by Nabeela Maswood

The water for the tea needed to be at near-boil, Masha thought while she stood over the stove. She rubbed a hand against her forehead, moving away the lock of hair that kept on falling over her face, tormenting her. She huffed and then pulled her curls back in a tight knot, resembling Buddha’s knot on the top of her head, lips pursed in concentration. The temperature had to be exactly right, she thought turning on the stove. Tea, to her was a ceremony. Making it. Serving it. Drinking it. It was an obsession to her. Her escape. She had the right utensils for it too, Masha thought, rinsing the clear glass pot (brewing in the metal ones always muddied the flavor she had found) with fresh water and then, filling it up. She mounted the clear glass pot of water on the stove. Now, all she had to do was, wait for it to come to a boil. It also gave her time to think; to remember. She looked into the pot holding the just-simmering water, like a seer gazing into a seeing-bowl, the wafting cloud of vapor sinking into her pores, making her light-headed. The water in the clear bottomed glass pot was remarkably still yet and acted as a looking glass for the woman standing over it. When the light hit it a certain way, you could see all the colors of a rainbow in it. She had been making tea since she had been very young; having discovered that it’s brewing process helped her achieve an almost zen-like calm – throughout her parents’ tumulus marriage.

Masha now saw how it had helped her compartmentalize her emotions when accusations flew like hand bombs in an active warzone. When they had fought, she had made tea for her hapless, (foolish, and often spineless, she had privately thought) mother, nursing her through particularly bad fights. Her father, it had seemed to her, had taken such words very literally. Her mother would sit at the oval glass table in their dining room, with an ice pack against her bruises, spewing her anger at the daughter of the man responsible for her misery, while the daughter in question had made tea in utter silence. She had made it for her mother who had stubbornly clung to a man when he had chosen others over her, repeatedly citing the sanctity of marriage. It’s significance in their religion. The importance of marriage and its role in familial bindings had been a particular favorite topic of hers. Well, that and the evils of zena, which Masha had found out, when she was much older, had meant extra-marital affairs. God, she had said, was the only one who loved her, the only one who she had loved, to her eight year old daughter. The woman had found her peace in God, when she couldn’t find it anywhere else. Masha knew her mother often would be found lying prostrate, in shazdah for hours, weeping in front of her deity of smoke and mirrors. She had raced from dargah to dargah, where the Holy Men would try and interpret for her God’s will – pouring money and time into finding Him. Her husband had suffered from black magic, one such pir had said, and her mother had given more money and the other had claimed that her mother was suffering for the sins of her parents – money had to be spent to be rid of it. Masha’s mother had poured money, time and faith into it all, although for what, nobody yet knew. Her daughter though, was far more practical – It had seem to her that her mother was an escapist willing to believe anything and anyone, to block out that her own marriage was a baseless basket. The self-sacrificing act of her mother’s seemed to her was the smoke screen put up by a spineless woman who didn’t quite understand the meaning of standing up against what’s wrong. Masha hadn’t seen a victim – She had seen a woman not strong enough to step up to claim her own life; incapable of walking out of a farcical marriage. A woman unable to face the cowardice in herself so, she had used Masha’s being there as her excuse for staying, all the while blaming her daughter in the same breath for being trapped in a household that she called her cage. Like an animal, she had growled, often and repeatedly. She had stayed so that Masha would have a chance to be married and married well, she had sniped. Did she even understand the sacrifice her mother was making day in and day out for her? Masha however had silently made tea which in her mother’s household had become with time, the cure for all that ailed. She had made tea while plates had flown in the dining room. While voices shook with rage and hurled abuses. While her mother had clung on to the door, sobbing as her father had walked out on them to be with someone else for the nth time. She had made it again as her mother victoriously stood to welcome his nonchalant return weeks later, to his rightful family, she had proclaimed proudly; every time. She had made tea while her mother had wept on the phone to her grandmother, talking about how she had just stayed back for her ungrateful daughter. The daughter, she claimed, was the bane of her existence. If only she had a son, she had moaned. If only there had been a son instead of the useless daughter she had, maybe her husband would treat her better. In some ways Masha preferred her distant, icy father more. He was more intelligent, talking to his daughter like he would with strangers, upon occasions. She could talk to him, and he was rational and she had never heard him claim that a son would make it better. There was no explaining it to her mother though. Can’t argue with the ignorant, she had shrugged. Masha had kept on brewing the tea leaves through it all, her escape from all that was bad. How very English of them, Masha had thought, the sting of the memory dulled by time.     

