She’d finally murdered the darned thing. Shaila stared at the red that had pooled in a corner of the bathroom floor, her nose wrinkling at the strong metallic odour. With her thumb and forefinger she pulled gingerly at the folds of the wet cloth that hung from the towel rod. Maybe she should have put it out to dry last night, but it had been dripping steadily and she hadn’t wanted to risk painting the outside walls of the apartment a merry crimson. Place didn’t even have a blessed balcony to dry clothes in. How did people live in such apartments anyway. She carried the bucket to the window and set about spreading the bright red material on the wash line Raghav had strung up in the box-grille. Really, the ugly thing had been nothing but trouble ever since she had got it made, though she wouldn’t admit that to anyone but herself.
‘You took it off?!’ Raghav had exclaimed when he’d walked in last evening. ‘Good, good! It’s brightened up the place! Thank god you finally—’
‘Only to wash it,’ she interrupted sweetly.
She muttered under her breath as she struggled to make the curtain fit into the small space. She should have given it for dry cleaning but she’d been in a mood for violent action after all the grief it had brought her. It was too long for one. She had to remind the maid to lift it when she swept and swabbed, though left to her, Kamal bai would have been just as happy to use it as a mop instead.
‘Now where did you get hold of this?’ she’d asked, bemused, when she’d first seen it. Two days later she advised, ‘The people downstairs have nice curtains. Go and ask them where they bought theirs, then you can also go to the same store.’
‘You mind your own business, Kamal bai. I like my curtains perfectly well,’ Shaila snapped, and turned to Raghav in the next instant ‘—and you can stop…giggling…and …and encouraging her and ganging up with her!’
Not a word was spoken after that but their shared amusement swirled and fluttered playfully through the air while the curtain just hung there looking ashamed, painting the room a dull red.
There. She managed to get it to hang in place, thought about clips but decided against it. It’s not like there was any breeze to be had that it would fly away so that she could be rid of it once and for all.
It had been a saree in its previous avatar. A distant relative who had been passing through Mumbai had gifted it to her, and Raghav had gasped when she’d shown it to him. ‘You get rid of that at once, okay? Don’t you even think of wearing that…you’ll look like a tomato—’
‘Looking to get hitched to a pumpkin like you, no doubt. Has a fancy tyre around his middle and goes around calling others—’
‘The point is, it’s not your colour,’ Raghav interrupted quickly.
‘I know,’ Shaila said happily. ‘But I have other plans for it.’
‘I’ll make a curtain for the living room window. I saw it in a magazine and it looks fabulous. Sarees as curtains. What a great idea!’
Raghav winced. ‘But this colour…’
‘That’s the thing!The brighter the colour, the better! In fact, let me see if I have some yellow and blue sarees or dupattas I can spare. Then I’ll use them in rotation.’
‘NO! Um…no. Why go up tearing perfectly good cloth for curtains—’
‘Oh come on, Raghav, I’m hardly going to be tearing some brand new cloth. I’ll find some good-looking old material, don’t you worry.’
‘Uh…remember what happened when you did that ethnic makeover?’
‘That was different. I just hadn’t done enough research. But thanks for reminding me. I think I’ll bring out all that stuff too. It’ll go well with the curtain.’
‘All that stuff’ was a collection of old brass vessels from her mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen. And bath. After she’d put up the curtain she’d taken them out of their trunks and stacked and arranged them here and there in the living room and other parts of the tiny flat, except it hadn’t looked exotic or stylish like what she’d seen in all those glossy spreads she bought by the dozen, hoping for tips on home improvement. Like the curtain, they struggled to find expression, standing around in random groups looking lost and anxious like refugees waiting for bad news, unable to understand their role in the new scheme of things.
An old boiler squatted in a corner like an out of work bum and she aimed a small kick at it as she walked past, dusting and cleaning. On a shelf was this other arrangement—six small tumblers and a plump old kettle which she had thought cute, but she wasn’t so sure anymore. With its long spout pointing in the air like an accusing finger, and handle on hips, it seemed more like a mean headmistress berating the tumbler-children for some unknown crime while they huddled together preparing to receive punishment.
‘Best left in the loft,’ Kamal bai had clicked her tongue. ‘What fashion is this! Kitchen and bathroom in the drawing room…! I hope you don’t expect me to clean and polish them. Or have I got it wrong? Are you moving house by any chance? I told you, I need at least two months notice—’
‘Very funny, Kamal bai. What would I do without you and Raghav to brighten up my life?’
‘There’s the curtain,’ the woman had the temerity to mutter under her breath.‘If you didn’t want the saree you could have given it to me, you know.’
It was gone. Gayab. Po-yinde. Poiyye-pochhu. A long-ago ad for a pain balm played in her head. It used to come on TV, and for some reason her father had taken a real liking to it and watched it over and over on YouTube. Vanished. That’s what the words meant.
