Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath
Just two more spoons of the whites and then the entire orange yolk would be a warm liquid melting and coating the insides of her mouth before leaving a glorious flavor on her tongue and slipping down the gullet. The problem with a fried egg was that the moment one went down, the tongue craved for another like an alcoholic begging for that one last drink.
Usha baidew drew back from the steel plate and gave one last glance at the golden orb. She liked to watch it before devouring the sunshine softness. The satisfaction of the after taste stayed for a long long time. It would be another week before she had the next one. She had to be mindful of that wretched hypertension that came between her love for soft eggs and a stroke.
Uff! So much she had to watch out for these days. With her son married a year ago she couldn’t divest her responsibilities off the household. Even the bank where she retired from six months ago couldn’t do without her, she explained to an imaginary audience. She had held the branch together for fifteen years. Fifteen years! Someone or the other from the bank would turn up at her doorstep saying ‘baidew this and baidew that’, ‘how to manage this account and what to do of that account’.
She would then tell them, ‘Let me be now. I have retired. You have a new manager and he is someone who knows his job. Of course, being an outsider he won’t know how to deal with people here or give that personal touch that I did.’
She would then sigh and say, ‘But what to do we must change with times and let go, no?’ She herself had changed her expectations when she became a grandmother a month back. A girl. Sigh!
‘What’s in a boy or a girl nowadays, no? It’s not for me, see? I will die but the family name has to go on. I have only held this family together after my husband’s death. But what to do?’ There was always a next time, thankfully to carry forward the family name.
She raised the yolk balancing it precariously on the spoon and timed it perfectly into her waiting mouth. She closed her eyes and felt the warmth glide silkily into her thoughts.
The moment of bliss was disturbed by an angry wail coming from the next room. She opened her eyes. The hands on the clock said it was time for the girl to be out for her morning sighting of the leaves and squinting at the flying birds and cocking her ears to the chirps and hoots. Taking a moment for the legs to adjust to the shifting weight, Usha baidew waddled to her son’s room and pushed open the door without knocking. She found the girl placed on a pink and cream felt blanket, a gift from Riju’s cousin from Delhi.
She watched Riju calculating the exact length to be folded into a triangle over the baby just as her doctor aunt had taught her to swaddle a baby. Usha baidew smirked. Really! These girls nowadays think they needed no advice from the experienced ones. Just then a thundering roar of the tin roof broke the silence and shocked the baby into another wail. The smirk turned to a benign smile when Riju jumped and gasped. The baby slipped out from the bottom of the blanket and landed softly on the bed just as Riju was lifting the bundle into her arms. It was a platoon of monkeys stampeding and galloping over people’s roofs in search of food. Exactly nine o’clock. One could actually set their clocks according to the monkey movements in this town.
“Shh! It’s okay, don’t worry, the little one is safe…I won’t tell anyone” Usha baidew murmured stamping it with secrecy between the two women. She scooped the baby in her arms throwing the blanket over her without bothering with the triangles. She had raised three sons and a daughter without the triangles or squares or measuring spoons. Running her tongue over her teeth and dislodging a stubborn piece of egg white stuck between her molars, she walked out with the baby to sit in the veranda. It was time for the office crowd to pass by on their way to work and they would surely call out to her – Usha baidew, the doting grandmother to the newest grandchild in the house.
“Riju dear, would you mind making some of those potato vadas that you made for my colleagues last Sunday. They seemed to have liked it very much and couldn’t stop praising them. Shraboni Jethai said she would drop by around 11 to see the baby. And while you are at it, please bake a cake too… everyone says yours come out softer than mine. And also direct the maid for lunch. Nothing spicy and heavy, my system cannot take it.”
Riju felt her heart sinking. She had sat vigil to her baby’s second DPT booster the entire night and her eyes strained from the exhaustion. Just then she remembered, “But there is no refined oil to fry and also no butter” she added as an afterthought, “And I think we finished the last of the eggs this morning…”
“Send Ramlal to the market now. Here..” Usha baidew said digging into her blouse and fished out a five hundred note “and please get me a cup of tea to the veranda.”
