All these memories and more the steam tries to evoke in the man. His mother discarding all her used leaves on festivals, even scooping out a few spoonfuls of sugar to sweeten the tea. Padmini pressing her lips against the metal rim, laughing as she offers him the tumbler stained with unnatural red. Kavita trying to keep her dupatta from falling off as she bends down, passing the kettle from hand to hand so as to not burn her fingers.
A breath of exhaled air emerges from the mans nostrils, fraying the steam into strands. The strands shimmer for a second, then fade away.
IT HAD BEEN almost eleven years now that Mrs. Asrani had been bringing Vishnu his morning tea. Before that, it had been Tall Ganga for whom she had brought the tea, the old woman who had slept on the landing between the ground and first floors since as far back as anyone could remember. One day, Tall Ganga had announced to Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani that she would no longer be bringing them their milk bottles in the morning or cleaning their dishes in the afternoon. She had finally saved up enough money to have the last of her daughters married and would be going back to her village to live out the rest of her days with her eldest son. It would be Vishnu who would be taking over these duties in a week, and sleeping on the landing as well, so they should pay Vishnu and bring the tea and leftover chapatis for him after she had left.
The news had been received with dismay by both Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani. The problem was that Vishnu was a drunk, lolling around every afternoon on the small ground-floor landing that was a few steps above the street. They had entreated Tall Ganga to find a more reliable replacement, to leave their milk bottles and dishes in better hands. "Youve been staying here with us all these years," Mrs. Pathak had reminded her reproachfully. "Surely you owe us this much."
The last statement had outraged Tall Ganga. "What do you think, Ive been staying here due to your generosity? I came here long before you did, Pathak memsahib. Every family thats ever lived in this building has eaten off dishes washed by my hands. I may not be rich like you, but I have more right to be here than anyone in this building!" The hot tears in Tall Gangas eyes had silenced both Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani. Tall Ganga had straightened out from her old womans stoop and stretched to her full height, until her head was actually pinning the sari covering her hair against the ceiling. "Ive already given my word to Vishnu," she had declared, staring down at them, "that he is to be my replacement. And I hope, as the person who brought the milk that your children grew up on, that you will preserve my dignity." Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani had been unable to do anything but nod their heads. It was only later, when Vishnu was entrenched on the new landing, that they learned from the cigarettewalla downstairs that Tall Ganga had exacted the sum of two thousand rupees from Vishnu to designate him as the official replacement.
Within a week, it had become clear that Vishnu was not cut out to perform the duties of a ganga. The milk bottles, if delivered, would arrive late in the afternoon, their blue foil caps bulging from the pressure of the curdled milk inside. The dishwashing was a disaster, with pots dented, cups chipped, and plates covered with grease stacked up in the kitchen cupboards. Once, Mrs. Asrani had screamed upon finding a giant green cockroach with white innards squished between two dishes in the cupboard theyd had okra the night before, and Vishnu had left an entire pod stuck to a plate. And almost every day, Vishnu would "borrow" a tumbler for his evening drink and Mr. Pathak or Mr. Asrani would have to go down to the landing to retrieve it. ("Glass affects the alcohol, sahib, gives it more of a kick.")
opyright Manil Suri, 1999. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, WW Norton.
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