Milky Tea & Vodka
It is strange walking into a house that I have known to be empty for more than a decade now. While it looks no different from before, it possesses the previously absent essence of homeliness, like it has been lived-in for years. As if Mrs. Chitra Deewaker was here all along. The walls of the renovated pre-Independence structure are thick, with a tangle of ivy creepers climbing up one side. It has been tamed and pruned but not cut down. The windows are tall and wide. Mrs. Deewaker is not expecting me, but she is unsurprised and delighted upon my arrival. It is a cloudy day, and the air is still.
She has Maan, the cook, make us two cups of tea with lemon and honey. We sit on the small porch outside. She talks about how Dehradun is finally descending into monsoon, and how excited she is to see it once again. I sip my tea and listen intently as she talks, slurping hers uncomfortably with a straw. She doesn’t complain, and tries not to make much contact with the cup. Despite her effort, some does spill over.
She sighs. “I’m so sorry, Vanya. Would you please hand me a towel from the kitchen?” I proceed to help. “At some point you become comfortable with asking for help even if it goes against instinct,” she continues. “There’s only so much I can do any more.” She glances at my keyboard in silence. Then, she asks, “Will you play something for me?”
I begin rather nervously. I make an ungraceful attempt at correcting the too-fast tempo and feel myself loosen up a bit. At first, there is nothing more than the need for accuracy, and the anxiety of achieving it. Slowly, however, the notes unravel and my hands find themselves in a familiar, unexpected comfort. There is something about the ease with which my fingers know which key to touch to make the tune follow – something not purely evocative, but definitely soothing. Reassuring. Missing a note at one point, I cringe visibly, but continue the rest of the song steadily enough.
When I am done, slightly abashed, it comforts me to see Mrs. Deewaker smiling. “I’m rusty,” I explain.
“No worries,” she says. “Thank you, dear.”
I retreat to my tea.
“My husband used to play the guitar. He was terrible.” I laugh. “He still learned a few songs for me when I was pregnant with my son. He had a lovely, deep voice, but he sang in broken notes. Not a gifted musician, but a dedicated one. He really did try.” She smiles, her eyes far away. “Far from perfect but wonderful. And in the end, we’re all only human.”
“Mom told me what happened. The heart attack, all those years ago.”
“Yes. We lost him too soon.”
I shift in my seat. Too soon. I think of my father, rotting in his grave at forty-seven. He had plans to go to France for his 50th. He wanted to see the Louvre. Too soon. I feel sick to my stomach as I think about it. What I could have done. How I could’ve stopped him. My body quivers. Too soon.
I stand uncomfortably. “It’s going to rain soon. I should probably head back.”
Mrs. Deewaker blinks up at my tall, slender figure. Her eyes are unfocused and cloudy. Her hands are shaking in her lap, in the cradle of her pink cotton shirt.
“Vanya. Sit down for a moment.” Her voice is calm, free of turmoil. Attentive. Far from its usual breeziness. “I’d like to ask for a favour.”
I am skeptical but I go ahead. “Okay.” I mumble, my spine tingling warily.
“I have some things I need to tell some people.” She says, rather ominously. “I wish I could do it myself but…” She looks down at her hands, sputtering grotesquely like the failing lives of dying sparrows. “I can’t. I require somebody. Like you.”
My mouth feels dry. “I don’t understand.”
“I have a few letters to write to my son,” she rephrases. “For whenever it’s time, you know. He probably won’t be here when it happens.”
And all of a sudden, Mrs. Chitra Deewaker is older. The suppleness of her smile is replaced by a dull weight that won’t give. Her eyes are fractured lighthouses. She is just a shriveled woman in a wheelchair with a body beyond her grasp. Someone who drinks weak tea from a straw in moments of sadness and joy alike. Someone who has swallowed her pride like it is the sun, and has learnt to beg for help with her throat scorching.
“Aunty, this is very personal. I don’t think I could intrude…” I am saying, but she shakes her head before I can continue.
“It is very personal. These letters are meant for Raghav and no one else, which is why I need someone I can trust to write them down. Someone who can be discreet, who has nothing to gain from my past.”
“Why not talk to someone you know? Don’t you think that’ll be more comfortable?”
She laughs, “Oh Vanya, if only you knew.” She turns away from me. “Everyone’s an opportunist, a gossiper. They’re all looking to snatch whatever they can get. Vultures, all of them.”
I lace my fingers together, my body stiffer with each word.
“I’ve been betrayed by family more than once. I am not willing to take that risk again.” She looks at me, almost pleading. “It won’t be much work, dear. Just a few pages, I promise.”
“It’s not the pages I’m worried about, aunty. I just don’t know if I can take the responsibility.”
“You can,” she assures. “I know I can trust you, Vanya. That is enough for me. Besides, we have an understanding. Don’t we?”
A little struck by the implied connection, I choose not to answer her question. Instead, I ask. “Are you sure?”
“I am,” she says, with simple, sturdy certainty. Her tone loses a little of its heaviness. “I assure you. This is no small matter to me.”
I never really tell her “yes”. I just stand up, and ask her when she’d like to see me next.
“I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. How does Tuesday morning sound?”
“Tuesday’s difficult. I have my first language class, and I’m meeting a friend afterwards.” Varun has been insisting that we go bowling.
“Oh, that’s lovely. Wednesday then.” She says. Then, an afterthought, “What language are you learning?”
I strap my keyboard bag onto my shoulder. “French.” Something occurs to me. “What do I tell my mother?”
She thinks for a second. “Tell her I’m teaching you how to make my Kerala stew.”
Rhea Sharma is a student, pursuing her Bachelors’ degree in English Literature with a minor in Mild Semi-Regular Existentialism. Though her family is from all over, she spent the greater part of her life in the cosy city of Dehradun. Always an avid reader, she started writing in fifth grade, and fell unequivocally in love with poetry. She turned her attention towards fiction in her late teens. When she’s not working with words, Rhea spends her time singing (and is attempting to learn the ukulele). She likes indie-folk music, eucalyptus trees and light, frothy coffee. This is her first book.
Excerpted with permission from Milky Tea & Vodka by Rhea Sharma, TTT Books, available online and at your nearest bookstore.