“It is already so late Andrew, will you not stay for dinner with us?”
Grandma Chaturvedi was a conservative, reserved matriarch from the old country who generally steered well clear of her grandson’s white Jo’burg friends: this was the first time she had ever addressed me.
“You don’t mind Indian food do you? We like it traditional here.”
“I’m not that English! Hot is cool by me.”
At the time I thought this both true and funny. The old woman just nodded and smiled quietly, eyes twinkling.
That first mouthful of curry was really good: full of rich, strong flavours. It was after the second swallow that the heat began. I felt it first high up in my sinuses: a tingling, flowing warmth – not unpleasant at first. It spread downwards like slick hot tar, tonsils dowsed in fire, my throat a tubular inferno. I was blinded by a tsunami of tears but could hear the suppressed giggles of the family and the desperate wheezy gulps of my body trying to breathe. Then the heat slowly surged upwards: a Salamander climbing my tongue with tiny barbed claws; fiery spines scraping my palate; liquid flame coating my lips.
By the time a glass of Lassi was pressed into my hands my hosts were incoherent with laughter and I, in too much pain to be embarrassed, eventually laughed with them.
That night when I said my last thanks to Grandma Chaturvedi she just smiled and said in her quiet precise English, “Where I come from they say a great curry burns twice – once on the way in and once on the way out.”
There seemed no easy response to this, so I forced a nervous smile and fled.