Chops Chutney is a short story of star-crossed love and samoosas by Pravasan Pillay.
Kavitha’s father held the paper bag of samoosas over the kitchen bin, the bag scrunched in his tightly clenched fist. “See here, you don’t bloody bring this shit into my house, you heard me what I’m saying,” he shouted, a snarl on his face. “This is the last time I’m telling you.”
Kavitha stared at the oily paper bag, a big ‘F’ handwritten on it with a felt pen. The ‘F’ stood for tinned fish, the second most popular samoosa filling after potato curry at Karim’s Takeaway – which was located at the Unit 5 shopping centre in Chatsworth.
Kavitha had been working there for six months as a cashier, a position her father strongly disapproved of her taking – though he seemed to have no qualms about accepting the R900, a third of her salary, that she gave him every month as part of her contribution to the household. This was her first real job since she had finished high school a year ago.
“I don’t want you working by Pakistani fellows,” her father had finger-wagged when she told him about the job. “You can’t trust those people. They won’t pay you on time must see.”
On the contrary, for the half year that she had been there, Kavitha had been paid promptly on time, every 25th of the month. In fact, she had even earned a raise after taking on more responsibilities.
“Pa, don’t be like that how. I bought it for you. Tinned fish samoosas is your favourite. How can you throw food away? If you not going to eat it, at least save it for Ma or me – we’ll eat it,” Kavitha said, trying to reach for the bag.
Her father pushed her hand away brusquely. He dropped the bag of samoosas into the bin and slammed the lid shut. “You dunno know what what rubbish they put in those things. Why you think they selling it so cheap?” he said, walking over to the sink and making a dramatic show of washing his hands.
“I work there, Pa. I know everything that happens in the kitchen. It’s a normal takeaway,” Kavitha said. “I can’t believe you wasted that food.”
“That’s not food. If I want to eat real Durban food, I will buy it from Durban people. Our own people. These halfies are taking away jobs from us. Why they must come here and sell? Tell me that? You think if I go to Pakistan or Bangladesh they’ll let me open a takeaway there? Good luck trying that, they’ll kill you and leave you,” her father said, drying his hands on a dishtowel.
He continued: “In those days, our shopping centre should only be our Indian people and our African people and now there’s Pakistan, China, Bangladesh and what what. Our Chatsworth people are poor and still these crooks want to come and steal from us. Sies, man.”
“How are they stealing?” Kavitha asked. “No one is forcing you to buy by them. They work hard like everyone to make their money.”
“Let me tell you something, these people dunno what is hard work. You still must learn about Pakistanis, my girl. If I was you I’ll stop working there tomorrow.” he said. “Go look for one job in Checkers instead.”
Kavitha stopped listening. She knew the talk that was to follow shortly very well. Her father would start on the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who mostly owned takeaways and cellphone repair stores and then move on to the Chinese, who ran general goods stores. Sometimes he would shout about the door-to-door sari salesmen from India.
Her mother and her usually ignored his almost weekly rants. “Don’t argue when he say something, Ka,” her mother would say. “He work hard the whole day by that harbour. Just let him blow off the steam and then he’ll be right.”
Kavitha normally didn’t find it hard to follow her mother’s advice – and she was typically right. Her father would have these bursts of intense anger but then it would pass and he would return to his usual, quite jovial self.
However in the last two months Kavitha’s annoyance with her father’s xenophobia had taken on a substantially more personal slant. She had, without the knowledge of her parents, started dating Abdul, the cook at Karim’s.
Abdul was 23 years old, five years older than her, and was originally from a small town outside Lahore. He had moved to Durban two years ago to take up the kitchen position in his cousin Karim’s takeaway. Apart from being extremely handsome, he was very funny and Kavitha found herself instantly attracted to him.
They flirted almost daily for three months before Abdul finally asked her out for a milkshake at Milky Lane at the Chatsworth Centre. Their dating since then had been restricted to daytime excursions around Chatsworth, or driving around in Karim’s Toyota Corolla, which Abdul would borrow.
Abdul was constantly asking her to go out with him to Cape to Cairo, a night club in the city, and Kavitha kept turning him down. Of course, she wanted to accept his offers, but she knew that her father would only allow her to go out in the evenings if he could meet the boy first. It was tough enough getting approval for a Chatsworth Tamil boy. A Pakistani Muslim would have been completely out of the question.
The gift of the tinned fish samoosas had been Adbul’s idea. “Maybe if he can taste my cooking he won’t hate Pakistan so much,” he had joked, before he handed the half-dozen samoosas to her.
Abdul seemed to take her father’s attitude in his stride. “Fathers in Lahore are even more protective of their daughters,” he would say. “Anyway, who wouldn’t be protective of a girl like you?”
“And they don’t even bloody pay taxes in this country,” her father finished his tirade, lit a cigarette and walked outside to smoke.
“Yes they do,” Kavitha said, under her breath. She opened the bin and looked at the bag of samoosas laying atop a nest of potato peels and an empty milk carton.
“Maybe he wasn’t in the mood for samoosas,” Abdul said. He stood in the cramped kitchen of Karim’s, shaping roti dough into rough little balls, ready to be rolled and fried once the lunch rush arrived at noon. “Maybe he had a bad day at his job.”
The takeaway was empty upfront, apart from Karim who sat on a plastic stool, reading that morning’s Mercury. He was drinking a cup of Milo.
