‘Aqua Regia’ by Subhashree Kishore (India)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Chitra stepped out of the car.  She wore her Indianess well – a bejeweled silk saree and diamonds. She was wont to protest her global visage or Americaness. But today in the grandiose ambiance of the Le Resort, she seemed just another elder come to bless the union of Sreeja and Santhosh.

Chitra smiled wryly thinking “Hmm, quite different from my welcome at Smolensk. How diverting were the cartoons – me as Hitler!”  The humid afternoon was too very different from the silent coldness of the Russian winter. But, Moscow had been warm. She had signed a historic takeover of a century-old bakery.

“Aunty!” gushed Manju as she ran forward.

Suddenly the aunt seemed uneasy – turning green.

“Aunty… what is wrong? Come, come in. Probably you are tired after such a long journey.”

Chitra coughed and stood erect. She hated any display of weakness, more so in herself.

“What is this smell… sickly sweet?”

“Oh… paneer roja… Damask Rose… Santhosh was very particular. The hall is practically drenched in them. Are you allergic?” asked Manju in a concerned voice.

A crisp ‘no’ ensued.

An hour later Chitra walked down calm and collected even as her heart throbbed with the decade old memory of the detested Damask.

***

The first sight of the Tamiraparani, emanating power and grace from its plentiful flow, was exhilarating. Chitra breathed in eagerly.

She turned to see her secretary dutifully reading the milestones. Chitra didn’t need to. Her heart resonated with every run down building, the unpainted flag mast which stood as it had for the past twenty-five years, the goats, buffaloes, schoolgirls and flower sellers.

“Hey! Stop,” she cried out suddenly, “Unbelievable!” she gasped.

Mohan spotted a rundown shack. Well, a house with some kind of shop in the front, to be exact. They climbed up to it through a pathway cut into the hillock. Chitra made herself comfortable on a long wooden bench and Mohan looked around.

“Hmmm… Ponni’s daughter, aren’t you? You look just like her. How are you? Are you married?” enquired the proprietress, flashing a winsome smile at Mohan. Despite the much bleached white saree and lack of any adornments, there was an aura about her. An old grandmotherly warmth which promised oven fresh bread and honeyed scones.

Chitra shook her head and held out her hand to the pro-offered bottle of soda.

“This is my secretary. I work in Bangalore. I came down here for a meeting,” she said. Valliamma could hardly be expected to grasp what she was – Country-head (Operations). 33% of the population practically lived on ‘Elixir.’ She was very close to her dream of replicating a Christine Poon or an Andrea Jung.

Valliamma lost interest in Mohan. She turned to Chitra.

“Oh! You were always a lively, brainy child. You have turned out to be someone important. What do you do? What work?” Valliamma addressed her.

Chitra did not reply. She was immersed in the contents of the thick green bottle. Mohan was fascinated too. He remembered similar bottles from his childhood. A marble stood between the fizzy drink inside and eager lips. A pop sent the marble into the bottle and all was right in God’s world.

The taste! A hundred happy roses had probably been coaxed into the bottle combined with the pleasurable sting of gentle burrs. And there was something else too. He couldn’t quite place it. Was it orange or lime or… mango? Pine apple?

Chitra looked up from her sacred ritual.

“Valliamma, this is fantastic. Just like old days. How I used to long for Daddy to pick me up from school! He always stopped by your shop. Mama was too strict. Eh… you don’t make snacks now…?” she broke off staring at an empty row.

Mohan tried to fathom what had brought Chitra to the place. Nostalgia was fine but his boss was not a nostalgia-imbibing kind – more of nausea-inducing. Besides, time was money. Another fifteen minutes and they would be late for their meeting. His boss would never live it down because “better never than late” was her dictum.

He got up.

“No, I am too old for all that now. I used to sell them ’til a couple years before. But who wants steam boiled or old-time snacks? The children prefer the shiny packets to my plastic covers or dried leaf containers.  But I make enough for myself,” replied the entrepreneur whose outlay was around five thousand rupees at best.

“Madam,” interspersed Mohan.

“Wait in the car. I will be along in a minute,” said Chitra.

Chitra put on her best smile. It was a smile that had snared profitable little companies into pledging their fate with her. It was a precursor to many a hostile merger. One well-manicured nail smoothed an imaginary hair on the forehead.

“Oh… Valliamma… lend me a matchbox,” a girl of about thirteen ran in.

Chitra glared at her. “Just when I was about to launch,” she rued.

The girl stared at Chitra in open curiosity. She had never seen a lady in a business suit before.

