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Cardamom and Other Such Forbidden Thoughts

(1,878 words)

The cold bites through the flimsy jacket Thermix has given G-117. The oldest say there was a time when Mumbai was not like this—when it was full of mosquitos and warm rains. When summer evenings meant burgundy sunsets, the aroma of hot chai, and the sounds of children laughing. It is different now. Everything is different now.

G-117 squints at a decrepit sign marking the entrance to a gully, his boots crunching in the snow as he searches for building numbers. Tiny flecks of ice dot his eyelashes. It is difficult to see. Perhaps he can find a discarded pair of goggles in the executives’ trash if he volunteers for garbage collection next week. Ordinary inspectors are not afforded such luxuries at Thermix.

The number 7 has been scrawled in brown paint on the concrete wall before him. Hack job by some municipality worker too cold to bother with aesthetics.

G-117 trudges up the staircase, the wooden boards of each stair creaking under his weight. This staircase has not been used by anyone in quite some time.

He pauses after climbing nine stories, almost to the top of the building. A cramp threatens to seize the muscles on his right side but passes a moment later. It is the tallest building in the shantytown that surrounds it, a relic from the foolish generation that thought it could build unencumbered by nature. All around him he sees metal roofs made of glinting sheets stolen from lorries. A fading caricature of a Bollywood starlet of yesteryear smiles from a roof fashioned from a discarded billboard.

Everything is eerily quiet; this sector has only fifty-three remaining residents.

He pushes open a termite-ridden door and steps into the ninth floor hallway. It is no warmer in the hallway than outside. The two doors on either side of the hall are closed tight, shrouded in layers of cakey dust and cobwebs. There are scuff marks in the dust—tiny feet dragging one after the other—leading to the door at the far end.

G-117 rifles through the papers in his pocket until he finds the notice.

Occupant, Unit 901, Building No. 7, Sector 213-A, Mumbai.

He knocks on the door, pulling down the scarf that covers the bottom half of his face. Several seconds pass in silence.

As he is about to knock again, the door creaks open. A pair of light eyes milky with cataracts stare out at him. They are jarringly bright in the surrounding dimness.

G-117 clears his throat.

“Good evening, madam. I am an inspector from Thermix, your energy supplier. Your bill has not been paid for the last three months, so we are issuing you a final notice—”

“Would you like some tea?”

Her voice is cracked and brittle, not dissimilar to the stairs G-117 took to reach this place. It too has not been used in quite some time.

Disconcerted by her interruption, he restarts the carefully rehearsed speech that he has given to many customers over the past six years of his employment. “I—thank you, but I’m here on behalf of Thermix and we are issuing—”

“I heard you,” she answers, and the door swings open.

She is old—very old, really—her spine hunched and hair as white as the snow outside. She seems to teeter dangerously as she walks, held up only by the grace of her wooden cane. She is a mere few ounces of skin away from being nothing more than a skeleton.

G-117 clears his throat again, opening his mouth in another attempt to read the warning from the beautifully printed Thermix stationery.

“Don’t,” she says, placing an arthritic hand on his own. He shudders at her touch. It is warm. Nothing is warm these days. A plastic bangle dances on her wrist.

“Come, child, have some tea,” she says.

G-117 is at a loss. Thermix hired him as an inspector for his brawn. Most of the customers he gives notices to grovel and cry at his feet before turning angry and violent. He has had to fight off many desperate souls, unable to pay their bills; aware that the electricity is the only thing that provides them any warmth at all. He does what is needed without question every time. The training video clearly instructs inspectors not to worry themselves with the consequences of turning off the power.

Remember, you are here to do a job. Focus on doing your job well. They have not paid. That is all you must consider. The animated trainer grins wolfishly.

I am here to do a job.

But she has already disappeared inside. If he is to communicate with her at all, if he is to do his job, he has no choice.

G-117 thinks about the pile of notices still stashed in his pocket. Three more to do today, one of them all the way in Sector 189.

He takes a deep breath and steps inside.

The apartment is barren and, somehow, still no warmer than outside. A single rocking chair sits by the window, a worn patchwork quilt bunched on the seat. In one corner is a cot with a quilt of its own. The woman hunches over a small stove in the other corner, the tiny blue flame turned to the lowest setting.

She plucks a rusted steel pot from the counter and dips it into a bucket on the floor. There is not much water in the bucket, and what remains is stained a rancid light yellow. Like everyone else in the sector, she has collected whatever the municipality has allowed to dribble out of her faucet between seven and seven-fifteen in the morning.

The silence unnerves G-117; something about quiet in the presence of another person causes him discomfort.

“Do you live here alone?” he asks finally.

