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Fiction: "Tea Time"

By Mallika Padmanabhan Email By Mallika Padmanabhan
September 2016
Fiction: "Tea Time"

KATHA FICTION CONTEST 2016
FIRST PLACE WINNER

“Tea chahiye?”

I smiled and nodded before slipping a pen into the book of crossword puzzles. Of course I wouldn’t pass up a cup of my mother’s chai, not on a rainy day like this: water winding in rivulets down the window panes, pattering against the roof and sides of the house, branches thwacking the garage as they swayed in a wind that had steadily gathered force across the South. Cardamom and ginger and masala soaking in hot water together, its scent wafting through the air and creating a spicy warmth only meant one thing—home.

“Good.”

Amma opened the cabinet above the dishwasher to pull out two tins, one for tea leaves, another for her spice blend all the way from Sahil Mama’s shop in Mumbai. I rolled my shoulders once, twice, ran my hands through my ponytail, pushed the overpriced puzzles from O’Hare airport away from me on the smooth mahogany of the dining table. “17 across” could wait.

As I looked at her, something unsettling became apparent. It was hard to notice at first—a small frown crossed her face, a grimace that quickly melted away— a pause to rest without enough movement before. If I hadn’t been watching her so intently, I wouldn’t have noticed it.

But it was time for chai, and over the years I’d gotten into the habit of following Amma’s every move during the ten minute ritual. I hadn’t realized how much I’d internalized it until I had moved out, left Texas, got my little apartment in Chicago and found myself reenacting the same steps. Some people memorize a recipe, I’d memorized the entire choreography of tea time without knowing it, down to the impatient tap tap tap of my fingers drumming against the counter, hurrying the water to boil.

So of course I noticed the change today. Her steps weren’t as precise, her pace wasn’t as fast, her reaches and bends and twists more labored than they should be. I bit my lower lip, a habit from childhood. Her movements were starkly different from anything I’d seen just six months ago, when I’d visited for Christmas.

Had she hurt herself?

It was only four steps from the sink to the stove, yet her breathing was labored by the time she put the kettle on. Her long braid, now streaked with gray and thinner than before, swung like a steady pendulum behind her back. And her hand came to rest on the chipped corner of the counter that had met its match against me nearly twenty years ago.

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“Okay, all finished!” I scampered into the dining room, socked feet sliding on the floor, proudly waving the construction paper. Amma was standing by the counter, Babu in his chair. They turned to me in unison, but instead of smiles, frowns.

I gave them a look of scorn, a curl of my lips that I’d seen Jeremy do at recess the other day, and slapped the paper down on the table in front of my dad. “See, Babu? Here’s the date, our phone number, a description of Snappy, and I even drew a picture so that people know what she looks like.”

I pointed to each part as I explained it. Then I waited for my dad to jump up and rush to Copy Corner to make the copies. Nothing. I tapped my 64-color-worthy Crayola rendering a few more times and bit my lower lip. But all he did was smooth out the placemat on the table, black hair glinting from the overhead light, casting dark shadows under his eyes, nose, and chin.

Jalebi ...” Ma crossed her arms, long braid hanging by her side.

“I’ll make copies, I’ll pay using the birthday money that Aarti Mami gave me.” I was distinctly aware of the power that those words of responsibility would have. “And I can post them on trees all around the neighborhood.”

I picked up the stapler from the kitchen desk. “Babu?”

But he just sat there, avoiding my gaze.

Amma sighed and walked around the circumference of the rug that flanked the dining table.

Jalebi,” she repeated softly. “I don’t think you’ll find Snappy. She’s very small, and Dallas is a very big city for a hamster.”

I glared at her. Why was she saying this? She was supposed to know everything. Didn’t she know this was how lost pets were found? She knew everything.

“No.” I waved my hand. “This will work! We just need to go now to make copies—”

Arre, Lalita, why can’t we just take her …” My dad’s voice was pleading; his fingers were now smoothing out the flat tablecloth.

“No, beti, I’m sorry.” She put both hands on my cheeks now. “You left the door open when you were cleaning the cage, na, only for a bit, and we all know it was an accident, but she got out. And from the front yard, who knows where she could’ve go—”

A loud thwack and thud that echoed through the room as the stapler flew over the table and smacked into the corner of the kitchen counter, then fell to the floor. Amma recoiled and stood up straight. For a moment my arm stayed up in the air, then it dropped. My lower lip began to tremble and my eyes filled with tears as realization dawned.

“Jaya! Come back here! Now!” My dad’s voice followed me as I whirled around and ran back down the hall.

“Let her be, Srini.”

I slammed the door behind me and sat down hard on the carpet, ripping up my poster again and again and again, shoulders shaking as more tears came. Because of course, I knew deep down she was right. Amma knew everything.

