Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Surmai Feast

“Look at them, showing off their money!” exclaimed Mrs Geeta Rao, sitting in the lounge of the posh Sea Majestica Resort on a beautiful beach in a small village called Ratimbe, just a few hours from the bustling city of Mumbai.
She jabbed her elbow into the stomach of her husband, college professor Mr. Rajan Rao who had just fallen into a wonderful stupor. Mr. Rao woke up with a start. He stared blankly for a few minutes thinking he had fallen asleep in the college classroom. But when he realised he was on a holiday, his eyes became sleepy again.
“See, see…how they are paying five hundred rupees to the waiter as a tip.”
“Geeta, you are on a holiday. Please enjoy it and let me enjoy it too. And stop bothering about other people, especially those who you don’t know,” grumbled Mr. Rao, not happy at all at being so rudely awoken.
 It was a fact that Mrs. Rao did not know Ravi and Sulekha Tilwani personally, but there was no one in this resort who had not heard of them. Ravi and Sulekha Tilwani often graced the party sections of Bombay’s newspapers and their ostentatious house, their glamorous parties and their lavish lifestyle was the talk of the society circles.

It was the Tilwani couple’s fifth wedding anniversary which they were celebrating in style at the Sea Majestica Resort. This was a beautiful resort newly built and was the talk of the town. Everybody who was anybody wanted to be here and the Tilwani couple was no exception. So then you must be wondering what a couple like the Raos were doing here. Well, Professor Mr. Rao had just retired a few months ago and his college, in appreciation for his services had gifted him 5 days and 4 nights in this beautiful place. Otherwise there was no chance of Mrs. Rao letting him spend so much money on such a lavish holiday.

Mrs. Rao continued to generally grumble about how young kids were spending money nowadays and what a waste and so on and so fourth while Ravi and Sulekha were oblivious to the envious stares they were getting from the people around them. They were here to party and nothing or no one could stop them.

The peaceful atmosphere of the resort was suddenly shattered and even the sleepy Mr Rao was startled awake once more. The clash was followed with a crackling sound like a slap and there was a slight commotion from the direction of the Tilwanis. A young fellow in the resort uniform stood shivering beside them stunned at the slap he had got from Ravi Tilwani.

By the time a small crowd had gathered and the manager Santosh Shelke came running at the scene. “What happened?” he urgently enquired.

“Why have you hired these village idiots to serve us? He cannot even speak English!”
Santosh turned to Surya…the young waiter.

“But can you explain what happened?” Santosh turned to the boy and enquired in his native tongue, a dialect of Marathi.

“I cannot understand what he is saying,” the boy informed, still shaking.
“But why did he slap you?”
“I don’t know…I really don’t know.”

“Do you know these people are really influential? If they complain, you will lose your job. Now get away from here and I will handle the situation.”

Santosh turned to Ravi. “I am extremely apologetic about what has happened sir. The boy normally works in the kitchen and today, perhaps one of our regular English speaking waiters must be absent,” Santosh tried to cover up for the boy.

“How is that my problem? Please get some good quality, high-class people around this place. It’s not for nothing that we are paying so much money to stay here.”

Santosh was really angry because the man had slapped a poor employee for no apparent reason. He wanted to open his mouth and fight for the boy but that would mean both of them losing their jobs. What added to his irritation was that couple were staying at the resort without paying a single rupee. The owner wanted some free publicity for the place and he was sure that his resort would automatically become popular if the Tilwanis stayed there. It was the most inexpensive method of advertising for him. Santosh just shrugged and walked away. This was the third tantrum that the couple had thrown in the day and by now, Santosh was just about getting used to it. But he wasn’t sure if he could take it any more.  

“My God! Just see their behaviour. Rajan, why don’t you do something about it…”Mrs. Rao started off but seeing that her husband was fast asleep, she dug her nose back into her magazine and kept quiet for the rest of the afternoon.
 Just before dinner time, the Chief Manager, Mr. Roy Alvares made a special announcement. “It gives me great pleasure,” he said adjusting his bow tie, “to announce that Mrs. And Mr. Ravi Tilwani have invited all our patrons to a Surmai Feast this evening in celebration of their wedding anniversary.”

