Aurvi Sharma

The Slice

The first time I had pizza, I was ten. My mother found the recipe in the Dainik Jagran. She kneaded dough, flattened it out and set it in the oven. When the base was baked, she doused it with ketchup and deposited noodles soaked in soya sauce on it. It was ‘Chinese pizza’ that she’d read about in the women’s section of Dainik Jagran that mostly published recipes and how-tos for other female conundrums (“My husband’s overbearing sister is visiting soon. How do I deal with her without losing my cool?”). We lived in Ranikhet then, hidden in the folds of the Himalayas, with brilliant views of Dhaulagiri’s dental-white snow-peaks that turned crimson at dusk.

Newspapers arrived a day late in Ranikhet. They were sent from Haldwani, the nearest big town in the plains. During winter, fresh produce was also brought from the plains and it came shriveled and stale, just like the news. Life was always delayed in Ranikhet, tailing the rest of the world, perpetually trying to gain one day. When we spoke to our relatives in Delhi on the black phone that had a numbered dial you had to rotate to make a call, it was like coexisting in two time zones.

My mother proudly presented the pizza to us. I took a bite, made a face and put the pizza back. In the end I scooped up the noodles and discarded the base. That was all there was to the pizza. Mozzarella was something we had never heard of. Chinu, my younger sister, left her slice untouched.

The next time I had pizza was a year later when I visited Mama-Mami, my mother’s brother and his wife, in Delhi. Their son had grown up in the city and was urban and urbane. He decided to take Chinu and me out to Nirula’s which was at the height of cool twenty years ago, serving ice cream sodas and chicken hot dogs and all-American-banana-splits to hungry, trendy Delhiites. In the sea of denim there I suddenly felt stupid in my long frock and the yellow satin bow clipped to my hair.

We scanned the menu backlit with a neon white tube over the cashier. Mushrooms, peppers, baby corn, all things alien. Finally Chinu and I saw Cheese Pizza. Cheese? Paneer, of course. Paneer was something we knew. We ordered a cheese pizza, sidled into the moss green leather booths lit by upside down bowls of painted glass and waited. After twenty five minutes – it was a busy Saturday night – we got a spongy disc covered with cheddar cheese. Chinu and I looked at each other. “But where’s the paneer?” we silently asked each other and wondered what the leathery thing on top was. It tasted odd, like salty rubber.

By this time we were living in Jhansi in the heart of India and had been exposed to fast food. We frequently went to Navbharat where perplexed parents drowned their plates of ‘chowmin’ in white vinegar full of fiery green chillies. After half-yearly exams, I cycled to Vandana Sweets with Pooja and brought back hot chilli potato burgers that were slightly stale and set the tips of our tongues on fire. But in Nirula’s, my sister and I sat staring at our pizza, nervously sipping coke from heavy glasses (no straws, no plastic cups) as our cousin happily took a bite of his chicken burger.

“Ae didi, do this, do this,” Chinu finally said. She scraped off the cheese from the pizza, dipped the base in ketchup and took a bite. “It tastes ok like this.” We got through the meal by stealing plain-salted potato chips from my cousin’s plate.

A year later, during another trip to Delhi, we stayed with Chacha-Chachi, my father’s brother and his wife. My parents left every morning to visit prospective grooms for my youngest aunt, leaving Chinu and me with Tashu didi, Chacha-Chachi’s daughter. We did not talk much. As earnestly as we tried, Chinu and I could not match her vocabulary. She was sarcastic and blunt and seemed to us to belong to an alien world.

The walls of Tashu didi’s room were covered with life-sized posters in which foreign men of various complexions posed. A man stood on a palm-lined boulevard holding a gun, leaning against a sign that said Beverly Hills. Another wore a crown of roses on his long-haired head and sat submerged in a bathtub. Underneath, it said Jon Bon Jovi. (Isn’t Jon spelt wrong? I thought.) There was a poster of Michael Jackson, whom I recognized because he had undergone a surgery to become white from black. It had been all over the national news. But why was the poster splattered in what looked like blood and why did it say ‘BAD’ in scrawly, untidy handwriting?

