Mangalore Buns

It was a beautiful day in September, the sun was gentle, the trees were in between the hues of orange and brown and the afternoons were perfect for a nap. Dharma, however, was in the middle of chaos.

He was waiting for the parents of his students to start arriving. It was the dreaded parent-teacher meeting before the biggest festivities of the year began.

Dharma worked in a prominent convent school in Bangalore in South India. He was 26 and taught Chemistry to high school students from grades 8-10. This was his first job and he had been here for a little over a year and was glad that he didn’t have to work for a lesser-known school. He enjoyed the benefits he received like free transportation and low-cost meals at the canteen.

He was a lanky, tall man with dusky skin and delicate almond eyes. He wore grey almost every day to work and liked to keep to himself most of the time. His age almost always worked against him in his work as the senior teachers disregarded his ideas and the head of the department of Chemistry asked him to temper his work constantly.

However, Dharma liked his students. They were his source of entertainment and pride. The boys always had interesting PlayStation games to talk about and the girls loved discussing the latest Netflix shows with him. When any of them exhibited even a remote interest in Chemistry he felt his job had a purpose.

The parents waited in line as Dharma addressed each of them patiently. There were the usual parents he had always encountered. The type who was perpetually unhappy despite their child being in the top 10% of the class, the type who wanted their child to make friends with the top 10% and not hang out with average Joes, the type who was embarrassed by their child’s academic performance and did not want to be at the meeting and lastly, the ones whose solution to everything was tuition classes for all the subjects that matter.

Three hours and several cups of coffee later, he offered a tissue to the last student who was pretending to cry as her mother bombarded her with questions. “She will pass all the subjects in the finals sir, I guarantee it. This girl is too focused on enjoying life” the mother told Dharma as she was leaving. “Don’t worry madam, Anju is going to do well” he responded mentally noting Anju’s mother’s definition of enjoying life was her daughter’s gift for music and the arts.

And then there was one. Yogi was the only student left in class waiting for his mother patiently. She came rushing into the door just as Dharma thought she wouldn’t show.

Ambika Bhat wore a lavender shirt that was dotted with yellow sunflowers with small gold hoop earrings. She was a chubby woman with curly hair and a very expressive face. She had a vibrant personality and a voice that demanded attention.

She apologised profusely for being late. Dharma couldn’t help but notice how lavender was such a beautiful colour on her, he hated lavender in general. He only liked greys and blues. “Did she do something different to her hair?” he wondered as she scanned Yogi’s grades.

“I have already gone through his grades and overall performance online, I came for a discussion” she informed him. They discussed Yogi’s weaknesses in depth when Dharma offered to take tuition classes exclusively for Yogi. “That won’t be necessary Dharma, I have almost finalised a private tutor who can cover Math and Science, he has a Master’s degree from a really good university and teaches at an international school” she declined politely. “This has nothing to do with the past, he is a bright student and because we’ve spent so much time together, I know how to guide him” he protested. “I didn’t question your intentions, I just think this is the best option for him,” she said. “Private tutors are expensive,” he said noticing that she was tapping her foot nervously against the table. “I’ll manage, thanks for your help. Let’s review his performance after the mock exam before the finals” she said ending the conversation. She left the classroom as swiftly as she had entered it, her perfume lingered which took Dharma back in time.

It was a hot day in June when he met Ambika for the first time. It was his first month on the job at the school. She wanted to meet Yogi’s math and science teachers. She was surprised to find a young twenty-something Chemistry teacher talking to her passionately about different academic opportunities for her son.

Within a month, Ambika had Dharma conducting private tuition classes for Yogi at her residence. He understood how Yogi learnt and had a reassuring presence. They met at her place twice a week for two hours. Ambika always ensured Dharma received hot chai and biscuits, she would never let a guest leave her house without them trying her ginger chai. She took it personally when Dharma told her that he was a coffee person and didn’t like her tea.

Dharma, being an introvert, did not attempt to start a conversation with Ambika. He preferred to keep it professional and discuss only school-related issues. Ambika, a busy single working mother, had no time to spare to talk to Dharma after class.

‘There’s nowhere you can be, that isn’t where you’re meant to be’ – John Lenon

Bangalore was notorious for its unpredictable weather, it could rain all day at the drop of a hat. Dharma was just about finished with his session with Yogi when the beginning of the rainfall that could drown you began.

There was nothing much he could do except browse through articles on his phone. Ambika was exhausted after a long day of training for the new employees, she was a Human Resources manager at Amazon.

After what seemed like an hour, Ambika realised that the rain would continue for the next few hours and Dharma could not travel on his bike in such heavy rainfall nor would he be able to get a cab. She decided it would be rude if she didn’t offer him dinner.

Sitting across the dining table, sharing a meal of sambhar and rice, for the first time in 2 months, they had a conversation about themselves. Yogi was in the living room watching Japanese anime. They chatted about their careers, their favourite restaurants in the city and their families. Ambika’s parents were living in Udupi and visited her often, especially after her difficult divorce to lend support and help take care of Yogi. Dharma lived with his mother, he had lost his father a few years ago.

It was easy to talk to Ambika. She was so talkative and cheerful that the conversation flowed easily for Dharma. They both liked Italian food and she disliked the same senior teachers in school that he did. He was almost disappointed when it was time to leave. He felt like he had a long conversation with his best friend from college.

It rained that entire week and Dharma was stuck at Ambika’s house for many hours after class. They enjoyed long conversations over a bowl of noodles, fried rice and khichdi depending on the day. Ambika shared stories of the funny candidates she had interviewed and the twisted corporate politics that Dharma was not privy to.

