Dalgona coffee. Jia picked up the coffee mug brimming full of the whipped creamy beverage, which was the drink of the moment and placed it gingerly on her little white side table. She picked up her smartphone and zeroed in on the coffee cup using her phone camera, moving the phone in all directions to hit upon the correct angle that would give her the perfect shot of the mug. A shot that would fetch her the most likes on both Facebook and Instagram. It would of course have to be in portrait mode. She had been tagged to participate in the 'Dalgona Coffee Challenge' doing many rounds on social media during the awful Covid-19 pandemic by one of her Facebook friends. She had tried but could not say no to participating in this mindless exercise of posting photographs on every new topic that transformed into a banal trend on Facebook revamped as a 'challenge' in this godforsaken 2020. This time the hype was about making the Dalgona coffee, named after a Korean sponge sugar candy, a trend had exploded all over the internet once a Tik-Tok video was posted on it.
Jia removed the potted indoor plant from the side table and looked for some adequately intellectual books to place on it beside the brimming coffee mug. She would leave no stone unturned to compose the perfect photograph. She might have been a late entrant into using social media but could definitely not afford to seem like a loser, especially when challenged. As she looked dolefully at her solitary bookshelf in the small and unimpressive dining room, she felt a pang of remorse course through her entire being and she missed her library of her sprawling and spacious Kolkata home even more. Her study and library had been the favourite nook of her home in India. A sacred and safe place where she would take refuge when the world became too much for her.... Anyway, this was no time for nostalgia or hindsight- she reminded herself as she picked up a few books she had purchased from the Robarts Library sale a few weeks ago in downtown Toronto. Most of them were works of English fiction, and some were on English literary theory, and they would have to do for the time being for the lack of anything more cerebral.
An amused smile spread across her lips as she placed the coffee mug beside the books placed one on top of the other with their spines, on which their names were embedded, exposed, and finally hit upon the most appropriate camera angle. Who could have thought that she, an erstwhile English professor of a reputed Kolkata college, known for being nerdy and reticent, was capable of participating in such childish challenges, she wondered? Definitely not her students.
And what was so special about this coffee anyway, other than in its name? She frowned. It was just the same old beaten coffee that they would often sip on in their Kolkata home where she used to live with her in-laws before they immigrated to Toronto. This Korean import was merely it's chic cousin and nothing more. Jia had never understood how things became viral, but she wasn't the one to blame anyone, especially as people were trying desperately to cling on to any little thing that gave them joy or helped them dispense with their anxiety induced by the alarming spread of the COVID 19 virus.
As she bent down to click the photograph, the rich aroma from the strong coffee stirred her nostrils and her carefully suppressed memories of the years gone by. She stopped in her tracks as her mind began to race and her thoughts went into a swirl, rushing about furiously, increasing her heartbeats as flashes of unwanted and uncalled for memories began to jostle for space in her waking mind. She frantically tried to fight her mind from triggering certain reminiscences by focusing on the coffee mug and trying her best to take the shot but her eyes soon became misty and in a split second she was hurtled headlong into her past.
“Should I make tea or coffee?” Jia asked Shiv as he handed over his backpack to her and bent down to sit on the little wooden stool beside the shoe rack and untie his shoelaces. He had come home early from work for a change, and not just before dinner-time as was often the case, and so could afford the luxury of having snacks and beverages that evening.
“I feel so tired,” Shiv suppressed a slight yawn. “Had meetings all over Kolkata today. Make me some coffee please. I’ll have it with your chocolate cake and some potato chips.”
“There is no more chocolate cake, Shivu. Your Baba had the last piece with his evening tea. You can have some chips and biscuits instead.”
Startled, Jia looked around. She hadn’t noticed when Shiv’s Mumma had stepped out from the living room where the television was still blaring deafeningly, to stand behind her and make this announcement. She quickly checked Shiv’s expression. Yes, he looked as crestfallen as she felt deep inside and tried hard not to show. Not that she minded Baba or anybody else having the cake that she loved to bake to perfection. But she had carefully saved the last piece for Shiv as he adored her cakes so much and never got to have too many pieces in such a large joint family as theirs. So, this news was quite out of the blue and unsettled her. Moreover, no one in that household other than Shiv had ever complimented her on her cooking or baking ever since she had been married. And that was quite a long time ago. A matter of years. Naturally, it always came as a shock to her that his family members showed their “appreciation” of her culinary skills by merely gobbling up the fare that she dished up now and then to the point of not leaving the due portions for either of them. So many years of the same behavior and yet- when would she learn to stop caring? She could sense a lump rising in her throat.
“Never mind,” Jia tried her best to sound carefree and cheerful as she pulled at Shiv’s sleeve. “Go freshen up quickly while I make you some strong coffee. And I bought some chocolate cookies yesterday; you can have them with the chips, okay?” If words and looks could caress, the gentleness of her words and expression reached out and ensconced Shiv in a warm embrace. Shiv’s eyes softened as he acknowledged her warmth, brushed off his disappointment and started towards his room.
“I’ll make the coffee; I want to have some too. I’ll make beaten coffee, okay?” Tiny spoke in her shrill voice from behind Mumma.