We had reached Delhi on the evening of Tashu didi’s fifteenth birthday party, full of burra kebabas, butter chicken, and hordes of boys and girls that made me feel nervous in ways I did not understand. They were loud and carefree and spoke to each other in English that did not sound like anything my teachers spoke at school, or the newsreaders on TV. Their speech was so languid and molten and peppered with words that I knew the meaning of, but did not make sense to me in a sentence. They said ‘anyways’ a lot (isn’t it ‘anyway’?) and ‘by jove’ (who is this Joe?) and ‘hey, guys’ even when addressing girls. When I appeared in my lacy, droopy white frock that Madhuri Dixit had worn in her latest blockbuster Hum Apke Hain Kaun, Tashu didi shook her head and said, “Boy oh boy oh boy,” (I’m a girl!). I was too thin and the frock just hung off me.

Soon the lights were turned out. Someone draped my mother’s pink shawl on a lamp and everyone was dancing to English songs whose words I did not understand. Tashu didi was in the middle of the dance floor, resplendent in her tight green skirt she had bought for hundred rupees from Janpath and cream, canvas shirt. My parents and her parents stayed in their bedrooms.

The next morning there were Hallmark cards all over her bed. Pale pink and blue and orange envelopes lay on top of each other, the color of delicate cake icing. Chinu and I started opening each and reading through. Some had paper pop outs, others played music, and a couple were definitely lascivious by my twelve-year-old standards. (‘Hey gorgeous, can I kiss you now that you’re sixteen?’ Signed, Boy’s Name.) We were almost through the pile when she marched in. She scooped the cards away and stomped out.

Chinu and I sat on the bed, stunned. Slowly it dawned on us that it probably had not been right to go through her exotic things. We were discussing how we should go and apologize when Tashu didi walked back in, cordless phone in hand.

“You guys want pizza?”

Eager to please, we suppressed the memories of our last encounter with pizza and tilted our heads from side to side. Yes.

“One large mutton salami pizza and three hot chocolate fudges, please,” she said into the phone. After she hung up, she said, “There is this really cute pizza delivery guy. I hope he comes.” Chinu and I were terrified.

The pizza arrived without the cute guy but smelling of tangy tomatoes and spicy salami. Tashu didi opened the box, tore the ketchup sachet with her teeth and drew concentric rings of ketchup on the pie. She repeated this with the shocking yellow mustard. Then she picked up a slice, looked at Chinu and me looking at her and said, “Do I need to give you an invitation card for this?”

Chinu and I picked up a slice each, and bit in. Ketchup and mustard mingled in a nose-watering effervescence. The cheese lay below the salami and it was the perfect goopy blanket for the spicy, umami salami. This pizza was good. This was very, very, very good.

“Listen guys, I’m sorry I snapped earlier,” Tashu didi said. “You should never go through other peoples’ mail.” Chinu and I murmured our sorries between mouthfuls of dough and tomato sauce and cheese.

“I know things are different at home for you guys,” Tashu didi was saying. “You guys are so protected, y’know?” I took another bite and felt the saltiness of the salami on my tongue.

“All you need, Gullu, is some self-grooming,” she said, pouring coke into her mouth without touching the bottle to her lips. “Why don’t you get your eyebrows done?” I wiped the mustard from the corners of my mouth and shrugged. “I don’t think my parents would allow it.”

“Tashu didi?” Chinu said. “Is a cheese burger vegetarian?”

“Why? Did you eat one?” Chinu shook her head and the three of us giggled.

“Oh man, I love this pizza,” she said. Both of us nodded and continued to eat.

Aurvi Sharma writes narrative non-fiction. In 2012, she was awarded the Sarai Non-Fiction Writing Fellowship in Delhi. Aurvi has a Masters degree in Writing from Falmouth University, UK and freelances as a branding and cookbook specialist. She has lived in fifteen cities across three continents and currently lives in New York City.

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