Madam was outside in her air-conditioned hall, holding court again with her new best friends. Sir, her husband was out for work, as always, and her two sons were away at boarding school in Shimla. But that wouldn’t stop her from spoiling rotten her niece, Sweetie Di, and her fiancé, Amrikan Sir. They lived in Amrika and had come to Mumbai to get married, a month in advance. Their families would fly here a week before the wedding. Meanwhile, Madam was in charge for the wedding preparations, including Sweetie Di’s wardrobe.
“This is my chance to spoil a daughter,” Madam was telling Sweetie Di when I went out to serve them fresh sweet lime juice. This, after the fresh coconut water I’d served them, half an hour back, when they had gotten here.
Madam was tying the knot of a heavily embroidered blouse Di had put on. “How you girls can be so skinny!” she told Di, the same way she would tell her boys, each time they returned from Shimla. “A month of real desi food will add flesh to these bones.” She pulled the blouse so the collar rested on Di’s small shoulders. “Look at these mosquito bites — “ She almost squeezed one of Di’s breasts and pulled back the blouse to tighten her waistline. “No good for marriage.”
“Masi, please.” Di recoiled, blushing. I put the juice glasses down on the coffee table. Amrikan Sir was sitting on the sofa, watching TV while texting with one hand and sipping whiskey with another. I picked up the glass bowls with dry fruit leftovers, returned to the kitchen, and shut the glass door as Madam had strictly told me to.
The heat inside rushed toward me like a Virar Fast train. I opened the oven, placed the tray full of baatis inside and adjusted the temperature to 400 degrees. I turned up the gas flame and splashed chopped onions into the frying pan. They hissed and crackled in the sunflower oil. Beads of sweat expanded around my lips and I wiped them with the tip of my dupatta.
Dry fruit, paneer stuffed baatis, dal of five lentils, ker saangar, mango rabdi and malai lassi. Only rich fuckers could digest that kind of food in May. Shut in their air-conditioned rooms, air-conditioned cars, air-conditioned malls, they could down beef korma and fried puris and still not complain of heavy food. But if they had to step outside and breathe natural air, or god forbid, drink unbottled water? Nothing could stop them from hitting the grave then.
As I stirred the onions, my eyes watered again. And I didn’t know what it was. The fatigue, the insomnia, or the homicidal heat in the kitchen. All I knew was I missed Josna and Yadav. It had been a week since I’d a word from Josna, the maid who used to live in the kitchen with me, the only friend I had since I moved to Mumbai, the teenage girl who could afford quitting. The moment Madam found out about Josna, she took my pair of flat keys so I wouldn’t attempt running away too. It had also been a week since I’d spoken to Yadav, the watchman who guarded the building across from us, the only man I’d come close to calling what they say in movies: a boyfriend.
“Shalu!” A voice yelled outside. In reflex, I took the duster in my hand, wiped the sweat dripping from my forehead and rushed out.
“How often have I told you to wipe the dust off each leaf?” Madam told me, her index finger pointing to the money plant in the hall’s corner with giant leaves. Sweetie Di and Amrikan Sir were to visit again that evening with their designers and try more wedding clothes.
I nodded. I kneeled. I started wiping each leaf of the money plant again, cleaning it with my sweat on the duster. I didn’t tell Madam that I’d already wiped the leaves in the morning when she and Sir were sleeping in their bedroom and the hall windows were open. With Mumbai’s pollution, it wasn’t my fault.
If only I didn’t need the cash tips from Sweetie Di’s wedding to send it to my family. Papa was getting knee replacement surgery in Kathmandu, the closest city to our village in Nepal. Even if they used all their savings of last two decades, it wouldn’t cover one-third of the surgery cost. Nothing in our village paid the way Mumbai did.
I took the third round of refreshments for the firangis. “Fresh pineapple juice and rasmalai, Madam,” I told Sweetie Di who was chitchatting with Madam.
“Call me Di,” she corrected me — again. I nodded as I put rasmalai bowls on the coffee table and saw her legs as fair as Kareena Kapoor’s; Di was wearing shorts that day. Everyone goes to Amrika and becomes really fair, Yadav had said when we were grocery shopping together and I’d told him about Madam’s foreign family who looked like goras. That was the day before Josna left and I didn’t know then it would be our last outdoor meeting, Yadav and mine. I returned to the kitchen and checked the minutes left on my phone — few and for emergencies only. I resisted the urge to text Yadav. My folks had called me from the village again. They were desperate and I needed to save up on the phone bills.
“Shaluuuuuu.” Thunder struck in the hall. I slid my phone under the blanket in the kitchen corner where I slept. I straightened my dupatta, put some cucumber pakoras on a serving tray, and stepped out in Himalayan air.
“Om Shanti Shanti, Masi.” Amrikan Sir swayed his palm up and down in slow motion. “With your voice, you could replace that Modi dude in elections,” he said, ogling Di who was wearing a new lehenga studded with crystals and a backless choli bordered with silver embroidery. Instead of telling him to get some shame, Madam picked up a pakora from the tray I was carrying.
“Try these, babu,” she said, placing it between his lips. “They’re fresh.” Then, she turned toward me, blood in her eyes. “Just how many times have I told you to serve piping hot pakoras?” She jerked her palm back and forth between Amrikan Sir and Di. “Like these two visit us everyday!”
