He smelt of the Butter Chicken and Dal Makhani that he served to the clientele of Golden Dhaba from 11 in the morning till midnight. He also smelt of the cheap cologne that he rubbed on his neck and wrists on his way back home, a sweet gesture to make her smile. She smelt of detergent, glue, and kerosene, but on Mondays, she emanated the fragrance of the jasmine blossoms that she pinned in her hair after her weekly pooja. They were a simple couple, they had been promised to each other by their parents when they were toddlers and had grown up together, playing hide and seek in their adjacent backyards, stealing mangoes from the school’s orchard, and believing that it was them against the world. They both had dreams that were too ambitious for their rural upbringing, plans that were too grand for their humble means, and wings that were too wide to be accommodated by the skies of the dusty village in Punjab that they called home. This is why, soon after their wedding, the young couple embarked on an adventure, to start the new chapter of their lives in the dazzling city of Chandigarh.
The first few years in Chandigarh had not been easy. He worked as a dish washer at a dhaba, the hours were long and the pay was negligible. She sold hand-crafted dolls made out of newspaper and rags, cushion covers with floral patterns embroidered on them, and papads that she sun-dried on their aluminium roof. Right before the onset of winters, she would visit the colonies nearby where the wives of bankers and railway officers would be relaxing in their well-pruned lawns, enjoying the last few days of the autumn sunshine and the first batch of juicy guavas. She took orders for knitting sweaters for their husbands, children, and mothers-in-law - the madams were suspicious at first, but when they saw the samples of her work, the orders started pouring in. Meanwhile, he gradually progressed from washing the dishes to serving the food, and was finally promoted to the position of head chef, after he had mastered the recipes of all the butter-laden dishes that the truck drivers and the spoilt sons of rich merchants who frequented the dhaba equally enjoyed.
His new found love for cooking was a blessing for his wife, whose rotis were never as round and dal never as delicious as her mother would have preferred. Thus started the tradition of him preparing breakfast for her every morning and bringing home leftovers from the dhaba at night. She would heat up the food on a small kerosene stove and they would dine together under the stars. The wrath of the owner of the dhaba, the drunken ramblings of the customers, and the scorching heat of the tandoor would never miff him, whenever he was in the kitchen, he would be cooking just for her. She stopped cooking altogether and devoted all her time to knitting sweaters and stitching pillowcases, saving up money — slowly but steadily — to make their whimsical dreams come true. She would only make an exception on special occasions, when she would prepare Halwa, his favourite dessert.
One cold December night, as he reached the narrow pathway that led to their house, a polythene bag full of food in one hand, he wasn’t greeted by the smell of detergent or kerosene or jasmines. A cloud of smoke wafted in the air and the aroma of charred ghee and caramel tickled his nostrils. He realized that it was their 40th wedding anniversary and that she had burnt the Halwa yet again. Their dreams may not have all come true, but the taste of burnt sugar was not as sweet anywhere else in the world.