CREATIVE FICTION | Coffee Jazz by Resham Bhattacharya
There are certain things that Mayuri will never share with anyone. Like, for example, how she watches YouTube videos late into the night, stowing herself and her laptop away in the bathroom, away from Vishal’s snuffling snores and midnight jabs to the shin. Or, how she secrets chocolate wrappers and ice cream tubs beneath the bed after yet another midday bingeing session where she has stood in front of the fridge, wolfing down food in such vast quantities that she hasn’t even tasted it, or how disappointed she has been when once again, the food has failed to do its job. Or, how - when the stars and the moons have aligned and the baby gives her permission - she lies in bed for hours and hours upon end once Vishal has left for work (and she has been the good wife and packed him his tiffin and made him his breakfast and even chopped up the vegetables for dinner). Or, how she declines calls from her family, her mother, her sister, her mother-in-law but stays glued to the social media stories of very distant, very famous people that she doesn’t know and never will. Or, how she doesn’t answer her family’s messages but directly messages nearly all the people that she follows with her own daily news. No one answers, of course, no one looks. There’s safety in that. And the other thing that Mayuri will simply not tell is how it takes godlike effort to peel back the covers, sleepwalk into the shower, stand there while being blasted by hot needles of water, get dressed and then leave the house. That first step down the stairs is excruciating. No one will ever know that by the time Mayuri has made it down the path, onto the bus, onto the tram, onto the train, down the walkway, up the escalators and back again outside that she has already spent the energy that she has shored up for the day. They will never know that when she orders herself the full-fat iced coffee and the cream cake, she is awarding herself a prize for having made it thus far.
This is the first time, since Anouk’s birth that Mayuri is meeting friends outside the confines of the four walls of her once-swanky service apartment that family life has wasted no time in turning shabby. Now that she is here, and the soft sound of inoffensive, coffee-jazz envelops her in a sense of metropolitan order, she is delighted with herself. She is delighted with Anouk. After endless months of feeling off-centre, she feels calm.
But, within the first fifteen minutes, it’s clear that there has been an imperceptible but nonetheless palpable shift, a groundswell. The Moon has shifted a hair’s breadth closer to the Earth and now, in the distance, tsunamis are raging. A lump of lead lands in her stomach, a drop of dread. Alliances have shifted and the whole frenzied business of forging friendships will have to begin again.
Rhea is drinking something green, matcha something-or-other. Mayuri’s frothy, creamy coffee with its generous drizzle of caramel stands in front of her. It spells failure. Rhea checks her phone, picking it up when the well of conversation truly runs dry. She glances at it, out of the corner of her eye when Mayuri is talking.
“Just checking the time!” She says brightly.
“Just checking the time!” She says brightly.
In her bassinet, Anouk stretches and mewls at the clatter of cups and plates. The lead in Mayuri’s stomach is a time bomb now. At any moment Anouk will explode.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Vishal was meant to look after Anouk. Before the baby arrived, he’d told her that on Fridays he would work from home. For the first two months, Mayuri hadn’t taken him up on it. Days and nights had blurred into one giant, living Impressionist painting. It wasn’t until later that she realized there Vishal had only taken one day of paternity leave. Had Anouk not been blessedly born on a Saturday, Vishal would have probably worked a half day on the day of her birth as well. But finally, finally, the fog was lifting, she was able to do more than strap the baby to her person and venture out for groceries. Anouk eventually allowed herself to be placed in the pram. After a long, trundling walk, she even accepted sleep. Sleep had made all the difference.
Mayuri had woken up in the morning, filled with a sense of promise until she realized that Vishal was showering and changing as if for any other day at the office. He had forgotten to bring his laptop home.
“Can’t you just reschedule Rhea?” He had bellowed from the bathroom.
No. Rhea’s messages over WhatsApp had made all the difference during those long, never-ending nights. It had been wonderful to know that someone in this city, beyond the four walls of their poky little flat was asking after her.
