Lunch to Tea
On S.B. Main Road, it is the busiest hour of the day. Cyclists weave in and out of traffic jams. Vehicles groan and honk towards their destinations. Like ants making their way towardsa grain of sugar, boys and girls go towards the chocolate-toast vendor, from the college gatesto the other side of the road. On the way, they crowd around the salesmen hawkingcheap trinkets from the pavement. Because it is such a constant, no one notices the clanking of the sugarcane-juicer at the juice centre. Once in a while, when an ambulance comes wailing and the traffic jostles to make way for it, conversation at the chai-tapris ceases for a few tense moments. A school bell rings. A mendicant singer rattles his two-headed drum. A call for azaan rings out. The old man listens. From the window of his flat, in a lane off S.B. Main Road, the city is but a murmur. The ceiling fan is the loudest sound in the room in which he sits on a rocking chair, the day’s newspaper spread out,and unread, on his lap.
Streaming in through the mango tree, the sun dapples on the words, lighting up one and then another. He has been staring at the same sentence for a long time, the words merging, emerging, distinct and unconnected, then merging together again.
‘It’s too early. Don’t sleep yet!’ his wife calls out to him. The old man stutters and adjusts his spectacles.
‘Why don’t you read the newspaper?’ comes her voice.
‘What? I can’t hear you! What are you saying?’ he calls out and hastens to straighten the newspaper. ‘Can’t a man even read his newspaper in peace!’ he adds.
‘Keep the cordless phone with you’, she says. Her voice is raspy, too feeble to be heard even when she shouts. It hasn’t always been like this, like the voice of an old woman. A change so definitive,but one that came about so discreetly. The old man tries to remember her as a young woman, coy and pliable. He can only recall the face on the few photographs that survive of their youth. His memory is a blur but for the smell of oil, jasmine and sweat.
‘Don’t just sit there. Do something! And don’t ask for one now. You will get a laddoo at tea time,’ says the old woman. She is standing at the door, holding a large bowl in one hand and rolling a fistful of a brown mixture into a ball with the other.
‘Give me the phone. It is time’, says the old man, pulling down his spectacles and rubbing his eyes like one who has been reading for long.
‘The heights of laziness that any man could ever ascend to. It is two steps away from you and you need me to give it to you while my hands are full of laddoos!’ she says.
The old man looks at her cotton saree, starchless and soft with use, its folds clinging to one another. The little orange flowers on white, remind him of the paarijaat that she collects for her pooja every day. Below her waist, at exactly the height of her kitchen counter, the orange of the flowers has paled.
‘In our house, we go after stains like the anti-terrorism squad,’ the old man likes to joke to visitors.
His wife’s alluding cleanliness to godliness ticks him off like nothing else. They have fought over it too long to hope for a resolution.
On days when the old woman feels well, she wakes up at four-thirty in the morning and slips out into the neighbourhood. She returns as the sun is rising, wearing what the old man reads as a self-righteous smile. Whether the morning walk past the Bhave bungalow with its paarijaat tree bending over onto the pavement is undertaken for the flowers or whether the flowers are an incentive for the exercise, he does not know.
He knows what she will say: ‘Laziness! One must be able to get over laziness, that’s all.’ – a general observation made for the express benefit of her husband.
‘What kind?’ asks the old man now, his eyes brightening at sight of the laddoos.
‘Find out for yourself,’ says the old woman, breaking off a piece and placing it in his mouth.
‘Nice. But needs more velchi, no? And more sweet,’ he says.
‘How can a man always want itsweeter?’
‘How can a woman be such a miser with sugar?’
‘If there was any more sugar in this, I would choke on it.’
‘Okay then, roll the laddoos in sugar for me.‘
‘As if you would agree to go slow on the sugar if I was to suggest it.’
‘When a man has been raised on the finest, he develops fine taste for life. The laddoos my mother made…’
‘As if your poor mother could afford kaju and badam in those days. Fine taste you say.’
‘They were perfect because she made them with an open heart. She didn’t stop herself from putting enough of whatever was needed.’
‘She was feeding a boy of eight. It has fallen upon me to satisfy the greed of an eighty year old.’
‘A voracious appetite is a sign of vibrant health, my mother used to say.’