Then tea had come to her aid again, when Ashique had come to see her just after she had started university. He had been years older than the 19 years old girl holding the customary cups of tea in a flowered tray. She had been serene where others, far older than her were nervous. Coherent, where the other girls he had seen had stammered. In short, she was the most composed young woman Ashique had met since he had embarked on that particular journey and a part of him had been intrigued. He had complimented her on the cups of tea she had brought for him and his family who had come looking for a prospective bride for their very accomplished son. Ashique had looked at the wide-eyed young girl and had probably seen a family. A home. Or maybe, she thought smiling, a way to get his parents off his back. For Masha it had been far less complicated, she had seen the wisecracking bespeckled man with a kind faced and seen her way out. Her father had smiled, the satisfaction of his daughter married off to an established member of the society, the son of a well-known doctor, a banker himself. One less responsibility, he had thought. Her mother had beamed. To her, it had seemed as if her God had finally lifted the burden off of her very frail, long-suffering shoulders. Masha had serenely walked into her husband’s loving home knowing that it meant she had finally earned her freedom. She hadn’t looked back since then. The water was boiling, she noticed with a start, as thicker plumes of vapor rose with an almost gleeful rapidity, laying pearly condensations on her lips and the tip of her nose. She reached into the pale golden wooden shelves at her side and took down a jar of loose Assamese tea and quickly added 2 tablespoon of it to the seething liquid, watching in mute fascination as the color of the brew changed, deepening. The fragrance drifted into the air and hung for a moment, reminding her of oranges and cloves, acting as her escape into another reality.

Ashique looked in to see her lost in her own world again, brows drawn together. Nose scrunched. A scientist conducting an important chemical experiment; he laughed silently at the imagery and walked away towards their room. He had been charmed by this quietly intelligent girl who to him had become the other half of him. Her serene practicality had been the perfect foil to his dreamer. Her rationality complimented his frivolous outrageousness. She had been a quiet support whenever he had wanted to take a life-changing decision. When Ashique had wanted to continue with music along with his career at the bank, Masha had smiled and nodded, instead of cringing, of fearing the society as his parents had direly warned. Instead, she had told him silently that it was okay. She didn’t mind that he was cutting their own time together short. Ashique was a very social man; another key difference between the two of them, he had thought affectionately. Masha, while taciturn, had always warmly welcomed all his friends into their home in all hours of the day and night. He remembered how once a friend had come in at 2 AM  Masha had promptly gotten up and had gone off to make tea for him. Ashique had smiled. Who else was that lucky? He, to his surprise, still retained all the freedom he had before his marriage. Masha never asked him why he went out so frequently, when he did so alone. When she went out with him, she was charming, warm and witty. She never complained that he came home late. Or, was mistrustful, about the nights he chose to stay over with friends instead of coming home.

His parents had intervened at the beginning but Masha had quickly told them that she was fine with it – the ring of truth in her words silencing them; surprising them with her maturity and her ability to understand him so well. They had steered clear of his personal doings since then. With her he had never needed to be mature or even grow up. She had taken all the tough decisions for them. She solved all her personal crises her own way – Ashique had never needed to play knight to his damsel-in-distress. He just wasn’t the sort. Wasn’t it amazing how well she understood it? An independent woman, in a land filled with so many dependent ones, Ashique had enthused. There had been a night; he thought affectionately, that she had been running a fever. Ashique had known that he should probably sit in with her. But he had a meeting in the morning. She had made it easy for him, wishing him goodnight, Masha had gone off to sleep in the other room, saying that she didn’t wish for him to come down with the same flu. He had been inwardly grateful. There was work, then, there was this show coming up. Ashique hadn’t wanted to miss either. Wasn’t it considerate of her to understand as much? Ashique’s friends believed that he had hit a home-run where Masha was concerned. He himself just knew that he wouldn’t find anyone better, who loved him more, or even understood him better if he had set out to find a wife himself instead of giving into parental desires and reluctantly going off to see a girl nearly ten years younger than him. She never complained. Never fought, or even had temper tantrums unlike so many of his friends or their wives. Ashique never liked those and being the baby of the family, he had suffered through very little of them. To think that it had all started with the cup of tea she had served him. It had been the best he ever had, and he had told her so. Had surprised himself as his breath caught when her lips had parted and she had rewarded him with the most brilliant smile that he had ever seen. Ashique had known at that very instant that she was his cuppa… tea.

