|Image: FreeImages.com/Ann Sam|
My mother died on my birthday. Not first or second, but quite literally my birth day. I was her ninth daughter, and though my father was a rich zamindar in Chandigarh, he had no desire what-so-ever to feed nine girls. ‘Nine burdens?’ He perhaps thought. So when Rajni and Lakhan, my father’s hired labourers, asked to adopt me, my father gladly handed me over. I’m not being cynical; I think I just fell from riches straight into abject poverty.
To start a new phase of life, my new parents and I relocated to Assam, their home town, now, our home town. They lovingly called me Sapna, their dream. But, life for me was far from being dreamlike. It was tough; working in tea plantations, cutting wood for fuel, filling water for domestic needs and taking care of household chores, loaded with fundamental conflicts of existence: caste struggles, insecurity to life, hunger and disease. To top it all, a drunken father who abused my mother and me when he was short of money for drinks. Life was tough.
So as soon as I turned 18, I ran, as far as I possibly could with a friend. We boarded a train to Delhi, the capital city. At the Old Delhi railway station, we bumped into a woman named Karuna. She asked us a few questions, our names, where we came from, where were we headed? She promised to help us find work. She looked okay and we needed help, so we followed her and her group of girls to Gurgaon, a city bordering Delhi.
Gurgaon, you can feel the expanse of the city as you enter it: malls, tall skyscrapers and fancy cars. Crowds pushing their way out of offices in clothes you only see in tabloids, and I only thought the foreigners wear.
‘Was I happy to see the city! New beginnings.’
The bubble did not last long. As we left the Metro station, I was half expecting a swanky car to come by and pick us up. But Karuna lugged her bag and asked the girls to follow her through a maze of narrow by lanes that followed the gutters of the city. Behind the big skyscrapers, these by lanes wound their way into the Nathupur village; a cluster of filthy, illegal, low lying, multi-storey, distemper-coated buildings behind the swanky, glassy, shiny exterior of the city.
Karuna had been an agent supplying maids across Delhi-Gurgaon for the past 15 years and was well-versed with the city. Her living quarters consisted of two rented, 9’x12’ rooms. The girls Karuna brought from the village were stuffed into one room. The other room was her home, where she lived with her teenage daughter. The rooms lined a corridor of six rooms rented out to bachelors and families. The corridor had two common bathrooms on each floor. The building had two floors and was one among several illegally constructed buildings that touched each other in Nathupur.
‘Was this shoddy place my destiny?’
‘No, I would not give up. I would make it big. I had to make it big to show my zamindar father and his eight privileged daughters.’
I convinced Karuna to call a few prospective employers that very night, so I could start work the next day. We decided to meet one madam the following evening at Starbucks in the Ambience mall. Karuna and I reached the mall after an early lunch and decided to shop at Big Bazaar in the basement of the mall. With all the money I had, I bought a beautiful red dress, similar to the ones I had seen in Bollywood tabloids, to start my stint in Gurgaon.
At 4 o’clock, we walked over to Starbucks, where Divya madam was sitting at a table sipping her coffee. Through the glass window, she looked beautiful. She wore stylish clothes, a big watch, tiny danglers ‘and those heels! Whoa! I would have them too, someday!’
She greeted me with a warm smile. ‘Okay, she seemed nice.’ After agreeing on the terms and conditions, we left for madam’s house. It was clean and well-equipped. Maira, madam’s daughter, was a cute and well mannered three-year old and we got along well.
Life in this house was much better, more like the city life that I had imagined. I was happy. Within a few days, I mastered my skills. There was not much work to be done: I could finish up while Maira was in school, sleep with Maira in the afternoon, and help Divya madam cook in the evening. On weekends, we would go out shopping, to the parlour, meet madam’s friends or meet Kaustav sir, Divya madam’s friend. Madam would give me her old clothes, which looked great with a bit of alteration, which the tailor seated at the street corner was happy to do. Madam encouraged me to look good, eat well, make friends and allowed me to watch TV, as well.