There was silence at first and then everyone started clapping. The ‘Surmai Feast’ was a delicacy specially developed at the Sea Majestica where the Surmai Fish, a type of fish found in Maharashtra, was cut and stuffed with exotic fillings. Then it was slow roasted over a fire and eaten fresh off the coals.

“Now this is really rude. What do these people think of themselves? Do they think others cannot afford a Surmai Feast?” complained Mrs. Rao once gain. “You are just complaining because you are a vegetarian,” exclaimed Mr. Rao. “If it was an avial feast you would have praised their generosity to the skies.” Avial was a South Indian preparation made in Kerela where a lot of vegetables were cooked in coconut gravy.
Geeta Rao got the point and kept quiet for the rest of the evening.
The ‘Surmai Feast’ was a big success and people toasted the Tilwani couple till very late. The party went on till way past midnight and finally at 2 in the morning, all the guests had gone back to their rooms except for the Tilwanis and a few servants who were cleaning up the place. Thoroughly drunk, Ravi Tilwani took a plate piled with Surmai feast and hand in hand the couple set off to continue their party on the private beach of the resort.
 Even though there was no sign of the moon in the sky, it was a starry night which glittered on the surface of the calm sea. Ravi and Sulekha tottered towards the beach balancing the plate of fish in one hand.
Finding a nice spot, the couple plonked themselves on the soft white sand. After about five minutes, Ravi realised that they were not alone. “Can you see someone there?” Ravi peered into the semi-darkness. He was looking just above Sulekha’s head. There was a big rock about 4 feet high and it seemed like someone was sitting against the rock. Sulekha turned around to see. She couldn’t see anyone. “I think you have had a bit too much to drink.” Sulekha commented and patted her husband’s paunch.
But after a while, Sulekha got that feeling too. “Can you hear someone breathing?” Sulekha asked Ravi, by now who was half asleep. Surely, someone was sitting there. “Let’s go Ravi. It’s really late.” But Ravi wouldn’t move. Sulekha turned around and now clearly a shadow was visible. “Ravi, Ravi…wake up. Someone is sitting there.” Ravi woke up and rubbing his eyes, he peered towards the rock. The couple, hand in hand, set off cautiously towards the rock. The shadow shifted a bit and when they reached there, sure enough there was someone covered by a torn garment.
“Who are you?” demanded Ravi. The shadow shifted a bit. “Can’t you hear?” Ravi growled in Hindi. “This is a private beach. Who allowed you to come here?”

A frail hand came out of the folds of the sari and revealed a face that could freeze the strongest heart in the darkness. It was a woman…and she seemed like she was a part of this landscape forever. Her eyes glowed, almost white and her skin was shiny and was covered with a fine mesh of wrinkles. Ravi and Sulekha jumped back a couple of steps because in that darkness, the woman looked rather scary. With a frail, bony finger, she pointed towards the plate of Surmai Feast.
 “Fish?” Ravi mocked at her. “You want some Surmai Feast?” The woman looked at Ravi with pleading eyes. She put her hand to her mouth gesturing that she was hungry.

Having gotten over her initial fright, Sulekha began, “I don’t know how they allow such people to come on to the private beach. Beggars all of them. They don’t let us live in peace anywhere. At the traffic signal, on the roadside…and now even in this five star resort! It’s just too much. Why does the Government not do anything to get rid of these foul creatures?”

