That afternoon, if Neeru had known how a few minutes can be enough time for life to exact its dues, she might have done things differently. She might have taken care to lock doors behind her. She might even have stayed put on that front porch swing, leaning back, feet skimming the tiled floor, to and fro, to and fro, as warm air blew from the ceiling fan.
When no one was around, this porch was her favorite part of the house as it allowed her to take in the always-blooming, always-colorful garden. These days, it was giving off a spicy clove fragrance from a profusion of small, white blossoms. At this hour, in the posh Prahlad Nagar neighborhood of Ahmedabad, menfolk were away at work and womenfolk were napping or watching TV in their air-conditioned bungalows. Cleaners and cooks, many from her home state of Rajasthan, had finished their work rounds. Live-in maids, like her, were also stealing a few winks. Even the birds seemed to have taken flight to some cooler place. The only sound Neeru heard was of fountain water spilling from a pot held on the head of a half-naked stone goddess, who flaunted her bold curves under a lemon tree in the far corner.
Neeru could sit here for hours and daydream about, oh, so many things her new world, which she had known for less than a month, had to offer. It made her old one seem as remote as a previous lifetime. Of late, her mind kept playing with a particular fantasy about being approached one day by a handsome businessman type. He would drive by her in his big car, roll down his window with just the touch of a button, and tell her how he had admired her from far for a long time. She would be shocked and a little scared, glancing around to see if anyone was watching. But he would be such a decent, polite type, making her melt like ghee, that she would glide into his car when he held a door open, with music playing softly just for her. This was about as far as she got—try as she might to imagine what could happen next.
Ba and Vini Bhabhi had gone to visit relatives for the day. The house was locked but they had given her a set of keys so she could, at the usual time, begin her late-afternoon chores. For now, she had another hour to let the early April sunshine filter through wide-canopied Gulmohar trees onto her bare feet and arms; to let the brilliant blue sky peek through leaves and light into her hope-filled soul.
The istriwaala had dropped off a bundle of neatly-pressed clothes. It sat beside her on the swing. Idly, humming under her breath, she undid the knotted cloth covering. Inside, a beautiful lehenga set and several men’s shirts lay crisply folded, smelling new. She fingered the gold resham embroidery and flashing mirrorwork on the lehenga, which was the color of old roses. It was the sort of thing her favorite Bollywood star, Kareena Kapoor, might wear, complete with matching lips and nails. The dancing, laughing image she had seen so many times—in stolen glimpses from the always-on TV as she went about her housework, in glossy pages of newspaper inserts and magazines she organized daily on tables around the house, and on large advertisement boards looming above every street corner nowadays—shimmered before her now. This lehenga was also probably worth more than a year of her pay.
The next thought made her go hot-cold all over. What if she were to try it on for just a couple of minutes? No one would ever know. She would have it back into the laundry bundle, as if untouched, well before the family came home.
She got up so quickly that a dizziness sent her almost falling. Grabbing the bundle, she unlocked the house with shaking hands. In the downstairs bathroom, in front of a full-length mirror, she undressed, dropping her cotton salwar-kameez to the floor. For a moment, she looked at her almost-naked, childlike body, with its barely-there breasts and sharply-jutting bones. The dullish nut-brown color of her skin was the stinging insult to the injury she felt whenever she observed herself like this. Then, as always, to make herself feel better, she unplaited her thick, black hair, shaking it out around herself like a shining veil. She had yet to meet another woman whose hair was as lush as hers.
Carefully, Neeru swished the silken clothes on. As they whispered against her skin thrillingly, her insides turned to balmy liquid. When she saw her fully-clothed reflection, she gasped. Undulating this way and that to make the flared bottom sway like a bell, she laughed at herself. The sleeveless top was rather large but there was a sheer white dupatta, which she wrapped around her shoulders. Slowly, she lifted the dupatta’s sequined edge around her head and bowed slightly. A moment later, she threw the dupatta into the air and stood under it with face upturned, letting it descend in cloudy folds. The softness of that touch on her skin was a blissful agony that made her press her lips together to stop from crying out.
Moving closer to the mirror, Neeru inspected her face critically. What if she… well, just a touch of that pink, glossy color upstairs would be perfect. Lifting the heavy skirt, she skipped up the stairs to the master bedroom and snatched Vini Bhabhi’s lipstick from the top of the dresser. Back downstairs, she applied it slowly and thickly, staying within the lip lines. Stepping back to see the effect, she opened her mouth wide in a big “O.” Deep joy gurgled up from inside her and escaped into the still air.
