Artwork by Dale Bridges
Aabha hasn't had a chance to eat or drink anything since morning. The Advani household does get that kind of busy. She wipes the sweat off her brow with her dupatta. She climbs on the kitchen slab. She stands on the tip of toes and tries to reach the loft atop, so she can return the box of good china until it's needed again.
"Abha, ice!" Uncle-ji yells out from the bedroom. His voice startles Aabha. She nearly drops the box. She sticks her tongue out, thinking about the tragedy had the box slipped out of her hands.
It's special, that china. Imported. It's not taken out for ordinary occasions like birthdays or anniversaries, but only on real causes for celebration. Like when Uncle-ji's company was awarded a tender by the Delhi government last year, or like the dinner Chitra madam hosted on getting elected the president of the Daffodils Apartments Owners Club.
Aabha secures the box and climbs down. She rushes to the fridge to fetch ice.
For Uncle-ji drinking, unlike using boxed china, needs no special occasion. He drinks in spite of what doctors say about his heart. Chitra madam has banished all alcohol from their house. Yet Uncle-ji finds a way to sneak little travel size bottles. He hides them at the back of his underwear drawer. Once he is done, he hands over the bottles for Aabha to dispose of. But she takes them home instead. They are good for storing hing and jira. Her spice rack is full of little Jim Beam bottles.
It's only three in the afternoon, and Uncle-ji is on his third drink. He is uncontrollable when his wife is not around. And Chitra madam is not around a lot.
Aabha opens the freezer and takes out the ice box. There are lip-shaped masks kept for chilling beside it. They are meant for Chitra madam for when she comes back from her lip thing later in the evening. Aabha takes out the icy mask and puts it on her lips. She pouts. She rests it on her lip like a mustache. She chuckles. Maybe she should take a selfie. Runjhun, her little sister, loves it when Aabha acts all silly. She hastily puts the masks back into the freezer.
Every time Aabha enters the room, she finds Uncle-ji in a different state of undress. He rolls up the sleeves of his kurta, then takes it off. He removes his vest. He then pulls up the leg of his pyjamas.
It was all very alarming when Aabha had started working. Uncle-ji would emerge out of the bathroom with a tiny towel wrapped around his waist. The thing barely covered his thighs. She brought it up with other friends of hers who worked in the complex.
"It's not like you have never seen it before," they giggled.
"He is old enough to be my daddu," Aabha said.
"So?" the girl with the scar across her face asked.
"He is just so ugly," Aabha replied. She pictured Uncle-ji's flabby belly with myriads of folds trapping lint, crumbs, even coins. She thought of the calluses on his dirty, animal-like feet and squirmed. She wondered why Chitra madam never sent Uncle-ji for a beauty treatment instead, or trimmed the hair off his back at the very least.
Uncle-ji likes to look. Aabha is glad. "Things could be so much worse, you know." Her friend Shalini told her once. "As long as you make money out of it," she added.
He often asks her to lift up her shirt and let him look at her washboard stomach that might one day just cave in out of sheer hunger. Or pull her dress down her shoulders and flash her bony clavicles at him. He pays good money. Fifty, a hundred rupees every time.
Aabha takes a deep breath and opens the door a crack. Uncle-ji's undershirt has come off.
"Uncle-ji, do you need me to turn on the AC?"
"No," he says, playing with the thick gold chain sticking to his thick neck.
She picks up a cube of ice and proceeds to drop it in the glass.
"Not with your hands!!" He screams.
Aabha rushes back into the kitchen to fetch a spoon.
What a stupid girl, Uncle-ji thinks. What an astoundingly stupid girl. Her skinny little face is almost all teeth: yellow, jutting out of her mouth. The blackness of her face, her skin, her hands, would smudge off and ruin his whites. No wonder Chitra does not let her do the laundry. And the smell that follows when she passes by: stagnant water and dish soap. It has seeped deep within her skin. It's hard to breathe. If not for that chest of hers, he wouldn't even look at her. "Where is the remote for the AC?" he mumbles.
Aabha slips a few ice cubes in a bowl and leaves. She rushes back into the kitchen, deciding to finally make a cup of tea she has been craving since morning.
She is allowed to have a cup of tea, which she can make herself. She can use the same full-cream milk everyone else in the family does, and as much sugar as she would like—this is not one of the rations-are-locked-in-a-cupboard kind of households Shalini works for. There is enough to go around, and more. When Aabha told Shalini about this, she went all ooh-aah, as if any reasonable person would want more than three spoonfuls of sugar in their tea.
"Pagal, that's not what I meant," Shalini said, slapping Aabha's back.
"I am not the one to steal," Aabha said.
"I am not the one to steal sugar, idiot." Aabha took out the lipstick she had picked off the dresser that day.
Aabha pours the hot chai into a stained, old mug meant for her. She takes urgent, airy sips. She casually opens the box of dinnerware to admire the finery painted on those delicate little plates. She commits the floral detail to memory, just in case something similar turns up at the Friday bazaar. She laughs at her own silliness for having thought so. Like something this pretty could ever turn up in a place like the roadside market.
Maybe she should just take this one. It wasn't like anyone was going to miss it. One little bowl—that's all. For Runjhun's birthday. Little kiddo likes to line up all her dollies and play tea-party. She would love this bowl. She could serve biscuits in it.