I soon learnt the city mannerisms and imitated Divya madam’s walk and talk. I also made friends with other maids I met at the park in the evenings, and when I went on my monthly leave to Karuna’s place, I also made friends with all the girls at Karuna’s agency. From Divya madam, I got the love and acceptance I had longed for. My life at the house was what I was supposed to have lived all my life, the riches, the comforts. I learnt about hard work, honesty, integrity and gratitude, and I changed, changed for the better, changed for what I should have been, changed for the way God had intended me to be, which my zamindar father could not digest.
I was earnest in my duties and loved Maira like a baby sister. I would feed her, bathe her and play with her in the park. Such was life, moving along at a lovely pace.
One evening while Maira and I were at the park, I received a call from my mother. “Cousin Ravi had an accident, it was serious, he had passed away the previous day." I could feel tears well up in the corners of my eyes. But, the worst was not over.
“We are not able to cremate him.”
“Because he had some feud with the upper caste boys in the village and those people are not allowing adivasis to cremate on their grounds anymore.”
“Where is the body then?” I asked trying to understand the situation back home.
“At his house; it’s been lying there since yesterday.”
“The village elders are discussing the matter. Both communities are getting involved and there is a lot of tension in the village.” My mother’s voice sounded worried and tense.
“What rubbish, how can they bring up a community fight over a dead person? Can someone not show respect for a dead person?” I sat back on a bench feeling disgusted and wondering if we will ever get any respect. “We adivasis get no respect when alive and no respect when dead. My poor Ravi. I think, we should all just die and gift the upper caste a village of adivasi, untouchable dead bodies to handle.”
“Chh, chh, talk some sense stupid girl.” My mother still trying to drive some sense into her defiant daughter!
That’s when I heard a screech and turned around to see Maira standing frozen, her baby belly nearly touching the front bumper guard of a car. Thankfully, the girl behind the wheel was new to driving and was slow. She had seen Maira and screeched to a halt. I was relieved, ‘My little Maira was safe.’
I ran and hugged Maira. The apartment guard, neighbours, maids had all gathered around me, accusing me of carelessness. I tried to explain, but no one was listening. I gave up and decided to head home with Maira.
Now, back to my mother. She checked on Maira and then promised to call back as soon as she got any news on Ravi.
‘What was happening? Trouble everywhere, Ravi, Maira.’ As I sat wondering about the events of the day I could sense nervousness creep into me; I was slowly realizing my lapse and the risk I had put Maira through. ‘Would Divya madam be angry? Would she send me back to Karuna?’ I wondered.
That night I waited at the window looking out for Divya madam’s car. There it was, on time from work. As soon as the car entered the gate, the guard ran and spoke with her. ‘Must have complained about me, that asshole!’
Surprisingly, when she came home, she did not blow my top, Phew! But she did advise me. Whatever the reason, I was grateful. ‘Maybe, the guard also told her about my cousin...’
I did not sleep that night; I could not. Not knowing what would happen to Ravi, my cousin with whom I had gone to school every day in the village.
My mother called the next day. The village was tense. Ravi had been cremated at dawn on a barren land near the adivasi house cluster amid police protection. Miscreants from both communities were put in jail on false petty charges as a preventive measure before the cremation. The situation was being monitored closely by the police.
I was tense through the day, hoping for peace and calm to be restored in the village as well as in Divya madam’s house. Thankfully, no untoward incident followed in either worlds.
I resolved to leave my phone behind while going to the park. I could not risk Maira’s life again. She needed my undivided attention. Divya madam had entrusted her daughter in my hands, and I needed to honour that. Madam had reacted like an elder sister. She had neither screamed nor abused me. Rather, she had advised me and I respected her for that.
