This story was written for Dhruv Sehgal’s Table for One series. I wrote it one early morning in September last year after I’d spent weeks editing, vomiting, and pulling hair out with several other drafts. It’s a story that is very old — I’ve repeated it to anyone who’ll listen so part of the challenge was to write as if I was hearing it for the first time myself. As much as I hate to admit how hairless this made me, I like that the story flowed out as if it knew what it had to do. It was smoother than the flow of my vagina monologues. No story has left my body with this much ease since. Thank you, Dhruv.
It was 4:45 am. The houses in Basavanagudi were all asleep. Some had only just gone to sleep. The call center returnees walked into their homes, sleepily closing gates. In their half-dream-half awake state, the gates were often left unlatched, and lights on. Some other houses, like mine, were dreaming. The house next to mine was wide awake though. Yellow light had filled its windows to the brim and the front yard was already wet and smelling of earth. The old woman woke before the sun every morning, had a cold water bath with her saree on, fought the cold using just her fists (clasped tightly), walked to the gate like a soldier, and drew rangoli. Today it was 4 dots on 4 lines. Each dot made a hula hoop around itself and ran over other dots.
She lived with an angry son who howled like a wolf and wept like a baby if his mother was too ill to wake early and have a cold water bath on some days. Her wrinkly old feet could barely carry her but she did this every morning without fail. In the beginning, it was because her son demanded, and now it was because her body did.
She waited patiently by the gate for the milk man to arrive. He came at 5 every morning in a squeaky cycle that nevertheless sailed on the streets. He left milk packets inside the gate of each house on the street, except the old woman’s. One morning, after reading a forward on his WhatsApp group ‘B’gudi B’mins’, the son called the milkman and told him they won’t need milk anymore. The old woman froze. He told her because she was a Madi, she should now also refrain from luxuries like coffee.
Her last cup of coffee was two weeks ago. She had dreamt of it for nights after that, mouth barren, throat itchy, and hands balled up into two angry fists for two weeks, she had walked around the house, spitting acid fire at walls. The son had his extra strong coffee at a Darshini before and after office so he was set. That first cup of morning coffee was the only time in the day where time was hers, she was hers. An unspoken rule in these houses was that no matter how urgent it is, you don’t disturb someone when they have their coffee. Her nose tortured her for two weeks, it collected decoction smells from surrounding houses and brought them to her. She tried to take deep breaths to ingest as much smell as possible so that for days she smelled like coffee and the son sniffed around her like a Rottweiler before leaving for office. She sat by the front door and imagined a cup of filter coffee in her hands. She missed its warmth on her fingertips and the warmth it sent down her throat. She missed the little bubbles that popped on her tongue with every sip.
And so today, she stood by the gate with swollen fists, waiting for the milkman because, today, she had a plan.
The milkman left our packet inside the black letterbox where letters never came. My parents had built this house from the memory of hunger in their empty childhood. The letterbox was something they had seen outside big houses so they got one made too. But it soon became clear to us that letterboxes are for everything but letters. To begin with, only bills fell there. Father kept grains for the birds there, Mother kept used plastic covers there, and the milk man left milk packets there.
The old woman waited for the milkman like a cat does before leaping. In the dimness of the still young sky, the pink trumpet tree above her grew bigger and darker. It stood mutely as the milkman came, left the packets inside our letter box and left. When he had done the same at the last house on the street, she moved quickly. She opened her gate, then ours, thrust her hand inside the letterbox, grabbed one milk packet and hurried out, latching the gate carefully and soundlessly.
Now she had work to do. She had to get the milk to boil soon, make coffee, hold the smell in her fists, stop it from leaking into her own house, and stop it from entering her son’s nose. In between all the hurry and the quickness, she also had to find a moment and pause it so the rest of the world could stop for just one second while she enjoyed her coffee. No matter what she did, the smell was going to leak. The least she could do was hide it, so she waited for all the houses on the street to wake up and make coffee. When smells from other houses reached hers, her secret could hide in them.
The son usually woke at this hour and spent an hour in the bathroom so she got the milk to boil in 4 minutes and carried it in a small cup to the terrace. Behind a pot of Tulsi, she had left the coffee filter to stand alone and percolate. A thick ring of coffee smell had gathered around the pot and she couldn’t help but smile.
She poured a little decoction into the cup and emptied the mixture back into the filter, increasing the distance with every transfer so that the smell settled in her head. The cup was now floating under a film of bubbles. This, finally, was her moment. It became a pause when her fists released themselves into palms, and she carried them to the edge of the terrace where she took her first sip and watched the sun come up. Someone was trying to kick start his Honda Activa, the garbage truck was slowing down over a hump, and the pink trumpet tree was now its pinkest.
Something had been won. The following couple of sips sent roots of warmth across her body so that her still wet sari wasn’t cold anymore. She smiled.
She did this again the next day, and the next. Her son didn’t notice. But my father did. He saw her running out of our gate with a milk packet one morning, and he told my mother that it wasn’t the milkman who was cheating us, it had been the old woman all along. The next morning, he woke early and stood by the front window, waiting. When she took the milk packet, he was quick to open the door. The old woman turned behind and saw him. My father, thinking he had delivered his ‘Aha’ moment was satisfied that she had been caught red-handed. But as it turned out, pause was more important to her than dignity, palms more than fists, so she hitched her wet sari in one hand, held the milk packet fiercely with the other and bolted out amidst my father’s screams of kalli kalli kalli.
My father was in a fix. He went back inside empty-handed, scratching his head. My mother told him later that day to just tell the milkman to bring us an extra packet. ‘Let it go. Why would that Ajji steal if it wasn’t important? Maybe she really needs it.’ But my father couldn’t let go. He had to get to the bottom of this. He didn’t have to wait long though.
One morning, the old woman stood at the compound under the trumpet tree and watched as my brother washed his two-wheeler. She had seen something that made her pause. His shirt was crumpled into a ball by the gate and he was only wearing pajama bottoms, bobbing his head to the music in his earphones. She stood there for a long time looking for something on his shoulder to appear, like thunder after lightning. When he turned around, she asked him why he wasn’t wearing this thread. He removed his earphones and apologized. ‘What thread?’ he asked.
The next morning onwards, our milk packets were left alone. In a language that people don’t speak anymore, there is an old saying. Milk has no caste, but milk packets do.