 She looked into the simmering liquid again. Harry Potter had his Pensieve, she had thought, laughter gurgling at her throat and Masha had her tea. Coming from where she had, Masha’s expectation from her marriage was particularly low. She hadn’t quite expected blows – well, of physical variety anyway but neither had she expected the loving husband that fate had furnished her with. The husband she didn’t quite… want. Not that he was intolerable or unworthy; hardly. Maybe he was too perfect. The affectionate husband that Masha didn’t quite understand; something a part of her didn’t even believe in. The loving arms, the joyous attention – they all had quickly gotten to her. She had just wanted her peace. To be left alone. So she welcomed all the guests who would come into their house all hours of the day. At least then, she would be able to have some alone time away from him. Then came a day that he had wanted to talk and Masha had walked in expecting nothing good, really. Ashique, it turned out, had wanted to carry on with his passion for music and had asked her about it. It was surprising for Masha to be consulted and as he had regretfully informed her that he wouldn’t be home very much, her cup of happiness had overflown. Peace, again. So she had quickly nodded, not unable to quite suppress the joy in her eyes. Alone, again. Masha liked the anonymity of crowds. Of getting lost in them. Her husband always knew the biggest crowds, something Masha valued about him. Then, there was his habit of staying over at certain friends’ houses. Her mother-in-law had been a particular harbinger-of-doom, about men and about their love of the forbidden. For Masha, who was used to the idea of men being away for weeks at a time, her husband staying over somewhere else had been pleasant change of pace. She would then have the house to herself again. Alone. So she had told them, quite truthfully that her husband was free to live as he wanted to, she didn’t mind at all. She really didn’t. She didn’t know just how her words had been interpreted but the news of her maturity had spread with her in-laws; her father-in-law going as far as to say that she was the anchor his flighty son had needed in his rootless existence. Masha wasn’t quite sure that she understood the concept but nor had she argued. She was just content with the status quo.  

The tea was boiling in an almost centrifugal motion, she noticed through the clear walls of the pot, like a voyeur peeping into something she shouldn’t be seeing. It was one of the reason she had bought the pot – to see the process. The leaves were right at the core, helping the color to diffuse in the water, to give the liquid its distinctiveness – not unlike her life for the past two years. Maybe she had been the water, to Ashique’s tea. He had made sure that she continued her education, the least he could do for her he had said, laughing. Masha had gone on to finish her Bachelors, while her husband had encouraged in his own way, when he hadn’t been too involved in his own life and his passions. His friends, his music and his life. She hadn’t really bothered to be part of it from the inside and oddly enough, he hadn’t noticed. Ashique was too lost in the fairytale of their marriage to see the unsteady nucleus of it. Something she had welcomed. Like the tea leaves in water, steeping in heat of time, she had grown stronger, gained her own identity. She had her graduation the same night as his band’s show – Ashique wasn’t able to make it. The night she had gotten her job offer, Ashique had been busy with work and hadn’t come home after a call from friends. They were going to stay over at someone’s place. Boys will be boys, he had laughingly said over the phone. Masha had smiled and hung up after saying her goodbyes. The tea was done, she noticed and turned off the flame and allowed the leaves to cool a little, to imbue the liquid with its full flavor.

Masha washed the spoons and a teapot with warm water, knowing that leaving them cold would immediately cause the temperature to drop in the brew, ruining it. She then poured the tea in the just-warmed teapot, bringing out a jar of sugar, a carafe of warm milk and set out a tray with cookies, nimkis, which were her husband’s favorite and carried it into their room where he sat. “Tea, for me?” he asked sunnily, head still bobbing to a music that was on somewhere. Masha smiled and nodded her head as she simultaneously lowered the tray on the bed as he sat up, pleased. She poured the tea through a sieve, marveling how the same leaves, that were the heart of the drink was discarded now that the tea was done. She added the milk and the sugar and served him his cheerfully, which he deemed (as ever) perfect. Funny, she noted, how there was a time for everything to be discarded, when they were not of use any longer. An expiry period, after the optimum result had been achieved. These tea leaves would be good as plant fertilizers perhaps, she thought, as Ashique munched on another cookie, dunking it in the tea with much relish – But, these leaves were no good to a tea once it was done, ever again. Ashique grinned and started telling her about a friend and his newest conquest, about a show they would play in next week and Masha looked on, seemingly engrossed; there were all those clothes she had to pack tonight.

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