He never imagined himself holding a placard, waving a fist. But this, this he could do. People needed to be fed.
It began a few weeks ago, when Purush noticed the tarkari piling up behind the scrubbed pots, the potatoes sprouting tiny green eyes and the onions drawing flies with their sweet, rancid thrush. That morning he had walked by a group of swaddled protestors crouched by the roadside, their voices bellowing and teeth too prominent in their gaunt faces. One of the thinner men pushed his head between his knees and rocked, hands clasped over his neck, fingers lacing together like ten pale stems. Purush turned away, then forced himself to look back.
Neither Krushna nor Vineeta knew. They had both been too busy, Krushna trying to lure customers despite the commotion outside, Vineeta gazing vacantly out the window—that is, until she stopped coming to work at all. Purush had always existed in the background, head low to the cutting board, his focus broken only by the occasional demand from beyond the kitchen. Freed of all attention now, he peeled garlic and grated ginger, carved the eyes from softening potatoes and scraped seeds from okra pods. The pots simmered and rattled with the sounds outside: the steady beat of feet marching, the shallow pant of street dogs riled by the crowds, the guttural, unearthly cry that had sunk into his skin and remained for more than a month. Once, the clink and burst of a gas canister, the eruption of shrieks that followed.
Together they formed an organism, alive.
When the pressure cooker whistled, he ladled the rice and vegetables into old jars, crusted tin cans, the lids off pickle containers, as many vessels as he could find, piled them into a milk crate, and exited from the back of the restaurant. He tried to find the group from that morning, the skeleton-man who could no longer stand, but they were gone, swallowed by the day. Instead, he offered a bowl to a couple with a baby pressed between them, their faces flushed and voices hoarse. The couple accepted without hesitation, dipping their fingers into the bowl and bringing rice to the baby’s lips. Purush disappeared before he could hear their thanks, the sight of his food in their fingers enough.
He marveled at how easy it was to form a new habit. For years he had started his mornings simmering chai and dicing onions for the day’s meals. Now he rolled finger-thick rotis into which he spread achaar and potato, twirling them up into little cylinders that could be carried easily in one hand while hoisting a placard in the other. He never imagined himself holding a placard, waving a fist. But this, this he could do. People needed to be fed. Their fires, fueled. Their work, sustained.
Later, when Vineeta would ask him through the bars of his cell what had happened, he wouldn’t know what to say. He wouldn’t tell her about the officers’ gloved hands, the hard plastic of their chests as they dragged him to the station, accusing him of bolstering public disobedience. The feeling in his ribs something between a sob and laughter, cruel and ridiculous, and the steady realization that he was both valuable and unnecessary. The sharp sting of his cheeks against the car window and the jolting understanding that they were taking him because he was only one, because they couldn’t take the thousands in the streets. The fact that this was a kind of success.
Vineeta could tell that her father was recounting only part of the truth. She had the sense—seeing him sallow-cheeked and small, a new scar snaking gray and raised across his temple, and yet his fingers folded calmly in his lap, his eyes clearer than the sky had been for years, as if in them she was witnessing a past long gone, or a rising future, a better, healed one—that he had something to protect. And perhaps it was her, wrists trembling against the metal bars, eyes threatening to spill. What he told her was this: of the vegetables piling up. The sense of power in his hands, the ability to provide something needed. The urgency each time his crate was emptied, the speed at which he conjured more. The magic he had never known was in him, a back-room cook, surging forth like a river, carrying, nourishing.
Vineeta, in turn, would not tell her father what she had seen when she returned at last to the restaurant to find him gone: the place empty as the day it opened. Her uncle’s face, annoyance turning to knowledge turning to fear, the anger bearing down hot and relentless. The sound that rose up from him—a moan, no, a howl, fevered, broken.His teeth to the sky, his mouth a black hole. How she had seen it then, the dawning of truth, the moment it broke across his face. How on the step outside the restaurant, before the swell of restless people, she had slipped her arm into his own, and with his other hand he had shakingly, knowingly, raised a fist.
Janika Oza is a writer based in Toronto. She is the winner of the 2020 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, and her work has received support from VONA, Tin House, One Story, and the Millay Colony. She is published in The Best Small Fictions 2019 Anthology, The Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel.