Listen to this story, narrated by Victor Ramos:
If a room could breathe, this one would be dragon’s fire. Not that dragons existed, but Amaya had heard enough stories about them from the northern merchants that she felt as if she could draw them from description alone.
It was the kind of heat you could taste on the tip of your tongue, as you flicked it around your mouth hoping to manufacture some moisture.
She pushed through the sniffling crowd (why would anyone sell spices within four walls?) and made her way over to the coriander farmer. The spice market in Thanjavur took up an acre in the centre of the city, and the spillover of merchants meant smaller chambers close to the market were often used to house the less important — less wealthy — spice sellers. As she passed a corner of the room, Amaya heard some traders speaking in hushed, aggressive whispers, something about a new world. As she got closer, the muted voices rose.
“I wonder what we are getting ourselves into,” one of them muttered.
This piqued her interest and she wanted to stay and listen, but she also spied the coriander seller at the far end, starting to pack up for the day. Her mother would scold her if she came home without it, so she dashed off to grab what was left.
With her coriander in hand, she turned to go back the way she had come. A tall white man stood with the merchants in the corner. Europeans were not uncommon, even this far south of the continent, but this one seemed odd — furtive, almost. He was hovering over a basket, and he seemed to be protecting it. She moved closer to the merchants, using the crowd as cover.
He lifted the lid off the basket and a strong, pungent smell wafted over. Amaya strained to see what the man could possibly have brought and she caught a glimpse of something bright red. What in the world was that?
She inched closer again to catch the conversation between the traders and the visitor. She realized the European seemed to have no difficulty speaking Tamil.
This was getting more interesting by the minute.
The cumin merchant, cunning and sharp-eyed, was asking the questions.
“Engerinthu?” Where is it from?
“Unngalukku teriyathu.” You wouldn’t know (the place).
Amaya giggled to herself. Arrogance was not the way to gain favour with these men.
The Chetty snorted and switched languages. “We’ve travelled the world as well. Tell us, and we might decide if it’s worth the price.” His flawless English seemed to throw the European a little.
“It’s from another continent altogether. They put it in a brown liquid that they drink as dessert there.”
The man next to the Chetty laughed. “They put spices in drinks?” He elbowed the cumin seller. “Sounds like our kind of people.” Amaya recognized him. His name was Paravar. He was the largest turmeric seller in the South and its sole provider to the King’s kitchen.
“The price is too high, and the king would not like us making independent contracts like this.” The Chetty was careful, and he should be, for the Tamil king was unforgiving, but Amaya could not understand what two merchants and a white man with a basket had to do with the king.
“The king does not like whatever he cannot profit from. That doesn’t mean we have to abide by his ridiculous rules.”
Amaya was taken aback. Paravar was skirting dangerously close to treason.
As the crowd continued to mill past, a tall man jostled her. Amaya took the opportunity to crouch low and get closer to the merchants.
“This is why we have come to you directly.” The European seemed to be pushing the merchants, but into what?
“That is all well and good, Carlo, but it is not your head on the chopping block, so to speak. It is why meeting here was part of the plan.”
“And this plan would have worked, had you been actually paying attention to your surroundings and realized you’ve had a little spy listening to everything.” The booming voice behind her had barely appeared before a strong arm grabbed the collar of her churidar and jerked her upright.
Amaya squeaked and jumped. How could she not have seen him there? Uncle Kumar was a big man, yet he always seemed to meld into a crowd and appear just at the right time. Or, in her case, the wrong time.
The merchants turned and stared at her, sputtering.
“The whole point of having this meeting in this room was so we could blend in!” the Chetty hissed.
Paravar laughed at that. “Blend in! Ha! I get it!” He stopped laughing, though he continued to giggle to himself when the others looked pointedly at him.
Her uncle dusted off her churidar and raised an eyebrow at her. “Gentleman, it seems we have been found out by my niece, of all people. Hence, I advise we finish this quickly and leave before anyone thinks to ask why the richest men in the five towns are standing together in one place.” He looked at everyone meaningfully.
