Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Everyone called me Angoori and the name has stuck; I never questioned its origin. I can still remember the day when my life changed completely. My uncle Rajgopal had returned home that day. He had a high social status and reputation in our village as he worked as a wedding band member, a rarity in our community, in Delhi.
“You can send Angoori with me, I can find her a job, and she can then send money home,” he said to my mother. My father, Chotu Ram, had his own tea stall where he sold bread pakoras, samosas and three different flavours of tea. When I was ten, my father had an untimely death in the form of heart attack. My mother, Geeta, took over the reins, but the business was never quite the same again. My father had made several contacts over the years. While he was a chatterbox, my mother was shy, a striking contrast. People always came to our stall not only to have tea but also to chat. Since my mom was quiet, there wasn’t the same buzz as before, and subsequently, the business dwindled.
Our family comprised of my mother, my three younger siblings and me. My two brothers, Ramu and Babu, spent their time loitering around. One other sister was adopted. She just landed on our doorstep one fine day, and Papa took her in his custody. Never mind the fact that we could barely feed ourselves. But we poor people have a big heart, even though our pockets are small. I was thirteen when I left my home and have not been able to still return. I am nineteen now.
“From now on, these are your employers, respect them and they will look after you,” Uncle Rajgopal said. He then vanished without trace. Mrs. Sharma, my new lady boss, wore a gown with numerous hairpins on her head. (I learnt later that they were rollers and were meant to curl her hair.) Mrs. Sharma was obsessed with her hair and frequently experimented with it. She taught me to address them as Mr. and Mrs. Sharma in English. I never got paid. Mrs. Sharma told me that my uncle came every month and collected my pay. I never once had a chance to meet him during any of his pay-collecting visits.
“This is the kitchen, and your room is in the basement,” said Mrs. Sharma, guiding me around the house. Mr. Sharma worked as a government servant, and during one of the conversations, I learnt that he formulated poverty alleviation programmes. The Sharmas belonged to that elite class of hypocrites who loved debating the poverty of the poor in India while paying ridiculously low or zero (as in my case) salary to their own household employees. The other employees were Gadbad Singh, their chauffeur, who came sharp at nine in the morning, and one other maid, Rama, who was deaf and dumb.
“Angoori, kitna soyegi? Get up, quick now,” Mrs. Sharma would yell when she left for her morning walk at four thirty, and then I would wake up. The Sharmas spoke in Hinglish and preferred English whenever I was around. But gradually, I picked up English and understood what they were saying. Their conversations revolved around me, how poor I was, or the latest Bollywood film. They didn’t have any children. During the weekends, Mr. Sharma would get extremely sentimental after having his expensive Scotch.
I worked from five in the morning till late at night; sometimes, I had to work till eleven at night before I could get some sleep. I had to scrub the floor, do the dishes and everything else except cooking. For cooking, they had Rama. I was not allowed to cook, not even to prepare tea, because I was from the lower caste.
“Let Angoori cook. We can fire Rama and save money. I can then buy a new car, and we will have enough money to pay for the loan,” said Mr. Sharma as I did the dishes. He would say this almost every day, and Mrs. Sharma’s reply would always be the same.
“No, we can’t. Your mother would never agree. She doesn’t eat meals prepared from my hands…” That was true, and Mr. Sharma would not be able to think of a counter-argument. Mrs. Sharma had ‘Verma’ as her surname before marriage and had never been accepted by her mother-in-law.
Mr. Sharma wanted to have kids, but Mrs. Sharma didn’t, and this led to endless arguments in the family. When such fights happened, I would disappear into my tiny room in the basement as Mrs. Sharma had a highly volatile temper, and I had to bear the brunt of her anger a few times. Twice, she had hit me, and also I had learnt to not to be in her way when she was angry.
It took a while for me to notice that Mr. Sharma was having an affair with Mrs. Reena, who lived two houses away, and she frequented their house. Initially, Mrs. Sharma and Reena were friends, but after Reena’s husband left her, Mrs. Sharma tried to cut all ties with her. However, Mr. Sharma did not allow it to happen.
“Poor woman is all alone, and we must look after her,” he said.
Mrs. Sharma did not like it. “Why must we look after her? There are thousands like her. Why don’t you take them all in?”
“But we’ve been friends with her. Would it be nice not to be by her side when she is facing troubles, baby?”
“But I don’t like the fact that you drink with her…” Before Mr. Sharma could reply, his mobile went buzz and he went to answer it.
The next day, Reena came over to Mr. Sharma’s house and had their usual drinks. I served them, and they were ridiculing Mrs. Sharma. This was Mr. Sharma’s habit. Whenever his wife was not around, he would poke fun at her expense.
“Hey listen, Angoori, I am going to her house; madam will return after an hour, but don’t tell her I am there…” And they left. But Mrs. Sharma had noticed the glasses and realised that something was amiss.
“Where the hell is he?” she yelled.
“Ummm… at a friend’s house,” I mumbled. I am a terrible liar, and Mrs. Sharma became extremely volatile.
