The Asian Writer Short Story Competition Runner Up – A Cup of Tea

by Shibani Lal

Revathi makes herself a cup of tea. She rarely drinks tea nowadays, preferring the bitter hit of an espresso each morning. However today she feels – she doesn’t quite know what she feels, but she knows that the hiss of the coffee machine will not comfort her.

She glances around her kitchen. It is white and stark, the granite countertops gleam in the morning light. She is suddenly reminded of how different it is from the kitchen back home. Stainless steel gadgets line the counters, primed to whisk eggs and puree vegetables at the press of a button. Long gone are the copper-bottomed pots of her youth; they’ve been replaced by colourful Le Creuset ironware; a wedding present from James’ parents. She runs her fingers lightly across the countertop, it feels cool and smooth. The one at home felt different, although what it felt like she doesn’t know, she can no longer remember.

She opens the kitchen cupboard; her eyes gravitating towards the tiny shelf upon which she stores her spices. Her collection looks sparse relative to the one she left behind. She remembers it well, the rows of spices, tantalising and mysterious, an explosion of textures and flavours. The memory of fiery red chili powders and deep yellow turmeric that left stubborn stains on her fingers, her clothes.  That long-forgotten excitable pop of mustard seeds dancing in hot oil and the pungent fragrance of cumin powder. She has not witnessed their magic, nor seen that spice cupboard in three years. The thought fills her with an almost unbearable sadness.

Leaning against the kitchen counter, she listens to the kettle’s reassuring hum. An everyday sound, but today it reminds her of Dadi, her grandmother, who sang softly as she cooked, Bollywood melodies of the 1950’s. Songs of longing, of romance, as she lovingly fashioned hot crispy samosas for Revathi, perfect golden triangles; works of art.

The kettle clicks, making her jump. She drops a teabag into a mug and pours in the scalding water, chuckling involuntarily. Dadi would be horrified. Dadi loved tea; she’d drink steaming cups of it all day. Freshly brewed elaichi chai, brewed the old-fashioned way. She can picture it now: Dadi by the stove, the pallu of her crisply starched cotton sari tucked sensibly at her waist. The indignant hiss of water as Dadi carelessly throws in a handful of cardamom pods. And finally, the furious dance of bubbles, as the cardamom slowly releases its magic, filling the room with an intoxicating aroma. The memory is so vivid, she can almost taste it on her tongue, can smell the fragrance on her fingertips. She inhales deeply, remembering the earthy scent of cardamom lingering for hours on Dadi’s breath.

She sips her tea: the enchanting elaichi bubble bursts with a pop, replaced by the sharp tangy taste of peppermint, fresh and tart.

It is a typical spring morning, crisp and cool. Light showers have elbowed out the morning sunshine. She watches the raindrops lightly caress the window-pane. Soft watery kisses; gentle and clean. She sighs. She misses the rain. Not these English showers; they lack the passion, the intensity of the Bombay monsoon. Real rain that lashed at the earth in thick unrelenting torrents, offering no respite for days.

And that smell, that fresh scent of the earth, hours after the rain. The sodden, saturated ground now washed clean. Vibrant patches of emerald green adorning the once parched yellow canvas. She yearns for those afternoons drinking tea on the terrace with Dadi, watching the dirt and grime wash away. Watching the busy market streets where flower-sellers and vegetable-vendors jostled for space between the pimps and whores; as fortune-tellers conjured futures opposite the juice-wallah pressing sugarcane into small glasses, profiting from the thirst of the present, being washed away; waves of water piercing through the underbelly of the city. Leaving in its wake a cool, clear canvas, only for them to colour it with their presence again.

She hasn’t seen her grandmother in three years; it feels like a lifetime. She struggles to picture the older woman, but the image is blurred and grainy, like an old black-and-white photograph. Their weekly conversations, once newsy and exciting have lost their charm, both women holding back…

“You remember Munna? Mr. Duggal’s nephew? That cheeky fellow? He’s getting married in Delhi next month,” Dadi tells her.