“Ah… Meena, look this is Chitra. She used to run around here just like you. Today she has become a… a… great person. She works for important people. Just like her father. He was a very good man. He was the first bank officer we knew. He was so patient, helping us to fill forms and open accounts. Your school was built with money from his bank.” Valliamma’s introduction ensured that the girl whimpered and took a few steps forward to get a better look at Chitra. The latter managed a look of acknowledgement.

The girl took off with a good story to narrate to her friends.

The interruption put Chitra in a better frame of mind to proceed.

“Valliamma, did you know the world drinks up over five hundred billion litres of soft drinks in a year? Imagine all the world over, people want to try something new something tasty. People want choice, even in water. Do you know how many brands of bottled or mineral water there are?”

Valliamma looked up from where she had been putting the used bottles.

“Water? Yes, people ask me that too sometimes. It is a sign of the times. We pay for water. We pay for air-electricity anyway. I do not like it. And flowers? They are so costly. I don’t even get flowers for daily worship.”

Chitra watched in fascination as a tiny red ant climbed up the silver straps of her designer footwear. Another moment and it would deliver a painful bite. She flicked it away.

“Ah… as I was saying, things have indeed undergone a sea change. But, your soda is great, just like the old days. Unique and truly satisfying. You are sitting on a goldmine here,” Chitra rambled on throwing out figures, facts and gestures of encouragement as she worked on her palmtop.

“Hmm… where did you say you work?” asked Valliamma.

Chitra was a trifle annoyed. Not a single word seemed to have reached Valliamma.

Then she softened a little. It was all perhaps too much for an illiterate person to absorb. And it was new territory for her too. All along she had dealt with people who spoke the same jargon, who understood costs and profits.

“Valliamma, why should you sit in the same little shop for years? I will help you to take your product to the world. From Asia to Africa, America to Europe, people will appreciate…”

Valliamma laughed.

“You don’t understand. Look, once we get the GI, or at least setup a proper venture, you will have the monopoly. No one but you can sell the soda and all the profits come to us.”

“But, I am the only one selling it now,” Valliamma said patiently, as if to a child of four.

“How much do you make in a month?” asked Chitra.

“My dear girl, I don’t need money. Moreover, the credit for great taste should go to the sweet waters of our mother,” she said and looked out to the river.

“Tamiraparani’s water is like nectar. She gives us life, food and drink. You talk of bottling plants and industries, of work for poor people here. I have seen your so-called developed towns and factories. They are full of filth and pollutants. Nalini took me to her place last year. The water is yellow and tastes like soap. Nothing will make me move there,” Valliamma paused as she saw Chitra’s face darken.

“Not every factory pollutes. We are trying to give the river her due,” but Valliamma had retreated to the back end of the shop. She lit a little earthen lamp before the gods who seemed content in these humble surroundings and then lit an incense stick.

Mohan floated into view gently. He could no longer handle the persistent ringing of the cell phone.

Chitra bade him wait.

“Come in, shall I make some coffee, or something to eat perhaps?” asked Valliamma

Chitra shook her head.

“Come, come. Don’t make a long face. You used to do that even as a girl. Remember, I would hand over that pink toffee – used to cost one paise those days – just a sugarcoated peanut – and you would smile,” said Valliamma in a kind voice.

“I must leave,” said Chitra.

“Yes, yes… Oh, where did you say you work?”

“I work with Nutra Beverages. You would have seen the logo of the smiling sun holding our drink everywhere. It is a multinational company,” declared Chitra unable to contain her pride.

“Oh… you sell sodas?” asked Valliamma in a shocked voice. “You went off to study… what was the place now… somewhere in foreign… I thought you were an engineer or something, build dams and things… or a doctor perhaps,” Valliamma’s smile was watery as she bade them goodbye.

Chitra half galloped towards the car.

“Tell them we will be there in half an hour,” she answered Mohan’s unasked question.

The polished wooden table and awe-filled stares from the occupants of the room alleviated her gloom a little. All the way to the meeting her mind ran over the events at the little shop. She wondered why she had behaved like a sixteen-year old caught on a sneaky outing rather than the professional she was. Was it because Valliamma was a version of the bogeyman from her childhood? A person who knew she had once failed in English or had chided her for biting her nails?

She fought hard to focus on the main speaker, Mr Andrews.

“…of course, transportation is a dampener. It pushes up cost. But we have everything else going for us. This is a perennial source and the area is almost completely agrarian. We are looking at some fifteen years of uninterrupted activity here,” Mr. Andrews’ quiet confidence came through as he steamrolled all apprehensions about the location of their new plant. Nutra had just entered the mineral water market.

