When she had woken up this morning, Shashi had realized that she hadn’t had tea the way she liked all of last week. Surjo or Laura had handed her a cup with a tea bag every morning, as they coaxed her to have some breakfast, while rushing through their own. Laura only drank herbal tea—h silent. Surjo had cultivated a daily Starbucks habit because all his colleagues walked in for markets opening with a tall Americano. But tea bags, this idea of tea powder portioned in paper bags, upset Shashi as much as plastic flowers in a nice home. Shashi had never cared much for silk sarees or embroidered bed covers or Swarovski figurines—the things the women at their Delhi dinner parties discussed. When she travelled, she wouldn’t carry any more jewellery than the wedding bangle on her wrist and the pearl studs she always wore in her ears. But a small tin of loose leaf Darjeeling tea from Kolkata’s Shyam Lal & Sons was always in her suitcase.
‘Now you can keep busy with your hobbies,’ Tutu had told her. She was being kind. Shashi knew Tutu had always wished her dear cousin, who she fondly called Robin Bird, had married someone more like her own self. ‘No one knows where the time goes when they’re around,’ Tutu added. This part seemed true. Tutu herself had bloomed after her divorce. Her body had lost its apple-shape, her eyes shone when she spoke about her book club. What were Shashi’s hobbies? Shashi used to graft, even make bonsais. But in the last twenty years, their garden had been overrun with ferns and frangipani. Time showed in their sprawl and girth, in how the delicate green stems were now rough brown trunks, marked with lines, like wrinkles. The frangipani that she had planted when Robi had bought their plot of land in Delhi, even before construction had begun, dropped its rubbery white blooms through most of the year on the grass. Robi liked this. He booked a professional service to maintain their front garden with its perfectly shorn lawn. He made it a practice to plant a ‘Shashi tree’ to mark the start of all his large residential commissions. People said he was devoted to his wife. He liked this too. Shashi grew jasmine, pinwheel and hibiscus behind the kitchen window for the gods on the altar that her mother-in-law had installed in their home on her first visit. Robi didn’t want these bushes in the front garden. They were fragrant but wilful, too temperamental in their flowering patterns. Could she call tending to a handful of plants behind her kitchen window a hobby? Hobbies were for women who smoked and wore sleeveless blouses and had children in their thirties. Shashi did make time for the Sunday crossword—though not on Sunday, of course. There was a time she could have won any movie trivia quiz on the radio, but she was totally out of touch with news from the Hindi film world these days.
How thrilling it had been when she was a schoolgirl, the world of Hindi cinema, of Bombay, of Rajesh Khanna and his white car festooned with pink lipstick marks. Later, in college, she and the other girls would take turns to buy Starglow and read it aloud after the day’s lectures. Most of the leading men were married, the women could never be. After affairs with their married co-stars, they married a film producer and promptly produced a child. They broke the mould on screen, playing political revolutionaries or hiding undercover with a love child, but the personal lives of the rich and glamorous had a set script. Starglow revelled in the details. Such filthy prose! It horrified even Professor Bagchi, who taught them modern literature. The Miss Misstry column painted colourful scenes of scandal. The way the pair met, how film producers were manipulated into shooting in outdoor locations, from Kashmir to the Keukenhof tulip gardens, to allow new lovers new rooms. How the lovers were caught by a make-up artist ‘stuck like two grains of rice’.
Her father-in-law disapproved of Hindi cinema, and so she had stopped bringing the magazine home after she got married. Anyway, Starglow had stopped being what it used to be. Besides, is an encyclopedic knowledge of film trivia even a real hobby? Robi emblazoned the things he was passionate about in their homes and holidays, in the minds of their family and friends. There were so many things he was interested in: football leagues, smoked Japanese whisky, Jamini Roy, Brutalism, The Rolling Stones. When Surjo made his trips back home from Yale, he would plan for weeks on what to buy for Baba. Once he had got him a vintage leather-stamping tool set. He would always bring Shashi gift-packs of hand soap or perfume.
Perhaps tea could have been a hobby, or even a job, had tea tasting been a job appropriate for women. The love for tea had come to Shashi after her wedding. Her own mother had never allowed her to have more than one cup of tea in a day. It would make her dark, like too-hot bath water. Her mother never let her comb her hair back either. A young woman should have her hair parted in the centre in anticipation of getting married, she used to say. One day it would be marked in red by a husband.
In the months immediately following her wedding, back when they still lived in Kolkata, Shashi used to wake up from her afternoon sleep and ponder how she and Robi had come to be put together in this room with its tall almirahs on the first floor of this big house in North Kolkata. She had grown up in rented rooms around the city, a set of three rooms for their family of six. One room for her parents, one that she shared with her Didu and one for her two younger brothers. There were always relatives visiting from her father’s village and they were welcome to stay for as long as their college degrees or doctor’s appointments needed them to. Shashi was used to giving room, sleeping on a mattress that she rolled up in the morning, having fish only once a day, listening to the transistor radio leaning out of the window late in the night, studying while her brothers played. This luxury of a room to herself pleased her. But sometimes she felt terribly alone.
Excerpted from The Illuminated, with permission from HarperCollins India. The book, currently on pre-order, releases on 30 July. Disclaimer: Anindita Ghose, a writer and journalist based in Mumbai, is former editor, Mint Lounge.
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