The sun was just appearing, an early morning mist hung in the air, the world was still asleep. She woke slowly from her bed, the springs creaking a bit. She rubbed her eyes, and moved out of the room softly. Though her eyes were partly closed, years of routine enabled her to reach the back-yard with no mishap. Finally cracking the eyes open she undid the innumerable bolts and locks and proceeded to the well. The main thing is to wake up before the rest of the household, and to look like you are immersed in work by the time they wake, she told herself. A secret every woman must be let into by their mother, she thought, smiling to herself at the idea of her mother harbouring such ideas.
Her trained hands quickly pulled up two pots of water from the well. Then, hesitation. It’s a cold winter morning. No one is looking. How important is it to wash oneself, clothes and all, in freezing cold well water? She decided on the basic ablution, a bit of water on each foot, some for the hand, a handful for the face. Then she washed the pots with the remainder of the water.
She moved inside the house and put on the switch, in five minutes the boiler would give her pleasantly warm water, and she could have a real bath. Brushing her teeth, she went inside to the little drying room by the kitchen. Grabbing a stick from behind the wooden door, she carefully removed the clothes hanging on the lines running across the room near the ceiling – clothes that she had washed yesterday after her bath, ‘pure’ clothes that she would don after her bath today. At no cost must she touch the clothes now, she told herself, a small seed of guilt about her shortened stint at the well gnawing at her.
Clothes securely placed on top of the wooden stick, she moved into the bathroom. The water was nice and warm, as expected. She had a relaxing bath, avoiding all the soaps in the little alcove and sticking to the turmeric powder and gramflour mixture. Donning the fresh clothes, she went in to the kitchen, a large but dark room in the interior of the house.
With quiet efficiency she boiled milk, made coffee decoction in the large stainless steel filter, and decided upon Rava Uppma for breakfast.
Then she remembered suddenly that she had omitted to pray! Turning the gas low on the milk, she quickly stepped in the Puja Room. She felt satisfaction at the largeness of the room, the innumerable portraits and statues of god that occupied half the room, the neat arrangement of flowers, incense and other assorted materials around. Left to them they would have relegated god to a corner of the kitchen, she thought. Thank god I put my foot down, and got this room made so nice, she smiled at the memory of the fights and the tantrums she had resorted to. Though her hands were folded, eyes closed, and her mouth reciting slokas learnt in her childhood decades ago, her mind was wandering, as usual, over the various aspects of the household, and in particular, the role she herself played in it.
Without realizing it consciously, she reached the end of the recital, did her four namaskaarams with perfect posture, and decided to make Vermicelli Uppma instead. Digging out vermicelli from a gleamingly large vessel from the back of the kitchen shelf, she started on the dish, the mustard seeds spattering and crackling, the aroma wafting out to the rest of the household through the single, small, window in the back of the kitchen.
Soon the rest of the house awoke, with the incessant demands of milk, coffee, sugar, breakfast, food for the children’s school lunch boxes and what not. Till the children (two girls, not hers, her husband’s brother’s) left raucously on their bicycles, she did not have moment to breathe.
And no sooner had she waved them good-bye with a slightly plastic smile, then her father-in-law demanded his lunch. How she managed to get everything ready single-handedly in so short a time, no one knew. But then she was famed for her efficiency, especially in the kitchen. She had to live up to that every day, and god was her witness that every single day, she managed to. And not just with the kitchen, with every aspect of the household and the family, she had demonstrated many times over her abilities and talents.
The morning wore on in the routine manner with servants and work in the Puja Room, and the rest of the cooking. Before she knew it, it was the slow time of the afternoon. Her father-in-law, uncaring of the afternoon sun (it was winter after all, pleasant in the afternoon, he would say, if asked), had had his tea and left on a long walk to his daughter’s house in another part of the city, his big black umbrella held behind his neck. The house was empty and quiet.
She went and lay down on her bed. Of course with a book in her hand – one of her favourite Tamizh magazines, called ‘Kalki’. She had had to work hard on her husband, again resorting to some temper tantrums to secure this year’s subscription to the magazine. He had put forth arguments such as the articles were not of high quality, no one else in the house could read it, whereas if an English magazine were subscribed to for the same price, then everyone could read, and in fact she could improve her English herself too. No doubt he was instigated to say these things by his brother, she could plainly see his hand in it. But she had put her foot down. Nothing doing, she had said. What she did not add was that she had to read the magazine quickly herself and then circulate it amongst all her relatives who could not buy it themselves, and her prestige, her place in the society was hinged in no small measure on her ability to supply magazines to all the women. They all looked up to her – look at her – so strong, can buy magazines, our husbands will not hear of it. And also, as soon as she got a whiff of the brother’s hand in this, she had to, had to change her husband’s mind. Anyway this was last year, and after that episode no one had dared to say anything more on the matter.
She thumbed through the pages desultorily – the magazine a few months old, she had already read it several times. She had to concentrate on not sleeping. Everyone knows that sleeping in the afternoons is not beneficial to one’s health. But the crisp air of the winter afternoon, the pleasant sun, they were intoxicating. She could vaguely hear a few birds on the guava tree outside the window, and far away, someone crying out their wares. Tamarind or vegetables or steel vessels, she could not tell.
