The Aftertaste

    by Rakhi Dalal

    Priya had set up the alarm for 4 am. When her mother-in-law came to wake her up it was already 4:30 am. She had somehow missed the alarm.

    Arre, wake up! You are still sleeping! It’s late, when will you have sargi?1 By this speed, the dawn will break before you even step foot in the kitchen!” her mother-in-law had barged into their bedroom, almost shouting.

    Priya got up abruptly, her heart beating as fast as shatabdi express. “o ma! I did not hear the alarm. Sorry maa ji, I will just be out”, panicked, she replied.

    “Maaa….at least don’t wake me up”, Priya’s husband Manoj, sleeping on the other end of the bed, snapped, then turned and covered his face with a pillow. 

    Hey bhagwan, nothing works properly in this house. I wonder what will happen after I die. Who will take care of the things like I do!” her mother-in-law rushed out in anger.

    “Can she never knock before entering our bedroom or speak in low volume for God’s sake?” Priya grumbled as she made her way to the washroom.

    It was karwachauth. Priya had completed all the preparations for the fast the previous evening. She had bought essentials for the pooja, and fruits and made some kheer and churma for the sargi next morning. After finishing the night chores, she had quietly slipped into the bed next to Manoj who had slept as soon as he had lain down. But then she had remembered mehndi. O how could she forget it!

    Her fifteen years old daughter Diksha had made mehndi cones and had insisted to make some design on her hands after she had finished putting some on her grandmother’s hands late in the evening.

    “Keep the cone on the dressing table in the bedroom, I will do that myself as soon as I am done with the kitchen work”, Priya said to an adamant Diksha.

    “I know you will forget. Why don’t you put it on now and I will finish the chores later on?” Diksha made a face.

    “Don’t be ridiculous. Go and do your schoolwork. I will not forget”, a bit annoyed she replied.

    When Priya had finally gone to sleep after making an impromptu design on both of her hands, the clock had struck 11:30. She had set up the morning alarm for 4 am. When the alarm had buzzed, she had turned it off and laid down again thinking she would be up in five minutes. The minutes innocently stretched to half an hour. When her mother-in-law had stormed in, the suddenness of getting up had caused a slight tugging of nerves in her brain. Not today please God, she had prayed.

    After having sargi when she glanced through the kitchen window, it was still dark outside. She could see stars twinkling in the predawn sky which was slowly twisting around to usher in the sacred day. Soon it was going to be her usual rising time. Instead of slipping into the bed again, as she had earlier thought she would, she got up to do the daily chores – preparing lunch boxes for Manoj, Jai and Diksha. And breakfast for all of them.

    Her father-in-law takes breakfast at 8 am sharp. It is either dalia or upma which none of the others like to eat. Manoj and her mother-in-law generally eat paranthas while the kids hanker for anything made out of bread. 

    At 6:30 she wakes her husband and keeps the daily newspaper on the bedside table next to him. By this time her nerves have started pulling the strings in her brain a bit more loudly than before. She presses her forehead while handing over a cup of tea to Manoj.

    “What happened?” he asks.

    “Hmmm….nothing just a mild headache I guess. I am fine. It will be ok”, she takes her hand off her forehead.

    “Have you got your tablet, in case the headache grows?” he asks, lifting the newspaper from the table.

    With a faint smile she says, “I cannot have one today, you know. It is karwachauth. I will not have anything till the moon comes up tonight”.

    “Ummm…ok”, pat comes Manoj’s response from behind the opened leaf of the newspaper which covers his face now.

    Priya picks up the dirty clothes from the chair next to the bed and goes outside. Her father-in-law would return home from his daily walk soon. She goes to the kitchen downstairs and puts the pan for his tea on the burner.  Then she wakes up Diksha and Jai for school.

    Diksha, a class nine student and older than her brother Jai, insists that she wouldn’t go to school. She is brushing her teeth in the washbasin next to the kitchen in the verandah. You know there wouldn’t be anything happening today in the school, she says, spitting out the toothpaste froth that has begun to come out from the corners of her mouth. Most of the teachers will be on leave, only Deepak sir will be taking a maths class, she resumes brushing vigorously.

    “At least you will have maths class. Why would you miss it? No need to take a leave. Get ready”, Priya says firmly. She is setting the dining table in front of the kitchen for breakfast.

    “But maaa

    “I am not listening anymore, just get ready”, Priya declares with an air of finality.

