by Namrata Poddar
Her neighbors loved to talk about the Almighty’s mood swings. Poor Joohi, Mount Sinai duplex to Malava cubicle! From three maids to three plus jobs! Supperware delivery woman, stock market, housemaid, widowed mother of three. Vishal’s chemo made the Sarafs total kadkaa yah. The game of His Maya—who could ever win?
Joohi Saraf let the neighbors talk as she walked out of a Malava building, re-adjusting the weight of her tote bag with its half-sold Supperware products on one shoulder. She had time enough for that monthly visit to her stockbroker, before delivering the next round of tiffin boxes to a client celebrating her three-year-old’s birthday.
The game of his Maya—who knew what next? Vish, the love of her life, gone. The savings from selling their Mount Sinai duplex, gone. The savings from selling their two-hundred-year-old haveli in Rajasthan, gone. Even her once-dark, voluminous curls were growing thinner by the day, like her Supperware income.
She walked past Omega, Malava’s latest all-purpose store dealing in half-priced Chinese duplicates to most of her products. The tiffins in her tote poked the side of her ribs. She felt grateful that at least a handful of her clients could still appreciate the real deal.
One of her friend’s stockbrokers had recently told her, “Infrastructure and technology – safest bet for your money, Joohi sister.” Just as Vish would tell his friends at their Mount Sinai parties where the boys would ruminate endlessly over Mumbai’s construction boom and IT ventures.
She knew investing in Airavat—the corporate upstart backing the city’s metro construction—would pay off, but a return this early! She walked out of the stockbroker’s office, enjoying the bulge of crisp Gandhis—those large thousand-rupee notes—in her wallet. As she walked back home, she barely noticed the November morning heat.
After cooking, packing lunch, and sending her children off for the day, she sank into her hall’s sofa with a cup of masala chai. Usually, this was the time she would wash clothes by hand, dust furniture, sweep and mop her one-bedroom flat, and then start another round of Supperware delivery or restock her products for sale before her children returned, after which she would serve them dinner and help them with their homework. That day, she decided to make a shopping list instead – a careful investment plan that would pay off, just like Airavat. It had been a while since she spent a large sum of money. And she was a Marwari after all. Maybe that’s where her true vocation lay? Investments. She opened the notebook where she kept an account of daily expenses. She took a loud slurp of chai.
Three thousand rupees, she would invest in a writing desk for her ten-year-old daughter, Soni. They had a foldable dining table that the boys used as a desk but it was too tall for Soni. So Soni completed homework by placing books on a serving tray over her little lap, and the books often toppled over. By keeping her back straight and her books steady, a desk would motivate her youngest to take her studies more seriously. Another couple of thousands would go in a secondhand Samson Tablet for Neel, her fourteen-year-old. Almost everyone in Neel’s class had a tablet by now and his IT scores were lowering without steady practice. The tablet would also strengthen his desire toward an IT major, thus ensuring a lucrative career. For three thousand or so, Joohi would buy a suit for her twenty-year-old, Rohit, as he was to interview soon for summer internships with banks. His old blazer had turned a bit too snug, and his formal trousers looked a little short; he’d grown an inch in the last six months. Chances were he wouldn’t grow anymore. Besides, he could wear the same suit for his graduation ceremony.
She added the expenses and had about four thousand left. She reached for her chai. Another contemplative slurp. She would invest the rest in getting her flat walls fixed. The paint was not only chipping in many parts but two walls in the hall were displaying huge amoebas of mold due to the rainwater leaking in. Instead of spending a bomb on plastic paint, she would ask the local handyman to apply a coat of waterproof primer on the walls and then another coat of whitewash. Not a bad value for her rupee. She drank the last of her chai, savoring the aftertaste of ginger in entrepreneurial satisfaction.
She set out for Malava market, waiting at the closest bus stop. Twenty minutes passed. The sun shone brutally and the humidity drained her of energy so she took a rickshaw: sixty rupees instead of five for the bus. Just today, she told herself, as she wiped the brook of sweat trickling down her forehead and upper lip.
On its way to the crowded market, the rickshaw passed through Olympus Mall — the latest branch of the chain opened in her side of the city. The windows displayed neon signs reading “Mega Sale” and “Diwali Clearance Sale.” She asked the rickshaw wallah to stop.
As she entered Stop & Shop, a huge wave of air-conditioning enveloped her. She sat on a bench at the accessories counter and reveled in the cool air. Soft instrumental music played across the store. The tunic and legging sticking to her sweaty body started drying up. Her energy levels seemed to rise. She threw her elbows back, felt something soft and slippery, turned her head and saw a blue-green stole by Rina Kumar, block-printed with peacock and lotus motifs.
