Fiction Pick

‘Anyone for potluck?’ An experiment in collaborative fiction writing

Six apprentices at acclaimed writer Anita Nair’s creative writing programme got together to write this story.

Is it possible at all to write a short piece of fiction together? Until they did it, I would have said an emphatic no. Six of the eleven writers who had attended the season 1 of Anita’s Attic, my creative writing and mentorship programme, had come back for a refresher workshop. There were queries, self doubts, all of which plague any writer and more so fledgling writers. I decided that one way of addressing their concerns was by getting the writers to write together and separately to understand what goes into characterisation and how to hold a plot together. And so we decided on a theme that would showcase each one of the writer’s strengths and shadow the weaknesses. Anyone for Potluck? was conceived and written and then rewritten to make six segments into a cohesive piece in less than three hours.
- Anita Nair 


Before I found Singh Dhabha at Frazer Town,  the butter chicken I had tasted in Bangalore was so bad that it could be blended and served in pouches in place of the laxatives we sell on Relaxer.com.

It felt like I was eating either boiled chicken mixed with tomato ketchup or tomato rasam.  The sad thing is these Madrasis wouldn’t know the difference between the so-called butter chicken and real butter chicken. It took me two years to finally find a place in Bangalore that serves hamara Delhi-standard butter chicken.

I’m ordering six plates of butter chicken in advance. The owners of Singh Dhabha are an elderly couple from Ludhiana. They’re only in Bangalore because their busty (at least 38D) thirty-seven-year-old daughter is unmarried and in IT.

During my search for true butter chicken in Bangalore, I had lost weight, had typhoid and had regular bursts of gastritis. I can take the risk of falling sick eating chaat from a crotch-scratching vendor in a congested Delhi lane, but not on bad butter chicken in Bangalore. The taste of grease and hing, [who, by the way, puts hing in butter chicken?] stays on the roof of your mouth and tongue for days….I feel like puking at the very thought of it.

So on Friday, for our company’s potluck, when I serve Singh Dhaba’s butter chicken claiming it to be mine and the minions flock around me in appreciation, I deserve it. I bloody well deserve the recognition. I’ve sacrificed my body and soul to source this dish, and that counts much more than an hour spent in the kitchen. How long does it take to make butter chicken anyway? Mr Singh gets it done in ten minutes.

I can’t stop thinking of what Dimple, the intern, would be wearing at the potluck. I wouldn’t mind one of those short casual dresses I’ve seen her wear on the photos she posts on Facebook. Actually, I should use the potluck as an opportunity to invite Dimple to my house someday for butter chicken, someday when the Mrs and kids are in Delhi.

Rama with the top knot (I can never remember his full name) will be at the potluck too, for the first time. He probably will bring the same curd-rice he brings every day. Tia will definitely bring something fancy, like paneer pizza or guacamole.

