Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel
"I have been running this boarding house for 20 years, and I've learned things from experience. I have a son, so I would have preferred to have boarded boys, but I also have a daughter, so I couldn't take that risk. You never know what young men can be up to. Speaking of sons and daughters, I don't allow any boys in here. Well, maybe if they're the father, and if so, they cannot stay the night. I lock the front door at ten, and if you're going to come in any later, you have to let me know; I'll give you my landline number. I don't do mobile-shobile. I serve two meals a day, and yes, I serve fish curry daily. Except for Saturday. We have pooja on Saturday and only cook vegetarian. Rent of 3,500 rupees must be paid before the fifth of every month. No check or bank transfer. I don't like the complication; I take cash only."
Those were your rules, Kakima, and my mother was impressed by them. I was moving to Kolkata for college, the same city where my parents were from. They had since moved to Bangalore. I had relatives scattered across the city, and none were thrilled to house me for five years. Besides, I needed a place near campus, and the boarding house was my only option because my fairly wealthy parents thought the comfort of a room in an apartment would be too much spoilage too early in life. Their parenting had an emphasis on character building, and here we were, going from one crumbling boarding house to the next.
We rejected the first one because it was run by a man, and that gave my mother the creeps. She preferred most of my interactions be with a woman.
We rejected the second one because we saw a boy enter one of the rooms, and the girls came and went no matter the hour of the day. While the landlord was proud of his liberalism, my mother was horrified.
We witnessed the meals in the third, and they were just a lump of rice with some lentils on them.
Your boarding house was the fourth. You seemed on the conservative side, which reassured my mother. It told her that if you had to pick, you would pick safety over freedom. She trusted you, and maybe that's why she didn't look around much.
I did look around. Your boarding house did not have any comforts; it had necessities. It had ten twin size beds with storage compartments, four in one room and six in the other, with one toilet to a room. That was pretty much it. Every other object in sight was whatever the girls had managed to cram into the tiny spaces between beds. The walls, a bit cobwebbed where they met the ceiling and the rims of the ceiling fans, hadn't been painted in years, and there was no such thing as a washing machine. There was only one window in the four-bedroom with the empty bed, and even on a pleasant day, beads of sweat were forming behind my ears. The toilets were squatting style, still common in India but never used by me.
Many asked me, then and later, why a daughter from a "comfortable" family was living in your boarding house. The sincere assumed I was stupid. The cynical thought I was trying to prove a point. Look at me, they imagined me thinking, I am humble and unassuming and capable of living as minimally as a monk. Neither of them was right. I accepted living at your boarding house because, at 18, I was open to pretty much anything. At the time, I could often look around myself and somehow my only reaction would be to shrug and move the hell along, and halfheartedly hope some payoff to my acceptance would present itself someday. So, I shrugged, and that crumbling room became my home.
Your boarding house had two rooms full of girls. I moved into the four-bed one. I had three roommates: Shruti from Economics, Payal from IT, and Sayali from Biotechnology. Their heavy-duty areas of study painted a serious picture of them, but I realized how fun they could be in my first week.
It was almost midnight. All ten girls were assembled in my room. The lights had been purposefully turned off except for a Payal's study lamp. We needed the right atmosphere to exchange ghost stories.
Payal had a good one. "My sister went down to the pond behind our house one night and saw a woman there who was dressed in black and had her face turned away. She went and put her hand on this lady's shoulder to ask if she was okay. And bam! She turned around and her eyes glowed like hellfire! My sister didn't get out of bed for days."
Sayali's felt closer to plausible. "It was two days after my grandfather died and I was sleeping in my room. My dad said next morning that at one o'clock he got really scared and for some reason, he couldn't scream or ask for any help. Guess what? At exactly one o'clock I had heard footsteps in the bathroom."
Shruti started hers with a question. "Have you ever gone past the bridge from here to Santoshpur right before sunrise?" Our response was silence. Shruti put on a morbid expression. "Well, you shouldn't." She never said why and the unanswered question gave us goosebumps.