    Diksha’s slight carelessness towards her school or studies turns Priya impatient. She has made a resolve to make her daughter independent. I couldn’t study past class ten but I will ensure that Diksha does and does far better for herself, she thinks while entering the kitchen. Her left hand massages her temples again while the right gets busy with stirring dalia. If only my father wasn’t in such a hurry to marry me off, I could have studied further, she cannot help thinking.

    Priya had two younger brothers. Since she was the eldest, her father wanted to marry her off as soon as he could. Meri zimmedari jaldi se khatm ho, he would say, often sipping his hookah, whenever her compliant mother tried persuading him to let her complete junior college at least.

    She remembers the day she and her friend Amrita had bought the forms for admission to junior college after class ten board exams. They sat on the floor in the verandah of her house, chatting and teasing each other, excited in the anticipation of entering college when her father unexpectedly turned home from work. He never liked seeing her spending time with her friends but that day he became so furious that he tore her admission form into pieces.

    “You do not need to study further!” he shouted, “Till you get married, spend your time learning manners and taking care of the house!”

    Her mother came running from the kitchen on hearing his screams. He turned and looked furiously at her. She halted in her steps and cowered into a corner, her saddened eyes gazing tenderly at her daughter.

    After that, Priya spent her next three years learning cooking, sewing and taking care of the household. While her friend Amrita completed junior college and entered senior, Priya was married immediately after she turned nineteen. Amrita went on to clear bank exams and became a Probationary officer with a bank. She is now a senior manager and lives in the same city. They are still friends but Priya sometimes feel envious of her freedom. Amrita drives her own car and sometimes they meet and spend time together like they used to.

    Fortunately, Manoj is unlike her father. He is as much concerned about Diksha’s career as he is for Jai’s. She smiles as she recalls how happy Manoj was when Diksha won a debate competition at school level the previous month.  

    The cooker whistle brings her out of reverie. She looks at the clock. It is already 8:30. This is the time of her routine she likes best. Manoj has left for office and kids for school. Maa ji has gone to the temple and Papa ji has taken his usual place in the TV room next to the kitchen, on the reclining chair he likes to sit in while watching morning news.

    Priya has some time on her hands now. She goes to her bedroom on the first floor and lies down for a while. The throbbing in her head has increased by now. After a few minutes, she gets up and opens her almirah to decide the saree she would wear for pooja rituals in the afternoon. It has to be a heavy one. Anything less would mean inviting maa ji’s scorn for the rest of the day. And though it’s mid – October and the weather is fine but a heavy saree, along with all the jewelry- nath, maang teeka and the jadaoo haar she needs to wear, would mean opting for a heaviness which would weigh on her body like a stack of lumber on the shoulders. But she can’t help it. Not today when she has to get ready as if it was her wedding day. The only thing she can do away with is make-up. That is, if she can.

    She looks at her hands. The mehndi colour has come about very nice. Dark red. She remembers her mother telling that dark mehndi colour on hands symbolises happy union with husband. It is only lucky women who can get such a colour. Diksha had made a face on seeing the design but she likes it. It is a simple one that reminds her of her childhood and her mother. She likes the headiness of the fragrance of mehndi but today she dare not inhale it.

    “Priya, Priya where are you?” Maa ji’s scream from the verandah jolts her. Why doesn’t she ever let me be in peace, she thinks, annoyed, and so replies in an equally loud voice, “Going to take a shower, maa ji. Coming down after that.” She smacks her head with her towel and dashes to the washroom.

    About an hour later she comes down, clad in a peach coloured Banarasi silk saree with fine zari work and her jadaoo haar. This saree was Manoj’s gift on her birthday last year. It is the first time she has worn it.  She feels better after the bath. Happy too as she has just had a little chat with her mother over the telephone, although a bit anxious by her response to what she probed.

    “Can I take a tablet for the headache after the vrat katha2 ? I am not feeling well, maa”, she asked, hoping she might be allowed to have the medicine after the ritual.

    “Priya this fast is for damaad ji’s long life. If something bad happens to him in case you take anything before moonrise, what will you do?” Priya had hoped for an approving answer.

    The sound of her steps on the stairs brings maa ji to the verandah. She casts a glance at Priya, scrutinising her from head to toe. Then a rare smile appears on her face. She lets out a sigh and goes to her room without saying anything. The previous day maa ji had asked her about what clothes she would wear for the karwachauth katha programme at Mehta ji’s residence but she hadn’t decided on anything till then.