Rina Kumar had been her favorite designer in her Mount Sinai days. She remembered her last wedding anniversary with Vish, two weeks before he died. His throat cancer had entered its terminal stage and the doctors had politely advised them to not bother with chemo anymore. They had already sold their ancestral house in Rajasthan to cover the hospital bills. As she sponged him in bed after dinner, he had surprised her with a Rina Kumar, a turmeric silk scarf self-printed with delicate gold vines giving the illusion of uniformity and continuity. “So you hold on to a little luxury no matter how bad it gets, jaan.” His hands trembled as he raised the scarf toward her neck. When she bent her head over his face, she didn’t tell him she had visited a real estate agent that morning to list their duplex flat for sale.
A placard above the display rack at Stop & Shop read “up to 35% off.” She held the stole high with one hand, ran her other hand through it, and lifted the price tag. 3850 Rs was crossed out; another tag stuck on top of it read 2499 Rs.
She placed the stole around her neck, caressing the fabric, reading attentively into its texture. A salesgirl came over. “The color looks so good on you, Ma’am,” she said. No one had called Joohi Ma’am in a long time.
“Got any in pure silk?” Joohi asked, surprised by the authority in her voice. At Malava, the rare times Joohi shopped for her clothes were with street vendors at the station market. And fussing over cheap polyester when buying a two-hundred-rupees Kalvin Clain tunic would have been silly.
The girl bent over another rack and opened up a few stoles: a yellow-purple, a red-green, an orange-pink. “Thirty-five percent off for silk blends,” she said pointing to the colorful bunch in one hand. “Pure crepe silk ones are twenty percent only.”
Joohi picked up the orange-pink stole in pure crepe silk. “I’ll take it.”
As she walked out carrying a handmade paper bag with Rina Kumar written in bold, she felt people’s glances on her. She took the elevator to the restroom, where she took off the price tag, circled the stole around her neck and stroked the fabric with her fingers again. How good the touch of silk felt. And how the orange-pink accentuated her chai skin under the restroom’s soft lights. She leaned into the mirror, waiting for the voices in her head to return.
Three children to take care of, Ram kasam. When God couldn’t take care of everyone, he created a mother. Take the girl out of Mount Sinai, but you can’t take Mount Sinai out of the girl. You must give us a discount on this Supperware bottle, Joohi sister. Omega selling the same for hundred rupees, I swear!
Joohi heard no voice of guilt or caution in her head that moment. She pulled the rubber band out of her ponytail and tousled her hair. The woman in the silk stole standing in front of her seemed completely at ease with her purchase. And her faded beige cotton tunic did not look cheap at all; it looked deliberately understated in an effort to highlight her stole’s colors, her scant, salt-and-pepper curls. Joohi raised her chin and threw her shoulders back. The woman in the mirror winked at her.
On stepping out of the restroom, Joohi stopped by Grantha bookstore. As if on reflex, she headed straight toward the History section where a huge hardcover titled “Haveli Architecture and the Silk Road” was on display. She flipped through its images of opulent mansions covered in fresco paintings. When Vish was running his textile business in their Mount Sinai days, she loved spending her afternoons reading books on the Silk Road and Thar Desert, where stood their two-hundred-year-old Saraf haveli. Like many Marwaris from Shekhawati region in Rajasthan, the couple’s families had moved to Indian cities in early 1900s. Saraf haveli was the sole tangible link to their centuries-old desert history. It was where the couple had chosen to get married as soon as Joohi finished her Bachelors in History at the same college where Vish had studied Business Management. The couple spent every Diwali at their haveli until Vish got diagnosed with throat cancer.
The hardcover’s price tag read 3150 Rs. Joohi ran her fingers through the mansion’s multiple windows on the cover page. She handed the cashier exact change and put another hundred and fifty in the charity box that read: Feed India.
It was half past two, and she was craving an afternoon snack. Across Grantha was Coffee Keen, one of those Americanized café-chains that had cropped up all over Mumbai. She ordered a cheese puff and a mango frappuccino. In their college days, Vish had taken Joohi on their first date to StarLuck, the first American café in Mumbai. How she’d fallen in love with their white mocha frappuccino, the desserty, cold coffee that had hit the spot after the couple’s lunch at Rock-n-Roll, where they had enjoyed variedly spiced kathi rolls! When Vish was on a liquid diet in his post-chemo days, and grumpy about having to drink another vegetable juice, she’d cheer him up with a StarLuck frappuccino, retelling their first-date story, adding or embellishing details to keep his attention and interest in something edible. Since his death, she had never entered an Americanized café. Things were outrageously expensive there anyway.
As she waited for her order at Coffee Keen, she noticed the huge glass windows surrounding the café as they blocked the air and noise pollution from the streets while letting the light in. A strange feeling swelled within her, digging a void deeper. She blinked a few times, jerked her head, and told herself: here and now. Executives and college kids sat in the café, smoking, sipping drinks and working on their laptops. She took off her stole, laid it on the table, and browsed through her book. The fragrance of coffee beans induced a certain calm in her. As she ate her cheese puff and sipped her frappuccino, she smiled at the college kid who was checking out her stole. When done, she left another fifty rupees on the table for the server.