"I had a friend who was a skeptic, okay? One day she was talking to me in the corridor in front of the classroom. She was saying something funny and suddenly she jerked back like somebody pulled her hair, but I was standing right in front of her, okay? I know there was nobody behind her. And it couldn't have been her hallucination because when she turned around, the rubber band in her hair looked like someone had tried to pull it out. My skeptic friend has been a believer since that day." This was my story. It was made up. I just didn't want to be left out.
The other girls shared as well. Some had anecdotes. Some swore they believed in ghosts based on the one time they had seen leaves rustling in the absence of wind or heard furniture move in the absence of people. Some had stories from books or movies. The sources did not matter. The night felt like camp, minus the campfire and the tents, which was good as I had never been to camp or anything of the like.
As the clock struck one, the lights came back on, and the chills got replaced by laughter. However, I had neglected to tell the girls how scared of the supernatural I was, and after the horror stories, their laughter sounded witchy. I wanted to keep the lights on, but how would my three roommates sleep? I stayed in bed; my eyes fixed on the window, looking out for a ghost that even I knew would never come.
I woke up to sounds. Unintelligible chatter. The shrillness of an angered spirit. A man scolding. A door being slammed.
I shot up in bed and looked around. It was still a few minutes to light. My sleepy brain got so involved deciphering the sounds and figuring a response that I couldn't move.
We really should have talked about failed romances instead of ghosts.
"Go back to sleep," said Sayali from her bed, the clarity of her voice cutting through the low cacophony. "This is usual."
That's when I recognized the voices as belonging to your family—your daughter Mampi, your son Bittoo, your husband whom we called Kaku, and even your bent-over-and-crinkled-with-age mother-in-law. They were all mad at something. Given that yours was the only voice I didn't hear, I suspected that something was you.
Your devotion to our families was evident in the little things.
"Mealtime?' That was your call for us twice a day. You accompanied it with the aggressive banging of our doors as if you weren't calling us for food but an emergency evacuation. "Coming," somebody would say, and we'd begin our twice-daily orchestra—our bodies shifting into active mode in our rooms, the metal of our plates being pulled out of their spots, the swishing of slippers against the floor as our feet slipped into them. We alternated which set of girls would eat first, the ones from the six-bed room or the ones from the four-bed room.
Mealtime was more than just food. It was the locus of this life we had found ourselves in. It was a round table conference to discuss politics and social affairs. Should the Vice-Chancellor resign over squashing that student protest? How did the Chief Minister win this election against a party that had ruled for over three decades? Movies were analyzed beyond the capacities of their writers and directors. Is Shah Rukh Khan living in a bubble of his stardom, thereby relegated to making vanity projects where he essentially plays himself? Why are the actresses all wearing bikinis these days, and will the Indian film industry cut you out if you don't have the body to wear one? Then there were the topics closer to home. Should our summer vacation be longer? Which one of us had the hardest subject to study? We couldn't answer that one, but Shruti officialized that the easiest was mine because all I did was play with my computer all day and look forward to making a lot of money working for Google or something. (She said this so many times I sometimes wonder if she's secretly glad now to know that version of the future eluded me.)
We avoided discussing boys, friends, or families. You were an elder in our eyes, and it would be awkward. Those discussions were reserved for late nights in the safety of our rooms.
There would be uncomfortable pauses whenever one of us asked for something more. For example, once Payal asked for extra papad. You said no. "I'm saving it for Bittoo," you said, closing the lid to your papad box tightly shut. Sure, you could save things for your son, but we'd shared the table with him on some daytime meals, and we wished you would starve him. He was a stonewaller, quietly walking away from the table if he didn't like the items, leaving behind a half-eaten plate for you to clean up while you begged him to tell you what he wanted and suffered in his non-answers. Then there was the day Payal had her daytime meal without us because her class started later and Bittoo ate at the same table, eyes locked on her, hands down his pants. Payal could live without the papad but she didn't want it going to him.
"Have you ever seen Bittoo talking to Kakima?" said Sayoni one day. "What kind of children don't talk to their parents at all?"
Bittoo talked to the other members of his family. His silence was a way to control you, the one who did the most for him. Bittoo'd started college the same year as me, and you were always asking me questions about how much things were supposed to cost. It was no mystery that you alone were paying for his education at a private college with the money you made from the boarding house, and you were always uncertain whether that textbook needed to be bought first hand or those extracurricular fees needed to be paid. Yet, Bittoo jarred you with how little he spoke, and maybe that's why you questioned if you were doing enough.
