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Authors: Saumya Balsari

The Cambridge Curry Club

BOOK: The Cambridge Curry Club
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Saumya Balsari

For Sudhanshu,
Sárica Robynn and Sanna Linnéa

wind tore through Cambridge, boldly lifting the prim skirt of the Junior Bursar as her court shoes, indignant at a male colleague’s promotion, clicked briskly through a college archway to meet the waiting porters and bedmakers. It scattered the papers of the student vaulting fluidly over the rhododendron bush near the Buttery, and waltzed through the hoary trees of the College Backs, rocking
, a derelict punt on the river. It tousled the hair of the Japanese tourist posing in front of the Victorian pillar box and the lamp-post outside King’s College. A few yards away on King’s Parade, a passerby lingered inexplicably in front of a Bible in the display windows of the
University Press, and the bells of Great St Mary’s chimed grandly as a bird wheeled through St Edward’s Passage, past
G. David, Booksellers since
and over the Fen farmers unloading produce at Market Square.

The wind paused to reflect on its own past glory; in its time it had circled the Roman settlement at Castle Hill and rattled the round-headed Saxon windows of St Bene’t’s Church. At Christ’s College, it had swept the
conversations of Charles Darwin and John Milton, two centuries apart; at Corpus Christi it had been Christopher Marlowe’s whirling Muse. The wind also shook the trees in the orchard of Isaac Newton’s family home in Lincolnshire. An apple fell.

The wind had been the harbinger of revolt urging the students fleeing the Oxford riots in 1209 towards Cambridge; it had hastened their staggering steps to the medieval brothels in the area surrounding Magdalene College. It knew where Oliver Cromwell’s head was secretly buried in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College. Centuries later, it still whispers envy to townspeople pausing to watch new graduates in gowns and hoods file through the streets towards the Senate House.

The bird perched on the segment of missing stone ball on the parapet of Clare Bridge until the wind whipped its wings, whirling it into the autumn sky. Together, bird and wind sailed jauntily through the Gate of Humility in the Master’s Garden at Gonville and Caius College, departing humbly through the Gate of Honour and soaring high over Parker’s Piece and Fenner’s Ground to seek the homely pleasures of Mill Road.

Colourful Mill Road bore no resemblance to the shops of elegant Magdalene Bridge, nor, for that matter, did Covent Garden, a side lane of Mill Road, recall its London namesake. No riverside café served steaming latte and mozzarella panini here, no leafy towpath walked the sluggish dog or mind; instead, a daily brigade of bargain-hunters sniffed their spoils, their hard noses pressed against the display windows of the charity shops. With its rows of small houses, ethnic
food stores, hair salons, curry houses, Internet cafés, bookmaker, health shop and dry cleaners, Mill Road was the city’s pumping heart.

Spotting a homeless drunk lying outside the
, the wind swooped, tossing the shivering man into dreams of Salvation soup and death. Next, it flirted with a large Asian woman bent over a black bin bag on the pavement outside the charity shop called IndiaNeed. Lasciviously lifting her blue silk sari, it revealed sensible men’s socks above sensible women’s sandals. The large woman’s neck showed traces of talc. A white van halted at the traffic lights opposite the shop.
Wish my wife was as dirty as this van
was scrawled on its dusty side. The driver leaned out of his window and whistled at the bending woman. She straightened hastily, feigning indignation, but a smile hovered over her lips at the moment that the bird circled above. Plop, plop, plop. Everything auspicious was always in threes; it must have been an Indian bird in a previous life. The green-white slime slithered down a rolling mountain of flesh, splaying rivulets over the plains of her unsuspecting back.

The bird hopped away, and the triumphant wind scampered back over Silver Street and across the Bridge of Sighs to slip into the waiting willows nearby.

, innocent and ungainly, over a black bag lying on the pavement outside the charity shop IndiaNeed, her posterior turned
like an overturned duck scrabbling in the shallow brook that runs along the Botanic Garden overlooking Trumpington Road.

She hauled the bag from underneath the vandalised sign that read
Do lean bicycles against the windows please
and dragged it into the shop. Watching her from the windows of Flamenco, the salon opposite, the
James alias Juan slipped warm Mediterranean vowels into his Glaswegian accent and waited near the Rexine customer chairs. Once inside, Swarnakumari bent over the displays in the shop window. Three amused women watched from the till as she carefully placed a pink china plate depicting a grinning bulldog next to a framed Jubilee photograph of the Queen.

Heera leaned with both elbows over the counter. ‘Just look at Swarna, how that woman bends … she can bend for England! You know, Durga, my
used to go to the village temple and feed the cow there every day. He was such a naughty man! One day
he pretended to be blind and he patted a fat bending woman as if he was stroking a cow, and then he pulled her long plait just like a cow’s tail. She thought he was blind, so she didn’t get upset, but when she bent again to remove her slippers, what d’you think happened? He did it again!’

