January 26, 2005


Anyone being made to work on a public holiday earns the full right to subject herself to public ridicule anyways, so here goes.
Please read and constructively criticize. It is a fledgling attempt.

Chitra put on her spectacles and reached for the peach cardigan, which lay neatly folded next to her pillow. With trembling fingers, she put it on. The fake mother of pearl buttons wearily slid into the buttonholes for yet another day of thankless service.

“Amma had no sense of colour! A peach cardigan for her buffalo-complexioned daughter? I’m glad Vaishali refused to take it. It’s such a bother to have to tell someone they are looking foolish.”

She emerged from the bathroom, and went to the kitchen. Her plate from last night’s dinner lay unwashed in the sink. The tap had beaten the center of the plate clean with its staccato dripping.

“The good-for-nothing maid is late again. I am sure I will die of a heart attack if she ever rings the doorbell at seven! I must deduct twenty rupees this month for this late-coming business. She must have gone to Vaishali’s house first. Madam must have paid her extra to work early mornings. She’ll be tired by the time she reaches here, and will do a sloppy job of cleaning.”

She prepared a cup of tea. Ginger. Half a spoon of sugar.

“Doctor sahib would have scolded me: Chitra Didi this sugar will be the end of you. God bless his soul. Vaishali was a lucky woman. Lucky and foolish. Both brother and sister never realized how good life had been to them. My Shekhar went to the Lord without noticing how patient I was with him.”

The Times was lying on the footmat outside the door. Chitra picked it up and turned the pages.

“What a nice picture of Dilip Kumar! Where are my scissors? This must go into the scrapbook. Who knows how long he’ll live?”

“Wait! Isn’t that Balaji Rao? Yes! That is surely his crooked nose and sharp chin! I knew he’d be bald when he grew old. When did this happen?”

Three-fourths of an almost toothless smile played upon her lips. “Does Vaishali know?”

Chitra knotted her wispy grey strands into a hasty bun, secured with just two pins. She put on her towel slippers, then decided to wear her chappals. Perhaps the bai had not been to Vaishali’s place after all.

She looked for a place to put the newspaper while she locked the door. It would be disrespectful to put it on the doormat. Amma would have freaked if she saw knowledge being insulted by her daughter-in-law. The rules were always different! How coolly Amma had turned her eyes away from the Balaji Rao business!

“I cannot wait to see the look on Vaishali’s face! No money to subscribe to the paper, eh? Then where does that half liter pack of full cream milk come from every day? One should drink skimmed milk and pay to keep up with the world, if it comes to that!”

Chitra knocked at the door down the corridor.

“Babuji was too kind. Buying Vaishali a flat so close to ours. Shekhar took care of her till his last day. And now I am saddled with the responsibility. And madam will never come over to be taken care of. It is always me who has to go ringing her bell, asking if she needs anything. Such a bother. Now what is keeping her? Is she bathing in the full cream milk?”

A chink opened in the door.

“Undo the chain baba! Who is coming to rob you so early in the morning? And what took you so long?”

“Chitra Bhabhi! Come in. come in. Sorry to keep you waiting. I was watering the plants in the balcony. I did not hear the bell.”

“Is your cold better? Doctor sahib always said Chitra Didi, drink ginger tea for a bad throat! God bless his soul!”

Chitra scanned the wrinkles of Vaishali’s face for traces of emotion. None. Obviously, she had not heard.

“Should I make you some ginger tea Chitra Bhabhi?”

“Only if you are making yourself some. And no sugar please… Doctor sahib….Say! Has the bai been here already?

“She came last evening to clean. She needs to take her son to the doctor, and she won’t come today.”

“She never told me! How am I supposed to know all this?” Chitra vaguely remembered the maid servant saying this to her, but a wave of anger swept the faint memory away.

Chitra fidgeted with the top botton of her peach cardigan. “How do I tell her that her beloved “Bala” is gone? What if she starts crying? Who will handle that? Such an insult to the memory of Doctor Sahib. I wonder when she met Bala last. Even after her husband’s death? Ram Ram! Why do I have to be the one to do it?”

“So what brought you here so early in the morning, Chitra Bhabhi?” Vaishali put down the tray with two cups of tea and a packet of Monaco biscuits.

“I just came to ask about the bai. Such a nuisance that woman is! I am thinking of getting a new one.”

Vaishali smiled: “They are all the same Bhabhi. You cannot do without them, so you have to adjust.”

Chirta hated people who always remained unruffled.

“That was nice tea. But very heavy - with that full cream milk. You should switch to skimmed milk at your age, Vaishali.”

“Habit, Bhabi.” Vaishali smiled.

“Ok. I must go now. Have to wash the utensils. Such a pile in the sink. I cannot stand the sight of such filth.”

Chitra got up to go. She thought of leaving the newspaper behind “by chance”. Let Vaishali find out herself.

“By the way,” the temptation was too much, “Balaji Rao passed away yesterday. I saw the obituary in the paper this morning. I thought I should let you know. Poor man must have died alone. We are all alone. Live alone. Die alone.”

Vaishali’s face was blank. Not a trace of shock?

“I went for the funeral yesterday, Bhabhi.”

“Oh!” Chitra could manage nothing more, and nothing less.

“I am making pooris for lunch Bhabhi. I know you love them. Do come over if you feel like it.”

“Thank you Vaishali. Pooris are so oily. You must change your diet with age.”

“For whom, Bhabhi? After all, I have to live alone. Die alone.”

Chitra left without a word.

No comments: