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Jan/Feb 2017 Fiction

Under Employment

by Nandini Dhar

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman



When I arrive in your city, once a week, the sky is darker than your hair. It is not light yet outside, the porches of the homes we leave behind through the train window are still enveloped in night. Yet no one inside this train yawns. This is what sets me apart from this crowd. Hinged between sleep and wakefulness, I try to keep track of the glowing red of the electronic clocks I see in the stations from the windows. At a nudge from my mother that destroys any further chances of my falling asleep, I cannot but feel a sense of nausea overtaking me. It is not yet morning and just look at these faces, munching on whatever they can get. Muri, ghugni, pauruti, stale biscuits—the air inside the compartment is heavy with the smell of burnt spices mingling with years of unwashed dirt. When I will reach your home, an hour or so later, the stink of this early morning train will stick onto my hair.

Your mother kept you away from the kitchen, and mine introduced me to it. That's how they both imagined livelihoods for their respective daughters. Yours knew too much time in the kitchen would prevent you from getting a job. After all, she didn't want you to be anyone's cook. And whatever else she wanted you to be—engineer, doctor, lawyer, professor, at least a schoolteacher—required you to learn books. Mine wanted me to pick up the tricks of the trade. After all, she wanted me to be a cook in someone else's kitchen.

But in this, I am with your mother. I hate cooking. I have no desire to be anyone's cook. Yet here I am in your kitchen where my mother brings me every Sunday, to learn things I can't possibly learn elsewhere. Not at school, not at home. How fine does the mustard that goes with the ilish need to be? How much oil to put into the kosha mangsho? How to slice the chicken for your evening stew? Do I need to explain we are too poor to afford any of these things you eat and my mother cooks?

Yes, my mother is the maid who works for you. You call her "Kiran." No mashi, no pishi, not even didi to hide the barrenness of the name. Although my mother is old enough to be your aunt. You are polite with her. Almost too polite. You never shout. You never throw things. You rarely command my mother to do anything for you. That's your mother's job. Yet it is in that lilt of your voice, it is in that flawless invocation of my mother's name, that I know my mother is a maid. And nothing else.

 

Six years ago, we were both eight. And we played together. With me around, the kitchen was no longer forbidden to you. Your mother didn't mind when we turned its floor into a playground, playing cooks. You and I sat on the cement-floor strewn with traces of our mothers' work—onions ground into paste, potatoes sliced into wedges, spinach chopped fine, pieces of flish floating in marinades of turmeric, mustard oil and salt. We replicated with toy utensils what our mothers did with real-life ones. Woks, gas ovens, pressure-cookers, knives cast in cheap aluminum with their edges flattened, fitting perfectly within our little palms. Of course, they were all yours.

To your credit, you were always cordial. Unlike the other girls of your station I have met, you never yelled at me. You never threw things at me. There were times when we shared food from the same plate. Without much prompting from your parents, you handed over to me your satin hair ribbons, hairclips, hairbands, earrings. Some of those were gifts from your aunts and cousins. Needless to say, whatever you bestowed upon me was far more beautiful than anything my mother could afford. Your kindness left me bereft of stories. Save and except your benevolence.

And those are the stories my mother tells. Again and again. How your mother paid for my grandmother's medicines. How your mother paid for my new pair of shoes. How your mother bought her a new blouse, even though the puja was far away. She wasn't lying. Your mother, indeed, had. Both me and my mother are very lucky, indeed.

But this is exactly what I cannot stomach. On the trains we travel, in the neighborhood where we live, women and girls have stories. Horrific, but hair-raising, too. How Lohori's employer poured a saucepanful of boiling water on her right arm, all because she had made the shrimp curry too dry. How Tuni's mother cannot use the lift in the high-rise where she works. Compared to those, my mother's stories are boring. That's why, possibly, these days, my mother exaggerates. Yes, believe it or not, my mother has taken to exaggerating your mother's kindness.

From my side of the window in the ladies' compartment of the early morning train, I watch my mother—round face, broad nose, thick lips—leaning on the wooden seat, clutching a plastic bag. A couple of minutes earlier, she was bragging to the other women.

