Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Of tea and coconuts

Our domestic help (wonder if there is a better term) in Calcutta knows that "didi" (elder sister, referring to me) lives abroad, and visits occasionally. I had never met her prior to a recent trip, but heard many interesting things about her. A woman in her twenties, she went ahead and had her system ligated after she was forced to conceive. These are stories you typically do not hear every day, even among the upper and empowered classes. 

Now this is not your average hourly help in the US who shows up in their car, cleans your mansion in silence, and leaves. Growing up with temporary help (those who do not live with us, but show up for a few hours every day) has been an essential part of my life in India. She is a little different though. She hates missing work. While every household complains of domestic help gone missing from time to time, this was surprising. I later learnt that every morning she arrives, ma makes fresh and hot rotis and curry, and feeds her a proper breakfast. Food is a great incentive, naturally. She was so happy to see us when we arrived from our week-long family trip earlier. "Chhuti nitey bhalo lagena tomar?" (Don't you like vacations?), I had asked. 

I am not a tea/coffee addict, and drink it only when I have company. She drinks a different kind of tea than the rest of my family. Her's is boiled with milk, spices, and ground cardamom, and I love that kind of tea. Every morning, she and I would sit and drink our cup of tea, chatting up. She talked about her family, her desher bari, and so many other things that I listened to with great interest. She now knows that I love coconuts, especially green coconuts, and she already got me some from the neighbor's tree. 

As I am getting used to the comfort of drinking piping hot cardamom tea every morning and chatting up, she disappears. She calls ma to inform us that her one-year old is suffering from measles, and she will have to stay home. This being a contagious disease, ma asks her to take her time until the little one gets well. With my tea drinking buddy gone, I have lost my motivation of drinking tea. I am leaving in two days, and will probably not meet her anytime soon. I miss her funny stories and her energy. I wish I could meet and say goodbye once.

As if hearing my thoughts, she rings the bell one morning. She is lugging a huge bag, and I rush downstairs to see what the matter is. She is looking haggard, like she hasn't slept in a long time. She is wearing her usual nightdress with the dupatta thrown in. It might seem a weird dress combination to someone not used to this, but this sight of wearing a nightie and throwing in a dupatta before you go outside is pretty common in Calcutta. She places the huge bag on the floor, careful not to touch me so that I do not catch measles germs. She knows that I am leaving soon, so she got me six coconuts. These are not coconuts really, but a stage between the green coconut and the ripe coconut (something she calls "laava", and not a daab or a narkol, although I have never heard of the word before). She got hold of the neighbor guy, bargained prices, and bought me six of these. These originally have a thicker shell that I am not so good at removing (I can break coconuts though), and she takes time to remove the shells, so that all I have to do is split these open. These have a very tasty, soft and white flesh (shNaash), and a lot of sweet water inside, much more than an average coconut does. She hands me these, wishes me luck, and leaves. I tell her that I have missed drinking tea with her, and she says that she hasn't even had the cardamom tea ever since. She has a sick baby waiting at home, and tells me that she felt conscious walking on the streets, not having combed her hair or preened up like she does. She still got me the coconuts though, taking me by surprise.

In my Calcutta trip, love has come to me in all shapes and sizes and ages and circumstances, and I have received it with open arms. Neighbors feeding me whatever they cook on a daily basis (kumro, chalta, tyangra), because I do not get to eat all this in Germany. Strangers (strangers to me, not to my parents) bringing me narkol naadu. People showing up to tie my sari, because I am not good at tying one. Friends inviting me home and cooking my favorite food. Friends calling me cabs because they have discount coupons that would save me some money. And I continue to accept love with gratitude, enriched by the daily life experiences of the immediate people in my life, collecting all the stories they tell me, creating memories, and feeling the magic of this place. 

Breaking a coconut to that.