I always wake up around the same time my alarm rings but it is never the alarm that wakes me up. I force myself out of the warmth of my blanket. Winter is no longer at the threshold; it has leapt up from the floors and shrouded the entire apartment. I haven’t quite adjusted to the cold yet. Every winter-time nose block tells me, much like the looks on rickshaw-drivers’ faces, “You’re not from these parts.” None of us are. Somehow it’s colder inside. One of them says it must be from all the water poured on the cement at the construction site in front. The other disagrees. I find my face wash and brush and toothpaste at the same spot I left them last morning. I like it when I know where my things are. I wonder if I’m turning into my mother; she always hated my messy bedroom back home.
The apartment is silent in the mornings. A chilly, lonely silence. I like it this way. I close the door to their bedroom lest the sound of my cooking wake them up. My hands are half smelling of chicken when the koodawala (garbage collector) rings the doorbell. I take the trash out and he asks for the money.
I say, “kal doongi, bhaiyya.”
Will give tomorrow, brother.
He throws me an unsure look. But nods and leaves nevertheless. I make a mental note to tell them, hoping I don’t forget by the time they wake up. It’s almost noon when they step out of bed, my flatmates. I don’t know if they are sleeping in or failing to get up. I don’t ask. We are not that close. Or rather, I am not.
I turn on the stove, wondering what oil to use. I still haven’t bought the sunflower oil. It’s recommended for chicken. We have mustard and coconut though. For a year, I haven’t been in a kitchen without both of these. Typical of apartments with students from more than one end of India. I always wanted to make friends with people from different places. Somehow I found them interesting. I think it runs in the family. Everything different is considered interesting. But as it turns out, humans are twisted, no matter the landscape. The cooker is hot enough now. I open the coconut oil.
I pour it in, glancing at the recipe my sister sent me. I’m not used to following recipes. I’ve always just thrown in random amounts. We all did the same when we first came to the city and started cooking. One of them is here with me now. I’m far from being close to her but I know her well. I know she always forgets to keep her clothes away from the bed after changing from one outfit into another three times. I know she cries a lot while cutting onions. Onions. That reminds me. I must put them in.
The recipe says I must wait now. I walk around in the 25 sq.ft. space of the kitchen, waiting. I can hear mothers shouting at their kids to wake them up. Families live nearby. Which also translates to, the mornings and nights are filled with shouts. In the mornings to begin the day, and in the evenings to spit out the despair of existence. Sometimes I regret moving here. But who do I have anywhere else? It’s weird how such a crowded city can be so lonely. It’s been over a year in the city I dreamt of in the lockdown, the name that substituted a lullaby when I rocked myself to sleep on especially difficult nights. It was a long wait to get here. And I’m tired of the wait.
I tip the cutting board into the cooker, letting the chillies, ginger, garlic and tomato fall into it, dramatic sounds enveloping the kitchen. One of them coughs from the room and I realize that I had forgotten to turn on the exhaust fan yet again. The ingredients begin hissing in the cooker and a sense of urgency builds up in my body. I try to pinpoint the source. Maybe it’s frustration or maybe it’s another of those signals that in every daughter resides a bit of her mother. Or maybe both of these mean the same. She always rushes in the kitchen, my mother, as if someone is beginning to write her death sentence as she cooks and only the completion of her work can rescue her.
The urgency doesn’t leave my body. It keeps building, alongside the growing sounds from the cooker. Images clutter my head. A familiar, unpleasant feeling crawls upwards from the pit of my stomach. Maybe I should sit. But I dare not. I rummage in the rack searching for the garam masala. The pain continues its ascent as I open the fridge to pick out the mint and coriander. Ah, here sits the masala. Of course. My flatmate always keeps it in the fridge. Another of the things I’ve never asked. I measure out the masala and tip the spoon from the edge of the cooker, along with the leaves, the chicken and the rice. It begins to smell like the Eid mornings of my childhood. That’s how I know I haven’t missed any ingredient.
The pain in the stomach seems to have been overpowered by an increasing numbness in my limbs. I don’t rest. I pour in the water and salt and ghee. And begin mixing, something buzzing in my head. Voices. From yesterday’s nightmare. I try to focus on cutting the lemon. One half shoots away from the cutting board and lands in a corner of the kitchen. A scream. I jerk. Concluding it’s from a nearby house, I coil back into myself. I squeeze the other half into the cooker, grinding my teeth together to stop myself from screaming.
Closing the lid, I begin to break down. It can’t be happening. The day has barely begun. I decide against collapsing on the bed, for fear of not being able to get up. I sink to the bed, head bent and fists clenching. Tears begin to cloud my glasses as I hear my flatmates stir in the other room. I try to stifle my cries. Frustration builds in my head. Feet stepping on slippers, slight knocks on the bedside table, sleepy groans. I keep trying. The walls seem to be closing in on me. Loneliness leers at me from all sides.
‘I want a friend,’ I whisper. The whistle blows.
Haneen is an aspiring writer doing her under graduation in English Honours in Delhi, India. She hails from a town in the south of India. Her writings strongly reflect her backgrounds and the changes that shook her life upon relocating to the capital city of Delhi, for higher studies— which is more than a thousand miles away from her hometown. Haneen’s passion for writing dates back to a young age and she seeks to peel off slices out of everyday life to connect with readers. She has been published in three poetry anthologies, “Soul Candy” (2020), “In Which Poetry Breathes Life” (2020), “I.R.L. Collection: 99 Poems on the Dark Side of the Internet” (2020) and in Issue 1 of the Juvenile Literary Journal of The Young Writers Initiative in 2020.