Manju Kapur’s writing often deals with women’s status in Indian society, especially within the marital context. This is not a surprising fact, in a culture that still determines a woman’s future by a marriage her parents arrange for her. At the center of the story “Chocolate,” which is taught in universities in India, is the character of a woman who decides to take control of her own fate and not only rebel, but even exact her revenge against the conservative conventions she is expected to follow. The thick sweetness of the chocolate condenses into a nauseating concoction between the words of the story, to fill every rift that might crack open in the bleak relationship between Tara and Abhay. Not only is the woman stuffed with the sweet drug in order to turn her into an obedient wife, she is even blamed for losing her femininity. And yet, the woman comes to her senses and decided to get her revenge: you wanted a woman in the kitchen—a woman in the kitchen you shall get. In a wonderful moment of turning the tables, Tara presents her cheating husband with a taste of his own cooking. The act of reciprocal overfeeding in this story grants it an element of perversion, likened to an attempt to force in this current age this type of oppressing relationship on women who are masters of their own fate.
Tara was fat. Her husband made it clear that it didn’t do his image any good to have her waddling around, jiggling rolls of flesh.
“I don’t waddle,” she said, hurt.
“You do,” said Abhay and that was the end of the matter. So far as words were concerned it was an established pattern that he had the last one.
Later she cried. She wiped away the tears that rolled down her soft, slightly flabby cheeks with a handkerchief clutched in a smooth, plump hand. She would like to be slim and svelte, a credit to her husband, but it was no use. Life without food, especially chocolate, was not worth living.
Her husband couldn’t be too serious about her losing weight, after all, he was her main supplier. She thought of his latest offering from Europe. Twenty bars of Swiss chocolate, seductively wrapped in green, orange, blue, and red, gleaming with pictures of fruit, nuts, and glasses of wine, rolls of marzipan, with the grainy paste of almonds covered with chocolate so smooth, it dissolved on the tip of her tongue, and the piece de resistance, two big boxes of cherries in liqueur set in cups of dark chocolate. Even when she wasn’t eating them, she could feel in her mouth the sharpness of the liqueur, the bitter sweetness of the liquefying chocolate, the tanginess and gentle crunch of the cherry.
He was always assiduous in catering to her tastes. As he handed the chocolate to her he would tell her how busy he had been and how much he wished it were possible for her to accompany him. Then he would lightly rub the roll of fat around her belly to prove his love. At times the rub would get a little hard, but marks of physical affection between them were rare, and she took what she got.
When did it happen that Tara first got to know about her husband’s affair? Something that the readers of this text will find obvious to the point of banality? A man who is stuffing his wife with chocolate in such quantities has to have an ulterior motive.
A short history of her life will place her stupidity in perspective.
School: Ages 3-17. Convent, all girls. Strict emphasis on studies and nothing else. Tara’s free time is taken with going to dance and music classes. Her mother says these things are important. Give grace to a girl.
College: Ages 17- 20. An all-girls college. Her parents don’t think it wise to send Tara anywhere else. She chooses English Honours, considered a soft option. She isn’t very clear what to do with her life, and English seems a good, no-purpose subject. Besides she has always been fond of reading.
English Honours turns out to be not such a soft option after all. She had never thought reading could be so strenuous. Literature didn’t seem to be about stories. All the emphasis was on ideas, history, context, Marxist-feminist interpretations, and a pursuit of meaning that went beyond the obvious into the totally obscure.
Tara spends her time in college going to films with her friends, bunking classes. She complains to her mother about how hard her teachers expect her to work. Her mother consoles her. She has to somehow graduate, then she will get married.
The wedding preparations coincide with the prep leave for the exams.
What to do, beti?” her mother says when Tara protests. “I know it is a bad time for you but then these are the auspicious dates.
“But Amma, how will I study?” complains Tara.
“Well, the boy is good. And the family is very keen. Some things cannot be put off.“
By the time Tara’s results are out, she has come back from her honeymoon. She has got a third division, and is mildly surprised that she has passed at all.
Her husband thinks she is upset.
“Never mind, darling,” he says clutching her in his strong, manly arms, “You have me.”
Tara’s heart beats fast, as she feels herself squeezed in that marital embrace.
“Yes, it’s true,” she whispers. “I have you.”
The family then waits for the children to come. In time it becomes evident that if they came at all it would have to be through divine or medical intervention.
Tara started with the medical intervention front first.
“Maybe we should go and see a doctor?” she suggested to her husband.
“You go if you want to,” replied Abhay. “There is nothing wrong with me”.
After the doctor had examined Tara she said there was nothing wrong with her and maybe a look at the husband was in order.
“But he doesn’t think so,” said Tara mournfully.
“What rubbish!” exclaimed the doctor, who was sick and tired of encountering such attitudes in her practice. “You tell him it is not only the woman who is responsible for bearing a child. The sperm has to be healthy. It may be that he is infertile, it may be that his sperm count is low, it may be that he has been drinking too much, or that he has some kind of latent infection. It may be any number of things.”
Tara blushed. How was she supposed to convey all this to her husband?
Abhay agreed to see the doctor after a somewhat acrimonious discussion, in which he pointed out to Tara how completely wrong she was.
“Shouldn’t I come too?” asked Tara, as Abhay was going.
“No,” he said briefly. “I’ll deal with it on my own.”
So Tara never knew what happened at the doctor’s. Abhay came home tight-lipped and cross, and refused to comment.
“But what happened? What did she say?” she asked several times.
“She’s a fool. Huh! No point in your going to her either.”
Medical consultations were not possible after this.
On the divine intervention front, Tara was told she should take a trip to Vaishno Devi, crawling on her hands and knees.
After she had crawled up Vaishno Devi on her hands and knees, she decided to do the hands and knees stuff at other shrines. She had thought she would feel embarrassed, but she didn’t. This was routine at these places.
