In those high and far off times, oh best beloved, a miracle happened in the new hill station of Kodaikanal. I was not yet born and neither was Packiamma, but she heard about it from her step-father who heard the tale from the cook’s grandson himself, so it must be true.
There was an American durai dying of consumption. He spent his days confined to his damp bungalow, unable to work in his rose garden or throw eucy nuts at the monkeys. None of the doctors had been able to help him and he grew weaker with each passing fortnight. He knew he would never see America again, so he asked his old cook to prepare one last Thanksgiving dinner before his death.
The cook managed to track down a turkey from the toothless chicken man at the bottom of the bazaar. This gobbler was brought home in a gunny sack along with a pumpkin and a bag of sweet potatoes, green peas, celery, and parsley. The cook had fixed many of these strange dinners for the foreigners before. Why durais would cook sweet potatoes with brown sugar instead of masala was anybody’s guess. And taking a respectable poosani kai and baking it with cinnamon and nutmeg on a thin layer of dough in a round pan was frankly crazy.
After slitting the turkey’s throat on the wet grass behind the kitchen, the cook chased away the young stray dog that was lolling around. He scalded the bird, plucked off the feathers, cleaned it, and stuffed it with bread cubes and celery. The turkey was then placed in the Spencer’s cast iron oven to cook. Hour after hour, the old cook fed splintered chunks of firewood into the burning chamber and basted the meat to perfection. He then placed it on a china platter and went to the dining room to set the rosewood table. The durai’s guests were due to arrive soon.
When the cook returned to his smoky kitchen, he found that the turkey was missing. He looked in the oven thinking that he might have left it there, but the oven was empty. He dashed to the matey room. Not there. He called the ayah, but she had not seen it. He ran into the woods behind the bungalow and there on an emerald patch of moss the same stray dog was happily dining on the durai’s turkey. The cook grabbed a a heavy wattle stick and clubbed the dog to death. After recovering the turkey and rinsing off the twigs, he found that the bird was largely intact, save for two half-eaten legs. He would have to come up with an alternative, and fast.
The cook thought about going back to the chicken man, but turkeys had to be ordered from the plains. He cursed the dog.
The ayah came in and told him that the durai wanted to know how preparations were going. The cook stared at her for a few moments, then grabbed his stained blue apron and his sharpest knife.
“Tell him things are a little behind schedule,” the cook said. “The turkey is very big and is taking a long time to cook.”
The ayah looked at the damaged turkey and at the knife. She frowned.
“Not a word!” the cook said. “Tell him Thanksgiving dinner will be ready in an hour and a half. Go on.”
The old man ducked out of the cook house, hurried to the dead dog and sliced off its back legs. He skinned them by the outside tap, brought the meat into the kitchen and trimmed them to size. While baking the legs in the oven, he went out and buried the dog in the woods.
After the legs were golden and juicy, he sewed them to the turkey, painted the revised bird with mint sauce, and placed his creation back in the oven for fifteen more minutes. At that moment, the durai hobbled in, opened the oven door and inspected the bird. The cook studied his face. The durai straightened up and slammed the oven door shut with his cane.
“Nice sized turkey,” he said. “Especially the legs.”
The old man’s heart jumped. The ayah was watching from the doorway.
“You’ve really done it this time,” the durai said.
The cook shrunk back as his employer slowly limped towards him.
“Yes sir, my friend.” The durai smiled. “The last Thanksgiving dinner of my life will be the very best. Your turkey looks wonderful.”
The cook looked down.
“Always a man of few words, I see. My guests are all waiting. Bring in this magnificent bird just as soon as you can. It’s time to give thanks.”
After garnishing the turkey with parsley, walnuts roasted in garlic and rosemary, and purple grapes, the cook put on his white waistcoat, buttoned the silver buttons all the way to his chin, and carried the platter into the dining room. The guests clapped.
The durai led them in the singing of All Good Gifts. The cook avoided the ayah’s eyes as they served the guests. Faces were happy, conversation was light, and by the time the pumpkin pie was served, people were completely stuffed with contentment. A perfumed lady in silk rose to her feet and called the cook to join them.
“My friends. Never before have we enjoyed such a fine Thanksgiving feast. And what a divine turkey! The dark meat especially was exquisite. Let’s hear it for the cook!”
The guests cheered, the durai beamed, and the cook squirmed. He gathered up an armful of dirty dishes and escaped to the kitchen.
Over the course of the next month, the durai’s coughing diminished and his appetite improved. He began to take daily walks. After three months he even played a little tennis against the Brits at the Club. None of the residents of Kodaikanal could believe their eyes, least of all the cook.
One afternoon when the mist was rolling in through the eucy trees, the durai returned from his tennis game and marched straight into the kitchen. His eyebrows were furrowed and he was brandishing his pistol. The cook snapped to attention.
“I demand to know what you put into that Thanksgiving turkey.”
“Don’t play with me, man. I know you did something to the meat and I want to know every detail.” He jutted out his jaw.
“I…I just bought it biggest one turkey from chicken man and am cooking it as master is liking.”
“You’re lying. I can see it in your eyes.” The durai clicked off the safety and took aim at the cook’s heart. “Tell me the whole truth or I will shoot you dead, so help me God.”
The cook’s eyes grew wide. His mouth went dry. He stared at the gun, then at the durai’s face, then at the gun. “I…didn’t mean to… it is just that stray one doggie is take the turkey and eat off legs, so I…”
The durai narrowed his eyes. “You what.”
“I…chop the doggie and cook his legs and sew them onto turkey. Sir.” The cook closed his eyes, expecting any moment to hear the gun explode. Instead, the durai burst into laughter and clasped the old man to his chest.
“I knew there was something special about that meat. Your dog meat saved my life! Look at me now. I’m back to full health, thanks to you.”
The cook opened one eye. “Master not angry?”
“Angry? Are you kidding? You’ve made me very,very happy Now that I can travel again, I’ve decided to return to America to be with my family. And what’s more, see this bungalow? Tomorrow you and I are marching straight over to the Registration Office. I’m signing it all over to you. From now on, this house and property will belong to you and your children and their children’s children.”
And so this tale comes to an end. The cook and the durai and their guests have long since vanished. Who remembers what they held dear, the sooty odor of the kitchen, the color of the rose petals on the linen, the durai breaking bread, the garnished splendor of the turkey, the particular timbre of the woman in silk’s voice, the clink of silverware on china, the way the forks cut through pie crust, the fragrance of afternoon tea, the droop of eyelids as evening approached?
The cook’s grandson too is gone and so is Packiamma with all her sparkling stories.
On this day, oh best beloved, I am thankful for those we loved, in those high and far off times.