Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Finding Jhuma (Part One)

The sound of a pressure cooker hisses me awake. I reach for my iPhone to check for messages from the other side of the world and blink as I flip through Instagram while my brain catches up to my awakening body. It's 7:10am and Jhuma is already cooking the day's meal in the kitchen next to my bedroom. I roll out of bed, turn off the AC and step out of my bedroom into the steaming living room. No one else is awake except for Jhuma. 

I slide open the pocket door and peek into the kitchen. There she is, red sindoor and red tikuli. Sweat dripping down her temples as two pots boil on the stove. She is sitting cross-legged on the floor and she carefully pushes small onions into the boti, which is propped up against the cabinet. They slice evenly. "Good Morning, Jhuma," I say. "Good Morning, Kristen," she replies in almost a whisper with her shy smile, the warmth of which makes my mercury center expand. It is the first time she has ever addressed me by name.

The previous day was challenging and stunning. In the morning Jhuma and I walked Kumkum and Lalita to school. When I walk with the girls to school they each hold one of my hands and we take up pretty much the entirety of whatever narrow lane or alley down which we walk. Kumkum usually chirps in Bengali and flaps her other arm around, laughing wildly at almost nothing. Lalita grips my other hand and propels us forward with her will to arrive to school on time. "Pisimoni, time?" she questions me with a serious look. "Time: 10:22," I answer. "Oh. Okay. Challo." 

After dropping Lalita at school and waving from the street for a full five minutes, we continue on to Kumkum's school. Jhuma leads the way, making sure we don't get hit by tuk-tuks or yellow Ambassador taxis as they fly through the puddles and nearly spray us. We drop Kumkum to her classroom and turn to begin the walk home. 

I've never been able to fully communicate to Jhuma. I can tell her short phrases in Bengali and compliment her cooking, but that's the extent of my Bengali and her English basically ceases at, "school" and "chicken". 

During our walk home we fall into the comfortable silence that we've become accustomed to. It's obvious that we desperately want to have a real conversation, but even when we try we usually end up just staring at each other and scrunching up our faces and saying, "Sorry..." for not being able to come up with the right words in each others' languages. 

I spend 10 minutes trying to ask her who her friends are in the neighborhood. I can't tell if her blank stare back at me is because she doesn't understand or because she doesn't have any. I think it might be both. 

Later that night we are bankside. Nirmal is at his post, ready to open the gate for any cars pulling in or out. Jhuma is making chappatis and the girls are penciling answers into their school workbooks. I sit cross-legged on the wooden platform that is the centerpiece of their lives bankside. It's the most multifunctional hunk of wood I've ever seen. Bed, dining room table, ironing board, couch, coffee table, kitchen counter. This 4 foot by 7 foot platform does it all. 

I look at Jhuma and she's wiping sweat from her brow with the edge of her sari. "Do you need any help with dinner?" I ask. She stares at me and cocks her head. I say, "Um.. chapati? Me?"  She grabs one of the already puffed chapatis and hands it to me, misinterpreting my question. I shake my head. "No, no... do you need help?" I point at the rolling pin. She looks at Nirmal for help. 

I say to Nirmal, "Does Jhuma need help getting dinner ready?" "Dinner..." he says, nodding. "Does she need help?" I ask again. He nods. "Help," I say. "Can I do something? Cut vegetables?" "Yes, veg," he says, referring to what we're going to eat for dinner. 

I put my head into knees that are already drawn up against my chest. My center tightens with exasperation and sadness. I pick my head up and say to Nirmal in English, "I want to be able to talk to Jhuma. I want to talk to my friend. I need to learn more Bengali." Nirmal looks at me with question marks in his eyes and says cautiously, "Bengali, yes." I say, "Yes. Amar bandhu Jhuma." My eyes fill up with tears and suddenly there's a 5 rupee coin in my throat and it's getting bigger. 

"Handwash, Kristen," instructs Nirmal, "No lanka in eyes!" I say, "No lanka! No lanka!" I shake my head to deny that I touched a green chili and then touched my eyes. I let him realize that my tears are not capsaicin induced. "I want to be able to speak to Jhuma! She's my friend and I can't talk to her. I can't tell her how much I appreciate the food that she makes me. I can't tell her how thankful I am that she allows me to be in the girls' lives. I can't tell her how much it means to me that she remembers from last year how I like toast with butter in the morning and that she quietly admires her braid in the mirror when I give her one on Sundays. I want to tell her how much she means to me and I can't!" I say these things quickly and in English, with tears spilling down my cheeks. 

