Reshma was serving us Muri Ghonto. This Bengali dish is made with rice and the head of a fish. My mother always said getting the right taste and consistency for Muri Ghonto was not easy but Reshma seemed to have done it perfectly.
We were devouring the Muri Ghonto and looking forward to the Mutton Kasha and Bhapa Doi that sat on the six-seater dining table occupied by us. The unease that we had been experiencing so far had dissipated with the fine grains of rice that melted in our mouth leaving a heavenly after-taste.
We were praising Reshma for her culinary skills and for that moment everything else that we knew about her had been pushed to the back of our mind. Reshma was our colleague and till that afternoon had been the star performer of our department.
We were all journalists working in a newspaper and Reshma had joined us around six months back. She had some internship experience in journalism in Kolkata before she had moved to Jakarta with her husband, where she had largely been a homemaker. When they moved back she had applied in our newspaper and our Editor liked the sparkle in her eyes.
Reshma had been getting interviews that had eluded us for years. You just had to tell her to get an international sportsperson, an acclaimed writer or the latest Grammy-winning singer and a week would be all she took to get a 1000-word interview done. If we had been assigned the same task it would have taken us much more time in the to-and-fro of professional emails, the star being out of town, the wait and finally the interview over phone or email. Someimes, it never even materialised but with Reshma, luck was always on her side. Until that afternoon though.
And that afternoon we were cursing our luck because after all that happened we were expected to sit opposite her at the dinner table, smile and forget.
Reshma had invited us for dinner. Something she had been planning for months and we had been procrastinating because as journalists it was a luxury for the entire department to end up for dinner at a colleague’s place together. But her warmth and zeal had touched us and we finally decided that we must be her guests. Refusing so often was bad manners after all.
Now we discussed if we should call off the dinner. My colleague Romit called Reshma, tentatively hoping to come up with some excuse not to go to her house that day.
‘Arrey Romitda when are you all coming? I just finished making the Muri Ghonto and Chutney. Will make Dal and Mutton now,’ she said.
‘You are cooking?’ Any other time we would have pulled Romit’s legs for his dumb question. But we knew he was at a loss for words.
‘You all will come and I won’t cook?’ she laughed at the other end.
‘Ki dorkar chhilo?’ (What was the need?) Rohit blurted out.
‘Why? What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘Na, na nothing.’ Romit did not have the heart to tell her the truth.
‘We will be there as soon as work finishes,’ he said and hung up.
We were all looking at him. He nodded sullenly implying he could not manage to cancel the dinner. We understood.
It was a strange dilemma we were in. Just moments back we had come to know that our star performer was not really the star after all. We had gone numb in shock.
We knew the verdict on her performance would be delivered soon. Till that day she had been a nice girl, bubbly and helpful. But the veil had been lifted.
Did we have it in us to tell her that we knew the truth now? Could we tell her what we knew? Could we tell her while devouring the Muri Ghonto that tomorrow would be a very difficult day for her.
We decided to leave the un-pleasantries for tomorrow and let that day be lived like Reshma wanted to, she cooking and feeding us, and us enjoying her hospitality.
Our feelings were very ambiguous and it was truly difficult to pinpoint what we were feeling at that moment. I could not feel any welling up of anger, I just felt sorry for her I suppose.
But what I found most amazing was that we all sat there behaving that nothing had happened, but we knew that the Tsunami would hit her the next day as soon as she walked into office.
Perhaps we were better actors than we were aware of.
She had taken leave that day to cook for us. The Editor did not know that when she had summoned us to her room in the afternoon. She had dark circles around her eyes for she had spent two sleepless nights on Google. An interview of an international author that Reshma got a bit too quickly had made the Editor suspicious and she started to Google lines from Reshma’s interviews and found that most lines matched with other interviews of the same people available on the internet. For six months, Reshma had been doing cut-paste jobs from the net, something we call plagiarism in journalism and which we all knew was sacrilege.
The Editor was certain that Reshma would have to be fired, but what scared her even more was that she herself might be hauled up for not realising the gaffe since it was her job to maintain a plagiarism-free newspaper. She was afraid she would have to relinquish her chair too.
Reshma was weeping profusely when she was asked to leave the job. But she didn’t seem to hold it against us for devouring her Muri Ghonto and not telling her anything the night before. And we somehow felt sorry for her that she didn’t get a chance to mend her ways. We should have felt angry and cheated, but we didn’t. It was a strange feeling. But the Muri Ghonto probably had a major role to play in the way we felt.
The Editor managed to keep her chair. I never met Reshma after that, but recently I heard she has moved to a European city where she runs a firm that provides content.
Amrita Mukherjee's latest book is Museum of Memories, a collection of 13-soul stirring short stories. She has worked in publications like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and The Asian Age in India and she has been the Features Editor with ITP publishing Group, Dubai’s largest magazine publishing house. An advocate of alternative journalism, she is currently a freelance journalist writing for international publications and websites and also blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com