Plum jam

The creaking fan that needed to be rewound was the only company she had. The monotonous sounds of the autorickshaws punctuated by the shocking screeches of late night spoilt brats pretending to be bikers trying life-threatening skills on their vehicles had died down, leaving behind an eerie silence on the roads, made even eerier by the shadows of the few large trees and many hoardings in cheap CFL lighting. As usual, she moved from one window to the next, absent-mindedly, hoping to see his car slide in slowly from the urban horizon. Occasionally, she stopped to gaze at herself in the hazy reflection on the mildly dusty windows and tried in vain to get her hair to look like the image she had in her head. She rubbed her long-nailed, unpolished fingers under her ear and smelt them to discover the fragrance stale by the hour.

The cell phone beeped. It was a template text—“Still in call; will take long. Sorry, love you.”

As she scrolled up, she discovered the same message appearing several times. She swallowed the lump in her throat and blew out the lavender-scented candle waiting on the dining table, now close to its own death—was there any point in saving that puddle of wax? Robbed of its beauty, its fragrance, its energy? She switched on the harsh white tube light in the bedroom and pulled out her boring cotton kaaftaan—the one she wore when she was alone. It was faded from months of sun drying and smelled of detergent. She let the tears merge with the splashes of water in the basin as she washed her face. The kohl spread its waxy color on her eyelids, but this time, the red eyes surrounded by black circles didn’t make her want to reach out to the cleansing milk.

Variously sized serving bowls lay awkwardly covered with cheap steel plates on the kitchen counter. An oversized spoon stuck out of each, leaving a small gap between bowl and plate; just enough for a fly to get in. A pockmarked old steel dabba sat next to them, its lid bearing floury fingerprints. She didn’t want to touch it. Pulling back the lids, she checked the contents of the bowls, one by one. The first one contained what should have been a daal but had coagulated into one large mass, a thin film of water over it. You could have sliced it and served wedges of it. Like a dense, badly made mousse. The next, a bowl covered in a slick of red oil. Underneath, overcooked, over-spiced aubergines, that melted in and couldn’t be differentiated from the gravy that carried them. A quarter plate of dehydrating cucumbers and carrots lay uncovered, unevenly peeled and sliced in absent minded thicknesses, a fly proclaiming its victory over them. It was 2 in the morning. She tore off a bit of the chapatti and tried to rescue a piece of aubergine with it. As the first morsel burned her throat with the overload of spices, she abandoned the rest of the chapatti and with a cry of self pity and pent up frustration, flung everything in the bin. A lonely slice of leftover pizza from the weekend lay in the fridge, absorbing the cardboard smells of the box. She ate it and went to bed, soaking the pillow with her tears.

He arrived when she was fast asleep, lulled by the exhaustion of her emotion. She did not see his tired, apologetic eyes. She did not hear him whisper a “sorry” choked with emotion. She did not feel him slip into bed and pull her close—seeking solace in her warmth, seeking pardon, promising better times.

The brand new vintage clock on the wall across the bed showed a few minutes past five when her eyes opened and she realized his presence. His half-open mouth, rhythmic breathing, and salt and pepper stubble had helplessness written all over. It had been six months since their wedding; a year since they started courting.

When they were courting, they would made time for each other. To surprise the other after work and catch a few drinks and kebabs at a brightly lit lounge; or walk by the lake, a juicy chicken Frankie in each hand; or grab an ice cream sandwich on an unusually cold night just to watch each other eat it and shiver at the same time and laugh about it. She would bake him a treat, he would get her Daal Pakwaan from that place near her alma mater that she couldn’t stop talking about. Sex evolved from meals well made and well eaten. Conversation flowed around memories of food made by their grandmothers. A kind smile crept over her face—the kind that an aged couple gets when they think back 50 years to the beginning of their relationship.

