“Whew! That’s it for today”, I told myself as I turned off my laptop and stuffed it into my backpack along with a handful of folders to read over the weekend. It was nearing nine o’clock as I strode down to the basement car park of my office building and bade a cheery goodnight to the security guard on my way out. The weekend ahead filled me with a sense of anticipation. Both Sonia and I had been planning this for the last ten days. Not even the extra work I was carrying with me could dampen my spirits as I drove home humming tunelessly. It had been a crazy few months lately. The law firm I worked with was no doubt a high profile one, but it certainly extracted its pound of flesh, and then some! Sonia had been a gem, putting up with my erratic work schedule and managing our home almost single handedly with hardly any contribution from me.
A smile automatically touched my lips as my thoughts turned to Sonia. Best friend, confidante, lover, soulmate … all rolled into one. We had known each other since childhood, ever since her family moved next door to mine. My mom, outgoing and caring person that she is, lost no time in welcoming the new neighbours and befriending Meera Aunty. Soon our families were thick as thieves, with Amit Uncle and my dad too teaming up for the occasional game of tennis followed by drinks at the local club. The fact that we belonged to different religions seemed to matter not one bit as the two families bonded over card sessions during Diwali and Iftaar parties during Id.
Sonia was enrolled in the same school as mine and being two years her senior, I was naturally expected to watch out for her, a job that I undertook rather unwillingly. “She’s new, poor thing. It will take her some time to get used to your school. You must help her”, said my mom. “But Ammijaan, she’s just a kid. All my friends are going to consider her a pest”, I protested. “Nothing doing, you are older, you must take care of her”, overruled Ammi. Not that Sonia needed much looking after. A bright and spunky kid, she soon made several new friends. She excelled at studies and was a talented singer as well. And yet, she dogged my footsteps throughout our growing years. For all my outward reluctance, I was secretly thrilled at the adulation Sonia showered on me. The small trinkets she would make for me during craft class, or the delicious tidbits she would sneak out of her mother’s kitchen would make me feel ten feet tall. Meera Aunty was an exceptional cook and Sonia inherited her culinary talent. As she grew, her cooking experiments were much appreciated throughout the neighbourhood. Sonia’s biryanis were robust and flavourful, her souffles as light as air, and her chocolates as sinful as the devil.
Thinking of her yummy offerings now made my stomach rumble loudly reminding me that I had had nothing more than a cardboard sandwich at lunch. I smiled thinking about the hot meal Sonia would have ready when I reached home. “I hope she has made my favourite moong sprouts with roasted bell peppers”, I thought dreamily. My musings were rudely interrupted by my cell phone bleating noisily on the passenger seat. Plugging in my hands-free, I listened with half a ear as Tom, my supercilious boss ranted some last minute instructions on the legal brief I was currently working on. Promising him that I would take care of it, I hurriedly hung up and turned my thoughts to more pleasant ones of our upcoming vacation.
As I finally turned onto our street, I looked up to see the lights glowing welcomingly at our window. As I pushed open the door, my senses were gently assaulted with the tantalizing aromas of spicy daal, fragrant rice, and vibrant bell peppers nestled on a bed of moong sprouts. Sonia smiled at me as I entered, and just seeing her made all the stress melt away. We sat down to dinner and I more than did justice to the delicious meal. It was only later, while doing the dishes together, that I finally noticed Sonia looking a little pensive and worried. “What’s up, sweetheart?”, I asked gently. “I received an email from Mom today”, she replied. “They have seriously started looking at marriage proposals for me.” My heart sank like a stone. “You think they suspect about us?”, she was sounding panicked now. We had been living together for about two years now and we had been very careful to conceal the fact from both sets of parents. “Don’t worry”, I said with more confidence than I felt. “I’ll talk to Ammijaan tomorrow. She’ll make Meera Aunty understand it’s much too soon for them to be contemplating marriage for you. You’re barely 24. I’m sure Aunty will agree to wait for some more time.”
“I don’t think Mummy will listen to her. You know how it is between my parents and yours now”, sobbed Sonia. Yes, I did know. What I didn’t know was how things could turn sour overnight between two families that were as thick as ours. It was more than just a Masjid that got demolished all those years ago. The warmth and camaraderie that our families shared was slowly replaced by suspicion and distrust. Sonia and I were discouraged from hanging out together. “Stop meeting that Muslim kid so often. Don’t you have any other friends?” Sonia was told every now and then. Ironically, our bond strengthened even as our parents drifted apart. And it was during those turbulent days that we discovered what we meant to each other.
Now even as I continued to console Sonia, I was aware that I was just giving her meaningless hope. I knew that my parents barely spoke to hers anymore. Chances that her mother would listen to Ammi were slim to none. That night when we went to bed, I took Sonia in my arms and held her close for a long time. Our lovemaking was marked by a quiet desperation, as if we both knew it was the beginning of the end, but neither of us had the courage to say it aloud. After Sonia drifted into a troubled sleep, I lay awake staring at her lovely face, as if committing it to memory. “God knows how many days we have left together. We simply must make the most of them”, I resolved.
The next morning I woke up to the whiff of freshly brewed coffee. “Good morning, honey”, Sonia greeted me cheerily. But beneath the chirpy exterior, I sensed a false sense of calm, as if she too had come to the same conclusion as I had… to reach out and grab whatever happiness we could find in the limited time we would have left together.
After breakfast, we drove to the beach resort where we had decided to spend the weekend. Away from the stress of the city, of our busy schedules and of our interfering albeit well meaning folks. The beach was not a very well known one, and we had most of it to ourselves. Sonia went off for a swim, and I lounged in the mild sun, trying to read a book. I could barely concentrate on the pages in front of me and after a while I gave up. Gazing at Sonia, cavorting among the waves, I couldn’t help but brood about how I was going to go on without her.
