Caution: The Following is a piece of fiction based on real events and real people, whose names have been changed for Chalks and Chopsticks, hosted by Bong Mom and started by Aqua. For the contest, go to the bottom of the post. For the first piece of fiction, click here.
Archana boarded the local bus and looked around for an empty seat. There was one in the middle, next to an old woman. She sat down and tried to relax. It had been another hectic day at the factory and the floor manager had made them work overtime to finish the order. Her palms had new calluses she rubbed on absent mindedly.
“Beti (daughter), are you ok?” the old woman next to her asked with concern in her voice and curiosity in her eyes.
“I am ok Maaji (mother),” she said with a quick smile. “Yes, I am ok now,” she thought.
“I asked because it is unusual to see calluses on a young girl like you,” the old lady said as she opened her palms wide to show her the bumps.
“I work in a packaging factory,” Archana replied. She did not talk to strangers anymore and was surprised at herself for doing so.
She had tried to live a quite life since that fateful day, hoping to blend in with the crowd, trying hard to not draw attention to herself. Being friendly with total strangers was what had got her in trouble. Her mother had always cautioned her not to trust people so easily.
“Archu, be careful in college. I can’t be there to protect you all the time,” her mother would admonish her every day.
“Yes Ma, I know. Boys are not to be trusted and men never,” she would repeat the litany and then get on her cycle and peddle away to college. She was ten when her father had died in a road accident. Her mother had been overprotective of her only child since then.
Archana knew her mother worried about her. It irritated her that she had to bring home her friends to meet Ma so she could approve of them. She was 19 years old. She knew how to take care of herself. But no, Ma had to be a part of every decision of her life, what clothes to wear, how to tie her hair, who her friends were.
Was that the reason she had not told her mother about Sameer? She had met him when she was standing by the side of the road with a flat tire, almost in tears.
“Do you need some help?” Sameer’s friendly voice had penetrated through the blur of tears.
“I have an exam in 20 minutes and I have a flat tire,” she said, barely managing to hold back her tears.
“Don’t worry. I know a place nearby that can fix your bicycle,” he had assured her. He guided her to the repair shop and then gave her a ride on his motorbike so she could reach in time for her exam.
They kept meeting for a few months after that. He would come to her college canteen and they would talk for hours over cups of ginger chai and samosas. Her friends had encouraged her to keep seeing him and even helped her go out on dates. She was surprised at how clever they were at covering for her.
“Don’t worry yaar, I will tell your mom you were with me,” her friend Anju would reassure her.
How she wished now they hadn’t. Not that it was their fault. She was enjoying the subterfuge with her mother. If she felt any guilt pangs, Sameer’s sweet gestures would wash them away.
When he had proposed Archana had been ecstatic. She had thought her mother would be happy for her and give her blessings. Instead, Ma was shocked.
“How long have you known each other?” she had asked in a steely voice.
“Six months, Ma,” she had answered meekly.
“Sameer, I am sure you are a very nice boy but till Archu completes her education, I can’t allow her to get married,” her mother had said in a voice that Archana knew was her final decision. There would be no further discussion.
“Aunty, my family is pressuring me to get married soon and I love your daughter. I will ask them to come formally as soon as you give your consent,” Sameer had pleaded.
“I have made my decision. If you love Archu and want to marry her, you will have to wait two more years till she graduates,” Ma had said.
Archana was so angry with her mother. She did not want to listen to reason. She can see now Ma had been right all along. Her mother had tried to raise her on her father’s meager pension. Ma had soon realized that without a proper education the only way for her to supplement their income was by cooking in other people’s homes.
Her mother would drop her to school in the morning and then go to the more affluent neighborhoods to cook for a couple of families. She would cook vegetables, lentils, and rice and make some rotis, whatever the woman of the house asked for that day. She would do the same thing all over again in the evening.
Archana could see now why her mother insisted she get a good education and a decent job before she got married. Not that her mother was ashamed of what she did. In fact, she took pride in her cooking and made every meal with love and care. She was highly sought after by other families. But her mother wanted Archana to do better in life. Get a good education before she got married. Ma had learnt her lesson well after her father’s death.
“What was the matter with me?” Archana wondered as she got down at her bus stop. She couldn’t help thinking back of the day when she eloped with Sameer and they got married at Arya Samaj. The two of them had felt like characters in a Bollywood movie, standing in front of the priest as he conducted a simple ceremony and pronounced them husband and wife. Two of Sameer’s friends had been the only witnesses.
Everything started going downhill after that. Committing the one and only act of bravado in his life had knocked the wind out of Sameer. His family never took to Archana ‘s elopement with their only son kindly. They found fault with everything she did but what hurt the most was Sameer’s cowardice. He said nothing to defend her or make her life easier.
His betrayal and complete lack of support turned the cheerful, happy girl into a surly, thin lipped woman. Her lustrous, dark hair turned dull, she walked around with dark circles under her eyes. Her mother in law now had another gripe about her.