"Why doesn't she leave?" said Shruti every time you were frazzled by some financial strain and muttering under your breath. "Nobody helps her here. Nobody cares."
Every month we'd have a short cold war with you regarding the cleanliness of our room. The cleaning maashi was prone to taking days off, and you couldn't afford someone better. You met our complaints with evasion of our stares. "You see, I just don't have the time. All day spent cooking and washing utensils and budgeting for my family."
"The last cleaning maashi was worse. She stole money from me!"
"Learn to adjust, girls. This isn't a hotel."
We'd eventually stop pressing because we could see you were overwhelmed. You ran this household in every sense with little help. Nobody even bothered to share the burden of simple chores like the cutting of vegetables. The worst offender of such neglect was your daughter Mampi.
We were sick of Mampi because she turned on the TV too loud, which was a problem. After all, watching TV was the divine calling of her life. Throughout the day we faintly heard the overdramatic background music of Bengali soap operas, and then we heard them a second time during the repeat telecast. She was a grown woman of 21, and all she did was sit there, overweight and glassy-eyed, consuming tales of kitchen politics, long-lost twins, and torrid affairs.
"They treat Kakima like a slave," said Shruti. "If I were her, I would have left already. I mean, can they even survive without her? I don't understand. Why does she stay?"
Then there were the fights. We never knew what your family was fighting about. We just knew it was at least a weekly affair. Kaku's voice would become louder than it ever got in other aspects of life. Your elderly mother-in-law would spew gibberish in that distinctive East Bengal language that none of us understood, her volume making up for unintelligibility and starkly contrasting her frail limbs and sagging skin. Even Mampi joined in. Inspired by her beloved soap operas, we'd hear her say lines like, "This is about the honor of the Sen family."
I think the worst we judged you was when you increased the boarding fees.
You came into our room, your body smaller than usual, head down. You sat down on the edge of Shruti's bed and started to speak with downcast eyes. "I have tried to keep the boarding fees the same for yours, but things are different now. Bittoo's college is expensive. I have to get Mampi married off. I am barely making ends meet, but we need more than just survival money right now. I have thought about this a lot and starting next month, the boarding fees will be 4,000 rupees."
My parents always joked I lived at your house for free because that's how it was for them. They liked to brag about my extreme frugality and accommodating character to their friends. But Sayoni, Payal, and Shruti had to digest the news of a 500 rupee hike in a way I didn't have to.
"It's too shabby here. The white walls are grey!" said Sayoni, after you left.
"The food's gotten worse. Don't you feel the pieces of fish are smaller?" said Shruti.
"The cleaning mashi doesn't come some days. Are we supposed to live in filth?" Sayoni complained.
Bottom line: the hike was unjustified. They picked your facilities apart till they grew tired, and then they accepted the change. But not before throwing your family under the bus one last time.
"Her husband hasn't worked in years!" pointed out Sayoni. "Why can't he get a job?"
"Bittoo is an ungrateful asshole. Look how hard Kakima works for him! What does she ever get in return?" said Payal, throwing her hands up in the air.
"What about Mampi?" said Shruti. "I get that she does not go to college or hold a job, but would it kill her to do some chores now and then? She makes her mother work as a servant!"
It was the same old rants. At this point, I could almost predict like a stage director who would say what.
I stayed a passive listener during this discussion. I knew nothing about being poor and didn't want to be caught in my ignorance. You needed more money. You were getting it from us. The math added up, and it dug very shallowly into my family's pockets.
The next day, the hike was accepted by never speaking of it again. It made me wonder if the resistance to it was ever genuine or simply the obligatory rantings of young girls.
You see, just like we always resolved how we felt about you (mostly by shifting blame to your family and recognizing your desperation), your family somehow always resolved its matters, too. Families can be messy, and no matter how much we all rolled our eyes, we understood that. There was a base level of drama ever-present in your household, but it never exploded to a higher level. Without knowing, we accommodated your late-night fights into our routines. If you could stay in this house, we could, too.
It wasn't just that we could stay. We truly wanted to.
