Short story: Payasam by Vaishnavi Sreenivas
The curly white shavings fell in clumps onto the metal plate with each aggressive scraping. Slender hands grasped the coconut shell and with mechanical motions scraped it on the sharp edge of the grater. She sat crouched on the narrow wooden board and wiped away a stray bead of sweat from her brows. Her long thick hair was knotted into a low bun and her starched white mundu had stains of coal on it. Despite being tired from cooking since morning, Devi had a shy smile lingering on her lips as she picked up the plate of coconut shreds. The big mound of shredded coconut was set aside and she blew through a long pipe into the fireplace to get the fire started. She set the vessel of water to boil on the fire stove and dissolved two handfuls of ada in it. The preparations for the Ada Payasam had just begun.
Vishu was the day when Devi took control of the entire kitchen. She would have wrapped up lunch with a simple milk payasam, but today was extra special. Ada Pradhaman was his favorite. She wanted to take her time and celebrate this year’s Vishu in the most auspicious way. She had arranged a beautiful Vishukkani for herself and her three kids before the first ray of sunlight and had given each of them five paisas, which was much more their usual Vishukkaineettam (pocket money given on Vishu). It had been a whole year since she had enthusiastically taken part in the preparatory activities in her kitchen. She took the vessel off the stove when the water started boiling, set it on the slab and covered it with a small plate. The ada had to soak in it for a while. She looked down at her charcoal stained mundu and the old blouse she was wearing. It was almost noon and she needed to change. ‘Ammini, ithuonnunokkike!’ She called out to her maid who was sweeping the ground right outside the kitchen back door, asking her to keep an eye on the preparations while she changed.
She ran through the kitchen doors to the inner ara. Her henna painted feet skipped across the polished black stone floors and the clinking anklets came to an abrupt halt on the wooden boards of her bedroom. Her daughter had laid out a beautiful, cream-white settu saree with a dark green blouse for her. She held the saree on her and looked at her reflection in the oval mirror leaning against the wall. The woman standing in the mirror looked very young. Days without him were adding more years to her face than time, but today the sleepless darkness around her eyes was replaced by a heavenly glow, the gold border of the saree throwing a faint glow on her creamy skin. She closed her eyes and reminisced how she’d stood before the steps of the house for the first time, next to him, holding the lighted nilavilakku. She’d taken her first step into the threshold with her right foot, her fingers tightly entwined with his. The saree she was holding in her hands was a gift from him on their wedding day. She opened her eyes and wiped away the droplets of tears that were threatening to spill onto the spotless fabric.
The sound of chatter and laughter from the window distracted her and she looked outside. Her boy of five and girl of ten were playing with some other children near the house. ‘Makkale,’ she called out to them. ‘Don’t dirty your new clothes.’ An annoyed reply of consent came back amidst the peals of laughter and shouts. She laughed at them and closed the windows and started wrapping her saree. Two small drops of gold were hanging on her ears and she re-adjusted her thali (wedding chain) to make it more visible on her chest. Her fingers rubbed a thin line of kohl into her lower waterline and she applied the sandalwood paste on her forehead. The hint of red on her parted hair was clearer today. She looked at her hands and the missing bangles on her wrists brought a sense of dread. She would have to tell him that she’d lost them. He would be upset but not as upset as he would have been had he known what actually happened to them.
It had only been a week since her brother had come to visit. He had convinced her of his unsteady financial situation and how he and his family were suffering because of money issues. He had sucked out her sympathy with utmost ease. The evening had ended with her lending him her bangles and his returning to the house with a strong odour of alcohol on his breath. She knew her bangles were gone forever, but he was after all her elder brother. How could she say something to him? She shook her bare wrist uneasily and wracked her brain for excuses regarding the missing bangles. He always said he loved to see the golden bangles play on her wrist. She giggled at the thought and then sighed at her empty wrists. A sweet smell in the air caught her attention and she got up to head back towards the kitchen.
