Malena Learns the Spices
Balu lay over the quilt. Spring was already here and nearly gone too in between space heaters and drizzle. Neighbourhoods of this sort didn’t have the luck to enjoy the cool breeze of swaying new-leafed trees of the better-off enclaves. The quilt – Malena liked to roll it back during daytime and Balu liked to spread it back later – was necessary because nights still could get chilly without warning. Balu liked lying on the quilt and feeling its warm softness under his thighs while eyeing the ceiling.
Malena guessed Balu wanted to smoke very badly. But for that he’d have to get up and go out. Surely he didn’t want to dress. In his striped pyjamas and yellowing undershirt, he stared time to time at a floor fan whose whirr ruffled his wavy dark hair. His neck slightly hanging from the side of the bed, he scratched his left cheek – dark with the warmth of the day – with his right hand and then twirled a thin silver ring on his right ring finger, a memento from his dead mother. Malena watched his restlessness from the partitioned kitchen.
‘Melon, Balu?’ Malena came in with a large bowl.
That encouraged Balu to sit up. But these were nothing like the watermelons he knew as a growing boy. ‘Did you sprinkle some red pepper powder?’
‘Where d’you learn that?’
‘God, in Madurai! Where else? How many times I have to tell you, Molina?’ He laughed, a little irritably.
In his thirties, he was generally mild-mannered man and rarely got angry. He just worried. And sometimes, he covered up his irritation with a chuckle. This was one such time. The melon slices wet the sides of his mouth as he dug into them one by one, holding them wide at both ends as though he was managing splits. Malena ate hers with a plastic spoon, scooped out.
‘Where did you learn that now?’ Balu pulled her hair with his sticky sugary hands, eager to break the minor impasse.
‘In Anapra, Balu! Where else?’ She smiled, not at all upset. Balu was looking for a new job. She understood what caused him to suddenly turn acidic.
‘Man, it’s hot as if we are in Madurai.’ He looked at the floor fan. ‘And they said it was spring in Jersey City when I came to live here.’
The mention of Madurai made both of them quiet for a while. What was it like there? Malena always wondered and always asked Balu and he always recounted the same things over and over again. Spiralling temples, dung-laden pastures, a musty line of shops, humid sky, red hibiscus bunches, gentle cows. She’d never been there. He hadn’t been there for years. Yet Madurai hovered between them like a temple itself, especially to Malena, regal in description and intimate in its unknown sacred depths.
It came up already the day when Malena and Balu had first met. The wintry wind grabbing Malena’s face at every lash had made her turn towards the only other passenger that was waiting for a late night bus. He was in a shabby dark coat, hair all wild around his frost-bitten temples, the colour of night. Malena hadn’t understood something he said animatedly. ‘No problem.’ He had flashed a very white teethy smile. ‘Even I don’t speak much Hindi,’ he’d said in English.
What Hindi? From where? What was the man saying?
‘I’ve seen you earlier on this route and wondered,’ he continued. ‘Indian woman. Alone at night. Not good. I’m Balu.’ All this he said in a very heavy and strange accent.
She was surprised, as she slowly got what he said. She wasn’t Indian as this man thought. Not, not Indian. ‘Malena. Magdalena,’ she said, unsure whether to shake hands. Her gloves were torn and it was getting colder with the long wait for the bus.
‘What part you from?’
Malena was astonished at how quickly she was getting used to his heavy accent. And he still thought she was from his country? ‘Juarez, Anapra.’
‘What?’ The man suddenly stopped acting familiar. ‘Where’s that?’
‘Ay ay ay.’ Nervous, Malena muttered the word ‘Mexico’ in an inaudible tone, wishing to get away from this strange man. She wasn’t supposed to say all this to a-n-y-o-n-e here. She couldn’t possibly choose to.
He said nothing. Just scratched his hatless head for a while, pushing back the wavy mop from his forehead. Perhaps he was embarrassed, thought Malena. India, did he say? It was somewhere very far away, she knew that much.
‘I’m from Madurai.’ Balu resumed the conversation. It is in the south, he said. Temples dot the town and pigeons fly in hundreds to sit on the exquisitely carved stone relief, as though they were a part of it and have come to life by some magic. Banana trees sway like friendly hands and jasmine garlands in women’s freshly washed hair inhale the depth of the nights. Balu, or Balamurugan was from the pigeons-temple-banana-flowers city of Madurai.
Malena’s bus had arrived by then. They both got into the bus. Both took window seats, one behind the other. Balu sat in front of her. He was sitting sideways, so Malena could see his profile. But he was quiet.
The next day they met again. Same place.
‘Why did you think I was from your place? Or did you?’ Malena’s question made him thoughtful. He rubbed his eyes like a sleepy man.
‘Not from Madurai. I’d know a woman from Madurai the moment I saw her,’ he said assertively, glancing at her face. ‘I thought you were … from … maybe from the hills. Never mind.’
‘That’s okay, you don’t have to pretend!’ She fished out mint drops from her purse while tucking her gloves inside. Suddenly she felt an ease in talking to him. ‘Here, have one.’
For the next three months they rode the same night bus, Balu went on and on about Madurai, how far he was away from there, for how long … the water of Vaigai was in his eyes, or so Malena thought.
‘I’m from the temple city. Used to frolicking in the sacred thousand-pillared hall.’ He sighed. ‘And here I live in a one-windowed hovel in Little India.’ That was when Malena was no longer sitting behind him, but by his side. Then there was that evening she gently touched Balu’s hand. He looked surprised but kept his dark hand curled within hers, as though it was a soft crow fledgling taking refuge under a warm wing. Winter was on the wane then. It was the end of March and thaw was all around, wreaking havoc with the slush. She was in a white dress under her coat, freshly ironed, and wearing a light flowery fragrance. Their breath on the glass window of the bus seemed to create a thin sheath around them, which they liked.
