Mala’s lungs emptied as if a sudden pre-monsoon pressure-change had thrust itself densely into her diaphragm. She gasped and put the saucepan down on the stove with a sharp clatter.
With an effort, she turned, holding on to the counter. Her mother-in-law had entered the kitchen. Light from the dining room silhouetted the old lady, outlining the set of her body. But while her shoulders were held soft and she appeared to lean solicitously forward, her stance was territorial, legs planted firm. My kitchen, it screamed. My saucepan!
Mala wished she weren’t here, in this kitchen. She wished Saurav hadn’t had to bring them, her and the children, here to his mother’s place. “It is just for a few weeks,” he’d said despairingly when the boarding school offered him a teaching job with no accommodation. The salary was pitifully low, but he took the job, he had no choice. “Once I am there I’ll surely get housing, Mala,” he’d continued in a flat, yet hopeful voice. “Till then, why don’t you move in with my mother.”
“We’ll be fine by ourselves,” Mala tried to insist, “you don’t need to take us to your mother’s place, my family will help me.” Your sister is dead Mala, he’d replied. Or had he said your mother is mad, your father is gone, your brother doesn’t care. She couldn’t remember precisely what he had said nor what she had said. She only knew that on that day, neither of them could bear to acknowledge that they couldn’t afford to keep their home. In a few weeks they had emptied it out and sold most of their things.
And now, Mala thought, she didn’t have a home, nor a saucepan in which to heat milk for the children’s cocoa. She had to use Saurav’s mother saucepan. To, which Saurav’s mother was saying, “I’ve told you so many times that we take out the new, stainless steel saucepan only when we have guests. What don’t you understand about that? Use this one for everyday, see, this one.” She took out the grey, aluminum saucepan with the crêpey Teflon interior and held it up.
Not the Teflon coated pan, Mala wanted to say. The neutral flakes of the rubbery, indestructible polymer will enter my children’s bodies. The resinous, elastic scales, eternally non-reactive will lodge in my children’s organs and accumulate in unknown crevices making them obese and cancer-prone. Minute, non-stick bits, inorganic plankton, so small that they are invisible, will wash through my children’s tender internal filters and attach scrapings of their helpless, innocent cells to the swirling, giant sphere of plastic waste in the ocean.
Saurav couldn’t visit till two months after they moved. Now we will be able to leave, Mala thought when he finally arrived, now I can go back to my own home. “It’s been awful here, it’s been awful without you,” she wanted to cry. But he looked so pale and tired that Mala had swallowed her list of complaints and served him his dinner. I’ll have him to myself afterwards, she thought.
The old lady talked non-stop through dinner. She bemoaned the disruption of her solitary life, something for which Mala felt a grudging sympathy. But then she began telling Saurav what was wrong with Mala, telling him that Mala never got the niceties of a superior household, telling him that contrary to what he had proclaimed when he decided to marry Mala, that class did matter, telling him that the children lacked discipline, telling Mala that she had to separate herself from her son, only three, or the boy would develop unnatural attachments.
“That’s going too far, Mother,” Saurav interjected. The old lady shifted in her chair, aggressively thrusting her neck forward and banged sharply on the table, palm flat. “Do you think I am blind, do you think I am lying when I say the children cling to her,” she asked shrilly? The children stopped playing and moved quickly towards their father, their eyes wide. “She’s their mother, they’ve been through a lot. Naturally they are close when the only other person around …,” his voice was beginning to rise but then he looked down at the children, and it died down with a low gravelly whir. He bent and held them close, mumbling, “Leave it now, not in front of them.”
“You don’t have to protect them, I won’t ever harm your children,” the old lady screamed. Saurav opened his mouth but didn’t say anything.
Mala remembered the first time she had heard him speak. It was at a seminar, how she had loved his voice, loved him, loved working alongside him. Why hadn’t she stayed on at University, why couldn’t she have managed the pregnancies and the research like other women did. She could at least have continued teaching, she was a good teacher. Maybe her job would have survived the cutbacks even when they stopped funding his.
“How many students do you have,” Saurav’s mother was asking? Before he could answer, she continued, “Fourteen year olds, That’s nice – what is your house like, do you wear a suit to class, much better than those scruffy research clothes, a suit.” Saurav tried to smile in response. Stop asking him about his job, Mala wanted to shout. Can’t you tell that he hates it, that he wants to go back to his lab, don’t you know that he can’t connect to those children, doesn’t know what to say to them, that every day is a humiliation. Her hand trembled and a spot of sambar plopped onto the white, plastic tablecloth with its elaborate pattern of pressed-in flowers and whorls and indents. They all stared at the splash of lentil stew. The old lady began to scold as Mala dabbed at the spot, only to spread the yellow of the turmeric powder, the brown of the ground coriander seeds and the red of dried chillies into an ugly stain. As their grandmother’s voice rose, the children disappeared upstairs. Saurav watched them go, then finished his dinner, head bent and shoulders drooping. Mala wanted to hug him and say, it’s not your fault, you didn’t spill the sambar, I did. But, when they finally were alone neither of them wanted to talk about the bad things so she hadn’t said anything.
She would use her savings and get herself a saucepan tomorrow Mala thought, taking a deep breath to shake off the paralyzing band of tension. Then, ignoring the old lady, she put the stainless steel saucepan on the stove, turned it on, and dipped a ladle into the container of cold milk that she’d placed on the counter. But as she raised the ladle to pour the milk in, the old lady swooped towards her, once again waving the disintegrating non-stick surface at her face. Mala’s back vibrated and cords stood out on her neck. And just like on the day Saurav had visited, her hand shook. A drop of milk splashed onto the counter and another landed on the stove with a hiss. The singed smell of burnt milk entered her nostrils and settled there, an acrid coating over the cloying scent of the old lady’s perfume. Mala returned the ladle to the vessel of cold milk with its dewdrops of condensation and laid her tension-stiff fingers against the chilled, curved surface of the metal container watching how they destroyed the evenness of the clean, trembling frost.
“Don’t use that,” the old lady repeated. And Mala lifted the shiny, stainless steel saucepan, still empty, and now red hot, and swung it towards the old lady ready to ram it into her face. But she smashed it instead onto the granite counter. The metal crumpled and the pan detached from its handle and landed at the old lady’s feet.
When the children scampered in for their cocoa, they found their mother on the floor, laughing with her head in her hands. They climbed on top of her and she rolled over on her back curving her spine to make herself into a boat for them. One day I am going to sail away with them, she thought, as she felt their breath warm on her face.
Indira Chandrasekhar is the founding editor of Out of Print, an online magazine for short fiction from the South Asian subcontinent. She has a Ph.D. in Biophysics and studied the dynamics of biological membranes at research institutes in India, the United States and Switzerland. Her work has appeared, among other places, in The Little Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, and Emprise Review. Pangea: An Anthology of Stories from Around the Globe that she edited with Rebecca Lloyd, will be published by Thames River Press in 2012. Links to her published stories are available on her blog.
Read an interview with Indira here.