‘Fat white rice’
The long, drawn sigh was covered up by the sound of the gurgling toilet flush. It came out spontaneously, having no name attached, yet clung on to it was a definitive trail of melancholy. Rubbing hands in the apron, she came out, banging the door behind her. Despondency hung around her, rivaling the pungent odor of cleaning acid. A gaze at the watch revealed a time for a bit of rest, not one that she enjoys a lot; nevertheless, a break and her chance to savor what she toils to earn all day. Keeping the broom and the bottles of phenyl aside, she removed the yellow board that read “temporarily closed for cleaning.” She opened the little door beside the last toilet cubicle. A strong smell of wet brooms, mops, chemicals rushed out.
Peeping from inside is a yellow crumbled bag, knotted tightly on the top. She removed her apron and sat down, folding her legs. On other days, she closed the little door once she entered the space adjacent to the toilet cubicles, but today, she left it open. She drew the bag towards her, and like a baby being caressed by its mother, placed the bag on her lap. Out came a plain steel lunch box with cracks on the side and dented edges. A little bottle rolled out of the bag, water full to the brim but not crystal clear. She opened the lunch box with hands smelling of toilet soap. Divided unequally laid a generous amount of rice – fat white grains with black spots here and there. On the side was a plain curry of potatoes on which she managed to lay some cabbage slices. It’s the same everyday – preparing, packing, and waiting until this time to eat. Loud heels tapped against the shinning floor, exalted laughter, shiny accessories, expensive dresses, and the smell of exotic perfumes and cosmetics kept on filling the outside air. Ladies were entering like towering figures as she sat on the floor, forcing the cold ball of rice into her mouth and keeping her eyes fixed on the wall. Both she and the bathroom’s private walls are strained by the entrances and exits of many. She looked down at the now almost empty box, ran her fingers across its four corners to gather whatever remained.
A horn blared, shattering the silence that was beginning to settle down as a mist upon the mountain roads. Today was warm. A generous streak of sunlight fell near the rear wheels of the truck. At the wheel of the truck, stroking his grey mustache, sat old Nathu. It is the same old path that he had been riding around for fifteen years since he was a boy, carrying lumber from the mountain forests to the town factory. Today was nothing different except that the truck made some screeching noises, and Nathu had to get down to inspect it. As the clanking of the unoiled parts stopped, there was silence at last. Nathu, however, never minded it; after all these years, noisy rides were music to his ears.
He strolled over to the truck’s door and climbed back in, banging the door shut. It would never open with a touch. He reached out for an old fabric bag behind the seat. He could feel the still warm food inside it. He took out a lunch box wrapped in yet another layer of the plastic wrapper with a smile. The bag had something printed on it, but it had faded now owing to the daily lather of oil and tamarind that it must keep off. Inside was packed neatly four thick chapatis and a generous amount of steamed potatoes. Occupying one corner was a piquant patch of pickle made from the pulp of fresh red chilies, dried in the summer sun. The chapatis would often get wet from the condensed steam dropping off the cold lid of the box. On days with less to do, he could afford to leave late for work. In the extra time, his wife preparing a curry with spinach would be a delicacy. Among the day’s shambolic expeditions, the lunch was the only thing that resembled relief. All these years, the lunchbox has remained a constant attachment between the two of them – the neat folds of the chapatis and the tiny bits of coriander leaves sprinkled on the potato mash has always borne a trail of love, the only thing she could provide him, and has done that in abundance.
The wind picked some of the fallen leaves and blew them by the side of his truck window. Fallen from trance, he smacked his lips and licked whatever little was left off his fingers. He packed back the box in its place, and the crumbling of the plastic wrapper sounded incongruous. It was time to go. With a grunting start of the engine, Nathu rattled and jingled away, riding his truck like a chariot king.
Today she would step out for lunch. As she passed by the lunchroom, she glanced through its glass windows. Everyone was laughing, sharing, and enjoying a harmonious ‘lunch.’ For the first couple of days, she had hesitantly eaten lunch at her seat until the stout little guy sitting in her adjacent cubicle coaxed her into joining the rest of the crowd for lunch, to which she complied ingratiatingly.
Everyday office lunch seemed like some kind of performance. There were all sorts of people dabbling into all kinds of acts. For a moment, it would become a debating club, and for the next, it was a place of childlike pranks. There would be stories about families, friends, and work, stories shared about the expectant future, and stories from the life left behind. It wasn’t a place for the left-out loner. Everyone entered with a grin that slowly gave way to laughter. Somehow, happiness always came free with that room. She was the youngest of them all, with hardly any story to share. In her mind, she associated the meal each person brought for lunch with the personalities they are. Lunches were barely exotic but worth a lot of sharing. Cultures of families and kitchens, relationship status, general mood, level of contentiousness is reflected in those neatly packed boxes. Bright colored boxes and Tupperware would pass all around the room, with compliments flying for a certain sandwich or the optimum concoction of spices in a chickpea curry. The office lunchroom was a treat for the stomach and the eyes. She was an audience to all these and would be part of the performance for days to come.
Author: Sebonti Sinha
[Theatre, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, English Literature]
Illustration: TDLM Design Team