Give me a gnawing like fire ants in the stomach, four in the morning and the night still thick as treacle. I’ll forfeit the noon gladly for this deferred sleep, the bright nip of this hunger guiding my way out of the unlit room. I will give in.
In my kitchen, poltergeists. Against the hour’s yawning silence, the cacophony of tap water tumbling onto pans, the ignited gas stove ticking, the crackle of eager oil. This hunger demands immediate satiation, first orders, and so an egg is whisked, smattered with turmeric and pepper, cascaded in a rush of sputtering onto the pan, turning Midas-gold before my eyes. Sop it up with a side of Sri Lankan “Chinese Chilli” seafood paste – ill-advised and just a teaspoon too much – and it is done. The head is clear. The greater craving can now annex the kitchen, the sleepless eater’s stomach lucid with longings.
Give me the glow of the refrigerator light. Lucky is the insomniac epicurean who has an accomplice, because there is something utterly romantic about this electric illumination, the rectangle of yellow that falls across the dark. The remembered thrill of condensed milk sandwiches eaten by this light as a child, sweet memory warmed along with the reheated idiappom and potato sothi, quiet adult conversation at an hour when everything is louder, more pungent, than life.
Give me the glow of my laptop then, typed conversations with cronies in different time zones, whom I inadvertently curse with obesity and alcoholism – what are you eating, my love, what are you drinking; have another one on my behalf, won’t you? Pangs of the heart and the belly, voracious. Every entreating appetite.
And what, and what, will I eat now, and drink now, after the omelet has settled? What do I do with the ferocious hankering for waffles with maple syrup, or smoked salmon, things I could wait till the day arrives and go out to find, if the wallet can spare it? Worse is the desire for that which cannot be found except by way of travel. Happiness, my friends, is a warm char siew pau. Sadness is living in a country where it does not exist.
How capricious is the mid-night craving. One moment a yen for spice, the next for sweet. The thought of milk toffee, sticky in the teeth and sublime on the tongue, the pining for the rubbery flesh of frogs’ legs with porridge. Survey the spread, between cabinets and fridge: instant noodles, more eggs, milk, cold rice. Coffee – a miracle. This is what happens when you have eaten by day everything you have bought by day. A rueful flashback to a wedge of mutton so tender your thumbnail slid clear into it at lunch, and how you ate each piece as if there would be no tomorrow – or no tonight. Remorse for the half-finished dishes of your past. Again, a desperate longing for places where gluttony is no sin, and the streets bustle all night with grime, steam, oil, even the smells of food lingering in a thin film on your own skin.
Riot in my belly, what will I do with you but wait? I’ll allay this hunger with obsession and promise, hope and fancy, fanning its flames to fever pitch. When dawn rises, I will devour the world.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.