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“Your primary responsibility is to our family, Priya. Anyway, this is a temporary situation and will become redundant when work from office resumes. Until then, learn to adjust."
“Your primary responsibility is to our family, Priya. Anyway, this is a temporary situation and will become redundant when work from office resumes. Until then, learn to adjust.”
The news anchor cried hoarse over pollution. The temple bell jingled from another corner. The loud whistle of the pressure cooker interjected the morning quiet of the house.
Priya sprinted from the kitchen, both her hands occupied. With her hair covered in a towel, the red bindi in her forehead shone brighter than the early rays of dawn. She placed the morning cup of tea for her father-in-law at the centre table of the living room before handing over the pot of holy water to her mother-in-law in the puja room. With the breakfast prepared, she switched off the gas.
After arranging the cutlery and crockery on the dining table, she went to wake up her better half in the bedroom.
She pulled aside the curtains. “Wake up,” she nudged her husband.
“Good morning,” Mohit said, half awake.
“Tea’s here, and breakfast is on the table. I am off to the other room for work.”
Mohit glanced at the wall clock. It displayed 8 a.m.
He sat up and raised an eyebrow. “Work? This early, Priya? You used to start for office after 8:30 a.m. once. Now, your work hours have increased despite working from home.”
Priya sighed. She had a long day ahead and didn’t want to get into this conversation.
It was the fourth straight month of Work From Home for Mohit and her. When the lockdown was announced, WFH was envisaged as a temporary solution to the Covid conundrum. Now it appeared a prolonged arrangement. Priya’s world was confined to home, and home had become her world, causing more problems than one.
“I am starting early so that I can take a break at 11.30 a.m. to prepare lunch.”
“A one-hour lunch break is normal anyway. We took that long a break at our office.”
‘Speak for yourself; I could never afford that long a break since I had to reach back home on time in the evening,’ Priya refrained from remarking. Not for the first time.
“I like to cook with a free mind,” she remarked before turning to go to what was once the guest room and now her workroom. Mohit had taken the larger master bedroom for himself for weekdays, and her in-laws had their own room. She had worked out of the room’s bed with difficulty during the initial period of lockdown before getting a study table and an ergonomic chair after restrictions eased for e-comm deliveries. She worked better sitting by the room’s window.
Priya switched on her laptop and mentally took stock of the tasks for the day. She plunged headlong into work when her computer came to life.
“Why can’t bahu serve us a hot breakfast?” Mohit’s mother grumbled at the dining table where Mohit and his parents sat at 8.45 a.m.
The quinquagenarian continued, “I had thought of at least getting hot meals to eat with bahu at home. But it is like the earlier times only. And why does Priya not have her breakfast with us? I can’t even think of eating a morsel before your father does,” she said.
“Priya has her office work, Ma,” Mohit said while helping himself with the Poha from the casserole.
“So do you,” his father quipped.
Mohit shrugged and asked, “How many new Covid cases were detected yesterday?”
The discussion at the breakfast table then veered towards the state of the nation.
Priya had her plate full for the day. After mailing one urgent presentation at 9 a.m., she was in successive virtual meetings. She was in the middle of a Zoom call when the door opened, and her mother-in-law barged into the room.
“Bahu, what are you cooking for lunch?” she asked.
Priya pointed to her headset and laptop, indicating that she was on a call.
The older lady stood her ground.
After a minute, Priya removed the headset.
“Mummyji, I am on a call. I haven’t thought about lunch yet,” she said.
“It is 11.15 a.m. You should be cooking the meal by this time. Anyway, I want to eat choley-poori for lunch.
“I haven’t immersed the choley peas in water. Have you, Mummyji?”
“You want me to prepare the food today?” the older lady rolled her eyes.
“I am not saying that. As you know, the chickpeas need to be immersed in water three-four hours before cooking, and I haven’t done so in the morning. I will do it now, and we will have choley for dinner.”
“So, I can’t have the lunch I want?”
“You didn’t tell me in the morning about lunch, Mummyji.”
“How to tell you when you don’t have breakfast with us in the morning?”
“Mummyji, I have to get back to my call,” Priya put back her headset.
“All you are busy with is work. No time for family,” the older lady muttered while heading to the door.
Priya focused on the call. Why wasn’t anyone speaking? What had happened during the last two minutes? She thought of asking a question and realised that she had forgotten to mute herself before talking to her mother-in-law.
All her colleagues had heard the private conversation between the two ladies.
“Ehh..err..,” Priya’s boss cleared his throat at the other end of the virtual line. “Priya, are we invited for the delicious lunch, or dinner?” he asked.
Everyone laughed, except for Priya. The ensuing five minutes were spent discussing Priya’s culinary skills.
Priya hurried to the kitchen. The call took longer than scheduled, and she had another call to attend to at 12.30 p.m. She decided on Rice and Dal as the best bet for lunch, given the limits to her time.
Priya put the items on the boil and soaked the requisite quantity of chickpeas in a container before arranging the table for the next family meal. Utensils had piled up in the kitchen sink for her to clean up after her workday.
