It was already midnight when Salim washed the last utensil. He placed the dish behind a row of aluminum and steel bowls that was arranged in a careful order over the cement slab of his kitchen. The soot that encrusted the walls of the kitchen and the faint light from the forty watt bulb that hung directly down the ceiling gave an oppressively solemn look to the entire atmosphere. But that never mattered to Salim as long as he perceived that it gratified his family’s hunger. He prepared biriyani all day not knowing who his end consumer was. It was the agents who picked up the orders and the delivery boys who picked the Biriyani for supply. Although what mattered was the money he earned from it, he secretly craved to know the response of his customers as any proficient cook would do. He, owing to his work load and the contrived aloofness imposed upon by himself, had to suppress the wish. All what he got to know was, from one of the garrulous delivery boys, that his biriyani was supplied to few famous restaurants in and around Grand road, and even occasionally distributed to delight big parties of Mumbai business fat cats .
He lay down on a coir cot gazing upwards in the darkness thinking about his family in Malabar. His son was in college and daughter almost of marriageable age, and he knew that the money he made wasn’t enough to fulfill his family’s needs. A year ago he almost sold his business to a Bihari in the dream of migrating to Abudhabi and setting up a shop there. He would have earned four times the money he was earning in Mumbai, but, a few sophomoric Pakistanis shattered his dream by attacking Mumbai on a fateful evening. The transaction with the Bihari didn’t materialize due to several days of blockade in the city; finally letting himself swallow the bitterness of dejection in his dark smoke smelling room, he dropped the idea.
Salim turned around in his bed irritated, to get himself a comfortable position and in that process fell into a deep slumber. He woke up quivering at the boisterous noise of someone banging the shutter of his shop. He looked around and found that it was still dark and wondered that who in the world would be as impatient as that. He got up and switched on the light. The pound on the shutter didn’t stop until he lifted it up. There were two strangers outside, looking almost similar to his gradually expanding pupils. Both of them had thick moustaches and matching pot bellies.
One of the guys stepped in and asked with a harsh tone,” To behra hein kya?” (Are you dumb?)
Salim was just recovering from his deep slumber and looked blankly at the person without being able to gauge the situation.
The second person, the taller of the two came forward and slapped Salim’s face lightly and said looking at his friend,” Saala lagta hai iska neend abhi tak khula nahin…”(I think he’s not fully awake)
Salim looked at both of them and asked with a puzzled tone,” Saab, what’s the matter?”
Both of the guys chuckled looking at each other and waited for Salim’s response. Salim was exasperated at those guys for not only waking him up in the early hours of the morning but also for pulling his leg for no reason.
“Sir please tell me, what do you want?”
The taller guy looked around probably looking for a chair to sit and said,” Batata hoon, first give me a chair to sit”
Salim pulled a chair that was lying upside down behind his cot and beckoned him to sit.
“Sir, I have only one chair…”
“No problem,” said the taller guy,” I’m ACP Godbole,”
Although Salim joined his palms together folding his hands and displayed respect, his mind was quivering with fear.
Godbole pointing towards his colleague said,” This is warden Jadav”
What in the world were an ACP and presumably a jail warden doing in his pauper shelter in early hours of the morning, thought Salim. Godbole sat and signaled Salim to sit on his cot. Jadav stood where he was, with a sardonic smile on his face. Salim sat on the cot almost ready to face the greatest calamity in his life.
Godbole bending his body close to Salim looked straight into his face.
“What’s your name?”
Salim said trembling,” S...Salim Sir…”
Godbole heartily laughed and repeated what he said,” Salim sir… nice name”
After a pause Godbole continued,” ok Salim sir… how long you have been doing this business?”
The startled Salim in reply, instead of answering, asked inadvertently another question, “What business sir?”
This time it was Jadav who chuckled,” stupid, don’t you know your business? The business of cooking and selling biriyanis….”
Godbole looked at Jadav and said,” a noble business indeed…?”
Salim was relieved and gave a gasp.
