Kulfi, in these months, was so enormously large, she seemed to be claiming all the earth's energy for herself, sapping it dry, leaving it withered, shriveled and yellow.
People stopped short in amazement as she walked down the street. How big she was! They forgot their dealings in the almost empty marketplace. They teetered on their bicycles as they looked around for just another sight of that stomach extending improbably before her like a huge growth upon a slender tree. Her eyes were so dark, so sooty and vehement, though, these people who turned their heads to stare turned quickly away again, ill at ease for some reason and unsettled. Not noticing them, she passed by as if they weren't there at all. On her face, about her mouth and in the set of her chin was an expression intent and determined but yet far away and distant, as if all her thoughts were concentrated upon a point invisible to everybody but herself. She walked through Shahkot like this, as distracted as this, as strange as this.
'What do you expect?' asked Ammaji, her mother-in-law, making excuses when curious neighbors asked about Kulfi's state of mind. 'What do you expect from a woman with a baby in her belly like a little fish?'
But Kulfi was not thinking of the baby in her belly like a little fish. She was thinking of fish themselves. Of fish in many forms. Of fish big enough and good enough to feed the hunger that had overtaken her in the past months like a wave. She thought of fish curries and fish kebabs. Of pomfret, bekti, ruhi. Of shoals of whiskered shrimp. Of chewy mussels. She thought of food abundant in all its many incarnations. Of fenugreek and camel milk, yam and corn. Mangoes and coconuts and custard apples. Mushrooms sprouting like umbrellas in the monsoon season. Nuts, wrinkled in their shells, brown-skinned, milky-fleshed.
The house was small for her big desire. She walked from the tiny blue bedroom to the kitchen thick with the smell of kerosene, around the table and chairs, up and down the balcony, down the stairs past the rooms of neighbors who shook their heads over her, then around the jamun tree in the middle of the courtyard.
'Oh dear, what is going to become of this woman?' said Lakshmiji, the Raipurs, the Bengali teacher, and all of the others when they looked out of their windows, when they gossiped at the tea stall or sat in each other's houses eating peanuts together. 'There was always something odd about her,' they said. 'You could tell this from the minute she entered Shahkot.'
Meal after meal of just rice and lentils could not begin to satisfy the hunger that grew inside Kulfi; she bribed the vegetable sellers and the fruit sellers and the butcher with squares of silk, with embroidery, a satin petticoat, an earring set in gold, a silver nutcracker, bits of her dowry that had not yet been pawned. She bribed them until they had nothing left to give her anyway. By then, her hunger was so fierce, it was like a big, prowling animal. In her mind, aubergines grew large and purple and crisp, and then, in a pan, turned tender and melting. Ladyfingers were flavored with tamarind and coriander. Chicken was stewed with cloves and cardomon. She thought of chopping and bubbling, of frying, slicing, stirring, grating.
'What on earth is she doing?' shouted Mr. Chawla as he watched his wife disappear down the road to the market-place again and again, as he surveyed the emptying cupboards in the house, the missing items, the gaps on the shelves. 'What have you married me to, Amma?' he demanded ferociously of his mother, who looked worried as well. However, since she was responsible for the marriage, she put her worry as far from herself as possible, clucked her tongue and said soothingly: 'She is at a very delicate stage. Wait a little and maybe she will come out of it.'
'Come out of it'. He snorted. 'She is not going to come out of it. And if the baby takes after her, we are really in for trouble.'
Copyright Kiran Desai 1998. All rights reserved. Published by the permission of the publisher - Grove Atlantic.
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