Short Story: Boiled Rice and Daal

When I moved to Bangalore from my small village in Karnataka, everyone in my family was excited. I was the first kid to move to the big city and that too, after securing a job. Let me rephrase that. I was the first girl child to move to the big city after procuring a job instead of getting married soon after my degree. There were a few neighbours and relatives who tried to advice my father that educating a girl too much was not a good idea, that I would never return to my village, that the city would change me, and that I might even find myself a boyfriend. "What if she gets addicted to the fast pace of city life? What if she refuses to come back and marry a nice boy? How will you even find a suitable boy from our community who lives in the city and earns more than her?", were just some of the questions asked. "Don't worry about finding a guy who earns more than me.", I said. I was after all, just a simple primary school teacher. It was a big deal to my dad nevertheless.

Geetha akka was the first friend I made in the city. She was the senior teacher of the Primary section. We primary teachers generally handle all the subjects for our kids. Math, Science, Social Science, English, everything. So each class has a class teacher and the class teacher pretty much takes care of everything. Which is why we have only one senior teacher as opposed to the Heads of Departments that senior classes have.

When I first moved to the city, I was staying in a working women's hostel and life was good. I'd wake up in the morning, get dressed for work, have breakfast from the hostel mess, go to work, have lunch from the school canteen, return to the hostel for tea and snacks, have dinner from the mess and sleep in peace. But when I met Geetha akka, my life changed. I'm still not sure if it changed for the better. She was a fifty something single woman who never married. She claimed this was because she was a feminist but I never got what feminism had to do with the decision to get married. Rumours were that she was engaged twice in her life and both times, the grooms' families broke off the engagements because the bride was too...I don't know how to translate this word from my mother-tongue but let's just call it arrogance for now. And from the minute I met her, I kind of knew what those people were talking about. She's not a very likeable person, you see. Every time you say something even mildly amusing, her shrill laughter would pierce through the air. But sometimes when you cross her by making a suggestion for improvement, or try disagreeing with one of her ideas, the same shrill laughter would almost render you deaf. Then, she'd pat you on the back and say, "It's funny how you try." before storming out of the room in clear contempt. She has this inexplicable knack of making you feel like shit. On my first day at work, she asked me who my favourite writer was. I said Tagore. She asked me which one of his poems was my favourite. I said I was never that into poetry so I don't remember any of his poems. Then she started raising her voice a little bit so all the other teachers could hear the rest of the conversation.

"Okay. So you don't like poetry. But have you read Chokher Bali? I find it extraordinary."

By now, I was aware of every single person in the staff room listening to this conversation.

"No. Sorry. I haven't read it yet.", I mumbled.

"Then tell me your favourite work by Tagore.", she said with a piercing gaze, much like her laugh.

I froze. My brain froze. Every single eye in the room was on me. And I couldn't, for the life of me, remember the name of a single novel or story by Tagore. "I...I can't remember...", I muttered and she just nodded her head in fake sympathy. Or was it fake disappointment? All I knew was that she was relishing every bit of this especially since she was aware of her audience. But that's okay. Her audience had gone through much worse individually and no one was particularly fond of her.

For the Christmas Day celebration at the school, the Primary kids were putting up a skit. The Nativity Scene. Which meant that we teachers had to work our asses off getting the script, the kids, the costumes and the props together. The kid we'd selected to act as Joseph was a very good actor but she wasn't too fluent in English. She, like me, was a small town girl who'd just moved to the city. But she was smart and talented, and was perfect for the role. We teachers decided that we'd help her with her dialogues and get her to speak fluently. She definitely had the potential for improvement. But in the initial stages of the rehearsal, she'd make a face while reciting her dialogues. She'd protrude her lips and widen her eyes while speaking. It was only because she concentrating on what she was saying and trying really hard not to make mistakes. We'd correct her from time to time but the face kept coming up. A week before the programme, Geetha akka, the senior teacher decided to come to the rehearsal so she could see the progress. The poor child got tensed and made the face throughout. Geetha akka was aware of her situation but she openly insulted the kid for her sloppy pronunciations. I was praying that she wouldn't comment on the face. But soon after she was done screaming at the kid, she turned around to face us and the rest of the students. Then she made the face herself. The children roared with laughter and the little girl stood on the other side, feeling mortified. We had to find someone to replace her the next day.

