Stories

Bitter-Sweet

Summer Solstice… another dazzling day.

From the veranda of her condo, Pinky stood watching Niraj, David, Joe, and Isha going up and down the little slide. Some kids remained beneath the slide waiting expectantly and squealed in delight at the sight of their companions.

The kindergarteners enjoyed tricycle rides, played catch-catch, and hoopla, carved stories on the sand pit, and sometimes played splashy-splashy.  Niraj waved from across, and Pinky waved back. This daily peek was Pinky’s vitamin pill and energizer to temporarily lull the exigencies and the monotonous activities.

Pinky glanced at the mobile screen and chose not to take the call from her boss. ‘Anyways, meeting is just ten minutes away…’   Little did she realize that the call was going to change her life, at least for the present.

Ever since the pandemic began, team members had to be available for virtual meetings at varied timings; however, most of the meetings were fixed in advance, therefore, employees were left with a definite time for pursuits.

Pinky enjoyed the leisurely walks, admiring the rows of rose and lavender blooms on the sidewalks swaying in the gentle breeze and taking in the fragrance of the minty-sweet flowers, or cycling on the endless trails that were flanked by verdant green. Watching the splash of colors brought along vivid images of school, of Ms. Peter’s rendering:

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;”

Occasionally, Pinky would record her own lines about her experiences in a journal –

‘Dainty beauties swaying
to the delicate kiss and caress
from the winged visitors
For the brisk walker,
extra intensity, not from
the dazzling sun
but from these stunners!’

Pinky worked as a ‘chocolate taster’ in a renowned chocolate factory in this bustling city on the West Coast. 

Right from childhood, her olfactory system had been exceptional.  ‘Samosas!’ she would squeal from the garden gate, even before she entered. As she walked back from school with her friends, she would sniff ‘bread,’ ‘jalebis’ ‘pakodas’ ‘cakes’ ‘jams’ and more.

Meenu auntie’s preparing pakode-kadi for dinner.’
‘Hey! Mrs. Jacob is baking a chocolate cake for Sam’s birthday.’
‘Samir’s grandma has made a new batch of papads!’

She could also identify smells and scents as ‘fresh’ or ‘stale;’ besides, she could also categorize them as fruity, musky, minty, woody, nutty, chocolatey, pungent, offensive, and more.

‘Robert uncle has cleaned his garage again with vinegar and baking soda!’
‘You’ll become a chef when you grow up!’
her friends teased.

She proved them wrong when she chose the road not taken – she ended up as a chocolate taster not only due to her weakness for chocolates but also because of her remarkable sense of smell and taste;  she had all the makings of a professional chocolate taster.

The job was not as glamorous as people would believe it to be; the taste buds mediating the sensation of taste lying chiefly in the epithelium of the tongue had to be accurately precise- the palette had to retain the senses, therefore, when Pinky had to taste as many as 35-40 chocolates a day, she would spit out the sweets, wait for a minute, then drink plain water; occasionally eat a cracker.

Drinking cold or carbonated water numbed the senses, and it was a definite No! Nothing too hot or cold too! Smelling the chocolates was a thing Pinky loved most, as also the listening- the chocolate had to sound ‘crisp’ when broken, else it was a sign that it was improperly stored, or it wasn’t fresh.  She would place on her tongue a cube of chocolate, press it against her palate, and when it melted, she would enter the information about the piece as bitter, sour, sweet, or salty. Exhaling quickly, she would sniff subtle spicy aromas such as mint, berry, citrus, cinnamon, tea, and more.  All the information had to be entered into the data book with much precision and timing, which she did meticulously.

When there was a sale, or when the seconds appeared good enough, she picked a few bars and stored them in the refrigerator.

Niraj, Isha, and David were children of the neighbors who lived in the condos. Pinky bumped into them often; on occasions, she even indulged in games and activities with the kids and was their favorite for obvious reasons. During outings with her migrant neighbors and other friends, she would generously dole out the bars to the children and the adults.

