Neither of them can understand it. Not Lena, who has often scoffed at the notion of sitting across from a man and thinking that you don’t ever want to let him, or that moment, go. Of suddenly wanting to reach across and run her finger along the length of his nose. Of smelling his cologne and wanting to drink deep of the fragrance of his skin.

Nor Shoola Pani, who has acted the scene countless times in front of the camera, all the while thinking that the actress really needs to do something about her acne scars. Or that the real-estate man hasn’t called him with the final price for the plot of land he is looking to buy on the ECR waterfront in Chennai. For the first time, though, he looks at the woman sitting across from him and wants her to meet his gaze as if she means it. He wants to take her soft, full lower lip between his fingers and fold it into an accordion pleat.

Neither of them can understand the density of the moment until they both rise abruptly from their chairs and he asks with what she thinks is awkwardness hinging on the offensive, “Can I trust you?”

“What?” Lena’s eyes widen.

“You won’t tell anyone I am here,” he says, going back to being the movie star, paranoid, persecuted and surly.

She laughs with incredulity at his behaviour and walks out of the door. Bastard, the supercilious bastard, she thinks.

He watches her leave with a queer pang. What has he done? “Please,” he calls out. “I apologise.”

“Will you come back? I was going to make some coffee...” he improvises, remembering the jar of instant coffee.

She pauses, and not knowing why, turns to walk back towards him. He smiles.

She drinks his coffee even though it tastes bitter and artificial. And they talk till she glances at the clock and sees it’s late. Halfway through the door, she turns and says, “You can trust me, you know. Why would I want to share you with the rest of the world?”

She flees then, unable to believe what she has just said. That wasn’t what she meant to tell him, but the words had tripped off her tongue, heedless of what they sounded like.


He says her name: Lena. That’s what the whole world calls her. He must have a name for her that’s his. Lee: he says it to gauge how it sounds. It feels like a promise on his tongue. A strange sense of elation runs through him. All through these two hours, it felt like the wall he had built around himself was cleaving and crumbling. A certainty that there is something to life after all: sensations, feelings, and the possibility of emotions that aren’t merely make-believe.

In her home, in the quiet of her bedroom, Lena gazes at herself in the old-fashioned full-length mirror fitted into the bureau. Her cheeks are flushed. Why? she asks herself sternly. Because she has made an ass of herself in front of one of India’s best- known movie stars. What was she thinking? She groans and sinks onto the bed, holding her head in her hands. Then she looks at herself in the mirror again and sees the sparkle in her eyes. She leaps up and goes to the kitchen.

Komathi is standing by the kitchen door, staring at the avocado tree. She has a faraway look in her eyes. “Akka,” Lena asks, “shall we start on the daangar chutney?”

Komathi sighs and returns from that faraway place where she was with her Rayar. That was her name for him.

“What is this craving for daangar chutney? I don’t remember it being a favourite of yours.” Komathi frowns, watching Lena look through a recipe book.

She shrugs. “I don’t know, I just felt like eating it...” she says, turning away so Komathi can’t see her flushed cheeks.

Shoola Pani mentioned how much he liked daangar chutney and that he hadn’t eaten it since his mother died years ago. No one knows how to make those old-fashioned dishes any more, he said softly. She heard the undertone of regret and thought that he didn’t much like his life. He was like a wild animal, a leopard trapped in a circus, unable to leave, unable to belong. She had felt a great yearning to gather him in her arms. Instead, she decided to surprise him with daangar chutney.

“He doesn’t like it,” Komathi says, as she measures out the urad dal for the flour.


“Who? Himself...your husband,” Komathi sniffs.

“Oh.” Lena waves her hand airily. “Make him some of that date chutney he likes!”

“When you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one,” Komathi says under her breath.

Lena smiles. “I am pleasing just myself here. Besides, it’s only a chutney.”

But is it just a chutney? she will ask herself later.

Excerpted with permission from Alphabet Soup for Lovers, Anita Nair, HarperCollins India.