I slid the colder pakoras from the plate on the table over my serving tray with a pair of tongs. Madam would lose it again if she saw me touch the food with my fingers, especially in front of her foreign family. My hands trembled and a few slid on the floor. “No matter how much you teach these girls, they just don’t get it,” Madam told Di as I rearranged hotter pakoras on their plate. Di tapped Madam’s shoulder gently. “Why waste, Masi? With AC, these won’t stay hot either for more than five minutes.” She said, eyebrows raised toward the vent in the ceiling.
“Ooooho, dahling.” Madam fixed the dupatta pleats on Di’s shoulder. “This is India. Here you enjoy how Indians do. Your America, what do they know about hospitality? Can’t even serve a free meal on flights.” She jerked open her fingers in the air.
“True, true.” Amrikan Sir said with his mouth full, eyes fixed on sports channel.
It’s not like Madam ever needed a loudspeaker. Since Josna’s departure though, the thunder in her voice hit new heights. Her anger fits were more random, more often. As if it was my fault that Josna ran away, third maid in a row to have left Madam within the last six months. As if it was my fault that Sir stayed out at work more and more those days.
“First Muna, then Fauzia, then Josna. Never getting Nepali girls again,” she repeated as she told me the story of their elopement again. I’d come to work for Madam after Muna and Fauzia had left. “With the watchmen and drivers standing below, gupshupping, it takes two grocery shopping trips for the girls to start a lafdah. Faster than Bollywood romance!” She eyed me as if warning me she knew all about Yadav. I didn’t correct her that Fauzia was Bangladeshi.
I finished cooking, washing clothes, drying them out, ironing older ones, sweeping and wiping the kitchen floor — again, and finally, the dishes, dishes that wouldn’t stop piling high in the kitchen sink, a Kutub Minar of my own.
Di’s wedding was four days away and Madam was hosting another party for their families that evening. I was getting double the payment, but putting up with the heat, the work, and being locked in this flat, to say it was tough would be a fucking understatement. Since Josna’s departure, she had stopped paying for my cellphone service too. She said I could use the landline but latter had caller id that she monitored to make sure I wouldn’t run away like her other girls. With her salary and Papa’s surgery, I couldn’t assure her enough I wouldn’t run away, even if I constantly thought about it, about Yadav.
My temptation to escape hit its peak on the evening before they left for Ambani island. Josna called on my cell phone, finally, after three weeks. I’d a few minutes left so we kept it short. She had started working for a young call center agent and was happy in her new life in Voizone, that fancy neighborhood with huge air-conditioned malls, real tall buildings, multiplex cinemas, Josna and I had once visited when Madam took us there to carry Diwali gifts for her family back here.
“She’s out mostly, works some hundred hours a week, so no hag watching my ass 24-7,” Josna said. “Less money than Madam surely, but the peace! So worth it yaar.” I was happy to hear Josna’s voice, knowing she was safe, imagining her jolt her head sideway and rotate her hand in the air, as she would each time she was convinced about something. I was also mad with jealousy.
The main wedding functions for Sweetie Di were to last three days and they had all left for a fancy resort in Ambani island, close to Mumbai. Madam had taken the flat keys with her so I could let people in – the milkman, the postal delivery, the grocery delivery — but I still couldn’t leave the flat. I was looking forward to someone not nagging me for three days though. I was looking forward to the nights too. I collected the laundry to be done, Madam’s party sarees and Sir’s designer clothes strewn on their bedroom floor; I gathered the towels, the napkins, the pillows and cushion covers, the runners, the tablemats. She told me she wanted all the clothes, linen and curtains to be washed while she was away. As I piled the laundry and recreated my Kutub Minar, I set aside an orange saree, Madam’s favorite. She told me three times to hand-wash it, raising her finger to my nose. I draped the bright chiffon with silver sparkles around me, making sure my sweat blended into the saree’s floral perfume. I shut the bathroom door where the laundry pile reached for the ceiling. I still had the bed sheets and curtains from Madam’s bedroom to add to the laundry pile.
Standing in front of her dressing table, I dabbed her lipstick on my lips, making sure some of my saliva dried on it before I sealed it. In the mirror, I saw the double-lined, raw silk curtains covering the huge windows, blocking sunset light, city lights, reminding me of the jail I was condemned to. Sweetie Di would return to stay with Madam after six months of her wedding as her Amrikan friend wanted to have a destination wedding in India too. Her friend was a gora and I’d heard goras tipped four times more than desi Amrikans. I re-arranged the pillows on Madam’s bed. I’d collected two thousand rupees from Di’s wedding alone. If I stuck around, I would easily make eight hundred to thousand rupees from each wedding function, and I’d heard goras liked to have all wedding functions in India. Papa was going to need two months of physical therapy, the city doctor had told them over their last visit. I tightened the silk bedsheet and tucked it under the mattress as I counted the tips in my head — from the mehendi, the sangeet, the cocktail party, the boat party, the bachelor party, the hen party.
My cell phone beeped. I read the text message, hearing my heart hammer my ribcage. I switched on the tiny ceiling lights like those in Voizone mall and cranked up the air-conditioner in Madam’s bedroom. If Shalu was condemned to life imprisonment, least she could do is choose the cell with a window.
The bell rang. I wanted to run, but I sauntered. I inhaled the sweet, floral perfume of Madam’s saree. As I opened the door, I unhooked the sparkling orange palloo from my waist and let Yadav in.