I am among those that believe you can read your fortune in tea leaves, and so I should have seen it coming. I should have heard Grams whispering in my ear. I had been careless. I could hear her stern voice, prickling my guilt. There was someone I had neglected. There were few people that were as close as family… but auntie Rukhsana was one of them. She had to know I was in town, yet I had avoided calling her the way one avoids an itch that wants to be scratched.
Grams and auntie Rukhsana had been friends forever, though the connection of such diverse backgrounds remained a mystery. Grams, all sensible and practical; Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth all rolled into one with a touch of Greta Garbo, as for auntie Rukhsana…? Well, even from afar I could feel her gypsy eyes watching me. Despite the years, when I called she recognized me right away,
“I was just thinking of you.”
I liked listening to her speak. Her voice carried the aroma East fusing with West. Women like Rukhsana have a certain timeless quality. They are Persian cats, exotic and fanciful. In fact, few people remind me of royalty more than Rukhsana Alaudin. Auntie and Grams always loved the custom of high tea. I could still remember being a gangly youth being dragged along to one of their monthly tea ritual. Rukhasana auntie would sit in her elegant saris and ornate jewelry looking as elegant as any Rajj Kumari (Indian Princess). Grams would be dressed quite properly in her trademark Channel suite, not a hair out of place and a string of pearls that were classic Cornelia Valois.
It seemed fitting that I would be a stand-in for Grams at afternoon tea. She asked me to bring Rumi – of course she knew he was in town! And I of my own accord invited Casey.
We arrived at the Tajj Boston to partake in a ritual that was both old world and new. I could hear the melody of the harp as we entered the French room; there were original pieces of art on display and ornate sofas cushioned amongst the elegant tables. I noticed that most of the waiters looked South Asian and I was taken back to stories I had heard about India during the time of the British Rajj. However, with all its finery the Tajj only had merely subtle hints of its Indian roots.
Auntie Rukhsana was already waiting for us; sitting beside her was her nephew Armand. She was the type of person that blended in and stood out at the same time. She was wearing a sari. It was a monochromatic blend on intricate patterns with silver accents. It reminded me of a fan of a peacock tail. I walked over and gave her a kiss hello while introducing my friend Casey who was a PhD student at Harvard.
“I love academics,” she said.
Practically strangers, we sat awkwardly around the table but only until the food appeared. Placed before us was an array of finger sandwiches (smoked salmon and caviar, cucumber and cream cheese, and creamy egg salad), canopies and an assortment of pastries. I had never mastered the art of nibbling and tried not to inhale the entire tea cakes.
As we sipped our spicy chai, nibbled and munched our muscles relaxed and our tongues loosened. Even Rumi began to look like he had been born holding a tea cup. Casey nervously began described her research and her decision to pursue life in an ivory tower, all the while Armand gazed at her as one does the sun. Auntie responded with a quote from one of my favorite authors
“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”
It seemed prophetic, like the words of a fortune teller. Auntie Rukhsana was definitely the most gypsy like when she was drinking tea as if any moment she could reveal something startling about your future. Before we left she said to me,
“I see your grandmother every time I look at you. Oh, I know you really didn’t look alike but, how do I say it…you are different in all the same ways and the same but in different ways, like snowflakes or waves in the same ocean subject to the ebb and flow of the same tide.”
It was the most, vague and somehow the most accurate way to describe my relationship with Grams. That is the story of how Rukhsana auntie became our unofficial den mother, mine and Casey and Armand and perhaps Rumi too. I left that afternoon having felt I had, had my fortune told.
Next Post: Jan. 30