“Don’t lie, you bitch!” As I wasn’t ready for another beating, I told her everything. She stormed off to Reena’s house and bolted and closed the door from outside. She then shouted and gathered the entire neighbourhood, and also Pramila, Mr. Sharma’s sister. A huge drama unfolded before my eyes, and all the neighbours laughed. Pramila took Mr. Sharma aside and scolded him, but he was drunk, so he just shook his head. But the next morning, he was terribly ashamed.
“You shouldn’t have done this, baby. Now, how will I show my face in the neighbourhood?” he brooded.
“You should have thought about it before you decided to go to her house to get drunk…”
“It’s not like I love her,” he said.
“Who knows, you were there all alone with her and not in your senses, and who knows what you guys were up to…”
Later, the Sharmas tried counselling, but it didn’t work. Each time, their fights became more frequent and louder. In spite of all this, Reena didn’t stop her visits to Sharmas, which added fuel to the fire, and contributed to the growing distance between Mr. and Mrs. Sharma.
I think it was September when Mrs. Sharma left for her parents’ house in Noida, once and for all. Thereafter, it was Mr. Sharma and me in the house.
It was a Sunday, and his friend Samir had come over. I laid down the whiskey and namkeen on the table and went back to scrubbing the floor. Samir was a bit younger and drank like a fish.
“Look at the backside, you can see her crack,” said Samir, pointing to my rear. Mr. Sharma laughed. By then, I had polished up my English skills, and I could understand their conversation. My lady instinct also told me that they were laughing at me. I hurriedly covered myself, but the two pair of eyes kept following me.
“She is hot. Where did she buy her jeans from?” asked Samir.
Mr. Sharma took a long sip and munched on his namkeen before replying, “Baby gave it to her, who else?” He always referred to Mrs. Sharma as ‘baby’.
“Where did you get her from?”
“I don’t know. One acquaintance of Gadbad Singh brought her one day, for twenty thousand rupees.”
“What! You don’t pay her anything?” Samir exclaimed.
“Nothing, just the food and clothing. He literally sold her to us.”
“Ask him to find one for me, too. Aradhna keeps pestering me for a maid, but isn’t this exploitation?”
“What exploitation? At least here, she has a good life, gets good food, a secure environment and all we ask her to do is some household work in return . . .”
Mr. Sharma made a quick walk to the bathroom. Since his prostate was damaged beyond repair, he had to take frequent visits to the loo: every fifteen minutes. Samir took this window of opportunity to fondle me from behind.
“No, sir!” I shouted.
“What, no? What did I do?” he argued. This had happened on more than one occasion. Samir would never hold his feet high while I scrubbed the floor. I would have to go round him, and sometimes he would fondle with his feet and then pretend as if he’d done nothing.
“Angoori, do the scrubbing later. Now, wash the dishes,” said Mr. Sharma. I think he too had noticed the lecherous act of Samir.
I went back to arranging the flowers and the garlands for the numerous photos of various deities. The Sharmas were very religious. Samir confronted me again when Mr. Sharma went to the bathroom.
“Yeh tu mere gale mai daal de,” he said, pointing to the garland in my hand. I laughed because it was so funny, and then he kissed me forcibly.
“No, no, sir. Please don’t.”
“Otherwise, what? Will your boss protect you? He knows about it and he agrees.” He then held me tightly, brushing his body against mine. I managed to squeeze out, and once again, I was saved by the timely appearance of Mr. Sharma.
“This one’s wild,” said Samir, laughing. Mr. Sharma smiled.
“Go to your room!” he commanded, and I ran out. That was the day I decided to run away. I retrieved the folded newspaper cutting I had saved. It was from a Nari ki Ijjat organization that helped many women like me from oppressive employers.
The very next day, I dialled the organisation’s number from a phone booth after stealing a ten-rupee note from Mr. Sharma’s wallet.
Twenty-four hours later, three women were outside Mr. Sharma’s door.
“We are here to rescue Angoori,” proclaimed Mrs. Arora, who was in charge.
“Rescue her! From whom?” asked Mr. Sharma. He was puzzled.
There was a heated discussion for three hours. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sharma too returned. “It is all a misunderstanding jee,” she said.
“But what about your husband’s friend molesting her?” asked Neelima. She was the second in command.
“No, no, I asked Samir about it. It was just an elderly show of affection,” explained Mr. Sharma.
I was asked to make a statement. “We will send you back to that uncle of yours, and your family will suffer too, you bitch, if you say anything against us. Just say we treat you well and don’t say a word more,” Mrs. Sharma whispered in my ear. She had miraculously appeared to support her husband.
I retracted from my earlier statement and signed whatever they wrote. I can’t write. I was asked for a thumb impression, and then the three women prepared to leave.
“What about our arrangement?” asked Neelima.
“Oh! How silly of me! Extremely sorry jee,” said Mrs. Sharma and donated ten thousand rupees to Nari ki Ijjat.
kitna soyegi- How much longer will you sleep
pakoras, samosas and Namkeen- Junk food items
Yeh tu mere gale mai daal de- Place this in my neck
Nari ki Ijjat- Woman’s honour
Ritika Pathak is the author of two novellas and many short stories. She is a teacher in an elementary school and lives in Shimla, India.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)