It was a lazy sunday, and she was cooking. He tiptoed from the bedroom and stood outside the kitchen, ears alert. He waited. A minute passed. He heard the sounds of water sloshing, the sound of the refrigerator door opening and closing thrice, a cough, the familiar sound of a rice cooker.. he breathed a sigh of relief. He was just about to walk back to his bed when he heard it- a small, low sniffing. He hung his head and went to the couch, falling into his routine reverie.
He remembered them being happy. Very happy. Traveling made her happy, and they visited every place on their list. She liked to recreate local dishes after tasting them once, and almost usually got it right every time. However, she was extremely picky about eating out because she knew exactly what was wrong with each dish she ate. Cooking made used to make her happy, and she loved to cook- either alone or with their househelp. He had long since been banished from the kitchen and was quite content to be so – until now.
He jerked out of his thoughts as soon as she stepped out of the kitchen, to turn on the tv. She smiled at him, giving rise to pangs of guilt. It was a genuine smile, probably, but her eyes were very clearly moist. She had definitely been crying again. She reached for the remote that was by the door and switched to the channel that played hideous old, sad songs. He didn’t understand why she did that if cooking made her happy. As she hummed to the tune and went back into the kitchen, he slumped back on the couch.
He knew things weren’t going so well. They had argued and fought, and separation had always been an elephant in the room. Circumstances changed, but the bitterness never completely disappeared. She had sacrificed quite a lot for his career, including her career. And she resented many things about him, that was no secret. But she never cried.
He had noticed her strength years ago, when they were just friends. They were with colleagues, getting back home from a movie and saw smoke winding up the corner of her street. There were policemen everywhere. She asked their friend to stop the car and ran towards her house. They all knew it was her house. As he clambered out of the car and finally reached the source of fire, he noticed her standing there, staring at her house go up in flames. She stood there, calmly and turned towards him. She thought out loud about how her documents were in a fireproof safe inside and her family was on vacation. Nothing else was worth her tears. She retrieved the safe after the house burned down. When she turned back to look at the ashes that was once her home, it was as though the fire was still burning in her eyes. The incident left a strong impression on his mind. “Agni“, he called her. Agni, they all called her. He felt proud.
He had seen her cry only thrice- and only because of him. He hated it. He hated the fact that he reduced her to someone weak enough to cry, someone as weak as him. He was not ashamed that he cried, her arms were around him in an instant. Seeing her cry would make him cry, and having realized that, she promised never to cry again. They still fought many times afterward.
Perhaps she missed the maid. The maid had been a sweet lady, who was so short she couldn’t reach up to the stove without a tiny stool. She contented herself with cutting up the vegetables and fetching things from the shelves while Agni did the cooking. She had been with them since forever and always made Agni laugh. They both had always known that her days were coming to an end, and Agni used to say that she cherished the days spent with her. She had been a little dull for a couple of days, but was soon back to normal.
That was what he admired about her- nothing could shake her enough to let her affect her disciplined life. Except their marriage. He knew they were miserable, and he knew he was the only one who could fix it. There were many things he had to change, and he knew exactly where to begin. It was high time.
“Additction”, she had said once, after half an hour of crying, “is man’s greatest enemy.”
He had been reduced to a wreck by then. He promised to quit.
“Wife’s tears”, he had replied, “instill many fears.” That made her laugh.
But she had stopped laughing. He didn’t quit, but she didn’t cry. Now, she did. She had taken to sobbing quietly inside without even letting him know. He noticed it only a few days ago. When he voiced his concerns, all he got was an I’m-fine-don’t-worry and an expressionless smile. He felt worthless, as though someone had reached inside and violently pulled away all self-respect from within him.
As she came out to invite him inside to lunch, his made his resolve.
“Hold on one second“, he said.
He raced inside and dug out his hidden cigarettes from his mobile phone cover, from behind the side stand’s legs and from his woolen hats. As she followed him into the room, he snatched his lighters from the old tin can of stamps and put them all in a paper bag.
“Take this“, he said, thrusting the bag into his startled wife’s hands, “this is my entire stash, I promise. There are exactly 42 cigarettes and three lighters. I lied when I said I want the lighters for my collection. I’m sorry. This is the last time, I swear. Please do as you see fit with it.”
She looked down at the bag in her hand and looked up.
“Why now?” Her voice was devoid of all emotion, as ever.
“My mind fell back in place. I see you cook everyday and I hear you cry everyday.” He knew what was coming next.
“See, I wasn’t crying, ok? I wa-”
“Please don’t lie. You cry silently, hoping I won’t know. But I can hear you. You come out after cooking, pretending to be all happy about what you’ve made, but I can see it in your face. And I know exactly why it is.”
She regarded him for a moment, a mixture of contempt and pity on her face.
“Agni, please? Please don’t cry?”
A ghost of a smile appeared at the corners of her mouth and disappeared just as quickly as if she decided against smiling.
She asked, “Are you sure this time?”
She didn’t say anything further. The lunch was as good as ever, but she talked a bit more and smiled a couple of times. It was nice.
And it got nicer everyday. They stopped fighting, started laughing, and they ate out everyday for a week.
The next week, she granted him access to their kitchen and he offered to cut vegetables every morning before going to work, much to her appeal.
He never smoked again. They were happy once more.
The store owner at Farm Fresh Vegetables was going through the customer feedback scribbled on his walls. What started as little kids doodling at the skirtings of his shop near the cash counter turned into customers writing full fledged opinions of his farm’s produce. His annoyance slowly turned into pleasure and he now took an effort to read all the writings at the end of the day. Most people were happy with his farm’s produce and left comments saying so. Today, he came across several reviews that jabbed at his store’s name in good humor. A child’s colorful sketch about how his carrots were red and not orange made him smile. Right beside it, he noticed a tiny, single line scrawled into a box. He would have almost missed it, had he not noticed the box drawn around the writing. He read it curiously. He squinted down to read it over once more, but couldn’t make sense of it. As his last assistant said goodbye, he flipped off the lights hurriedly, and proceeded to close the shutters for the day.
The moon shone brightly through the window, illuminating the almost illegible handwriting on the wall that had so perplexed him: Your onions brought my family closer.