 ‘Sugar-spike!’ “You’re sweet bombing!  Her friends would complain with feigned anger, but never failed to enjoy the assorted flavors that Pinky passed on – Peanut Butter Cups, Salted Almond, Orange, Coffee Toffee, Pure Dark and Milk Chocolates.

‘Oh no! I’m unable to log in, and what is this strange message? Let me try through my mobile. What’s wrong?’ Yesterday, there was a power outage for about twenty minutes, today, things are fine! But…….’

Pinky called Justin to check what was wrong. Justin was a good colleague and friend whom she often met during lunch hours. They sat at the same table and had meaningful conversations after lunch.  Justin had traveled to several countries including India and always had fascinating stories to share.  And he loved the palak paneer, ghuguni and rajma that she brought along for lunch with rotis.

At the first ring, Justin picked up and said Hello!

Before she could continue, he asked, ‘You too!’

‘You too, what?’ blurted Pinky. ‘Are you able to log into the meeting? Robert called me about fifteen minutes ago, but I did not take his call. Is the meeting on?’

Justin, in his characteristic tone, said: ‘He’d have called to convey the not-so-good news!

‘What are you trying to say, Justin?’ Pinky replied with a little apprehension.

‘Well, Well! We are living in uncertain times; been reading rumors in the dailies, the inevitable has happened!’

‘You mean…  you mean… I’ve lost my job?’ Pinky shrieked into the phone.

‘You, I, and others. The factory is shutting down and they no longer require our services.’

In utter disbelief and shock, Pinky continued to cry on the phone.  Justin waited for a while and said:

‘Let’s meet at Starbucks in an hour, we’ll discuss matters and look for alternative solutions. Relocation is unwelcome, overwhelming, and dreadful…. Life must go on… ‘I guess you remember Bryan Dyson’s Five Balls of Life!’

Without replying, Pinky disconnected the call; the world collapsed under her feet. She had fallen into a fathomless pit and there was utter darkness all around. She slumped on the bed and shed copious tears. ‘Where do I go now; how do I pay the credit bills? What do I tell people at home? And Mom has been pressurizing me to settle down….’

bitter-sweet chocolates satisfying
to the palate
trials in life agonizing
to psyche and body
broken nest – bird begins with intensity
failed career – a sorrowful propensity
anything but sweet…

A sudden ring startled her, and she picked up the call.  It was Robert.  Without beating around the bush, he came straight to the point.

The news is certainly devastating to all of us, downsizing and closure are inevitable in this period of mounting costs and dismal turnover.  I must thank you for the pivotal role you’ve played, you were among the best chocolate tasters that the company has ever had. Again, your soft skills and specialized skills are your greatest strengths in life.  You are certain to succeed in any profession that you take up.  I will mail you an excellent letter of recommendation. My best wishes are with you….  If there’s anything else I can do for you in my personal or official capacity, I’d certainly love to help.

‘Thanks, Robert, I appreciate your kind words.’ replied Pinky and ended the call.

The mobile rang almost immediately. ‘Hey, where are you? I’m waiting.

Hurriedly Pinky washed her face, combed her disheveled hair, and sped down the stairs.  She bumped into David and Ishas’ moms.

‘Think of the angel, and there she is!

Pinky just said Hello! and walked on briskly as she wanted to get past them soon.

The two ladies walked along, keeping pace with her strides.  Isha’s mom began - ‘Ms. Meher has just left this city lock, stock, and barrel... The headmistress is looking out for a young and energetic person, particularly someone who loves children.  Will it be possible for you to work part-time in the early mornings? And go to the factory in the early afternoon, after all, it’s so close to the school…’

Pinky was unable to believe what she just heard and instantly responded: ‘Sure, I’d love that!’ I shall meet you again later this evening, sorry to leave right now, but I’m late for an appointment.’

As she began to move, she heard Nisha’s mom say – ‘moreover, there’s no fear of moonlighting.’ ‘Sure, we’ll let you run off now. An affirmative answer from you is uplifting!’

As Pinky entered Starbucks, Justin did not fail to notice the spring in her step and a smile on her face.
 

24-Feb-2024

More by :  Hema Ravi

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