‘Everything in moderation, said your mother-in-law.’
‘And by the rules of dear mother-in-law – may her soul rest in peace – by her rules, I have lived for five decades,’
‘I’m going to finish making these. I’ll be here all day if I let you talk,’ she says.
‘How come you never want to talk to me anymore?’
‘Ha! Easy for you to say. I can’t simply sit here and read the newspaper. My fate as a woman!’
‘Oh-ho-ho! No one stopped you from reading the newspaper. You just have to be more organised.’
‘Really? While you were away being the busy advocate for farmers’ rights, didn’t I organise a house and four children on my own?’
‘All on your own?’
‘Not all on my own,’ she says with a smile.
Her eyes are brown, beginning to grey with age. In sharp relief, her smile is electric, as if the smile completes some internal circuitry to her eyes, lighting them up with ageless sparkle. In all their years together, the smile has been her charm and her armour. She has learnt to use it to forestall an argument and put off marital discord for another day. The old man has played along somewhat willingly, somewhat helplessly. He has come to recognise the smile as an offer of truce before the situation escalates into a courtroom drama.
‘What about the rest of the laddoo?’ he asks, taking the bait.
‘I told you, I’m saving it for you to eat at tea time,’ she says from the corridor.
The old man presses his spectacles to his nose. A day’s stubble glistens on his chin. He scratches it and returns to the newspaper. He turns page after page without stopping long enough to read anything. At the horoscope column, he reads with interest: ‘You may feel unable to share all parts of your fascinating personality now, but the Universe is asking you to clamp down temporarily to make a point. Only a confident, professional demeanour will get you the money you desire. If you are looking for a new love interest, you won’t have to go very far.’
He folds the newspaper. ‘Done!’ he announces to himself, walks to the bed and lies down to rest his back. Within a minute though, he is standing by the window. He has heard a boy bounce his football down the street. The old man watches the boy as he walks under under the canopy of the mango tree and slowly disappears from sight; then, he walks back to the bed, lies down and turns on his side. Unable to find a comfortable position, he stretches his feet, and straightens his pillow. He decides to go to the bathroom but changes his mind. He massages his neck, lies down on his back, watches the ceiling fan, then sits up again. With the sound of an auto-rickshaw slowing, he jumps out of bed. But he is too late. Whoever came has disembarked, paid the fare and disappeared into the building. The rickshaw is pulling away already.
Disappointed, the old man shuffles to his rocking chair. The wooden slates on the backrest have a way of poking into him through the cushion. He didn’t sleepwell the previous night. That always gives him a headache. And the aspirin for the headache makes him dizzy.
He looks at the rust-speckled mirror on the almirah beside him. It shows him a boxer with muscled arms and a taut stomach. In place of a fragile, hollowed frame, he sees the sure and square shoulders of a young man. The sagging skin on his own hands doesn’t seem to him to be his. He gets up to turn off the fan. Too still. He puts it on again. He lies down on the bed with his head away from the fan. Too cold. He stands up, turns off the fan and walks to the window.
He hides behind the curtain and peers into the flat that overlooks his bedroom window, but today all is quiet on the other side. The old man who lives in the other flat is dozing in his rocking chair while a muted television channel airs breaking news. The old men in both flats wear identical white pyjama-kurtas throughout the day and watch the same television shows in the evenings. They know when there is a celebration or argument or an illness on the other side. They know when each other’s grandchildren are visiting and when they have left. The two men have never met and wouldn’t know one another if they were to cross paths in the park.
‘Pick up the phone!’ the old woman is calling from the kitchen. The phone has been ringing in his hand all the while that the old man has been watching his neighbour.
‘Hello-o,’ he says, swinging the ‘o’ into the mouthpiece with a flamboyance that belies the lethargy of moments ago. ‘Advocate Joshi’s residence,’ he says.
‘Daddy, it’s me. Leena,’ comes the voice of his daughter. ‘Where were you? You took so long. All well?’she asks.
‘Fine, fine! Fine, as always,’ he says, tagging weight in his voice.
‘Where is Mummy?’
‘Doing her favourite thing. Scrubbing the kitchen with industrial solvents,’ he says, laughing.
