On the first of January 2016, our girls party drove up to the Gateway of India and entered the heritage Taj hotel for a quick immersion in the grandeur of a bygone era.
“Let’s do high tea, it’s tradition!” I told my daughter and niece.
We sprinted through the lush corridors of the hotel and floated up the cascading carpeted staircase. We caught a glimpse of ourselves in the long mirrors. To our chagrin, we were not dressed in our Sunday best. But we “ragamuffin trio” shrugged our elegant shoulders because the sparkle in our eyes more than made up for our casual attire.
The hostess of the Sea lounge looked at us and asked if we had a reservation. “
“No,” I said, “but I used to frequent the Sea lounge with my dad when I was a teenager.”
“Surely,” said the well-trained employee, without blinking an eye and took us to a window seat in the restaurant.
We sat down. I gazed out at the glimmer of sea. The silver waters stretched over the teeming heads of a madding crowd of Mumbaikers and their guests on the street below. In the seventies of my childhood, Mumbai was not so crowded!
I studied the scene in front of me like viewing a painting in a gallery. The boat with ochre and emerald trim and a hint of red. White billowing sails competing to mingle with fluffy cloud gestures in the western sky. The barely perceptible boats far away on the horizon, bobbing peacefully on the waves invoked tranquility.
With a great difficulty of a child leaving the sight of her companion, I turned my gaze inside. I looked around me. I was alone at the table. From the snowy white linen, my eyes jumped to a Blue China sugar bowl heaped with perfect cubes of crystallized sugar.
Transported to my childhood, I took a cube and let it sit on my tongue. As it melted, I remembered how I would gingerly advance my fingers towards the sugar bowl as a child. At the same time, cleverly gauging how many I could stuff into my fist without catching the eyes of either parent in one go. Dad would be sipping his tea and mom would be pouring her cup. In that busy moment, when the spoon was turning, I would plan my sugar swoop.
I would manage to pilfer two or three of these extraordinary sweets with great ease. I would surreptitiously stuff them into my mouth and then try to conjure an expression of innocence. Alas, the two sharp bulges in my, then smaller cheeks, would give me away! My sister would take pleasure in my failure.
As I tried to assimilate the cubes, I was amazed at how much time they took to dissolve in my mouth in those days. My countenance would melt in embarrassment and I would beg for mercy at my mothers’ rebuking gaze. My mother prided herself in instructing us on good behavior. The tension would break as my dad would chuckle and say, “trying to avoid the horse’s eye, eh?”
I never understood that expression because there was no horse in this gathering! But I always obliged him to be at the butt of his joke. Then I would hide my face in my hands, but not for long because he would smile his dazzling smile and we would all be hypnotized by his presence. His lips would form his sweet singing signature moue that I have never been able to emulate and he would sing: “Rum jhum rum jhum, (2) Chhupo na Chhupo na, oh pyari sajaniya, sajan se Chhupo na…
I brush a tear and listen to the sounds of the ocean. I can hear dad’s laughter rise and fall on the waves. I catch myself singing the same song…
The waiter appears at my elbow, discreetly ignoring my faux pas of pilfering sugar cubes, “Would you like some champagne, miss?”
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.