“Yes, yes, make the beaten coffee and make me a cup too.” Silky added as she walked in to join in the conversation.
“Why is the television still on in the living room?” Jia grumbled to herself. Everybody at home, Shiv’s mother, his younger sister Tiny, his elder cousin Silky, were all crowded in the corridor near the main door with her and her husband.
Shiv looked at Jia resignedly for a fleeting second, mumbled in agreement to his younger sister and whizzed past them to their bedroom. Silky and Mumma trooped back into the living room to watch their Bengali serial as Tiny headed towards their kitchen. No one paid any attention to Jia.
“I'd like to have some beaten coffee too.” Jia quickly staked a claim to her cup. Over the years she had learnt not to underestimate Tiny who was “tiny” only in her nickname and her bust-less frame. A 27-year-old working woman could only be “tiny” possibly in her elder brother and the rest of the family’s imagination by virtue of being the youngest child of the family. Jia had personally encountered the myriad shades of her personality ever since she had stepped into the household and knew only too well that Tiny nothing like what she appeared to the outside world, a warm, cheerful and friendly person.
For instance, she knew that if she did not ask Tiny for a cup of coffee, she would never get one. This, in spite of the fact that everyone in the family knew how addicted she was to tea and coffee and could have these hot beverages at any point of the day or night if she got the chance. Tiny would never ever bother to ask her and if Jia did not express her desire for the coffee, then and there, a cup for her would never be prepared. Not that she enjoyed having Tiny’s beaten coffee that everyone in the family seemed to gush over. She found it pretty bland and unlike the strong coffee she was used to preparing and having herself. Yet spoilt Tiny was forever pampered by all and sundry including her brother and nobody ever called her out for the dismal coffee she made. On most days Jia would not have asked for the coffee, out of self-respect, but that day she wanted to spend some of the extra time she had got with Shiv from whatever little of the evening that was still left and wanted to enjoy it with him sipping her favorite drink.
By the time Shiv emerged from the bedroom in his black shorts and a faded red t-shirt, the coffee had already been prepared by Tiny in the kitchen. Jia readied the chocolate chip cookies and the Lays potato chips on a ceramic plate as Tiny emerged from the large kitchen and handed Shiv his cup and kept Jia’s separately on one corner of the dining table.
“Don’t you want to watch TV?” Tiny queried. She looked disappointed when Shiv nodded a “no” and went off in a huff with the coffee tray to the living room, finally leaving her brother and his wife to some snatched moments of togetherness in the dining room of the huge house of this joint family.
Shiv was generally a quiet person, but even his mere presence exuded a sense of love and care for Jia, and she could spend hours just being with him, sometimes just holding hands and not talking. The silence between them was rarely awkward. At other times, they would tire each other out through their animated conversations on anything and everything that stirred their core beliefs or imagination.
She sipped on her coffee as Shiv narrated the day’s incidents to her munching on his favourite potato chips.
“Seriously, Shiv!” Jia smirked, interrupting the narration of his day’s events. “You take the concept of the ‘love of a brother’ to the next level. God bless your kind heart.”
“Why, what happened?” Shiv looked taken aback.
“I mean, just taste the coffee, will you?” Jia urged. She could afford to be frank then as no one was around. “And please give me an honest opinion for God’s sake. Isn’t it extremely flat? Don’t I make better and stronger coffee than this any day?”
“You always make everything better than everyone in this house dear,” Shiv smiled genuinely as he sipped the coffee from his cup. Tentatively, he added, “But I cannot say this coffee is not strong. Why did you say so? Do you have a headache? A coffee stronger than this would be bitter, don’t you think?”
Jia was perplexed. She knew that Shiv was not one to lie to her. She reached out for his cup and drank from it. The rich aroma gave her the caffeine kick she so required and startled her no ends. She looked carefully at the contents of his cup. The coffee looked rich and far more creamy than the liquid she was having in her own cup.
“Just taste my coffee.” Jia passed her cup to Shiv grimly.
Shiv too looked astounded as he tasted her coffee. And soon embarrassed. Jia felt herself grow a little harder from within. The truth had sunk in clearly for both of them. Tiny had prepared her brother and sister-in-law’s beaten coffee differently, one strong and one light, using different amounts of instant coffee powder for each.
Now everything immediately began to make sense to Jia. Why a coffee addict like her never enjoyed having the beaten coffee made by Tiny although everyone else, including Shiv, always seemed perfectly content with it. Why Tiny always made it a point to place Shiv’s and her cup individually for them, although she carried the identical cups of the La Opala set for everybody else on a tray, from which they could freely choose their own cup of coffee.
Her heart was screaming out loud at this ridiculous pettiness as Shiv quietly exchanged their cups and began to sip her tasteless coffee as if nothing had happened. No one knew better than Jia that Tiny had never accepted her as a family member, her elder brother’s wife, right from the day she had been married. Jia tried to suppress her rising anger as she thought of her sister-in-law, a curious mixture of a person who was inordinately and pathologically jealous of her and at the same time one who shamelessly copied everything she did, without ever acknowledging her influence or her contribution.
