Fiction: Paper Cups across the Atlantic
By Radha Bhardwaj
“What do you think J. Krishnamurti was like?” Samitha pondered out loud about the philosopher almost immediately after they had said “Halo, su waath che?” to each other in Gujarati, one of the languages that floated into their banter across the Atlantic.
“You’ve been reading JK?” Rewa asked as she bent over the kitchen tap and let the water flow over her arms. She knew Samitha like the lines that swept over her palms. JK seemed to find her friend whenever she was in a slump. Rewa shut her eyes tight as the cold water stung her skin with pounding intensity. The sensation was strangely pleasant. But Samitha’s voice crackled over the ocean, “Aiyoo, pay attention, yaar. Watyoudoing?”
“Nothing. So, say, why are you thinking about JK today?” Rewa carefully dabbed her arms with a dishtowel, smiling at Samitha’s impatience. They had known each other “since birth”, as they liked to announce with drama. In reality, they had met at Woodvale College in Nairobi when Samitha was sixteen and Rewa was eighteen. Rewa’s thoughts wandered jauntily to the beginning of their friendship.
Samitha had registered at Woodvale College to take typing courses. While she conceded that the courses at Woodvale held the promise of a recurring toothache, her mother had convinced her that it might be useful for writing stories. Samitha reluctantly agreed and hoped that she might meet a new face or two. All her friends from high school had drifted to local universities or left the country for further studies. Then one sultry sapphire afternoon, Rewa walked into the classroom and bumped into her as she plodded through a Pitman workbook. Rewa had smiled nervously and would later remember the intense frown Samitha wore, amid the frenetic sound of mathrees blaring their horns at the bus stand below and whoops of “songasonga mathee” from the frantic conductors. At the end of class, Rewa found her feet hesitating ever so slightly as she quickly glanced back. Samitha was stumbling out of the classroom, awkwardly stuffing her books into her shoulder bag, swearing “SHYTE” in Sheng while her eyes anxiously scanned around. She finally caught sight of Rewa’s amused face in the stairwell. “Hello, I am Revathi?call me Rewa”?
Much to their surprise, they discovered that they were both children of South Indian expatriates. Samitha had been the first to react: “Why haven’t I seen you at those cadaverously dull events that the expats organize?” Rewa explained that she had recently arrived from boarding school in India. In that first flow of conversation other details emerged. They were both enrolled in some no-name-brand distance learning B.Com program. There were few career options for young South Indian women whose middle class expat parents were on Kenyan work permits and had no means of paying for universities abroad. “My parents are already hinting about a suitable marriage alliance.” Rewa had said matter-of-factly. Samitha rolled her eyes, “Oh?I’m hoping that a hottie sardar munda in a Mercedes finds me before all that. I’ll be off to make five identical boys named Chotu, Chicku, KuKu, Lovely and Billa.” And so their story began, in the stairwell of Mpaka Holding Building on Woodvale Grove in the suburb of Westlands?
Now here they were in their late thirties. Rewa’s married life had led her to London and Samitha had moved to Toronto. Their regular phone conversations lifted them up and gave them the strength to keep going through all these years.
“I’m okay, yaar?Okay, I’m not.” Samitha’s reluctant voice interrupted Rewa’s faraway thoughts. “I’m just maudlin this week. My writing is not going great. Why do I have all this existential angst, Re?”
Rewa searched the freezer for an ice-cube tray while cradling the phone with her shoulder. Okay, this was Samitha’s day of self-doubt. “Wait, didn’t you say it was the journey that mattered two days ago?” Rewa asked mischievously as she reached under a Tesco Ziploc bag full of leftovers and gently eased out the tray with one hand.
“Did I say that two days ago? I’m actually regressing. Aiyooo!” Samitha exclaimed pitifully.
“Shut up, yaar! You know what it is? You deconstruct everything all the time. Relax. You are just having a slow week. Just accept it. You can’t live Jiddu Krishnamurti’s life.” Rewa scolded.
“I’m not trying to, yaar, but did he laugh at silly things or was it all just?observation and reflection. I’ve also been thinking about this sadness in your life.” Samitha sighed, “We haven’t had a belly laugh in a long time?the kind that floods the hallways of our souls. I feel like my words are caught in a labyrinth of emotional ruins. All I see now are the tombs dotting my landscape, blocking my creative energy. It feels like I’m wandering, lost in some medieval mohalla in purani Delhi.”
Rewa’s brows knitted together. Samitha was right. How burdened she felt lately and now this feeling was filling the crevices of Samitha’s life on another continent. She quickly distracted her friend, “That’s not true, come on, Sam. The words will dance out of you, they always do. Anyway, stop moaning and listen?I mailed you some of my dosa podi and that pretty stationery you like from Oxfam,” Rewa said cheerfully.
“You mailed me your deadly dosa podi? Aree Rewaji thusi bhi great ho!” Samitha exclaimed in Punjabi. “Aiyoo, what if some customs official snorts the chilli fire powder?” Samitha paused as Rewa laughed at the other end. “Thanks, just mail some dosa mix to the Kingston Prison next week. I’ll conduct a demonstration for my fellow inmates.”
