All summer of 1967, Jani looked forward to two things: his class 8 examination results and the reopening of his school. If he failed, he would remain in the same class and if not, he would be in his neighbour Sabha’s class. The fifth of six children, Jani usually ran a million errands a day which turned to a gazillion during summer vacation. One of these was to running to Patti three roads away; Patti, 82 years of age, bent like a tall thin palm in the wind, cracked at the hip, with tea and 2 Marie biscuits every evening at 5. She moved about like a tortoise, trundling her way up the flight of stairs leading to a roof top where her daughter-in-law, Manji, sun dried papadoms all year round. Manji sold newspaper-wrapped packets of different flavoured papadoms to the bakery nearby. So, it was in Jani’s list of errands to visit the bakery every other day about papadom deliveries or payments. With every batch, the baker deep fried or baked a single papadom and shared half of it with Jani, who always agreed with the baker’s expert papadom critique. It was in Jani’s main interest.
Manji’s cotton saris always had a large wet patch around her thigh area and were always tucked up into her in-skirt, folded just below her knees, exposing cooking related burns. Her blouse never matched her saris. She always scuttled around the house, up and down, making papadoms, day in and day out and complaining to her husband about Patti, and wanting to go to the temple every evening at 7 and to return either too early or too late for dinner, which was dutifully ready for serving at 8. Her husband worked as a proof-reader of English publications for temples in Mysore. Childless for over 28 years, dry and wet papadoms occupied the room that was originally intended for a child.
“Manji Aunty, you cook so well. Why can’t you make tea for Patti? Why must my mother make it for her? You know we are not even related. My mother only sits next to her in the temple.” Jani had once dared to ask.
“Shut up and mind your business”, she’d barked back and continued carrying wicker baskets from one room to the next like she was acclimatizing the drying papadoms to different sectors of the house.
“Sorry Aunty, but I only meant to say that you cook so well.”
“How do you know that?”
“The baker always gives me half a papadom from every batch. And, I believe if one can make papadoms, one can make anything. I also smell coffee every evening when I come with Patti’s tea. And, Sabha says she smells sweets from your kitchen when Banu visits. I think you are a good cook.”
“Call him uncle, you little beast.”
This exchange led to Jani’s papadom sample supply being cut off and his not being allowed into the house. Later that year, Jani’s question of why a presumably great cook like Manji won’t make tea for Patti and why it had to be supplied each day by his mom who lived three roads away came to him through Sabha who had learnt it from her mother who had learnt it from Manji herself in the bakery — Manji believed that tea had made her husband into ‘somebody who can never be a father’ and herself ‘somebody who can never be a mother’.”
“But, Patti drinks tea”, Jani tried to reason.
“Patti has had children already” Sabha said with an air of I know about these thing.
“That’s probably true. My mother drinks coffee and purchases tea only for Patti”, said Jani almost to himself.
“If we get married, we will have coffee until we have children and then after we have children, we will drink tea”, remarked Sabha with a teacher’s authority. She would later become one.
“If you go to the temple, you can drink tea and have children. That’s why Patti goes to the temple each day”, countered Jani like a smart-alec student.
“I am Muslim. I will not go to the temple. I will just not drink tea until I give birth.” Sabha spoke like a teacher for rest of the evening.
Jani was unusually early that summer evening with Patti’s tea. Patti didn’t know how early exactly he was, but she was quite sure he was early. He also seemed to hide a small parcel wrapped in old newspaper in his left palm. He gave Patti her tea. Patti mentioned the number of papadoms in the day’s batch and said it wasn’t bad for a Tuesday. Patti also mentioned wanting to eat cake. That’s when Jani stretched his left arm out and gave her the small packet. In it were two pieces of honey cake. The print from the newspaper had transferred on to the side of one of the pieces. Patti couldn’t see this very clearly and thanked Jani for the cake asking, “Did you pass your exam?”
“Yes, Patti. Now, I will be in Sabha’s class.”
“Good boy. Now, will you do me a favor?”
“Sure, Patti. Anything for you.”
Patti’s funeral was an afternoon affair and both Jani and Sabha were at school when it took place. They would have anyway not been allowed to attend such matters.
In 2009, Jani’s older daughter, Aliya was visiting South India for the first time in her life. In several years in Saudi Arabia, where Aliya was born to Sabha and Jani, they were only able to visit India once, in 1992, when they built a house and a few again years ago when Aliya was getting married.
Aliya was going to have a temple wedding first and then another Nikha at a convention center. Jani, Sabha, Aliya and the other two children sat in the outer courtyard of the same temple that his mother used to go to nearly forty years ago, waiting for the priest to sign their request to use the temple to get Aliya married.
“After our wedding, I’m back at this temple only now.”
Just then, a little boy presented the waiting family with hot tea in small glass tumblers. The family sipped on tea in silence, listening to temple sounds mixed with that of traffic just outside. They watched the people walk in and out the temple, much like people did in and out of post-offices and government buildings.
“You see that wall clock, Sabha. Old Patti gifted it to the temple,” Jani said, with a small smile. He stopped himself from placing the used tumbler of tea in the temple courtyard, remembering it wasn’t right to place used cups, plates, spoons, tumblers or bowls in temples.
“Patti? But, she didn’t have any money”, said Sabha placing hers behind them on the ground. Jani picked her tumbler up and held his and hers in his hands and stretched his arms out for the children to hand theirs to him.
“That’s right. She didn’t. But, my mother used to give her some money every Friday. On her birthday, my mother visited her to seek her blessing. She also gave Patti Rs. 2. The next day, when I visited Patti with cake for having passed my exams, Patti gave me Rs. 1 and asked me to take her to the watch repair fellow down the road. When we went there, she bought that clock — second hand English Queen’s Station Clock. She was too frail to carry it back home. I held the big clock in my arms, took it back to her house, and wiped it clean with a piece of an old sari that belonged to Manji. “Today you have passed your exams and I have bought a clock and Manji has dried 300 papadoms. It’s a good day”, she remarked after a bit of a thought. I asked her why she needed a clock that was too big for her to carry and her room was filled with pictures of Gods and there would be no place to stick the clock up. “To gift it to the temple, Jani. My friends and I never know when it is 8 o’clock in the evening. We don’t own watches and we always have to ask others whose voices are very soft. I always return home from the temple either before dinner is ready and that upsets Manji because she thinks I am rushing her, or after 8 which makes her think I don’t appreciate her cooking for me. I asked her why she didn’t buy a watch instead. She replied saying it was for all the old mothers-in-law, for all the Manjis. The temple should have thought about putting a clock up on its wall for people like us when they built it she said.”
“You were really close to Patti, weren’t you?” Sabha stared at the clock and back at him again. They had barely spoken about Patti in recent years.
Just then, the priest arrived, looked at the clock and remarked, “In the south, 10 o’clock means 10:30 or 11 o’clock. No fixed time you see. Sorry for keeping you waiting, Sir. Had your tea? You want some snacks like cake or you only eat foreign snacks? Sir, we will go inside the office room and discuss your daughter’s wedding details, Sir. Please come with me. Our office is very old, this temple is also very very old. That big clock also, sir, is very old.