“Mmmmm,” Revathi replies, she barely remembers Munna, and fails to understand why the wedding of a cantankerous neighbour’s nephew is newsworthy. But she feigns interest, just as she suspects Dadi does, as she details how they’d spent the previous afternoon assembling a bookshelf from IKEA. And anyway, what else to say? She longs to say more, but is fearful of upsetting her, doesn’t want Dadi to worry. Plus, she’d promised James that she wouldn’t. So she says nothing, and listens half-heartedly to her grandmother’s chatter. So long as she’s happy…

Dadi sets down the receiver and stares at the painting opposite her bed. It features a girl, tall and slim, her long hair braided to one side. She stands on a bridge, gazing into the distance. Her head is tilted slightly and she has an earnest expression on her face. But it is her eyes that Dadi loves, delicate almond-shaped eyes, blazing with an almost lifelike passion. Beautiful and expressive, just like Revathi’s. Open windows that give her away each time. She focuses on those eyes, almost willing them to help her. Wishing that her Revu would come visit. Wondering why she doesn’t, wondering why things aren’t the same anymore.

Dadi cannot remember when Revathi stopped mentioning James. Initially, she’d ask, but Revathi would change the topic. So Dadi doesn’t ask anymore, unable to bear the tension in Revu’s voice. She yearns to reassure her, to tell her that whatever it is, things will work out, that this too shall pass. But Dadi does not: she has seen enough of life to know that advice, unless solicited is neither valued nor appreciated. But she remains hopeful, and prays to Lord Ganesha each morning, to bring happiness and harmony into her granddaughter’s home.

Revathi drains the remainder of her tea, and brews a fresh cup. There was a time when she’d kept no secrets from Dadi – nothing big at least. Back then when Dadi was the only one, her only family.

She doesn’t remember her parents; she cannot believe she has ever known them. Even now, all these years later, she thumbs through old photo albums in an attempt to forge a connection with the youthful faces frozen in time. They are grainy and yellowed with age, but are clearer than her best memory. She sees herself in mama’s face; they have the same eyes, the same naughty dimple on the left cheek. She has inherited her mother’s love for chunky silver jewelry – thick bracelets line her wrists, not unlike her the woman in the photos. She has her father’s eyebrows, thick, unruly crescents that necessitate frequent visits to Priti’s Hair and Beauty Salon in Brick Lane, a tiny room in the basement of a shop selling counterfeit perfumes. It boasts a large armchair facing a cheap mirror, a small chip on the bottom-left corner. Colourful posters of Bollywood actresses of the 1980’s adorn the walls in an obvious attempt to cover years of water damage. It is here, where Priti valiantly endeavors to shape Revathi’s eyebrows into elegant feminine arcs, the effects of which last about forty-eight hours before they stubbornly start sprouting again.

“It is as though you have weeds growing on your face,” Priti mutters exasperatedly as she loops the white thread expertly between her teeth, plucking out the hairs, one by one. “I don’t know why you bother,” she continues, “see that Bollywood actress, kya naam hai, Kajol, that fatty-fatty one. Ugly eyebrows, but still she is super-star hai-na?”

Revathi chuckles. Despite Priti’s frustration and the fruitlessness of it all, she returns each week. She cannot explain it, but she feels closer to him somehow. That by focusing on her eyebrows she keeps the memory of him alive, that they have a connection, her and papa, the first man to love her and whom she will never know. The photographs tell her of evenings at the beach and family trips to the zoo, but she remembers nothing. Her first clear memory is that of her being held by the grandmother, surrounded by women dressed in white, Dadi’s salty tears mixing with her own; enveloped by the smoky haze of incense and grief.

She longs to tell Dadi so much: that James is working again, after nearly three years of unemployment. That, back then, instead of being promoted, he’d been made redundant. An ill-timed acquisition of the small financial consultancy that he worked for led to his boss Andrew, James and a slew of their colleagues losing their jobs. Andrew retired, two years earlier than planned and moved to Cornwall, spending his days tending to his garden. But for James, still in his thirties, with decades of work and paychecks ahead, things were different.