We could complain about your facilities, and yes they never improved, but you were diligent in consistently delivering what we had been promised upon arrival. You'd work even on days your back hurt (did you ever get that looked at?) or when you had to travel to the other end of the city for talks regarding Mampi's wedding. The food never got better, but it also never got worse, despite your life frequently leaning towards worse. During mealtimes, you would ask us about our day. You'd ask me how my parents were doing as mine were the only parents who never came to the boarding house. "Where is Bangalore?" you'd ask. I'd tell you, and you'd look away, confused. I soon understood that you didn't know the names of many states, and your world was minuscule. Still, I appreciated you asking even though you knew you could never fully contemplate my parents' life. It wasn't something most boarding house owners would do.
You made a special doi for us if one of us had an exam. "It calms the stomach and brings good luck," you'd say. If you overheard a girl crying, there'd be chili chicken on our plates two meals later. "Eat," you'd say. "You'll all feel better." Once, a girl named Rupa from the room adjacent to mine suffered a bad breakup with her high school boyfriend and couldn't control her tears during dinner. We were shifty in our seats, eyes too focused on our rice and lentils. Matters of the heart had leaped over the boundary between our rooms and yours. You surprised us by patting Rupa on the back, each pat hearty, strong, and purposeful. "Yours isn't an age to fret loss," you said, squeezing Rupa's shoulders. When you let go, she could sit up on her own again as though you'd reattached her to the string that held her up.
You had observed how plain I was and would often place your hand on my head and say, "Listen, you should dress up more. Wear some makeup and put on some jewelry. You are so young and beautiful! Let your appearance showcase your happy heart!"
Our university was progressive. We had daily protests and slut walks and graced the front pages of newspapers for our progressive political views (or the general culture of marijuana overuse and late-night encounters between young men and women, depending on whom you'd ask). On campus, you'd be old-fashioned and superstitious. I mean, telling a girl to dress up! What sexist nonsense! Yet, you were an oasis from the climate of revolution we inhabited during the day, a figure of old-fashioned warmth and care we knew in our hearts was rare.
On days when we could sync up the time we left for classes, you'd rush up to the rooftop and look down at us with a smile. We'd wave at you before joining a sparse and loose parade of young students with dark-colored backpacks emerging out of their respective boarding houses in the neighborhood and heading towards the auto stand for a short ride to the campus. In those precious moments, you'd make us feel as though we were what you lived for.
On one such day, Payal sighed and said, "I like Kakima. She looks after us. She doesn't have to."
"It makes sense that she looks after her stupid family, too," said Shruti from the front seat, squished next to the autorickshaw driver. "Maybe she just has a bigger heart than we can fathom."
"They're her flesh and blood," I shrugged. "They're bad apples, but they are her bad apples, you know?"
We all chuckled at that.
"You know what?" said Sayoni. "We've probably caused our parents good grief, too. Maybe not like this but in other ways."
I think your doi had not only calmed our stomachs that day but also our spirits.
When we got off the auto, Shruti asked me a strange question. "Do you drink?"
"Um, I never have," I replied.
My three roommates exchanged looks. "Do you have a problem if we drink?" asked Shruti.
I didn't reply and then tentatively shook my head no.
Two minutes later, plans for a party with alcohol were formalized, and I was appointed designated lookout because a) we needed one if we were to rebel in your house and b) it's not like I'd be missing the alcohol anyways.
I swallowed. You cared for us, but alcohol in your premises was pushing it.
Shruti's boyfriend, Shruti insisted, did not drink-drink. But he could get us alcohol. He was in her class and had come to the gate of the boarding house before to take or deliver notes. You had never raised an eyebrow because he never stayed for more than a minute. That would be enough time for him to smuggle in a few bottles for us.
The bottles were small. They fit into a small book bag which also had two tattered recycled paper notebooks and a bunch of xeroxes. You stood at the door as Shruti received the bag. I find it hard to believe that us waiting with bated breath at the doors to our rooms—such suave smugglers we were—didn't rouse your suspicion, but you said nothing.
