“Roll them,” Asha said, setting down a round ball of flour she had kneaded into shape on the smooth marble slab. “Let’s make a circle, like this,” she gently massaged the dough with a rolling pin, Peter’s eyes growing more rounded as the ball of flour spread to the slab’s perimeter. The top of Peter’s blonde head came up to Asha’s waist. He had turned four a fortnight ago.
“I wanna make a parantha” Peter whined, tugging at her dupatta. “I wanna make one, too.”
Asha knew she couldn’t give in to Peter’s whim. She had to get dinner ready and give Peter a bath before Madam got home. Dinner was at nine, Madam would be back any minute, and so would Saheb. Friday nights, Saheb returned late. On other weekdays, he came home directly from work, usually around seven, just as twilight deepened into night. Madam was not far away from the house. She was at the market next door, giving instructions to Tina (boutique owner cum tailor) about a sari blouse she was getting stitched for a wedding reception. Asha didn’t know who was marrying whom, but she had heard Madam and Saheb talking about the wedding at the dining table – the reception was going to be a grand affair, the dress code was Indian and Madam would wear a sari to blend in with the rest of the guests.
Madam worked hard at blending in. In the six months that Asha had worked for the Mills household, Madam had hosted three dinner parties at home with an exclusively Indian menu – paranthas and korma, kebabs, mattar-paneer for vegetarians – Asha had cooked mountains of food for the visitors. Madam’s guests were mostly Indian friends and acquaintances, except for Melissa and Simon, the American couple who had moved in next door recently. Saheb worked with Simon – no, that wasn’t how it was – Simon worked for Saheb and even at the dinner table, the young man had been acutely aware of their positions in the hierarchy of the American Consulate. He answered Saheb’s questions breathlessly, he laughed too loudly at Saheb’s jokes, almost choking on a bite of aloo parantha once when he burst into laughter. Asha had felt sorry for him. She could hear his thin, nervous voice from the kitchen, the forced laughter laced with panic, the halting tone, too eager to please.
“Ulloo” Peter yelled, running around Asha in circles. “Ulloo, ulloo, ulloo,” he shrieked, grabbing her waist with his bony arms.
Ulloo was the latest addition to Peter’s limited Hindi vocabulary. Not happy with Asha’s resolve to keep him away from the paranthas, he had christened her an owl, a night bird he dreaded. Asha bent down and scooped him up in her arms. He was all bone and no fat, a feather weight for a child of his age. “Ulloooooo…” he let out a mighty scream, ran out of breath and buried his face in her neck.
“Time for your bath,” Asha whispered in his ear. “Mummy’s going to be home soon.”
Madam walked in precisely at that moment. She had let herself into the house without bothering to ring the door bell, unlocking the front door with her spare key. She looked like a ghost – her skin was paper-white, the blood had drained away from her face. She was panting as if she had run all the way home.
“Aap theek ho, Madam?” Asha slipped into Hindi because she was worried, then remembered to rephrase the question in English. “Are you alright, Madam?”
Madam walked up to the refrigerator and poured herself a glass of iced water. She gulped it down before opening her mouth to speak. “No, I’m not,” she said, holding on to her sides. “I most definitely am not alright”
Asha thought she was in pain. Oh my god, we’ll have to rush to the hospital and Saheb is not even home. I’ll carry Peter, she decided. Mani from next door will give us a ride to the hospital and he can call Saheb to let him know – Asha quickly chalked out the plan in spite of the panic welling up inside her.
“Should I call a doctor?” she asked, stepping closer to Madam.
“No,” Madam sank down into a chair and held her head with both hands. Peter slipped out of Asha’s hold and ran to her side. “I need a bloody drink,” Madam was talking to herself, not to Asha. Her head was buried in her hands, her blue eyes were staring at the rug on the kitchen floor. “What good’s a doctor going to do?”