Amaya realized he was right. These men were competitors, and they hated each other on the best of days, which meant that whatever was in that basket was well worth putting aside a few squabbles.
Carlo nodded at her uncle. “So glad to see you, sir. I was hoping we could come to a decision today.” While he seemed to speak to Uncle Kumar, his eyes lingered on her.
Her uncle lifted the basket, and she got another strong whiff. It was pungent and reminded her of some of the black peppers her mom had in her kitchen. He shook his head. “We would have no idea how to use it.”
Amaya did not believe him. She could see the wheels in his head turning. Her father had died when she was a child, but she and her mother lived in a lavish house with servants. She had been given an education equal to no other girl in the five towns — all because of the wealth and power of her uncle.
Carlo, too, appeared to know who he was dealing with. “I’m sure a man such as yourself would find ways.” And then he looked at her behind Uncle Kumar and winked.
Amaya gasped. Her uncle seemed not to have noticed, which was probably best for Carlo’s continued health.
“Food is a complicated endeavor,” Uncle Kumar said, walking around the men, “and we already have so many spices.” He gestured to the rest of the room.
“We have access to a lot of this, though,” Carlo interjected, pointing at the basket, “and you would control the market.”
That earned him more interest from the other merchants, but her uncle was harder to please.
“How do we know this to be true? The words of a mere soldier mean nothing.”
Amaya winced a little, feeling sorry for Carlo. Uncle Kumar had a way of reminding people of their place, but she did not think Carlo deserved this particular put-down. Carlo seemed taken aback as well but recovered quickly.
“The Governor is willing to draft legal documents and, as he is Viceroy of the new lands, that is all the assurance you need.”
Uncle Kumar’s eyebrows drew together and Amaya could tell he did not like this answer. “I just don’t see this going anywhere. It’ll be the shiny new thing, and some new dishes might be invented, and then it’ll just die off.”
Carlo had to come up with something else or he would lose her uncle. “Maybe your niece would like to try it?”
Amaya swallowed. She had no idea what she had walked into here, but she did not want to unwittingly hurt her Uncle’s business. She looked at him for approval and, though he nodded, his face was unreadable.
“Very well, though I don’t see what good it can do,” he said.
Amaya looked down. The basket was full of slightly curved produce. They were an inviting and glossy red, but she could not tell if it was the green top or the strange fruit that she should be tasting.
Carlo reached down and plucked off a piece. He broke a small section off the bottom and some seeds fell out. He handed it to her. “For you,” he said, and bowed a little.
Amaya rolled her eyes. It seemed men everywhere learned the same, boring tricks.
She bit into it carefully and gasped as heat flooded her tongue. She started coughing as she swallowed. At the same time, she could taste the layers of tang from the seeds.
“It’s a spice!” she yelled out loud when she understood what she had just sampled. The Chetty and Paravar both shushed her immediately.
Her uncle laughed. “Forgive me for leaving like this, but I should bring my niece back. Come, Amaya.” The other merchants remained there with Carlo, hesitant, but she knew they would not act without her uncle. His involvement guaranteed them a modicum of protection from the King.
She gathered her things slowly, as she knew she would be in trouble when she got home. Carlo seemed disappointed as well, though that was probably because he had not managed to sell his new spice.
Uncle Kumar paused at the exit and looked at her. “Did you like it?” he asked.
“I think it’ll be nice in a brinjal kuzhambu.” She shrugged her shoulders, unsure where the questioning was going. She thought about his hesitance. “Why don’t you like it?”
Her uncle seemed surprised that she had noticed. “It’s not that I don’t like it, but it’s from a southern continent, far away. It’s unclear who it came from — or was possibly taken from — and here these Europeans are, trying to sell it. There’s just a lot about it I don’t know.”
Amaya understood his reticence now. Still, a spice is a spice, after all, and good food comes before everything else. “I think you won’t regret bringing it into our kitchens.”
He uncle smiled ruefully at her. “Very well!” he exclaimed as he turned back around. “Carlo!”
Carlo looked up, hopeful.
“Tell your Columbus we have a deal.”
The other merchants broke into wide grins, though Carlo simply smiled and tipped his hat at Amaya.