Dining Table

“Where is everybody?”, he asked, his eyes glistening as he hoisted his backpack on to one shoulder. The taxi driver took out his suitcase from the boot and handed it to Shibukaka who had run out to help as soon as he heard the impatient doorbell at the gate. It had been two years since Sameer had been home, but Shibukaka would have recognised his doorbell anywhere.

“Upstairs, at the table”, said Shibukaka

“No no, you go on up. I will bring the bags”, he added, as Sameer reached out for the suitcase. Sameer grinned at him, as he picked up the smaller suitcase and walked in through the gates. No way he’d hurt Shibukaka by picking up the bigger suitcase – that would be calling him old and frail – and he wasn’t quite there yet.

The stairwell was as it always was, narrow, dark and steep. As if one were going through the birthing canal, still cool and protected from the outside world. At it’s end came life.

Sameer burst into the familiar room to what felt like a sea of bright eyes and smiling faces, all waiting to greet him. Were they here for him, or were they here because that is how it always was? No matter, it did not matter why they were here. He dived into the oohs and aahs, the hugs, the respectful pranams given and received. Someone took his bag from his shoulder, he did not know when. His suitcases had reached his room, or they must have. He did not need to know it all any more, or track his things. They would appear and disappear magically, just as a fresh round of tea had appeared at the dining table. They were all seated around it, as if they had always been there.

The conversation paused for the tiniest part of a second as everyone savoured the first sip of the latest round. This was always a tricky moment, for they were all connoisseurs at the table and tea was their thing. It’s perfection was a family tradition. It had to be just so, of course brewed. It was only coarse folk of the street or farms who boiled their tea. Utterly brutal, but then who ever thinks or mentions such lesser folk. Sameer even knew what the next sentence would be, and as if on cue, it came.

“Is this the tea that Moni brought from this trip to the hills in Darjeeling? Or is it the new flavour from that Market Street shop?”

Didi was quick off the mark, she did not suffer tea foolishness gladly, and certainly would not let any new blend catch her by surprise.

“Market Street, re”, said Maasi. “Moni’s batch was mostly sent over to her mother-in-law’s house. You know, how it is”

“But they don’t even drink this, do they”, chirped young Bodhan. He was keen, and had just figured out that there were invisible lines drawn in the most unlikely places. Like the tea and its china.

“Of course they don’t”, snorted Didi. “They can’t tell a leaf from a granule, not them. They’d have boiled it all to bitterness by now and would still be waiting for it to turn orange or whatever colour they drink. Uff, what a waste. It was first flush, you know”. Didi’s distress met sympathetic eyes across the table.

I mean, everyone marries who they choose, but did Moni have to like someone in that kind of family? Sameer could almost hear the unspoken question being tossed into the air. It had been said so often that it did not need to be said again, they all knew it.

“Its not as if they are not rich”, sighed Maasi. “But then, when have riches brought taste”, she added in that gentle clear voice of hears that could be clearly heard all the way down the table. Sameer looked at Maasi, at her usual spot at the head of the table, the side nearest to the kitchen. Her face held the quality of repose even when she was laughing, or crying or irritated, though few would have seen her out of control. Even now, as she thought of the tangled mess that Moni’s life was in, the only evidence of it was the way her hands traced the curve of the oval table, restlessly, back and forth along the smoothened edge.

The conversation at the table bounced easily off known patterns, from food to philosophy, and then to fashions and how they spatially claimed a moving space to promote an idea. And then back to college, where a dupatta had just been made compulsory for Bodhan’s sister, Mili.

“I keep telling her to go to college only in Jeans and T-Shirt”, Bodhan said, sure of his change-maker credentials. “But she refuses to take a stand. This is oppressive and regressive, both”, he ended with a flourish.

“We should ask her, should we not? Who are we to decide if she feels oppressed?”. Sameer finally joined in the conversation, almost feeling up to the bracing wind that flew across that table everyday, keeping aantel adda aloft.

“She would not know oppression if she saw it. We grew up in that tiny town, remember? Where all girls were expected to do was follow the rules. All Mili has to do is to spot a rule from far away, and she will rush to make it her own”, grinned Bodhan. He felt a sense of ownership for his sister’s thoughts. After all who could know her better than her own brother. They had not grown up together. Bodhan had been sent to Calcutta early for his education. Mili had come here only three years ago, and had just started college.

“She will make some mother in law very happy”, chimed in a distant aunt who had joined them at the table for evening tea. There were always some relatives who dropped by everyday. They lived close to the city’s busiest market, so anyone who came out shopping came over for a bit of a rest, a little gossip and of course the delicious food that Maasi’s kitchen kept rolling out. Today it was a mutton chop, and the aunt had already had two. Maasi’s table always had more, but she clearly held the reins.

“Would you like some more tea?”, asked Maasi, raising the teapot that sat to her right. Didi grinned, and looked away. There was no one who was better at shutting up random voices than Maasi. The aunt did not even know how neatly she had been bypassed, as her cup was passed back to Maasi for a refill.

“Mili is doing very well at college”, said Maasi as she refilled the cup. “She has chosen to study philosophy and economics, and I think she will be able to use her learning to do much good”.

