Enemy of the Taste


Enemy of the Taste

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

New years may come and new years may go, but two things will always remain on my list of bêtes noires – running and brinjal. If you see me running, know something demented is chasing me, and you should probably start running too. And yeah, you will never see me eat brinjals.

I have maintained a steady ill feeling toward this purple-fleshed vegetable for many years now and by the established virtue of consistency, I declare today: Brinjal is a loser. Under its purple black skin that shouts midnight conspiracy, the bulbous vegetable emanates a profoundly forbidding vibe – that of bitter betrayal, it’s like sweet poison.

The moment you let a piece of brinjal into your mouth and begin chewing, it rudely sprinkles brinjal water all over your palate, and if you’re brave enough to let it stay in your mouth for long, its slimy, slippery body slides all over your tongue and zigzags fearlessly all the way down to your intestines. It doesn’t even have the courtesy to leave you with a respectable aftertaste.

I have walked into many a restaurant and settled on stir-fried veggies only to find brinjal masked in a thick batter of corn, deeply fried, and thoroughly disguised. Each time it infiltrates onto my plate a terrible anger courses through me. Who pronounced it the king of vegetables?

As far as I’m concerned, the world is neatly divided into three kinds of people: A) People who detest brinjals. B) People who are committed to brinjals and C) People who eat brinjals because they’re Pac-Mans. I’ve realised that I can never really befriend the Category B peeps – the brinjal maniacs. The moment you tell them that you do not like brinjals, they have a way of looking down upon you and asking, “But have you ever tried *tongue twister* aubergine?” And if by any chance, you say no, which I’m sure you will, because no brinjal hater would go to a restaurant and dedicate their pennies to the vegenemies, it stands proven that you’re not only like the frog who thinks the world is no bigger than a well, but you’re also humiliated for not liking brinjal because you never had the right and real brinjal dish.

My mom belongs to Category B and that is a recipe for lifelong misery. I have hated slimy food since I was a kid and that was enough for my mom to devote her energies into making her entire kitchen a temple to slime. She conned me into thinking papayas were mangoes, mashed brinjal was just mashed fish, and mashed bananas, well, “it’s nothing but mashed ice cream, Toshna,” she’d say. Obviously, I grew up with a huge bank of mix and unmatched knowledge, confused taste buds, total sense of misplaced food relations, and a trust deficit deeper than Mariana Trench.

Last month, as the season of New Year resolutions was nearing, I decided to take the road less travelled – the I-will-eat-only-healthy-food route.

To make things worse, everyone who matters to me, that is, everyone who invites us over to their house, or gets themselves invited over to our house, craves mom’s signature brinjal and fish curry. She sources some fresh fish from the river, smokes it with spices, and puts it into a wok filled with brinjals where it loses its after-death dignity.

My mum is joined by my aunts in this nasty game. This gang is led by my grandmum, the Don Corleone of the brinjal-loving Roy fam. And that’s all the support they need, to conjure up new brinjal dishes and think of new tricks to cleverly and quickly feed it to me. And every time they rustle up a new brinjal dish, they recite, “THIS, Toshna, will not taste like brinjals at all!” I have explained to them earnestly that whether it’s in baba ganoush, bharta, vegan smoothies, flavoured condoms, or Taher Shah’s robes, I can smell the damn vegetable.

Last month, as the season of New Year resolutions was nearing, I decided to take the road less travelled – the I-will-eat-only-healthy-food route. What bombarded my inbox during this time were not requests to “make fraandship’ or messages on how to lose 78,478 kilos in 0 days, but emails with subject lines such as “9 ways brinjal is good for you”, “20 ways you can die if you don’t eat brinjals”, “87 ways brinjals can kill you if you don’t eat them”, all sent by the fam Brinjal Support Group.

I succumbed to the pressure and decided to give brinjals a wildcard entry in my life. I thought of asking mum to prepare a brinjal dish and guess what, I didn’t even have to ask. It was already cooking itself in our kitchen.

My mom’s eyes gleamed as I announced my decision to her and deposited myself in the dining hall. My WhatsApp was flooded with messages from the fam Brinjal Support Group in no fucking time and that really was all the therapy I needed before jumping into this lifestyle choice.

Finally, there it sat, between my plate and me, a lump of baingan bharta, ready to be devoured in its slimiest best. It looked like it had some character. Like Llewyn from Inside Llewyn Davis. I already started feeling bad for it. As my mind forcibly pushed me into thinking about the amount of beating that must have gone into making the bharta, the vegetable sat there in a quivering heap, torn between being in a solid and liquid state, gel-like, garnished with wishful herbs, ready to be chewed upon until it could set its brinjal fountain sprinkling again. I gathered an unholy amount of courage and tried to slip it into my mouth while continuously telling myself that the world would not come to a standstill and the birds would continue to chirp even after the bharta had been ingested by my system. The pep talk worked for my brain, but not for my gag reflex that got activated immediately with brinjal-on-tongue action.

My mom’s eyes dimmed and I could sense the Brinjal Support Group’s collective defeat in her eyes as I fled to the bathroom, but now she couldn’t say anything… I had tried. I had failed. As I gargled and stepped out of the bathroom, the ugly truth was staring at both of us in the face: Brinjals and I will forever be the twain that shall never meet. The sky and the ocean. North and South. Chalk and cheese. Blaise Pascal was right, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”