Heera dug an ebullient elbow into Durga, chuckling into the folds of her chin; her body shook under the shapeless black sweater and elasticated trousers she wore, and her short hair bobbed in mirth.
straightened, patted the flower in her neat bun and retrieved her handbag, calling over her shoulder as she headed for the Staff Area behind the green floral curtain, ‘Window display is done now. Just going to wash my hands,

Hunched over the till, Durga twirled a strand of shiny shoulder-length hair. She was slim in jeans and a cream turtleneck. Sudden laughter had creased the solemn lines of her face, skimming lips ashamed of their fullness. She observed, ‘Every time she touches anything in here, Lady Macbeth washes her hands over and over with her Sainsbury’s soap dispenser, but the damned charity shop spot remains like a turmeric blob on a white English hob, staining her Brahmin sensibilities.’

Eileen muttered, ‘Sixteen times. Swarna washed her hands sixteen times last Thursday.’ Eileen had been a gifted mathematics teacher; she knew her numbers. Born in Armagh, Northern Ireland, she was tall and wiry with wispy grey hair, and was dressed in a long black skirt and matching knit cardigan accompanied by a silver cross around her neck and silver bracelets on her wrist. Her mother had been a hungry seamstress
raising a family of six children; the exhausted father ran away and jumped aboard a ship called
bound for New York. Young Danny Watts of Cambridge met the twenty-year-old Eileen on a camping holiday in Cork and was entranced by her dark eyes and hair, creamy neck and ready laugh. The smile had faded first; her black hair followed twenty years later.

Swarnakumari’s handbag contained the soap
, a tiny towel, a prayer book, a tortoiseshell comb and the distinctive red Shantiniketan hand-crafted leather money purse. The colour of the folded towel was different every week.

On Thursday nights Swarnakumari lay in bed, eyes turned upward and away from her sleeping husband, Shyamal Chatterjee. On her bedside table stood a tube of Neutrogena cream; an application after dinner ensured that her fingers had shed the chalky film
shop rejects and other rejections unnamed. Once the ceiling above her bed no longer reflected the
lights of street cars and desire, unguent calm had been restored.

Swarnakumari was a charitable woman, and her thoughts, like her puja table for the gods, faced
. She had initially read fiction every Wednesday to Jean Ward, a blind woman in a Cambridge nursing home, but her strongly accented English proved too much for her elderly listener, who promptly fell asleep each time. Swarnakumari had enthusiastically recited an entire novel, unaware that her listener had not
beyond the first page. Jean Ward passed away peacefully in the Prologue of the second novel.

The charity’s name, IndiaNeed, led Swarnakumari to volunteer in a shop whose proceeds benefited deserving
villagers in a desert region of Rajasthan in Western India. The director on the Board of the charity, Diana Wellington-Smythe, was mockingly nicknamed ‘Lady Di’ by her staff. Her hyphenated surname had found immediate approval with Swarnakumari’s husband Mr Chatterjee. A link with a village project in West Bengal would have been ideal, but a Cambridge charity shop had its limitations, as did Mr Chatterjee, thought Swarnakumari.

Heera played idly with a basket of small leather purses. She wondered why Swarnakumari had
at IndiaNeed; she had the look of a pukka
madam in a paisley silk sari presiding over a sitar soirée, and on the first day of the shop orientation
with Lady Di and the volunteers two months ago in that very spot, she had known Swarnakumari would be a strange one – she simply didn’t belong. Those silly Korean student volunteers didn’t belong either, and were there to practise their English one afternoon in the week, but in the end they jabbered away together in their own language, and if a customer approached, they pulled out a superfast translator to slowly make a sentence and a sale.

Heera sighed and rearranged the brooches on the jewellery shelf. What could be cured in life was little, whereas what had to be endured was a coiled snake around the neck, her Aunty Buddi Mai used to say. Durga with her clever remarks was another strange one, thought Heera, and Eileen was even stranger. Those two were both so secretive about their lives that getting any masala – any juicy bits – out of them, was like trying to make a stubborn camel move. And why did those two
Bitter Butter Betty and Quite
Contrary Mary volunteer four days a week if they were going to complain all the time?

Swarnakumari returned, deposited her handbag on the table and held out a small plastic Tesco box
a humous label. Inside was a powdery concoction of sugar, ghee and roasted flour.

‘My hands are washed now. Today is Her Holiness, my Guru Ma’s birthday. I am also fasting today.
Cholo cholo,
come, come, hold out your hands and take
. Take more, Eileen,’ she urged.

Heera, Durga and Eileen dutifully held out their palms and licked off the crumbs as she continued, ‘
. Good. We are all blessed now, and today will be a good day, so now we shall start sorting the bags that came this morning.’

They approached the long wooden sorting table directly behind the curtain that concealed the Staff Area. Above it was an oversized notice:
Sort out any bags stored under the table. Put all rejects into bags and onto skip outside. Do NOT take home, or throw away in bin. Remember to check the pockets of all clothing and contents of all purses, wallets and handbags. Do NOT take away contents, especially money or jewellery.

Two entwined hearts and the words
Pamela and John forever
had been anonymously etched into the table’s far right corner; eternity was evidently to be seen in a grain of wood.