Their honcho was a man of clear vision. He held a string of degrees from prestigious business schools. He was much sought after as a guest columnist for his witty takes on the economy and his compulsive arguments on free trade.

Privately, he had absolute disdain for books and the wisdom enshrined in them. He concluded that the concept of free market and consumerism, of choice and competition was more anti-profit than state control. People didn’t need choice, they had to be convinced that they had one. Classic and modern economists worked in a vacuum, spouting theories of risk bearing and profit. In reality, monopoly and forced consumption coupled with cost control generated profits. The primeval entrepreneurial concept of putting together land, labour and capital and running around to develop a business was not for him. It was easier to buy one out.

Chitra looked at the row of faces around her. The scene never changed. Each wrapped up in it’s own calculations. To the far right was the man who had made this meeting possible. One man’s will stood between Nutra’s dreams and the opponents – a bunch of scare-mongers, environmentalists and locals who refused to be charmed by the promise of development and employment. The people’s representative had cast his vote dearly with Nutra.

She thought of Valliamma, “Of what use is your obstinacy? Like the little boy who set up a vigil all night plugging a hole in the dyke with his little finger, you are taking on the might of the sea. We will conquer you.”

Their return had been delayed by eight hours of incessant rains. Ample time for Chitra to polish her second attempt at Valliamma. She knew now that paneer soda carried a registered trademark. But, the unbending proprietress still held the aces with her special formula. Or perhaps she did not make it herself. She might have sourced it from elsewhere. Her house, which started out from the back of the shop, had always captured the children’s fantasy. Various delicious smells often floated through. At an educated and informed age now, she shuddered to think of what oil had been used for the savouries or how Valliamma ran the kitchen. Back then it had been sheer magic.

“We might just make it before the next spell,” remarked Mohan.

Chitra did not seem to hear him. She seemed in high spirits. She had almost shrieked “Water,” as she drank out of the bottle. He couldn’t  account for it. Used though he was to her mood swings, the past two days had been unexplainable.

“Stop!” she said.

“Oh no!” groaned the secretary.

They had arrived at Valliamma’s place.

Chitra climbed up to complete her victory lap.

The shop was closed. There was no one about.

Akka,” called out the match-box girl from below.

“Valliamma passed away last night,” she said as fresh tears flowed down her cheeks.

“What… what… how? She was quite well… an accident?” enquired Chitra.

“A snake bite. We couldn’t take her to the hospital. It was raining so heavily. My mother used a tourniquet. We tried to suck out the blood. But, it was too late.”

Chitra did not respond immediately. She was trying to sort out her feelings. Even though the manner of the death was cruel, she did not feel any remorse. As far as she knew, Valliamma had no one to mourn for her.

Aloud she said “Oh! So sad!”

“What happens to the eh, house?” she asked gently.

“House… this house? I don’t know. What is there in the house now? My father was so distraught when he lit her pyre. She was so nice to us,” the girl continued to reminisce as Chitra nodded mechanically.

She climbed down.

“There she is at it again!” thought Mohan as he saw his boss in her less-than-happy mood.

She fiddled with her laptop, in an attempt to get away from the sour taste in her mouth. She remembered the taste from fifteen years ago when she had first sipped ‘Elixir,’ and decried it.

The taste did not go away. Instead it refreshed her memory of Valliamma’s face when she had asked her, “You sell soda?”

Chitra shut down her laptop slowly. She looked out to the river. Darkness was beginning to settle in. It seemed less lustrous now. But, it still held to its power.

Glossary

akka: elder sister
paise
: coin of Indian currency (100 such coins = one rupee)
paneer soda
: soft drink made with rose essence
rupees
: unit of Indian currency
saree:  traditional Indian dress using a strip of woven but unstitched textile material draped over the body in various styles in different regions.

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author

Subhashree Kishore is a 35 years old Indian based in New Delhi who writes on   economic, social and women’s issues besides direct taxes. As part of an NGO-initiative, she contributes stories for curriculum on value-based education for school students in India. In 2009, she was awarded a special prize in the Competition for Writers of Children’s Books organized by Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi. Her short story entitled Batter and Trade was published in the anthology Indian Voices (Vol.1, 2011).

Are you a short story writer?
Why don’t you submit your best short story to the
New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology?

Related posts:

1 comment for “‘Aqua Regia’ by Subhashree Kishore (India)

Leave a Reply