Feast for a Prince

by Rumjhum Biswas


Sarala stands on the courtyard, a hurricane lamp held aloft in her hand. The air is still vibrating with the sound of the conch. The flame in the little oil lamp flickers in the “Tulasi Mancha”.  A strong breeze blows down from the coconut palms and Mango trees. She inhales the fragrant air as she stands on tiptoes to call.

“Khokon, Khokon, my little prince,” calls Sarala. “Where is my little prince? It is time for your supper.”

A scampering of feet answers her call. A little figure emerges from the shadows. Large dark eyes tug at her heartstrings. A dimpled smile returns her motherly admonition.

She scoops up her prince in the palanquin of her arms. The hurricane lamp swings its light to and fro. Leading the way inside. There beneath the thatch quietly awaits a meal for Sarala's prince. Awaits Sarala's fingers to knead it, to turn it, into a feast for her prince.  

Now seated on his throne of woven grass, woven by the loving hands of his mother, the little prince waits for his first mouthful. His little ears beneath the curls are as expectant as his soft open lips. His bright eyes are full of question as they rest on Sarala's face. Watching her as she kneads the food into little balls.

“Now my little prince will eat,” she coaxes.

 But he turns his face away. “Tell me a story,” he demands. “I won't eat otherwise.”

Sarala sighs. What story is there to tell? Not the one about ghouls and she-ghosts who steal fish, for that would make him lose his appetite. Not the one where the prince gives chase to a beautiful damsel, for that would make him want to give chase too. Not the one where the witch builds a candy house, for that would make him want candy instead of his meal. Sarala sighs again as she thinks.

The lamp sheds a pool of light. Its flame wavers gently against the walls in the house. Shadows converge and recede again in rhythm with the dance of the Mango boughs and coconut fronds. “Whee Whee” sings the wind as it circles a bamboo grove from beyond the prince's courtyard. And fireflies tease the night. 

Sarala hesitates. The story that she remembers well, right down to its last bloody and painful detail is true. This story is the one about her little prince's father. About how their quiet love blossomed into a timid flower. And, how it died, wrenched out from the soil that they both loved with their quiet love.

 She shudders at the memory of that noon, when they brought him, her brave warrior home. For warrior he truly was, flirting with death for a round of honeycomb. That was his calling though it brought home precious little to live on. She remembers living with dread, never knowing when death, striped and camouflaged among the mangroves, cruel yellow eyes and dagger claws would strike. From purple dawn to purple dusk her heart would thud with dread. Yet she would go about her chores, offer grateful prayers in the evening at the “Tulasi Mancha” after his return. Until that fateful day below the pitiless gaze of the noon sun.

Sarala shudders at the memory of that noon, when they brought him home. The terror has leaked into her skin. She cannot stop the hairs from unfolding down her nape. She cannot control the shiver that shakes her bones. Bones was all they could salvage. Bloody bones. Broken bones. The cracked skull where powerful jaws had clamped shut, draining out his soul with his brain. And, afterwards, the rituals done, the damp smoke of the burning ghat trailing her like his ghost, she had returned. Vermillion washed clean, the shankhas (conch bangles) on her wrists dutifully broken, shrouded in the white that almost all the women in this hamlet wore. 

Sarala cannot recite such a tale, though true, to her little prince. So, what story is there to tell? But her little prince is waiting. His lips pout, while his eyes look at her, a question sparkling in each pupil. Sarala smiles. She bends her head over the plate. A sliver of lamplight falls on the bell-metal plate shedding a golden glow on the meal.

“Do you know what a prince has for his supper” Says Sarala.

“No,” he answers, his lips forming a circle.

“Fragrant pollau,” she says and pushes the morsel into his expectant mouth.