The frustrating bit was that this woman also had some good in her. I think. I mean, like everything else with her, you don't want to cross her even when she's doing you a favour. You want to shut up and accept the favour and later, show gratitude for it. You just cannot say "no" to this woman. And I know this isn't just me. Nobody says no to her because everyone just wants to be left alone. Like when she offers me a lift to my hostel, I don't say no. I'd rather not spend a twenty minute car ride with her after a six hour work day but I shut up and accept her favour. So when she asked me to move in with her and share the rent, I couldn't say no. I was working under her, after all.

"We can share the rent and utilities and it'll be way cheaper than the hostel for you. Plus, you get to have home cooked meals! I can drive you to and from work everyday as well. You'll have to contribute to the petrol of course but isn't this great? And you're a grown woman with a stable job. It's about time you got a place of your own.", she said. "But I don't want to cook. And I really don't want to be with you 24X7.", I thought to myself. A week later, I moved in with her.

When she mentioned that I could finally have some home cooked meals, a part of me truly wished that she was a great cook and enjoyed feeding people. But according to our schedule, she made breakfast and I had to cook dinner. We had lunch from the canteen. So basically, instead of lazing around with a cup of tea and a few snacks in the evening like I did back in the hostel, I now had to return home to cook a meal for two. A meal that was more often than not criticised albeit passive-aggressively.

"I like how the rice adds crunch to the daal. This must be a delicacy in your village, no?"

"Sorry, I got a bit careless. Next time I'll make sure it's well cooked."

And the breakfasts she made mostly comprised of sandwiches and toasts. Man, I should have asked her if I could take over breakfast. I didn't even mind waking up a little early to make some proper dosas.

This went on for a year and a half. My parents were happy because they thought I was earning enough to afford a flat in Bangalore and they could even tell everyone that their daughter was still safe as she was living with a nice elderly lady. Honestly, this flat was so tiny that it kind of qualified as a studio apartment. And we shared a bedroom and a bathroom. I really missed my old hostel room! I didn't have personal space here and I was more like a maid to her as all the cleaning up happened after dinner, and guess who was making dinner everyday.

One morning, while I was having the toast she made for breakfast, she said she needed to go to the bathroom. She looked like she wasn't doing so great. But that's a part of the routine usually so I didn't bother. I mean, the part where she goes into the toilet to get ready for work after making breakfast. But this morning, something seemed weird. We were getting late for work and I could hear that she still hadn't started the shower inside. I was too scared to say anything so I decided to wait patiently. Finally, when we had less than 15 minutes left before classes started, I gently knocked on the door. No response. So I knocked harder. Still no response. I called out to her a couple of times and then figured out that she had probably passed out in there. I immediately called an ambulance and started using a coin to turn the knob that had been locked from the inside. By the time the ambulance arrived, I'd managed to unlock the door. The sight that awaited me was this: Geetha akka passed out on the floor, her bare bottom exposed and facing me. I flushed the toilet while she was being carried to the ambulance.

Everything was quick. 10 minutes after we reached the hospital, the doctor pronounced her dead. It was a heart attack, he said.

"This happens sometimes when you suffer from constipation or indigestion. You tend to use force and pressure on the toilet and if your age and diet is not in your favour, sometimes, very rarely though, you get a heart attack. Some speculate that this is what happened to Elvis Presley remember? Moreover, in the case of your friend, we found that she had some undigested food in her stomach. Rice. You see, the outer cellulose coating of rice is what protects the grain. So when consumed raw, it doesn't get digested so well. Your friend was getting old and maybe she was constantly consuming this rice that wasn't properly cooked and while this isn't a common was just bad luck. She had a heart attack while she know..."

"She...died", I thought. Of a heart attack. While she was pooping. And the "delicacy" from my village may even have been responsible for it. She died on her porcelain throne because of the rice I cooked every night.

Her sister came over to collect her belongings, most of which got donated. The books went to the school library, the clothes went to the poor et cetera. They held a memorial at the school where the Principal called it a "heart attack". "While pooping", I added in my head. And I moved back to my hostel. Life is good again but God, I'm never cooking rice again.

Photo credit: gwen via / CC BY-NC-ND