It was then, as she swayed sideways again, that Neeru caught an unexpected flicker in the mirror. Whipping around, she saw Lalji, the watchman, standing just inside the bathroom door and staring at her. His weathered-copper skin gleamed from the shadow of the doorway, and his uneven black mustache twitched at both ends. In the enclosed space, a pungent smell wafted towards her from the perpetual sweat patches on his beige uniform.
She wasn’t sure how long he had been there. A familiar millstone-like pressure pushed all the air out of her lungs. She had this sensation every time she walked past the main entrance gates, where he lounged on a large plastic chair beside his cabin, flourishing his wooden cane and tapping his feet to some movie song or other. As she would get nearer, he would go still, though his singing would get louder and lewder. As happened at those times, shame pricked her every pore and the heat rose in her face. But, this time, a rushing sound filled her ears and tears stood in her eyes.
Lalji began to clap, smiling widely, revealing gutka-stained teeth. “Arrey Wah! Very, very pretty. I saw the door open and came in to tell you to shut it. And, I was blessed with this beautiful vision.”
He came near and tilted her chin up with a finger. A callused thumb ran slowly across her smeared lips as he leered openly. She felt his unbearable breath on her like burning coals. As suddenly, he moved away.
“What would Bhai and Bhabhi think if they could see you now?” he chuckled as if sharing a private, good-natured joke with her. Then, he put the lipstick-covered thumb into his mouth and sucked wetly and noisily.
“Please don’t…” Her fear rose like a choking, drowning tidal wave.
“Arrey, no! No, no. Why should I tell anyone? This is our ‘pesial secret. You and me. Wah! Ekdum film heroine, you are.” The echo of his words swirled around her in the bathroom.
She had to cross her arms across her chest and grasp her neck with both hands to get the next few words out: “I need to change…”
“Haan, they will be here soon. No need to worry. I am your ‘pesial friend now. I will not tell them anything. But, you have to meet with me soon. Achha? We’ll get to know each other in a ‘pesial way. Promise?” His laugh was shaky and high-pitched, like that of a little girl.
Neeru’s stomach felt as if heated spears had run through it. She did not reply and lowered her head. Clumsily, she wiped the flowing tears so they would not stain Vini Bhabhi’s clothes.
“Achha, toh hum chalte hain….” He sang out a popular movie song refrain about leaving a beloved. Continuing with the melody, he added, “If you don’t forget, then I will,” winked, and walked out.
In his immediate wake, Neeru unfroze, ran to shut the door, and changed clothes quickly. The stillness of the house weighed on her as she put everything back where it belonged. She was long done with her chores when the car horn signaled that her employers were home.
* * *
Evening tea was a regular family ritual at the Shahs because it was the one time of day when all of them—the older Mr Shah, whom Neeru called Dada, and his wife, Ba; their son, Yogesh Bhai and his wife, Vini Bhabhi; and, sometimes, house guests or drop-in visitors—gathered on the front porch.
Ordinarily, as she brought out the tea and food trays, Neeru dawdled to enjoy the snippets of gossip or confidential chatter between them. With the day winding down, everyone would be in a lighter and more relaxed mood and Neeru liked that they trusted her enough to not stop talking in her presence. Today, however, she moved with a swift, silent efficiency so she could return to the kitchen without betraying the ball of fire that was eating up her insides.
Even when Yogesh Bhai teased her, as he enjoyed doing in company, saying, “I’m sure even Neeru does not think much of this latest Modi-Jaitley budget. Do you, Neeru?” she could not give him her ready, wide grin.
They were all laughing and talking so much that Vini Bhabhi, to be heard above the din, had to call out to Neeru twice to take away the empty cups and plates. Neeru sprinted from the kitchen and stopped short when she saw Lalji standing on the steps leading up to the porch. Standing by the doorway, she peered at her feet to hide how her mouth was distorted from fright. Even when she heard Lalji’s voice, slow and deferential, telling Yogesh Bhai about the courier package lying on the floor beside him, it did not settle her.
She felt Vini Bhabhi’s attention on her. “Take all this away, Neeru. See how the flies are already covering everything. What is wrong with you?”
Bhabhi was probably not much older than Neeru, but her status as the mistress of the house made the distance between them such that anything Bhabhi said to her sounded like an elder talking to a child or a dimwit. Though this was Neeru’s first house-job, she had understood, somehow, that Bhabhi did not do this to be hurtful. It came from having lived an entire life having other people working for your every comfort. At another time, Neeru might have shyly offered back, “Bhabhi, the flies want their tea too.” Not now.