The area under the large table was the depot for the black bags arriving from the pavement outside. The bags were wrung tight with yellow string, startled plump chickens strangled at the neck by their donors. After dark, the wind rummaged the other bags left in an alleyway outside the shop, and the crumpled plastic
morphed into flapping ghouls of the night. Black bags and charity shops were an inseparable pairing, like ‘chicken’ and ‘egg’, ‘honour’ and ‘killing’. Like Pamela and John, forever.

Swarnakumari opened the first bag with suppressed excitement, gingerly retrieving lingerie and men’s tweed trousers. She dropped the trousers in horror.
‘Chee, chee
, I am not going to check another man’s
; that too, the backside pocket. So dirty,
na?’ Na
in Swarnakumari’s speech was a statement of finality rather than a search for validation.

Holding the offending trousers by their waistband, Heera twirled them slightly. ‘Yeah, they are quite manky. By the way, girls, did you know one in four Englishmen never washes his favourite underwear?’

Swarnakumari emitted an exaggerated wail on cue. ‘You are always teasing me. You know I do not like touching unwashed clothes of others. What would my people in Kolkata think of me? Oh, look at this
, so transparent – you can see everything!’

‘If you hate all this touch touch, then why so much rush rush to open the new bags?
, I know all your tricks. If there’s something new or nice to buy, you’ll say you saw it first.’

As the shop’s manager, Heera could have vetted the goods first, but an Indian deference to age had
. Swarnakumari was fifty-seven; Heera was
. Eileen was three years older than Swarnakumari, but showed little interest in the bags, only in the arrangement or disposal of their contents. The previous week Swarnakumari had profited from the delivery of a manufacturer’s bag containing new sweatshirts in S, M and L sizes. After pricing them herself, Swarnakumari
purchased six for her favoured Kolkata nieces. Durga intervened; black sweatshirts would not find favour in India. Swarnakumari had hesitated, but in the end, the words
Cambridge University
emblazoned in red had settled the matter favourably.

‘And by the way, this isn’t a swimsuit, it’s a teddy,’ explained Heera.


Heera continued, ‘Yes, teddy. Listen to this, Swarna. On Ritu’s anniversary, Raj went home with one yellow and eleven red roses and two plane tickets; he made her pack her bags in one hour. First he gave her a flower, then he gave her one hour.’

‘That’s flower power,’ interjected Durga.

‘She told me they went to the Moulin Rouge. So romantic, can you imagine? He bought her a teddy in Paris,’ Heera gushed.

Swarnakumari was perplexed. ‘Why buy all the way from Paris? Ritu comes to the shop so often, and she could have bought the teddy bear cheap from here,

‘Not teddy bear,
. You really don’t know what a teddy is, do you?
, can’t you see it’s so transparent, how can it be a swimsuit? It’s lingerie. Underwear. Honestly, Swarna, sometimes you’re worse than those Korean volunteers.’

‘These young English girls are wearing anything nowadays, how was I to know? Shameless girls. Their clothes for wearing outside look like underwear, so
, I am confused,
.’ Swarnakumari fussed, ‘Are these garments washed? Heera, I am asking you the same thing again and again – remind Mrs
, we must have gloves when we are doing the
sorting.’ She retrieved further items in haste and
. ‘And what is this, now?’

‘A blond wig and a whip,’ said Eileen flatly.

‘And such tiny white knickers! They’ve got
Punish Me
embroidered in black. Let’s write a note for Lady Di:
Awaiting instructions
. Then just watch the fun, because the knickers will disappear, poof, into the air. Like the inflatable doll that came in two weeks ago,’ laughed Heera.

The inflatable doll had not mysteriously disappeared; it had been sold by the Korean volunteers to a dejected young man swathed in a black scarf. He carried it home for target practice and shot several toy arrows of rejected love into its plastic heart. As the doll collapsed, the air oozing out of its red duck lips, the student had opened a celebratory bottle of beer and slashed his wrists on its broken glass.

‘What doll? I never saw it. You should at least have shown it to me. I love dolls; I used to buy so many. Heera, such good things have started disappearing from the shop: new video recorder, antique brooch, necklace, watches, camera. And tell me, what is the thief going to do with my reading glasses from Vision Express? Why did he steal them? Can it be he has the same
?’ demanded Swarnakumari.

‘One can only speculate, Swarna. Why don’t you arrange the teddy, the blond wig, whip and knickers in the window? We could pull in a few more customers that way. And where’s that magazine we got the other day, Heera? It could go into the display, too,’ suggested Durga. ‘It had a double-spread of a punk hunk who was once a monk.’

‘I threw it out,’ said Heera curtly.

‘Fascinating, isn’t it? The monk became a gay hunk. Maybe the pay was better,’ continued Durga.

Swarnakumari was curious. ‘What private talk is going on?’

‘It’s about a gay magazine. And don’t pretend you don’t know what that is,’ teased Durga.

BOOK: The Cambridge Curry Club
2.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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