Postcard from Jonai

Roopa Menon

She came one winter morning with the mist. I remember the sky was the color of a smooth and glassy obsidian stone. My husband and two-year-old son were fast asleep when I rolled out of my bed and stumbled through the cold stone floor and opened the creaky wooden door that wailed like a soul trapped in an attic.

There she stood. A tiny woman with a face aged and lined like an ancient mountain and the body of an emaciated child.

“Yes?” 

The tiny woman smiled revealing a toothless mouth and grinned and uttered. “Nomoskar. Moi-Tha-haya.”

I shook my head.

“Moi-Tha-Haya,” she repeated. Her voice trembled as a cold wind cut through her sari-covered head. The veins on her hand started to bulge as she pulled the sari and wrapped it closer around her neck and shoulders.

“Oopis Bolo.” She mumbled and pointed in the direction of my husband’s office building in Jonai, which was the regional bank headquarters.

“Office? You are here to clean?” I said gesturing with my hand. I remembered that my husband had informed me that one of his staff had arranged a local cleaning lady for me. 

She nodded.

“Moi-Tha-haya.” She repeated.

I nodded. I assumed Moi-Tha-haya was her name as I led her inside. She followed me to the kitchen which was so cold that I could barely speak without emitting wisps of smoke. I looked for a bundle of twigs and leaves to kindle the hearth to make some tea, but I realized that I had run out of wood.

 “Moi-Tha-haya,” she piped and adjusted her sari and wound the free end of the sari tightly around her face like a mask, and scampered out of the kitchen door into the mist. Ten minutes later, she emerged, her face flushed like a dry prune, and a huge bundle of twigs and leaves strapped on her bent back like a knapsack. Moi-Tha-Haya crumbled enough twigs and stuck into the hearth and lit it. Then, she placed a kettle of water and took some cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger and crushed it, and put it into the kettle. A little later, she added tea leaves, cold milk stored in the icebox, and sugar and let it brew till it was creamy brown in color and smelled like rice pudding. Moi-Tha-Haya and I drank the tea and watched the sunrise over the snow fringed Himalayan peaks in the far distance.

For the next three months, Moi-Tha-Haya would make her way to my home in the milky dawn light and leave my house as the sun crept overhead. I didn’t speak Assamese and she only spoke Assamese. Despite that, we understood each other. Even my two-year-old son began to recognize Moi-Tha-Haya and greeted her with a series of garbled words and giggles every time he spotted her. Only my husband never met Moi-Tha-Haya. She would be out haggling with the vegetable and fruit sellers in the local market by the time he woke up and left for the office, and she would be gone by the time he returned home, which was when a molten gold sun hovered over the western sky. But Moi-Tha-Haya was as alive and a living and breathing person for him as she was for me.

She even made her family recipe of Aloo Bilahi Maas which was Assamese fish curry with potatoes and tomatoes for me. I still remember the day. She had returned from the market with a large fish with glistening silvery scales, pink gills and bulging eyes. Sitting on a tiny rock outside the kitchen, she skinned and chopped the fish and cleaned it until its flesh had a rosy flush. Then like a head cook presiding over a feast, she chopped the vegetables, and ground the fragrant masalas and darted around the kitchen while I remained seated on the kitchen stool. As the curry bubbled and simmered in the vessel, she would make a loud whistling noise and beam at me. The day I tried Aloo Bilahi Maas was one day I didn’t think of my home. In this tangy and mild-flavored curry prepared by Moi-Tha-Haya, I found pieces of my family, friends, and home. Those days I barely wept.

Then, one day, just after Moi-Tha-Haya had left, my husband returned home, looking disturbed. I could feel the tremble in his fingers as he handed me his briefcase. Then, he yanked at his tie and unbuttoned the first two buttons of shirt and shut the door quietly behind. 

“Be quiet. Do we have enough food to eat for the next three days and candles at our disposal?” He asked before peering through the sides of the door. 

“Yes. I believe so.  Moi-tha-haya just made a big bowl of her famous Aloo Bilaahi Maas. I know how much you love it…”

“Shhh..” he said. “Be quiet.”

“What happened?”

“A riot has broken loose in the town following the arrest of the local Maoist head. A couple of Maoists burnt down the local police station in protest. There is a curfew in the whole area.”

 “When did all this happen? I hope Moi-Tha-Haya is ok and has reached home safely.” I said.

“Well, I hope she is ok too.” He said as he reached for his packet of cigarettes. 

That night, I could barely enjoy the Aloo Bilahi Maas, and the deathly silence punctuated by gunshots and screams and the tapping of my husband’s cigarettes on the ashtray only added to my discomfort. The only soothing sound was of my baby’s heavy breathing and the occasional crackle of the transistor radio. The next morning, Moi-Tha-Haya didn’t come.

 “How do you expect her to come with the riot and curfew? Don’t worry, she will return as soon as things go back to normal.” My husband comforted me.

Time seemed to stretch and stretch like a sagging rubber band. And I couldn’t bring myself to stop thinking about Moi-Tha-Haya. Her scent of aged mustard oil followed me throughout the house. Was she ok? Did she reach home safely?

On the third night, my husband and I were huddled next to the dimly lit lantern, polishing off the last of the Aloo Bilahi Maas with rice, when he turned to me and asked.  

“I have always wanted to ask you. Why do you keep calling her Moi-Tha-Haya? Is that her dak name…I mean her nickname?

“No. Moi-Tha-Haya is her name,” I said as I mixed the rice and curry.

My husband shook his head. “No, it is not. Basu said her name is Anoumi.” 

“No. I don’t think so. She introduced herself as Moi-Tha-Haya. That was the first thing she told me. ‘Nomoskar. Moi- Tha-Haya.’”

My husband didn’t say anything, and he finished his meal while I enjoyed the last of the Bilahi Maas. Later, while I was washing up, he wandered into the kitchen with a cigarette in one hand and his ashtray in another. He set the ashtray on the table and blew a couple of pale blue smoke rings in the air before turning to me with a pensive look in his eyes. In the flickering moth blue candlelight, he looked otherworldly. “You know there was one more thing, Basu told me. I don’t know if I told you.  Anoumi has a lisp. She says ‘th’ for ‘s’. Did you ever notice it?”

“No, I didn’t. We barely communicated, Ram.” 

My husband grunted as he stubbed the cigarette in the ashtray. “I was just wondering, perhaps do you think– she meant to say, Moi-Sahayya, which means I can help or Can I help in Assamese?”

I dried the plates one by one and put them in the cupboard.

“Now that you say. I am wondering too. It is possible, isn’t it? God! What a fool I am.” I slumped onto the kitchen chair. 

“Well, anyway, it does make for an extraordinary story.” My husband guffawed. “Anyway, you can ask her yourself tomorrow. According to the radio, the curfew has been lifted. While you are at it, my dear Moi-Tha-Haya, do get that recipe of Aloo Bilahi Maas from her and learn to make it. It is so delicious.” 

I looked outside. The mist with its shadowy fingers had started to tiptoe in and form a curtain around our house, and I wondered if it was a sign as I walked to my room.

                                      *   *   *

Roopa Menon likes to type all her stories on her phone. When she is not busy chasing after her 7-year-old daughter or dreaming up stories, you will find her buried in her kindle, staring into space, or reading tarot cards (not necessarily in that order). Some of her short stories have been published in, Corium magazine, Tiny Molecules, Fewer than 500, and elsewhere.

 Her middle-grade fiction, Chandu and the Super Set of Parents has just been published by Fitzroy Books. She lives in Dubai, UAE.

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