He sinks his head into the pillows on the rocking chair. His daughter is relating something which he can’t follow because he lost her alreadyat the beginning.
Like every other day,he asks her,‘When are you coming?’
As always,‘Very soon, Daddy,’ comes the reply. The old woman has picked up the receiver on the parallel line and she breaks into the conversation now.
“I made besan laddoos. Only a few this time. No one to eat…”
The old man closes his eyes. The voices of his wife and daughter fade as the receiver slides from his hands onto his lap, his eyes droop and he snores lightly until he hears footsteps in the corridor.
‘You always forget to switch off the cordless phone, ,’ complains the old woman. ‘I need help cleaning the cupboards before Diwali. Will you help me?’
‘No, no. That’s your job.’
‘And what are your jobs?’
‘Driving, repairing the car or getting it repaired. Going to the bank. Managing the investments…’
‘Okay,’ she cuts him off.
‘Do I ask you for your help with my jobs?’ he says.
‘Tell me which of your old clothes to give away. I will start with your cupboard,’she says.
‘I am not giving away anything. And you don’t tell me that my cupboard is a mess.’
‘But I didn’t.’
‘Yes, you did. Why do you have to clean it now?’
‘How does it matter to you if I clean it? I am not asking you to help.’
‘I like to be self-sufficient.’
‘Okay then,’ she says, pursing her lips.
‘If you wipe and dust so much, you’ll wear off the varnish,’ he says.
‘Oh come on! Be a little reasonable.’
‘Why don’t you be reasonable for a change?’
‘For a change?’
‘Yes. Read the newspaper.Watch TV.’
‘When did the lady of the house come in for so much leisure?’
‘You work round the clock and you think the rest of us do nothing.’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘That’s what you meant.’
‘I did not.’
‘You like to give me instructions: Read a book. Water the plants. Don’t sleep. Don’t sleep. All day, you tell me what to do. I don’t like you cleaning and cleaning and cleaning.’
‘What kind of dislike is that? What problem can anyone have with cleaning?’
‘I don’t like it. That’s all.’ he says.
The old woman leaves in silence. She recites a prayer before the clay figures of her gods in the kitchen. By the time she gets to the second verse, her voice stutters, trembling, and unbridledtears are flowing down her face.?The old man has not gone to the bank in three years, ever since he was found face down on the pavement. He had a concussion and a blood clot in his brain. The doctors say that the blockages in his arteries interfered with the blood supply to his brain. The old man insists that he doesn’t believe them. He maintains that he slipped on loose gravel. Nevertheless, he hesitates to go out on his own and has stopped driving entirely.
He still snaps up the car keys when his children are visiting. ‘Any of the youngsters want to drive?’ he asks in the parking lot. Then, someone must ‘volunteer’ to drive before being handed the car keys. The old man will give them directions to the roads he remembers, and even those he has forgotten. The old woman in the backseat will poke him with her finger, fearing that he will offend the son-in-law or rile the son. And just when he has lost all credibility with his family, the old man will recall a short-cut through a bylane, making his wife and children see him with guilt-ridden admiration.
‘What is this?’ His wife is waving a stack of envelopes at him. ‘Please stop sending these people our hard-earned money. Why do you do it? Everyone has explained to you but you just don’t listen. They are fooling you. It is a scam,’ she says, looking at him. There is no hint of a smile, no call for truce. She reads from the open letter in her hand,‘Mr Joshi, Congratulations! You are the chosen one!’
‘What if I win? Won’t you be happy to win a million dollars?’ he asks. His eyes are earnest, his defence more plea than punch.
‘It is a scam. They’re only telling you that you won a million dollars because they want you to send them twenty dollars. They say it to thousands of people and get money from everyone.’
‘Why would they do that? They are spending money on postage and emails all the way to India from America.’
‘Because it is a big scam. Leena explained it to you the last time she was here! They don’t mean to send anyone any dollars.’
‘They said they will. It is written here. See?’
‘People lie! Leena says these are frauds. These days, on the Internet, they can steal your money while you are sitting at home.’
‘I know it! You think I don’t know anything. I am not so stupid. I didn’t send them any money this time. I only replied to their email. I want to understand the procedure.’
‘What do you want to understand about this? Just delete their emails, I tell you. Don’t send them email or post or anything. Okay?’