"Do you know my boudi has given me a silk saree? All new?"

Kamala Mashi nudged Mitadi, who winked.

"Why don't we ever see these gorgeous gifts, Kiran?"

"Maybe your boudi can begin to shower us with gifts, too."

"I don't live off your salt. Neither does my boudi."

My mother clutches her plastic bag tighter, closes her eyes. I pretend I haven't seen anything, that I heard nothing. Mitadi and Kamala Mashi are laughing at my mother. And the sounds of their laughter echo over the sounds of the trainwheels.

The reality is, your mother had gifted mine a cotton-printed sari.

"I have worn it only thrice, Kiran. Look, it's almost new." These were your mother's precise words.

It is true the sari was nicely washed and ironed. Its edges were still crisp. Almost new.

"If you've worn it only thrice, why are you giving it up?" I asked your mother.

"You shut up," my mother thwacked my head.

"No, it's okay, Kiran. I am giving it up because I have too much. Even if I stop buying clothes right now, I would have enough clothes to last three lives," your mother said, looking straight at me.

She spoke the truth. No question about it.

Have you ever been embarrassed by your mother? I was by mine, on that day when she lied about the sari on the train.

You know, I have a friend. Manu. Unlike me, Manu goes out to work with her mother every day. Manu's mother's employer fired her seven times in three years, and every time her mother left in a huff and came back a week or two after. Her employer, whom she called boudi, had always welcomed her back, in the same way one welcomes back a lost cat.

I cannot forget that one day your mother fired my mother. Do you remember? Possibly not.

"Go get the sand for the rice," you commanded.

I filled up the toy pressure-cooker with grains of sand.

"Now fill it up with water."

I did.

It was another ordinary day when we played kitchen in your mother's kitchen. Streaks of grass were standing in for our fish. Random petals of flowers filled in as pieces of vegetables. You, strengthened by the authority of possession of the toys with which we played, ordered me around. Eight years old, and you were already so comfortable in handing out commands. I excelled in obedience.

Yet there was a rhythm between us during those days. A rhythm we have both lost. What you have for me now is a polite smile, a formal hello. A brooding silence has taken you over. You spend most of your Sunday inside your room, door locked from the inside. I linger outside that door, waiting to catch a glimpse of what's going on inside.

Anyways, on that day, we were playing and our mothers were bickering over the softness of the coconut paste. My mother was sitting on her haunches, her arms and body leaning periodically forward, grinding spices with the shil and nora.

Your mother was standing near the stove-counter, peeling shrimp.

"Kiran, how many times do I have to tell you, the coconut for the malaikari needs to be totally fine?"

"I made them as fine as possible, boudi. Just put a spoonful inside your mouth," my mother said.

"I don't need to. My fingers and eyes are enough."

And thus it went on. Have you ever seen your mother on her haunches? I haven't.

When your mother was out of earshot, mine yelled at me.

"Did I bring you along to play?"

I was angry at my mother. But nevertheless, I left the kitchen, filled up the bucket—the real one—and came back to the kitchen to wipe the floor clean. You were still there, your toys around you on the floor. I wiped the floor, and although I should have asked you to move, so that I could clean it better, I never did. I didn't want to have to speak to you right then and there. I kept avoiding your eyes.

You know what? That was the day my mother was embarrassed. Embarrassed because of herself. Embarrassed because you were there. Embarrassed because I was there.

But this is probably not an incident that you remember.

That same morning, when there was a load-shedding and we all smelt like salt and burnt paper, and your mother kept telling mine not to waste too much water, and mine kept clanging and banging the metal pots and pans as if they were bells—audible over and above the hiss of the pressure cooker, the sound of the fish frying in oil, the neighborhood loudspeaker blaring latest movie songs—your mother ordered mine to get the fuck out of this house.