The party was on the rooftop. I mean it used to be the rooftop, but you'd been building upon it for years now, heightening the columns and finally capping them with a slab. You always said you'd build walls once Bittoo got a job and was ready to claim the second floor with his wife. Still, it felt like open space to us, wall-less enough for a rooftop party, and the rebellion was not worth it if it didn't take place on a rooftop. It just wasn't.
I was prepared for a night of drunken theatrics. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the bodies of my roommates couldn't handle a night of drinking as they could barely accommodate 15 minutes of it. They were good girls; they hadn't done this before. Their fall from sober to drunk was sharp and swift, with the voices of nine girls getting louder with every passing second, their laughter growing more uncontained, the look in their eyes wide and electrified. Someone played music on their phone and someone butchered the lyrics. Payal got up and started dancing to a seductive song—you wouldn't believe this image if you saw it, Kakima—using one of the concrete columns as a pole, surprisingly well-read on the choreography the song demanded and full of grace.
"I need to wake up early tomorrow," said Sayoni, pulling the sleeve of my t-shirt with more force than necessary. "You will wake me up at six, won't you?"
"Uh-huh," I replied.
More girls got up to dance. Charu from the adjacent room jumped up and down to the beat and I stood up to stop her. I exercised on the rooftop at times and knew you could hear any movement that went on there, the vibrations registering as small earthquakes in the floor below.
We made jokes. We laughed.
"You will wake me up at six, won't you?" said Sayoni again.
"Yep," I replied, not meaning it this time.
"You will wake me up at six, won't you?" she asked again two minutes later. Her brand of drunk was characterized by mindless repetitiveness.
"Yes, I will."
The music got louder, the dancing continued. More girls got their turn at the "pole." I stood watching, thoroughly entertained. The alcohol had already gotten used up, and our energies were beginning to wane. It was late. Time for me to play escort and get them back to their rooms.
Two or three girls didn't resist me, but most of them did. They wanted to stay loose. The music was too groovy to replace with silence.
But then, my sober ears picked up on a couple of extra sounds. The fighting had begun.
I panicked. This was the wrong time to get caught having a drinking party. The cacophony grew. I got the girls downstairs. The last to ones to remain were Sayoni, Payal, and Shruti. I collected them in a clump in my open arms and began to herd them back in.
You got thrown out of the house.
Thrown. A word best reserved for inanimate objects is the only word I can use. You were so light! Kaku needed just one hand to push you out of the gate as your feet fought for stable ground, and all it took was one forceful shove to send you down to the ground.
They threw her out. They threw her out. They threw her out. My mind processed the information. I had never imagined the fights to be physical. I was wrong.
The simple brutality of the scene rattled me. We were close to the parapet wall, about to go back into the house, but I took protective steps backward, taking the girls with me, till I could barely see you anymore. Yes, I know I wasn't the one who needed protection.
"Get. Out!" said Kaku, out of our view and menacing. He slammed the metal gate shut behind him, but I didn't hear him lock it.
In the silence that followed, I came back to my senses. I took tentative steps closer to the parapet. What if you had hit your head? What if you had broken bones? What if this was the final time the gates were closed on you?
I couldn't bring myself to call out to you. "Are you okay?" was inappropriate, and my vocabulary supplied me with nothing else.
I watched as you twitched in tears. You stayed on the dusty concrete ground for so long, I thought you had given up. Then, you quietly picked yourself up and walked back in. You locked the door like a dutiful housewife. The fight was over.
"Let's go," said one of my roommates. Our party felt like it had happened decades ago.
We didn't speak of it the morning after. I suppose we were still processing. Or perhaps the other girls had decided to settle on the narrative that I was the only one who was sober enough to have witnessed anything.
In my mind, I was still the child and you were the adult. Turns out turning 18 changes little, and I had found myself in a new city at square one of life experience. Adults can take care of themselves, a part of me had rationalized, and that was why I hadn't taken care of you when I had witnessed you at rock bottom. I had also looked up to my roommates. They were all older than me, with more knowledge of college and boarding house life. For sure, they would have taken action had it been warranted.
My brain was protecting my weak, stupid self, not you.
My heart had other ideas. It refused to listen to my rationalizations and continued to beat louder whenever I came back from my classes and crossed your threshold.
