Auntie looks at me hard. She sits back in the settee, looking so stately and so comfortable in it too. It’s her place, she belongs there. I can never manage it. Feel so comfortable with the furniture, I mean. Even Samyukta seems so much at ease, dragging and pushing away the chairs to mop the more inaccessible areas of the floor. What a fancy name for a servant-maid! Samyukta! Aren’t they named Kamala or Vimala anymore?
She asks me to move to another chair, as she has to get at the floor beneath my chair. That’s what I mean. She would never ask Auntie to move.
Auntie has looked at me hard enough long enough. What is she trying to read in my face? I try my best not to give her a clue. I put down my Atlas Shrugged and look straight back at her, my eyes as wide as I can open and try not to blink. Perhaps I overdo it. Auntie is not a simpleton.
“Yes,” she shakes her stately head at last, “I daresay you are right, Preeti. Something has to be done. Direct action has to be taken.”
Everything about her is elegant; her voice, her unhurried movements, her silver-rimmed spectacles and that chiffon sari she wears. I couldn’t hope to achieve one of them, even if I tried all my life. Am I jealous? I am.
She isn’t pleased with her reply. She tries to hide her displeasure, but I sense it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have made that remark. But sometimes I can’t help it. It provokes me, when she goes on and on about her Ladies’ Club—its meetings, its resolutions and its plans for the upliftment of oppressed women, without actually doing anything—especially in that self-righteous tone that irritates me so much. I have come to hate the words ‘upliftment’, ‘emancipation’, ‘liberation’, ‘downtrodden’, ‘underprivileged’, ‘feminism’.
They mean nothing to me, but when Auntie says them, I can’t seem to hold my tongue. I ought to be more tolerant considering that it is Auntie who is bringing me up. Auntie, you are not bad, you are good, in fact, you are very good. And you will find it hard to believe that I actually love you. But you are not Mother Teresa.
She thinks if she makes her eyes large and round as saucers, she will look innocent. Oh child! Your attempts to dissimulate are pathetic.
I understand her perfectly. I know exactly what she means by saying, “I think what we need to do, Auntie, is to get involved directly with the oppressed women. We should find out if our help is really reaching them and how much have their living conditions improved because of us.”
Of course I know whom that ‘we’ refers to. It’s not us, it’s only me. She feels I’m a humbug, who only talks but does not act. The cynicism of youth, that finds the whole world humbug! Look at her, her lip curling with such infuriating superciliousness at my reply. Acts like she knows everything there is to know. Can’t even get up without falling over herself, when Samyukta asks her to. And dressed as usual in those sloppy jeans and T-shirt. I don’t believe she knows how to wear a sari.
The impertinence she tries to hide in vain behind her innocent face, and all because I try to get her interested in something happening outside in the world, instead of burying her nose in those Ayn Rand books all the time that give her her half-baked notions and her inch-thick glasses. What good does that do, surrounding yourself with a wall of nihilism?
No, I will not stoop to her immaturity and reply with cheap sarcasm. She wants some involvement, some action, does she? Well, I’ll show her. That’s the only way to convince her of her own hollowness. Why, even Samyukta here accomplishes much more in her own way for society that she does. She works in at least five houses a day. And does she complain, make cynical remarks? No, she… but what’s wrong with her face? Her face looks swollen. Did she fall somewhere?
I ask her.
She emerges backward from under the dining table and looks at me, a little scared, I think. Does she think I am going to scold her? Hasn’t she realised yet that I’m not one of those who treat their servants like animals? She will know how wrong she is.
“What happened to your face?” I ask her.
There! Her face relaxes immediately, shows relief.
Shuklas’ house, Varmas’ house, then Peters’ house. Three more to do today and it is almost noon. But here washing is still left. She would have put two or three of her jeans for washing. They become so heavy after soaking. Why can’t she give them to the laundry?
Doesn’t she see I have to mop under her chair? I ask her to move. I drag the chairs and tables here and there and scrub even the spots where their legs rested. Kamala madam is watching me. I know I could finish it in half the time if she was not there, but then Diwali is coming and I could get an extra sari.
I hear my name called sharply. As I back out from under the table, my heart is in my mouth. Has she missed the perfume-bottle already? Does she know?
No, she doesn’t. She wants to know what happened to my face. Thank God! I feel so relieved. She looks happy too, so I tell her, laughing that my husband had hit me last night. Her smile vanishes.