She didn’t tell Dadi this either: that they sold their home, a cozy three-bedroom affair in Chiswick, thirteen months after they’d bought it, due to the crippling mortgage payments. They were both jobless then; in a cruel twist of fate, she had quit the PR firm she’d worked at, weeks before James was made redundant. They’d discussed it of course; it made sense for her to focus on getting the house redecorated. In any case, they were going to start trying for a baby soon and she wanted to be a stay-at-home mum for the first few years at least.

At first, she didn’t tell Dadi because of James. Please don’t Revu, not just yet he’d begged. I can’t bear for her to know how I’ve failed. Failed you, failed her. She held him close, kissing his forehead, ssh, you’ve not failed anyone, we’ll be okay. I wont tell her. I promise. And anyway, its just a matter of a couple of months at best, something will come up.

But a month became two, and suddenly, six months went by. The market was tough, London was still reeling from the 2008 crash and jobs were few and fleeting. Great C.V., great experience, but we aren’t looking at the moment, became the constant refrain. The stress took its toll, on him, on her, on them. They’d fight frequently now, over silly things – like whose turn it was to hoover the carpet or buy the milk. He snapped at her when she cheerfully opened a bottle of wine one evening. Do you not understand we’re both jobless and we can’t spend like this, he’d raged, refusing to listen as she tearfully explained that it was reduced to half-price at Tesco, that she’d still managed to stick to the weekly budget. It was hard. Especially at night, when he curled up against her, I’m so sorry, please forgive me, her pillow wet with his tears.

But the biggest change was foregoing their bi-annual trip to Bombay.

“I’m sorry Revu, we can’t afford it,” he’d said to her one Sunday morning over breakfast, a few weeks after the hell began. She looked into his eyes, her heart in knots, feeling his pain. “It’s just too extravagant…between the builders and the mortgage, and the all the uncertainty…we’ve really got to be careful.”

“And, he continued, running his hands agitatedly through his hair, a light sprinkling of grey scattered between the brown, at once ageing and elegant; “I don’t want to take any chances. We’ve got some money saved, but we’ve got to be sensible. Dadi’s not getting any younger and we need to keep something aside, just in case…I don’t want to be in a situation where she needs our help and we can’t…”

“And Pat and Tom,”

“Yes, mum and dad too. Just in case. You understand, don’t you?”

She nodded, almost imperceptibly, willing herself not to cry.

*

“So Revu, this boy James from work that you keep meeting, are you just friends?” Dadi had asked late one evening, as they ate dinner, Bollywood music playing softly in the background. Revathi almost choked on her alu-paratha. Dadi ignored her, “You know, your eyes sparkle when you talk about James. He must be special. When does your Dadi get to meet him?” A mischievous smile dances across Dadi’s face; she looks endearing in her naughtiness.

“Dadi, I, wanted to a-ask you, I mean tell you…James, you see, we’re good friends, and…” she stutters.

“Enough Revu, eat your dinner, don’t play with your food. And yes, why don’t you invite this James-boy over for chai next weekend? I’ll fry some samosas and get us some fresh coconut so we can have some narial-paani. Some alu-tikkis maybe? Or bhujias?” But Revathi is no longer listening, she’s enveloped her grandmother in a hug, holding her close, breathing in the reassuring scent of Dadi’s Cuticura sandalwood powder and the lingering scent of cardamom.  

It is a suitably nervous James who stands outside flat 4A on an otherwise unremarkable Saturday afternoon, his tummy rumbling in happy anticipation as he inhales the unmistakable smells of samosas frying inside. He reaches for the doorbell, a small push-button that sits below a nameplate: “Mrs. A. Verma” it spells out in neat, sensible script.

“All I could think of at that moment, is how hungry I was and how I couldn’t wait to taste those samosas,” James chuckles afterwards, kissing her lightly on her cheek.

“It didn’t go unnoticed,” Revathi teases, “although that’s probably why Dadi took to you immediately – no greater way to please her than by enjoying her food.”