Out of all the Sundays, I spent at yours, one sticks out. Most of the time, I was alone on weekends. My college friends were either from the city or from close enough that they could go home on the weekends. My roommates left, too—two to three-hour train journeys home to other parts of the state. Sometimes I thought these were the days when their real lives happened, knitted tight in the fabrics of their families, and college, despite all the independence and occasional debauchery it brought with it, was a bit like coming to work.
However, there were rare occasions when my roommates stayed so they could study for a test they had on Monday. On one such weekend, three of us—Sayoni went home—we went out for breakfast to a local chai stall. The stall was a bamboo scaffolding roofed by a tarpaulin sheet under which the chaiwallah had stationed a rickety platform he used for cooking on a kerosene stove. Our staple was bread omelet, a dish sold by many a chai stall in and around the university. Technically it was just a soft loaf of bread stuck to an omelet, an effect achieved by placing the bread on the egg while it was still cooking, but really, it was a local delicacy. I have eaten lots of eggs and lots of bread, but never again have I encountered the same dish. It was as if the chaiwallahs had held a meeting to formulate a dish only for the students of our university, and nobody knew the right mix of eggs, bread, green chili, and spices to recreate it.
That day, there was a hum in the air that kept growing, as if the tea was slowly bringing people to life. The dozen or so men at the stall became more animated with every sip they took from their small earthen cups. The ones reading the papers on the small bench right next to the stall's kitchen spotted a particular article and began debating the chief minister's latest move. At some point, the chaiwallah turned on the radio, thereby muting the morning birds. Two of the men were talking about a fight that had broken out somewhere close by.
"The Duttas have their kirtan every year, but nobody has ever raised their voice against it," I heard someone say to the chaiwallah as though they were acquaintances. There was nothing special about this man's face, but I somehow noted that he was wearing a lungi under his kurta.
My ears perked up. The Duttas lived right across the narrow street from you, and every year they had the prayer meeting in which they played devotional songs on a loudspeaker from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM, and we prayed we'd just go deaf already. You said it was best to just let it pass, but someone had finally made a complaint.
"Mr. Dutta flipped out! Said a bunch of nonsense about how his father once owned half the neighborhood and how his son makes one lakh rupees every month! But one could see he was rattled. Why wouldn't he be? We just accept their kirtans as part and parcel of living here, and because that family runs some shops here and we see them every day, but new people don't care about all that." The man took a sip of his cha and sighed as loudly as he was just narrating.
"The new people will learn," said the chaiwallah. "This is not Salt Lake. We don't keep ourselves locked up in our big houses and make a fuss if someone's too loud." As if to prove his point, he turned the volume knob on his radio.
"Yes, but my mother gets headaches from the noise," said the lungi-wearing man. His gaze shifted to us, and I thought maybe he had caught me listening in. "You girls live in that boarding house, na? That house is so close to the Dutta's."
"How do you study with all that music and chanting?" he said, obviously not looking for an answer. "A university like yours must demand a lot of concentration on schoolwork. Of course, none of the Duttas could understand that. Their youngest son didn't even finish high school."
I exchanged looks with Shruti and Payal. This was not a conversation we had opted into.
The man turned back to the chaiwallah. "But I must say I have heard good things about Sumita. She cares for her girls. I heard her daughter's wedding is soon. Good! We all get a wedding feast. They've been talking about the wedding for so long we thought they were merely spinning tales, but there was an engagement."
It was strange to think that even though we lived one two-and-a-half-foot corridor away from you, we only understood you like what you meant to us—a landlady, a cook, a woman with a family, our guardian of sorts. Was it because we had the tunnel vision of our early 20s? Sure. But it was also because we were your jobs, ten in number with 24/7 work hours, and no vacation days, and it was almost true that you lived only in relation to us. That's why even at 200 yards from your house and obviously amidst your neighbors (some of them for probably for decades), a strange man at the chai stall referring to you by name was like getting catapulted to and back from a parallel universe in one second, a universe where you were recognized and permanent and we were irrelevant and temporary.
The man's face softened and he turned back to the chaiwallah. "She is a good woman," he said. "She raised those kids practically by herself."
The chaiwalla nodded. "Who would have thought?" he said, pulling his red and white chequered gamchha down from his shoulder, as if in reverence.