She kicked in disgust at the sand and walked off.
 Ravi held a stuffed Surmai fish in his hands. He walked a few feet away from her. “Here…you want some fish? Come and take it.”
He waggled the fish like one would do to a hungry dog. The old woman could all but stare. A difficult existence had taken all the life force out of her body. She had dragged hersef to this lonely place, hoing for some peace. Little did she realise that hunger would follow her there. The frail, powerless woman tried to move…but in vain.
 “Here, here,” Ravi swayed in a drunken stupor waving the fish in front of her. Only her eyes moved, darting this way and that, following the motion of the food he was holding.  
Sulekha had returned. “Ravi, let her be. It’s too late. Come on inside.” Sulekha took Ravi’s arm and they made their way up the beach. Before going, Ravi flung the Surmai towards the woman. It landed within five feet of her. She dragged herself, closer and closer to the half eaten surmai feast, probably the only exotic thing she would taste in her lifetime.
Ravi woke up next day morning, rather late. Sulekha was already at the resort swimming pool working off all the calories she had piled on the earlier day.  Ravi decided that he would take a nice, long dip in their private Jacuzzi of their suite.
 He stepped into the bathroom which smelt of some exotic, imported perfume. Instantly invigorated, Ravi turned on the taps, got into his trunks and stepped into the whirlpool.
Ravi drifted away in heavenly bliss as the water ran between his toes and over his aching body. He began to relive his party last night. Wasn’t it wonderful to be so rich? Myraid thought came and went from his head. His next fancy car…probably a private jet? Sometime in the near future? It was good to be Ravi Tilwani, he thought to himself. 
The tickling came out of the blue…totally not expected. Only now, it was more of a jab. What was that? He stood dripping in the tub. It seemed like something had slithered over him. Something soft and slippery. The water was white and foamy and Ravi groped for the bottom. He got nothing but water in his hand. Ravi slipped back into the tub and closed his eyes.
He was about to slip into another reverie when it happened again, the sharp jab in his foot. This time, he felt something slither, over his belly. It was getting a bit spooky. What was that?
Was is a fish? Ravi peered closer into the tub. Oh yes. It seemed like a Surmai fish. What was it doing in the tub? He dipped his hand in the water to double check the drain. Perhaps it had gotten through the water tank. But then suddenly something happened which Ravi could have never imagined nor would he be able to explain to anyone ever.   
The single fish split and became two. Like a chain reaction, the two fish split into two more and within a matter of minutes, the entire pool was filled with slithering, slimy, live Surmai fish. By now, Ravi’s brain was frozen so he couldn’t move. He lay in the tub, unblinking, still, mesmerised and very scared indeed.
Some of the fish nibbled at Ravi’s toes while some others tried to enter through his belly button. The water from the Jacuzzi spilled over but the more and more fish magically appeared. The lovely fragrance in the bathroom was replaced by a fishy odour suddenly making it very nauseous.
By now, Ravi was up to his neck in Surmai fish. One threatened to enter his nostril. Ravi wished that he would pass out and it would be the end of this horrifying ordeal but no…the mountain of fish kept on increasing, spilling out of the tub, on the bathroom floor, more and more and then some more. He sank into the slimy darkness of the tub and suddenly, everything was pitch dark.
Sulekha returned to the room after a couple of hours. When she knocked the door, there was no answer so she got a spare key from the manager assuming Ravi must have stepped out. But what she saw, shocked her.
Ravi lay sprawled on the bed, face down, one leg on the floor…drenched, in his swimming trunks, eyes wide open. It didn’t help that he gave out a putrid, fishy smell.
She screamed for help and a couple of housekeeping staff ran in to her aid.
”Look, the clock fell on his head.” One of them pointed out to a huge, heavy brass clock lying broken beside the bed on the floor.
It was an antique piece, the clock, and it had fallen down from it’s place above the bed and somehow fallen on Ravi’s head. A clock, in the shape of a Surmai fish.
An ambulance rushed Ravi to Goa’s finest hospital, where upon checking, the doctors realised that the impact had caused permanent damage to his brain.
Sulekha tried to make the most of the situation and sued the resort for negligence. But it was rather strange that the nails on which the clock hung, were robust…and intact. There was no way it could have fallen off from those. In a counter attack, the resort lawyers tried to prove that it was she who must have tried to kill her husband, but there were no fingerprints to prove it and also Sulekha had solid alibis. Sulekha quickly took back her case and that was the end of that.
Ravi suffered from a total memory loss. He would keep babbling incomprehensibly. All his money in the world couldn’t buy him a cure and finally, he was left to the mercies on nurses and domestic help. The sight of fish would make him hysterical and he would begin to laugh in a strange, high-pitched voice.
At that time, a lot was written about Ravi and his wife in the newspapers for at least six months. Then, people lost interest in the couple, his brothers took over his business and by and by Ravi Tilwani waned from the public eye.  
But there was one story which was never reported in the newspapers. On the same morning, which Ravi met with his freak accident, the body of an old beggar woman was discovered on the private beach of the same resort. It seemed like she was reaching out for something before she died. Perhaps they forgot to notice that half eaten surmai fish, which lay three inches away from her extended, bony fingers.

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