    Priya’s annoyance at her scrutiny is overcome by relief. Covering her head with the loose end of her saree she enters the pooja room and offers her daily prayers. After sometime when she looks up at the clock on the front wall, it is almost 11 am. The programme at Mehta’s residence is scheduled for 4 pm. She needs to prepare thali3 with deepdan, small waterpot, fruits and other material for pooja for herself and maa ji before the kids return from school around 2:30. Then papa ji’s lunch has also to be taken care of.

    Anju, the house help, appears in the doorway as she exits the pooja room. “Arre wah didi, how beautiful you look today! Such a pretty saree!” she exclaims as she comes near her.

    Bas, bas. Theek hai. Finish the chores sooner today and make sure pooja room is spanking clean”, albeit smiling, Priya says in haste. She doesn’t feel comfortable getting compliments is one reason she cuts her. Second is, if she doesn’t nip Anju’s chatter in the bud, it will become almost impossible to stop her. And today she is just not up for it. I wish she could take an off today like Diksha’s teachers, Priya looks at Anju’s petite frame and thinks. Maa ji had hollered at her yesterday when she had asked for a leave.

    By the time Priya prepares thalis her headache has returned after its very brief lull.  I hope it doesn’t turn bad, she mutters to herself. She has now started feeling unnerved. After she serves lunch to her father-in-law, she goes to her room and lies down in the bed. Closing her eyes she prays that the nagging in her head subsides soon enough. In some minutes maa ji comes marching up.

    “Are the thalis prepared, Priya? And what about fruits and new clothes? Have you kept them aside too?” Priya realises maa ji is standing in front of the open window outside their room but she doesn’t feel like looking in the direction because the light outside is too bright. Without opening her eyes she replies, “Haan maa ji. Everything is ready”.

    “What happened? Why are you lying down?”

    “Just a little headache, maa ji. I thought I might take some rest before the rituals”, Priya lifts her eyes and answers in a faint voice. Maa ji is leaning against the grill of the window. For a brief moment their eyes meet. She has no strength to contemplate her mother-in-law’s impenetrable gaze. The rigidity, with which she regulates the running of the house, sometimes leaves Priya exhausted.

    “I will just come down, maa ji”, she utters and then closes her eyes again. She can’t wait for the day to be over. For the moon to arise and for her fast to come to an end so that she can have a tablet and get to sleep. But there are still many hours for that to happen. Then the karwachauth’s moon never comes up easy. Even when the weather forecast predicts a rise around 8 pm each year, the moon maharaj arrives like a celebrity, always late. That too after the roofs of all the houses start getting crowded, enormous heads looking towards the sky hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Such an air! And for what? For just having the pleasure of making fasting women wait longer!

    She worries if she’ll be able to walk the distance to Mehta’s house in the warm sun in this saree. As she thinks of calling Amrita, who usually comes to her house for the katha every year, for the short trip, Diksha enters the room. Flinging her school bag on the chair next to the bed she says in excitement “Let me see how you look ma!”

    “You know Aparna ma’am wore a beautiful red saree today. She looked so pretty! And the rest of those who came looked nice too but Aparna ma’am looked out of this world!” she chatters on prancing from one corner of the room to the other. Priya opens her eyes. Slowly she gets up. Resting her back against the pillow she smiles a little.

    “What has happened to you?” alarmed, Diksha asks as she sees her mother’s face.

    “I am having a headache, Diksha. You and Jai take lunch by yourself. And call Amrita Auntie and ask her if she can drive us for the evening programme at Mehta ji’s house”, she says and then closes her eyes again.

    “Ma you look terrible. Shall I give you medicine?”

    “I can’t. Just call Amrita and let me know what she says.”

    “But why not, ma? You look so sick.”

    Priya doesn’t speak but nods in denial and stands before the dressing table to apply some makeup on her face.

    Diksha is worried. Her mother’s headaches are almost always terrible and it pains her to see her putting herself out there, day after day and night after night even when she is tired or ill. Why can’t she take a tablet, why must she suffer just because she is fasting, she thinks as she dials Amrita’s number. 

    The banging in Priya’s head is going louder bit by bit. On regular days, she just pops in a tablet even at the slightest hint of migraine in her nerves so that she may function normally. But that is not possible today.

    Diksha informs her that Amrita is not going to Mehta ji’s house for the pooja but to one of her distant cousin’s house. Priya takes a deep breath and asks Diksha to go and change the uniform and have lunch.