I need my contribution to dominate at this potluck. My team needs to look up to me. I’ll dress formally, wear a blazer so that it hides my belly. Less speaking, more nodding of the head and showing that I’m interested. Limited smiling, unless it’s directed at Dimple.

~~~


I know what they are thinking. What is this naamam-wearing, kudumi-keeping, Iyengar maama going to bring for the group’s special little potluck? They didn’t even invite me the last couple of times because they didn’t think I’d be interested. Yesterday, when I told that social media missy Tia I was going out shopping for ingredients, she asked, “Why Rama? Forgot to set the curd last night?”

And that intern Dimple burst into giggles as if she was too cool for curd rice. The way she looks at my dabba every day at the lunch table, I know she will be the first to demolish it if I make thayir saadam. She stares and stares at my tiffin box and that Rahul Khurana, Narayana, how he stares at her!

Heston Blumenthal. Nigella Lawson. Gordon Ramsay. Kylie Kwong. When it comes to food, Ramanuja Iyengar relies only on the best of gods for inspiration. Ha! I will show this Dimple and her Tia that I am more Iyengar Bakery than thayir saadam.

I went out to Nature’s Basket to buy some things I didn’t have for Ramsay’s Tiramisu. Mascarpone, double cream, sponge fingers... I’ll dip each sponge finger in decoction and lay it out on my new porcelain dish. Whip mascarpone, vanilla, sugar and cream together as if they are all part of an orgy, and layer it on top of the fingers...

I could have just done without it, or used Bailey’s or Kahula, but that would be cheating. It’s another thing that these geezers won’t know the difference. But I will know. I need Marsala wine for this tiramisu. I went to five different liquor marts yesterday, but met with no luck.

That’s why I set up a meeting. My college friend Vikram has a friend who knows a bootlegger. I know, I know. Bootleggers are dangerous. Sometimes they sell fake alcohol. A friend once said some German beer tasted like Kalyani. But I’ll show them for thinking I won’t be interested in this potluck!

I was standing outside this shady wine shop in Sadhashiv Nagar for twenty minutes last night. This bloody bootlegger asked me to be there by 11 pm. And did not show up till 12. I was solicited by random men, because my kudumi had come off at some point. Horny idiots, can’t tell a man from a woman...

Finally, he came out from a basement in the wine shop.

“Boss, Marsala?” I asked.

“Want Sula?”

“If I wanted Sula would I stand in the middle of the road at 12pm? I would open my fridge. I want Marsala!”

“Only Sula. You want or not? Don’t waste my time...”

“Do you know someone who may have?” I pleaded.

“Yeah... But not in Bangalore.”

“Where?”

That’s why I am on my way to Coorg now. I need to make it back to town by tomorrow night to make the tiramisu for day after’s potluck. He better not ask me if I want Sula!

~~~


Damn, that looks so gorgeous! I think I might’ve outdone myself this time. Just look at the colours. Those orange slivers streaking violently across the silky smooth cream milk. Gorgeous isn’t it? I bet no one will have a dish with a colour as vibrant as mine. Or maybe not. I think of the oily Khurana and his oily butter chicken. Ugh, gross. How could I even think of him when looking at a dish as delectable as this?

The textures of the succulent raisins, bloated with the rich butter they were fried in. And the sharp contours of the crisp cashews. Fresh, vibrant, drool-worthy. Wait, will that fall within the 140 character count? Whatever.

What it will be is a slap on the face for him. Yes, him. Ramanujam Iyengar. So smug, so superior, so disapproving. What business is it of his if I choose to call myself Tia? How on earth is a Balathirupurasudari supposed to survive in the cool world of tech startups and social media? Yeah I’ve had to rebrand myself and it’s all no thanks to my dear departed dad who took his love for cricket (ball-a-thirupura-sundari, get it?) a bit too far when naming me. As for Rama, this should show him and his thayir saadam face what sublime desserts are all about. In fact, I chose to make the semiya payasam so he won’t turn down his hooked Iyengar nose at it!

And it was all so easy. Hardly took anytime at all. Of course, I am not going to tell anyone the secret ingredient for my success. Nah, I’m definitely not going to show my hand, not even to Dimple. She is well meaning, but with Rama lurking around, one can never be too sure. He probably already thinks that I’ve made this out of some instant mix pack.

What he does not know is that I have been trained by none other than my mother, of Thanjavur descent, the holiest grail of all. But this secret ingredient, I found that one all by myself. I chanced upon it when looking for ideas on my iPhone. It couldn’t believe I hadn’t tried this before and it was such a simple thing really, so easy to do. Believe me, that’s what elevates this dish to a whole new level.

My phone pings. Insistently. I look at the notifications. 208 likes already on Instagram. 119 retweets on Twitter.

Thank god for filters and hashtags.

