Tea and Biscuits

Her name was Poonam… we called her Mrs. P.

She was our landlady; my husband of one month and I. In retrospect, I cannot decide which feeling predominates when I think of her: rolling-on-the-floor amusement or I-wanna-dismember-you-with-a rusty-Rampuri ire. Scales tilting towards the former methinks. Yes… definitely.

She was a middle aged lady and since I was young those days, to me she was old. Yes, didn’t you know one changes the definition of old as one moves closer to the previous cut-off? Only, sometimes it catches us unawares, like it did to a friend.

He called up one day and went on to describe a party at his office, celebrating a colleague’s birthday. He told me that his colleague was a mature lady. Actually, old was the word he used. The next moment he was hopping wanting to wash his mouth out with strong soap, utterly disgusted with himself. He remembered he was exactly two years older to the lady he had expansively (and derisively I need hardly say) called old!! I, naturally, fell off the chair.

As I was saying before you distracted me with a lot of fool talk, was that Mrs. P. was an old/middle-aged widow. Her husband had been in the army. She had four kids; two identical twin girls and two boys. All nicely balanced out.

Only one of her daughters was in India, the rest of her brood prudently moved to the good o’l US of A. The daughter in India was a tall stately creature… impossibly beautiful. Just imagine a taller Madhubala complete with that sensuous smile and eyes dripping oomph by the gallons! And then one looked at Mrs. P.!! I tell you, my imagination- normally very dull- would become fertile when I saw the tree and the fruit together. I wish I could tell you of the impossible scenarios I created without the having WordPress boot me out for objectionable content.

The poor girl was understandably voluble on the subject of her mother interfering in her life. Having being widowed at an early age herself, Mrs. P… err… had decided ideas about certain things. When I tell you that she expected us- a newly wedded couple- to keep our connecting door to her house open always- you’ll know what I mean. Weakmindedly, we kept that door open for two days… and then we closed it firmly. We found out that she loved to walk in unannounced- without so much as a ahem-ahem. It became very embarrassing for her poor thing, so we closed the door just to spare her delicate feelings.

Mrs. P was in the habit of locking up her house for six months at a time to go and visit (read infest the lives of) her US crop. It was a welcome change for us all, something in the nature of a free Diwali- all expenses paid.

After one such trip, she asked me to make her a couple of chapattis as she wasn’t feeling up to it. She had the dough kneaded she said. When I asked her for some dry flour, she handed me a box in which she kept some. After rolling out the chapatti,  when I put it on the tava, the first things I saw were two brown insects and three-four plump white maggots. You know the kind that get into grain? (Chapatti– Indian flat bread; tava– flat iron girdle on which a chapatti is cooked.)

I was pregnant with a very queasy stomach. I just threw up. Later she told me she had brushed the things (animals by gawd!) off the chapatti and made the rest of the chapattis herself with the same dough. She never threw ANY of her rations away after she came back. You can bet your boots we never ate a morsel of her food- EVER.

It was said of old Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, that she never puts dots over her I s, to save ink.

~Horace Walpole

Another day she called me for something early in the morning. She was making tea. While I stood talking to her, I saw she took enough water for six cups of tea. I was perplexed but held my tongue (I used to do that a lot those days… sigh) as behooved a young, newly married girl when dealing with her elders.

Sure enough, it turned out to be six cups of tea. She offered me one, which I refused, lying to say I hadn’t brushed my teeth. She took one herself, and reverently placed the balance five- in their cups and still hot- in the fridge. To say I was mystified would be an understatement. I heard nothing of what she was saying after that and started imagining what she would do with the tea. I suppose she was preparing for her next return from the US. After all one does need a refreshing cup of tea after such a long journey. And one doesn’t want to fool about with a lot of milk and water and sugar. How much better to leave it readymade in the fridge and just start drinking the moment one landed. I must confess… I felt a grudging admiration for her forethought.

The next day I found I was all wrong. Apparently the tea ritual was a daily occurrence and yes, it was a ritual. A pretty elaborate one at that.

She would bathe and dress herself neatly everyday and take up her station at the main gates. Every neighbor who passed by would be invited for tea. If they were new, they would come. Extraordinary tenacity the woman had. She’d hang on to the hapless neighbor like a bull-dog. They would come in and be given that re-heated tea and maggot-eaten six month old biscuits.I am not exaggerating. My poor father once came to visit us without prior intimation and didn’t find us home. We hadn’t yet told him of the toxic tea ritual and he, poor dear, had a couple of years of growth choked out of him by that lethal Mrs P., curse her!Yes, I am mighty fond of my dad. I have heard of people wasting away and dying after one such Tea and Biscuits party in her home.

After I moved away, I heard vague rumors of them thinking of forming a club of Mrs. P’s victims. I remember wondering if they would also allowed her dog Bonzo to join. He was a blameless, miserable looking spaniel who waited for our connecting door to open so he could hide under our box bed from where no amount of her coaxing could extricate him. Poor beggar. Nothing came of that club though, they found there weren’t enough of them left alive to make one.

There was no gizmo on earth that she didn’t have three or four of. I have myself seen no less than five vacuum cleaners, three coffee makers, four geysers, an assortment of toasters and irons and electric ovens- all unused. After we moved from her house, a vacuum cleaner salesman latched on to me. I gave him Mrs. P’s reference… she bought two more from him (he brought me a bunch of red roses in appreciation).

Yet, she would go about her house, as early as six in the morning, wearing a filthy faded kaftan, dusting the house- and leaving it dirtier than before. Her house was huge, I mean the portion she lived in. Two stories of a house built in 30 sq yards. Do the math yourself, I only understand square feet- but even I know it was stupendous. Oh… no no… our portion was only two small rooms; we couldn’t afford more.

Once she was planning to go and live with her daughter- the one in India. Yes, she invited herself. She was to leave in the morning, for a week. She planned to eat a light dinner for which she needed bread. She ordered me to go and buy some for her. I was in a lousy state what with the pregnancy and asthma. I told her I’d ask my husband to get it when he came home. She always took it for granted that we’d run errands for her and jump whenever she wanted. My husband was late that day. In the next hour she came and asked for him five-six times. As soon as he came, she was in our face again. My husband was itching to tell her to go and bloody well get it herself but he controlled himself and went. She gave him no money saying she’ll give it when he returns. The moment he called her from the connecting door to take the bread, she came briskly. “Actually I don’t need the full loaf so I’ll just take 4-5 slices from this and you can have the rest.” As long as I live I will not forget the look on my husband’s face as he stood there with a torn open pack of bread, the door banged in his face- and no money.

When I want to show the kind of meanness people are capable of, to make it believable I find I have to tone it down. It’s in real life that people are over the top.

~Todd Solondz

There are countless minor incidents that went to ensure that neither of us would ever forget her.

Once she asked my brother-in-law to repair the fan in her dinning room. The poor kid was stuck on a stool for over three hours in the sticky, sweltering June heat of Delhi’s summer, his neck nearly disjointed, trying to find the fault in the wiring. After three hours he got off the stool and turned on all the switches on the switch board. The fan came ON! Apparently, she had forgotten which switch turned the fan on and was using the wrong switch!!

She would merrily walk in and help herself to anything I had in my fridge… including… I still remember… half a dozen eggs and one kilo of chicken. Vegetables (cooked and raw), milk, fruits (mangoes specially, oooohh I hated her!), chapatti dough, any other cooked food. She helped herself to everything without so much as a by-your-leave. I am sure she thought we were keeping them for her. Or maybe she forgot that the fridge she was rummaging around it wasn’t hers. Though she only had to look to see the missing cups of tea to know that it wasn’t hers!

