Her husband liked filter coffee. He liked it with thick decoction and some milk. The lesser the sugar the better. “Coffee should be a little bitter, Hema,” he would say. Hema had hated the taste when she was young. She would add copious amounts of sugar in her brew to make it drinkable. With time, she acquired a taste for coffee; the bitterness, it was soothing. It was 5:30 in the morning and Hema woke up to make coffee. Brewing coffee had become a ritual. It made her hopeful.
She could hear the parrots in her balcony. They were wild parrots. They loved the ripe chillies in her garden. They would peel the chilli’s skin and eat the seeds. Hema’s husband hated the parrots. “Why are they so loud? A man can’t sleep in even on Saturdays,” he would complain. Hema loved them. They were not her pets; they were her guests. They were beautiful and loud. They lived in a neem tree and flew around the neighbourhood. She has seen them eating figs from the fig tree and custard apple from the tree near Mrs. Gautham’s house. They were free to do what they wanted to do.
Hema never slept in. She woke up with the parrots. They loved fruits. She would place sapota fruits in a bowl and sip cinnamon tea as she watched the parrots eat the fruit. It had been 4 years since her husband passed away. He had had heart problems all his life. He had peacefully passed away in his sleep. He slept that day despite the sounds of the parrots. That’s how Hema knew something was wrong. She had made two tumblers of coffee that day, as usual. She fed the parrots and cleaned the balcony so her husband can have his morning coffee as he read the newspaper. She had tried to wake him but in vain.
Hema poured hot water on the decoction maker. She had placed 2 tablespoons of ground coffee bean powder in the coffee maker. She took in the aroma and got three sapota fruits from the refrigerator for the parrots. She placed them in a bowl on the kitchen balcony and watched them eat for a few seconds. She took the broom and a mugful of water to clean the doorway. She had to draw a Kolam.
Muniyamma woke up before the alarm clock. She took a bath, swept the house, drew a beautiful lotus Kolam outside her house and cooked. The clock sounded as she boiled milk. She ignored the sound and cut vegetables. It was 5:30 in the morning. Her son angrily got up, turned the alarm off and promptly went back to sleep. Muniyamma smiled. She cut the vegetables and added them to the tamarind gravy. She was making sambar. She had placed a rice cooker on another stove. The cooker whistled loudly, thrice. “Amma!!” yelled her son and she smiled at him. He reluctantly woke up and walked out the small asbestos-walled house.
“Kaaa… Kaaa…” called the crow that came in daily to her house. Muniyamma placed some fermented rice and snake guard fry in a bowl. She kept in near the crow. It ate with relish. She watched the crow eat. “Amma! Coffee!” said her son, took a towel, and went out the house to take a bath. Her house became very hot during summers, which inevitably pushed them to bathe multiple times to keep cool. Muniyamma poured milk into a ceramic cup and scooped a teaspoonful of instant coffee powder. She mixed both, added some sugar, mixed once and kept it beside the hot rice-cooker.
She checked the sambar on the stove and turned the gas off. “Mom! Coffee!” said her son as he dried himself with a towel and sat on the coir cot outside her house. Muniyamma brought her son his coffee.
“You are leaving?” he asked. Muniyamma nodded. She took her cloth purse, adjusted her saree and walked to her workplace. It has been 5 years since Muniyamma’s husband travelled abroad to make a living. He worked in building construction in UAE. It was good money. It helped pay her daughter’s dowry. It helped pay for her son’s college tuition. She even saved up for buying a house; one with brick walls and one that had separate rooms for cooking, washing and sleeping. That money was not enough, though. So, Muniyamma worked as a maid servant.
Hema showered, plucked jasmine and marigold flowers from her garden for morning prayers and prepared idlis. Her husband had conducted prayers every day. He never allowed Hema to attend the prayers. She had to prepare food offerings and pluck flowers. Nowadays, she lit the oil lamp and offered flowers to her God. Her prayers were simple and less time consuming. She had a lot of time in her hands in the mornings.
She filled two idli moulds with fermented rice and skinned black gram batter. She took out a coconut and broke it in half with practised perfection. She looked at the small kitchen clock. It was 6:45 AM. She checked the coffee decoction maker. It was done. There was enough thick decoction to make two filter coffees.
Hema took a coconut scraper and started to work it on one half of the coconut. She could still hear the parrots. They were perched on the neem tree beside her apartment building. As she transferred the coconut into a mixer grinder jar, she heard the call, “Amma… milk!” Hema continued to transfer the coconut into the jar. She walked to the balcony, took the water tube and turned the tap on. Hema watered the plants. She had many chilli plants, one curry leaves plant, one aloe vera, a small lemon plant, a bitter guard creeper, and a small spinach tub. She harvested two chillies and some curry leaves. As she walked to her kitchen, she heard the steam from the idli cooker.
Hema placed the freshly collected chillies and curry leaves inside the jar. As she cleaned the kitchen counter, the doorbell rang. She smiled. It was Muniyamma. Hema opened the door and went back to adding ingredients for coconut chutney.
Muniyamma picked up the milk packets from the small bag on the door shelf. She carefully kept the packets on the kitchen counter and went to wash her hands.
Hema closed the mixer grinder jar and boiled the milk in a steel vessel. She took out two tumblers and two davaras. Hema made coffee. The same warm feeling embraced her. She has been making coffee for more than 40 years. She got married to her husband at the age of 15 years. The fresh aroma lifted her senses. She placed just enough sugar on the davaras and poured milk on the decoction in the tumblers. Muniyamma swept the big, sit-out balcony and placed 2 chairs and patio table under the sunshade.
Hema brought the coffees and both the women sat down to drink coffee. Muniyamma took in the aroma and drank the expertly made brew. Hema smiled as she saw her friend enjoy the coffee she made. “Sooper!” said Muniyamma and took another sip.