When the bout of bad weather had ended, Dharma found himself thinking about Ambika. He was attracted to her in a way he knew was wrong. She was a mother in her early 40s, focused on giving her son the best education she could afford. He could find someone in the same phase of life as him he told himself.

It was Yogi’s 14th birthday and Dharma was invited for a private lunch Ambika had organised with Yogi’s close friends and some of her friends. It was in a gaming arena where a bunch of teenagers were too distracted with virtual reality to care about the adults. Ambika looked radiant in a yellow maxi dress with her curly hair tied up in a bun. He could smell her rose-scented perfume standing next to her.

Ambika’s friends were as extroverted as she was. They tried to include him in the conversation, they shared a delicious lunch and he discovered through them that she used to be a theatre artist for many years as a passion until she had Yogi. ‘That explains her expressive face’ he thought.

When he chanced upon an opportunity to find the famous city theatre RangaShankara hosting folk music he felt no harm in asking Ambika if she wanted to watch it. “I haven’t watched a live performance in years, it’s sweet of you to remember I used to be a theatre artist,” she told him smiling at the thought of being near the stage again.

Several months passed, and Yogi was busy with school, friends and his anime oblivious that his mother had been having evening dates at the ‘darshini’ (a local cuisine restaurant) with his favourite teacher. They often met after her work to grab a bite, she always picked Mangalore buns, a sweet fried bread made from flour and ripe bananas served with coconut chutney. A childhood favourite that originated from her birthplace. “Only this place makes it fresh,” she told Dharma each time.

Yogi’s mother who normally stayed away from romance of any kind after his father had broken her heart was now looking at love differently. She looked at love as companionship, a friendship that she could rely on rather than an all-consuming emotion that could blow up in flames if ignited.

“You are interested in a 40-year-old single woman whose son you teach?! Have you lost your mind?” Dharma’s mother asked him looking stunned at the news her son had just given her. “You can find an equal match, you are out of her league, why would you want to shoulder this kind of responsibility at 26?!” she continued getting visibly angrier at his nonchalant attitude. “So, pretending to like a spouse for 30 years of marriage like you did was not a burden but choosing to like someone who just happens to be unconventional is a burden?” he asked her. “Everyone has different burdens they need to carry in their lives, I could not choose mine, it was forced upon me, but you get to choose and this is not an option,” she told him leaving the room to ensure Dharma did not attempt to convince her.

It took many dinners at her house together after Yogi’s class, theatre performances and darshini dates for Ambika to arrive at the realisation that she was unconsciously building a relationship that could not be defined . He was an intelligent, thoughtful, reliable man whose presence comforted her but he was also very young. Her family and friends would disapprove, they lived in a relatively conservative society. She would be risking her son’s future but most importantly she couldn’t afford to have another broken heart in one lifetime.

It was a hot summer’s day in April, the beginning of summer vacation at the school. 9 months after they had first met. The chutney was sour just like Ambika’s mood. Dharma arrived not wearing grey for the first time hoping she would notice. Ambika had been distant to him for a few weeks, he did not expect this to be the usual chat over filter coffee. He knew that both of them were dealing with conflicting emotions.

“It would be best if we stopped meeting, I will find another tutor for Yogi, I have the entire summer break to look for one,” she said looking sadly into his eyes. “Was it something I did or said?” he asked taken aback by her statement. “None, I took our friendship too far, it’s a relationship we do not need,” she told him looking down at her plate. “Are you worried about what Yogi or your family will think?” he asked her. “I don’t think there’s any point in us spending any more time together. We can focus our efforts elsewhere….sorry but this colour doesn’t suit you” she said trying to finish the last bit of sour chutney. “You don’t have to be an HR all the time, you sound like you are firing someone, we were more than colleagues” he responded to her impersonal way of ending their relationship. There was nothing more to say since they both knew the cards were stacked against them.

He processed his grief quietly, informing his mother that it was over. His mother was relieved and performed a puja to thank God for helping her son choose the right path. Dharma steered clear of eating at any darshini and made his conversation with Yogi only about class despite Yogi’s attempts to digress. Dharma never saw Ambika again until the Parent Teacher Meeting in September.

On some days, Ambika almost sent Dharma messages when she wanted to talk about the bad phase at work she was going through. She accidentally did one day and he responded “we can always share updates, we are still friends”. Dharma found weekends particularly hard to deal with. His friends didn’t possess the type of excitement and passion for life Ambika had when they went out.

In the last 3 years of Yogi’s school life, they saw each other at Parent Teacher Meetings. The conversations were brief, Yogi had become a good student in his subject so he had no complaints. The big day had finally arrived, it was the school graduation day.

He was hoping to see Ambika at Yogi’s graduation. She wore a lavender saree and had let her curly hair flow wild and open, it reflected her mood. She looked proud and happy as she posed with Yogi and her parents for photos.

She looked for Dharma, and she spotted him taking pictures with students and other teachers. He looked handsome in his grey blazer, as he bid farewell to his young students. She almost wanted to ask him to meet her at the darshini after graduation, she came very close.

“Hi…I wanted to thank you for your effort in the last 3 years. You are still Yogi’s favourite teacher and his grades in Science have always been high thanks to your guidance” she told him smiling. “I didn’t do much, he gets the zeal from his mother” he responded as their eyes met. “Will I see you after this?” he asked her afraid of the answer. “I hope so” she responded gently touching his shoulder.

It was a few years later and Dharma’s mother was excited. It was the day they were finalising the menu for Dharma’s wedding. Dharma’s fiancee Niharika, her family, Dharma and his mother were incessantly discussing the dishes. After much deliberation they handed over the final order to the caterer, there was only one dish that the chef felt was out of place on a dinner menu, it was Mangalore buns.


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