She once asked me to cook chole for her kitty party. She gave me a brass kadhai to cook them in and I explained to her that we must not use brass with tamarind as they react. I spent nearly the entire day cooking food for twenty-five people, all alone. Before I left, I warned her again not to put the chole in a brass pan. She did it anyway and later came to complain and to tell me what a lousy cook I was because none of her guests could eat the food.

She was a mean parsimonious woman, who hated people to be happy.

Did you ever think Tea and Biscuits could be lethal?

Tea and BiscuitsTea and Biscuits

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20 thoughts on “Tea and Biscuits”

  1. Gosh, a landlady from hell! The story of that food and tea made me want to throw up; I just had lunch.

    You must have been so polite back then. Alas, the Rampuri was not put to better use. 🙂 I loved your pun about aging. How the dimensions change as we push toward middle age ourselves! 🙂

    1. She was one mean woman Rachna. She may amuse me now, but I wasn’t at all amused then. I guess the distance of a few years is essential to make you realize the humor of a situation :).

      I was indeed very polite those days. 😀 I think that’s an endearing quality in youth. 🙂

    1. Jairam, she was very funny. And we consoled ourselves with the thought of Bonzo. Whatever she did to us, we were miles ahead of poor Bonzo. 🙂

  2. I could totally picture the expression on your ‘young’ face as you stood in her kitchen watching her keep those 5 tea-cups in the fridge 🙂 Oh, she sounds like some character from a movie! This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, Dagny. Loved reading it. And that part about changing definitions of aging is so true, says one more ‘mature’ lady 🙂

    1. Haha Beloo. Says one more ‘mature’ lady to another ‘mature’ lady. I love this! 🙂

      She truly was a character Beloo. There was another family renting two rooms on the first floor. They were Kashmiri Pandits who had recently fled from their beloved Kashmir. The lady of the house, a benign loving woman who pampered me when I was pregnant, would make crusty comments about our mutual landlady in pure punjabi (the only language she knew). I would roll with laughter at the pithy descriptions. Truly, punjabi is the best language to take someone down a peg or two! 🙂

    1. Infested is such a wonderful word, isn’t it? Peeping toms are the pits really!

      And I do have a fabulously annoying character for a novel! never thought of that! Thank you for drawing my attention to it! 🙂

  3. You had your share of her before you moved out. To her credit, she actually taught a thing or two to you about the level of quirkiness which is attainable by human beings.
    And I was thinking that I was the only one who had seen the most stingy character in my life who even by far does not come in the league of Mrs P. This lady I am talking about was my son’s friend’s mom. We had just moved in to the new city and I was looking at her son as my son’s prospective friend who , thanks to his mother, could never become more than a classmate to my son.
    After two years of sharing the neighborhood ,being denied her son’s company to play football ,videogames etc to my elder son , one fine day she called up to say she was moving to another country and wanted to send her son to spend the day with us as packers were coming to her house the next day. I agreed to have the young chap with us and cooked a small feast befitting a send off party .
    come next day and her son appears at our door with a chocolate box and hands it to my younger boy ,aged 2. Since the baby could not open the box himself ,he handed the box to me and asked me to open it. The box felt unusually cold to me and when I realized that it was coming straight from fridge I was surprised and out of some sensible instinct I checked the bottom of the box which had had needle shaped holes to it and had a stamp which said that the said box contents had expired 10 years back.
    till today I am thankful to God that the children ,including her son, did not eat the chocolates.
    sorry for the long comment but I felt compelled to share it with you.

    1. Kriti, Thank you for your detailed. Please don’t apologize. I am gratified that you wanted to share a part of your own life with me… and I value it as such.

      The incident you have narrated, is every bit as awful as can be imagined. Storing something edible for 10 years!!! My god! That’s so revolting. Thank God indeed that there was no interaction between your son and your neighbor’s kids!

      Thank you for coming by and sharing… <3

    1. She scared you too CRD? Funnily enough, she didn’t scare me then but now the thought of her makes me quake in my shoes. Of course, as a dear friend always said- I was too stupid to get scared! 😀

      Thank you for the pug-marks. Welcome!

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