‘They asked me to send them twenty dollars when I won a million dollars. I requested them to deduct the twenty dollars from my million dollars and transfer the remaining amount to my account.’
‘Are you mad? God knows what kind of criminals they are.’
‘They haven’t even replied to my email yet. Basic professional etiquette to respond to email…’ He trails off as the old woman slams the stack of envelopes on the table and leaves.
He turns on his desktop computer and searches the room for his spectacles. This is not a good time to ask his wife to look for them. So he gives up, turns the fan on, unfolds his blanket, wears his monkey-cap, cushions his sides with pillows and goes to sleep.
He does not know how long it has been when he is woken by the sound of the mixer from the kitchen. He sits up in panic. ‘Sushila!’ he calls. He hates using the bell to call his wife but he must admit it is handy. Once. Twice. Three times.
‘Yes, yes, yes. I am an old woman too, you know. Show some patience.’ she says, walking into the room with heavy steps.
‘What’s for lunch? I am famished,’ he says.
The old woman sits on the corner of the bed and wipes her forehead with the end of her saree.
‘My insides are churning because there is nothing there to digest,’ continues the old man.
‘We had your favourite kadhi and rice. Don’t you remember?’ retorts the old woman in a huff.
Immediately, she knows she has made a mistake. If there is one thing the old man absolutely detests, it is someone saying to him, ‘Don’t you remember?’
He doesn’t understand why people are always asking him that.?If he can remember the names of all his school friends, their birthdays even, then it is impossible that he has forgotten what he had for lunch. He rattles his memory. He scolds himself for drawing a blank just when it is most critical. He pictures the old woman at the dining table, smiling to herself, enjoying a hearty lunch of kadhi and rice all by herself.
‘Why don’t you just accept it? You forgot and I have been sitting here hungry and uncomfortable all this time!’ he shouts.
The old woman takes a deep breath. She lowers her gaze in apology and wonders if the neighbours can hear him.
‘It is almost five in the evening. We had lunch four hours ago,’ she says, under her breath.
Her calm provokes him further. ‘You forgot!’ he screams.
For a moment, she thinks of turning around and going out for a long walk.
‘I will bring you something to eat with tea,’ she says.
‘You will bring me lunch. Do you understand? Don’t think I cannot look after myself!’
She wishes it really were lunch time and they could just have lunch and be done with it.
‘I can look after myself! Do you hear?’ she hears him shouting as she turns to wear her slippers.
She fears his helplessness – the clenched fists, the flailing arms, the choking voice. He fears the same for himself.
‘Listen to me!’ he is still screaming when there is a loud crash. A piece of broken glass lands on the rocking chair. There’s more on the floor.
The old man is sitting on the corner of the bed. He fidgets with the remote control but doesn’t turn on the TV. He tries to hum cheerfully. He gives up and takes his head in his hands.
She has returned with tea, biscuits, a half laddoo along with a bowl of kadhi and rice on a tray.?His eyes are misty, whether from exertion or emotion, she does not know. He is looking at the pieces of glass from the windowpane.
‘I’ll take care of that,’ she says.
‘Sometimes, I throw things at other people and find that they have missed my wife by inches,’ he says.
‘Other people?’ she asks.
‘Other people who don’t leave an old man alone,’ he says. ‘Not you. Other people…’
‘I am an old woman too, you know,’ she says.
‘You’re not old. Not even eighty yet,’ he says.
For the first time since she brought in the tea, the oldman is looking up from his cup. She has closed her eyes, from him, from everything. For amoment, she is away, taking a long walk on a quiet street.
The old man holds her hand. She opens her eyes and looks at him.
‘Tea times are the best,’ he says searching for a smile.
Ankita Athawale wrote software, then business plans and project proposals until her love of music, literature and theatre trumped her interest in algorithms, business strategy, and such. She now learns classical Dhrupad music from the Gundecha brothers, and teaches herself creative writing.?Ankita writes stage plays, short stories, non-fiction articles and content for businesses. Her story, “Dina’s Diwali”, was published as part of the Dino Staury illustrated book series for children. Her stage plays have been performed at venues in Mumbai, Nagpur and Hyderabad.