#Payasam #drool #desserts #delicious #mouthwatering #yummy #potluck #foodlove #indiancooking #sweet #saffron #happiness #kheer #foodgasm #yummy

~~~


I plonk my Tupperware boxes on the table, and look around the room sheepishly. I can just smell Mr Vishwa’s fragrant vegetable pulao, and Mr Ramanujam Iyengar’s dessert – whatever it is supposed to be – looks yummy. The boss has brought his butter chicken that he must have slaved over all night. Tia ma’am, surprisingly, has brought home-made semiya payasam. I suspect that the box of paan sitting right at the centre of the table is the contribution of Mr Raj.  I look down at my Tupperware boxes. I am the new girl, the intern and it is my first ever time coming to the office potluck. I have brought salad to a potluck.  The easiest way out, one might think – but no! This was not just any salad.

When the notice was out for the Potluck, I went back to my hostel and looked up everything there was to know on to make the greatest salad known to mankind. Everyone is going to love my salad.

The Boss (who sits down to eat next to me) asks me what my salad is called. I proudly tell him – The Crunchy Cucumber Basil Parsley Corn Salad with peppery olive oil dressing. I have looked up the health benefits of every vegetable, and invented this salad myself, I tell him. He looks very impressed indeed, and takes a great many helpings of it.

I’m quite surprised, because Boss doesn’t look like the kind of man who eats salads (he is quite rotund), but he seems to like mine. Unlike Mr Ramanujam, who is looking at my salad like he is looking at a particularly stubborn stain on his pressed white shirts.  I ignore him, pick up a plate and take a generous helping of vegetable pulao. It is steaming hot and speckled with green peas and orange carrots and occasionally a clove or a stick of cardamom peeps from under the basmati rice  – oh it smells so wonderful! My mouth waters. I help myself to some of the butter chicken, and settle down in my spot at the table.

My plate is empty in no time, and I look at the table for dessert options. There is the semiya payasam that Tia ma’am has brought. And of course, the paan – but I wasn’t going to touch that!

As I ladle thick, milky payasam into a paper bowl, Tia ma’am beams at me. Who would’ve thought that the high heel wearing, tote bag wielding, uber cool Tia ma’am would bring a humble semiya payasam to the potluck? The payasam is absolutely yummy – soft semiya in creamy milk, garnished with raisins and roasted cashews.

I poke Mr Ramanujam’s dessert tentatively with a spoon. What is it? Mr Ramanujam gives me his imperious look and says that his dessert has alcohol in it. Yes, I say, but what in the world is your dessert? Offended, he tells me it is a tiramisu. Coffee, cream and liquor. I try some.

Although I’m not a fan of Mr Curd Rice Man, this tiramisu is phenomenal. I contemplate on congratulating him, and turn around, about to say so, when I see him take a small bite of my salad and gag. I turn away quickly, horrified. Is my salad that bad? I look around to see how everyone else is taking it. No one seems to have any on their plate, so they must’ve finished it. Except Boss, who’s smiling at me and heaping on the salad. I smile back. At least the Boss loves my salad, and he’s the one who matters. Perhaps I should get him a box every day.

~~~


I walked towards my desk, and switched on the laptop and dropped into my chair. Damn, someone has taken my chair, again. I got up, turned around and could see that Dimple was sitting on it. Again.

I called out to Dimple.

With her earplugs on, she did not hear me.   I sauntered towards her, and tapped on her shoulder. She looked up from her excel sheet, gave me an apologetic grin, quickly got up and gave back my chair.

What is with this new generation? Even though, I have marked my chair with a bold “V” written on an A4 sheet, she never sees it and ends up taking it. As for  that horrible salad, don’t girls these days know how to cook?

I settled on my chair, waiting for the Microsoft DNS server to come up, I looked around.

Here comes Rahul Khurana, our heavyweight Punjabi manager running behind wine, woman and butter chicken. Is he coming towards me? No. As always, he is walking up to Dimple to spend a few minutes with her talking about unnecessary things. Nonsense!

I belched. Ah, too much food. I should have eaten less. I ate as if there is no tomorrow.

