the news came early morning. he was coughing again.
a dagger plunged sharply just below her heart. maloti jolted with the pain, a clenched breath pummelled through her lungs. monai, her eldest son, was coughing again. no, it was not just a cold. he was coughing blood.
panic caught at her throat and squeezed, she sat up bolt upright. she could feel a wail starting at the base of her stomach.
maloti stood up without thinking and rolled the thin mattress on the floor on which she had been lying. she folded the bedsheet and the fraying quilt made of old sarees with numb fingers. then she stacked the mattress, the pillow, the sheet, and the quilt against the wall of the room at the back, where she slept next to piled up aluminium trunks filled with things no one ever used and stainless steel drums with rice and lentils. on the shelves above, along the longer wall of the tiny room, the pickle jars were lined on one side, next to the peanut oil, mustard oil, and ghee. there were utensils and some other household things on the single shelf on one of the shorter walls.
below that was a trunk, about two and a half feet by a foot and a half, and a foot high. it was painted dark green, it had a bright pink lotus on the lid. “joi maa lokkhi” – hail mother lakshmi – was written in bengali above the lotus. the paint was chipping. two shapeless cloth bundles and a squat jute bag with long bamboo handles sat on the trunk. all of maloti’s earthly possessions were stored in that trunk and those bundles and bag heaped on it.
a muted yet rending noise came from somewhere. maloti wondered if she had cried out. no, it was the phone. the small phone in its plastic cover had fallen on the hard concrete floor. she had forgotten to keep it in the jute bag while putting away her bed and mattress.
didimoni had given her the phone a few months ago, told her it would make it easier for her to get news from the village.
her younger daughter had called on that phone just now and told her…
maloti put the phone away and left the room quickly. she didn’t want to be there any more.
her shoulders felt oddly tense, her breath came sharp and short. she hurried to the small toilet at the back and washed her hands, then splashed cold water on her face. she went through her morning routine taking care to do everything she usually did. after she was done, she changed into a clean cotton saree and wound the free end tightly around her waist.
the sky was still bathed in darkness, though it was getting a little lighter. almost 5am. monai had woken up coughing in the middle of the night. her daughter had said there had been a lot of blood. the coughing and the blood kept coming back. they would take him to the hospital in the morning.
maloti wiped her hand dry on the muslin cloth-like towel. she walked across to the corner by the kitchen where the fridge stood. she opened the fridge and looked around with vacant eyes, searching for something.
the banana flower lay on the bottom tray. Maloti picked it up, then filled a bowl with some water and threw a pinch or two of salt in it. she sat down on the kitchen floor and started cleaning the banana flower, taking the tightly packed layers of purple bracts off one by one, tearing out the pale yellow florets as they appeared, and dropping them into the bowl of salted water. the banana flower was really fresh she noted unconsciously. dadababu liked it cooked with tiny shrimps and coconut. she’d make it that way today.
maloti began the laborious process of removing the matchstick like pistil and the hard outermost petal, the calyx, from each of the tiny slender florets. these had to be taken out for they were not delicate and delicious like the rest of the flower.
monai. was he all right?
her fingers sought a floret and separated the pistil.
the alarm rang shrilly.
a hand appeared from under the jaipuri quilt with its pale pink and blue print and slammed the alarm clock. it stopped ringing.
a head of tousled frizzy curls appeared next and a sleepy voice called out,
then the curls and hand disappeared under the quilt again.
“didimoni! tea is ready…” maloti said in a clear voice, slightly raised, standing by the bed.
the jaipuri moved and a voice muttered,
“okay… i’m coming…”
maloti left the room.
further movement of the quilt and rinku woke up finally and stood up.
rinku, still in her loose kaftan which she had just picked up from anokhi on her trip to delhi, walked out to the dining table. a white fine bone china cup and saucer lay next to the tea cosy covered teapot. rinku took off the tea cosy, stirred the tea with a spoon, and poured it into the strainer balanced on the cup. a few drops of milk, and the tea was ready.
rinku took a sip. there was nothing quite like that first sip of tea in the morning. only darjeeling tea and only in fine bone china.
“didimoni…” maloti sounded hesitant.
rinku turned around and look at her, she was standing just a couple of feet away.