“You are not even good looking. What did my son see in you?” she would taunt Archana as she cooked or washed the whole family’s laundry or cleaned the house.
“You are ugly as a witch and have no skills. What did your mother teach you?” was a standard complaint of hers.
Archana had always been a gentle soul and her mother had never spoken a harsh word to her. Her mother-in-law’s words would pierce her to the heart but all she could do was bite her lips and go on with what she doing at the moment.
She did not realize that her silence was pushing Sameer’s mother to the edge. A possessive, vindictive woman, she was not happy when her son had brought the daughter of a widow home. She had wanted a sophisticated, rich girl as her daughter-in-law, someone more suitable to their family’s status. Instead, she had to put up with Archana, poor as a rat, whose mother cooked for her friend’s families. No, she was not a happy woman.
As her rage mounted, she hatched new plans to make Archana’s life miserable. One day her inner Vesuvius erupted when she saw Archana, bent over the floor, cleaning a spill with a rag. A little petrol and a spark was all she needed to light the fire.
Maybe it was the six months of constant abuse or her guilt over abandoning her mother or her disbelief at her husband’s utter lack of spine, Archana fought back. At first caught by surprise, she had the presence of mind to immediately start rolling on the floor to put the fire out. As soon as it was out, she ran out of the house in her disheveled state, hailed a rickshaw and went to the only place she had known as home. Compared to her mother-in-law, her mother’s remonstrations would be words of praise, she had thought.
Ma had been shocked and distressed to see the skeletal self of her vibrant, beautiful daughter. After Archana told her everything, her mother was enraged. Instead of saying, “I told you so,” she fed her daughter some leftover food from the morning and then took her to the police station to file a complaint against her mother-in-law. Archana had squirmed under the pitying gaze of the inspector but her mother had sat proud and unafraid. The inspector had suggested a lawyer friend who could help them file for divorce.
The mother and daughter reached home in the evening exhausted. Archana sat in a corner and watched her mother wash some rice and put it in a pot to cook. As Ma started mixing the yogurt with sugar and salt, tears started rolling down Archana’s cheeks. She had not permitted herself to cry through the last six months of hell but her mother’s kindness and unspoken forgiveness broke the dam.
The year that followed was filled with court dates, lawyers and much drama but when it ended Archana was a divorced woman who had put her husband and mother-in-law in jail. The whole episode had been the talk of their small town. After it all ended Archana managed to find a job at the new packaging factory that had opened outside the city.
No one knew her there and she was content to toil at the grueling job instead of going back to college. She did not want to endure her former classmate’s fake pity and gossip behind her back. Her mother understood what she was going through and did not insist that she finish her studies. But Archana knew her mother still hoped she would someday decide to go back to college.
“May be tomorrow I will go and find out about readmission,” she thought as she reached home. Her mother was not home yet. She had taken extra jobs to help pay for the lawyer’s fees and came home tired to the bones.
Archana changed quickly, put some tea to boil and set about washing the rice and mixing the curd. “Everything is going to be ok,” she thought as she mixed the curd and the rice and prepared the tempering.
The first time I ate curd rice, and I mean the one where you temper the curd rice mix and add cashews and grapes and raisin to it, not the 'mix the curd with rice' and eat, I was 28 years old. I couldn’t believe I had gone that long in my life without eating curd rice, a staple in the Southern parts of India. Then I read Bong Mom’s post on pav bhaji and felt better.
The following is the recipe of a friend at whose home I first tasted this comfort food for the soul and the stomach. The rice water ratio of 1:3 is Wah Chef’s.
Curd Rice (Thayir/ Dahi Sadham)
1 ½ cups water
1 ½ cups plain yogurt
Some raisins/ grapes/ pomegranate seeds
A few tablespoons milk
A teaspoon of ghee (optional)
Salt and sugar to taste
For the (tadka) tempering:
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
A dash of asafetida
1 tsp urad dal
1-2 dried red chillis
4-5 curry leaves
Wash the rice two to three times in cold water and cook with three times the amount of water in a pot till the water is absorbed and the rice is done.
Sprinkle some salt and a little milk and mash the rice a little. Cover and keep aside to cool.
In a bowl mix the curd with sugar, salt and raisins. Whip till smooth. Add to the almost cool rice.
In a small karahi, heat a teaspoon of oil and a little ghee (optional). Add the mustard seeds and asafetida.
As the seeds start to pop, lower the heat and add urad dal and red chilies.
Turn off the heat as the dal starts to turn brown. Add the curry leaves and wait for them to finish crackling before adding to the curd.
Mix the tempering with the yogurt rice mix and cool in the fridge. Eat with a side of pickle or as Srivalli recently recomended to me on FB, with slices of mango, a divine combination.
If you are wondering where the title of this post is, there isn't any because I couldn't come up with anything without it sounding cheesy. Paper hearts anyone? So, here's the contest.
Between now, i.e. 10th of June to 30th of June, come up with a title to the above story. The chosen one will get a mention and link to their blog for the next 10 posts that go up after June. I know this is not a very popular blog but a link is a link, right?