Ammini and she squeezed the coconut shreds into another vessel to take out the first batch of the thick milk. They were talking about Ammini’s daughter’s marriage. ‘How is she finding her new home, Ammini?’ ‘Oh chechi, she says she is doing quite fine there. She says her new mother-in-law is slightly quarrelsome though.’ Her voice, despite her casual words had a hint of concern. ‘Oh yes, that does happen most of the time now doesn’t it? I’m sure there is nothing to worry about. How is her husband though?’ Devi’s voice had more than a slight tinge of excitement for this question. ‘He is a sweetheart, chechi. I’m sure they are going to be like Shiva and Parvati. Just like you and your husband.’ Ammini laughed as she saw her mistress’s face go red. They laughed together and started squeezing the coconut shreds again into a new vessel to take out the second batch of thin milk. While Ammini finished taking out the milk, Devi set up the frying pan on the fire stove and emptied the ada into it with a dash of coconut oil. As she watched the puffy white ada sizzling in the pan, her mind travelled back in time. The last time he had left home. It had been extremely difficult for her that time. But she had always sworn that she would never let him see tears in her eyes, especially when he left. A rough tug at her saree end pulled her back from her reveries. Her little brown boy stood with a huge grin on his face, pulling at the end of his shorts. ‘Achan?’ He tilted his head and pushed out his lips. ‘Anytime now mone. Don’t get too dirty.’ She wiped off the patches of dirt from his face and bare stomach. Satisfied with the answer he bolted through the open door.
Turning back to the sizzling pan, she poured in water and soaked jaggery. The back and forth of the wooden ladle made a familiar rhythm with the pan. She wished he had come during lunch. She had prepared a full sadya and had cut out and set aside a huge banana leaf, just in case. She had sent out a neighbourhood boy to buy some firecrackers for the night. Her children had been asking for them for a long time now. Tonight he would be there, so she was not too worried.
The frothy mix in the pan was getting denser and she called out to Ammini to get the batch of thin milk. As the milk was poured in, the mix gave off a mouth-watering aroma. The colours blended into an appetizing shade of apricot orange. What if he doesn’t like the Payasam? He wouldn’t say anything of course. He never complained about anything she cooked. But that would be even worse. She collected a small droplet from the ladle onto her cupped palm and licked it with the tip of her tongue. The taste brought back her smile and she sighed with relief. ‘Get the thick milk.’ Ammini set down the fan and brought back the vessel with the first batch of the coconut milk. Along with the milk Devi threw in some coconut bits and some cashew nuts. Watching the Payasam boil and take form, a strange sense of calm dawned on her.
The liquid bubbled and turned. Streams of cream and peach colours swirled, forming concentric circles with the occasional bubbles that burst. Devi stood fixed on her spot, staring deep into the milky mixture. A lifetime could pass by watching this, she thought. The same sickly sweet aroma wafted strongly into her nostrils and she could almost taste it. The strong vapours caressed her face and the heat made her close her eyes. Flashes of images projected onto her eyelids. The smile on his face after the first slurp, her children licking their lips, her wiping traces of the sweet liquid from her son’s torso. Same images, different years. The concept of time might as well have slipped away gently amidst the sweet memories which seemed to swirl into one, as did the ingredients in the Payasam. She had never felt loneliness. Even in his absence she felt comforted by him.
As a kid Devi had never really felt alone. Her parents made sure their children didn’t have to go through any trouble and pampered them throughout. When they were looking for a suitable groom for their young daughter, that was the main criteria they had in mind. They needed someone who would take care of Devi like they had and would never let her face any kind of difficulty. On the day of their marriage he had made this promise to her parents and Devi. Even though he had spent more time away from her than with her in their entire married life, he had never let go of this promise. She would never have to face the coldness and cruelties of life. He had always shielded her from everything. So she felt lucky. And happy. But she wished he would stay. With three children growing up in such a hurry she wished he was there with them, to watch them grow, especially her little boy who was growing up to look more and more like his father.
The sun was moving down now. A stray beam fell on her eyes and she squinted to look out the window. It was late in the noon. Maybe she should let her children and the house helps eat their lunch now. He was clearly running late. She called out to Ammini to get the food ready and call the children. While setting the banana leaves on the floor of the dining hall, Ammini asked whether she should lay out one for Devi. ‘No, I will eat after my husband arrives. I don’t feel that hungry anyway.’ She felt tired all of a sudden and turned her attention back to the big cauldron of boiling Payasam inside it. It was almost done. She took a small spoonful and tasted it. As the sweet broth ran through her taste buds her first reaction was of relaxed satisfaction. This was good. All the flavours seemed equally balanced, in perfect ratio. She smiled to herself as she lifted the cauldron off the coal stove and set it aside on the platform. After she covered it with a lid to let it cool, she made her way into the dining hall. Her children had already begun the meal and were enjoying the wide variety of dishes served while animatedly telling stories to each other and Ammini.