The cup was being handed back across the table to the aunt. Before the cup reached her, Maasi continued, “Did you find anything interesting in Haldar’s shop today? He has been promising me an embroidered blouse for three months, but I do not think he can source something that is good enough.”

“Oh, Haldar had some nice Hakoba cloth in today”, chattered the aunt. “But I also went into the next shop, the new one you know. They have jewellery just like the television serials. You will not believe what I found there today”. Aunt dug into her bag to pull out a little pouch and opened it to show the table. A heavy but very beautiful polki necklace was passed around the table to more oohs and aahs.

“Can you believe it is not real?”, the aunt added. “They do such good work these days”

“It is lovely, aunt. Where do you plan to wear it first?”, asked a young cousin down the table. Sameer did not even remember her name, though he did remember playing with her when they were younger. Pigtails, heavily oiled hair and neon coloured ribbons, that’s all he remembered. She looked quite different now, her eyes heavy with kohl, hair tumbled casually past her shoulders. It had been too long since he was home.

“I thought of wearing it to your sister’s wedding. Not the main function of course but maybe the aashirwaad or the reception. You will have a reception for Shoma, won’t you?”, asked the aunt.

Roma, Sameer remembered suddenly. The two sisters were Roma and Shoma. Roma was the older one, it must be her across the table if they were talking about Shoma’s wedding. He knew nothing about it, but his mother must. She was in Bombay right now, and must be in a meeting. He’d catch up with her later tonight.

Roma hesitated before answering the aunt.

“We have not decided all the occasions yet. Ma will call you as soon as they are decided”, she added in a soft, decisive voice.

For a moment, it was as if a younger Maasi was speaking, suddenly thought Sameer. He had been away and did not know the story, but even he could feel the sparks that were flying across the table. He kept his head down, as he continued playing a game on his phone. This was not the time to make eye contact. Years of experience around that dining table had taught them much about silence and timing.

“I’ve asked your mother to hold the Aashirwaad here. We will clear the ground floor hall and there will be enough room”, Maasi said.

Roma’s chin took on a stubborn set. That’s when Sameer noticed the tiny little mole on it. Just a bit off centre, a tiny black dot. It stood out now, as if in assertion of her will, and he found he could not look away.

“Don’t worry Maasi”, Roma said. “Why take the trouble? We will decide soon anyway”

Didi looked directly at Soma and was about to say something when Maasi interjected. “It will save me trouble, you know Romashona. I am too old to go out for three days in a row. Here, it will be easier for me. But I will need you to take full charge of all arrangements. At my age, I’m afraid I’ll not be of much use to you”

Maasi’s hands were rubbing the rounded edge of the table again, Sameer noticed. The edge was bright and polished, and that made him smile.

Before Roma could respond Maasi continued, “Your mother knows this is her own house. To hold the aashirwaad in our own house is quite alright. I don’t really hold with these new ideas of hiring commercial places. Tell your mother that her home awaits her hospitality.”

Roma looked around the dining table. Before the aunt could say anything, she jumped up, grabbed her purse, and looked at her watch. “I’m late for work, I must rush. Of course I’ll tell her that”, she said as she gave Maasi a tight hug in farewell. “We will have a grand wedding, won’t we?”, was her parting shot from the top of the staircase. Her smile lit up the room.

A whiff of her gentle fragrance – was it jasmine, or shiuli- wafted past, as she twirled away and was gone. The determined smell of roasting spices rose from the kitchen crowding it out of even Sameer’s mind as he stood up.

“I think I’ll go and wash up before dinner, Maasi”, he said.

“Yes, do that. We have your favourite biryani for dinner, and then firni for dessert”

“Only firni for dessert? Just one?”, teased Didi.

“Of course not, we have more”, said Maasi determinedly. “But that was made for him”. She smiled at him, and said, “Yes, go and rest a bit. You are in Bodhan’s room for now. Bodhan can shift to Mili’s room which is next to you, so he can look after you too. Mili has shifted up to Shibuli’s room for now.”

“So much trouble. Maasi!”, Sameer protested. “I and Bodhan can share a room I’m sure”, he said, looking towards Bodhan, who nodded hard.

“Trouble and all he says!”, laughed Maasi. “See how much he has grown. Now go, do as you are told”.

Even before Sameer and Bodhan had left the table, the conversation had resumed. The aunt was gathering up her shopping and pretending to leave. Sometimes she’d stay for dinner and sometimes she would really have to leave. Everyone was asking her to stay, but she had to go. In the distance, the doorbell had rung again, and Sameer could hear a heavy tread come up the stairs, as if it was familiar with it. Another uncle, from another part of town must have dropped by after work. Some of the uncles came everyday, others once in a while.

Sameer quickly slipped away to wash up before the next round of oohs and aahs greeted the uncle as if he had just come back from a safari, not just office. The next round of hot snacks was served, a fresh pot of tea brewed. Familiar chatter took on its reassuring rhythm, as plates were quickly refreshed at the polished dining table.

(Meeta Sengupta – but I think we should work on a pseudonym)