Lalji had stopped talking as soon as Vini Bhabhi had begun. Now, it seemed everyone was looking at Neeru. She could no longer tell whether the buzzing in her ears was the flies or her own brain. She came forward and gathered up the tea things. The door behind her had swung shut. Before she could decide how to manage, Lalji slid over to open it for her. He held the doorknob and waited for her to walk through. As she did so, he leaned close enough for her to be overwhelmed, again, by his ripe smell, and to hear him mumble “Tonight.”
* * *
Sonu Kaka, the cook, came at his usual time just as she had finished washing up. He was a compact man who always dressed in well-starched, colorful kurtas as if he was on his way to a dinner party rather than going from home to home cooking other people’s dinners. Ba had told Neeru he had been cooking for the Shahs since Yogesh Bhai had been a half-pant-wearing schoolboy. For a few years, while Yogesh Bhai was in college, Sonu Kaka had left to start his own catering business. It had not gone well because, as Ba often remarked, of his honesty—generously using the best ghee, oil, and spices, while his competitors used low-grade items and still charged much higher prices. Ba said the failure had turned his hair white overnight. So, though he was not that old, people had taken to calling him Kaka. Like many of the elders in Neeru’s village, Sonu Kaka was also a man of few words. Yet, watching how he held himself just that little bit taller when any of the Shahs addressed him, Neeru knew he took their casual familiarity as a sign of acceptance and appreciation.
In the short time she had got to know him, she had also grown accustomed to his sharp words and dour looks and decided there was no ill will behind them. On rare occasions, she countered with a jaunty sarcasm—like when she had said, “What, you think I have a hundred arms and legs like Durga Mata to dance around the kitchen and fix everything the minute you arrive?” When Sonu Kaka had tried to hide a smile, she had continued happily, “Arrey, Kakaji, it doesn’t cost money to laugh. Bas, you always look like you’ve swallowed a liter of castor oil.”
Today, when he began grumbling at her for not having chopped the vegetables or laid out the utensils he needed, she had no such response.
Dinner was, generally, a complicated affair with three to four separate meals: there would be a salt-free, fat-free meal for the weak-hearted Dada; a sugar-free dessert for the diabetic Ba; some Westernized options for Yogesh Bhai and Vini Bhabhi if they were eating in; and, if there were any house guest or visitors, there might be special requests for them too. This was why one of Neeru’s daily tasks was to help Sonu Kaka in the kitchen. “Otherwise,” Vini Bhabhi joked, “we won’t get to eat till midnight.”
Now, Neeru stood at the center island, facing the kitchen entrance, her back to Sonu Kaka. He leaned over the large cooking range, all its four burners going strong as he stirred, sautéd, poured, and flipped the various items on them. Every few minutes, if she hadn’t already placed what he needed within his reach, he barked out, just one or two words, what he wanted next.
The pressure cooker let off several shrill whistles. A heady aroma rose from the tempering of mustard, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, chillies, and ginger that Sonu Kaka poured carefully over a pan of translucent yellow daal. Smoke clouded the kitchen and she rushed to open the back door just as he instructed her to do so.
As she was clearing away the vegetable peels from the island, Sonu Kaka tossed her a couple of bunches of green methi. “For tomorrow.”
She placed the vegetable peels to the side and started separating the methi leaves and stalks, inhaling the bitter and oddly-soothing smell deeply. From the living room, several angry voices had begun speaking over each other, which told her the TV news debates had begun. Soon the Shah father and son would also be joining in with their sparring opinions.
As she picked away, Neeru’s mind drifted to how she could prevent her impending disaster. She wondered about going to Vini Bhabhi and confessing. As sure as she could tell night from day, she knew Bhabhi and Ba would, with no hesitation, kick her out of the house. And why shouldn’t they as she had betrayed their trust? A vision of herself pushed up against a broken window of the beat-up, crowded Ahmedabad-Rajasthan bus rose wavily before her watery eyes. Instead of earning enough money to bring her mother and sister over from the village, she would have to stand before them, poorer than when she had left. There would be many cruel rumors about her short city stint. Her mother always said that a girl without character may as well drown herself in a tiny lid of water because that was all she would need and deserve. This mother would not be able to find suitable husbands for her or her sister. This sister would have to be pulled out of school. They would all be thrown out of the only inheritance her father had left them: the only home they had ever known. All this ruination for a few minutes of wanting to look pretty for herself.
Neeru also considered going to Lalji and begging for his mercy. The image of him grinning with that red-stained mouth and grabbing her with sweaty hands sent waves of repulsion through her body, making her shake as if they were jolts of electricity. Her throat felt like large shards of ice were stuck in it and, unable to hold the pain in check, she let out a low whimper and a ragged sob.