I remembered the first time we realized the depth of our feelings for each other. It was at an overnight college picnic that we both confessed how we felt more than “just friendship” towards the other. Of course, we had to keep it all under wraps, given the needless animosity between our families. Soon I was accepted at an Ivy League college in the US to study law, but the intervening years only served to make us yearn even more for each other.
I was accepted as an apprentice by a leading law firm based in New York and soon got swallowed in the corporate world. Sonia, in the meantime, had established a successful catering business back home and was swamped with orders. My vacations home were filled with secret meetings and hurried trysts before getting back to the legal jungle.
One day, I got a call from Sonia, nearly bursting with excitement. She had been awarded a scholarship to study food technology in New York. Once Sonia landed in the Big Apple, it was paradise found for both of us. She moved in to my apartment, and the months we spent in each other’s company were truly ecstatic. The only fly in the ointment was Sarla Aunty who lived in the same neighbourhood back home, and had come to visit her son who also had an apartment in my building. After spending a substantial amount of time in the US, she had no doubt noticed the unusual closeness between Sonia and me, and dropped some not-so-subtle hints to Meera Aunty.
“Penny for your thoughts”, smiled Sonia, as she stood over me dripping water. “I was just thinking whether it was you or was I imagining a mermaid emerging from the water just now”, I joked trying to hide my dismal thoughts. The weekend flew by, as we lost ourselves in each other.
As we drove home, I felt remarkably lighter and a lot more confident that somehow things would work out. Sonia too, I noticed, had lost her air of forced cheerfulness and was looking a lot more relaxed. As we neared our apartment complex, we noticed a car with rental plates parked near the entrance. “Who could it be?”, we wondered. As we walked into the lobby, we ran smack into Meera Aunty and Amit Uncle who looked as if they had been waiting there for a while. As soon as we entered, Sonia’s mother jumped and exclaimed, “Where have you been? We’ve been waiting here for hours!” Sonia quickly recovered from the shock of her parents flying in unexpectedly all the way from India, and we all trooped upstairs quickly.
“What’s going on here?”, demanded Meera Aunty. “Have you both been staying together all this while? Do you know what people are saying about your relationship? Sarla Aunty took great pleasure in telling everyone who cared to listen about how our girls get spoilt once they go to the US, forgetting all about our culture!” “It’s not like that Mummy”, Sonia tried to say, but she was cut off before she could finish. “We have fixed your marriage with Alok. He is a banker in Australia and you will be miles away from here. You are coming home with us. We’re booked on the first flight tomorrow”.
Sonia sobbed and begged her parents to reconsider, but her mother was adamant. As she moved about our apartment, packing her belongings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Knowing that I would never see her again was like a knife cutting through my heart. I could barely sleep that night, knowing that it was the last one we would be spending together under the same roof.
Early the next morning, Sonia shook me awake and whispered a sad goodbye. Looking at her red rimmed eyes, I knew how hard it was for her too. As the car drove away taking them to the airport, I flung myself on the bed sobbing my heart out. One part of me wanted to lash out at Sonia for not being strong enough to stand up to her parents; for giving in too easily. At the same time, another part of me asked how could I not understand Sonia’s pain? How could I not understand the pressure she felt from her parents? Did I not go through the same as well? Of course, I understood. How could I not? After all, I too am a woman!
And on to the recipe
Today’s recipe is a tweaking of Sonia’s mixed sprouts with bell peppers being used as a sandwich filling. I like sprouts in all forms and love to try different ways of serving them. Both A and I also like a sandwich called Michigan Spread that is served at Wich Latte, a little cafe that we frequent. I tried my hand at a little matchmaking and the resultant recipe turned out to be a happy marriage between the two. Just call me Cupid :)
The original sandwich base is a multi grain loaf, and fortunately the café also sells its bread. So I was able to use the same base, while changing the filling ingredients to incorporate an element of sprouts. This is also a great way to use up any leftovers that you may have on had by way of cooked vegetables.
Sprouts Submarine with Roasted Bell Peppers
Multi grain bread – 2 loaves
Sprouted moong – 1 cup
Onion – 1 no (finely chopped)
Tomato – 1 no (finely chopped)
Garam masala – 1 tsp
Red chilli pd – 1 tsp
Salt – to taste
Oil – 2 tbsp
Water – 3 glasses
Finely chopped coriander – for garnish
Bell peppers – red, yellow, green – 1 no each
Grind to a thick paste (using water)
Fresh grated coconut – 3 tbsp
Coriander leaves – a handful
Green chilli – 1 no
Onions – 2 nos (finely chopped)
Garlic – 6-7 cloves (peeled and roughly mashed)
Ginger – a small piece (peeled and roughly mashed)
Tomato – 1 no (chopped into big pieces)
Turmeric pd – ½ tsp
1. Heat oil, add onions and sauté till soft
2. Add salt, dry masala powders and stir till well mixed
3. Now put in the masala paste and cook till the raw smell disappears
4. Add sprouts and 2 glasses of water
5. Cover and cook till the sprouts are done
6. In case the mixture is still moist, cook uncovered for a bit till it is fairly dry
7. Garnish with finely chopped coriander leaves
Lightly toast the multi grain loaves
Lay one loaf, and arrange some of the bell peppers on it
Spoon some of the filling on top
Sprinkle with grated cheese and a dash of cracked pepper
Cover with the remaining loaf.