But with butter chicken on the table, especially from Rahul’s home, how could I control myself? Though all others at office tease Rahul for getting the same dish each time, I always look forward to it. What Amma makes at home is nowhere in comparison. Her butter chicken tastes like a concocted Telugu version! Last time I had caught her adding tamarind paste instead of thick curd.

Butter chicken and pulao – what a delightful combination! I had asked Amma to make pulao. Though the girls were constantly prodding me to cook something and bring it, Amma wouldn’t let me. She does not like it if her son enters the kitchen when she is at home. Besides, Amma doesn’t have anything else to do, unlike me who has to write ten thousand lines of code every day.

As the Citrus Pay server was coming up, I felt a pat on my back. It was Ramanujam, walking towards his desk, across my workstation. Whoa, was he not a hero today at the potluck! Who expected a pure vegetarian Iyengar to bring, of all the dishes in the world, a tiramisu? All of us were expecting his usual Curd Rice as his contribution.

Even that showy Tia, always ready with a witty one-liner, was dumb founded today.

And what did Tia herself get? A pale comparison to the tiramisu, semiya payasam. The easiest of the payasams. No major culinary skills needed for that!  Why, even I can make it. I remember, when I was at Seattle for the Microsoft project, I used to regularly make semiya payasam during weekends. Ready in a moment, need not wait for ages for the milk to boil. Today, I suspect, she used the MTR Instant Mix. After all, a social media specialist. Cannot think beyond her 140 characters.

Ah, here comes Raj, another guy from the marketing team. The management at Relaxer and he think that marketing is most important for selling laxatives. Let me tell you, nothing appeals to today’s consumer unless it is available to order online.

And what a cheapo! All he got was some paan, but as usual he was acting as if he sponsored the main course of our lunch today.  I am surprised that he actually spent so much of his precious moolah and got us all the sweet gulkand paan. He raved about the paan so much, that even I who don’t fall for marketing hard sell took one and ate it up.

And now my mouth tastes of ashes.

~~~


It is a truth universally acknowledged that betel leaves, lime paste and supari that go into a paan seals any meal. So I bought paan for our potluck for I believe that last impressions are lasting impressions. By the way, don’t you think that is a terrific line? If I wasn’t such a dynamic marketing executive, I would have been a brilliant copywriter. I did have English as one of my electives after all.

The potluck as always was hard to digest. Notably the contribution by our manager, Rahul Khurana, who is continually buttering up Dimple, our intern, with butter chicken. Like the American eagle, the butter chicken has become the symbol of tyranny at Relaxer.com.  There is a clandestine move in the company to take over Singh’s dhaba, which supplies the chicken and shut it down.

The sweets brought for the potluck reflect the current state of our office politics. Indubitably, Tia and Rama are oh so friendly to each other. Cannibals bent on devouring one another too are friendly before the feast. They have used the potluck as a battlefield to settle the issue with unconventional weapons such as semiya payasam and tiramisu. How can they manage to be so sweet to one another? And the salad would have been fresh two days back. I am not cribbing about the food. It is just that the paan alone was good.

Heaps of greasy pulao, rubbery butter chicken, a whole half dish of tiramisu, wilting salad and an aluminium bucket full of semiya payasam remain. But not a single paan remains. Such is the enduring allure of the paan in their boxes of gold. I shelled out thirty rupees but it seems like three hundred.  I have followed the dictates of my icon, who said, “For every Mark issued, we required the equivalent of a Mark’s worth of work done, or goods produced.”

So I wasn’t going to build up my credit card outstanding by splurging lavishly on food I couldn’t eat. Principles are principles. The Führer would have approved. He was a vegetarian, like me.

Written by, in order of sections (clockwise from the top left): Akhil Kakkar, Krupa Ge, Sathya Ramaganapathy, Harini Rajasekhar, Swapna Narayanan, and Vestin Verghese.



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