She didn’t even notice till long after Raghav had left for office. Had he taken it off the line and left it in the bin where she kept clothes for ironing? It wasn’t there. She peered down the narrow space between the grille and the wall, looking for where it might have fallen. Thin wavering streams marked the wall where the fabric had continued to dribble colour. She imagined it sliding gently down to the concrete three storeys below where she should be seeing a puddle of red, but there was nothing. Maybe it had blown away further down. She craned her head this way and that but could see nothing. Had it caught on something and was it, even as she stood here puzzling over its disappearance, hanging on for dear life by a thread, snagged on some sharp object on its way down? Damn the grille, but she could see very little beyond the bars.
Should she wait for Kamal bai to come to begin investigating? But the maid hadn’t come for two days now. Typical of her to take leave without informing her in advance.
She walked into the kitchen and stood around hesitating, and her eyes fell on the vegetables she’d bought two evenings ago on her way back from work. She’d dumped them in a corner of the dining table for Kamal bai to come and wash them and they lay there, wilted and forlorn. Her irritation mounted. Drop everything and take a couple of days off, why don’t you? Who’s to wash these and stuff them in the fridge? Should she deal with the chore first or with the curtain? She’d call Raghav. Most likely he’d taken it off the line and hidden it somewhere so that she didn’t hang it back up again.
The door knob rattled, and a second later Kamal bai let herself in, looking all bright-eyed and rested. Shaila felt a small spurt of joy and saw an answering spark in the other woman’s eyes. They stared at each other unsmilingly.
‘What happened? Why didn’t you come yesterday? I kept waiting for you to come and chop the veggies I needed for dinner. Finally we had to make do with Maggi noodles.’
‘Why haven’t you gone to work?’ Kamal bai huffed in return.
‘My leave would have lapsed.What’s your excuse?’
‘A boy in our neighbourhood is getting married. I went for a party.’ Kamal bai said loftily. ‘Roof won’t come down if you adjust with Maggi for one day. My grandson loves it. And the sky won’t fall if once in a way you do your own cutting and cleaning either.’
‘There is the minor matter of the age difference between your grandson and us. Last week we had to eat out twice because you left early one day, and there was the time when I forgot to buy vegetables. How many times have I told you to let me know in advance if you are planning to take the day off!’
‘You all think you alone have the right to parties and celebrations,’ Kamalbai sulked. ‘My neighbour had arranged for a loudspeaker and we played all the latest songs and danced till very late in the night. The whole neighbourhood came. There were fireworks at midnight. Bilkul chhakaas. Crackling fun, it was. You should have gone for a nice party yourself instead of sitting at home and eating noodles.’
Shaila let out a wild giggle. The thought of Kamal bai gyrating to the latest Bollywood hits in her whole nine yards boggled the mind.
‘Why? You think I can’t dance?’ She put down the broom and began to move, her hips swaying from side to side.
Shaila began to laugh in earnest. ‘Oh that’s brilliant, Kamalbai! Shabaash!’
Then, just as suddenly as she’d begun to dance, the older lady stopped. ‘Where is it?’ she asked abruptly, turning towards the window. ‘I kept thinking there’s something different about the room—’
‘Oh, the curtain? I don’t know. It’s gone.’
‘Gone? How gone?’
‘Well, I washed it and put it out to dry, but when I looked for it today, it isn’t on the line.’
‘Did you check to see if it’s fallen down?’
‘Yes, but I can’t see from here…I was just about to go downstairs and—’
‘I’ll go,’ Kamal bai offered quickly, hitched her saree and tucked it tighter at her waist and went out. Shaila went to the bedroom window and waited for her to appear. In a few minutes she saw Kamal bai walking up and down the concrete strip but if the curtain wasn’t in sight, it wasn’t there. There wasn’t so much as a weed, leave alone a bush, behind which it could have fallen. Kamal bai shaded her eyes and looked up. The corners of her mouth pulled down in bewilderment, she shook her head.
‘That Satish isn’t in his room, as usual,’ she said when she came back up, referring to the watchman.
‘No, he’s never there no matter what time of day. Never mind. Nobody liked that dratted curtain much anyway,’ Shaila sighed and got up to make tea for the two of them. ‘I’ll ask Raghav. I’m sure he’s kept it somewhere. Cut the beans, a couple of potato and one onion. Two tomatoes.’
Shaila switched on the TV and Kamal bai finished her work in silence. ‘I’ll check with Satish on the way out if he’s back,’ she offered, and hesitated by the door. ‘And get some cleaning liquid. I’ll clean your junk for you next week,’ she nodded towards the brassware.