“It’s not even worth trying with him. I told you before, a Pakistani, a Bangladeshi, a Nigerian – all he don’t like. You’re all are like dogs for him,” Kavitha said.
She watched with admiration how quickly Abdul worked, pinching, rolling the dough in his hand, and setting it aside in one seamless motion – all the while nodding his head along to the radio. He didn’t even have to look at what he was doing.
“But I’m a good dog,” Abdul said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t have given me a visa.”
He bared his teeth. “See no rabies I got.”
“Let’s forget it. I don’t want to talk about that man any more,” Kavitha said, smiling at him. “Do you want some help?”
Abdul ignored her offer. “I told you before, let me come to your house myself and ask him if I can take you out on Saturday. I’ll ask him nicely. If he says no he says no, but at least I tried. I’ll talk to him man to man – or rather dog to man.”
“He will kill you and leave you if you come home,” Kavitha said. She held on to Abdul’s flour-covered hands to emphasise her point. “I’m being serious.”
Abdul stopped rolling the dough and held her cheeks between his hands. He looked into her eyes, his usual amused twinkle absent. “I’m also being serious. I like you and I want to go out on a Saturday night like a normal couple. I don’t want to duck and dive. Please.”
His face was centimetres away from hers. Kavitha couldn’t help but admire his fine features, the bowed mouth, the high cheek bones and strong, stubbled chin, and above his light brown eyes, a mop of wavy thick black hair, held back by his customary bandana.
It was hard to say no to that face.
“Okay,” Kavitha said, with a sigh. “Come. But don’t forget I warned you.”
Abdul smiled broadly and gave her a big, wet kiss. “It’s the right thing, you’ll see. It won’t be an issue,” he said. “You know what I’ll do, I’ll cook him my lamb chops chutney and bring it there. Anybody who tastes my chops chutney will fall in love with me. It’s my muti.”
“Ka, customer at the till,” came Karim’s voice from the front.
Kavitha broke from Abdul’s embrace and picked up a napkin to wipe the flour from her face. “Speak later,” she said. As she rushed out the kitchen, she saw Abdul turn up the volume on his portable radio. She instantly recognised the song, Aaj Mausam Bada Beimaan Hai by Mohammed Rafi. It was one of Abdul’s favourites.
Kavitha’s mistake, she realised later, was to leave the lounge and go into the bathroom to freshen her make-up. It was during those three minutes that she was away that Adbul knocked on their front door, and her father attacked him.
Why did she have to leave the lounge? Why did she have to redo her stupid make-up? If she had been there she could have maybe held her father back, tried to talk some sense into him or even stood between the two of them if it came to that.
The second Kavitha heard her father’s muffled shouts through the bathroom door, she knew what had happened. She dropped her mascara brush into the sink and ran down the stairs of their council house.
Her mother met her at the bottom of the stairs. “What you brought that fellow here for?” her mother said, her eyes tearing. “Now the police going to come here.”
Kavitha hadn’t told her parents the entire truth about Abdul, but his visit wasn’t a total surprise for her father. She had informed him earlier that morning that a boy would be coming over briefly to ask permission to take her out that evening.
Her father was surprisingly calm when she told him; he didn’t ask any questions about the boy’s parents or where he was from or what he did for a living. All he did was nod and get back to reading his newspaper. Despite his silence, Kavitha thought that he seemed a little pleased that someone was coming over to ask his permission. Telling him at this stage that Abdul was Muslim, and what’s more a Pakistani, would have ruined everything.
Kavitha pushed past her mother and ran outside to their veranda. There she found her father standing menacingly over a kneeling Abdul. Her father was holding an empty beer bottle, a quart of Castle, his usual Saturday afternoon drink, upside down and tightly by its neck. His entire body was stiff, as though he was in a prayer trance. He was cursing loudly. Neighbours were already coming out their houses to see what had happened.
When Kavitha saw Abdul’s face, she burst out crying. One of his cheeks was opened up in a long diagonal gash, blood pouring out of it.
The front of his T-shirt was covered with tomato chutney and blood; the Tupperware Abdul had brought the food in lay on his lap, opened and spilled everywhere. Abdul’s eyes had a glazed look; he was conscious but he didn’t seem to have any idea about where he was or what had happened.
Kavitha shoved her father away and held her handkerchief against Abdul’s cheek. “Get this halfie out from my yard,” her father said, his voice lowered but no less menacing. He dropped the beer bottle on to the veranda floor and walked back inside the house.
Kavitha spat after him. She helped Abdul get to his feet, slung his arm over her shoulder and slowly got him to the pavement outside her house. Then she phoned Karim and explained everything that had happened.
Karim arrived 10 minutes later, rushed out the car door and helped Abdul into the passenger seat. He said he was taking him to RK Khan’s hospital for stitches. By now the worst of the bleeding had passed. Abdul was still a little wobbly on his feet but the glazed look seemed to have passed from his eyes. He had even begun making his usual wisecracks.
Abdul held the handkerchief to his cheek as Kavitha buckled him in. He grabbed her hand and looked into her eyes. “So did he say yes? Can we go out tonight?”
Kavitha laughed, and then through her laughter she cried, hugging and holding on to her boyfriend tightly.
Karim stood at the driver’s side of the car. “You coming with us or you staying here?”
Kavitha stared at her house, at the empty veranda, the empty beer bottle, and the remains of the chops chutney all over the tiled floor. Then she walked to the back door of Karim’s Toyota, opened it and got in.