“Tea, Kaapi?” she asked her cousin and her cousin’s husband. They responded with tea. All the better, her coffee grounds were running low. Radhika went into her stores and took out the large metal tin that held the roasted tea leaves. She got her plentiful supply from her employer, who rewarded the workers a half kilo bag once every few months. She probably picked some of these leaves herself and she knew her employer was not giving her anything close to the premium teas they exported to foreigners. That’s what the milk, sugar, ginger and cardamom were for.
Her cousin joined her in the kitchen a moment later, remarking how fresh the tea thuul smelled. To Radhika’s eyes, her cousin hadn’t changed one bit. Sure she’d lost some weight and looked a bit darker than when she lived just one street over, but that was over two decades ago.
“Here,” Radhika handed her cousin, Danu, a stainless steel pot. “Put about 3 cups of water in it.”
“It’s so cold up here, Radhi” her cousin remarked. “Was Malaipur always this cold? My bones aren’t as used to the chill nowadays.”
“Don’t worry, it won’t feel cold once you drink this tea,” Radhika smirked, lighting the stove.
Radhika’s house sat nestled in the hills by a tea plantation. Neat rows of hedges lined the sides of the gentle valley where clouds whispered through the crevices of the land moving as slowly as the idyllic townsfolk. Apart from the one time she moved from her parents house down the street to her husbands, Radhika rarely left Malaipur. A half century in one place, the thought irked her. Of course, she left the town for visits, but they were far too infrequent, and besides, she liked the quiet life she lived here.
Danu helped mince the ginger while Radhika squatted near the grinding stone to crush a few pods of cardamom.
“How is everyone? How’s your mother, son, daughter, everybody?” Radhika asked over the grate of the milling rock. “There must be good news, I saw you smiling when you turned the street.”
Her cousin giggled. “I’ll tell you soon enough when we have a moment.” She tossed the ginger into the heating liquid. Radhika followed with the crushed cardamom, glad that the act of sharing a kitchen still felt familiar, something she had grown to miss over the years. She had gotten used to the camaraderie of her sister-in-laws but even after all this time, it felt different. She didn’t have the little jokes, or the familiar nicknames like how she called her cousin Danu instead of Darani and how her cousin called her Radhi instead of Radhika. It just wasn’t the same.
“Mother’s doing well. Her health is somewhat stable and she’s eating again. The children are doing well,” she said, trying to hide another smile.
Radhika scooped a few spoons of the ground tea into the water when it began to boil.
“Mmm, I miss that smell,” Danu remarked. “The tea in the city is not this good, akka.”
“When are you moving back? We can have tea like this every day.” Radhika teased. When she attended Danus’ sons’ wedding in the city, her cousin swore up and down that the city life was wearing on her, that she would return to the hillside town she was born in as soon as the wedding was over. That was three years and one grandson ago.
“You know I can’t leave little Abloo,” Danu smiled, referring to her grandsons’ nickname.
Radhika laughed. “Every few years you say you miss this town and want to move back and then you inevitably find a reason to stay. If I was awaiting your return, I’d be exasperated.”
“Is that right? And what about the sister who says she wants to move closer to me and never comes to visit?” Danu retorted.
“I’m too busy here, the hours at the tea farm are unpredictable and you know how my husband is about moving,” Radhika whispered, pouring the milk into the water. “He likes it here, his brothers, and his father are still here-”
“And you have nobody,” her cousin interrupted. The smile she kept hidden resurfaced and her eyes suddenly lit with glee. “Fine, I can’t hold it in. My daughter’s engaged. He’s a wonderful man with a college degree, and she said yes after their first conversation. She’s finally found someone she’s happy with.”
“Danu, congratulations! Are you here to present us with invitations?”
“Yes! That’s why I wanted to wait until we were sitting down, but I can’t hold it in.”
The chai foamed, bubbles multiplying in cream and brown, building until it crowned the pot. Radhika turned the flame lower, allowing the foam to settle and letting the tea simmer.
Her cousin reached out to hold Radhika’s arm. “You can - no - you should come stay with us for a few months after the wedding. My son has another one on the way and with my daughter out of the house, I could use the help.”
The tea foamed a second time.
“One second. Sugar? Or no sugar?”
“Sugar is fine.”
Radhika stirred in the sugar and lowered the heat a second time as the tea reached the end of its brew. Her cousin had a point, she didn’t have anyone but her husband here. Her daughters had moved to the city in recent years, and she was waiting for the first news of a pregnancy to pack her bags. Why not go a little earlier?
“I don't want to leave him behind. He might not be able to manage,” Radhika replied, turning the stove off and picking up the pot with a towel. She poured the cardamom scented beverage from a height into a stainless steel cup, then took the cup by its lip and tipped the tea back into its original vessel. Steam wafted from the column, warming her arm.
“His whole family is here, he’ll be fine. It’s just a few months, and you can finally visit your daughters,” her cousin insisted. She rinsed and readied the tea cups, placing them in their accompanying bowls as Radhika continued cooling the tea.
Radhika poured, pot to cup, cup to pot, pot to cup, she repeated until the milk began to froth again and the chai cooled. She saw her hands for the first time, wrinkled and gnarled. They startled her. When did her hands turn this way? She used them everyday with a basket strapped to her back, it’s fastener often resting on her forehead as she plucked leaves into a collection bag roped at her waist. Her hands picked and picked for hours at a time, and yet she never spared a glance at them, instead using the time to differentiate prime leaves from the unsuitable ones. Her fingers trembled, sending a few drops of the tea spiraling into the hot stove that hissed upon contact. Time had changed them, just like it had changed her family. Her parents, aunts and uncles either passed on or moved away to be closer to their children. Her cousins, like Danu, moved to the city for better opportunities. Her daughters were once toddling babies and now they were grown, married and gone. Oh, how she missed them, she blinked away tears. Sure, she liked the quiet town, but this wasn’t the quiet that soothed her. Was Malaipur still home when her people were no longer here?
“When’s the wedding?” Radhika asked.
Her cousin smiled, she could sense Radhika beginning to lean her way.
“In two months,” Danu replied. “I’ll have the spare room ready for you and your husband. You can decide once you’re there.”
Danu poured the cool tea into the four cups and Radhika set them on the tray.
“I’ll decide once I’m there,” Radhika gave her excited cousin a hopeful smile before bringing the tray of tea out to their husbands. Radhika continued to look at her hands as they spoke of the upcoming wedding. Soon, these hands wouldn’t be as strong as they are today, they will no longer pick tea leaves. By then, Radhika hoped her life wouldn’t be so quiet anymore.