Across Coffee Keen, stood a dimly lit room that read Nilgiri Salon and Spa. A bulletin board by the entrance flaunted the daily specials. “Hair wash and head massage for 1800 Rs.” She opened her purse and stared at the remaining Gandhis, running her fingers slowly through each one of them. She walked past the imposing, electric waterfall and lounging chairs toward the receptionist who asked her how she could be helped. She asked for the day’s specials. A woman wearing a white apron and white-rimmed glasses took her to a lounge chair in front of a washbasin.
Women around her sat lounging in chairs; a couple of them were talking on their smartphones, another played with her iPad, yet another was asking a staff girl for herbal tea. The girl in the white apron started washing her hair. She uncrossed her legs and sank into her chair. Buddha Bar music played in the background, and the spa smelled of subtle lavender candles. She focused on the forceful spray of hot water massaging her scalp. She tried to smell the various fruits in the herbal shampoo – papaya, mango, melon – not wanting to miss any of the sensory pleasures inundating her.
When the girl in the white apron excused herself to bring oil for the head massage, a woman in the chair next to hers asked her what time it was and started making conversation. They talked about Mumbai’s impossible evening traffic, the need to get home before rush hour began.
“Grocery shopping can be a total pain these days.” The woman pulled a Prada handbag closer to her chest and unzipped it. Two staff girls sat by her feet, giving her a pedicure. “I want to hit the road by four forty-five. The moment it’s five, this place turns into a zoo. Doesn’t it?” The woman removed a slender tube of hand cream, squeezed some of it into her palm, and extended the tube to Joohi.
Joohi nodded. “I’m hoping to reach the market by four. They’ve opened another branch of Shah’s coaching class behind Malava market now. By four thirty, imagine the college kids snacking by khau gally.” She helped herself to some cream. A heady, floral perfume escaped into the air.
“I meant Mega Mandee yah,” the woman said, interlocking her palms in a circular, massaging motion. She told Joohi about the huge grocery store that had opened behind Olympus Mall. “Now with competition from Big Bazaar, Mandee guys are offering free parking for thirty minutes. And eight pay desks so lines never get that long.”
Joohi rubbed her palms and brought them closer to her face. She wanted to tell the woman that with supermarket prices for produce, Mega Mandee would never have long lines at the cashier’s. Instead, she tried to focus on the exotic flowers she was smelling.
“And they keep all types of veggies. Zucchini, broccoli, … celery too.” The woman leaned in, as if to share a secret. “Free parking! Bombay totally needs more of these.” She took the hand cream back. “So my driver today, he circles half an hour looking for a spot, and guess what, we still land up paying two hundred for street parking. Total madness. Easier to just take a rickshaw, seriously.” She jerked her head sideward and zipped up her Prada.
“I took a rickshaw,” Joohi said. “Got here so quickly.” She did not reveal her promise to avoid the rickshaw for the next two weeks.
“Oh.” The woman looked at Joohi, raising her eyebrows. Her gaze wandered from Joohi’s silk stole to her feet, her half-chipped nail polish and worn out leather sandal straps. She suppressed a smile. Joohi held her gaze over a lingering silence.
The staff girl in the white apron returned; Joohi excused herself and reclined into her chair. The girl poured a few drops of oil in her palm, rubbed her hands and ran her fingers through Joohi’s hair. She tapped her fingertips on different parts of Joohi’s forehead. A laughing Buddha with arms raised to the heavens hung on the wall across from them, his huge rosewood belly sporting a clock that ticked away. The Prada woman was chitchatting with the girls giving her a pedicure but Joohi tried to ignore all noise around her – the small talk, the tick tock.
Take the girl out of Mount Sinai, but you can’t take Mount Sinai out of the girl. Three children to take care of, Ram kasam. And the Chinese empire as competition! The Almighty’s mood Swings, seriously yah.
She caressed the hem of her silk stole rubbing her knee. She inhaled the jasmine-infused almond oil, relished the pressure of the girl’s fingertips on her crown, her temples, her sinus points, and her nape. She felt the stress lines on her forehead dissolve. She closed her eyes and sank deep into the moment.
Namrata Poddar has a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and has served as Mellon Postdoctoral Faculty in Transnational Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her criticism and creative work have appeared in several journals, including International Journal of Francophone Studies, Research in African Literatures, Dalhousie French Studies, The Missing Slate, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Margins, and forthcoming ones in Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, Sociopoética, Literary Orphans and Transition. She is currently an MFA Candidate in Fiction at Bennington Writing Seminars and English department Faculty at UCLA.