I shifted my phone calls to late evenings. I would stand by the window in my room late at night, call family and friends, listen to music and relax. Tina, the maid next door would join me at the adjacent window. She was frustrated with her employers: too much work, less salary, no leaves and no interaction allowed with other maids. She felt frustrated and caged. I was her shoulder to cry on. She was, however, getting impatient and was looking for ways to run away.
That is when, one Friday evening, Divya madam invited her girl friends and tots for dinner. They were staying the night. Tina realised this was her opportunity. The main entrance to the Kapoors’ apartment, where Tina worked, was locked. But Divya madam had been too drunk to lock our main entrance. She had been busy talking to her friends. Maira and the other children had gone off to sleep in their play tents. I had cleaned up and retired to my room.
There, with lights off, we waited till midnight for post-dinner walkers to return home. Then, through the window Tina handed me a bag she had packed with some clothes and her salary from all these years. Next, she carefully jumped over her window and stepped onto the two square foot landing under the window of her third-floor apartment, crossed over to the landing under my window and climbed into my room.
Tring, Tring! “Shhhh...the intercom.” Tina and I held our breaths. But Divya madam was too drunk to hear. The intercom rang for five minutes and died. Then the doorbell rang. Divya madam finally woke up and walked to the door, which was right outside my room. Tina and I knew something was wrong. She jumped out of my window and climbed back into hers. Meanwhile, I hid her bag in my cupboard.
Before we knew it, Divya madam was frantically knocking at my door. When I opened, she dashed into my room and bathroom, scrutinizing every corner for the ghosts of Tina’s escape. She found none. Her friends gathered and she began pounding me for answers.
It seems, the guard had seen someone climb from the adjacent window into my room window. In the dark, he could only see the figure in silhouette. But, it was obvious, it had to be the resident of the adjacent room. Divya madam searched my room frantically, but could not find Tina. She ran over to the neighbours, and called Kapoor uncle. He called Tina and everyone started questioning us.
Tina said, she dropped her mobile phone out of the window and had jumped to pick it up. We denied her entry into my room.
Kapoor uncle and Divya madam were going crazy. “What if Tina had fallen off the landing in the dark? Who would have been responsible? If the mobile had fallen, you should have called uncle, he would have pulled it up with something in the morning. Stupidity!”
Finally, madam and the Kapoors decided to install grills on the windows and we retired to our rooms.
Next morning, Kaustav sir came and lambasted me for being irresponsible. Karuna also called later in the day to lambast. Divya madam had complained to her.
‘But, what was this, it seems, she had complained about the little mishap with Maira, as well.’
‘Oh! So she did not trust me then. All the sisterly advice was eyewash.’ Behind my back, she had asked Karuna for a replacement. Unfortunately, Karuna had no replacement.
‘Conniving Miss Divya would have to make do with me! What a bitch? She feigned sympathy on my face and went and complained to my agent behind my back. Wanted to get rid of me on the sly, huh? The cheat, I would teach her a lesson.’
I decided to pursue my dream of making it big in the city, aggressively. I followed Miss Divya in every possible way I could. I learnt English with a vengeance. When Divya was at work, I watched Star World and HBO to polish my language. I also started taking note of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. My desire for material well-being and an emotional shoulder to cry on increased. I decided to look for my knight in shining armour; ‘The milkman, the guard, the supervisor?’
‘The guard did look at me suggestively a couple of times!’ It was when I wore my red, hot T-shirt and jeans, which gave my bosom a bountiful curve and accentuated my assets. I now wore it often, which forced the guard to break his silence. As I waited at the gate for Maira’s school bus one afternoon, he showed me the entry register for visitors. In the pretext of discussing some matter in the register, he opened the last page.
“I love you” scribbled in blue ink with a heart and an arrow piercing it.
“I love you” I scribbled with my foot on the sand I stood waiting for Maira. I was in love.
My days were now sunny and bright. Love filled the air and days passed by rather quickly talking to Vicky on the intercom. ‘Vicky is the one for me. Like Kaustav sir and Divya madam, Vicky and Sapna!’ I thought.