‘Oh but I’m going to put all that away…’ Shaila began to say but the door had already closed behind Kamal bai. She shrugged and went back to watching the rest of her show.
She ate lunch sitting on her own, browsing through her favourite issues of A Home Like Yours. There, in those smooth pages, she saw the drawing room of her dreams. She sighed wistfully. The dupattas that had been used as drapes cast a printed shadow on the elegant tiles. The cloth glowed warmly in shades of yellow and pale orange. Such a lovely gentle glow. And the tassels lent the curtains a delicate touch—not a bit like the feverish tint the red sari had imparted to her drawing room.
And here was the cute clutter that she hadn’t been able to recreate with her old silver and copper. The room on the page was all brass and ceramic, and everything looked effortlessly perfect—the squat lamp in muted colours, the shadow of a terracotta mobile hanging from the curtain rod, thetrio of dancersso artfully arranged on a low table by the diwan, the old hurricane lamp. Shaila imagined the filtered yellow light that would pour through theglass at night, making the figurines glint and flicker like diyas…
She went downstairs later to pick up the mail from the letterbox, first walking up and down the same strip Kamal bai had walked in the morning, relieved that she had no better luck. ‘Good riddance, you rotten red rag,’ she muttered. ‘Go be miserable somewhere else!’ The letter box held no great mysteries, there was the electricity bill but the rest was junk mail; a new jewellery store in the neighbourhood coaxed her to pay them a visit before the end of the month, promising no making charges; an updated home delivery menu from Dakshin Exotica, a small south Indian restaurant down the road, challenged her to find a better Chinese joint this side of town; and there was a free medical check up camp happening at a local school on Sunday. Satish was still missing. Never had she known a watchman with more wanderlust than the playful boy-man from Bihar.
Just as she got into the lift, three ladies from the joint family who lived in the sprawling flat next to theirs entered the small cabin in a rush of pink, green and orange, squeezing her into a small corner. They stoodaround chatting and laughing raucously, gaudy pallus veiling their faces. Right then she would have been happy for something to pull over her face too, as remembered humiliation came back to sting.
When Raghav and she had first moved in, she had gone over to introduce herself. The door hadn’t been answered right away, but a small barred window in its middle opened a crack. A veiled lady stood resolute on the other side and asked her, rather brusquely, Shaila thought, to state her business. ‘Well I…I,’ she stammered, taken aback by the reception. ‘I…we…uh…me and my husband have just moved in—’ she stuck out a thumb to indicate their flat—‘though it might well have been to hitch a quick ride out of there, I don’t know which,’ she’d confessed to Raghav later. After what felt like a terribly awkward and interminable wait when she was assessed and probably found wanting, the woman finally made up her mind and unbolted the door to let her in.
She wasn’t led to a sitting area as one might expect, but straight into a large, bright and surprisingly modern kitchen (‘I went…’ she told Raghav later, ‘meek as a lamb, though in light of what followed I suppose I was more of a big stupid something like…like a bear or an ape. Something big, slouchy, lug-ish’). There, other veiled women in swishy ghagras stood around a gas cylinder, bangles jangling, anklets tinkling like they were about to break into a dance. Her escort made an announcement that wasn’t quite clear to Shaila, but it had them all moving away in colourful swirls.She stared at the cylinder that stood there like a chief guest waiting to be garlanded. Through her confusion and growing nervousness she somehow managed to comprehend that they wanted her to get the white cap off the tiny head. Was this some kind of a bizarre ritual? The cylinder wasn’t the chief guest after all. She was. She had to get the cap off and inaugurate their friendship. Thoughts jumbled wildly in her head even as she moved forward to do the lady’s bidding. She hooked a thumb and finger around the string and gave a gentle upward tug. The cap came off with a soft pop that resounded in the expectant silence. Then someone squealed and all the women in the room burst intowild applause. She gathered that they had been struggling with the task for a while, each of them taking turns to yank and twist it off without any success. They congratulated each other for a job well done while Shaila stood there trying clumsily to join in the celebrations, but not one of them so much as looked at her or acknowledged her presence. She heard the word tagadi—it appeared they saw her as a girl of heft, Arnold Schwarzenegger to their dainty dollies. She felt her face grow warm, then someone pressed something something soft into her palm and she was led out, and found herself on the other side of the door which was then gently shut in her face.
It felt like hours before she had unclenched her fist. Inside she found a mashed squishy laddoo.
They didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to go anywhere, so Shaila reached over to press the button for the right floor but the woman in front of her put her hand across to block her, without making any effort to explain her action, or the delay. Instead she simply continued to talk to the other two till Shaila gathered from their conversation that they were waiting for someone else to join them. If she hadn’t been pasted into a corner she would have just taken the stairs but she waited, fuming, till an older lady came in and they all quieted and settled. The mother-in-law. Well, that made sense. But at least they were finally on their way. How did they just take over all available space like that? Look at how they had pushed her to the margins without so much as an apology. She was tempted to stare, so she just kept her head down. They wore shiny slippers to match their ghagras, she noticed, embedded with coloured stones, probably expensive. Must one wear all the colours under the sun at one go? She felt suddenly elegant, smug in her jeans and t-shirt—even her practical flip-flops had more appeal than their blingy footwear. These women were all hopelessly, aesthetically maladjusted, like her flunkey living room. They would make nice colourful dolls to place on a windowsill, though. Or maybe on a small low table?
She sighed and stared at a shiny green chappal in her line of sight, and then at the ugly feet of the wearer. The toenails were chipped and broken and painted a sticky dark purple. Though painted was the wrong word. Slathered was more like it. Like a whole lot of jam. Cracks had crept up all the way to the tops of the toes of her parched feet. Shaila shuddered and lifted her eyes to glance at the woman’s face. She looked more like a girl, and from what little she could see, a pretty girl. What a pity the feet didn’t match.
She felt suddenly cheerful. All she had were home decor problems. At least she wasn’t one of the oppressed who caught their happy times in a lift. Just then the light went out and they lurched to a stop. Everyone gasped and hands grabbed at Shaila. ‘Mister!’ someone whimpered.
‘It’s okay. The power’s gone…back-up should kick in anytime,’Shaila tried to say reassuringly as she lit the torch on her mobile. Four scared faces stared back at her from behind screens leeched white by the light, ghosts frightened out of their wits.
‘Maybe she said ‘sister’?’ Raghav offered tentatively. He cleared the leftovers and poked his head in the freezer.
‘Mm-mm,’Shaila shook her head. ‘I finished the ice-cream. And it was most definitely ‘mister’. For better or worse I’m their swashbuckling man of the moment. At least it gave me a chance to ask them about the curtain—’
‘When you were trapped in the lift? Why did you do that?’
‘I don’t know…they do live next door. It’s logical, na. One of them might have seen it down there and picked it up thinking it was a saree. Look, I just don’t understand how it could have gone missing that way…’
‘Still, what would they do with it? I wish you hadn’t. They’re quite okay, you know. Is it that you speak to them in English? You do that sometimes. Speak in English to watchmen and waiters. When you know they may not understand. And don’t glare at me like that! I’ve said hello and namaste to those ladies a few times and I know they seem strange to you but I think they’re they’re harmless, simple-minded—’
‘Depends on your definition of harmless. I swear if I ever find that curtain, I’m going to go hang it outside their door.’
‘You wouldn’t get it.’
‘I think leftover leave or no, you should just get back to work. Somehow you’re less stressed out when you’re working…sitting at home?’ he shook his head, ‘Idle mind and all that. Take the cash, my love, and we’ll plan a holiday for early next year.’
They sat on the sofa in the living room, desultorily watching a film on TV as they waited for Kamal bai to turn up. A light blue curtain hung where the red one used to be. It waved and swirled around gently, and once in a while the edges leaped and flounced as they caught the fan’s breeze. Raghav stared at it gloomily.
‘Why does she never keep to a time? How long are we supposed to wait? Damn that blue thing!’ He suddenly exclaimed.
‘Really? I actually like this…more subdued and classy, somehow,’ Shaila protested.
‘You know how it is,’ the actor on the screen said, ‘the first twenty-for hours are the most crucial. It’s now been over forty-eight hours and chances of our finding—’
‘Oh for god’s sake! It’s not an orphan!’ Raghav jumped up and switched off the TV. ‘We’ll get you another damn red curtain! Let’s leave now…we’ll tell Satish to tell Kamal bai about you not being there for the fortnight.’
They locked up and went downstairs. Shaila waited at the gate while Raghav went to get the car. He called out for Satish on his way to the basement and they heard a faint ‘Coming!’
Kamal bai appeared at the end of the lane and began walking faster when she saw Shaila standing there with a suitcase by her side.
‘Where are you off to this time?’ she asked as she came closer, chappals scrape-scraping on the narrow pavement. Shaila began to answer when she saw Kamal bai’s eyes move to something behind her. She turned around and her own eyes widened as she gaped at the sight in front of her. Raghav drove up slowly and came to a halt, also staring at Satish.
‘Do you like it?’ the young man asked shyly, hitching the red lungi a little higher on his hips. ‘It floated down from the sky the other day…like a gift from the gods.’
Revathi’s novel about teenage life, Jobless Clueless Reckless, was published by Duckbill in 2013. She has also written commissioned books for children, and a biography of a south Indian industrialist. She has documented events and workshops for NGOs and written articles on a wide range of topics for magazines.