Her husband thought all this was a great idea. So did her mother-in-law.
“Poor Tara!” she heard her say once. “She is trying so hard,” and then in a lowered voice, “but she is unhealthy from the inside.”
When there were no signs of conception after all this, Tara took to wearing certain stones around her neck and fingers, and her husband took to feeding her chocolates.
It was chocolate that drew her attention to a certain lack of something on the part of Abhay. He became casual in getting her what she wanted.
After an excess of peppermint she hinted that she would look forward to more variety. He had complained.
“I don’t get the time,” he said. “All I can do is pick up these things from the airport, and peppermint is what airports happen to have.”
“But so much?“
She turned the green and white boxes over in her hands. Edwardian Mints, Crème de Menthe Mints, Bitter Chocolate Mints, Wafer Mints, After Eight Mints, After Dinner Mints, Mints in White Chocolate.
She felt sick at the idea of this much mint. But her craving for chocolate was so strong that she ate them all anyway.
And then he did it again.
“Didn’t you remember?” she asked.
“What?” He looked preoccupied.
“What I said last time. About the mints.”
“Last time? Oh, oh, yes, of course. But you see the airports…”
She looked at all that revolting peppermint.
“But before you managed…”
“Well you know these airports. Not very imaginative.
That’s not what Tara would have thought as she remembered the brochures that Abhay frequently got, advertising this airline, that airport. They seemed to contain virtually everything under the sun.
After Abhay left, Tara remained lost in thought. It was odd that he had forgotten her request – her reasonable request – about the mint chocolate. Abhay had a good memory. But then he was always so preoccupied. And hardly ever at home.
And in between these two thoughts, sequences in a chain, suspicion pounced and bent the links in another direction.
Within a matter of seconds, Tara was convinced she had found the clue to much of Abhay’s behavior. Could it be, could it be that what she had read about in her college days, could it be that the Other Woman had appeared in her life as well. She made up her mind to spy on him. The results were predictable.
After she had gone through the gamut of emotions ranging from shock, confusion, despair, anger and resentment, she toyed with the idea of knocking her brains out. To help reach a conclusion she automatically went to the fridge to take out her chocolates. She needed consolation. Absent-mindedly she bit into one. It tasted like sawdust. She bit into it again and gagged. This was the only pleasure she had in her life. What was happening to it?
She felt a burning sensation at the back of her throat, and the sour ugly taste of bile. She quickly put the chocolate back into the fridge and closed the door. Nausea overcame her, and she barely made it to the bathroom.
She never ate another piece of chocolate again. Every time she looked at the dark shining pieces glistening invitingly at her, she saw Abhay’s eyes sunk in them, tempting her to bite into a piece and get fat.
She lost weight. The feeling of nausea she had about chocolate helped put her off eating. She grew thinner, thinner than she had been in years. She took the rings off her fingers. There seemed little point in wearing them now. From saris she moved to salwar-kameez. She looked younger. She felt more alert and alive than she had for a long time. She began to think about strategies.
She must win him back, she thought. She decided to join cooking classes. The way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Abhay hardly ate at home. But now… She must cook. She would be the source of all things delectable.
Tara joined Mrs. Singhal’s Cooking Classes, which guaranteed mastery of Cordon Bleu, Continental, Chinese and Indian cuisines in just a year. Tara discovered in herself a light hand, and a flair for improvisation. Her teacher praised her too, and that helped. No one had ever praised her learning anything in her life — academics was out of the question, and even her dancing and singing teachers had felt that she needed to apply herself more.
For Mrs. Singhal a meal was not just eating. It was an Aesthetic Experience. The table, the colours, the setting, the flowers, everything had to be perfect.
Tara dived into Experience like a duck into water. Cooking was endlessly creative, she discovered. The taste which she had exhibited in doing up her home, had scope that was infinitely various on the site of the dining table. She experienced the joys of putting before a husband – however errant – things he could not resist. He became quite greedy and demanding, entertaining small numbers of friends more often at home.
Imperceptibly Abhay began to put on weight. Tara could see for herself the fruit of her labours, and her sense of power grew. New thoughts began to enter her head. She increased the cream in her desserts and began putting more cheese in the Italian dishes. Abhay’s clothes did not fit him anymore. He began to talk seriously of dieting.
At this point Tara looked him over speculatively. In her mind’s eye she saw him as she herself had once been. “You waddle,” he had said at the beginning of the story, and she predictably female, had replied in pain, “I do not.” Now she wanted him to waddle, though her position might not allow her to rub his nose in the fact as he had done hers.
When Abhay’s affair broke up, a certain moroseness tinged and deepened the yellow of his already saturnine complexion. For consolation he turned to serious eating. He listened to music, he drank, and he demanded hot and spicy tit-bits from Tara’s ever fertile kitchen.
When he began to waddle, she, trained to find her husband beautiful in all his manifold aspects, started to find him ugly.
Given the circumstances of her revenge, she needed an affair to give it a finished ending. She chose a friend of his, the most convenient male to hand. The friend had dropped certain hints, Tara decided to pick them up. She indulged herself with him without taking precautions. She had long given up the possibility of conceiving, and when she found herself pregnant, she was exhilarated. The first thing to do was to get rid of the friend.
“Abhay suspects,” she told him.
Then she told her husband. “I think perhaps it has been your improved health,” she said. “You look so much better now. Before you were too thin. That is why I have been blessed with this baby.”
A puzzled look crossed Abhay’s face as he took in the air of quiet triumph in his wife’s manner. He started spying on her, but her affair had been so brief and circumspect that he found no traces of it.
When Tara’s daughter was born, she crooned her lullabies of brave women warriors, and made sure that all her education was oriented towards a career that would make her independent.
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