The pressure cookers loudly whistled in tandem. Priya poured the food into casseroles.
“Lunch’s ready,” she called out to her in-laws, who were watching TV. She then knocked on the bedroom door to call her husband.
“Rice for lunch again,” her father-in-law exclaimed.
“I have to rush back for a call at 12.30,” Priya explained while hurriedly putting some food on her plate. She would have lunch during the call.
“How come you don’t have time to have meals with us when Mohit does?” her mother-in-law asked as Mohit took his place on the table.
Priya looked at her husband, expecting some support. Mohit was giving full concentration to the food.
“I need to hurry up, Mummyji.” Priya rushed to her workroom with the plate in one hand, already late by a minute for her call.
“I need my space,” Priya said to Mohit later that night. The two were alone in their room. After serving hot pooris to her family, Priya cleaned up the kitchen, arranged ingredients for the next day, and ate her dinner cold while the others had gossiped. It was time now to go to bed.
“As in?” Mohit inquired. “You don’t want to stay in this room with me?” he joked.
“Be serious,” Priya said. Mohit looked at her with more interest as she continued, “I need to be left alone when I work. I am juggling to manage my workload and domestic responsibilities, both of which have increased after lockdown. Getting into conversations over trivial matters during work hours isn’t helping matters. Today, before lunch, Mummyji had to speak to me during my work call. Everyone heard our argument over lunch. After lunch also, she came to my room three-four times to discuss something or the other. This is a daily affair. She expects me to answer her questions immediately, notwithstanding my preoccupations. This has started to affect my work, and I have got a week’s backlog piled up.”
“Is your work so important that my parents can’t speak to you even for a few minutes during the day?”
“Priya,” Mohit interrupted her, “I have supported you despite the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. work timing that you are keeping nowadays. Now you want me to tell my parents that they can speak to their daughter-in-law only as per her work schedule! No way. This is a home first. I also work from home, but I have enough time to lend Mom an ear when she wants to speak to me. I don’t see why you can’t.”
“She doesn’t come to your room that often, Mohit. They think your work is important, and my work is a hobby.”
“Your primary responsibility is to our family, Priya. Anyway, you have got a separate room to work from. By keeping the door shut when inside, you have the space you are speaking about. Anyway, this is a temporary situation and will become redundant when the office resumes. Until then, learn to adjust. Let’s sleep now. Good Night.”
The room went dark, just like a corner inside Priya’s heart.
It was a new day and the same routine for Priya. She woke up early, cleaned the house, took a bath, and prepared the morning tea. The boiling tea on the pan was reflective of her state of mind where on the surface all may seem calm, but things move forward exactly as they should, in tandem with an unseen natural rhythm.
Priya’s head was reeling from last night’s conversation with Mohit. Her husband had asked her to adjust. She had reduced her sleeping hours, taken all the additional domestic chores in the absence of a maid, scheduled her office work to spare some time every day to prepare lunch while at home. She had stopped eating hot meals with the rest of them, given up TV, sacrificed many little things to steal some additional time to fulfil her commitments while confining herself to the cramped guestroom most of the time. What more adjustments can she make?
“Bahu, the tea is boiling over. What are you thinking?”
The voice of her mother-in-law jolted Priya back to the present. She hastily put off the gas and looked askance at the mess the split tea had caused on the gas stove. She needed to do something to avoid a similar spectacle in her life.
“I am not feeling well, Mummyji,” she suddenly said. “I need to lie down and won’t be able to work.”
“Won’t be able to work?” her mother-in-law echoed, anxiety writ large on her face.
“My body is aching, and I am feeling feverish,” Priya feigned. “I hope it’s normal fatigue and not Covid. Let me isolate myself in the guest room to protect the rest of you.”
The older woman opened and then shut her mouth.
“All the ingredients for breakfast are here, Mummyji. Mohit was telling me yesterday that no one can cook like you. Both he and Papaji will like you cooking for them today. I won’t be coming out for breakfast and lunch, so I will sadly miss your delicacy.”
Priya walked into the guest room with a sickly gait. Once inside, she latched the door and plopped down on the bed. She was physically ok but needed that mental space to rejuvenate. She would spend the next six-seven hours clearing some of her work backlogs in peace and taking an afternoon nap.
Priya stared at the ceiling fan. She loved her family but needed some boundaries in order to continue doing so. The latched door signified an important demarcation of space she had created for herself in the absence of understanding from others. Extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures. Of course, she would not stretch this lie, and before venturing out of the room today, will think of a way to prevent her cup of grievances from brimming over.
Feeling lighter, Priya went to her table and switched on her laptop. It was time to set her plan in motion.
This story had been shortlisted for our December 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. The author-juror Ranjani Rao said about this story, “Creating boundaries is essential for healthy relationships. And it’s never too late to carve out a space for serenity and sanity, no matter what the excuse.”
Image source: a still from the short film Ghar ki Murgi
Smita Das Jain is a writer by passion who writes every day. Samples of her writing are visible in the surroundings around her — her home office, her sunny terrace garden, her husband’s car and read more...
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