This was a story that was fermenting in my mind for a very long time. Growing up in India, I was accustomed to having domestic help. My parents had taught me to treat them well. However, they existed on the periphery of my busy, and oh-so-important life. It is only after I left India, and became used to living independently, and fending for myself, that I started to view them as people. People who had lives, thoughts, hopes, feelings.
‘Lajjo’ was my attempt to give a voice to a hitherto ignored entity. I entered it in the Telegraph short story competition, and was, once again, chosen as a runner up. The judge. Louise Doughty, commented: Set in another country, India, Poormina Manco’s tale of a servant girl, ‘Lajjo’, shows us that the humiliations of domestic life, large and small, are universal.
She got the ‘m’ and ‘n’ muddled up in my name. That often happens, and I take it in my stride. 🙂
Hope you enjoy it.
6 am: The cacophony of the birds is louder this morning. One jarring squawk crashes into another, building into a tuneless crescendo. I try to fall back to sleep to no avail. The room feels oppressive; the air stale. Spring is slowly giving way to Summer, and the heat is insidiously stretching its tentacles into the early morning hours. I grab my scarf from the floor, and wrap it around me, swinging my legs reluctantly off the bed.
She grunts and turns, farting softly in her sleep. The bile rises in my throat, my stomach heaves and I rush outside,retching quietly into a pretty flowerbed.
The early morning rays have lent the garden an ethereal glow. Dewdrops glisten on the leaves as I hastily nudge some soil onto my pale,watery vomit. The neighbour’s dog barks, immediately setting off all the locality strays. Their chorus has a lone soprano whose unearthly howl is interrupted by the elderly chowkidar, who bangs his stick impatiently and shouts “BE QUIET!!!”. Silence, then a howl as stick connects with backside….and the strays run helter skelter….
I breathe deeply. The air is fresher outside. The day’s smog is yet to penetrate the atmosphere. I look down at my work roughened hands. They shake slightly. I take another breath and try to focus.
I walk back into the room and find her eyes concentrated on me. Grey, rheumy,needy. She indicates she requires help getting up. I turn away,pretending not to notice. I walk to the kitchen and start preparing the first of the many cups of chai that will be demanded of me.
8 am: The flowers and the sweets are arriving in a steady stream. I feel like a marionette, strings jerking me everywhere.
“Lajjo come here”, “Lajjo put this away…not there, you silly girl…there!”, “Lajjo, make me another cup of tea”, “Lajjo,Lajjo,Lajjo” rings in my ears constantly.
“Yes memsahib”, I murmur dutifully, “Yes sahib”.
A courier whistles at me appreciatively. I have no time to even register his look. Sweat dampens my armpits, and I know I smell foul. This salwar kameez hasn’t been washed in a few days, and the synthetic fibres keep absorbing and retaining every odour they have ever come in contact with…from the lamb curry two nights ago, to the onion bhajis I’m frying right now.
10 am: The house guests are finally awake. They keep talking about something called jet lag. London is very far away they tell me. It took them 9 hours to get here. I shrug. It takes me twice as long to get to my village. And I still wake up at 5 am to milk the cows.
Priya, their little one,barely six, comes and cuddles with me. I hug her back. Her eyes are still full of sleep, and her ponytail is askew. She reminds me of Rani,my sister. I miss her desperately, and Priya’s affection is scant consolation at times.
Her sister walks in and eyes me warily. I cannot imagine what she has seen or guessed at, but she never lets her guard down. I overcompensate by hugging her with equal ferocity. She wriggles away.
” Mahi, are you hungry? Some biscuits with your milk? Would you like cornflakes?”
She nibbles at her toast, barely drinking her milk and turning away from the biscuits. The child is too thin. Why don’t they feed her enough? At her age I could walk miles to fetch water. She is barely able to walk to the kitchen.
12 noon: Everyone is finally awake. Last night’s drinks have ebbed into this morning’s hangovers. Coffees, Teas, more Coffees. The Ayah(Usha) from next door comes to give me a hand. She chats incessantly. My attention wanders, but I can’t help but be riveted by stories of “Baby”, the seventeen year old wild child next door. She has a drug habit and an abortion that’s been hushed up. The father is at his wits’ end and the mother is seeking spiritual enlightenment in an Ashram. We smile conspiratorially. High society and low society often have similar problems. I can think of a few wild ones from my village too, as can Usha. We get on with our work.
I re enter my room and help the old woman up. She stares at me reproachfully. She has wet herself. The smell of urine and sweat make me gag. I shove her into the bathroom and quickly strip off the bedding. She sits there incontinent and incoherent. I bathe her rapidly, trying not to touch her paper thin flaccid skin.
She hums to herself while I comb her hair. I catch snatches of an old hindi song. I’m finishing up when memsahib enters.
” Lajjo, is mama ready?”, The old woman beside me stiffens. Memsahib prattles on. “Oh good. All nice and fresh, mama? Bring her out will you? She can sit with the guests for a while”
The old woman’s dislike for her daughter in law is legendary. She was the woman who stole her beloved son. But sahib never bothers with his mother. He barely even sees her. Just as his father before him never did. Memsahib,for all her faults, makes sure the old lady is fed and taken care of. Not that she forgets to remind her husband of this fact every so often, ever so subtly.
2 pm: I sweat over the chapattis. The kitchen is like a furnace. There is no fan and when a bead of sweat falls into the potato curry, I just stir it in.
More guests have arrived and they are too busy regaling each other with stories to notice me. I keep replenishing their plates, and the London memsahib is the only one who thanks me.
