess chuckled at my helplessness. This business was more than a broom and dustpan could handle. Mustard oil spills have always been a formidable opponent on the housekeeping battlefield. Thankfully, Molfix baby wipes restored the kitchen floor to its former glory.
Pickled wedges of shatkora were fed to the dustbin. An old newspaper and a shopping bag cradled the shards. They dazzled in sunbeams that forced themselves through stubborn rain clouds. Yellow stains on the baby wipes rekindled memories of an afternoon with Zara — a good friend, neighbour and fellow home cook.
The waning sunlight bathed her complexion in its golden hues. Like a bride at her gaye holud ceremony. “I miss being married,” she confessed. Incredulous, I looked up from the cup of masala chai in my hands. Her kohl-lined eyes betrayed a longing buried deep in her heart.
For a long time, Zara didn’t seem herself. She feigned normalcy. Coffee mornings felt like a chore. Carpools weren’t joyful anymore. I couldn’t figure out what was bothering her. Now, it became clear to me.
Zara’s complex started brewing on the day her cookbook was launched at the Ekushey Boi Mela. A food critic attending the event grilled her over the authenticity of her family recipes. His scathing remarks deflated her confidence. But, they didn’t hold her back from fiercely guarding her territory. “Rest assured all of the recipes have been tested in MY kitchen,” Zara retorted. Overcome by nostalgia, she retreated to her publisher’s tent. On the way home, “MY kitchen” replayed in her head over and over.
It was heartbreaking to see the shatkora achar depart so dishonourably. It had beautifully complemented a simple meal of plain rice, moog dal and grilled tilapia at Zara’s mum’s place that afternoon. It would’ve been equally splendid with koftas and a vegetable biryani I planned for lunch. I phoned Zara to ask her to bring along some more.
Violent sobs at the other end of the line made me worry. I wondered if I should visit Zara with takeaway food instead. My biryani wouldn’t be ready before lunchtime. Plan B was as good as plan A. A few minutes into the conversation, Zara told me she wasn’t home.
A cannula accomplished what tablets of mefenamic acid couldn’t. A preliminary scan revealed a condition with limited treatment options. Her suffering would continue in monthly instalments. The gynaecologist couldn’t explain what caused it in the first place. I hoped closure wouldn’t elude my friend forever.
A diet of immunity boosters and regular dates with dumbbells did little to protect Zara from an illness she didn’t understand. “Surgery may be necessary.” She dreads the scalpel like she dreaded dragonflies as a child. A storm of confusion and hopelessness raged inside her. Like the time her child’s father uttered talaq.
Later in the day, I texted Zara. She didn’t reply. She didn’t have to. She was hurting and I saw it. She sent her mum’s chauffeur with a tiffin carrier of bhuna khichuri, a buffalo meat curry and potoler dolma. Also in the jute bag was a jar of shatkora achar which found its home on a shelf below the egg compartment. Besan face packs, Rooh Afza and Strepsils welcomed their new housemate.
My mind was at peace knowing a jar of friendship nested comfortably inside a fridge of misfits. After a satisfying dinner and isha prayers, I returned to my unfinished freelance assignment.
Recuperating from a laser procedure, Zara relied on her mum to clean and feed her. Meals were dictated by a diet chart demonizing coffee, ice cream and fuchka. The days that followed were marred by gloomy weather and a ton of misgivings. Plans for a second publication took a backseat. The sudden loss of physical independence, although temporary, was unnerving.
On one of my visits, I found Zara curled up on her mum’s living room couch. Savouring nihari-soaked pieces of naan, we listened to an audio recording of Sheikh Saad al-Ghamidi’s Qur’an recitation. “Which of the favours of your Lord will you deny?” Like the car heater does to the windscreen, Surah ar-Rahman demisted my friend’s thoughts.
Later in the week, my phone buzzed with a text message I’d been fervently praying for. A reinvigorated Zara resumed work on her second book. Since her mobility was still restricted, Skype helped to resolve all formatting issues with her editor. In two months, the paperback would command its rightful place in bookshops across the city — rubbing shoulders with culinary stalwarts like Lobi Rahman and Sanjeev Kapoor.
A week before Zara’s book was published, we celebrated the paycheck from my latest freelance project with homemade kachchi biryani. “What better way to enjoy biryani than with a generous spoonful of shatkora achar?” my friend would say. My fridge always had a jar of this beautiful chutney on occasions like this. Thanks to Zara for that. And, thanks to Allah for Zara.
Disclaimer: The person’s name has been changed to protect privacy.