“didimoni, monai started coughing again last night…” maloti said in a flat monotone.
rinku felt the sudden stab of ache in maloti’s heart even before she exclaimed,
“what! oh no!”
the two of them stood looking at each other.
three months ago, maloti’s thirty-two year old son had been diagnosed with cirrhosis. he had started drinking when he was a teenager. when maloti came to work for rinku’s mother, monai was a couple of years old. she had left him with her sister in law and come to the city looking for work, for her husband didn’t earn. he had lost a hand while working in a factory. he had spent all the money he got as compensation on drink and gambling, he cursed maloti day and night, accusing her of being the bringer of ill luck. by then, maloti had two children, monai and her elder daughter.
for almost thirty years now maloti had worked in rinku’s home. the house was sprawling. theirs was a joint family, though now everyone had their own kitchen. rinku’s three uncles – her father’s brothers – and their families as well as rinku’s great-uncle’s only daughter and her family lived in the various sections of the house. rinku’s brother had moved to france when he was young. he had gone to study and then stayed on, become a citizen there. so rinku had decided to live with her parents and keep an eye on them. thankfully, her husband was fine with it. she suspected, it was mainly because he enjoyed all the fuss bengalis made over their sons in law. her mother had adored her handsome punjabi son in law. she had passed away a couple of years ago, rinku’s father had died many years back in an accident.
maloti had sent all her savings for monai’s treatment. a lot of blood was needed for the transfusion. the doctors had said if he drank even one drop more, he’d perish. maloti had not gone to the village to see monai. that would be expensive, she needed all the money she could get for his medicines and doctors.
after thirty years of working, she had hardly any savings to speak of. every year something or the other happened in the village and people came to maloti saying her husband or her children needed this or that. that’s how it had been for a long time. now her children were grown up, her younger son worked in a factory, both daughters were married. she had a bit of a reprieve, and she had put together a little money. then last year, her house collapsed in a storm.
monai had two young children, seven and four. his wife was not very strong. the doctors had said…
“was monai drinking again?” rinku asked, not knowing what to say.
maloti shook her head slightly.
rinku walked up to maloti. she wanted to reach out and touch her, put her arms around her maybe. but that was not quite natural, not for them.
maloti seemed to stiffen a bit.
rinku suddenly thought, she had not liked the sound of that “didimoni.” there was the end of a world in it. she also noted, maloti had waited for her to have her first sip of tea before saying anything. is that what a maid had to do? make sure her employer was always comfortable? before thinking of her own troubles even? even if it was her son that lay dying? her eldest… perhaps in some corner of her heart, her dearest? did anyone want to know what was in her heart? or if you’re poor, you have no right to a heart? to emotions? to respect for those emotions? did she rinku, have a greater right to emotions than maloti?
rinku frowned involuntarily as the thoughts raced. maloti stood an arm’s length away, staring down at the floor.
perhaps, perhaps… there was something else in that act of hers as well? of giving rinku her tea, waiting till she had taken that first sip…. perhaps in it was some secret of survival? of holding on, of not going down.
“what are we eating today?” rinku asked briskly.
maloti looked into her eyes, and a familiar moment got going.
“banana flower with shrimps, didimoni… and roasted moong dal, potato with peas. shall i make the rice that boro boudi sent from their farm?” maloti replied in a placid voice, sounding normal. as if, as if it was just another day.
“okay,” maloti instructed, “don’t forget to put asafoetida in the dal, and make some chapatis for me, i must stop eating rice, i have to lose weight!”
maloti turned to leave.
“oh, and make some more tea after this pot is finished, i have to get a lot of writing done today…” rinku said over her shoulder, heading toward her study.
maloti walked back into the kitchen. the phone was ringing again. was it her younger daughter…? had monai…? she waited a few moments, then slowly reached for the phone.
there is no upside to poverty. a huge percentage of the people of our world have pretty much nothing. they live around us, among us, and have lives that couldn’t be more different from ours. i suspect i don’t have the ability to understand their feelings or their world, nor tell their story with any real depth. but sometimes, there’s a moment when the stark reality hits you. you see how split and far apart are these two worlds, and it calls you to give it some expression, however inadequate. here’s a moment like that which found its way to that home from the past where many stories live. “didimoni” is how one may address one’s elder sister. domestic help rarely call you by your name, even when you’re younger. “dadababu” is a way to call your elder brother, “boro boudi” is eldest sister in law, your brother’s wife.