Prose by Samhita Shanker
Art by Karen Zhang
She holds an empty metal tumbler in one hand and a milk pot in the other, carefully pouring steaming coffee back and forth like a pendulum, pulling higher and higher each time. She knows he likes a thick layer of foam at the top and will complain if it isn’t there. She unconsciously moves in time with the clock ticking outside, inching closer and close to 5 a.m. Tinny prayers are already permeating the early morning air, playing through the radio the size of her forearm that nobody uses except her husband. She takes out the pallu of her saree and wipes the cup to remove stray water and milk droplets before tucking the loose cloth back in her waist.
She puts the coffee down on the table beside him. He’s sitting in his rocking chair, feet up in the matching footstool, newspaper in both hands angled towards the pale light by the window. He grunts in response.
She goes back to the kitchen, feeling that small walk in her bones. At seventy-six, the grandmother feels everything in her bones. A quick sweep of the kitchen tells her that everything is in order for now – the newspaper has been retrieved from the doorstep, the agarbatti has been lit before the portrait of Goddess Lakshmi, and coffee has been made. She has twenty-five minutes before she has to begin breakfast. The pallu comes out again to wipe the sweat off her forehead and she wanders outside with her own coffee in hand and perches on the window-sill, far enough away from her husband.
She stops before her first sip.
“Can’t you make a cup of coffee properly? It’s too cold.” The cup dangles from his fingertips as he holds it out carelessly with one hand, newspaper still in the other.
Aching, she wordlessly goes and picks it up, heats it from the pot she just cleaned, makes sure there’s foam and heat this time around, and returns it to him. Another grunt. He increases the volume on the radio and drowns out the sound of her cracked feet scuffling on the floor as she returns to her spot and sips her own coffee, momentarily forgotten, tepid.
She remembers the days when she was a child and watching her mother do this for her father, pouring coffee and serving food, pallu in and pallu out, wiping sweat off and it endlessly dripping down her spine until the day her mother died. Life was better on the receiving end of it, on her father’s lap, newspaper letters so close to her face that her eyes crossed. They’d sit together side by side, heads bent, bellies warm from breakfast, and read the paper together in the silent living room.
Now sixty years into this life herself, she aches for a break. A quiet day for herself. Not even that, maybe just a morning to make chai instead, just like the one her brother would buy her on their way back from school. A minute to grate the ginger in and boil the milk, maybe even eat a biscuit on the side. She craves the luxury of sitting patiently and dipping it in the tea and staring at the biscuit to make sure it doesn’t betray her and disintegrate to the bottom. A life where she could do that every morning and put the first creases in the newspaper and get out a half-working pen to do the crossword. She yearns for just a moment of peace.
She daydreams through the window, its grills segregating the world into neat, rusted diamonds. Through one of them, she watches a young woman exit the house still in her nightie and pick up the milk and papers. The mother catches her eye and smiles and waves before going back inside. The grandmother smiles back, half. And sighs. The clock bleakly ticks towards 5:25am. Her half second of tranquility, as much as one can have with cold coffee and nasaly singing, is over. She returns to the kitchen and began cutting potatoes to make her husband’s requested breakfast – upma. She hates upma.
Next door, the mother steps back into the house and mentally calculates all the things she has to finish before her daughter needs to be out of the door and into the school bus. She pulls the nightie up and tucks it into her waist and out of the way – a soldier prepping for war.
“Kanna,” she calls for her daughter. She comes out of her room, notebook in one hand, hair loose, backpack slung haphazardly off her shoulder.
“You’re getting late! What are you doing?” the mother asks, exasperated, halfway to the kitchen to flip the dosa she has been cooking. She has to yell a little over her husband standing and watching the men scream at each other on the TV.
“I forgot to do some homework – wait,” her daughter slumps into the dining table, pencil in hand. Her mother looks up in a quick prayer and then switches back into problem solving. She goes into the kitchen and flips the dosa and places it before her daughter, then pulls the notebook before her. A dizzying wave of unfamiliar letters hits her.
“Amma, you can’t do this, it’s my English homework,” her daughter impatiently swats her hand away.
Her husband chooses this moment to turn from the TV and laugh. “Do it yourself, you’ll fail the whole class if your mother helps you with English.”
The mother pushes down the pang of shame and guilt at her own stupidity. “Stop wasting time talking and get ready,” she says, aiming for impatience.
Her husband makes a sound, halfway between a sigh and a laugh. “Don’t get all upset now, you’re overreacting.”
Her daughter pauses her work to sneak a look at her father, smug, secret lines on both their faces. The lines pull them closer and closer, like railway tracks that tighten and meet in somewhere in the middle. The mother feels like the train they have derailed, humiliating underside exposed.
Wait till the day I die and then you’ll see how much I keep this household together, she wants to tell them.
Instead, she steps behind her daughter and starts braiding the hair on her bent head. “I have a degree in Sciences, you know. I used to be top of my class.”
“Yes, yes Amma, but that was twenty years ago!” Her daughter tilts her head a little she can to look at her father’s reaction. He’s momentarily distracted from the TV and is smiling. Then he catches sight of the breakfast.
“Dosa? Again?” He wrinkles his face.
“I told her I didn’t want to eat it but she didn’t listen to me!” her daughter chimes in.
Stop making me the villain, she wants to scream. “It’s good for her,” she says.
The mother sees herself grinding the rice and water the night before, making sure she stored it properly to ferment overnight, waking up early to check that the batter came out alright.
In that moment, she feels like her mother. She much preferred being her father’s daughter.
She preferred being inside the jokes and the initiator of the silly comments, the villainiser of her mother, the one tiptoeing along railway lines and looking only at her father’s laughter and not listening to her mother’s silence.
“Done!” her daughter throws the notebook into her bag. The mother hands her the socks she’s already taken out before pulling out her daughter’s polished shoes.
“Okay, go quickly, the bus is already here,” the mother says.
“One second.” Her daughter rushes back into the house and wraps her arms quickly around the father’s waist. He turns away from the blaring TV in absent-minded surprise and pats the top of her head.
Her daughter runs back towards the door and steps out, but takes a step back as an afterthought. She gives her mother a kiss on the cheek and shouts, “Bye, Amma!”
“Bye! Say hi to your sister from the bus!”
Her daughter bounds out of the door and towards the path where the minivan masquerading as a school bus is waiting for her. The mother wants nothing more than to lie down, preferably in silence. Her head is spinning.
But there’s still her husband’s coffee to make.
Normally the wife stands on her balcony waiting for her baby sister’s bus to pass by to get the chance to wave at her for a second before starting her day. But today she would miss that moment.
She’s on the dining table, poring over a recipe that her husband wanted her to make but hated the way she made it last time. Something about how his mother made it better and can’t you put just a little more effort into this household?
Her husband didn’t used to be like this. In their two-month long engagement, he was always courteous and polite, all held doors and paid for dinners. But the moment she crossed the threshold with red-painted feet, transitioning from woman to wife, something had changed. Muddied. She wonders where in the expected devotion and subservience and maid she had forgotten to be a person.
Between reading recipe lines and wondering where it all went wrong, her glance keeps cutting to her phone. But she doesn’t know who to call – of her friends, she was the first to be married and they wouldn’t understand. Even if she wasn’t, she doesn’t want to tell them, her fellow Business Masters graduates, the struggles of a woe-begotten housewife. They had all promised to be better than that. Had promised to be less pathetic.
She could call her father. Her childhood used to be stolen ice-cream, hidden toys passed at night, and watching cricket late on school nights sitting on his lap – all things he had given her with a wink and a whispered promise not to tell her mother. She had accepted this with sticky hands and conspiratorial smiles, sneaking glances at her mother with a feeling of smug superiority at her idiocy.
Maybe he could give her secrets stored in cupped palms again like he used to.
But something in her hesitates. Her childhood was her childhood but her adulthood with her father was different. Uncomfortable. He no longer looks her in the eye with any hidden looks; instead, he complains to her husband about the match today and about the food the women cook and the state of the economy. Now, she catches her mother’s eye in the kitchen as they scrub dishes, and it isn’t humour that connects them but something closer to sympathy. Resignation, perhaps. Tiredness. It’s the same look she sees in the eyes of all the grandmothers she glimpses out of her balcony. They raise their hands at each other through their windows and sometimes, just sometimes, she feels like she’s looking into a mirror.
“Something is burning!” her husband yells from their room. He is looking in the mirror and adjusting his hair. He is also closer to the kitchen.
“I’m going!” the wife rushes in to see the fire spluttering as milk overflows out of the pot, bubbling all over the stove. She holds the pot over the stove with one hand and she decides she won’t call her father. She wipes down the surfaces with the other and and she decides not to call her mother. She won’t be accepting defeat.
She puts the pot back down and pulls out potatoes to cut. This is temporary. Slice. She will not be her mother. Slice. She will still be her father’s daughter. Slice.
Her knife catches her thumb and splits the skin open. She quietly runs it under the stream of water and dreams of a day when her husband will rush in and clean it instead. As the last of the pink eddies down the sink and leaves a perfectly shiny silver behind, she also decides that this is all temporary. Their children will have a father who loves their mother. She will have a husband who is also her partner. She’s sure of it.