Runjhun deserves to have nice things. She was just two when mother died. No one is sure of what. Runjhun had not even been named yet. They did not name the toddlers until they turned three. But she used to wear these anklets back then. They made this pleasant tinkling sound. Like steel buckets catching water from a leaking roof. So Aabha named her Runjhun. If only Aabha could get Runjhun something she deserves. Just one pretty gift for the pretty child.
It's not that Chitra madam doesn't pay Aabha well. But every time Aabha talks about raise, the talk is swiftly hushed up.
"What do you even need money for?" Chitra madam had questioned when Aabha asked for a raise last week. "Are you getting married or something?"
"No," Aabha replied. "But everything is getting so expensive."
"It is for us, too. You realize that, right?" Chitra madam had said, still looking at her phone. "And we gave you the money for Runjhun's school admission last year."
Chitra madam got Runjhun admitted to Lauderdale school, One of the best schools in the neighborhood, through a special quota. Aabha was thankful. She wants the best possible education possible for Runjhun. She should not have to scrub shit stains off people's toilets.
But Chitra madam doesn't understand Lauderdale is a money pit. There are so many things to pay for. Picnics, excursions, extra lessons. Shoes, pencil boxes, Elsa tiffin boxes. Everything adds up. It adds up to a large portion of Aabha's little income. So much so, Aabha has to stash some money at the bottom of the rice canister so she can reach for it only when there is a pressing need.
Aabha perhaps should not have taken such a big amount as a gift. Only now she realizes debts can be paid off, but charity cannot.
"Aabha, I need my pills," Uncle-ji yells from the room.
Aabha pours a glass of water and takes Uncle-ji's pills in a tray. She slowly enters the room. His pyjamas are pulled up to his knees. She places the tray on the bed and stands beside it, staring at the TV.
"What?" Uncle-ji asks.
"I need an advance," she says.
"It's my sister's birthday."
"Bring me my wallet." He snaps his fingers and points towards the TV cabinet where his thick wallet has been thrown off casually. He fishes out a 200-rupee note and holds it between his fingers.
Aabha lifts her shirt.
"Higher," Uncle-ji says.
Aabha slides the note under her shirt, tucks it in the strap of her bra. She splashes water onto her face. What if he gets tired of looking, and wants more? She keeps the tap running and drinks from it. She swishes water in her mouth and spits it out like a bad dream. It's best not to worry about these things, she decides.
All that is left for her to do is to put the box of plates back.
"Do you need some help with it?" Uncle-ji walks into the kitchen and asks.
"Let me," he insists.
He props himself up on the shelf and sits cross legged. He pushes against his knee and stands up. He opens the shutter.
"Hand me the box."
Aabha lifts the box that's gotten heavy in her hands.
"So it's your little sister's birthday tomorrow?" Uncle-ji says, rearranging the items in the cupboard above.
"Yes." Aabha says.
"How old is she?"
"Six. Turns seven tomorrow." Aabha says.
"Kids that age are so pretty and angelic you know. Hand me that box." Uncle-ji says.
He turns around and opens his dark mouth. "Next time you want an advance, maybe you should bring the little one along." He smirks.
Aabha can feel bile rising up from the depths of her stomach. It takes just an incidental nudge for the old man lose his balance. He falls on the floor, the box of plates crashing down over his head. Little pieces of china scatter all over the freshly mopped floor.
"Took you long enough, Aabha." Father looks up from the floor where he sits with a plate of food. Aabha closes the door behind and does not answer. She washes her face and hands. She wets her palms and scrubs her dupatta, trying to get stains out from it.
"Answer me!" he yells. Aabha ignores him.
"What took you so long, didi?" Runjhun runs to her.
"It was uncle-ji from 45-C. He fell over. I had to take him to the hospital."
Father laughs and looks up. "Did they at least pay you something for saving his life?" he asks. She is suddenly aware of the 200-rupee note pressed against her skin.
"You should have let the old fucker die," Father says. "How else will we get rid of those ungrateful bastards if you keep taking them to the hospital?" Father retrieves a bottle from his front pocket and unscrews it. "What was it, a heart attack? This decadence, I tell you. This is its own disease," he says. "Learn to wallow in less," he admonishes Runjhun, "for less is more. What do they teach you at your fancy school, my child?"
"Blessed are the poor..." Runjhun recites with a lilt.
"Where did he find the money?" Aabha demands. "Who gave him money today?"
"Stop screaming. Look, you are scaring the little girl, you monster!" he says. "I found it in that canister. Hiding money from me. Sneaky little bitch. Just like your mother. May peace be upon her," he laughs.
"Where is the rest of it?"
"It's all gone," he says, laughing.
Aabha sits down on the floor and stares at the ceiling.
"Why are you sad? Were you saving it for your wedding? Blessed are the poor..." he repeats.
"What are we going to eat?"
"Blessed are the poor..." Runjhun says.
"It's Runjhun's birthday tomorrow," Aabha says.
"Aah, birthday! Candles! Celebration!" He smiles and tickles Runjhun under her chin. Her mouth erupts into rapturous laughter. "Blessed are the poor!"
"Blessed are the poor! Blessed are the poor!" Runjhun sings.