“Yes,” she answers. “I am all that is left.” She offers no more detail, and they simply watch the withering blue flame together.

Something warm seeps into G-117’s skin, something he has not felt in a long time. He wonders if it is merely the flame.

“It is a special occasion,” she says suddenly, reaching for a tiny metal box on the counter. She opens it, revealing green bulbs of cardamom.

G-117’s mouth drops open. He has heard of cardamom—knows it was once a spice used by everyone—but he has never seen it up close before.

“How did you get that?” he asks, more out of fascination than reproach. Of course, the municipality would be furious to know anyone has been storing such a coveted spice under their noses.

“It was once everywhere, you know,” she grunts, struggling to open the pods with her shaking fingers.

He moves forward, curious as ever. “Can I help?”

She nods, handing him the half-opened pod.

He opens it nimbly and drops the brown seeds into the water. It immediately releases a hypnotic scent into the air. G-117 breathes deeply.

His lungs fill with the fragrant steam, but it is unlike the fumes that plague the air outside. There is something in it he can’t quite put his finger on. Something that feels like home. Like childhood. He suddenly wonders how his mother is doing. Faint memories of standing by her elbow in a kitchen—green bulbs popping open in her expert fingers—those forbidden thoughts that have been tucked away for years. She lives in the Outer Sectors, and he has not visited her in—he finds himself unable to recall how long it has been.

The permits are so arduous to procure, he has told her over the phone.

They stand in quiet rumination; two souls splintered open, steeping in silence like cardamom in a boiling pot.

“It is ready,” she whispers after a short while.

He turns off the flame as she reaches for two chipped cups. He lifts the pot gingerly and pours the tea. At one time, there might have been milk.

She takes one cup and slowly makes her way to the rocking chair by the window, settling into the quilt before taking a long, slurping sip. Her head tilts back into the chair, eyes closed. She escapes to a time that G-117 can only yearn to know.

He too takes a sip, still standing by the counter. Heat rushes through his veins and scalds his heart. It shocks him, slaps him from within. For once, he thinks about something other than inspections and overdue bills. For once, he thinks himself worthy of thinking anything at all.

He realizes this is the first time someone has been kind to him in a long, long time.

“I cannot pay the bill,” she announces from the other end of the room. “I have no money.”

Everything crashes back into place. Cardamom tea is merely a dream—a luxury entombed in ice or displayed in a museum.

He is an inspector, and Thermix has deemed her a thief of its valuable energy.

“There are payment plans—” he suggests, but she shakes her head.

She looks out the window, her milky eyes somber. “I have no money. I have made my peace with it.”

There is nothing left for him to say. Today, his target does not put up a fight. She does not protest at all.

“You won’t survive the night,” he says, staring at the last drops of tea in his cup. They remind him of diluted blood.

“There is no sunrise to look forward to,” she murmurs.

The words hang between them.

One cog does not hold power over the machine. There is no family to help her. No money to bribe a Thermix executive. This is a moment that cannot be saved, only savored.

“Goodbye, then,” he says quietly, setting the empty teacup on the counter.

“Before you go,” she calls from the chair, “take the cardamom.

Perhaps you can share a cup of tea with someone else.”

He hesitates before pocketing the small metal box.

“Thank you,” he whispers, his voice so quiet that she may not hear it at all.

And then G-117 departs.

* * *

The next morning, G-117 finds himself requesting his first day off since joining Thermix. He packs a small bag and boards the single train that ferries passengers to and from the Outer Sectors. As the train creaks and rattles across the never-ending jungle of concrete monotony, he practices what he will say under his breath.

How are you, Amma?

She will smile and gather him into her arms, his massive bulk condensing into something smaller—vulnerable—in her embrace. He will look over her shoulder as they hug and see the pile of unanswered notices on her dining table, THERMIX stamped across the letterhead.

A pang will hit him. A pang for the same wisps of white hair, the same cataract-ridden eyes, the kind of warmth that can only emanate from a mother’s heart. A pang for another doomed soul.

He sighs and pushes these thoughts away. Today, he will not be G-117, the inspector. He will simply savor being her son. He will reach into his pocket and pull out a small metal box. She will look at the tiny green pods and gasp.

Amma, shall we have a cup of tea?

Pooja Joshi is a Desi writer from North Carolina. She is currently based in Boston, where she is pursuing an MBA and MPP at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Previously, she has worked in health tech strategy and management consulting. Her work has been published in several outlets, including The Hooghly Review, The Ilanot Review, and in the upcoming Best Microfiction 2024. You can find her at or on X/Twitter @poojajoshitalks.

Radon Journal Issue 6 cover art
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