“More than 20 years…”
“Ok chalo… I’m gonna give you some order… a contract for next one year,” Godbole looked straight in to Salim’s eyes with out moving his eyelid.
Jadav moved closer to Salim and asked,” can you get us some 10 biriyanis daily without any break for one year?” and then looking at Godbole, he said sarcastically,” may be another 100 years…”
Salim still looked puzzled and inadvertently shook his head in agreement.
Godbole got up elated and said, “Done… so if today or tomorrow, when you get time, drop in to Arthur road jail and sign up a contract...”
Godbole clasped Salim’s palm tightly,” We don’t cook biriyani in jail, all we got is sukhi rotis, rice, dal and sabzi…ah...Don’t forget to bring your ID…election ID chalega..”
When those people left Salim didn’t know whether to be happy or to be worried. He lay looking at the ceiling relieved and at the same time felt a tinge of annoyance towards the people who deprived him of the comfort of an early morning sleep.
After he signed contract with the Arthur road jail, everyday a guy named Sanjay came to pick up the Biryani to be supplied to the jail. Sanjay was an introvert and spoke less. The entire affair was going peacefully until one day Sanjay came rushing to Salim’s shop.
Sanjay who looked less introverted and excited that particular day, said in a hushed tone,” Jail authorities are coming to your place today afternoon. Keep everything neat and tidy okay…”
Salim feared a holocaust again and asked perplexed, “but why?”
“May be a routine check up, but be careful…” Sanjay warned and left.
Salim’s cooking went berserk in the fear of a bandwagon of jail officials barging into his shop and examining his premises. No body came that day leaving him exasperated at Sanjay and in that process he showered all his anger as vituperation over his hapless assistants.
Sanjay arrived the next day and sat at a corner with his usual blunt look, dragging few puffs of smoke from his noxious smelling beedi, waiting for his parcel. Salim rubbed his dirty hands on the apron and walked swiftly towards the waiting Sanjay wanting to give him a piece of his mind. Sanjay stood up and threw the beedi to the ground.
As if to justify what he had said the previous day, Sanjay said,” I gave you whatever information I had…if they didn’t turn up it’s not my fault”
Salim clearly showed the exasperation he had towards Sanjay on his face.
“No more hoaxes brother… let me and my workers work peacefully”
Sanjay smiled,” Salim bhai...Understand it was not a hoax, they might come any day…I was only trying to help you…”
Salim rubbed his hands again on his apron and began to walk back without uttering a word. Sanjay was in no mood to settle the matter at that.
He said in an exciting but hushed tone,” do you know who’s eating your biriyani in jail?”
Salim kept on walking and said,” I don’t care as long as I’m getting my money…”
“Then listen…you’re going to have the heartbreak of the decade when I reveal that person’s name!”
Salim became curious and turned to look at Sanjay ,”Who?”
Sanjay giggled,” Kasab…”
Salim looked puzzled and asked,” Kasab who?”
“Oh! Don’t you know Kasab? Where in the world are you living? Even a 5 year old knows who Ajmal Kasab is.”
“Stupid! I thought you were smoking beedi, but now I know its something else. Stop talking like a possessed…”
“Salim Bhai believe me…the jail authorities are buying biriyani from you only to feed him… you are indirectly feeding a criminal who has killed many of our country men”, Sanjay was fuming with anger when he said that.
“I thought he was already executed”, Salim sat on the floor looking curiously at Sanjay.
Sanjay quivered,” He’ll be fed with biriyanis and exquisite dishes till he dies of an old age. Our systems are strange.”
In the night when he lay down on the bed and thought about what Sanjay had said. He consoled himself believing that it was not in his power whether to feed Kasab or not to, the Biriyani cooked by him… But then he was happy for the reason that his Biriyani is being spoken about daily by some one in some part of the world. He closed his eyes consoling himself for the fact that the much talked about biriyani savored by Kasab is the one prepared by him and served by the Government.
The story doesn’t end here as Salim is still enthralling Kasab with his Biriyani…