“So, she likes me then,” he asks, his hopeful eyes searching hers. Wondering what Dadi thinks, hoping that he’s made a good impression.

“She says you’re not too bad, good for now, until some pot-bellied Punjabi chap seduces me with his oily charms,” she retorts, punching him playfully. He throws a pillow at her, she squeals, aiming a cushion back at him. He ducks, it flies out the window instead, and they collapse on the bed, giggling, their banter culminating in an afternoon of lovemaking, sweeter and more intense than ever before.

“He cares for you Revu,” Dadi remarked, as soon as he’d left, happily cradling a small Tupperware box of samosas in his hand, “A snack for later, beta”, Dadi had asserted, firmly pushing the box towards him.

“But how do you know Dadi?”

“The way he looks at you, beti. I know,”

“I really like him.

She knows. She has always known.

Dadi, he’s not said anything yet. But I think I know. If he asks me, I mean, what do you think? I like him Dadi, but if disagree, then…” she stops. Her tongue feels thick, like molasses.

“Ssssh, why are you crying? Dadi wiped her tears with her fingers, “Revu, I want you to be happy, to be loved. I want what you want. Beti, ssssh. He’ll make a good husband. Nothing else matters.”

They were married six months later. After a two-week honeymoon in Goa, they’d boarded the London-bound flight at Bombay airport. A promotion at work awaited him; a new life together awaited them both. She was inconsolable during the flight, as she thought of Dadi eating dinner alone that evening, and of all that she’d left behind.

Her tea is cold. She turns on the kettle, running her hand absently over her belly. It has only been a few weeks. James was ecstatic when she told him.

“It’s a sign of things to come,” he’d whispered, his hands tenderly resting on her stomach.

“Are you sure? You’ve only just started working and I’m still doing these part-time jobs…are we ready?”

“We’ll never be ready, Revu. But it feels right.”

And indeed it feels like the tide is turning. James is happy at work, the soul-destroying job search firmly behind him. Things feel normal. She’s slowly let herself relax, still unable to believe that the worst is behind them.

“Have you told Dadi?” he’d asked the previous night, smiling indulgently at his newly pregnant wife.

“Not yet.”

“Shall we call and tell her together?”

She didn’t reply.

He knows her well enough not to ask again.

A tear rolls down her cheek. She wants to tell Dadi, but somehow, it feels half-baked, there is so much more to say. None of which she can tell her grandmother over crackling phone wires…

The kettle clicks. She snaps out of her reverie. The haze clears; she knows what to do.  She will tell Dadi everything. Her pregnancy. James. Her life. How they lived through it all. How she bottled up her fears, staying strong.

The loneliness. Tension. Stress. Despair.

But also, to tell Dadi she loves her.

To hold her close and feel Dadi’s reassuring hands on her own.

To banish, albeit briefly, the pressures of being an adult and to give Dadi the chance to comfort the child within her.

She wipes away her tears. She will tell James tonight, that despite the cost, she is going to Bombay for a few weeks. That she needs to be with Dadi, to sit with her on the terrace, and eat samosas; catching up on all they have missed. To be able to feel the warmth of the Bombay sun on her back, and smell the balmy fragrance of the Bombay breeze, allowing it to blow away the layers of anxiety that have enveloped her.

To enjoy for one last time, the luxury of being a child, before she becomes a mother.

She feels lightness, a joy she hasn’t felt in years. Three years to be precise. She drains her teacup, and without pausing to think, as though she has always known to do this, she walks over to the spice cupboard. Slowly, deliberately, she reaches in for a handful of cardamom. And, just as her grandmother does, she makes herself a cup of tea.

Shibani Lal Born in Bombay, I moved to the UK in 2000 and currently live in London. I work in Finance to pay the bills, I write because it makes me happy and I cook to feed those that I love.
And, when I’m not doing any of the above, I spend my days reminiscing about my magical childhood in Bombay, drinking fresh coconut-water by the sea.