Madam was angry, not ill. Asha felt like an idiot for misreading the signs. “Sorry,” Asha said. “I thought you were not feeling well”
Madam looked up and gave her a weak smile. She had a lean, sculpted face, high cheekbones and a sharp jaw line, a full-lipped, generous mouth. “Please, Asha,” she said, letting Peter climb on to her lap. “I didn’t mean to shout at you.”
Asha brushed aside the apology and offered Madam another glass of iced water. “What happened?” she asked, handing Madam the glass. “You look tired.”
“Delhi is not a pleasant place to live,” Madam groaned, sipping the water. “It may be alive and vibrant and colorful, all the things your Saheb says it is…But it’s just not a nice place to live. It’s not,” she said, shaking her head violently.
“What happened?” Asha repeated the question gently.
“I got mugged on my way back from the market,” Madam said, her voice shaky, her eyes glinting with tears. “You know the stretch of road where the streetlights never work? Right there, two boys jumped out of the shadows and blocked my way. One of them pointed a knife at me. I handed over my wallet and they let me walk away. It was over in a second. One minute they were leering at me, the next, they were gone. I ran all the way back home. My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to explode.”
Asha stared at her open mouthed. She had never imagined that such danger lurked on the streets of Defence Colony, a posh residential area where house rents ran to lakhs of rupees. Back in her village in Chattisgarh, violence was a given. If you stepped out on the streets after sundown, you expected to be roughed up – either by the cops or the Maoists who had sworn to wipe out the cops. The police suspected you were a Maoist, even if you swore you had stepped out of your house to buy fish or fresh vegetables to cook dinner. A man could protest all he wanted. But if the cops were itching for a fight, they would find a reason to suspect you of plotting against them. If they were drunk, they beat you up and dragged you off to the station. If the Maoists had launched an attack on a police station recently or blown up a police convoy, then the cops were filled with an animal rage, gone mad with the thirst for revenge that made them reckless, trigger happy, hungry for a kill.
You had to gauge the level of their anger before stepping out on the street. Or else, or else, you ended up with a bullet in the back of your head like her brother. He had been shot and killed a day after his twentieth birthday. Tired of being cooped up indoors on a summer night, he had walked out of the house without saying goodbye to her or her grandmother. Off for a walk, a smoke, an hour or so spent loitering with his friends at the market. Asha and her grandmother had hardly noticed he was gone. They ate dinner at the usual time and Asha tucked her grandmother into bed. Her grandmother was a deep sleeper, never troubled by dreams or nightmares. Asha stayed up, finishing her reading for her English classes next day. She began to worry much later, after the clock struck midnight and reminded her that her brother had been gone for hours.
“Did I scare you?” Madam patted her arm lightly. “Don’t run away even if you are frightened…You’re such a help. I don’t know how I’d get by without you.”
For a moment, Asha considered giving in to the urge of unburdening her history onto Madam – her parents were gone before she was a teenager, they had both died of a fever – jungle fever, as her village knew it – probably malaria or typhoid, Asha had no way of finding out. Her brother wiped out by a stray bullet, her grandmother’s heart too weak to withstand the horror. She had no family left, nowhere to run to. A neighbour had helped her contact an employment agency in Delhi, bought her a ticket and bundled her into a train bound for the capital. Asha had said goodbye to her kindly neighbour and to her village on a chilly December night. She had felt nothing as the train pulled out of the station. Her tears had dried up; her heart was on ice.
She shrugged off the urge for confession and called out to Peter. “Time for your bath,” she said, dislodging him from his mother’s lap. He stuck his tongue out at her and kept slithering out of her grasp like a slippery fish.
That summer, Madam went away for a holiday. She was off for a cruise with her friends, all of them women – or ‘the girls’, as Saheb liked to call them. The cruise would take them to beautiful destinations scattered on Asia’s coastline. Madam showed Asha the brochures filled with pictures of blue skies, palm-fringed beaches and the ocean glittering like a sapphire in the sun. Asha leafed through the brochures so often that the pictures started flashing before her eyes when she fell asleep. She heard the murmur of the waves, the palms rustling in the breeze, the shrill cries of the gulls circling the water. She walked barefoot on a beach, next to the water’s edge, her feet sinking into a soft bed of sand. She felt the wetness of sea spray on her skin and woke up wondering what the sea smelt like.