The effervescent Rhea had bubbled into Mayuri’s life and had borne her away. They had met at what Rhea had dubbed a ‘purdah party’. The men and women had both entered together but immediately they had parted ways, with the husbands going right to the meaty snacks, the wine, the whiskey, the Modi chat and the YouTube videos while the wives turned left into the bedroom where the hostess herself dozed out of exhaustion. She had been - Rhea and Mayuri had concurred - little more than a child. They tutted to themselves, covered her in a candy pink Hello Kitty blanket and ducked out of the door and walked the length and breadth of the neighborhood. They had returned reluctantly but not without making plans to meet up before the week was out. In Rhea, Mayuri had found fresh air. A companion eager to visit art galleries and little Japanese tea rooms that Vishal dubbed an extravagance. Rhea, Mayuri learned was the kind of person who didn’t just pose outside the Sagrada Familia but actually went inside it. Rhea was the kind of person that said things like the “Sagrada really made you understand that a cathedral is meant to be a forest”. Mayuri desperately wanted to go to Barcelona with Rhea and her husband, Akash, except that Rhea had already been before and she wasn’t the kind of person who would ever visit anywhere twice because there was so much to see and life waits for no man. Or woman.
And then, of course, Mayuri had fallen pregnant.
Rhea had been magnificent. Nothing had changed between them. They went on their usual walks and Rhea and Aakash had even kindly invited Mayuri and Vishal to Croatia with them where they planned to travel to all of the Game of Thrones’ locations. They had had to turn it down of course because what with her preternaturally large bump, sciatica and pelvic girdle pain, a thirteen hour drive would have been too much for Mayuri.
Nowadays Mayuri’s days revolved around feeding, pumping, sterilising, nappy changes, naps, trips to the supermarket to stock up on food (and her secret chocolate) and an almost never-ending litany of messages from concerned relatives telling her that she was doing virtually everything wrong. How Anouk was too small, too dark and too - as her mother put it - underdeveloped. From time to time, Rhea would call and Mayuri would fail to pick up. She would message later, worried that she was being a flaky friend. She didn’t want to lose Rhea, she was the only anchor she had. Now that she was here, Mayuri felt that she was boring her. Heck, she felt like she was boring herself. Rhea’s gaze had the feel and the warmth of the sun. Now that she has turned it away, Mayuri feels the cold.
It is March and unseasonably warm. Sweat prickles on her skin, she can feel the moistness pool in her armpits. She can see beads of sweat forming on Anouk’s forehead. Mayuri knows she should take Anouk’s jacket off. But she doesn’t. She does not want to invite squall. Rhea looks suspiciously at the grizzling infant. She tries to hide it but the suspicion is there. Mayuri can read it on her face, in that almost imperceptible furrow that has appeared between her eyebrows. That is how Mayuri knows that she will have to begin again.
“So, how’s it going?” Rhea asks, for the fifth time. The conversation has kept stalling and they have kept on returning to the beginning.
“Well, you know…” Mayuri trails off, not for the first time. Where would she even begin? The birth of Anouk was cataclysmic, all she can do is talk about that but everything she has said so far has made that little furrow on Rhea’s face carve itself a little deeper. What can she say because along with the nightmarish horror and pain of it all, she is - approximately every five minutes - swept away by a tidal wave of fascination and something akin to falling in love for the first time. Suspended between exhaustion and euphoria, Mayuri feels like she has a new skin. She wonders if Rhea is willing to wait until it thickens.
At the end, Rhea’s matcha is still pooling a little pond in the bottom of her cup. They hug goodbye. The messages on WhatsApp keep coming.
Hey, how’s it’s going? Just checking in!
Hey, how’s it’s going? Just checking in!
But Rhea herself is not there. She is everywhere else though and Facebook is keen to document her every move. Celebrating at a Holi parties, Midsummer Mashes, playing with sindoor at what Mayuri can only surmise to be a ‘Puja party’, Diwali parties, Thanksgiving parties, Christmas parties and New Year’s parties; each party kitted out with flower walls, and photo booths. Each time, Rhea is at the heart of the frame, her burnished limbs looped around various necks, each time with a ‘gal gang’. These are parties to which either Mayuri is not invited or which Vishal attends while she stays home with the baby or parties where she walks around the edges with Anouk perched on her hip, older now and demanding to be entertained and held constantly. No one asks her to be in the photo.
Rhea sends ‘Happy Women’s Day’ messages, messages where women are multi-armed goddesses. Bibs, bottles and laptop all firing away at once. She checks in and checks in again. A rare dinner - which causes Mayuri to have butterflies of anticipation flutter in her stomach for days beforehand - at Rhea and Akash’s is punctuated by Anouk’s relentless cries. Mayuri spends the evening in their impeccably and tastefully decorated bedroom feeding Anouk to sleep, over and over again because Anouk insists upon waking the moment she is laid down on the crisp Egyptian cotton. Lying down next to her daughter on the cool sheets (clean to the touch, not soaked in a must of milk unlike her own sheets at home) Mayuri finds her mind turning to thoughts of the women that she has turned away from.
