It was day three of being back at home. Vajra won’t speak to me, or even acknowledge me. I have known him for a whole year and in that time, I haven’t liked him once. Not that he had bothered to show any love either. His disdain for me was quite apparent when I came home and found wet clothes drying on my bed. I wasn’t gone that long, a month at most, but he had already replaced the beautiful pale lilac colour of my bedroom walls with the gaudy, monstrosity of magenta. I could almost see the toxic crimson-pink fumes rising up off the walls and suffocating me. Vajra’s heavy lilted speech could be heard invading my thoughts with, “Don’t be such a drama-bitch, bitch!”
Vajra’s dark heart seldom showed itself beneath the slick exterior of the suave techie that he wore everyday. Tatai, my son, can’t see it either, while I could, a mile away. From the time he creeped into the everyday stories that Tatai shared with me, to the way he avoided my eyes the moment we met, I could tell that something was wrong about him. He didn’t say or do anything wrong. It was just a feeling at the pit of my stomach.
The bitter after-taste of reminiscing about Vajra was interrupted by the arrival of Jabru. A tiny, round-faced, matte-brown skinned maid who pretended to work at our house. She was no better than twelve of her predecessors who worked here, but she kept to herself.
She was like a bus that didn’t wait for passengers to get on. She wrestled the key out of the heavy oak front door. From the balcony, she picked up a broom, smacked the side of her leg with it and smiled indulgently. I had never seen this kinky side to her before. But then again, I had never really bothered to know her before. I cleared my throat out of habit. She glanced my way, sobered up and commenced her ‘work’. A peculiar smell of old sweat clinging to sun-dried clothes, cheap perfume and fresh sweat, followed her into my bedroom. I was oddly comforted by the familiarity of that smell.
Jabru swished the broom in semi-circular arcs mid-air and made her way towards me. She spotted a splotch of magenta paint on the floor and busied herself with scratching it off with her nails. That was one of her eccentricities that made her unique. She was hired to wash utensils and sweep and mop the floor. That was all. But over the years, she had taken it upon herself to rearrange my closet regularly, and by extension ensured that I never found anything immediately; repurposed the containers in the kitchen so that, again, I never found anything.
She once started a one-woman cockroach hunt in our house and massacred a city’s worth of cockroaches the same day. She also bathed a strange cat with my son’s expensive shampoo. The cat, unsurprisingly, was never seen in our neighbourhood again. Jabru worked as her fancy saw fit. It would be a miracle if she actually performed the duties that she was hired for. Often, Tatai and I completed all her work before Vajra came home. Vajra, however, was no fool and understood everything.
Once, Jabru had casually sauntered into Vajra’s study. I only heard him say, “Out!” The terror in Jabru’s eyes made me feel that he probably said a lot more with his face. He was my son’s live-in partner for almost a year now and I still hadn’t become used to ugly behind his chiselled face. His features were set symmetrically enough to a handsome, fair, excellently-groomed man but his eyes shattered that image.
Jabru met with the same, vicious resistance, a little more than a month back, when I first noticed that Tatai was prone to longer, recurring migraines. High on the fumes of her occasional bouts of magnanimity, Jabru sauntered into their bedroom with a pink dusting cloth in her hand. She ran out immediately, her eyes heavy with bewilderment, and came into my bedroom. She closed the door behind herself and plonked her budget-sized bottom on the swivel chair.
After a few moments, as she probably tried to collect her frayed thoughts, she looked me with tears of accusation in her eyes and said, “Didima, how can you let such a thing happen right under your nose?”
This was the first time Jabru questioned the nature of Tatai’s relationship with Vajra. I pretended not to understand and said, “Let what happen, Jabru?”
“Didima, can’t you see that there is something terribly wrong with Tatai dada?”
“What do you mean, Jabru?”
“When I entered the room, Tatai dada was smiling and talking to Vajra dada. He did not look sick at all. Then Vajra dada gave an injection and he started to look lost and fuzzy. I asked Vajra dada what was wrong with Tatai dada and he slapped me!”
Goose-pimples slowly rose up on my skin. I decided to deal with the issues one at a time. I sent Jabru home, promising her that I would look into it. When she left, I walked up to Tatai’s closed, bedroom door and knocked softly.
“What do you want, this time?” Vajra whisper-screamed at me.
I was taken aback by the level of hostility. It was as though we had been at war with each other for over two hours, when really, we hadn’t even spoken to each other in a week.
“I want to see Tatai,” I said to him.
“He’s sleeping. Come back later,” Vajra said and shut the door in my face.
The next few days passed similarly. Jabru came and went about her work to probably avoid having a conversation with anybody in the house. The day I left, I figured that I couldn’t take it anymore. That my son was sick, and in pain, and I couldn’t even hold him close. It had been a week since he had last stepped out of his bedroom unassisted by Vajra. That day, Vajra left the house on an errand. I quickly sneaked into Tatai’s room and was shocked to see him in a much poorer state than I had imagined. He was half the size of his former self, with eyes sunk deep into his skull and the skin pale and clammy.