My mother was meticulous in her departure. She switched the gas-oven off, wiped the counter clean, poured the vegetable curry and the fish stew she had cooked in lunchboxes, rinsed the serving spoons spotless, untied the kitchen-key from her sari-end, left it on the dining table, and gave you a hug.

No shouting, no cursing.

Mother lifted up the full lunch-boxes one by one, all five of them. Did not open the refrigerator door, and did not put the boxes inside as she was supposed to do. She filled her own plastic bag with them.

"What do you think you are doing?" your mother asked, her voice sounding like a car screeching to a halt.

"I cooked them all, didn't I?" my mother had said in a quiet voice, while putting her rubber sandals on.

She unlocked the door, left it ajar, didn't look back once, not even at you.

Your mother stood at the doorway. "What audacity!" she said, raising her eyebrows to the sky.

I did not know what to do. I was supposed to follow her out but couldn't. You and I looked at each other. You smiled a weak smile. I took up the broom standing against the wall and began to sweep the floors.

That was the only time it happened. Only once. I have no memory of what transpired afterwards between your mother and mine. It is obvious my mother came back. It is obvious she kept working for you all. And has, ever since. But once, just that once...

When I grow up, I want to have a job where if I quit, there is no coming back. No one to call me back. Nothing for me to come back to.

 

The truth I cannot deny is this: I love this house you live in. Ceiling fans in every room, large windows, rooms flooding with light, corners without dirt, floors you can eat off of, walls white as unwritten paper. Of these, your room is where I would like to spend all my time. What does it mean to own a room for yourself? What does it mean to be able to walk into it and shut the door from the other side?

When I arrive most days, you are still sleeping. The door slightly ajar, leaving a narrow slit—just enough for me to peep through. Your right hand outside the mosquito net, your knees almost touching your chest, you look far younger than you actually are.

"No need to clean her room just yet," your mother whispers. "She's been up late, studying for her exams."

An hour or so later, you get up, straighten your pajamas, brush your teeth, and go back to your room. This time, you lock the door behind you.

"Haven't I told you not to lock your room from inside?" your mother shouts.

You do not respond.

This is one place where I understand, understand you perfectly. The way you hide behind silence. Especially when confronted with persistent mother-minds. As I do with mine. On days you keep the door half-open, I see you flipping through the newspaper while eating your breakfast on the bed. I have never read a newspaper beyond the headlines.

I am in class six although I am as old as you. I failed twice—once last year, and once in class four. I still struggle to read a full paragraph. When I see you leafing through a newspaper as if it's a paper fan, I feel jealous. Jealous of your cool, jealous of your fluency. Even if I somehow scrape by in Bengali, I will surely fail this time in both Math and English. Will my mother let me continue again in the same class? Will the school let me? I don't have an answer to either question.

You are exactly the opposite. You come first in your class, my mother tells me. Your mother has suggested I bring my books along every Sunday. You will help me out with the lessons, she has promised. I refuse. You with whom I played dolls. You with whom I played kitchen. You who are exactly my age. You whose days are passing enveloped in books, private tutors, and coaching classes. I would rather fail six times over than accept your help.

To my mother, though, I haven't admitted the truth.

"She doesn't have time. Can't you see with your own two eyes?" I snapped at her when she brought it up again last evening.

You don't always have to share this world's deepest secrets with your mother. Do you?

But whenever I see you flipping through a newspaper, it is not the books, the tests, or my failing marks I am thinking of. I am thinking of the things you do not know. Will never know. Have you ever seen the newspapers stacked, counted, and organized by the delivery boys? How would you? You have never been to the rail-stations that early in the morning. Why should you? But I have. I have seen newspapers put on dirt on the ground—right next to someone's spit, right next to the stale cauliflower leaves no one has cared to throw away, right next to the lump of dog shit. And I worry. What if those specks of dirt—invisible to the naked eye—take over? What if those specks of dirt begin to roll like a ball at the touch of your fingers? What if they begin to grow bigger? What if they engulf this room, these lily-white walls? What if they cover you up from head to toe, blackening your TV-pink lips, well-shaped nails, and dirtless toes?

