When I pulled out my sketchbook and pen from my satchel, Bhumi was standing with her back towards me. She was wiping sweat off her brow with one hand and stirring a pan of creamy green palak paneer with the other. Then almost instantly, hunching over a mushy brown curry simmering on the other burner, she inhales deeply, nods to herself and, mutters softly, ‘You like aubergines, don’t you?”.
I do but I’m not sure if she expects an answer. I say ‘yes’ anyway and settle down on the dining room chair, trying to clear a little space for me on the table, which by the way seems to be the apartment’s principal depository. Everything from a pack of purple grapes, house keys, scissors a basket of mung bean sprouts, a bottle of aloe vera, torn packet of bay leaves to pickle jars jostle for space on the yellowed table cloth with leaf patterns. At the far end, a purple curtain tries to conceal shoes boxes, milk cartons, laundry and discarded furniture.
I’ve known Bhumi for four years, when she and her husband had moved to Singapore in search of work. “Someday when I have a nice place to myself, my own kitchen..and refrigerator.. I’d invite you to lunch,” she’d said to me countless times, until last week, she actually did invite me to lunch. “What would you like to eat?”..no wait..don’t tell me..I’ll surprise you!”. I came bearing a tub of mango icecream which she immediately snatched from my hand and put in the freezer.
Her husband who works at a bar, waiting tables was home, peeling almonds and chopping bananas for the fruit custard. “Guess what, I don’t have appointments today!” announced Bhumi, while letting me in. She works at a beauty parlour for a paltry sum, a chunk of which goes into educating her only daughter at a boarding school in India. When I offer to help with the cooking she directs me to a chair. “Just sit, relax! We don’t have air conditioning, but…!!”. She disappears inside and I hear something heavy being dragged out of the rooms. The two other tenants with whom the couple share their apartment aren’t in, so I have not one but two table fans directed at me.
‘Seriously, how can I help”, I offer again, but she changes the subject. ‘Let’s go for a walk after lunch. I’ll change into something nice’ she says looking disparagingly at her attire for a second. I see two spindly legs covered in blue varicose veins – from standing long hours at work – sticking out from a pair of pink shorts. Her hair is tied up in a messy bun. She picks up a spoonful of heaped coriander powder from her spice box and throws it into one of the pans. The light breeze from the window, catches the smell and perfumes the kitchen. Unable to assist, I settle down to sketch and halfway through I find Bhumi cleaning the table and clearing the clutter. “You shouldn’t..it’s messy, it’s really messy”, she says frowning. ‘But I want to sketch the mess’, I say, alarmed at my subjects disappearing one by one.
As any sketcher will tell you, there is immense satisfaction gained from drawing the clutter, the chaos, the disorder but in doing so, as it turns out the owner of that clutter may often be chagrined. Probably Bhumi knew I meant well. “After you finish, just label it as ‘messy’ kitchen’, okay”, she said, and turned her back once again to finish cooking our lunch.