By: Priya Anand
Meenu peers at the unmade bed and the clothes on the floor. The clothes lie in heaps on the bed and the floor. It had taken her over 45 minutes to fold the clothes the ‘Kondo‘ way. “Ask your clothes if they spark joy in you” said Marie Kondo and they hadn’t, but Meenu had worked hard to make the cupboard look presentable. Now her husband, Sridhar had destroyed her efforts in a minute in his efforts to find his track pants.
Meenu presses her forehead as the now familiar migraine threatens to take over again. Sridhar used to call her ‘Old Faithful’ alluding to the geyser in Yellowstone National Park that faithfully erupted at regular intervals. That was before he learned that she couldn’t take a joke, of course. She could imagine in her mind the boiling water seeking an outlet to the outside, till it witnessed the distant light and emerged in an enormous whoosh, delighting its viewers with its magnificent physicality.
In Meenu’s case, unlike Old Faithful, her eruption is greeted with a brief sense of surprise followed by weariness and indifference as everyone immediately disappears from her sight. “Your reaction is inversely proportionate to the action,” says Sridhar, after she calms down a bit and this only causes the coiled serpent of rage within her to uncoil again.
Sridhar’s absolute refusal and ostrich like attitude to not address the issue in anything but a superficial manner is his forte. “ Meenuma, when you’re angry, you become a Goddess. I’ll willingly fall at your feet.”, he jokes. He is a retired engineer whose passion for metals and alloys are only matched by his love for the environment and conservation and classic rock music from the 60s.
As for her children, they cackle at his jokes, but never understand her irritation and resentment. Her oldest, Malavika merely rolls her eyes with exasperation and says, “Ma, why are you such a drama queen?” She had recently moved to the US to for a PhD programme in Genetics, and discusses her work ad nauseum with her father even though he isn’t in the same area and has only a passing interest in the subject.
You have no idea what I am going through, Amma? You’ve never gone through a PhD program. Appa is the only one who understands. I have no work life balance at all. You keep on and on about me finding a partner, but where am I going to find one, if I don’t even have the time to go on a date.” Her daily Whatsapp calls are primarily with Sridhar, Meenu is the go to person for necessities – “Amma, can you courier me some instant upma and gojjuavalakki mixes from that shop in Malleswaram. They are much better than the MTR stuff.”
Her son, Anirudh on the other hand is an enigma. She doesn’t know what he wants. These days he prefers to spend most of his time in his room. He is done with college, but seems to have no intention of looking for a job.
“Ani, Ramki Mama is looking for someone to help him with content writing. Would you be…?”
“Not now Amma, please”
Anirudh walks into the bathroom and shuts the door. He has that much in common with her husband if nothing else. Sridhar and Anirudh never quite know what to say to each other, they stay out of each other’s orbits as much as possible. Sridhar who has long intense conversations with his daughters never quite seems to know what to say to his son.
Meenu had inadvertently walked into Anirudh’s room the other day and caught him in the act of wearing a saree. It was an old Pochampalli saree of hers, given to her by her mother in law, she had even forgotten it existed. A tiny voice in the corner of her mind suggested that he might have finally found his vocation, a costume designer. But the lipstick on his mouth belied it. She didn’t know who was more surprised; it was the first time she had seen any expression other than a studied boredom in his face. If she could describe it best, it was a frisson of fear and excitement.
“What the f***, Amma…get the hell out” he said and slammed the door on her face.
She had never worked up the courage to ask him about it and nor had she mentioned it to her husband.
“Sexual preferences should be private. I’m not sure they should be talked about in the public domain” is Sridhar’s refrain when Saudamini, their youngest wants to participate in the Pride Parade in Bangalore. Mini is the most vociferous of the lot, passionate about a number of causes. She reads voraciously about everything and her current interest is anime and graphic novels.
“Appa, you’re homophobic! Do you know why Pride Parades started in the first place? It was to critique spaces which always appeared as heteronormative and to bring queer culture into that space.
“What does heteronormative even mean? “ says Sridhar as he gazes at his eighteen year old with exasperation tinged with pride.
“Appa, if you’re so ignorant, what is the point?” says Mini with a huff and walks away.
Sridhar turns and look at me with amusement.
“She reminds me of Akila, her intelligence, use of words, her confidence…”
He pats his daughter awkwardly on her head, as she draws away with a defiant “Appa, please…”
Akila is Sridhar’s prodigal sister, who is currently in California, a senior economist with a salary close to a million dollars, and a five-bedroom hacienda style home in Orange County. Meenu can think of a few less-flattering adjectives, but she doesn’t want to go there.
The doorbell shrieks, startling Meenu from her reverie and she opens the door. It is Dipti, (Diligent Dips as Mini calls her), her next-door neighbour with a steel vessel held gingerly in her hands.
“Meenu, I’ve made some Gajjar Ka Halwa. You mentioned that Sridhar loves it, so I got it for you.”
“Thank you, Di. Will you come in and have a cup of tea?” says Meenu, praying that she will refuse.
“Well, I really have to get back and make lunch. But your offer of tea sounds very tempting.”
Dipti’s eagle eyes scan the house, noting Mini’s chappals lying beneath the sofa, all tangled up as if they have been a fight and pulled apart. The newspaper lies on the sofa, its pages pulled apart, a rust-coloured coffee stain on one of its headlines about farmer protests in Delhi. The kitchen looks like a tornado has swept through it, the sink piled high with vessels and the burners ringed with sticky residue from the milk that has boiled over this morning.
