The Quiet Corner
The strange steps led me into the house with the turquoise board. In the kitchen was an old woman, crouching over utensils
It was a hot afternoon on an otherwise unmemorable day. The air was dense, and together with the heat, it fast melted the skin into sweat. I remember being hungry; it wasn’t an ordinary hunger, but the one that chewed up the stomach as if feeding on the muscles. I had hung around taking pictures in the alleys of the palace in Jaisalmer, and had somehow lost track of time. It was 4 p.m.
The usual affair with this old part of the town is that it is easy to get lost in the bylanes. However, it’s also true that every street has something to offer: a lac bangles shop in one, a gypsy clothes shop in the second, a surahi kiosk in another; and hopefully food was not faraway either.
On one such narrow lane, a small turquoise board — hung from the first floor balcony of an old house that had its blue coat chipping off — proclaimed a perfectly forgettable restaurant name. I was travelling on a lavish budget that had rendered me fussy. But there were no fancy places around here to eat at. So I stepped in.
The steps were strangely large, cumbersome to negotiate, entirely ill-designed. The steps led me into someone’s home and the silence made its presence felt instantly to me, the only visitor at this hour. A few moments passed. Eventually, a weak voice called out from a distance. With eyes accustomed to the gloom now, I stepped towards the lonely figure, an old woman, crouching over utensils in the dark corner that was her kitchen. The old woman cleared a space on the cemented floor beside her for me to sit.
“Aap kitne log ho (how many of you),” she asked, pointing to no one in particular. It was a strange question to ask a lone figure sitting in front of you. It took me a few minutes to realise the woman was blind.
Time to order
I must have appeared unsure, for she felt about for my hand and handed me the menu. It was an old laminated yellow sheet of paper that listed a few dishes and their prices.
“I don’t know what’s written on this paper. It was my son who made it and asked me to show it to visitors. But you pay what you think is suitable.”
She then listed the few vegetables she had with her that day and asked for my choice. Food was somehow not on my mind any more, but I picked some random dishes.
She apologised for being unprepared and said she was not expecting any visitors. I reassured her and she began the preparations: smelling and feeling the spices, peeling vegetables, and lighting a fire. In between, we spoke.
Her son works in another city and he had set up this small business for his mother. “He thinks I cook well. But I don’t know whether you’ll like the food. You must have come from a big city, no?”
I nodded, sharing a few details from my life as well, how I travel to find stories, where my parents lived, and why I was travelling alone.
Somehow I felt more and more lonely. She must have sensed the melancholy in my voice and invited me to go up to the terrace. She said she would call me by drumming a pot when the food was ready. I negotiated another pair of ill-designed steps on the way up, but this time I wondered how the old woman managed — did she crawl these ugly steps, did anyone help her, what when she fell sick?
I sat on the top step, feeling overwhelmed, as if I had travelled enough. I didn’t know what I was looking for when I had left home, but now I knew. I felt like going home to my parents, to the life I had temporarily left behind.
It felt as if all my travels thus far, all my indulgences, my aimlessness to this point, the heat and the hunger that drove me here, had all prepared me for this very moment, this encounter with the old blind woman who was cooking a lunch for me downstairs.
Just then the tin pot began to rattle.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu