The thought of selling chickpeas again at the zoo gate tomorrow was discouraging. Lakshmi had been chased away by five men and women, who claimed that the animals would fall sick if they were overfed: they were already provided with the necessary nourishment by the zoo keepers. She could not remember if it was the same group that had turned up with placards and banners on an excruciatingly hot day several months ago and had tried to persuade her and the other vendors on their pavement to stop selling gram to the zoo goers. The paanwallah near the petrol pump, the one who occasionally lent her money, had assured that the group had nothing to do with the zoo, nor the police. He recognized their faces as they had once visited the alley where he lived, to distribute saplings among the locals. While peddling his wares he had noticed them many times thereafter, planting trees only to see them uprooted and cleaning up open spaces that ended up getting filthier.
However the enlarged photos of sick animals, carried by the volunteers, disturbed the chickpea seller. The voice of a seemingly frail, elderly lady still rang in her ears. She had put forward her request in a most gentle manner, but it had the stupendous strength of a mother ensuring protection for her children. Lakshmi was reminded of her late parents in the village, who used to feed stray dogs and cats even when they had hardly anything for themselves. Did humans too fall sick on over eating? What about the fat boys from the tall flats who regularly overpowered her children at the park? Lakshmi would reprimand her younger son and elder daughter, saying they should stay at home and study instead of going out to play but her masked despair ate into her.
Such thoughts crisscrossed her mind as she lied in the double bed, which she shared with her four children: the piece of furniture was the only item from her dowry that she had managed to retain. A stained and scratched mirror hung on the wall among the outdated calendars depicting luridly coloured deities. Beside the meticulously washed utensils, a pitcher of water stood, its roundness contrasting with the thin strips of shadow cast on the floor by the window grilles. The smell of dhania from the neighbouring shanty intruded into the dark room and an old, melancholic Hindi film song, playing in someone’s radio, unmindfully included her among its many listeners before she sank into sleep.
As usual, Lakshmi woke up to the screeching of shop shutters. Such was the urgency of the chores lined up before her that she shook off her drowsiness in an instant and tiptoed to the other side of the bed to nudge Raghu, who had to juggle his ninth standard studies with his job as the milkman’s helper.
“It’s morning,” she whispered as he parted his eyelids. The younger children could enjoy a little more sleep for a few more years.
After flattening the balls of dough into circles with the rolling pin Lakshmi puffed them on the tawa. She lowered the age old steel kadai over the flame, added a spoonful of oil and waited for it to sizzle before tossing in the spices and then the uniformly sliced potatoes. With a wet, checked towel slung over his bare shoulder, Raghu, clad in a pair of grey shorts, stepped inside the room after a bath at the common tap. Wrapping the towel around his waist, he quickly changed into a pair of trousers and picked up a plastic comb from the shelf he had himself hammered to the wall. Once he was ready, Lakshmi sat down on her haunches to serve him breakfast and then rose to her feet to wake up the other children – another son and two daughters.
Lakshmi had planted okra in the narrow strip of earth between her hut and the next. The plant was yet to yield but she watered it regularly during dry spells, waiting eagerly for the yellow flower with the purple core to emerge among the five pronged leaves. Next to the okra there was a hibiscus shrub which she had not planted. It might have sprung from one of the seeds dispersed by the birds. Whenever it flowered, Lakshmi carried the hibiscuses to the tiny box shaped temple at the centre of the settlement.
That day Lakshmi cupped the bright red flowers at the idol’s feet, joined her palms and prayed fervently to get Raghu promoted to the next class. She was all the more anxious as his studies had been disrupted several times in the months leading up to the annual examinations. The attack of dysentery was not only preceded but also succeeded by water logging from the untimely rain, when their bed resembled the island inhabited by a herd of barking deer – a sight she could still recall from her only venture beyond the zoo gates. Raghu had resumed his preparations as soon as he could. Unlike many other teenagers from their slum, he would refrain from frittering away his time by roaming on the streets or indulging in vices. Lakshmi was grateful to the Gods for a son like Raghu.
Trudging in with a bucketful of water, Lakshmi poured some of it into the pitcher to be boiled and used for drinking. Then she peered under the bed, picked up a torn petticoat, dipped it in the bucket and wrung it to mop the floor. Someone called out to her from the door. She was a squat, wheat complexioned woman with a mole on her right cheek. Lakshmi envied Munmun, a part-time maid in a posh locality a kilometre away. She felt sorry for her too: she could never imagine a life without her children whereas Munmun was unmarried. After her mother’s death, Munmun’s father had become so pre-occupied with finding a new partner for himself that he forgot to search one for her. There was a time when Lakshmi, unaware about Munmun’s family members, had wondered why despite having all her earnings to herself, she shied away from the occasional feasts and the little jaunts to the seaside. It was much later that she came to know that Munmun would visit her native village on every month-end to hand over her income to her father for the upbringing of her half siblings.
“My bhabi’s friend is looking for a maid and I told her about you.” Munmun declared the purpose of her visit without sparing any moment to exchange greetings or niceties. Bhabi was the lady she worked for. Lakshmi’s eyes pooled with gratitude: she recalled almost pleading to her a week ago to find her a job as a domestic help. The maid’s job would haul her out of uncertainty by ensuring a regular income and if she managed to gain a decent reputation, she would be sought by not one but several households.
She stuffed a polythene packet with paper bags – folded out of the newspapers procured by Munmun from the household she served, and tucked it into the pallu encircling her waist. The paper bags were of two different sizes – the smaller ones for selling gram worth five rupees and the others for ten. With more than a little hope flickering in her mind Lakshmi sped off towards the zoo; the lidded tin container of sprouted gram, strapped around her neck, swung to her gait.
The path wriggled between the cramming huts and cut across the slime at sudden clearings. Young mothers, in attempts to pacify their babies, clinked their conch bangles, and pointed at the crows flying off with scraps of bread and the sparrows nibbling at the grains that had slipped with the water drained outside the doors. A small boy’s eyes widened in alarm as his prized bicycle began to skid. Lakshmi loped to his side, and drew it to a stop by grabbing the top tube and the seat post. She noticed for the first time that the hut she would walk past before stepping upon the main road had got its windows repaired and painted a dark shade of blue.
The queue at the ticket counter continued all the way along the pavement, following the turns of the zoo boundary. Lakshmi and some of the other vendors traversed the entire length of the queue, eagerly running their eyes across the faces of the visitors while waving their wares under their noses. The lozenge sellers swooped down on children alighting from their cars; the balloon sellers eyed the toddlers chaperoned out of the exit gate. A vendor slipped a feathered hat on the head of a little girl in a flouncy frock. The man with the whistles gave a long blow to one, which pierced through the cacophony, startling the decked up teenagers who were engrossed in whispering secrets. Couples paused their love talk to munch on salted chips and a pensive youngster chewed his candyfloss, his eyes cast down, his ears shut to the blabber around. Most revellers shook their heads or glanced away when Lakshmi neared them with a paper bag full of chickpeas. She wondered whether they were influenced by those activists. Or could it be that the zoo-goers had ceased to find any amusement in tossing a handful of gram through the bars of the cage? At times like this, she felt that for her, a day did not spontaneously lead to the other. She had to scale towards each moment, clutching on to her needs that had shrunk in the absence of alternatives, to become narrow like the stems of creepers – paradoxically aiding the gradual climb.
On her way back from the zoo, Lakshmi would stare at the two-storied and three-storied buildings of brick and cement: her gaze would rise to the parapet, hover under the ledges, stencil along the ornamental balcony railings, and bounce off the closed, window panes beyond which all the answers to her curiosity lied. She imagined a dozen armed chandelier swaying gently above the carpeted floor, a table draped with a tasseled tablecloth, cushioned double sofas with backs spread like unfurled wings, a sculpture of a pitcher balancing maiden or a spear wielding soldier, richly embroidered tapestries hung beside oil painted portraits of the demised forefathers, and the lady of the house, clad in a maroon velvet robe over her pink satin nightie, strutting down the winding, wooden staircase. The rich man’s house she had gaped at in the potboilers remained indelibly etched in her memory.
Compared to the other days, Lakshmi took even more interest in those buildings. She tried to imagine the sweep of the breeze coursing through the rooms on the terraces. She was drawn to a three-storied building with a staircase that spiralled all the way to the roof, where potted oleanders towered over a swing and faced a shrine embossed with symbols.
The aspirant maid finally spotted the house she was supposed to visit the next day. Pairs of tiny shoes were set to dry in one of the cage like enclosures built around the first floor windows. The sun, peeping behind the new white building, imparted a golden glow to the upper edge of the parapet surrounding the terrace. It reminded Lakshmi of a white gift box with a golden strip along the top edges, which she had found while earning a living as a rag picker soon after being deserted by her husband. Would the house gift her a better life? She would have to wait another day for the answer.
Lakshmi had taken to selling chickpeas when her cousin – her paternal uncle’s son, started cultivating it in his village. With him, she had the flexibility of paying later, after the current stock had been sold off. However, at the end of every quarter of the year, she had to settle the payment for each and every seed bought from him. She knew that her cousin, too, had to plough through the adversaries of fate, unable to extract a suitable price from the middleman for the rest of his stock.
Lakshmi pinched her nose as she strode past the graffiti ridden, crumbling walls of a public urinal. The ebbing sunrays dropped behind a residue of thoughts. What if Raghu had failed in his exams? A year repeat seemed catastrophic: for them each day was a journey that never quite led to the destination but took one just a little away from the strangling tethers of the starting point. She had not listened to her neighbours when they had suggested that she pack him off to a faraway place to slog as a labourer like their sons.
Lakshmi was suddenly possessed by guilt for not being able to provide Raghu either the nutrition or environment he needed. She was inundated with memories of him from the years left behind: first as a spindly toddler scratching the alphabets on the earthen floor with the stick of a palm-leaf fan; then his smooth ten year old face lit up by a broad grin at Munmun’s gift of a green ballpoint pen; and finally the expectant glint under the teenager’s bushy eyebrows, when a better off acquaintance had promised to help him with his Maths. Her eyes drifted from her surroundings and she was just in time to step aside and prevent herself from being mowed down by a bike, which had bolted from an adjacent lane, without any horn.
Raghu, who had been trying to secure a job in an acquaintance’s fishery, had set out for a village in the neighbouring district. He would return to the city the next morning by the seven o’ clock train, and stepping out of the railway station, he would board a bus to his school. Since his mornings went by distributing milk, Lakshmi could not decide whether to wish for the new job or not as it would leave him with lesser time to study and exhaust him further.
“I’ll study at night,” he would say. “I won’t stop, Ma, until I graduate from a college,” he would assure.
If anyone peeped into her hut at night, the mother and her four children would seem almost indistinguishable in that sole bed. The lack of space around them conspired with the darkness, giving the impression of a ‘mass’, a term often used to refer to them by those in whose houses they sought employment. A loud knock woke up Diya and her mother, who lived in perpetual fear of that sound: a tremor shot through the deserted wife as she immediately recognized it. The toddler let out a little cry but Lakshmi, despite her body growing numb, shushed her and stroked her head till her eyes drew close once again.
Stepping down from the bed, Lakshmi tottered to the door and turned the key with trembling fingers. The last time, he had attempted to burn down the hut when she had delayed. Before jerking the door open she stood for a moment, clutching the ring like door handles and contemplated edging past him to run away into the night. She was compelled to discard such thoughts immediately out of fear for her children, whom she might not see again if left alone with him.
“How are you Lakshmi?” Her husband grinned, staggering in. His irregular teeth were stained black by tobacco, his protuberant eyes bloodshot and breath heavy with the smell of cheap country liquor. Having not seen his face for a while, she recoiled as if she had sighted a hideous ghost. He flung out an arm to encircle her but it felt more like a strangle than an embrace and then he gave her a push. “Go get ready,” he drawled, his face breaking into a scowl as he noticed his children sprawled on the bed. Resigning herself to her fate, she retreated to the bed, her head hung down. She knew that none of her neighbours would come to her help: for them, a woman once married off to a man always remained bound to him.
“Go to Munmun’s house. And take Diya along.” Lakshmi shook her children. Kusum fidgeted in her sleep and Ravi peered through half-closed eye-lids.
“Wake up, wake up,” the mother called out desperately, tugging at the son’s shirt. He blinked and gawked at her, his eyes ruled by incomprehension.
“Your father has come to meet me. You must not stay here now,” she said quickly, hoping her words would register.
Lakshmi’s husband had reached the middle of the room by the time Ravi sat up in the bed, yawning and stretching his limbs. Something scraped at the inebriated man’s feet as he lunged towards his wife, and the realisation that they were his textbooks wrenched Ravi out of the last dregs of drowsiness. He leapt from the bed and darted towards his study material but by then, the damage had been done; the books lied scattered all over, their spines broken and the pages blotched with muddy footprints. His father continued to kick them, cursing and gesticulating wildly.
“No. No,” Ravi yelled, and flung himself on the floor to snatch away the books from under his father’s feet, even as he was swept over by a sudden chill: his viva was scheduled next week.
“Son of a bitch,” Ravi’s father slurred, his eyes glowing like chips of coal in the pits of his sockets and he kicked him aside, too, before pinning the screaming and convulsing Lakshmi to the bed.
“Ravi…. Ravi,” his mother cried out, fearing that he had incurred an injury. Sick with worry over her second born, she thrashed about on the bed and struggled to disentangle herself from her husband, but no matter how much she tried, the jerks of her emaciated limbs were no match for his vice-like grip.
Kusum sat up with a jolt as the rickety bed creaked and gasped in horror at the scene unfolding next to her. Lakshmi, who had resolved not to shed tears even under the most trying circumstances, shut her eyes tightly in shame, gritted her teeth, and prayed to all the Gods and Goddesses she knew to let it be over soon.
As Lakshmi woke up to the horn of a scooter, her eyes fell on the tousled bed sheet but not on the man who had messed it up. She guessed that he had chosen to sleep through the morning in his mistress’s pad. Ravi had escaped his brutality with only a single bruise on his leg as far as her inspection of the sleeping boy yielded. Thanking God for these mercies, she stepped out of the door to brush her teeth with a neem twig, but her mind remained crammed with sights and sounds she found difficult to wipe off.
After winding her chaotic curls around her hand and tucking them in a bun, the aspirant maid carefully pleated the sari that she had swathed herself in for the appointment. Looking into the mirror, she consoled herself with the fact that her own husband was the only man who barged into her hut at random nights whereas Zarina, the hazel eyed beauty, inhabiting the shack at the far end of the slum, was forced to tolerate many.
The mother of four rang the bell and waited, her heart thumping in anticipation. A lady appeared at the first floor window, her forehead creased in question.
“I am Lakshmi. Munmun, who works for your friend, has sent me,” said the chickpea seller.”
The lady who opened the door was about thirty years of age; her neatly trimmed eyebrows peeped over golden rimmed glasses, gold studs glinted on her earlobes and the shampooed hair curled around her shoulders. She neither asked Lakshmi to come in nor responded to her polite smile, but instead, standing on the threshold she began to explain her duties. Lakshmi’s face fell when she heard her wage at the end of the long list of chores.
“Bhabi, I can’t work for so less,” she pleaded. “I have four children to feed.”
“I can’t pay more,” she said with a shrug. “You can take a day to decide,” she added with a cold finality that made it clear that she was unwilling to negotiate.
Even after hearing the squeak of a bolt and the soft clapping of receding footsteps, Lakshmi remained rooted in front of the door, the familiar sense of despair claiming her.
The mother of four kneeled down on the floor, to separate the stones hiding among the rice. Diya was fiddling with a wheel that had rolled away from a toy car. Kusum and Ravi were at school. As she picked up yet another stone from the grains it seemed to her that her vigour had drained away and her heart started beating at an unusual pace. Why hasn’t Raghu returned? His results should have been handed to him hours ago. She decided to get away from the stuffy room and drop down in front of the temple. As she rose to her feet the plate flew out of her shaky hands. The room spun at a relentless pace and reverberated with the clanging of the steel plate against the floor, and then the ground slid away. Diya stared aghast at her mother as she lied among the scattered rice: the toddler’s face paled with sudden fright and her cheeks bulged with the onrush of a cry. Running to her, she shook her with all the strength her little hands could muster. No faces peered through the window and nobody came bounding to the door, hearing the child’s wails – their neighbours were away at work.
Lakshmi’s face began to twitch at the sprinkle of cold water. All she could see at first was a black veil pricked by orange dots. As more water struck her face and trickled down her cheeks, she recollected what had happened and slowly parted her eyelids. With her blurred vision she saw someone waving something flat – something that resembled a piece of paper. In a few more seconds, her ears, too, started to function, picking up the sound waves all around.
“I have passed, Ma,” she heard someone say. Hearing him repeat the words, she now recognized the voice of her elder son. First, she lifted her head, and then pressing her palms to the floor for support, she straightened her back. Raghu sprang forward to help but she gestured that she was fine. He sighed and closed his eyes with relief, and muttering his gratitude towards the Almighty, he observed her as she rearranged her limbs to settle into a more comfortable posture. His sister, who had been leaning against the wall with her hands encircled around her knees, finally got to her feet and ran into their mother’s arms. Her face was stained with tears and a sense of confusion still flickered in her eyes. Raghu had spotted her in the lanes. After listening to all that she had managed to convey between stifling sobs he had carried her home, dashing through the lanes – heedless of the filth he was trampling on, the litter he kicked or the rot he squashed – stricken with worry.
Lakshmi planted a soft kiss on Diya’s nose tip, which was shiny and rounded just like her own: the child buried her head in the hollow of her shoulder. After a while she raised her head slightly and twirled her mother’s curls around her tiny fingers. Her eyes trailed the sunlight that glided through the window, draped the pitcher, banded the floor and splintered into fragments among her siblings’ stationeries. These slivers of sunshine were such shaped that Diya could imagine each of them to be a different thing – the round spot a ripe fruit, the narrow fleck her playmate Mukti’s luminous caterpillar, the triangular chip the dazzling pyramid she had glimpsed in Kusum’s textbook and the one resembling a bell was nothing but the golden chime in the tiny temple.
Shifting her gaze to her son, Lakshmi asked, “What took you so long?”
Then stopping her son’s lengthy explanation in the middle with a restless shrug, she inhaled deeply and noisily as if relishing the power to breathe.
“So my boy is now in the tenth standard,” she said slowly as if she was pondering over the years gone by and the years to come, her eyes sparkling above the dark patches and her chafed lips curling into a smile for the first time in many days like a drought threatened river curving from its course, to live…
Paanwallah : a person who sells a preparation of betel leaf
Dhania: a spice
Tawa: a disc shaped frying pan made of metal
Kadai: a circular, deep cooking pot
Bhabi: sister-in-law, often used to respectfully address any married woman
Lahari Mahalanabish is a software engineer by profession; mother of a toddler; a writer and poet based in Kolkata, India. Her book of poems entitled One Hundred Poems had been published by Writers Workshop, India. Her short stories have appeared in Muse India, Himal Southasia, Indian Review, The Criterion, Ashvamegh..The Literary Flight and The Asian Age. Her poems have found place in Yellow Chair Review, Poets Online, Saw, The Statesman and The Hans India.She blogs at http://theserpentacursedrhyme.blogspot.in/