Peter was packed off to his grandmother’s. With him and Madam gone, Asha found it hard to fill the hours. Her day dragged on. Housework took up very little of her time. Saheb was at work all day. He was not interested in carrying a packed lunch with him, nor did he come home in time for dinner. Breakfast was the only meal he demanded. He left for work early and came home very late. She was not expected to stay up and wait for his return. He said it was a busy time at work for him and that he couldn’t keep fixed hours. Asha wondered how people could get any work done in his office past midnight, but she kept her doubts to herself.
That night, Saheb came home later than usual. Asha was jolted out of sleep by the sound of a glass crashing on the kitchen floor. She sat up in bed and listened to the noises drifting in from the kitchen – Saheb’s footsteps, the sound of running water, dishes clattering in the sink, the whistle of the kettle. The clock on her bedside table showed quarter past three. Was he cooking dinner or brewing tea? Why the hell wasn’t he in bed? She stiffened when she heard a knock on her door: a gentle tap, once, twice, then a more insistent third one. She wrapped a dupatta around her shoulders and unlocked the door.
“Hi Asha,” Saheb smiled at her. “Some tea for you?”
His face was flushed and Asha could smell alcohol on his breath. He was looking at her with Peter’s eyes – the same shade of blue, the same startled expression in their depths. But Peter was a child, not a drunken man. A boy without guile, a child who never wished her harm.
“I don’t want tea,” Asha said, her hand reaching for the door handle. “I’m sleepy.”
Saheb stepped closer to her and laid his palm against her cheek. She shivered at his touch.
“You know what I’ve been thinking?” he asked.
She stepped away from him. Saheb didn’t stop her.
“I’ve been thinking about moving. Getting away from home, from work. Running away to a happy place,” he laughed a bitter laugh. “Where do we go? Paris? The Bahamas? Mauritius? Tahiti?” He was laughing hysterically, like a mad man, a drunk.
Asha stared at him without blinking. She was angry, and all her rage was contained in her balled up fists. She wanted to punch him right in the face, give him a black eye, watch him bleed. She wanted to explode and burn him to ashes in the flames.
“Just a thought,” he said, filling the silence with a sheepish laugh. The kettle on the stove shrieked. Saheb walked away from her side on unsteady feet and switched off the stove.
Asha went back into her room and slammed the door shut. She didn’t get any sleep for the rest of the night. She dragged out her battered travel bag from under the bed and went through the contents: two salwar-kameez sets Madam had gifted her, one green and the other turquoise blue, both of which she had never worn because she had been saving them for special occasions. Buried under the salwars was the picture Peter had given her a few weeks back – a full length portrait of her kneading a ball of dough, leaning over the kitchen counter, her dupatta flying in the wind like a kite. Peter was in the sketch too, a taller, more muscular version of himself. He was standing by her side, watching her, eyes rounded with excitement. She put the picture back under the clothes and stuffed all her belongings into the bag. Her clothes and sweaters went in first. Then she emptied the shelf in the bathroom and dumped her toothbrush, a half-empty tube of toothpaste and a bar of bathing soap into the bag. That was it. She was packed and ready to go. The pale light of dawn trickled in through the windows. The world outside was a blur to her.
She wanted to leave a letter for Madam, a note to tell her that she was sorry for disappearing without waiting for her return, sorry for not saying goodbye. In the end, she scribbled a note to Peter and left it in her bedroom, hoping Madam would find it. It was just a short letter, a string of words to let him know he was a good boy and that she was glad he had drawn a picture of the two of them together, a keepsake she would carry with her wherever she went.