‘Malli!’ He went soft.
Malena understood why he called her Malli or Molina, which he did from the third day of their acquaintance. Although he knew now she was from Mexico he turned her into Molina, which he said could be a name from the eastern hills of his country. Kalimpong. Bhalukpung, Mokokchung. Such were the place names. Musical names.
‘For me you’re ‘Malli’, the lovely jasmine flower. They’re abundant in my city.’
Balu’s Jersey job of a packer in a Kinkos store didn’t dry up the jasmine petals in his head. Rather, that became more pronounced as he fell deeper in love with Malena. Within six months he had asked Malena to move in, apparently quite a daring proposal even to himself. ‘We can do this only in this country. My old mother back home would have kicked me for doing this Malli. But I’m sure she’d have liked you. The poor dead woman.’
Another spring had arrived since she’d started living with Balamurugan from Madurai, who was currently hoping to find another decent job. After all, he had a BA degree in Civil Administration. Malena took a job at India Palace restaurant, close to their place, having dumped the shop assistant’s job at the Dominican place two bus stops away. India Palace? Oh, well.
The usually mild tinkle of the bell above the door when Malena entered the restaurant seemed to ring rather prominently. The inside of this Jersey City Indian eatery was relatively empty, save for the space occupied by the large Mrs Dhanjal who was counting at the cash register – a job leftover from the previous evening.
The still-unfamiliar aroma of cumin was already in the air and Malena knew two of the cooks in the kitchen were busy preparing the spicy pea-potato filling for samosas while another was attending to a frying cauldron bubbling with gradually scorching oil. That reminded her of fresh empanadas taken out on a tiny shop front in downtown Ciudad Juarez by her old neighbour Rafael Acevedo. The whiff of parsley would make her stop to look at the old man’s home-cooked fare. His wife’s strident voice would emerge from the back where he lived in a shack of a house. ‘Hurry up and take the next batch,’ the fifty-year old virago, would yell, ‘You’re late, Rafa!’
‘You’re late by ten minutes Molina,’ said Mrs Dhanjal, without even looking up. She was portly, with a heavily made-up face and a tight nylon Indian dress carving out her middle-aged lumpy belly and bumpy breasts. Malena stopped daydreaming and came back to the air-conditioned, sandalwood smelling, Taj-Mahal-wall-hanging-adorned, sitar-tune-swept interior of the restaurant she’d been working in for the past couple months. She sneezed.
An ornate clock on the restaurant wall quietly chimed eight o’ clock, coinciding with Malena’s sneeze. Mrs Dhanjal slid shut the cash register that jingled loudly with the coppers and dimes accompanied by the ringing of her multi-coloured bangles, a mix of glass and gold.
‘Had to pick up my new clothes from the tailor Madam,’ Malena said putting down her bulky brown five-dollar imitation purse she purchased from Chinatown. Everyone at the restaurant called Mrs Dhanjal ‘madam’ and everyone here called her Molina.
Mrs Dhanjal now looked at Malena. The younger woman was trying to pin her slippery dupatta on both her shoulders. Her pleasant plumpness appeared seductive under the bright polyester outfit with its generous neckline and well-cut A-line sides. The short sleeves highlighted her strong smooth pale-brown arms while the loose salwars fell comfortably around her ankles right above a pair of buckled high-heeled shoes.
‘Those are a bit showy.’ Mrs Dhanjal was not known to shower unconditional praise. She wanted Malena to wear plain sandals, Indian-style. ‘Now, remember to practice your ‘shukriyaa’ every now and then. We have lot of ‘angrez’ clientele that love to hear that.’
Malena nodded. She took her Hindi phrasebook with Spanish translations to Imran the head cook. Directing Gurnaam to add a touch of asafoetida to the potatoes, Imran listened to Malena.
‘You’re doing it fine, Molina beti,’ the fifty-something cook said. ‘Don’t kill your sleep over this. That you’re trying should make everyone realise its worth.’
‘I’m always scared someone might find me out and send me back.’
‘Find out how? That you don’t speak like people from my pind? God knows even my own son doesn’t speak like that.’
Imran’s explanation took Malena back to her own pind. She started dreaming of steaming frijoles soup and fresh guacamole with crispy tostadas for snacks. Even huevos motulenos to be had after waking up.
Ay ay ay.’ She nodded. She's looking for her pind.
Nabina Das is the author of a poetry collection Into the Migrant City (Writers Workshop, 2013) and a short fiction collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped, LiFi Publications, 2013-14. A 2012 Charles Wallace Fellow in Creative Writing, University of Stirling, UK, and a 2012 Sangam House Lavanya Sankaran Fiction Fellow, India, her debut poetry collection Blue Vessel, Zaporogue Press, Denmark was listed as one of the best of 2012 in India. Her debut novel Footprints in the Bajra, Cedar Books, 2010 has received critical acclaim, while Nabina’s poetry and prose have been published in several international journals and anthologies. An MFA from Rutgers University, US, a Linguistics & English MA from JNU, Delhi, a 2007 Joan Jakobson (Wesleyan University) and a Julio Lobo fiction scholarship winner (Lesley University), Nabina has worked as a journalist and media person in India and the US. She teaches Creative Writing in classrooms and workshops and occasionally blogs at nabinadas13.wordpress.com.