A steel ladle clattered onto the granite counter and Sonu Kaka’s voice hissed grindingly in her ear, “What are you doing, girl? Are you crying? What will they think? That I did something to you. Stop this tamasha.”
She found she could not, and trying to draw deep breaths just made the crying noisier. Sonu Kaka pushed her towards the open pantry. As she stumbled in there and turned around, he placed a finger on his lips. Then, he took her spot at the center island, faced the kitchen entrance, and started picking the methi leaves.
“Did someone say or do something to you?” He whispered, not looking in her direction.
She nodded, wiping her face with a fraying edge of her dupatta.
“One of them?” He asked, glancing towards the living room.
She shook her head, then rested it against one of the pantry shelves.
“Driver? Gardener? Milkman? Watchman?” He fired these off in quick succession, stopping at the last when she moved her chin up and down instead.
“Lalji? What did he say? What did he do?”
“He… He… He… ” This was all she could get out between big sobs.
“Did you lead him on in any way? No, don’t tell me. You bold Rajasthani girls with all your nakhras and jhatkas.” Sonu Kaka’s jaw tightened in such a way as he spoke that Neeru felt a fresh onslaught of hot tears coursing down.
“That chutiya!” Sonu Kaka’s fist fell on the vegetable peels, sending some of them flying across the island. “Old enough to be your father!” He turned back to the cooking range and cracked his knuckles slowly as he continued: “I will deal with him. Enough crying — go make yourself theek-thaak. Mind you come back and finish up. I’m not going to do your work for you.”
Neeru ran out the pantry to get to her little room off the back porch. As she brushed past him, her dupatta, which she had untied earlier to wipe her face, fell to the floor. They both bent to pick it up, bumping heads. He straightened and stepped back rapidly, saying, “Mad girl.”
* * *
The morning hours, before Yogesh Bhai went to work, were the most rushed. During Neeru’s first week, Ba had shown her everything so that her only son’s routine would continue as it for the past several years, from before his marriage. Ba had explained to Neeru how hardworking, successful businessmen like Yogesh Bhai were particular, and how maintaining a certain standard of expectation was the only way to get ahead in this world. After that first week, Ba and Dada began meeting another couple for morning walks and steam saunas at the local gym club.
Try as she did, Neeru never managed to have everything running as smoothly as Ba. Throughout the morning, she would hear her name being called out by Yogesh Bhai from different parts of the house. She soon learned that the morning tea and paper were the most important. Missing their timing ruined Yogesh Bhai’s delicate digestion and put him in a mood, which rained like acid on everyone, beyond Neeru, in the vicinity: the gardener if he forgot or botched instructions regardless of Yogesh Bhai’s watchful supervision; the paper-boy if he threw the paper onto a still-wet lawn or into brambly bushes; the neighbor’s school-going children if they yelled too loud as they ran past, with backpacks heavier than themselves, to catch their bus; and, on the odd occasion, strangers who drove by too fast and too close to Yogesh Bhai’s parked car outside the main gates.
Yogesh Bhai also wanted his pressed clothes as soon as the istriwaala dropped them off so he could look through them as he checked his wardrobe for what to wear. Neeru could not tell why this was such a big decision as all his clothes looked almost identical. She watched curiously as Yogesh Bhai rubbed his thinning crown with one hand while the other ran through the similar-colored shirts and pants.
After his shower, the puja things had to be laid out properly in the little temple alcove: fresh flowers from the garden; ghee-dipped lamp wicks; incense sticks; vermilion and sandalwood paste. Once, Neeru had forgotten to put his floor-mat back in place after having washed it the day before. He had given her such a slicing look, his fair cheeks reddened from a shave and scrub, that she had tripped backwards onto a chair.
At least he sat fully-clothed for his prayers. Dada sat with a towel barely covering the rolls of his belly and his broad, pimpled back visible to anyone who came to the front door. The first time she had seen him chanting loudly like that, she had thought: do the Gods want to see all that so early in the morning?
By the time Vini Bhabhi came downstairs, Yogesh Bhai would be flicking through the TV news channels and checking his phone messages, with a few minutes to spare before breakfast was served and the driver was due. Neeru guessed Vini Bhabhi stayed out of the way in the mornings to allow Ba to keep running things. But, with Ba out, Vini Bhabhi did not take over the responsibility of Yogesh Bhai’s various morning needs. Some part of Neeru admired Vini Bhabhi for this, even as another part of her resented that everything had, therefore, fallen to her.
In addition to all this, she had her regular chores of washing up in the kitchen, prepping for Sonu Kaka, packing Yogesh Bhai’s tiffin, and so on. And, if Sonu Kaka ran late with Yogesh Bhai’s breakfast or the tiffin lunch, Neeru would, of course, not be spared the wrath of one or both men.