Shruti and Payal exchanged looks.
"We know," said Shruti in a small voice that seemed intentionally just loud enough for the three of us to hear, and an evasive look away at nothing in particular.
When we got our bread-omelets, we stood in a small clump safe distance away from the other customers and took leisurely bites. "I guess Mampi and Bittoo are famous around here," said Payal.
Shruti smirked. "Well, if I had children like Kakima," she said, her catchphrase on the matter.
After that day, the lens with which I viewed your family changed. It wasn't a magic moment of realization. It was a bunch of moments here and there. Like the one where I contrasted your ebony skin to Mampi and Bittoo's cream. Or the one where your stories in the house never went back more than 20 years even though both your children were now older than that. There were no pictures of you in the house, not even the standard wedding photos one expected to see, and Kaku was in bed half the time not because he was weak but because he was much older than you. If I stepped back, I saw a family photo with you on one side, and everyone else clustered on the other. My imagination tried to force the two sides together, but my intuition opposed it.
These hints swirled in my mind till one day Payal walked into the room frustrated because she'd been ringing the bell for a long time and Bittoo'd neglected to answer till you came down from the puja room and had to do it yourself.
"What does he even do all day?" said Payal. "And don't say study. They don't study at whatever podunk college he attends. Why doesn't anyone say anything to him?"
"He's the son," said Shruti closing her book and straightening up. I had now figured that she was an invested and hardworking student, and in the absence of a TV or wi-fi, gossiping about your family was a welcome distraction from the dry mathematical pages of her Economics textbooks.
"So?" said Payal, her voice rising, but then she let out a sigh. She already knew the answer. "We know how he treats Kakima," she whispered. "Who can just stand by when their father slaps their mother?"
So they had been witnesses, too, I thought, but nobody doubled down on Payal's statement. Payal avoided eye contact with me. Her rant was over. It was time to go back to plausible deniability.
"Listen," I said. "I have been pondering something for a while. That night—"
The air in the room stilled before I continued.
"We all saw how this family crossed a line. Since then, I don't feel comfortable living here anymore," I said.
"Why?" said Shruti. "The room and board haven't changed, and neither has Kakima."
"I know. I mean I feel uncomfortable living here with the knowledge of how they treat her. I can't stop feeling as though we should have done something." Even as I said the words, I was aware I had no plan of action. I was the youngest girl in the room looking up to the grownups, awaiting instructions.
My roommates exchanged looks. "This is not America," said Shruti, shaking her head. From experience, I knew "America" didn't mean the United States to her. Instead, it meant Hollywood, where the righteous always triumphed and villains were always brought to justice.
I didn't give up, though. "Aren't their hotlines we could call? Some places where we could make a complaint? The police? There must be something!" I was whispering now, afraid you might hear, but my words came out tense and urgent. Stewing over the topic for a few days had turned me into a ticking bomb.
"What would they do?" said Sayoni. "Take her to some women's shelter? How is that better than a house and a family? At least these people know her and would take her to the hospital if she fell sick. She is a person here, not a label or a statistic."
"She might be able to go back home," I said, but I knew what the rebuttal to that was.
"What home?" said Payal. "Kakima's family married her off and never looked back. I have been here for five years, and they have not visited once. Not even once! I would not be surprised to find she is an orphan."
It made sense. A lot of poor families in India married off girls if their parents died. A poor girl is a liability, and who wants that if all the relatives are poor as well, with their children to think of? Marriage was a trade. The security of legal relatives, shelter, and food in exchange for domestic contributions.
"You, with your modern big city upbringing, think what you saw is the worst it could get," said Shruti. "For an uneducated woman with no connections like Kakima, the world out there is much, much worse. How do you imagine her five years from now, if we were to take 'action' as you say?"
The girls' eyes were now on me. I wanted to fight back, point out that wrong was wrong, proclaim how witnesses of injustice are just as complicit as the perpetrators. I shrank instead. This was the first time they had called me out on being from a different background, and I couldn't answer Shruti's question.