“Tatai,” I said, sitting beside him, feeling his temperature with my palm against his forehead.
“Ma,” he said, opening his eyes, and pointed at his mouth. I picked up a glass of water and helped him take a few sips.
“Where were you, ma? Don’t you know I’m sick? Vajra said that he tried to tell you but you were always out brunching, dating and partying?”
I was shocked by these accusations. I instinctively defended myself, “Vajra is evil. He is lying. I have been waiting to meet you every day, standing outside your door to catch a glimpse of you but that Vajra didn’t allow me!”
I could see that Tatai was still drowsy. He said in a lazy drawl, “Your jealousy is obnoxious, ma. I am not your little boy any more. You need to accept that I have chosen him for myself. Now please go, I’m tired.”
A shadow fell on his face as he went back to sleep. I turned around to see Vajra blocking the doorway, a packet of medicines dangling from his hands.
“Please let my son go, Vajra. Can’t you see that he needs help? I can get you both help. Please, just let him go,” I pleaded.
“Help?” snapped Vajra. his eyes glowing. His voice seemed to bounce off the walls as if from within a deep well.
“Nobody can help. My mother tried for years. She sent me to a hundred doctors. She fed me medicines instead of food. But she could not help me. She never understood, that all I wanted to do was help people. The first person I helped was the eighty year old father of my neighbour. The poor man was forced to go on evening walks, so I broke his back with my cricket bat. Problem solved. Broken back meant no more forced walks. I’ve helped so many people over the years but nobody understands me.”
Vajra’s face changed from a light pink to a deep, earthy purple. The smell of medicines in the room was overpowered by his body odour; I could smell it from eight feet away.
“I promise I can help you,” I said, sure that my words fell on deaf ears.
He ignored the edge in my voice.
“He was always just too damn happy all the time, laughing with everyone, making a spectacle of himself. He didn’t even know that, until I showed him how cheap and desperate he looked. It wasn’t easy, at first at least. I had to patiently chip away at his confidence. Insults didn’t work and simply rolled off his back,” he paused, and took a deep breath.
The room seemed darker when he continued, “I realised that the best way to control him was to cut away at his friendships. After that it was simple. I had him all to myself… but that bastard, Shashi, his best friend, did not give him up that easily. He kept trying to reach him, so I had to stop Tatai from leaving the house. With my help, he has now become pure again. He is worthy of my love.”
While he was speaking I quietly held onto the glass that Tatai had water from, behind my back. Gaining confidence, I said, “Let us go now, or I’ll call the police!” I broke the glass on the side of the bed and foolishly aimed it at him. The shards of glass flew everywhere but to where he stood leaning against the doorframe.
Vajra smirked, a cruel fire in his eyes as he said, “No you won’t!”
That is the last of what I remember from then.
I had moved past the incidents of that day but three days back, I heard Tatai murmuring, in my head. It didn’t take me long to rush back home; and I found everything had changed, everything except Jabru. I smiled at her, the Jabru picking at a spot of paint on the floor that was not part of her job description.
“Jabru!” I shouted.
Jabru sprang back like a cat and shuddered.
“Didima, you’re back? Let me just change your bedsheets,” she said to the closed washroom door and stepped out of my room before I could say anything else.
“What are you doing with those sheets?” Vajra growled.
“Didima has come home after so long. I’m just changing her bedsheet.”
“Have you gone mad,” he shouted. “That woman will never be back in this house again.”
Confusion briefly flickered across her eyebrows and slithered down to her shoulders before she shrugged it off. She sat down on the floor, in front of my cupboard, picking at a spot of dust in the corner.
“Jabru!” I shouted again.
This time, she nearly jumped out of her skin, slipped on the handle of the broom on the floor and lightly thumped her head against the wall. She momentarily forgot about the scare and regained composure after a few seconds. Bending down to look at the crack in the wall, she prodded it slightly with the tip of her toe and some plaster fell off.
Ah, finally! My little toe, peeking from inside the plaster, could breathe. I had very little time left, even less to celebrate.
“I know you can hear me, Jabru,” I said. “Please, go call the police! Tell them that Tatai is being held captive in this house. If they don’t believe you, tell them about my body!” I shouted the last few words at her retreating figure, hoping that she’d heard me.
I stayed there, lost. They came. As Tatai was wheeled away, I locked eyes with him. “Ma,” he said. I mouthed, I love you. Did he see it?
Sheba Ghosh is just exploring her wings as a writer. Being a new mother to an amazing one year old son, has told her that she is a superhero, and also married to one. Although not been published so far, she is currently working on a trans-positive crime drama novel, a few short stories and some poems.