She woke up with a jerk at a bicycle bell rung repeatedly. Dragging herself to her feet she went out to look. It was the postman. A plump old man on a large black cycle with a huge bell, ringing it as if the world was ending. Without hiding her irritating, she asked him to stop the ringing.
‘Were you sleeping Amma?’ the fellow asked.
It made her more irritated.
“Of course not, can a woman ever sleep? The whole household’s work is done by me, everyone manages to eat and then just come back for more eating, all the work is left to me, where is the time to sleep? “
‘Sorry Amma, I was ringing for so long.. Anyway maybe you were in the backyard. Here is a letter from Amrica. Amma, how about some bakshish for this poor old man?’
She absent-mindedly reprimanded him for this insolence, handed a few coins, and proceeded inside staring at the letter. It was from her brother, the one that was a doctor. She was very fond and proud of him, and was glad to carefully read through the small handwriting, speaking of his work and food and Americans. She did not read between the lines, did not see his unhappiness and inability to marry the orthodox Brahmin upbringing to the freedom in the West. She spent a few contemplative moments imagining him married to a very suitable young woman, with yellow mustard staining the skin near the ears and a long black plait studded with jasmine, and a befitting coyness.
Slowly her mind turned to rumination on her own spouse. Her lips curled up unconsciously in disdain. With characteristic clarity, she blamed him for her rather drab and boring life. He was, after all, a drab and boring man. He could never express himself clearly or firmly. He was tall but in a gangly way, not in the wholesome healthy way of her father. He was well-educated, and in a well-paid government job. But he did not exhibit any particular interest in moving up the ranks, and did not even apply for promotions in the aggressive manner which she prescribed. He was content in continuing with his routine life, job and family. She was convinced that the reason they were childless was because he did not want a child himself, so satisfied with the current scenario was he. Hmph, she finished this analysis in disgust, I deserve better than this. She went on to think of her other brothers, and the weak, giggly women who were their wives and decided with finality that all of her siblings too deserved better spouses, and that it was unfortunate that god had chosen in such a manner.
Proceeding slowly to the kitchen, she mixed up a cup of coffee – automatically making up the milk with a bit of water, so she could confidently argue later that she only drank black coffee through the day, saving all the milk for the rest of the family. A sudden pang of guilt at this subterfuge drove her to the adjacent Puja Room, where she spent a half hour in additional slokas to the gods, winding up with four proper namaskarams, and a couple of minutes of detailed requests to god about means of improving her daily life.
The door bell brought her out of the room, and when she opened the door, in burst the children, laughing and talking and generally creating a huge noise. She shouted at them to stop it and ran into the kitchen, and quickly whipped up some green gram sundal. They took one look at it and turned to run away, but her stern look and general combative demeanour with her hands on her hips stopped them and they somehow ate up the snack, although clearly hating it. Thankfully, before she could really lose her temper at them, they drank their glasses of milk and wandered away to the friend’s house to play, arguing about which game.
Next to arrive would be her husband. He would as usual bring a string of jasmine flowers for her hair. She loved the smell of jasmine and welcomed the opportunity to sport it in her hair, but had never admitted it to him. She looked down at her batter-stained sari and thought that perhaps she should clean up a bit. Then when she wore the jasmine he would say ‘You look just like Goddess Lakshmi’ and she could feel proud of herself for a short while at least. She latched her bedroom door and slowly pulled out a brown sari with a thick gold border. The nine yards of the sari did nothing to intimidate her, and she quickly wound herself up, taking care to arrange the rich pallu delicately around her waist. After a few quick tugs, she could ensure that her legs were not constrained and she could, if necessary, move fast. Combing out the white-peppered hair, she wound it into a bun and took a sideways look in the mirror. With a grimace at the smallness of the bun, she undid it quickly, and pulled out a long, thick cascade of fake black hair. Now the bun was thick and luxuriant, and the white of her hair barely visible. The little black net she wore on top, and secured with U-pins, made it even less evident. Daubing pink powder of her face and marking out a rather large red dot in her forehead, she eyed herself in the mirror with satisfaction. It was true, she did look like Goddess Lakshmi, she told herself. The red bindi caught her attention and she quickly cursed the new fashion, where people insisted on wearing it between their eyebrows as opposed to high up in the forehead. It looked ridiculous, she thought, look at how elegant mine looks, she wanted to tell them.
Her husband entered the house just then, ah, what perfect timing, she was saying in her mind when she noted the agitated look on his face. She quickened her step and brought out a steaming hot cup of coffee for him. He took it with shaking fingers and looked at her for a moment, but his pathetic look evoked not pity, but anger and frustration in his wife. He spoke haltingly, as he was wont to when excited. And when he finished, and she had still not uttered a word in response, he looked confused and tried to move away. ‘Wait’ she said. Then a small smile played on her lips. “This transfer to Chennai is a good thing. We will get way from here – all this,” she said spreading her arms out. “Our own cozy little house, I will grow jasmine there, we will be happy..” she continued, half to herself. Her busy mind planning what to take, how jealous her friends would be, and for a fleeting moment, she sincerely believed her life could only look up from here. It was just that afternoon, after reading her brother’s letter, that she had gone into the Puja room. “God works really fast,” she told herself, stepping into the kitchen to start the preparations for dinner, a spring in her step.