I saw what I saw. But I saw no way for you out of it. Like an animal at the zoo, beautiful and strong yet so incapable of surviving in the wild, you too had an enclosure. Despite living in Kolkata, you had somehow grown used to a cage of ignorance, one that placed mobiles at the same level of complexity as the satellites that facilitated them. You didn't know the names of any other states, had never learned how to cash a check. It's just that I couldn't imagine you living anywhere other than your purgatory of disrespect and violence.
"We don't have Kakima's life," said Shruti when I failed to answer. "We can't take away what she has now unless we have something to offer as a substitute. Who is going to take responsibility for her if not for these people? Who are we to come and judge and fix? Are you planning to take her with you once you leave?"
I was growing a headache. "No," I mumbled.
Payal sighed. "Besides, we often ask why she stays. But those are her children! How could she leave them?"
All the "Why doesn't she leave?" sessions had been purely rhetorical. I guess I had known all along, but this was heartbreaking confirmation.
"She is not their mother." It slipped out like a eureka moment, my suspicions crystalizing to conviction. Shruti, Payal, and Sayoni eyed me, confused.
I went on. "Kakima is not their mother. I mean, she is, but she didn't give birth to them. And she is not Kaku's first wife. She is just... I don't know."
I didn't have to explain. Perhaps their intuition had hinted this to them before, but with me verbalizing it, your otherness in your family became fact, and your ties to it became even more inexplicable.
Here you were, a woman who at a second glance couldn't be much more than 45, living in a family which was a unit but never yours. They subsisted on you, on your boarding house income. Bittoo went to college because of loans taken out with your jewelry as collateral. Mampi sat in front of the TV all day because you worked without a moment's rest. Your mother-in-law, even at this age, wouldn't spare you the criticism for even small mistakes, like the puja starting five minutes late or Kaku's lunch being adequate but not appetizing. And then there were hands raised on you. You were no doubt tethered to something here, something you couldn't bear to leave. Who were we to snatch you away from it?
"Why can't she leave?" said Shruti. She'd changed the "doesn't" to "can't" because we now knew choice had little to do with it and we could only imagine the lows of your past for you to have ended up here. This was the last time Shruti asked a variation of that question and the first time she did it without an eye-roll or a smirk.
This was also the last time we hoped to find an answer.
I did see you again. I was in Kolkata for a relative's wedding, feeling nostalgic. Nothing had changed in the neighborhood. When I rang the doorbell, I expected you to come out in your orange kaftan and your eyes to shine in surprise. Instead, you came out in a white sari, a sign of mourning. You let me in, and dida wasn't at her spot in front of the TV.
"How old was she?" I asked, hushed and uncomfortable.
"She was 81, and she's been gone for two years," you said.
It was then that I remembered it was Sunday, Kaku's day off, but he wasn't at his spot, either. Your living room was empty, the television set to a low volume.
"How?" I asked.
"He had a heart attack," you said. "It's funny. He complained of chest pain, and we thought it was gas."
I had noticed coming in that the second floor still did not have walls. You didn't say much about your children, except that Mampi was at her husbands' and Bittoo had a job in Asansol. The few words you spared for them warned me not to probe.
You sighed. "It's hard to keep up the house all alone. My workload has doubled. I now have to buy groceries and go to the back sometimes! I would sell this place if I could and move to a small room somewhere, but I can't bear to." You hung your head and lost yourself in your thoughts.
Suddenly, an injection of life puffed up your limp body. You turned around, walked down the short corridor separating your residence from the boarding house rooms, and started banging their doors. "Mealtime?" you shouted, just like you once used to for us.
"Yes, Kakima," said one of the girls. I stood in the corridor and listened to their bodies shifting in their rooms, the metal of their plates being pulled out of their spots, the swishing of slippers against the floor as feet slip into them. It was like stepping into the movie that had been my home life for half a decade. The script was the same, the actors different.
"You must have a meal with us," you said to me like I'd heard you say to all the girls who'd come to see you after leaving. I couldn't say no.
When I left that day, I knew I would never see you again. You had been at this for 30 years by then, and I was one of the hundreds that had come and gone. What would we talk about anyways, now that I wasn't one of your girls? However, every time I thought of you thereafter, a part of me was glad you never left that shabby house, because now I knew it wasn't about being a daughter-in-law, a wife, or a mother. It was about being Kakima.