Riju felt her heart plummet like the iron bucket she threw into the well when there was no electricity to pump up the water to the tank. Of late she had found herself struggling to keep her head above the endless string of nappy changes, the feeding times, keeping a vigil over the baby and the schedule. She longed to be at her mother’s just for a while. She wished someone would let her sleep. The sight of mynahs and sparrows in twos would bring on a film of tears. The frame of Sanjib in his school uniform, on the drawing room wall, opened up a fissure somewhere within her. It was three months since he had gone back to work in Bombay. Hearing him over the phone made her own voice lump up in her throat threatening to choke her. It was another three months for Bihu when he would be home. Her spirit plunged into an abyss she didn’t know existed within her, dragging her under a flood of tears. How did she even reach this stage?
She looked around the kitchen and scowled at the mess. If it was one thing Riju hated it was clutter. Ever since the baby came she found herself being surrounded by more of it. The oil spills from morning cooking smudged the counter; turmeric and salt remained sprinkled on the gas burner. But she couldn’t blame the maid for it. That poor girl had no respite since crack of dawn till midnight moving like remote controlled cars that stopped, pushed forward while still reversing with the press of a button. No one had space in this house.
It was Ramlal at the back door with the oil, eggs and butter.
From the kitchen window she saw a monkey watching their neighbour’s re-grown vegetable patch. She had watched the turf war between the two in the last two months. The monkeys had consistently raided the vegetables every time the tomatoes appeared or the brinjals budded from the mauve flowers. Tired of the monkey business, a week back the neighbour had declared war. They lured the monkeys with bananas into their outhouse, shut the door and thrashed them soundly. Despite thundering down the hill and crashing on the tin roof, the monkeys have not entered the neighbour’s vegetable patch.
Riju continued to mash the boiled potatoes even when they had reduced into a soft dough. She added the mashed potatoes right back into the kerahi where the mustard seeds with curry leaves waited spluttering. She sieved the flour and the baking powder and the cocoa powder together while the potato mixture cooled. The vadas could be fried while the cake baked. Setting the oven controls and putting a kerahi on the burner, Riju swept away the empty packet of maida, the empty Dhara carton, the plastic carry bag and threw them into the already overflowing dustbin. The cleared black granite slabs staring back at her brought in sense of calm.
Riju jumped around to find her mother-in-law at the kitchen doorway holding her baby. She felt a pair of eyes jabbing into hers. She hadn’t heard a single sound. Since when did she move so quietly?
“Oh dear! Did I scare you?” laughed Usha baidew softly. Before Riju could reply, Usha baidew continued, “Shraboni Jethai is here. Please bring us tea to the veranda itself. Are the snacks ready? And has Ramlal returned the change? A fellow was going by our gates carrying some fresh curd to the Main market. I thought of keeping some. Er, do you have the change?”
“Umm…yes, he did give me the change. Just a minute please.”
Riju ransacked her dressing table, the bedside tables, under her pile of clothes in the steel almirah she brought with her after her marriage although she didn’t remember opening it since morning. Where did she keep it now?
“Have you found it?” The voice was too sweet.
Riju’s heart quickened. She turned up the corners of the stiff coir mattress, it was just a cumbersome thing to do. She checked under the baby’s oil cloth and the pile of nappies she kept near her pillow for changes at night. No luck. A sudden thought made her hands clammy. Just as she reached the kitchen she found Usha baidew peer into the dustbin. Riju rushed and pulled out the empty packets and the soggy potato peels and onion skins and the broken egg shells. And there lying in a plastic carry bag were the one hundred notes, and tenners.
“Oh! Really! Hahaha…what will happen!”
That soft laugh continued to echo in her ears as she put the two cups of tea on the tray with plates full of batata vadas and slices of chocolate cake. Her ears burnt with shame. A gust of cool air from the open front door soothed her and calmed her hands as she held the tray taking care not to spill the tea onto the saucer. Snatches of disembodied words floated in.
“…the baby slipped out…”
A soft laughter followed, “Thank God I was there to catch the little one…”
Riju stood still. She heard something snapping. A monkey swung from the mango tree near the gate. For some strange reason she remembered being told that no one had ever seen the tree’s fruits except when destroyed and thrown to the ground.
Not a single ripple disturbed the surface of the tea in the cups. The steam rose from the vadas and mingled with the sweet aroma of the chocolate slices; no one had to know about the bile spiraling up.
“…where did I find the money? There in the dustbin, of course!”
Riju heard the words come in front the veranda. She resumed her pace and fixed a smile on her face.
“Ah Riju! You have brought us tea!”
