Auntie Elena's Revenge
All her life Auntie Elena had lived by the holy book, had taken its commandments to be the guiding lights of her life
The doorbell rang with piercing intensity. It made Auntie Elena wince. She knew who it might be; or rather, she suspected. Not again, she thought, wondering: should I tell her off? But, no, it was not in her nature to be offensive. All her life Auntie Elena had lived by the holy book, had taken its commandments to be the guiding lights of her life. And now, at 75, she wasn't going to ruin that. She wasn't going to be rude to a neighbour.
Wearing a patient, impassive face—the kind she had worn when she had taught English to a class of rambunctious schoolboys—she opened the door and said, "What can I do for you, Mrs Shah?"
The fat lady facing her smiled. "Some family members have come; I was telling them about your 'boootiful' kitchen; can they see it, please?"
Auntie Elena felt the muscles in her throat tighten; her tongue flickered in her mouth; the refusal would come easy, like a whiplash. But then her late father's words swam into her mind: "When dealing with people who are annoying, remember, they might not have had the same good upbringing as you, the same good fortune. The Lord has willed differently for them."
She swallowed her annoyance and said, "Please come in. I am a bit busy. But feel free to look around."
Four of them, women, entered, and went around her kitchen. They gasped at the interiors. They stood before the jade-coloured platform and exclaimed how clever it was to have the cooking facility in the center, with enough space to move around and the storage so accessible. They marvelled at the cabinets, the Scandinavian-style decor. They even went to the extent of opening the cabinets and looking inside. They spoke among themselves; then asked if they could take pictures, to which Auntie Elena said no, she would rather they did not. They looked at her sulkily, as though she was the spoiler of their plans, and then one of them asked her what it had cost to create this beautiful kitchen.
She knew where this was coming from, who had primed this woman. Her neighbour's face showed no sign of guilt, no trace of complicity, and Auntie Elena said, "I have no idea; it was my brother Carl who paid for it. He lives in Toronto. And made all the payments from there."
"Can you ask him?" said Mrs Shah eagerly. "I want one like this. Not for me–what I will do with a big kitchen?–but for my daughter Sejal." She lowered her voice. "Seju is getting married soon, to a rich boy from Ahmedabad, and we must show his family that we have modern thinking. That is why we want to take photo."
"Yes, but sorry," said Auntie Elena firmly. "You should look up some catalogues or surf the internet."
That ended the conversation; the ladies trooped out.
After they'd left, Auntie Elena got back to what she was doing before the interruption: churning the batter for a Christmas pudding. Next to her, on a plate, was a pile of candid peel, cherries, raisins, and sultanas, which had been soaked in rum for the last six months. With strong, bony fingers, Auntie Elena stirred at the bowl in her hand, pausing, from time to time, to dip a finger and taste the batter.
Truth be told, in all of Bandra, you wouldn't find a kinder soul than Auntie Elena. Even when she was teaching, when she had those added responsibilities of setting test assignments and correcting exam papers and arranging plays, concerts, and inter-school debates, she would render community service with the zeal of a nun.
Accompanied by her students, she would visit orphanages and slums with old clothes and toys, and shelters for the aged with books, food, and medicines. She would get the orphans and slum kids to feed street dogs and stray cats and teach the elders to put up plays. "It is not just about giving them time and money, but about raising self-esteem," she'd say. "After all, we are not in this world for ourselves but to do God's work."
She now thought of her neighbour and the many annoyances to which she had subjected her. Mrs Shah was a widow. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment next door, with her two daughters, Sejal and Tejal. As of now, the girls were pretty, but their hips were filling out fast, and, in a few years, they would resemble their mother. The family was very loud and noisy, and they left their front door open all the time, which annoyed Auntie Elena greatly. The girls fought with their mother in thin, shrilly voices and the mother fought back angrily. This made Aunty Elena uncomfortable—it made her think of her peaceful little cottage on Chapel Road, which she had to sell because maintaining it became impossible and the builder offered a price large enough to buy a three-bedroom apartment in a new building. Carl—bless him!—didn't want a single rupee from his share of the sale. So Auntie Elena found herself with a hefty saving and more comfortable than she had ever imagined.
Of course, it had taken her some time to get used to staying in a highrise, a Bandra so altered from the place of her childhood, where she could play with her friends on the beach, go on boat rides, and comb its orchards for mangoes, tamarinds, and seasonal fruit. The people then were different, too, she thought. More respectful, more supportive, more community-conscious.
Her thoughts returned to her neighbour. This was not the first time that Mrs Shah had dropped in uninvited and, certainly, it would not be the last. Auntie Elena felt sorry for the widow, she felt she was lonely, and did not deserve the way her daughters spoke to her; but, still, Auntie Elena liked her privacy and her neighbour did not seem to get that; she was always bringing visitors to see her kitchen, and it had come to a point when Auntie Elena dreaded hearing the doorbell. In fact, time and again, Mrs Shah would ring her doorbell and say to Auntie Elena, "Why you don't leave your front door open? That way we can see each other, we can chat." How to tell her that she, Auntie Elena, didn't quite relish seeing Mrs Shah lolling on a sofa, whale-like, in a loose cotton nightgown, remote control in hand, blaring her television serials. No, something must be done to check this invasion, thought Auntie Elena firmly. Something to drive home the message.