    After making herself presentable, she comes downstairs to find maa ji waiting for her in the verandah. It is 3:15 pm. Papa ji is snoring loudly in his room. Diksha has gotten ready to accompany her mother. She picks up her thaali from the kitchen table, comes out and declares that she is going with them.

    “Are you ok, Priya?” maa ji’s voice seems concerned.

    Theek hoon, maa ji”, she replies as she steps out of the house.

    Jai, who after having lunch, has picked up his bat to play cricket outside in the street, comes running after her.

    “Ma, I asked you to wash my favourite t-shirt yesterday but you didn’t! Our team has a match today and I needed it!” he complains.

    “I will wash it tomorrow, Jai. I forgot”, she mutters.

    “You never do anything I ask you to!” he shrieks and runs outside.

    Priya heaves a sigh. As soon as she crosses the doorstep, sunlight hits her eyes. She covers her head with the end of her saree and tries to shield her face with her hands.

    “Wait, wait”, Diksha yaps and goes back inside the house. When she emerges, she is carrying an umbrella.

    “Here, have this!” She opens it and hands it to her mother to shield her head from direct sunlight. Priya is moved.

    It is a twenty minutes walk to Mehta’s house from theirs. They decide to take a rickshaw. Luckily they find one rickshaw puller standing just around the corner of their street. Diksha takes the back seat while maa ji and Priya sit in front. It takes ten minutes to reach Mehta’s house.

    As Priya alights, she can hear the sound of bustling activities going on inside. Ah, she thinks, how will I be able to go through it all? They enter the main gate, already open, and Priya finds a group of nearly ten women sitting in a round circle on the floor in the front yard which has a considerably good amount of sunlight. Not that the sun is too hot but to Priya’s strained eyes, the spectacle is too much.

    “Please come, come!” Mrs. Mehta says out loud from the other end of the yard where she stands giving some instructions to her house help. There is an incessant chatter.

    “Your necklace is so beautiful! Which jeweller have you got it from?”

    “Isn’t the design of your lehenga same as Madhuri Dixit’s from that new movie?”

    “Your mehndi design is so pretty! Who made it?”

    Priya’s sensitive nerves are barraged by the women’s prattle. Maa ji scans the entire scene, scrutinising every piece of dress and jewellery. She then casts a glance at Priya. “Your saree is the loveliest, if only you hadn’t had a headache your face might have glowed too”, she says to Priya as they sit down in the circle. The woman next to her greets her with a smile. Priya looks at her in acknowledgement and tries to respond but no words would come out of her mouth. She thinks she must at least smile but she doesn’t have the energy to flex her facial muscles that way.

    She has started feeling a bit nauseous by now. All this heat and light and banter and heaviness of dress have started making her feel short of breath. She tries taking deep breaths, and avoids all the glitter from all the dresses sending waves of light to her eyes. Then she closes her eyes and tries to relax. Couple of moments later Mrs. Mehta announces it is the mahurat of pooja and the women go silent for the katha.  All of them keep their thalis in front of them and start listening as Mrs. Mehta proceeds with telling the story. “Ek sahukar thaa. Uske saat bete aur ek beti thi. ……” Gradually, Priya’s nausea starts taking over her. By the time the women get ready to start the ritual of passing thalis in the circle, she can’t take it any longer.

    Abruptly she gets up, rushes to the wash basin in the yard and starts vomiting. Everybody stops, shocked. Diksha and maa ji dash towards her, crying for help. All the women get up too. While some of them start cursing and blaming Priya for ruining their pooja, Mrs. Mehta asks everyone to calm down and proceed with rituals whilst directing Diksha to inform her father. As she turns away from the basin, Priya faints and becomes unconscious.

    When she opens her eyes, she finds herself in a hospital ward. Lying on a bed with a drip injected into her. She looks around and finds maa ji and Manoj sitting on a bench near the bed. When they realise she is conscious they call a nurse who comes swiftly and checks on her.

    “How are you feeling?” Manoj comes near her and asks. His voice is soft and warm.

    “Better”, Priya replies, her sound feeble. And though her head is much lighter now but she feels terrible. It is my fault that maa ji’s pooja couldn’t be completed, she thinks. Her mother-in-law sits silently, her sixty five year old body dwarfed by the weight of her clothes, her face not betraying either fatigue or contempt. She sits looking at the activities going around. Priya closes her eyes, unable to bring herself to look at her.