Riju smiled wider at Shraboni Jethai and took back the baby in her arms. She watched the old ladies bite into the soft tangy vada and take a sip from the cup. She watched them till they dredged the last few drops and picked on the crumbs left on the plate. Riju walked towards the gate and back again to the veranda, cooing and patting the baby. All the time she watched the monkey swing from the branches, plucking mango buds and throwing them to the ground.
The next Sunday, Riju woke up early while Usha baidew went for her morning walk. With the baby still sleeping Riju tied a gamusa around her head and dragged the pole with the broom tied to one of its end. There were too many cobwebs hanging in this house. This house hadn’t got a proper cleaning in months or perhaps years. Even the top of the white refrigerator was covered with the webs gathering dust and hanging like a dirty film from the wall. Riju jabbed at the corners, the ceiling fans, over the doors and the windows. She had spruced up the entire house before the maid swept and mopped. She changed the setting in the drawing room pulling the furniture into cosy arrangements instead of being on display in a showroom. She placed a pira in a forlorn corner of the drawing room next to the front door, and arranged some dry flowers on it with a pot of money plant right next to it. The corner came alive.
The moment Usha baidew stepped in, the maid said, “Look baidew! Bou has changed the look of this house! Isn’t it looking nice? She cleaned all the cobwebs too!”
The eyes narrowed. There was silence for a few seconds.
“What are you getting so excited about? Did you clean it? Get back to work…and this pira..who has kept it here? Do you want me to trip over it or what?”
Usha baidew bellowed with the pira being a good two feet away from where she stood.
“Put it back the way it was”.
In her room Riju smiled and picked her daughter swaddled in the blanket the way her aunt had taught her to. Place the child’s head on one corner of the blanket. Pull the right corner over the baby in a triangle. Similarly pull the left corner of the blanket over the baby and finally the bottom corner on the top. Thus swaddled, the baby feels warm and cosy, she was told.
Usha baidew was sitting in her room reading the newspaper when Riju handed her the baby.
“ Ma, it is time for her to be out. I have to get the breakfast ready.”
Usha baidew looked up. The frown eased from her forehead and the sweetness returned.
“I would like to have luci and alu bhaaji today. But before that bring me my egg. And please see that it is cooked for a minute more – the yolk should be perfectly sitting and cooked and yet not hard, the white should be soft and not crispy and dried out.” Saying this she swept out holding the baby.
The maid was still mopping the house so Riju chopped the potatoes, kneaded the maida into a soft dough and kept it aside. She heated the frying pan and poured two spoons of oil, rolling to coat the pan evenly. She then broke an egg perfectly into the oil and looked up at the wall clock in the kitchen. A minute and not a second more. No mistakes this time, she said to herself. She sprinkled some salt on the yolk and slid the egg onto a plate.
Just as she reached the veranda the clock in the drawing room chimed.
She handed the plate to Usha baidew, took her daughter into her arms and went back.
Usha baidew smiled at the yolk glistening in the morning light pouring in through the open veranda
The tin roof thundered under the trample of the simian platoon. Usha baidew spooned in a soft piece of the egg white. She always liked to start from the edges before going in for the kill. She hated to admit but the egg today seemed perfect.
Suddenly the neighbourhood shook with a blood curdling scream. A continuous screech followed by wave after wave of howls.
Usha baidew sat fixed to her chair. Her mouth that had opened to pop in the soft warm yolk, was letting out a continuous trail of howls bringing neighbours rushing out and peeping over their compound walls.
Nobody had heard the steel plate clatter to the floor or seen a small piece of the soft egg white lying at the edge of the veranda. Nobody saw a monkey slap away the egg from the plate before shoving the yolk down its mouth. All they saw were a few monkeys in the mango tree and Usha baidew screaming her head off sitting on her chair in the veranda.
Riju stood by the front door holding her startled baby close to her. She buried her smile in the triangle of the baby blanket. It was nine o’clock. One could set their clocks according to the simian movements in this town.
Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath is a writer based in New Delhi. She has worked on television and radio as a presenter, narrator for documentaries, trained corporate employees in effective communications. She has contributed travel articles for many journals, both the print and the digital. Most recently her short fictions and essays have been included in Jaggery Lit, Café Dissensus and in three anthologies – The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 published by Singapore based Kitaab International Pte Ltd, The Others published by Storymirrors and Escape Velocity curated by Kiran Chaturvedi of Write & Beyond.