Raj bhai has just woken up, and he is tickling Priya who is giggling uncontrollably. I nearly drop the dish I’m holding. Sahib’s voice is like a whiplash!
The London memsahib, they call her Juju, takes it out of my hands and places it on the table. She is pretty and she is kind. I see how Raj bhai watches her when she is unaware. Her husband, pot bellied, with a pug like face, is too busy talking stocks and shares with his uncle,my sahib.He doesn’t care enough to notice their little flirtation.
3:30 pm: The last of the dirty dishes have been cleaned and put away. I’ve scarcely lain down and I hear a whisper. I open my eyes warily to see Juju memsahib smiling down at me apologetically.
“Lajjo, I hope you don’t mind…I know it’s an imposition….You’ve been so busy….”
Yes, yes…get on with it ,I feel like saying, arranging my face into polite curiosity.
” Auntie wants me to go to the salon with her…. I really can’t refuse…Would you keep an eye on the girls for me…?”
I nod and smile. Maybe there will be an extra 100 rupees in it for me, I think churlishly, while they spend a 1000 getting prettified.
The children sit watching loud garish cartoons, while I doze fitfully. Priya lies next to me, smelling all flowery and fresh, my rancid smell covering her.
Mahi sits at a distance, watching the screen, and her sister in equal measures.
I dip in and out of strange disconcerting dreams. My mother is in one of them. Not as I saw her last; laid out on the funeral pyre, dressed in her bright red wedding saree, the bindi and the ash covering her entire forehead, as my father stood ready to light her up. No, she is younger, still well, still happy. Singing to me as she sews a button on my shirt. Then, just as suddenly she’s gone. To be replaced by the sharp tongued harpy my father married, who is now singing to her daughter, as I wash the floor. I weave in and out of consciousness, feeling a hand on my thigh…and then not… I whimper, and then am completely awake. Priya is asleep and Mahi watches me with her measured gaze.
5 pm: The marquee has been put up and the caterers are arriving. The air is heavy with the sent of marigolds. Sahib is directing the men to lay out the stalls in a particular order. Memsahib is talking to the wedding planner.
“Roshni, I want a good mix of music…. Bollywood,yes, but more western….Madonna, Rihanna…you know….”
The bemused wedding planner is nodding at the instructions.
There are lights everywhere, and the band that will escort Raj bhai on his mare are making themselves comfortable in the corner, with their refreshments. They’ll need a lot of samosas for stamina.
I feel a bit sick and sweaty, and the sudden trickle of blood between my legs doesn’t help.
I catch Raj bhai’s eye as he comes out of his room. He winks at me. I look away, and when I look back, he’s gone.
The evening is a blur of activity. I iron shirts and sarees and dresses for the little girls. I coax the old woman into the living room where she sits like a grand old Buddha, belching lightly into the air. The men laugh,smoke and crack open bottles of whiskey. The women float about in their chiffons and their diamonds in a cloud of expensive perfumes.
I finally get to the bathroom, and turn on the tap to fill my bucket. I examine my naked body meanwhile. The breasts are beginning to sag. After all I am not that young anymore. Twenty eight and I have spied my first grey hair. Not on my head but there. Nestling there so comfortably, as though it’s always belonged. A sob catches in my throat. But I wash myself, scrubbing vigorously, till I have emptied my mind and heart.
The homemade pad sits awkwardly between my legs, chafing my thighs as I walk. I smell fresh though….a bit like the jasmine flowers I’ve put in my hair.
8:30 pm: The pounding in my head seems to be in rhythm with the music outside. The wedding procession is almost ready to leave. The band is blaring out a brand new hit Bollywood number with great gusto…. The extended family is dancing, drunk on the moment….this great joyous moment of the union of two families. And what a union it is! Two big players joining forces….Two major Industrialists coming together….What a merger! What a marriage!!
Raj bhai looks very dapper in his sherwani and turban. Juju memsahib is melting under his gaze. Her hand hovers a little too long on his lapel, and then with a laugh and a blush she moves on. He pulls the curtain of flowers down over his face. Someone helps him up on the mare. There is a lot of cheering and hooting. The wedding procession starts its slow march. Not far to go. After all the bride lives two streets away.
I watch them leave. No one notices me. Or so I think. Then I look around to see Mahi’s eyes on me. There is curiosity and a smidgen of sympathy.But my answering gaze is savage, and alarmed, she runs to join her mother.
9 pm: After all the frenzied activity of the last week, the sudden quiet is a welcome respite. I can still hear them in a distance…but it is fading…
They won’t be back till later. Much later. And tomorrow, it’ll start again. Might as well enjoy the peace.
The old woman sits in the room patiently, waiting to be fed. I mash the rice and potato curry, and feed her absently, watching the latest episode of my favourite soap. I like the family dramas. All the women are so beautiful and the men so handsome. I like the way the camera zooms back again and again to their faces as they say something dramatic.I don’t particularly like the cat eyed, cunning one. That’s the trouble maker. She reminds me of my step mother. There, she’s lying again…lying to save her skin…and get the heroine into trouble. I gasp at the cheek of it! I hear an answering gasp from the old lady.I turn to her, surprised at her interest.
She is turning blue. At first I don’t understand. And then I do. I watch frozen, as she keels over, ever so slowly….just like they do in my soaps. There are grains of rice still stuck to the corners of her mouth. I wait for some kind of a dying declaration. But none comes. The air is heavy with her silence.
I look at her lying there; so fat, so old, so dead, and start to laugh. My shoulders shake helplessly, and I double up. My stomach hurts as I laugh and I laugh and I laugh.
I laugh till tears stream down my face.