The Christmas Day lunch was the most important event in Auntie Elena's life. It had to be perfect, just perfect, because, well, all her favourite people would be there—the Vazs from Santa Cruz, the Pereiras from Khar, the Noronhas from Kalina, the Lobos from Byculla, and, of course, Dr Chris de Souza from Holy Family Hospital and his charming wife Rosemary. After the extraordinary meal that her guests would enjoy, Dr Chris would bring out his guitar and Auntie Elena would get on to the piano and sing, and the afternoon would stretch out like an exquisite soprano, well into the evening, assuring this little gathering that the Lord's blessings were silently and munificently with them, for the rest of the year.
Auntie Elena now noted with satisfaction the spread on the kitchen platform—the roast chicken with mint sauce, the baked salmon with lemon sauce, the potato-and-ham salad, the asparagus mousse, the crispy spinach with garlic prawns, the bacon-and-sausage rolls, the tray of cold cuts, the pork vindaloo with rice, and the yakhni lamb pulao—and she felt a surge of pride. It had taken her all of three days to prepare this feast, and she had to work hard, cutting back on her afternoon sleep and her evening walks.
But it would be worth it, she thought, thinking of her guests' faces when they would see the spread. She wished Carl and Marie were here. She wished her brother and his wife were coming down for Christmas, but, promptly, after the new year, their granddaughter was leaving for the UK, for her postgraduate studies, and they wanted to spend time with her. Understandable, totally understandable, thought Auntie Elena. But at least she could send them some pictures, so they'd know what they were missing.
She reached for her cellphone and tapped at the camera icon. She tried this angle and that, and eventually settled for a top shot which captured the full array of her labours. The Christmas pudding, the almond soufflé, and the coffee liquor mousse she could not show; but that was fine, she thought. Her brother was anyway forbidden sweet things; he would not miss those. Suddenly, a smile spread across her face. It made her look younger. As though she was a young girl contemplating some mischief.
She bathed, she dressed, she powdered, and daubed on a little rouge—she was ready for her guests now. Then she stepped out and saw that her neighbour's door was open; not fully, just slightly. She knocked gently, and after a while Mrs Shah opened the door, a look of delight spreading across her face. "I was coming to see you," she said. "Just now, in fact. To wish you a Merry Christmas."
"Do come," said Auntie Elena. "I have some guests coming shortly, but do come and spend a few minutes with me. And bring your cellphone, so you can take some pictures."
Mrs Shah looked at her warily. "You don't mind?" she said. "Really, you don't mind?"
"No," said Auntie Elena, smiling.
The two of them entered the apartment. Auntie Elena made way for Mrs Shah to walk in front, through the passage that led to the kitchen. As they entered the kitchen, Auntie Elena snapped on the kitchen lights.
"Go on, Mrs Shah; take some pictures; feel free!" said Auntie Elena cheerfully.
The overhead light lit up the platform like a spotlight.
Mrs Shah stared at the plump roast chicken, with its stomach sewed up, its legs in midair, and she looked at the salmon, its clear black eye fixed and unblinking, as though it was reproaching her for its death; and she felt faint, she felt dizzy. So this is what non-vegetarian fare looked like, she thought. Like murder! Fighting back the nausea, she said weakly to Auntie Elena, "It's all right; I don't need any pictures. I will just explain how the kitchen looks like."
"Are you sure?" said Auntie Elena doubtfully.
"Yes, yes," said Mrs Shah hurriedly. "I must go now. I am expecting a call from Ahmedabad."
"I hope there's no emergency," said Auntie Elena.
"Something like that," said Mrs Shah, clutching at her nightgown and hurrying toward her apartment. She slammed the door behind her and, a moment later, Auntie Elena heard the sound of a bolt sliding into place.
There's still time for the guests to arrive, she thought. But there is no reason why I can't get started, why I can't celebrate.
She moved to the bar, looked over her collection of wines, and reached for a bottle of Merlot. "Merry Christmas, Elena," she said to herself, as the thick red liquid touched her lips. "May the Lord forgive you your trespasses."
Murzban F. Shroff is the author of Breathless in Bombay (stories), Waiting for Jonathan Koshy (novel) and Fasttrack Fiction (digital shorts). He is a Commonwealth Prize shortlisted author, a 6-times Pushcart Prize nominee, and a recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award.
Catch up on all the latest Mumbai news, crime news, current affairs, and also a complete guide on Mumbai from food to things to do and events across the city here. Also download the new mid-day Android and iOS apps to get latest updates
Sign up for all the latest news, top galleries and trending videos from Mid-day.comSubscribe