This morning, however, Sonu Kaka was quiet. Even when he had to restock the masala dabba himself from the pantry, he did not say anything to her. After clearing the breakfast things, when Neeru sat down on the kitchen floor to stretch her aching legs, he did not reprimand her.
Before he left the house, Sonu Kaka beckoned her to one corner of the kitchen, pulled out his phone, and showed her a photo. It was dark and fuzzy, but there was no mistaking the figure: Lalji crumpled to his knees, arms outstretched, palms locked together. When she looked up from the phone to Sonu Kaka, his eyes were hard like black marbles and he said, simply, “You let me know if he comes back to bother you.”
* * *
By evening, it was a certainty: Lalji had disappeared for good. Over tea, after making sure nothing of value was missing from the house, the family had a lively discussion about what might have happened. He had simply cleared out his cabin by the main gates and left without a word to anyone.
Dada was the most upset as he had hired Lalji on the recommendation of an old friend. “I’ll call Jitu and see if he knows anything. Was he unhappy? Sick? Why couldn’t he come and talk to me?” The injury to his pride came out in a childish whine.
Ba, sitting on the swing with her crochet work in her lap, looked over her bifocals at her husband. “Let me tell you, he was a shifty, no-good fellow. He never looked me in the eye when I talked to him. Thieves could have come dancing in blazing daylight and he would not have woken from his Kumbhakarana-sleep to even notice them. Why does Jitu Bhai send us such useless people?” Her pursed mouth kept muttering disapprovingly long after she returned to stabbing and hooking her crochet needle in her latest pattern.
Vini Bhabhi said, “Yogesh, I often saw him staring at the maids and cleaning women. You know, in THAT way. Today, he looks at them; tomorrow, who knows what he will do? Our reputation will be ruined, na? Good riddance, I say.” And she squeezed her shoulders up to her ears, scrunching her eyes and lips as if she had tasted something terrible.
At home, if Neeru caught people running someone down, she would snap in response, “And the way he sneezed was all wrong too. Bas?” In this new world, she minded not just her words, as her mother had advised her to, but also to whom she said them. And, despite having more cause than any of them, she did not care for how her employers were keenly inflicting wounds on the dead and gone, as she now thought of Lalji. A bitterness, like the methi she had picked the night before, began welling up somewhere inside. As she placed the tea things in the kitchen sink, she had to bite her tongue because the soundless, heaving laughter would not stop otherwise.
Late evening, after finishing in the kitchen, Sonu Kaka met with Yogesh Bhai in the dining room. Yogesh Bhai stood tall, stretching his arms up and around in a relaxed manner. Sonu Kaka spoke in such a low voice that Neeru could barely hear when she went in to set the table. She caught Yogesh Bhai thanking Sonu Kaka, saying, “Bring him in the morning. I’m sure, as you are recommending him, he will be reliable and honest. But, you know how much the job is worth for someone with limited experience. I will not pay as much as my father was giving Lalji.”
After Yogesh Bhai went back to the living room, Sonu Kaka turned to leave too. As he walked past Neeru, he ran a hand over the vinyl placemat she held. Rubbing his dusty fingers together, he frowned and tsk-tsked loudly. In her nervousness, she dropped the placemat, causing him to say, “Mad girl, ” again—this time, with one of his rare smiles.
* * *
At night, Neeru lay on her thin, reeking mattress as a pedestal fan whirred tiredly at her feet. Slapping a mosquito away, she inhaled deeply a few times. Though she was safe now, relief, like sleep, eluded her. Her body, not yet accustomed to long hours of physical work, hurt in several places, but her heart ached even more from the emotional tumult of the past two days.
Outside, on nearby streets, everything was still bright and loud—an endless assault of light and sound in an ancient city with a centuries-long tradition of being constantly torn down and rebuilt. A motorbike roared in angry, insistent fits, somehow reminding her of the masters of her new reality. One way or another, in ways she had not expected, these new men from her new life had claimed her surrender and compliance.
When she finally slept, she dreamed of empty, driverless cars going past so close, so quick that, each time, she barely managed to jump out of the way. With their windows rolled down, they filled the air with strange, throbbing music as they went by. And the half-naked, stony-curved, garden-fountain goddess laughed non-stop as golden lemons shook above her, molten silver flowed from her emerald Kareena Kapoor eyes, and her water-pot shattered at her feet into exactly one hundred pieces.
Jenny Bhatt’s writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others, Femina India, Wallpaper, Storyacious, The Ladies Finger, LitBreak, York Literary Review, The Indian Quarterly, Eleven Eleven Journal, and an anthology, Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com.