The tea followed her wherever she went. Every day, she wakes up at quarter to five and makes a cup of tea. She does it quietly, without waking up the household. While the tea brews, she stares at the window. The world outside is uncharacteristically dark and silent. By the time she finishes pouring the tea into a mug, the clock in the living room strikes five.
Five-O Clock! She picks up the tea in a hurry and takes a quick sniff of it. The sweet, refreshing aroma wipes away the last traces of sleep from her eyes. She keeps the tea on the dining table and opens the refrigerator. With rapid movements, she fishes out vegetables, boiled potatoes, and dough for parathas from the over-stuffed refrigerator.
The dough and potatoes will warm up by six! She calculates. Steam rises from the tea in a small trail, like smoke from an almost extinguished fire. With the vegetables for the day, she settles on the dining table, equipped with her cutting board and kitchen knife. She starts cutting – tomatoes, onion, spinach, cabbage, and ridge gourd – she cuts away with the precision of a machine.
cut, cut, cut and sweep the pieces into a plate
cut, cut, cut and sweep,
cut, cut, cut and sweep,
The huge heap of cabbage blocks her view of the tea in front of her. She springs up from the chair, suddenly remembering something. She grabs the tea from the dining table and walks to the laundry room. Heaps of unwashed clothes greet her.
“If Radha was here,” she sighs. When the Corona lockdown started, her most trusted domestic help, Radha, had stopped coming. One by one, she picks up the clothes that are strewn around. Then she put them into a tall plastic basket and drags the basket into the utility.
I should finish at least two loads of laundry before breakfast! She gives herself a target as she stuffs the clothes into the washing machine. The washing machine whirs, whines, pants, and then settle into a tired rhythm. She feels that the washing machine is a true representation of herself – tired and overworked, trying to cater to everyone’s needs during the lockdown.
“We are not allowed to be tired, Ok?” she fondly strokes the washing machine.
Then she carries the empty laundry basket into the room. Her tea is waiting on the ironing table. She picks up the tea and takes a hurried sip. It has become lukewarm. The clock strikes six, and she remembers that it’s the time that Radha used to arrive. She missed the gentle knock on the door. She missed sharing the chores and listening to Radha’s daily round-up about her domestic issues. Her eyes suddenly well up, remembering the heavy burden that lockdown had put on her shoulders.
“If only someone could help me,” she mutters to herself, remembering her husband and grown-up son who are blissfully asleep. Her eyes suddenly well up, soaking up all the loneliness in her heart.
No, not now! She scolds herself and walks back into the kitchen. She fills a huge pot of water and put it to boil. Pale streaks of lights enter through the window, and she glances at the clock again. Six-thirty already! An alarm rings in her head. She keeps the tea on the kitchen counter, quickly sweeps the house in strokes that resemble an acrobat. Then she picks up her change of clothes and hurries to the bathroom.
All the while, she fondly remembers that familiar ring of the doorbell – if not for the lockdown, Radha, her maid would have arrived, ready to take the baton of domestic work from her. She softly sighs and pours thick, blue Harpic into the toilet bowl and spread it carefully over the toilet-rim. Then she sprinkles a generous amount of the vinegar cleaner into the washbasin and the floor cleaner on the tiles. The choking blend of chemical smells fills the bathroom. She feels breathless and fears that she would faint soon.
How much of these chemicals Radha inhales every day! She wonders.
Her heart fills with gratitude when she thinks about everything that Radha had done for her. Without Radha, she would have never had a career. But she has no time to stay in the reverie. She manages to scrub the washbasin, scours the toilet, brushes the bathroom tiles. Then with an orange blossom body wash, she scrubs away all the smells from her. As she exits the bathroom, smelling like an orange, daylight greets her. She squints her eyes at the light, trying to adjust to the fact that it’s already seven. She rushes to the water that has been boiling for a while. She adds in a mixture of herbs to make it tasty. The water suddenly turns light pink, and it reminds her of pale blood. The cold tea greets her from the kitchen counter as she picks up the dough and boiled potatoes to the gas stove. She ignores the silent plea of the tea and moves onto making masala for aloo paratha. But, she doesn’t forget to keep the tea next to her, at a distance that gives her comfort.
The jeera splutters, green chili blasts, onions sizzle, a fine spray of oil splashes around – the tea receives a share of the spicy oil.
“Oh, now my tea is Tadka Chai,” she scoffs as she kneads the dough once more and divides it into balls.
“BEEP, BEEP, BEEP,” the washing machine is done. She pulls out the clothes that are adamantly stuck inside the machine and loads the second batch. She smells something burnt and rushes back to the kitchen. The onion mixture for aloo paratha has stuck to the bottom of the pan. She feels dizzy, and suddenly, a trail of tear appears on her cheek. She wipes it with the back of her hand and concentrates on the cooking pan, trying to redeem the paratha mixture. The tea softly invites her to rest for a while.
“No, don’t!” she curtly tells the tea and gets back to cooking.
She prepares aloo paratha in griddle, makes the cabbage stir fry in a frying pan, and pressure cooks the spinach, tomatoes, ridge gourd, and dal together. In another cooker, she prepares rice. As the cooker whistles rise, she hears the signs of life around her. She hears loud yawns, toilets flushing. The household is slowly waking up. She puts on the water for tea, as the aloo parathas get ready. While she makes a fresh brew of tea for her family, her cold, “tadka-chai” watches her wistfully from the kitchen counter – a thin layer of oil with a few burnt jeera floating above it.
As the rest of the household eats and starts their leisurely lockdown routine, she pours her tadka-chai into the sink. Then she rushes back to the kitchen, to round up the chores. By nine-fifteen, she finishes wiping up the kitchen counter. Standing over the counter, she stuffs a few pieces of aloo paratha into her mouth. The thoughts about her pending work in office hit her like an avalanche.
It’s only quarter past nine, and she is already feeling withered and exhausted. Still, she has to login to the office network sharp nine-thirty. While the rest of the world leisurely enjoys the lockdown, finding new hobbies, and reinventing themselves, the middle-class working women of India have no such luxury.
First Published in Life in Lockdown Anthology by Literature’s Light
The undercurrent of tadka chai running through the story is excellent. The choice of your diction, simple yet elegant, is very appealing. The image of ‘ cut,cut,cut and sweep’ is evocative. The travails and grind of a middle class working woman are palpable to the reader. One could literally experience all the senses – sight, smell, touch- with your choicest selection of words. Keep writing 👍.