The girls watch with curiosity and apprehension. They've never seen their Pisimoni cry about anything except for leaving for the airport the year before. This is different and they know it. Kumkum is stunned into silence for probably the first time in her life. Her eyes are upon me with an intensity she saves for particularly confusing moments. Lalita quickly goes to work on something with a set of colored pencils.

"Ohhhh Krreestuhhhhn. Okay.... Okay, okay," Nirmal comes over and sits next to me. I try to talk more slowly and use all of the Bengali words I know. He still doesn't know why I'm crying. I frantically try to look up the words for "need" and "help" to try to explain that all I wanted to ask was if Jhuma needed help making dinner, but that now my tears are entirely unrelated to dinner. 

Jhuma is squatting over the wooden roti board. Her rolling pin dangles from one hand over a half-rolled chapati. She stares at me, her expression a mixture of astonishment and worry. Her forehead is wrinkled and she periodically looks at Nirmal and says, "Ki?" He dismisses her with his hand and tries his best to understand me as I frantically gesture towards Jhuma and try to explain my feelings.  

"Okay. Okay I am solve problem," says Nirmal. "I call one bank lady. She can help. Tikachhe?" I respond, "Tikachhe. Tike, Tike." I wipe the tears from my cheeks and Lalita slides across the platform on her knees and silently hands me a picture of a 2x2 grid with four items inside: a mango, a house, a fish and a candle. Above the fish she's written, "Kirsten no cairay you butfoul and Lalite Roy Pashemoni". Kumkum stands from where she is perched on the wooden platform and crawls into my lap with her identical picture, forgetting to hand it to me. Instead she puts her palm on my cheek and locks eyes with me. She cocks her head and furrows her brow, and I tell her with my wet eyes and half smile that everything will be okay. 

"Hello? Hello?" Nirmal is on the phone with a coworker who will translate for us. Up until now we have never been in such dire need of a translator. He hands the phone to me and I tell the woman on the other end everything that I'm trying to convey to Nirmal. That I'm sad and frustrated because Jhuma is my friend and I can't communicate with her. That I wish I knew more Bengali. That I want to tell Jhuma that now that all of the students are gone, she's my best friend in Calcutta. That all I wanted to do was ask if she needed help preparing dinner, even though I know she'd say no.

The bank employee dutifully translates all of this into Bengali for Nirmal. His expression softens as he listens. He thanks her and hangs up. Then, he looks at Jhuma and begins to explain in Bengali. When she understands, her expression shifts to surprise. She speaks to Nirmal in Bengali and he laughs. "Problem same to same," he says. "You very good friend Jhuma. When Kristen is around all time, Jhuma is happy. When Kristen is America side, Jhuma no happy. But Jhuma no English." 

I look at Jhuma. She is one year younger than me, born in 1988, and has been married for 12 years. She is beautifully raising a 9 and a 7 year, knows how to wash any type of clothing so that stains will come out, can make chapati with her eyes closed, has the eyesight to spot a congee from 10 feet away and can haggle at the market better than anyone I've ever seen. And for the first time, it dawns on me that we have so much more in common than I ever dreamed we could. We both recognize that we are friends, and we are both frustrated that we cannot communicate more easily. 

The next morning, after Jhuma has addressed me by name and I'm sitting on the couch wiping sleep from my eyes, she glides quietly into the living room with an orange mug of Nescafe. She's added my own milk from the fridge and three teaspoons of sugar, exactly the way she's watched me make it for weeks. It's the first time she's ever made it for me herself. She sets the mug in front of me and quietly says, "coffee." The tiniest, proudest smile crosses her lips and I know that she hasn't prepared the coffee for me as a domestic worker. She's prepared it for me as a friend. 

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Part Two is in progress...



sindoor = the red powder applied to the front of the part of a married woman to signify her married status
tikuli = bindi, the red dot applied to a woman's forhead
chama = the top portion of a sari
boti = a stationary cutting instrument used by women in India
challo = Let's go
chapati = A type of flat, wheat bread
Amar bandhu = My friend
lanka = chili pepper
Ki? = What?
roti = bread
Tikacche? = Okay?
congee = lice/bug

2 comments:

Jen A. said...

BUHHH okay that was a lovely, lovely story. I loved it. I want to cry now. xoxoxo

(I didn't realize the first time I posted it would be from a long-defunct Blogger account. Could you please delete it? :)

Kels said...

I still want part 2. Love this entry.