Here I am, sweeping the floors of your room. From where I sit on my haunches, I can see only your knees dangling from the bed. You are reading, like always. What I want to tell you is this: newspapers, like the shoes we wear outside in the streets, should never be brought inside our rooms. Especially to those where we sleep.

I touch you on the wrist.

You squirm. I am on the edge of your bed looking up. From where you are sitting, you would have to look down if you wanted to meet my eyes. Your lips smile. And then, nothing. Just like that. A second and your smile is lost. A second and the girl I used to play with once is lost.

"Do you want to say something?" you ask, in that unsmiling politeness of yours.

I say no. You go back to your books. And your newspaper.

 

Do you know what I like most about your room? The balcony. From there, I can cast my eyes to this city's horizons—rows and rows of high-rises, rows and rows of balconies, rows and rows of windows. The red sari fluttering in air from someone's balcony, right across the street from yours. The bill-boards. What a riot of colors must this be when the evening falls. What a riot of lights. I stop my sweeping, stand on the edge, leaning onto the metal railing. Do all of these homes have clean walls, just like yours? Do all these homes have silk-smooth floors like yours? Do all the girls inside those homes spend all their days with their noses tucked into books? That house over there is where Kamala Mashi works. And that one, right across my finger, is where my friend Manu's mother goes to cook and clean.

From where I stand on this balcony, there is a place where people come to eat and drink. They sit cross-legged on chairs that caress their butts like mothers. Women with bindis covering half of their faces, women with earrings like chandeliers. Earrings that dangle and quiver like rice-saplings when they talk. Men with sleeves rolled up, the fabric shining. Men whose skin glisten like that of women. Men and women who hold drinks shimmering like monsoon jasmines. I spell slowly the white letters—C, A, F, F, E. Yes, I find it difficult, very difficult to read those letters at one go. When you speak to your friends over the phone in English, I want to be you. Yes, I want to speak in English, so I can be you.

But there is something else you do not know. That every time I go inside your room to clean it, I leave behind something. Three pieces of fingernail, a toenail, a gob of phlegm, a strand of hair. Something that's me. Something that belongs to me. I leave them in your immaculate corners. I leave them under your study tables. I leave them under your bed. My own way of leaving a mark.

 

A girl pushes the door of the cafe open. When she comes out on the porch, she puts her hands inside the pockets of her black jeans. With her right hand, she pulls out a handkerchief and wipes her face. Her left hand remains inside her pocket. From where I stand in your balcony, I can see her breathing deeply, her shoulders shaking with the rhythms of her breaths. A purple ironed shirt with starched black collars adorns her body—as skinny as mine. She is older than me. Older than you. Older than Manu. But not by much. She looks smart. What gives her that kind of smartness is her purple hat, the letters CAFFE embroidered upfront. The shirt and the hat together make her uniform. Beautiful, na?

When we walk back to the rail-station late in the evening, my mother and I, I see the girl right next to the glass walls—serving food, wiping tables. Straight-backed, her shirt tucked in her jeans, she looks crisp and sharp. Something small shines on her nose. A nose ring.

Mother pushes me forward.

"Do you want to miss the train?" she asks.

No, I don't. Because missing this one would mean waiting for the next train to arrive. And the next one doesn't for another two hours or so. Yet, how would Mother know? This pleasure that resides in my stare? I look at my mother. Crow's feet under her eyes, sunburnt cheeks, coarse hair. A lifetime spent in other women's kitchens. The only thing she knows is how to make women like your mother happy. By hook or by crook.

Inside my mother's eyeballs dances the cafe. Its glittering-glimmering glass walls, its men and women chiseled out of clay, drinking magic potions out of charmed china. And the girl within. The girl who walks fearlessly within this glass island of light and luminescence. It her I want to become. It is her I want to become, because I know, as much as I want, as much as I try, I can't be you. But I can be her. She who gets to look smart in her uniform. Who gets to walk around in transluscence. She who won't be called back when she quits. That girl doesn't ever have to look back when she quits. I bet you have never seen that girl, have you?

 

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