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Why didn’t you ever get the chipped counter fixed? I’d asked many times over the years, and each had their own answer. My dad would hit his hand against his forehead and click his tongue, bemoaning that Bollywood had missed out on a fantastic lead actress. But my mom would simply smile. Smile and tell me that I’d been lucky or unlucky enough to inherit her verve— a word that her Mumbai accent couldn’t quite master.

Now, as the kettle trembled faster and faster, her fingers traced the faint lines of the crack in the tile. Her other arm was flat on the counter, bent at the elbow, propping her up as if otherwise her legs would give way. A long sigh.

Why hadn’t I seen it before? I rewound the day in my head, a frown on my face. I had only arrived last night—Babu picked me up after a three-hour delay, Amma had already gone to bed. And this morning I’d rushed off to meet a friend who was only in town until tonight—one of the three left in Dallas whom I’d still kept in touch with. By the time I came back from brunch, Amma was taking a nap. Normally around 2 p.m. these days, my dad had said, when he saw my puzzled look, that she was more tired than usual: spent a lot of yesterday cleaning up the house for you, kid.

A sudden wail, and Amma began pouring hissing water into the pot, leaves and masala swirling up to the surface. She set the kettle down with a hard thunk, metal on metal. Was even that too heavy for her? Or was I being paranoid?

A lot had happened in this kitchen, from art projects to arguments to college applications to cooking lessons, and then the set up of the foundation of my own life in the later years. My parents had continued with a simpler routine, just the two of them, no Jaya Jalebi to take to piano practice or badminton or the dentist. Some changes were noticeable during my smattering of trips home since finishing school: Babu’s thinning hair and growing paunch, Amma’s growing dependence on her glasses, wrinkles and lines on both their faces. Unsurprising as they neared sixty.

But maybe more had happened than they had let on in the last few months. If something was wrong, though, Amma would’ve already made her usual rounds, first to Dr. Jarvis and then to Kalpana who had set up a lucrative Ayurveda practice right by the Cash and Carry.

She turned from the counter, a multistep slow shuffle, and walked to the table. I blinked quickly several times, looking down at my hands, then up to her, then again at my lap. It felt wrong, assessing her from a distance like that.

Amma, all okay?” She had suddenly stumbled, her toe catching on the edge of the rug—a different one now lay under the table—a path she had known for decades.

I watched her clutching the handles of the chair back, closing her eyes briefly as she caught her breath. It couldn’t have been for more than a second, but I knew she would fall if she let go.

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I stood at the foot of the table, she at the head. Me with my arms hanging by my side, palms open. She, fists wrapped around “her” chair, where she had always eaten, even now when I was at college and it was only her and my dad for most meals.

I couldn’t stop staring at her, my lips slightly parted, heart racing, tears already in my eyes as I anticipated how the rest of the conversation would go. It wasn’t the first time—I had already come out to a handful of close friends at Northwestern—but those couldn’t possibly count in comparison.

Babu would be at work for another couple hours. And so, finally, on the third day of summer vacation, I’d told her. The funny thing was, I couldn’t even remember the words I had just uttered, the sentences I had played over and over in my head over the last few weeks, months, years, as I gathered the courage.

And now that the truth was shared, my future yawned out in front of me, hinging on what she would do next.

Hair loose, and slightly damp after her shower, cut to halfway down her back only a week ago. Zip-up sweater and jeans, even in this heat. Eyes closed, hands gripping the chair spires. She was alone on top of a mountain, alone as the fog drifted around her, swirls of opaque everywhere. Stranded on the peak, left to come to terms with what she had heard, a dense forest to navigate once she was able to descend. I wanted to reach out, to pull her back, but I’d done this enough times to know she had to make the next move. The mahogany tabletop stretched between us like an endless sea. It was up to her to decide when she would return.

She opened her eyes. Wet with tears. My throat tightened, and I looked away, embarrassed. When she spoke, fingers still wrapped around the chair, her voice was so soft I could barely hear it above the low whirr of the ceiling fan.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

My eyes, blank and wide, snapped up to meet hers, then away to the floor. Some part of me had always thought she had known, deep down.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner, beti? Why didn’t you come to me with this? Jaya?”

She was walking to me, voice shaking and thin. My vision was getting blurry. Closer and closer and then she was wrapping me in a tight hug that was the only thing keeping me standing.

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Now I wanted to run over and catch her; she seemed so fragile. When had this happened? How had she gone from middle-aged to this in just a few months? From complaining wryly I had too much energy to looking like it was being sapped from her even as she simply stood still.

Amma?” She blinked, returning to me.

Kya?”

I frowned. “What were you doing?”

She smoothed a stray hair away from her face, tucked it behind her ear.

“Tea, na?”