“Oh yes,” she continues. “He has pollau for his supper. Fragrant with cardamom, and cinnamon and cloves and ghee. With raisins and nuts hidden among the snow-white grains like treasure. He moistens it with a bowl of golden chholar-dal, so thick you can cut it like barfi when it is cool. And he has crisp fried fritters on the side. There are five kinds of fritters for he is a prince — brinjal, parval, potato, cauliflower, Kashmiri chilly and fish roe fritters. But that is not all,” she says, watching her prince chew in wonder.

“Oh, no, that is not all. There is a steaming bowl of Mochar ghonto (banana blossom curry) waiting for him. Cooked with asafoetida, bay leaves and other spices and diced potatoes. And another bowl of vegetables. Do you know which one, Khokon shona, my prince?”

Her little prince shakes his head in wonder. His mouth is too full. He cannot talk. So his mother continues as her fingers knead another ball.

“This is a sweet vegetable called jhingey. Cooked with poppy seeds that have been finely ground to a paste. A pinch of nigella for that right touch of fragrance. The jhingey floats in the white poppy paste; little juicy islands the color of pistachios‚Ķ Oh, but do you think the prince would be full by now? No, no, you must wait, for there is more!”

The wind gathers in her white folds to listen. The lamp throws strange dark shapes on the walls. Her prince's dark eyes glisten in its pale light. Sarala carries on with her story.

“The jhingey postor charchari is followed by fish. Not the little black ones that your uncle brought home the other day. Though I am grateful that he did,” she adds quickly, lest the Gods find her wanting.

“These are the fattest Rohu fish caught from the lake. Four feet long and gleaming like silver, with a blush of red on its belly. This Rohu is so fat that the oil gushes out along with the blood when the cook cuts it open. The fish pieces are cut as large as my palm. And then they are cooked in yogurt and spices with a large dollop of ghee. And, after the prince has eaten the fish, he gets a silver bowl of chutney as red as rubies and crunchy fried papad on a silver plate to help him digest the meal. This chutney is made from alubokhera (plums) and dates and raisins. Dried red chillies give the right amount of tang to the fruit that has been cooked in sugar.”

Sarala licks her lips and opens her eyes wide. Her prince sees the wonder of this feast in her eyes. He thwacks his tongue on the palate of his mouth to show her that he knows just how tangy the tang of this chutney can be. Sarala pushes a small mound into his mouth as she speaks.

“The prince washes the chutney and papad down with a glass of water scented with rose. And, then he is served a silver bowl of sweet red curds with a layer of cream this thick on top.”

She shows him the thickness with her index finger and thumb. Her prince follows her action with his own little index finger and thumb. His eyes grow round as he wonders at the thickness of the cream.

“Two large “Raajbhogs” juicy with saffron scented syrup completes the prince's desert,” says Sarala as she pushes the last morsel into his open mouth. “Then the prince takes a long swig of the rose scented water again.”

Her little prince takes the bell-metal cup full of water in his little hands and tilts it full down his thin throat. It trickles down his bare chest to his belly button that protrudes. He looks at his mother over the rim as he drinks in one breath, his princely swig of water.

“And, then, what does the prince do then?” asks Sarala her little prince.

“And then,” he answers pushing out his little belly and bobbing his head in a fair imitation, “and, then the prince gives a burp!”

Sarala laughs as she takes him outside to wash his mouth. She carefully puts the empty plate down at the doorway. She walks to the corner of the courtyard where a clay pitcher stands. She pours the water from the pitcher into his cupped hands.

“Now you must lie down and try to go to sleep,” she tells the child. “For that is what the prince does after his supper.”

She watches him run inside. She carefully picks up the little plate from the doorway. (It is one of the last utensils left from her dowry, this plate and her prince's drinking cup.) And, then deftly with her thumb pressing down on the plate, she scrapes out the last of the plain boiled rice kneaded with a pinch of salt. She scrapes and scrapes and eats all that she can scrape up. And, then she takes a long swig of well water. The water smells of dead seaweed and tastes a little briny, but that is only because her hamlet is so close to the sea. And, she doesn't care. This was the feast her prince has just enjoyed. She is content with her supper.





© Rumjhum Biswas