“Have you finished?” it asked.
“Not yet,” I said.
There is something immensely pleasurable about eating with your hands. You know that it is something, something real, but beyond the pleasure you cannot pin it down exactly.
I dug the tips of my fingers into the rice. They touched the warm, silky banana leaf underneath. The rice was a placid yellow. I used my thumb and forefingers to pick up small pieces of fish and caramelised onion and beans and jackfruit curry. The brown and green and orange and red surrounded the yellow mound. I piled together a small, uncertain ball of curry and massaged it into a clump of rice. Very carefully, with undue care and unnecessary attention, I shaped a precise mouthful, a soft yet slightly crunchy delight. Spicy, sweet, and sour tastes stained the uppermost digits of my fingers. My thumb caressed this delicate mess and protected my palm. Resting in the cup formed by my four fingers, this union of things became a new thing, and my thumb guided this new creation gently between my expectant lips. In my mouth it fell apart and sank gently under my teeth and tongue.
Again. Again. Again. It was a dance, mundane because it was practiced, its extravagance kept but hidden. I sat on an ornate bench in front of a sombre wall with a metal door. Dust was under my feet and my fingers danced in the rich humidity. I paid my fingers extra attention. Everywhere in a nation where it was too hot to move, lunch was being danced. The colours, the pattern, the feeling, and the swift twists of fingers and thumbs: it made us. No one could eat this way every day and not have their minds shaped. Practice, effort, and complication can be eased into commonplace pleasure, the exotic trained to be plain without any loss of art.
The door opened behind me a second time.
“Sir, they are tuning. They asked me to ask you,” another it asked. “Sir?”.
“Not yet,” I said.
The road in front of me was unusually empty. My meal distracted my eye partly because I was troubled in an extremely subtle way by the unusually empty road. There were simply too few three-wheelers, loitering sarongs, and white school dresses. But the lunch packet’s beauty was itself a magnet, a fascination fuelled by the fascination that I could be so fascinated. Mango acharu to one side, black fish to the other. Spicy baby jackfruit on another side, turmeric-orange lentils opposite. Surprise was provoked from the understanding that this wonder was taken for granted on a daily basis. I almost asked myself, what else is out there, hidden under the everyday? Almost, but I did not. It was too hard to both enjoy and think.
There was a small newspaper hut on the road beside a few sleeping dogs. The shining banana leaf poked out its edges from underneath the pillow of food. The vendor had in his eyes the same blistering peace that the dogs held in their flat, limp bodies. Boiled egg on one end, soft onion on the other. It became harder to notice with eye and tongue at the same time.
A schoolgirl finally walked up the road. One dog’s ear stirred. I played with the rice and curry. My fingers mashed, shifted, massaged, chose, and melded, working as one, together, mindless, imprecise. Flavour and colour and movement in harmony. Each curry was so precise. Fine crumbles of fried garlic, spice and oil on the dark fish. A smooth sheen of coconut on the green beans interrupted by the occasional glow of chilli and cumin seeds. Playing, I let the mouthful congeal until it became cold.
The door behind me opened a third time.
“Come on, buddy. Don’t you realise how important the success of this is?” another it said.
“Not yet,” I said.
Underneath the meal my shoes glimmered. Their shine was wearing off under the midday sun. A small grain of rice, speckled with bright colours, rested on my pressed, black trousers, then teetered as I moved and fell onto the tip of my left shoe.
They were merely its. I never looked up or back at them when they opened the door. The schoolgirl walked past the vendor and he did not notice and she did not notice and the dogs did not notice. She or he, it did not matter to me. Nor did it matter what they said when they opened the door. Each time it was merely a different it. I desperately wanted to hear the girl or the vendor or even a dog say a word, just one little sound. Despite the sound of traffic from the streets beyond my sight, it was too quiet. It was a poised waiting. No language.
The only refuge from this stark, humid, bright peace, from all its troubling snake-like presence, was my meal. A harmony. A nation. When I touched it with my fingers, for a moment my body and mind could have no reality beyond its scents, its colours, its soft beads of rice.
But why only this dance? Why not throw all the tastes into the rice to mash together a glorious mad chorus? Each taste-identity would see its hue shift and its flavours balance out as it transformed into a melee of fish and vegetables and egg and rice and pastels. And juicy anger, the good kind. Why not bury your fists in, destroy, force a mess, defy the steps, and create anew? Because it would taste different. If anything changed, everything changed. It had always been done this way. Boredom masking fascination, the everyday masking magic, and the mask unable to be moved without tearing off the face. Languid fingers only; anger tastes strange. Or perhaps not…
Perfection, perfection, perfection. Just keep the flies away from the perfection. Or perhaps it would taste the same without the dance.
A motorcyclist ran over one of the dogs. The throbbing engine stopped in front of the vendor. I found it harder to swallow. The food was somehow cooling in the heat and I was getting drowsy.
The door opened behind me for a fourth time.
“We are all ready. Now, come now! The audience is restless. They are wondering what is wrong,” another it said.
“Not yet,” I said.
Flies. And mosquitoes. Bad fish, perhaps. But the taste, the colour, the scents that transformed into flavours, they were a glory. And a spoon was not simply blasphemy. It was ruin; the hands were the meal. I realised, sleepily, that I had barely eaten half of my meal and yet a dog had gone from being alive to dead. I had caressed my mouth with food in a way that could not be done at any other time, even if I were alone, even if I had used another’s lips. Kisses don’t please stomachs.
The hole I had made in the centre of the leaf looked false. This alone troubled me.
I glanced up and saw a living dog standing in front of me. Behind her, the motorcyclist was arguing with the vendor. The vendor argued that the dead dog was not his, but the motorcyclist had done bloody wrong in killing it. The motorcyclist insisted that the dog had been dead already, that any living dog would have moved out of the way as was the custom of all the dogs in this country, and that it was all the vendor’s responsibility somehow. Another dog barked at the motorcyclist. Another slept like the world was vacant. The one in front of me looked happily into my eyes but her nose and soul were buried in the slowly slowing path of my spice-encrusted fingers.
A mosquito landed on me. I thought of dengue. I thought of fever and bleeding insides and death. I thought of weakness and hospital. I thought of recovery. I thought of forgetting, moving on, and death. The dog looked contentedly at me and the motorcyclist’s argument continued and the other dog was still dead. Nothing changed. I kept my precious hands in the banana leaf. The mosquito waited, contemplating me, asking permission and wondering if it needed permission at all. We had a little discussion. Was it his decision or mine? In the end, the soothing tastes of the vibrant dance were too important and delicious for distraction. Or was it the monotony? He bit me. Nothing changed. (But another split-second choice arose and passed: is that the sum of life? spilt seconds? mainly ignored and a precious few noticed? And within this instant of thought there arose yet another: should I feed the dog?)
The motorcyclist was waving his gloved hands violently as he straddled his bike. There was so much colour in my meal and on the street. Blood, red blood, bloody red blood fell from the dead dog. But surprisingly not much, not enough, not enough to meet the colour of my flavours reflected in the black of the happy dog’s eyes and the black of my shoes. And all colours dried, congealed, and cooled over time. All dancers will eventually slow and notice themselves, inspiring the feeling of the moment passing.
The motorcyclist drove off. The dog dried in the humid dust. The dog lay down beside me and my lunch, patiently waiting.
“What, he is not here?” another it must have said.
“He didn’t even finish his lunch packet,” yet another must have replied. “It’s been left to the dogs.”
“How can an orchestra perform without a conductor?”
Somewhere far away from you there is a dog dancing and a dog dead in a country of flavour and blood.