“How can he hit you?” she asks, frowning. I shrug. It’s not the first time he has hit me, it’s not the first time my face is swollen, but it’s the first time you have noticed. So I shrug and say nothing.
“No,” she says. “Something has to be done.” She looks sharply at Preeti madam. “People have to be taught they can’t do things like this. Samyukta,” she says, looking more at her than at me, “you will take me to your house tomorrow morning. I will talk to your husband.”
Preeti madam looks aghast. I am aghast. I tell her my house is very far away, very small and very dirty. Jhopad-patti, the slums. I tell her Jaggu is not bad. Just drinks a little more because of friends sometimes and doesn’t know what he is doing. In the morning he asks for forgiveness.
“Wastes your earnings in drink?”
She will come tomorrow morning she decides. What will Jaggu say? I am confused. What should I do? Remember to hide the perfume and shampoo bottles.
I hear her say something softly to herself.
“Get involved,” she mutters.
When I sleep, I sleep sound. And when I have had a little bit, I only get up when my sleep wears off. If someone wants to wake me, he will have to work for it. Also, I don’t like to be woken up.
So I am not pleased when I find Samyu shaking my shoulder vigorously in the morning.
“Jaggu, get up. She’s come. She’s come,” she breathes into my ear.
I want to slap her. Who has come? Then, vaguely, I remember her telling me something the previous night. I sit up slowly and see this lady walking in.
Before Samyu can ask her to bend, she bangs her head against the top of the entrance. She comes in and halts three paces from me and glares. I don’t know what to do. Am I supposed to stand up? I look around for my shirt—I am clad only in my dhoti—but I can see only Munna bawling in the corner.
But this is my house, what am I bothering about? I glare back. I realise she is as confused as I am. She also doesn’t know what to do. There she stands in her muddy sandals, sweating, rubbing her head and wrinkling her nose behind a kerchief. She must have stepped into a pile of—dog or human, I can’t say. But I am still too annoyed to laugh.
“Don’t ever hit Samyukta again,” she says. Now I really want to laugh, but I feel it is not proper.
“Why not?” I ask her. She is not able to reply at once. Suddenly, I know that all she wants to do is get away from here. But she says, trying to shout above Munna’s wailing, “You cannot treat us like this anymore. We are not your slaves. We have equal rights.”
Now my head spins. Who is this ‘we’ she is talking about? What have I done to her? I just want to go back to sleep.
I see our neighbours peek in curiously from outside.
They are dying to know what’s happening. So I shout. “I don’t know why you have come here. This is my house, this is my wife. I will treat her as I like. Who are you to poke your nose?”
Samyu tries to shush me. I ignore her. The lady’s face grows red, as red as a tomato, as she looks around at everyone staring at her. “I will be back with the police,” she says and exits. It would have been grand had she not bumped her head again.
After she has gone, I laugh. I know she will not call the police. I know she will not be back. I go back to sleep.
I return home in the evening. All day long it has been nothing but meeting after meeting, where they talk, talk, talk. No sooner I put down my briefcase and sink into my chair, than Kamala comes in. She has something to say she says. Can’t she wait till I have had my dinner?
She needs a vacation, she says. It seems to me it is I who needs a vacation. Nothing exotic, jut a change of air will do for her. It’s impossible for me to get away now, I tell her. Didn’t we go a little while ago? I ask. Six months ago, I remember. No, that was a long time ago, she says, six months back.
Anything wrong with her, is she not feeling well, or just disturbed? No, she just wants a change of air, that’s all, she says.
When your forty-five-year old wife behaves mysteriously like a just married bride, you cannot win.
“So shall I book the tickets for Preeti too?”
“No,” she cries, loud and sharp. “Someone has to look after the house.
Auntie has returned today morning. I have been alone all the week but for Samyukta who comes every morning as usual. I have been dying to know what happened when Auntie went to her house. Auntie never tells me. Nor does Samyukta. Nor do I ask them.
Now there is no need to. Samyukta has come with her eye swollen today. But Auntie does not notice it. Auntie and I go out shopping. She looks so grand, so smooth driving the car. We stop at a traffic junction. A small girl about ten comes and thrusts her arm through my window, palm upwards. I drop a rupee into it.
“Poor girl,” I say involuntarily. Auntie is looking at the traffic lights so hard that she does not seem to hear me.