“Hasn’t Jayamma come as yet? “ asks Dipti as Meenu strains the Red Label tea into mugs.
“You should try the long leafed tea from Korakundah, Meenu. Varun ordered it the other day and it is very flavourful.”
“Aunty, we are commoners. We can only appreciate Brooke Bond Red Label,” says Anirudh as he walks down the stairs.
Meenu turns with a frown and suppresses a groan. Anirudh is wearing his favourite shorts, torn and tattered in many places, one tear very strategically located near his groin area.
“I just wanted to tell you that Raghu has gotten into IIM Kolkata. He is on the waiting list for Bangalore. We are keeping our fingers crossed,” says Dipti as she sips her tea and gives Anirudh, who is stroking Moosha the cat, a sideward glance.
Meenu makes all the appropriate noises and hints that she has some work to complete, but Dipti seems in no hurry to leave. Meenu notices a spider inching its way ‘diligently’ across her curtain, in search of a corner to build a cobweb. Most of the corners already seem taken. She makes a mental note to tell Jayamma to sweep away the webs.
“And so if you use Dranex to clean chimney filters, it works like a dream” says Dipti triumphantly like she has achieved the targets for the Paris climate Change Agreement.
“Meenu, what are you looking at? Hmmm…you’ve got dark circles under your eyes and your skin looks so sallow. Maybe some cucumber slices on your eyes and some aloe vera on your skin? Both grow in my garden, I can give you some.”
“No, I was looking at the spider climbing up my curtain. It must seem like Mount Everest and yet it’s managed to summit it,” says Meenu dreamily as the migraine juggernaut pounds its way across her forehead.
“You should kill it, Meenu. Its bites can be poisonous. Raghu got bitten once and it was extremely poisonous.”
“Absolutely not, Aunty! Spiders are part of a thriving ecosystem,” says Mini, her eyes flashing, as she enters the room.
“What say you, Baby boy?”
She strokes Moosha under his chin and he licks her hand in response.
Mini and Anirudh laugh in unison and Moosha chooses that moment to jump over and sit next to Dipti on the sofa.
Meenu feels like she is playing a minor role in the theatre of the absurd. Her temples pulsate with pain and she hopes she will not faint.
“Mom, I have a zoom call starting in the next ten minutes”, says Anirudh, coming to her rescue, in a rare show of compassion for Meenu. He must have heard the silent screams in her head.
“Well, it’s time for me to go. Raghu likes his chappatis hot and it’s almost lunch time,” says Dipti, as she realizes that she has overstayed her welcome.
The house seemed strangely quiet as everyone scurries back to his or her rooms. There is still no sign of Jayamma.
Meenu checks her mails. She feels a frisson of excitement as she sees a mail from her ex-colleague, Betty with whom she has worked to manage livelihood projects in India. Betty and she had been part of a small intermediary based in the UK that empowers rural women in India to build skills and enabled them to earn supplementary income. Betty has since retired to the South of France, while Meenu had decided to quit her job for reasons unknown even to her. Meenu opened her mail and began reading.
“Dearest Meenu, It’s been a while since I chatted with you…”
The bell shrieks again and Jayamma stands at the threshold looking exhausted.
“Where have you been Jayamma? It’s eleven already and the house is such a mess. Dipti Madam was here and you know how she is. Always talking about how the house is looking messy.”
“Sorry Madam, I had to go to the Bank today to withdraw money. My ATM card is not working. You look tired, Madam. Why don’t you sit down? Take some rest. Ill make some green tea for you.” says Jayamma in a placatory tone
Often Jayamma seems to be her only ally in the house.
“Thank you Jayamma, I have some work to do. I also have to start cooking lunch soon. Can you cut some onions, tomatoes and carrots for me? I’ll be upstairs in my room. Please bring my tea upstairs.”
Meenu walks into her bedroom and lies down on her unmade bed. The room is humid, the tiled floor dappled with sunlight filtered through sheer curtains. She leans against the pillows and begins to read the mail from Betty
“Dearest Meenu, just to say I miss you and have been thinking of how things might be going for you. Here, in France it has been at least as hot as it gets in India – sometimes up in the high-30s but without the humidity. Michael and I are doing well here in Saignon. It’s like being in a bubble, COVID has hardly made its presence felt here in our little village. We have been doing some exploring, visiting some vineyards and little architectural gems. We visited a little neo classical church with stunning stained-glass windows yesterday and it was delightful to see the sun shine through the colours. It reminded me of your very colourful sarees.
It is strange to not open my laptop and see a mail from you or do a Skype call with you. But most importantly, not to visit Bangalore, stay in my quaint little guesthouse in Indiranagar, walk down to 100 feet Road and have an early dinner of warm roasted veggie salad and a glass of wine at Cafe Max. I will miss our after-work drink in our hotel rooms after a hard day of travel and work.
Will we see each other again Meenu? Will we travel to Odisha and Tamil Nadu again and work with village communities and women who want to support each other and want to give their children and families a better future than the one they had?
COVID has certainly ensured that we are not likely to meet soon. But, I will always be immensely grateful that I was able to experience this incredible journey with you as my colleague and friend.
Stay well, stay safe and remember that you are unique and amazing and have forged a path that is unique and different, my friend
Lots of love and Hugs