Muniyamma has been working for Hema for last 17 years. She was married when she was 18 years old. She spent her childhood in a farming village, Krishnapuram, near Tirunelveli district in the state of Tamil Nadu. She was the third daughter in a household with 7 children. She was excited to move to Madras. She did not have to live with her in-laws. Her friends had told her that she was lucky. She had studied up to 5th std. in the local school. She stopped going to school after she got her first period. She moved into a small house; a hut. Her house in her village was vast. They even had a well and a cow shed. They fed their cows hay, cotton seeds and rice bran. Cows in Madras ate wall posters. Her husband was nice to her, but he drank liquor. He was abusive when he drank liquor.
When Hema’s husband was alive, Hema gave Muniyamma coffee in a small ceramic cup. Muniyamma was not allowed to enter the poojai room. There were many restrictions. Hema was never allowed self-thinking in her life, so she followed the rules that were laid out. Hema liked Muniyamma. She was a self-employed, dignified, self-thinking woman.
Hema was a good woman. Muniyamma got to know that the day her son was admitted in the hospital for an appendix operation. She had no money. Her husband spent all his money on liquor, and she hardly got to save any money. Hema had given Muniyamma her gold bangle. “I do not have any money with me. I must ask my husband,” she had said, “He will not give me, so take this bangle.” Muniyamma liked her boss. Hema has a tender heart and a non-judgemental disposition.
Muniyamma could see the parrots on the neem tree. “They ate the sapota fruits?” she asked. Hema nodded. Muniyamma smiled. Hema took another sip of the fresh coffee.
Hema moved from Kumbakonam district, in the state of Tamil Nadu, to Madras. Her father had fixed her wedding date 3 weeks after she turned 15. She was the eldest daughter. She had 2 younger brothers. Her brothers stayed with her Chithappa (father’s younger brother) in Madras. Schooling was good in Madras. She was never allowed to go to school. She spent her days learning to cook, clean, tailor and to do religious rituals. Her cousin brother accompanied her whenever she visited the temple. She was never allowed to go anywhere alone.
She was ecstatic when she got to know she will be going to Madras, the big city. Her brothers told her about Madras whenever they visited. “I have never seen so many cars, akka,” her youngest brother would say, “And there are beaches. Wow! The beaches.”
She did not get to see the Marina beach for a long time. Her husband took her to Marina beach on their 10th wedding anniversary. She thought it was okay. She was not allowed to enjoy the water. Her saree would have gotten wet. She saw the sea as she guarded her husband’s and children’s footwear.
Hema continued to make two sets of coffees even after her husband died. This continued for a month after his passing. Muniyamma was worried. She wanted to help her friend. Hema’s kids asked her to come and stay with them. Her daughter lived in London and her son in Gurugram. Hema denied the invitation. She stayed in her home of 30 years. Muniyamma knew Hema drank coffee with her husband on the sit-out balcony everyday in the mornings. She started to come early to work and offered to drink the extra tumbler of coffee, and this became a ritual. She also loved the coffee taste. It was much better than the instant coffee that she knew to make. When Muniyamma had started work in Hema’s house, she declined every time she was asked whether she wanted a tumbler of coffee. After a week, she tried it out of curiosity. The taste hit her taste buds and she had been flabbergasted. “No one can make coffee like Hema akka,” she would tell her children.
Muniyamma knocked on Hema’s door everyday between 6:45 to 7:00, and they had coffee. The coffee ritual slowly evolved to breakfast and prayer. She loved Hema’s conviction to rituals. Every day, both women drank coffee, ate breakfast, and prayed for half hour. Hema would then make lunch, and Muniyamma will clean the house and do the dishes. Hema liked the routine because it reassured her of life. Muniyamma liked the routine because it was soothing in her otherwise eventful life.
“I’ll get the idlis,” said Hema and got up from her chair. Muniyamma nodded and continued to sip her coffee. A man practised Surya namaskar in the adjacent building. A woman hung the clothes to dry in her terrace in another building. A mother tried make a child eat breakfast in the same terrace. The security guard was stretching after a good night’s work near the apartments’ gate. Muniyamma could hear the mixer grinder from the sit-out balcony. Hema was making chutney. She saw a small squirrel climb down the chimney pipe. It was carrying something in its mouth. She could not see what it was. “Here!” said Hema and handed a plate to Muniyamma. Hema cooked well. Muniyamma took a morsel of idli and scooped some chutney. She ate tastefully.
Hema smiled and sat down beside Muniyamma. “Want to go to Kabalishwarar temple this Saturday?” Hema asked.
“Why Saturday? We can go today too,” said Muniyamma.
“Your son?” asked Hema with a gasp.
Muniyamma smiled, “He is a man. He can take care of himself. What say? Today?”
“Yes!” said Hema laughingly. Muniyamma laughed too.
The two women talked as they ate. They talked about children, politics, people and themself.
“OK! Eat fast, Hema. Let us finish morning prayers. I must get to work. If we are going today, I need to finish work in all the other houses before 4:00 PM,” said Muniyamma and got up with her plate in hand.
Few parrots flew and sat on the small papaya tree in Hema’s terrace garden. They were loud. Hema watched them snack on a papaya fruit. For the first time since her husband’s death, it stuck her that she was free now. She could do anything she wants. She smiled and closed her eyes.
“Muniyamma!” she called.
“Ohhooo…” answered, Muniyamma from the kitchen.
“Let us go to the beach too from the temple,” said Hema.
 Kolam: a drawing of symbols or things using rice flour.
 Vegetable, tamarind, pulses gravy that is eaten with rice.
 Steamed rice and skinned black gram cake.
 Metal bowls inside which the tumblers are kept
 Elder sister