Maya, whom she had met within days of arriving, lived on the same floor. She still did. After days of meeting in Maya’s flat where her son’s toys lay strewn on the floor, they eventually ventured out for coffee. It was not to be the leisurely afternoon of tranquility that Mayuri had envisaged. Rhea had come too. Maya’s son did not want to confined to the caramel coloured seats. He had no time for coffee jazz. Maya had been on edge throughout and eventually thrown up her hands in a resigned sort of fashion.
“I have to go back home, Amit will be home. I have to prepare dinner”, she had said.
“Dinner!” Mayuri had exclaimed laughing. “It’s just three!”
“Amit is home by six”.
“ Ya, take it easy, no?”
“Nahi yaar. He’s very particular, he likes dinner to be ready by the time he walks in”. Maya had left in a flurry of prams and bags, her raincoat wafting a faint scent of garam masala, ghee and asafoetida in her wake.
“Excuse me! But which century are we living in?” Mayuri had rolled her eyes as soon as the doors swung shut.
“Too much. Really!” Rhea had nodded.
“These women make life so hard for themselves”.
The baby stirs. She can’t leave her yet. Mayuri hears Vishal’s amusement thrill through the door. Akash is a colleague. They see each other often enough but neither can get enough of shop talk. Rhea would work too, if she could. If, the visa situation permitted. But she knows everything. She and Akash had met at work, they had been friends first. Unlike Mayuri, she can contribute.
Mayuri’s mind turns once again, it returns her to the air conditioned staffroom of the elite school where she once worked.
It had been Indira’s last day. She would be joining her husband in Australia. Everyone had been excited for her. Mayuri was next in line. She had already been speaking to Vishal for months. Even in bed, at night, softly whispering while her mother lay next to her. Amidst the ebullience, Sonali had played spoilsport. She had drawn Indira to one side, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” She had asked. Apparently, she had hissed. She had upset Indira terribly. Oblivious to the upset that she was causing, Sonali had persisted. “Have you really given it proper thought? You worked so hard. You will be leaving all this behind”. She had gestured to the room around them but Indira hadn’t seen it with her eyes. Hers had fallen on the stacks of marking. She had felt the biting chill of the AC that was always turned up too high and gave them the flu in the height of summer. Sonali was clearly seeing something else. Later, she had ROFLed over WhatsApp. She was ON something else! Sonali’s husband had gone on-site, he was living in Canada and while they each travelled back and forth during the holidays, neither had moved to join the other permanently. For some unfathomable reason, Sonali preferred the daily slog of auto-rickshaws and buses, squeezing up cheek by jowl against all and sundry, emerging with the imprints of someone else’s rucksack etched onto her face.
Mayuri missed Sonali now. What would she think now, she wondered, if Mayuri was to suddenly Whatsapp her out of the blue, to tell her that she was right. That beginning again was so hard, that perhaps her leap of faith hasn’t worked out quite as she had imagined.
“Do you want to go to the playground?” Mayuri asks.
Anouk has recently turned three. She sounds like Peppa Pig. She even has the boots to match.
“Yes Mummy Pig”.
“ Not Mummy Pig. Mumma”.
The playground is mostly free which is miraculous because spring is in the air. It’s warm with a riptide of breeze. The kind that makes Mayuri take off her own jacket while zipping up Anouk’s.
Anouk naturally heads to the swing. The baby swing is free and for that Mayuri thanks her lucky stars but the sun, the moon and all the satellites.
“Legs in, legs out”, Mayuri intones.
“Legs in, legs out”, Anouk repeats.
The swing next to Anouk’s is free and handily, one that will accommodate adults. Even adults who haven’t lost the baby weight.
“Legs in, legs out”, Mayuri chants, rising into the sky. The magnolias are already singing their swan song while the cherry blossom trees in the courtyard have just unfurled their buds. They have a handful of days to throw themselves around the city before spring rises into summer.
About the Writer :
Born in Kolkata but brought up in Cambridge, Resham’s writing seeks to try and make sense of the immigrant experience. Resham recently contributed to ‘She Speaks’, a collection of short stories written by twenty women of Indian origin living, learning and working from all around the world. Resham currently lives in Zurich with her husband and two children. You can follow Resham and her writing on Instagram where she records her experiences of raising ‘Third Culture Kids’ using the handle @themigratorymum.