The saddest part was that Tiny was also jealous of her own brother, be it of his grand workplace achievements or little homely joys. Worse, she could not stand Shiv being so happy with his wife. It was impossible for Jia to overlook this coffee tale as engineered by Tiny for the love for her brother. With Tiny, it was never the case of whom she loved more between Shiv and Jia, but rather more appropriately, whom she hated less. Hence, Shiv was the recipient of the properly made beaten coffee.
Shiv was aware of Tiny’s true nature that she wore unmasked within the confines of their house safe from the public gaze. Naively, he expected his sister to outgrow her jealousy at some point. Jia could not feel so optimistic. After all, Tiny was 27 years old and had passed the age of such contemptible, petty and childish behavior that she was indulged in by the family, including her brother. If at her age she could still behave so shabbily, it had to have become her second nature and she would never ever feel the need to control or overcome her pathological jealousy. More so, as she was sheltered constantly by all of her family, who never tried to criticize or remedy her attitude that might have pressured her to at least make an attempt at evolving into a better human.
Jia marveled at the hard work and effort Tiny had invested into her teeny-weeny hate act, performed to perfection in every single instance over the months. Tiny had had to be extremely cautious to prepare the coffee differently using different proportions of coffee in identical cups. Then she had to make sure the right cup reached the right person, all very innocuously…all the time pretending how caring and hardworking she was....Would it not have been easier for Tiny to not offer to make the coffee at all? Jia fumed within. Why go through this farce at all?
Shiv had finished Jia’s cup of coffee and was shuffling nervously in his chair. He could sense the storm brewing inside Jia. He looked at her imploringly; he so hated confrontations. He could do anything to keep her happy except get into any fight with his parents, sister or any other family member. He knew they were wrong and he also knew that they were fully aware of it. So, was there any point in getting into an altercation with them? That’s what he told Jia, and more importantly, to himself. That there was no point in a quarrel. Well, at least that is what he liked to believe. Always.
Jia could not understand why he could never really stand up for her to his family. This was not the first time she had experienced their meanness of spirit. Yet he never took any action, even though he also never failed to apologize to her personally for their behavior. Most genuinely. Relentlessly.
She knew this time too Shiv would remain silent. Not a word of rebuke would pass through his lips. And that on every occasion that Tiny would make coffee next, he would surreptitiously exchange his cup with hers. She was on the verge of tears. Even after this discovery of another toxic act from his family member, she had reached a dead end. Shiv would never take any step. And they would slowly get stifled in this negative environment as the years passed by one after the other. Maybe one day, when she would not be able to take it anymore, their marriage would end…?
Jia was startled at the sound of heavy boots climbing down the stairs to their basement apartment. Followed by the sound of wiping feet on the doormat outside. She looked around with a mix of surprise and relief that one feels when being awoken from a horrifying nightmare that one believed was real. She hadn't even noticed how time had passed as she had been reliving her past memories. Just as she had no idea when she had begun crying. The photo of the Dalgona coffee was yet to be taken. She quickly wiped the tears away and forced a smile and went to open the door even before she heard the knock.
Shiv came in smiling and a little wet. "Oh! Is it raining outside?" Jia asked surprised. She would never get used to not being aware of the weather outside from their windowless basement apartment. She wished they would have enough money soon to move to a proper apartment. Even a walkout basement would do given the ridiculously steep housing costs in the Toronto area.
"The weather is terrible outside. We are having freezing rain and it's also very slippery. I am chilled to the bone." Shiv complained as he moved his snow boots away.
"Should I make tea or coffee for you?" She asked, smiling. It was always good to have him return home earlier than expected.
"Coffee, please!" Shiv returned the smile. “I so need a caffeine kick!” The love in his smile melted her heart. As always. She would ask him later how his interview went.
"Freshen up and I will make a special coffee for you. You can have it with whatever is left of the chocolate cake I baked, okay?" said Jia.
"I would love that, dear. But I think I was very greedy this time and had most of your cake in the last two days! Didn't leave you much! Sorry, but not sorry! I loved it! Haha! But exactly what special coffee will you make darling?" Shiv chattered on while going towards the bathroom to freshen up.
"First have it and then you will know for yourself. Jia replied." It's a new type of coffee, you know. Dalgona coffee."
Jia's laughter reverberated in that tiny sunless basement as she picked up her untouched coffee cup, and walked slowly towards her small open kitchen.
Author: Paramita Dutta
Paramita Dutta, Doctorate in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India, was Assistant Professor of English for over 9 years in the higher education sector in Kolkata, before she immigrated to Toronto to embark on new adventures. In Toronto, she taught as an English lecturer at Ryerson University and also worked on the research project Lexicons of Early Modern English at the Department of English, University of Toronto. Currently, she is a LINC/ESL Instructor at The Gary Allan Adult and Continuing Centre of the Halton District School Board and a Speaking Rater for the CELPIP exam with Paragon Testing Enterprises in Canada. She also volunteers dedicatedly at the Teachers of English as a Second Language Association of Ontario in Canada. She is passionate about reading, writing, learning new languages, travelling, and cooking and dreams of a world where love and peace will reign above all.