“Yeah, but ... Amma, what’s ...”

I stopped. If I continued, I didn’t think I’d be ready to hear what followed. She looked steadily back at me, that unwavering stare that had scolded me and guided me and called me out and cared for me through so much. But it didn’t have the usual glint of understanding I was used to.

Kya kya?” She clicked her tongue, shaking her head as she leaned across the table to grab two coasters, set them down.

Then as if a switch had been flipped, she was walking back to the counter, straining the tea leaves, measuring each pour with steady hands, a long arc from the Pyrex as steam rose and the whoosh of piping hot masala chai into her mug and mine, following thousands of cupfuls that had filled rainy mornings and afternoons and evenings in this house.

“Sugar?” She scoffed. “Oh no, you don’t take sweetener anymore, only that stoovia.”

“Stevia, Amma, not stoovia. And actually that’s way worse.” I ran a hand through my ponytail again. “Remember? Didn’t you read that Atlantic article I’d emailed you?”

She pursed her lips, raised one eyebrow with sudden spunk. “Five pages to say that natural sugar is okay for you? Hmm.”

Was I imagining it all? The pauses that were a millisecond too long, the sighs, the momentary winces? Maybe she had always shifted her weight like that? Behaviors and mannerisms that I had simply forgotten being 1,000 miles away, maybe that was it.

Besides, it was far too early for me to think about this kind of stuff happening to her. She had only started thinking about her own parents that way a few years ago.

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“I don’t know if he’ll be well enough to make the flight from India again.”

My mom’s words hit me hard, straight, deep into my young sense of immortality. The direct acknowledgement of her father’s mortality in a simple sentence— I didn’t know what to do. I held my breath, studying her face. We were sitting on the sofa in the family room, playing cards turned face down in our laps, nestled in blankets on a winter evening during a visit home from grad school.

She was staring distantly at the silent TV. The words had come so easily; I couldn’t imagine how hard it had been for her to accept them. Mohan Nana had had a bad fall a few months ago, and had been bedridden until very recently. I’d been optimistic when Amma had called me up just last week to say that he was now moving around the apartment with the help of a walker.

“But he’s improving. You said he’s improving and using the walker now, right?” The words rushed together.

She pursed her lips and shrugged. “Well enough to move around the flat, haan, but 20 hours on a plane? Look how tiring it is even for you, Jalebi.”

Well enough to make the flight again. The words sank in, refused to dissipate in my mind. They had such finality to them. How do you adjust to thinking about your parents like that?

“Not even for Malavika’s wedding?” My cousin, a year older than me, was getting married in Atlanta next spring.

“We’ll have to see how things go, beti. It’s hard on his legs, sitting for too long now, and Nani wouldn’t come without him.” She sighed. “But I’ve talked to your dad and I’m going to start making more trips there from now on, maybe two or three a year. You’re settled in Chicago now so I worry less about leaving you on your own.”

But I had stopped listening. My mind raced ahead, further ahead in time than I wanted—to a day when I would also have to acknowledge my father’s age, his mortality, and the simple fact that there would be a point in my life past which he would not be there anymore. And, almost more frightening, that there would also come that time when it would be my responsibility as his only child to prepare for that, to help him prepare for that.

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Now, as I took the hot mug from her, I wondered: Had there been worries even years before Nana’s fall that Amma hadn’t shared with me? How old had she been when she first saw things start to falter?

She lowered herself into the chair across from me. As she sat, I heard a sharp intake of breath.

“That was a long nap you took today, huh?” I tried to keep my voice light. It shook.

She leaned over her mug, took a deep breath, the bottom half of her glasses clouding up with steam that faded. “Just tired, Jalebi. Getting older, na?”

Her voice was too sing-song.

Amma ...”

She looked past me, down the corridor that snaked past my old bedroom and ended at the master bedroom, a path the three of us had walked so many times. So many mornings before school, evenings before practices, concerts, sleepovers, so many nights after celebrations and hardships and milestones and days that were achingly normal.

We each took a sip of our still steaming tea. As she put her mug back on the table, I reached over and took her other hand, squeezing it gently.

She didn’t let go for a long time.


Originally from northern California, Mallika Padmanabhan is a communications professional who has been working in the international development field in Washington, D.C. for the last few years. She has no previous fiction publications. Source: India Currents.


 

Judges’ comments

Prajwal Parajuly:   I didn’t want the story to end. I wanted to inhabit this world of “cardamom and ginger and masala soaking in hot water together” and “water winding in rivulets down the window panes.” “Tea Time” is a stunningly written story about a daughter trying to come to terms with her mother’s aging.

Amulya Malladi:  A warm story that actually says, “you can go back home” and feel the warm embrace of family. Delightfully written, the story rapidly moves across many years and yet slowly, taking its time.



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