    About half an hour later when the doctor arrives, he examines her and writes the prescription for medicines. Manoj leaves the ward with him to get them from the hospital’s pharmacy store. He comes back carrying fruits and fresh juice. He asks her to have the juice so that she can have the medicine but she declines. If I break the fast before moon comes up and something untoward happens to Manoj, how will I be able to forgive myself, her mind is obsessed with the thought. The karwachauth katha recounts the story of such a woman whose husband dies when she breaks her fast by mistake. What if anything bad happens to him, she can’t stop stating this over and over again in her mind.  

     “But you need to take these medicines now”, Manoj insists.

    Their tussle keeps on for some time when maa ji finally gets up from the bench and comes near her. She asks Manoj to make her sit with support. Then she picks up the glass of juice from the table near her bed and calmly says, “Have it. No need to make a fuss. Itne natak ki jaroorat nahin.”

    Priya is stunned. “What are you saying maa ji? The faaast….” she stammers.

    “Since you vomited, it is already broken. Doesn’t matter whether you eat now or later. The fast is not going to be any good now. It won’t count”, comes the swift and mocking response from maa ji.

    Priya fidgets upon hearing this. She looks at her mother-in-law, at her face with disdain writ large over it, and squirms in agony. It appears to her as if she is already putting blame on her for some mishappening. How can my fast break by itself if I am sick and I vomited, is it my mistake, even the thought of it tortures her. And though maa ji has herself asked her to have the juice, Priya dithers. She holds the glass with a shaking hand and takes a sip. Unable to grip it firmly, she tries to hand it back to maa ji. In the process, the glass slips and falls, making a plop sound; the juice being splattered on the floor and on maa ji’s saree.

    Hey Bhagwaan!” maa ji yelps and turns around. “Isn’t it enough that I am here today of all days that you also have to go ahead and ruin my saree to make it a more terrible day for me”, she whines and goes to the washroom in the far corner of the ward. As Manoj turns around to call the hospital staff, she quickly wipes the tears that have rushed out from her eyes unannounced.

    Around 7 pm, Priya is discharged from the hospital and she comes back home with Manoj. Maa ji had come earlier to complete her katha rituals. Priya goes to her bedroom, bathes, wears a simple saree and comes down to the kitchen for the dinner preparations. She feels much better. After having a bath, Manoj comes down too. While going to the TV room he stops in front of the kitchen window and asks how she is feeling and if she needs any help. She nods her head in refusal.

    Priya is roasting sooji in the pan, making sooji halwa. Diksha has been helping her. They have already made mutter paneer and dry aloo sabzi and prepared the dough for puris for the occasion of customary breaking of fast. It is nearly 8:30 pm but the moon hasn’t risen yet.  Maa ji is up on the roof, waiting for the moon and chatting with Mrs. Gupta, the next door neighbour with whom they share a common wall. Priya hasn’t eaten anything after coming from the hospital, though the doctor had advised her. No one, not even Manoj, has asked her to eat. Is he tired or does he not wish to interfere with the rituals anymore, she wonders.

    Your fast is already broken, she recalls what maa ji had said at the hospital. Has my fast lost meaning now, does it not count? If my prayer becomes futile because I felt ill, what is the point of such a ritual? Why should I follow it? Her kitchen is now swathed by the warmth and headiness of food.

    “Is the halwa ready, ma?” Diksha asks.

    “Very soon”, replies Priya as she transfers the cauldron containing halwa from the gas burner to the kitchen top. The aroma of the just cooked sweet treat tantalises her buds.

    “Looks yum! Can I have it first, please ma”, asks Diksha. 

    Priya looks at her daughter, at her eager innocent face. Yet to confront the world run by rituals and traditions, a world she inherited from her family, a world which sometimes leave her smothered. Do I want her to inherit it too, she thinks.

    A diligent smile slowly emerges on her face and she says, “Let me try it first”. Her daughter’s eyes widen in puzzlement as Priya takes out a spoonful from the cauldron. It looks divine. Golden Brown. Grainy. As she slowly devours the warm and sweet flavour of the delicacy, it leaves her soul sated. It is the sweetest halwa has ever tasted to her.

    Chaand nikal gaya, chaand nikal gaya, echoes somewhere in distance.


    1A pre-dawn meal which married women in India, especially in North, eat on karwachauth before starting their fast which lasts till the moon comes up at night.

    2An important story reciting ritual during the fast.

    3A plate used during the ritual of katha.

    Rakhi Dalal writes from a small city in Haryana. Her work has appeared in Kitaab, Borderless Journal, Scroll, nether quarterly, Aainanagar, Hakara Journal, Bound and Parcham.

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