Extract: The Cook by Ajay Chowdhury
When a young woman Kamil knows is murdered, the police are convinced her boyfriend is the culprit – but Kamil isn’t so sure and feels he has no choice but to start his own investigation. Meanwhile, his friend and restaurant manager, Anjoli, is troubled by a rise in the number of homeless deaths in their local area.
The cases seem unrelated and as the duo dig deeper, discovering tentacles that stretch from Lahore to London, they find themselves in grave danger.
Together they take on the indifference of the authorities to the homeless and the casual racism that pervades the investigation of killings of Muslims – all while a supremely intelligent murderer is manipulating events to stay several steps ahead of them.
Read on for the first chapter of The Cook by Ajay Chowdhury!
May. Tuesday. London.
They say your most profound memories are anchored in sensory experience. For me, it was the shocking crackle and explosive smack of aromatics that made me salivate and choked my lungs with savoury smoke as, with deceptive simplicity, Suresh added a dash of tiny black seeds, then a spoonful of red powder, followed by a pinch of something orange to the pot.
It’s one of the few childhood memories I can muster while lying in bed, staring out of my tiny window at the flashing neon sign of the Jolly Rajah restaurant opposite. ‘I am making your phavourite dish today, Baba, chicken curry’ he would say as I stared at him with all the immediate intensity only a six-year-old boy can sum- mon. Ma would come in and remonstrate – why did he spend so much on vegetables and was he cheating her, and did he want her to fire him and get another cook? Suresh would nod and smile at this weekly ritual as he stirred his pot, hypnotising me with every one of his economical movements. Then I’d get bored and move on to something else that the intervening quarter-century has blurred out of focus.
The kitchen in Tandoori Knights was stifling. The extractor fan wheezed its complaints as it competed with the sizzling hiss from the pans, trying to funnel out the smoke from the pot of frying onions, ginger and garlic that was making my eyes tear up. I downed a pint of water, dabbed at my face with a sleeve and threw in a handful of lamb chunks. As I tossed the pieces around with a wooden spoon to brown them, I considered the dramas this ancient, blackened pot must have witnessed since the restaurant first opened on Brick Lane thirty years ago. The cooking pan was almost as old as I was, and had stoically accepted a lit- any of flames, vegetables, flesh, bones and spices while I was taking my first wobbly steps, crying on my first day of school, having my first ecstatic kiss. I added a couple of spoonfuls of yoghurt, a handful of fresh, chopped fenugreek, and mixed it all up with a well-practised twist of the wrist. Suresh would be proud if he could see me now – ‘Baba can make his phavourite food himself, no need for old Suresh any more’.
No need for my old Kolkata life any more. No need to be a detective any more. No need for clues, witnesses, evidence statements. Just mounds of spices from which to conjure up the magic that made our guests happy to pay their bills without complaint. I no longer missed my old life – I was busy driving towards my new future, appreciating the road ahead instead of navigating via a rear-view mirror.
‘Baingan bhuna, extra kajoo.’ Salim Mian waddled into the kitchen, voice booming over the hubbub, ever present pristine white napkin over his arm and order book tucked into the upper left pocket of his waiter’s outfit.
‘Naila in da house!’ Anjoli yanked my chain from across the kitchen, where she appeared to be molesting a dead chicken. ‘Your girlfriend’s here, Kamil; make sure you cook that aubergine with extra love.’
‘Piss off,’ I said, but my heart gave a tell-tale flutter. Naila was the only person I knew who ordered cashews with everything. I glanced at my watch – 9.45; she was on day shifts this week at the hospital. Must have run long.
‘That’s piss off, boss, to you.’ Anjoli deboned her chicken breast with delicate cuts.
‘Just keep torturing that chicken, Boss – maybe she’ll confess where she hid her eggs.’ I chopped the aubergine for Naila’s meal, the contrasting purple skin and firm white flesh turning brown and soggy as I threw them into the pool of hot oil in the pan. I chucked in the extra red chillies I knew she liked, enjoying their sharp, sinus-piercing sizzle.
‘What is this girlfriend business, Kamil? Naila is in London to study, not have boyfriend.’ Salim Mian’s usual warm tone had sharpened.
‘Nothing, Salim Mian. Anjoli’s making a stupid joke. We’re just friends, you know that. She’s been very helpful in getting me settled here.’
Salim Mian was our head waiter and Naila’s uncle. Diabetic and overweight, he was fond of me but not supposed to know I was semi-sort-of-kind-of going out with his twenty-one-year-old niece. Naila lived with him, having come over from Lahore two years ago to study nursing at King’s, and we’d agreed to keep our non-relationship quiet so as not to cause consternation back in Pakistan.
‘Mmm-hmm.’ He looked at Anjoli with suspicion, who real- ised she had screwed up.
‘I was just kidding,’ she said with a laugh, trying to rescue the situation. ‘Anyway, who’d want Kamil as their boyfriend?’
‘I’ll take the food out, Salim Mian. You sit and have a rest,’ I said.
‘I will rest when I am dead.’ He wagged an accusatory finger at me and sailed back into the restaurant to share his views on the terrible state of the country with the regulars.
‘Thanks so much, Anjoli, that was helpful.’ I wiped my hands and glanced at my reflection in a shiny new pan hanging on the wall. Just about presentable.
‘Any time, lover boy.’ Anjoli watched me with an amused expression as I plated the aubergine and cashew dish, threw a naan into a basket and strode into the restaurant.
Tuesdays were quiet and only a few tables were occupied, din- ers speaking in low tones over their food, the soft piano music and dim lighting giving our East End eatery the air of what I imagined a chic European club was like. Our customers knew nothing of the clanging confusion and chaos that occurred on the other side of the wall where chefs produced their perfect Malabar prawn masala and harra murgh; as far as the guests were concerned those dishes were enchanted out of the air, delectable and Instagram ready.
There she was.
Dressed in her blue and white striped student nurse uniform with the red embroidered King’s College London emblem, Naila Alvi name badge on display, she tapped away at her phone with a smile on her lips that could speed up global warming. I placed the plate in front of her and slid in opposite, enjoying the relief of sitting, feeling the soft velour of the booth seat under my thighs, that were cramping after hours of standing in the kitchen.
‘Hello, Kamil, waitering and cooking tonight?’ she said, her soft Punjabi accent and affectionate look having its usual effect on my pulse rate.
‘You get the full service, Naila.’ I returned her smile, astonished as always by the piercing green eyes gazing at me under cinnamon lashes, a relic of a goat-herding ancestor violated in the mountains of the Khyber by an officer in Alexander the Great’s army two thousand years ago.
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