Kaustav sir started visiting Divya and Maira on Sundays, and soon Vicky started visiting me on weekdays when Maira was at school.
Our love blossomed, and I wanted to take it to the next level. On Vicky’s birthday, I decided the time was right. I made his favourite dishes, picked out a bottle of wine from Divya madam’s collection, pulled down the curtains, lighted candles and setup the dining table, just as I had seen in HBO. I donned my priced red strapless dress that I had bought from Big Bazaar, and scanned Divya madam’s dressing table. ‘What luck, found a pair of diamond danglers that would go perfectly with my red dress.’
When Vicky rang the bell, I could not control my excitement. I had prepared a special birthday gift for him. Vicky was spellbound when he saw me at the door. He walked in, shut the door, and lovingly looked at me from head to toe. He held me close in his arms, there was excitement in the two inches between his lips and mine, both our bodies were waiting to be explored. We kissed passionately and dashed to the couch in the living room, we could not wait anymore. Vicky tore through my red dress. I lay naked with “Happy Birthday” written on my belly with red lipstick; my birthday gift for Vicky. We made love, again and again. When we were both tired, we ate the delicious food and danced to Bollywood item numbers. For Vicky and me, it was the best day of our lives. As Vicky was leaving, he kissed me passionately. He was getting a hard on; he pushed himself between my legs unwilling to let go off me.
Cluck, cluck! The key turned at the door and Divya madam walked in with Maira.
Divya madam, Maira, Vicky and I...
... stood dumbfounded looking at each other; no one moved for a second. No one knew how to move, for a second. Madam soon regained her consciousness, closed Maira’s eyes and rushed her to Mr. Kapoor’s house. Vicky and I waited not knowing what to do. Then, madam and Kapoor uncle returned, locked the door and called Kaustav. No one spoke till Kaustav came; Vicky and I stood still with our heads hung low and Divya madam and Kapoor uncle sat on the opposite couch. ‘Why do all our acts look bad when madam arrives?’
When Kaustav sir arrived, Divya madam called agent Karuna, told her what she had seen and asked for a replacement. Karuna, it seems, was not in the city and was to return the next day. So, madam decided to keep me till her return.
Kapoor uncle and Kaustav sir took Vicky to the society president and he was suspended from duty. I stayed in my room, humiliated at being watched in my intimate moment. I felt violated of my privacy. ‘What was wrong in what we did? Girls my age in the village were already married. I was old enough to find a person for myself! After all, it was an act of love, and Divya madam and Kaustav sir might also be doing it? So what if this was my workplace? This was also the place I stay. We did not steal anything, it was love. I loved him. Why did they have to suspend Vicky, how would he earn money? How would he send money to his parents in the village? This was unfair, they were unwilling to listen to us; we loved each other. They were treating us as slaves; we had basic human needs and rights too. She was taking advantage of her position, her money. Ugh, the Bitch! Someday, I would make more money and show her. The hypocrite, enjoying with that Kaustav herself, but my boyfriend and I could not enjoy. We were both above 18 years; we could do what we wanted. I would show her!’
‘I needed to do something, this was unfair.’
That night, I called Vicky. He was angry as well; infuriated. I wanted to avenge our shame.
“If only I had more money, I would show the Bitch, a whore herself and acting saintly. Let’s teach her a lesson so she can never enjoy life with that Kaustav.”
Vicky was thoughtful. His mind seemed to be working on an idea.
“Whose danglers were those that you wore today?”
“Were they real diamonds?”
“Where are they now?”
“They should be somewhere near the couch, they fell off while we were on the couch.”
“That should fetch us enough money, Sapna. Find them and keep them safe. Our lives are going to change. I promise, we’ll be together tomorrow.”
Vicky promised to call back with a plan. He did.
*The concluding part of Sapna is under production. Watch this space the coming week...
NOTICE: © 2015 by Donna Abraham
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