Since the wedding, he had switched jobs, she had quit hers to make the four walls a home. She had spent weeks before the wedding planning her kitchen—the curry leaves and lemongrass and basil and whatnot that she would plant in the window, the pantry section, the crockery she liked, the old copperware she pestered her grandmother to part with. And yet, they had seldom eaten a meal together, leave alone anything else. She stroked his stubble gently and allowed the stray teardrop to meander through the sad lines on her face—a recent acquisition. He did not wake up except for closing his mouth and hugging deeper into his fetal position and into her bosom. She combed his rough hair with her hands and as the sun came up and tore itself through the chick blinds facing their bed, she opened her eyes, resolve and relief in her heart.

As she made her quiet tea while he slept off endless exhaustion, she made a quick call to the cook and gave her a month’s paid leave, excitement and authority in her voice. Two sips of that refreshing Darjeeling first flush, and she tied up her still silky hair in an imperfect bun and almost sprinted to the fridge in excitement. She scoured the fridge she had excitedly stocked up days ago and never cooked from and pulled out everything salvageable. It was only 7 by then, and there was no way he was getting up before 10. She found some plums, almost wrinkled with fridge age, and chopped them fine, sucking on each stone before discarding it to check its sweetness or sourness, amused at the childhood memory of her eating and wincing at the sourness of the fruit. Then, slitting a vanilla bean in half lengthways with the speedy precision of an expert patissier and measuring out some sugar, she put a small pan on the heat to make jam. Homemade jam—the only kind he cared for.

The baker in her decided that a perfect breakfast wouldn’t be perfect without homemade bread. She hadn’t bought yeast in all these months because she had left her baking behind with the happy times, but things were changing today, and perhaps because they were going to get better, she found a jar of baking soda in the pantry cupboard—a sign of good luck. A quick whipping up of dahi and a masterful mixing of dough later, a rustic looking loaf of fresh soda bread was already in the almost brand new oven, getting ready for a grand finale.

Meanwhile, she got rid of the dead candle on the dining table and put his loose change and car keys back where they belonged; they had found a hitherto permanent place on the table because no one ate at the table anyway. She pulled out her favorite tablecloth—a white and blue block printed one with white tassels, that she bought at the women’s co-op in the first month of marriage. She had matching royal blue ceramic plates and pristine white coffee mugs, still sitting in their wedding gift packaging, lost somewhere in the godown of a guest room. She brought all these out. There was still one single rose that looked fresh enough from the bouquet she had bought earlier that week; she salvaged it from its otherwise discard-worthy company on the counter in the hallway and put it in a small milk bottle on the table.

By this time, the jam was done. She decanted the purple-ruby beauty into an old glass jar, anticipated his reaction and smiled. There was no bacon in the house, but she found a few stray cocktail chorizo sausages that would be perfect. Chopping those with some onions and tomatoes, she put another pan on and drizzled some fresh green extra virgin olive oil in it.  The onions sizzled as they softened and relented to the heat. In went the sausages and tomatoes, followed by an extra kick of chili flakes and oregano left over from the last pizza takeaway. When it had all softened, she turned down the heat, and with her confidence rising, she cracked two eggs gently on the red bed in the pan. In seconds, the transparent whites turned opaque, and the yolks beckoned sunshine back into the kitchen. There was that pot of parsley that her mother had gifted her a few weeks ago, peeping in through the kitchen window, asking to be invited to the party. She snipped a few leaves on the waiting eggs, instantly cheering it up, slipped the warm bread on a board, and rescued a bit of table butter from its plastic dabba into a butter dish, making sure not to include the bits of toast from yesterday. All that was needed now, was to put on a filter of coffee. But he did that best, so she pretended to forget, thinking ahead to a lovely mid-morning brew that he would lovingly bring her.

She didn’t realize she was humming by now. “Man aanand aanand chhayo….” It was what woke him. She turned around and was caught mid-note. There was an awkward silence. An atypical distance that was not natural to a recently married couple; eyes that wanted to talk but wouldn’t meet.

“Come, let’s eat,” she said. And as she drew the curtains behind the table and let the light in, he drew up a chair, sat down next to her, and sobbed.