‘Amma, Appu was telling me that he saw a group of baby crocodiles at the far end of the mango grove in the lake! I want to see them too!’ The little boy was so excited and talking with a mouth full of food. ‘What rubbish! That neighbourhood boy will tell you all kinds of stories and you believe it all? Don’t be stupid.’ Kavita, the middle child, rolled her eyes at her brother. ‘Oh don’t talk like that to your brother. Maybe there are crocodiles in the lake now.’ Devi sat by the window and watched her noisy children. “Yes, it’s true. You don’t know anything chechi.” the boy pouted and looked to his mother for further confirmation. ‘How about this? When your father arrives, you can ask him to take you to the end of the mango grove near the lake and you can find out if these crocodiles are real or if they’re another one of Appu’s stories!’ Devi coddled her son quite to the annoyance of Kavita who continued to roll her eyes. ‘That’s true, and you can take Kavita along with you so that you can prove it to her also.’ The eldest chimed in, trying to humour her brother, ‘Yes. Let Achan get here.’ The boy seemed satisfied with this and turned all his attention to the food now.
Devi looked fondly at her children and took a deep breath. Things were good, she told herself. She closed her eyes and turned her face towards the window. There was someone walking in the distance. Through the leaves the pattern of the uniform and the suitcase that was swinging in his hands could be seen. Devi was on her feet and slowly moving towards the threshold of the house, her eyes intently following the figure making his way towards their house. He smiled widely as he got closer and waved his hands at her. She clung to the iron grills of the gate like a shy bride and smiled through the hot tears forming in her eyes. She quickly wiped them away with the ends of her saree and walked towards her husband. There seemed to be a shine on his dark face. His eyes were bright and wide with the mischievous glint just like the day of their marriage. He looked oddly younger than ever to her. The wrinkles under his eyes and his forehead that was drawing out his age the day he had left home seemed to have been smoothened out. He looked so young and fresh. His smile was so innocent and comforting. He walked right up to her and looked at her, deep into her eyes. She felt that everyone in the neighbourhood was watching them and she should just lead him inside but his gaze locked with hers; she froze to the very spot. She felt as though they’d been standing there for hours. He gently held her hand and started towards the house again. He looked down at her arms and asked, ‘Where are your bangles?’
She opened her eyes. She was still sitting near the window. Her children were almost done with lunch. The sun had moved further down. The path leading to their house was still clear. She looked down at her arms and sighed. What would she tell him? Her heart fell at the thought of upsetting him as soon as he came and she clutched her hands helplessly. Maybe she was over thinking. He might not even notice immediately. She could cover her arm with the pallu of her saree or something. But with each passing minute all she wanted was to see him, the worries about the bangles were melting away.
Her children were done with food and were going towards the kitchen to discard the banana leaves and wash their hands. Ammini was escorting the little boy outside, following him with his banana leaf. Dazed, Devi looked out of the window again and caught a glance of someone walking down the road to the house, this time for real. She didn’t waste another moment. As soon as she glimpsed the green and brown of the shirt on the visitor, ‘Serve the Payasam!’ she called out to Ammini and ran through the house clutching at her saree.
She felt like she could hear the faint clinking of bells from the nearby temple and her heart was playing the mrudangam with it. She stopped herself by clutching on to the iron grills at the threshold of the entrance. Trying to catch her breath she looked expectantly at the man walking up to her. The uniform was the same and so was the suitcase clutched in his hands. She felt her heart stop when she looked at his face. ‘Is this the house of Captain Madhavan Nair?’ The stranger asked. She stared at him blankly. ‘Ma’am?’ She curtly nodded in agreement. ‘Could you tell me who you are please?’ The dread on his face made her feel like she was dissolving. ‘His wife.’ Her voice was barely audible. ‘I’m really sorry ma’am to inform you this. There was a natural calamity in one of our rescue missions. Your husband was very brave and had set out to help a few trapped locals, but…’ She couldn’t hear anything anymore. Inside, Ammini poured the hot Payasam into two aluminium tumblers, ready to be served.
Vaishnavi Sreenivas is a twenty year old English Graduate from Ashoka University with a penchant for stories; both reading and writing them. While her general interests range from horror movies to watching short films on YouTube to gossiping with friends, what stayed common was her fascination with stories and their narrative styles. In the time she has remaining from juggling classes, social life, sleep and constant worrying about the future, she likes to try to squeeze in time for her singing but mostly ends up watching Netflix.