Published in Britain by Constable & Robinson and in America and Canada [ Images ] by Dell in July 2005, this is an excerpt from Zimler's novel, Guardian of the Dawn, set during the Inquisition in Goa [ Images ].
At this point in the novel, the narrator -- a young boy named Tiago -- is living with his Portuguese-Jewish father and younger sister, Sofia, just outside Goan territory. Tiago's Indian mother has recently died and it is the beloved family cook, Nupi, who helps him overcome his grief.
After the wet nurse left, our house suddenly became too large and cold for me. All its comforting corners seemed to harden, and its doors seemed to be forever waiting for a visitor who would never come. For weeks at a time I trudged around from room to room thinking I was now an intruder. I even hated my bed, and the down pillows that had made a rocky coastline when I played at naval battles on my sheets, and the shady alcove on the north side of Papa's library where I read my books when everywhere else was too hot. I got it into my head that I wanted a staircase and a second floor added to the house. I no longer remember why. Maybe I needed a new place to start over.
One afternoon, after Papa refused to build a staircase for me once again, Nupi led me crying into her kitchen. When I explained what was wrong, she ordered me to sit."What for?" I asked.
"Will you ever just do what I say without making a fuss?"
She'd made a batch of steaming dal for herself and spooned some with her old iron ladle onto a banana leaf for me, then gave herself a smaller portion. She moved her ancient wooden stool up to the table we'd recently given a new coat of bright yellow paint and instructed me to do the same with the cane chair behind her broom. "You want me to eat with you?" I asked. She looked around, then peered over my shoulder. She even upturned her large cauldron, which had a wedge of black soap hiding underneath. "I don't see anyone else here," she said, "so you're my only choice."
For the first time in our lives we ate together. A white hibiscus flower from our garden peeked over the rim of the cracked earthenware jar between us. "Flowers are good," she announced to me when I touched it. I came to learn that this was an essential postulate in her guidebook to life. "And your mother would want to know you're eating well," she added.
As we ate our dal, Nupi kicked my bare foot now and again to make me look up, since I tended to get lost in thought of late. She told me I mustn't leave over a single lentil or she'd report me to my father, which was an attempt at humour, since she was always saying Papa was too easy on me. When I didn't smile, she gave me a serious look and said I was to eat with her in the kitchen whenever I was feeling bad. "You mean it?" I asked.
"I never joke about food," she replied, which was true enough.
I sometimes think that Nupi's simple offer that day saved my life, because I did eat with her -- and often -- over the coming years. And I have always associated the taste of her dal on that first occasion with the kind of love that never fails to act in time of need. Sofia told me much later that she did, too, and I would guess that Nupi invited my sister to eat with her on occasions I don't even know about.
I wish I had done something in return for our old cook that day -- had collected a basket of the violet-coloured orchids we called cat's whiskers for her shrine to Ganesha or simply hugged her. I didn't yet realize that all she really prayed for -- and what she most wanted in life -- was that my sister and I would not die young. But that, of course, was a guarantee -- and gift -- that no one could give her.
Published with the author's kind permission.