FICTION: Tea with Moni

Dusk settled in accompanied by a calmness, more of a stillness. The day had been hot and hectic. As it is Rumki hated summers. The stillness around was broken by the smell of the jasmine flowers that wafted in through the verandah. That was the only good thing about summer, she thought. The tall creeper had grown wild and hugged the pillar reaching up to the first floor, disturbing a few wires, tangling them. White, fragrantly smelling small flowers added a beautiful charm to dusk. Yes, that and the bright coloured flowers on tall trees all over the city, breaking the monotony of the concrete, was possibly the only good thing about summer, she thought as she stood in the verandah looking down at passers-by. Her hair tied carelessly in a bun, she stood there for a while and then moved in. Saturday never seemed like a weekend, and indeed it was a working day for her.

The table in the corner of the room was stacked with books and writing pads, a few pens strewn around, a bottle of water in the corner, a laptop jostling for space too. A small plant in a yellow pot occupied a corner of the table, adding brightness to an otherwise cluttered table. The table needed to be cleared up, but Rumki did not feel like it. The heat-induced lethargy left her drained of the energy to do anything. Moni walked in the door, clothes in hand. She was the help who did the housework. Rumki had hired her from the agency some years ago. Moni was a clever, young woman, who had a knack for getting things done. When she first came from the agency, Rumki was a bit wary. She had, in the past, hired a couple of helps, but they were not good. The first one had refused to learn and was even reluctant to work. Moni was different. She used to take a lot of leave, though. She had two daughters who were at boarding school and hence she often had to rush there to attend to their needs. But when she did come to work, Moni would take care of everything. “Didi, my elder daughter wants to be a teacher like you,” she often said.

Help was required at home, arthritis made it difficult for Rumki to do things. Going out was a great ordeal too. School was not very far away and the auto driver picked her up punctually every day. She would have liked to give it all up, but then she liked being with young minds. Moreover, Kishore was a cantankerous man touching 60 who was hell bent on making things difficult for her. He needed her at his beck and call. About ten years ago he quit his job citing boredom. A generous retirement package sealed the deal. Having worked in a government agency for years now, he was more than happy at the idea of retirement. Moreover, there was a possibility that in the near future he would be transferred to another city and that was something he did not want.

Money was of utmost importance to him and Rumki was surprised when he told her that he was quitting. His school friends often said he had loads stashed up in the bank and needn’t bother about it. His relatives spoke of it too. A scrooge for most of his life, it was quite obvious to anyone who knew him and his lifestyle. Rumki’s initial reaction to his retirement was one of surprise. She was a bit hurt too. Such an important decision, and he never spoke about it to her. There was no discussion, no talking it out – just an announcement one morning over a cup of tea that hit her as a bolt from the blue. That is how things worked in their house. Kishore decided on everything. Rumki had no say in anything. It was almost as if she did not exist.

Her expenses increased – it was obvious this would happen. Since no salary was coming, Kishore would reduce expenditure even further. Rumki could never quit her job, she needed that money. She paid most of the household expenses, how she would have loved to buy that beautiful kantha saree she had seen in the shop window a few weeks ago. She had begun saving to buy it for herself, it would have made her so happy. She could not, other expenses had to be taken care of. There was her daughter’s education too. Rumki had fought with Kishore to admit her to a very good convent school. That was possibly the only time she stood up to him.

Rini’s life would be different. She would see to it. He had insisted that she be admitted to a local school, “it would be cost effective,” he had said. She was aghast when she heard him say that. That night she mustered all her courage and told him about her decision. He was angry with her and rushed at her choking her with his hands and pushing her against the wall. It hurt her badly and he would have gone on for a while, had it not been for that little girl who came rushing to her mother when she heard all the noises.

“I will not spend anything,” he said as he pushed Rumki on the bed. “As it is the overheads of running the family is too much for me,” he said as he left the room. This was not the first time she had been subject to such abuse. She was never able to tell anyone about it. Her old ailing mother lived in Lucknow and could not be troubled. Her brother and his wife who lived in the same house as her mother were not bothered with what happened to her. She always kept quiet. Her daughter had never been witness to it. She did not want Rini to see all this. The child came running up to her and hugged her. “He is not good. Your neck is red. It must be paining, mumma,” she said. As she hugged the little one in her arms, tears streamed down her eye. She had stood up, just this once and spoken her mind. This she had to do. Rini would get the best, she thought. I will see to it.

As Moni stacked the folded clothes on the low stool, she noticed Rumki looking out of the window. “Ki holo, Didi? Thinking about Rini Didi surely!” Moni asked. Rumki smiled at her. “Let’s have a cup of tea, Moni,” she said.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College (affiliated to the West Bengal State University). She earned her Ph.D degree from the University of Calcutta on Coleridge’s poetry with special reference to the Conversation and the Supernatural Poems. Her post doctoral work dealt with the effect of English on the intellectual life of Bengal and on poetry written in English by Bengalis in the 19th century. She has worked on a project on the literature of the Indian diaspora in the United States of America and has been awarded an Associateship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, India.

Image: Morning Tea, Henri Matisse, 1920


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