Samitha held the receiver and sat at her desk looking out as winter frost drenched the limbs of the giant pines in the yard. Beyond that she could see fields resting beneath soft waves of snow. She thought about their friendship. Like pebbles on a beach, their stories had communed over the last twenty years. Some of their stories drifted smoothly into her thoughts, like the gentle flakes that settled on her sill. Like those glittering phone calls announcing the birth of their beautiful children or the time that Rewa had attended a Royal Albert Hall music recital with her cell phone turned on so Samitha could cry her way through Verdi’s Requiem. Other thoughts pierced their way through as well, with their jagged, blunt edges. Like that time years ago when Rewa had written in deep despair that her beloved first love had left her. Or that time when Samitha had shed bitter tears of disappointment for having been rejected by every publishing house she had approached. Then there was the gale of love that had sailed Samitha high as sea foam but then left her shattered shell on the shores. Now, here they were, with Rewa paddling her way through an increasingly turbulent relationship in London while Samitha was struggling not to judge.
It had stormed while Samitha slept and the wind had danced all night in the mist. She could see the telltale footprints in the soft dunes of white. “God, the world is so beautiful when it is untouched. How you doing, Re?”
“The nature of this flower is to bloom, Sam, remember?” Rewa’s sunny voice responded, quoting Alice Walker. Her hands were in the water again. “Maro dil ni waath chod, bekaar ni waath che,” she muttered.
“Haya OK.” Samitha said, wondering what had passed in the days since they last spoke. “Everything appears wretched this week.” Samitha continued in mock-despair, “Kiya sair sab hum ne gulzaar-e-duniya. Gul-e-dosti mein ajab rang-o-boo hai.”
“Wah, Sam! Who wrote that?”
“I believe it was Dard. Wish I could write verses like that to fill my graveyard soul with delight?instead I suffer the bane of mediocrity. Re, do you think I should just take up a job at the local grocery?”
Rewa chuckled. “So you can quote me Neruda’s odes from the vegetable aisles? Oh, be quiet, Samitha. So what if nobody wants to publish your stuff? I love to read it and you love to write it. But listen, I watched something lovely on the telly and thought of you. It was about two friends here in London. They have grown old together and now they spend their old age laughing at the movies. Just idyllic, na?”
“Sounds like a bad Bollywood script, yaar. If we saw each other all the time and went to the movies every week?one of us would have to die.” Samitha paused. “Take the winter scene in front of me?it is so breathtaking because it is wild and untamed. If I rein it in with a rhythm and try to hold it in my hand, the magic slips away like water from a fist.”
“Hmmm?so it would be a little too joyful?,” Rewa said with a wry smile. “I hate to break this to you, Sam dahlink, but we’ve seen each other twice in the last twenty years and God knows when we are going to meet next?”
“But isn’t it extraordinary that we still connect this way, Rewa?”
“Sam, paper cup conversations across the Atlantic don’t always work, you know. I could use a little bit of ‘ordinary’ in my life right now.” Rewa winced as her arm scraped against something as she re-arranged her freezer before putting the ice-tray back. “Ouch!”
“What happened?” Samitha’s attention was riveted.
“Nothing?just scratched my arm on a bag.” Rewa mumbled, blinking back the pain that welled up in her pools of green. What could she say? That she had another argument with her husband this morning? One minute they were talking about the rent money and the next minute he was angry yet again. It was the same stuff all over again?you don’t love me?I know you don’t care?who did you talk to today?...Nothing new. Except this time?this time he had grabbed her arm and?
“What happened to your arm just now, Re?” Samitha persisted.
“Nothing. Just a little scratch.” Rewa quietly wiped her eyes with her free hand. “Wish you were here today, Sam. I long for some masala cha and maru bhajia.” Her voice quivered.
“You know, Rewa,?I was thinking?What if I showed up in London for a weekend? We could meet for chai-shai, buy underwear at Marks & Sparks?A little bit of the ordinary for us. Vat say you chokri?”
Rewa laughed. “You want to blow your grocery money?” When Samitha didn’t respond, her voice softened, “That sounds wonderful, Sam. But you know that he wouldn’t let me?he thinks you?you are a dain witch.” She chuckled nervously. “Besides, this will all get sorted. I promise.”
“Rewa?” Samitha stopped. But the unspoken found its way to Rewa.
“Listen, Sam, you can’t fix this one for me. So stop tormenting yourself.” Rewa hesitated, “Sam, I don’t even have a job. I know you will help but I have a child and he adores his father.” Rewa’s tears tripped out. “Got to go, Sam. We’ll talk next week, okay? Take care, Lekhika?Love you. Write!” She hung up and looked down at her arm where the purple bruise was swelling. Her throat uttered a silent moan as a raw ache washed over her. Today just didn’t seem like the right time to share?she would call her?tomorrow?after that first meeting with the lawyer.
Meanwhile, the phone was still cradled by Samitha’s ear as she looked out the window at the ocean of white around her and slowly felt something welling inside her. Anxiety misted the scene before her, burning her eyes. She blinked at her desk as she put the receiver down uneasily. There on her desk was a plane ticket to London. She picked it up and neatly folded it into an envelope. Leaning back in her chair, she reached for J. Krishnamurti’s book. She said out loud, “Well, Jiddu Sir, I am observing my attachment. I have to trust that she will find her way. That is all I can do for today. Tomorrow, I fly to Rewa.”
[Canada-based Radha Bhardwaj, has also lived in East Africa and India, and is currently editing her first novel titled Love Higher than Sky]
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