INSIDE MY HEAD
The only word that was said about Meenakshi, in the colony of Rashmi Residence, was pretty. But it had always baffled her father, Hari, as to the reason of that assignment. He had never loved her. Furthermore, he never saw any beauty in her. All her face reminded him was the obnoxiousness of his wife’s character in her. He had even tried to cleanse her of it. The year following her birth, he had visited a priest from his village and asked him about the rituals for that, and following his directions, he had dipped her in the holy water of the Ganges on a cold December morning, after which a puja was held. When it didn’t work, he had her head shaved on the recommendation of another Baba. But whatever he did, it only seemed to become more and more prominent in her.(Taken from Coulourbox.com)
‘Stupid Bitch!’ he would swear everytime he was reminded what his wife did to him, particularly when he was drunk. ‘I see her mother in her,’ he would then add, after which a gulp of rum would follow.
Two days after her birth, all he found on the cot his wife was supposed to sleep, was his empty wallet. She had left nothing behind, except her reputation. But in spite of the seriousness of the crime, Meenakshi had succeeded in superseding it. A pretty girl of sixteen, her soft words and innocent face had gotten her father more jobs than he would ever come to admit. Wherein, after the elopement of his wife, his sahib had called an end to his services, now, he and his daughter were servants in one of the most reputed households in the colony, privileged to bakshis, sometimes more than other servants’ salaries. But unfortunately, her father could never see what was beyond the curtain of mistrust that his wife had left behind. Liable to this, she remained confined to her colony. She was trusted neither with money, nor with anything more than hundred rupees worth.
When her father was not at home, we could hear her screams of frustration- sometimes a wail, and sometimes, inanimate sobbing. But no one dared to interfere. A few times, she even had fights with her father. The next day, we would see her covered to her head with a shawl, but the wounds always found a way of revealing themselves.
But, most of all, we would see her sitting on the terrace of her house, looking at us with a passivity rare in a child as young as her. Sometimes, if her father wasn’t at home, we would go and talk to her, even offer her little treats, which she loved. She often talked to us of her mother then, asked us how she looked, how she talked, how she was. We satisfied her as kindly as we could, and she would retract back idolizing her mother. That was her life.
I think she was eighteen when these screams of frustration turned to something a lot more violent. We were there. All of us knew. The prettiness, the vivacity that used to enfold her while she was working out of the house, dimmed with each passing week, and this was replaced by a much vulnerable self. She was out of the house much lesser than before. Sometimes, she sat with me at the steps in front of the veranda, and as we ate mango chutney that I had prepared, she would tell me of her woes, of the million desires in her heart, of a child who once admired her hair. A few times, she even mentioned a servant boy who had proposed to her, Ramesh his name. She and I laughed about it for days to come, but she liked the attention, I could tell. It became unambiguously apparent when she made the son of her sahib, the one who had just returned from America, fall for her. He was an eligible bachelor. He always wore a white shirt with jeans, and walked around the town in confident steps, attracting glances of admiration that we casted upon anyone who had been to a place that had been dream of every child.
The news soon spread in the community. Wherever we went, the news was discussed- over sabji mandi in the evening, over the gossips we had in front of our houses when the power was cut off. The colony became lively with it. A servant girl would be with a sahib.
‘How fortune changes?’ we would often tell each other. In a few of them, I even saw the admiration for the pretty little girl that they had, turn to jealousy. It was startling. And considering the gravity of the situation, it didn’t surprise any of us when we heard shouts from their small hut coming one of those days.
“Have you been in his bed? Have you let him touch you? You have stained my name, like your mother.” We heard the same words being shouted over and over again that night. We closed our windows after some time, hoping our children would not have to hear the fight. But the noise penetrated our lives. A slap was heard first, then clanking of metals. The next morning when he had left, and we went to her room, we found her lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling, a dried trail of blood down the left corner of her lower lip. We offered her to come to our place, but she said no.
“I have to come back sometime,” she told us.
She refused to go to work, or even eat. And time went by. She stayed confined to her room. One time, when the son of the master came, her father knelt in front of him and begged him to let her go, to let them be and tell nothing of it to his father. The son was a good man, and had gone as silently as he had come, but peace never resided in that house for many days to come.
Her appearance in public became further rare, and when it happened, it was always in the company of her father. They would walk in the market, their heads bowed. Sometimes, we went and talked to her, but her father would brush off our concerns, telling us that she was all right, that she just needed sometime. Afraid, we never raised the matter of the boy in front of him. Even, when we were in privacy, we seldom initiated the matter of marriage. But Meenakshi, she seemed to have a different view of things. Though she had stopped combing her hair, or had given up any attempt to look agreeable, whenever we talked to her, we could hear her longing to be at her work. She would say, “I want to see him? Will he come for me?” We did the best to entertain her whenever she voiced them, telling her that the more he made her wait, the better the meeting will be, and that maybe he was secretly planning a rescue. She smiled whenever we said that, but never followed vocalizing her desires after that. Perhaps, she saw the way our eyes turned to look at others for support on this matter, and then the flickering hope as it faded with our words, and her smile.
But it was the month of November, that same year, when the flickering hope got a life of its own, and blazed brighter than any fire in Rashmi Residence. One evening, his sahib came to his small hut in a bright red car. His son was alongside him. When we saw them go into that little hut, we closed our windows again, anticipating an exchange of words not fit for the ears of our children, yet keeping our ears perked up to have any snippet of it. But nothing.
It was only the next day that we heard about it. Hari ran to the temple at the break of dawn and gave twenty rupees to the woman beggar he always ignored, then sat in front of the temple idol, with his hands folded and tears in his eyes. When we went to their house while he was away, Meenakshi had shrieked on our arrival, “Sahib has agreed to the marriage. Sahib has agreed to the marriage.”
We had first thought she had gone mad because of her house arrest, and we tried to console her. But soon, news came from the other end too, and then it spread like a forest fire. By the evening, every person in Rashmi Residence was aware of the news, ‘the son from America is marrying the servant’s daughter.’ In excited tone, people talked of it, a surrealistic touch in their voice, and anger at themselves as to why could it not have been their own daughter? At night, when power got cut off, we talked even of the money she must have been promised upon betrothal. And jealousy brewed. In the days to come, this news was amputated, then analysed and disputed from every corner. Not much was said in the out, but we knew what talks might have gone behind the walls at night. Some hailed her as a gold digger, others a prostitute. However, when she started to walk with the sahibs they work for, it had a way of shutting people up. And eventually, the pretty, tragedy-stricken girl they sympathized with, turned to the one they silently bowed to and spat on the ground she had walked.
But then, more time passed, and this too became as much a part of the residence as Meenakshi herself was. Soon, Hari became busy in preparing for the wedding, in whatever way he can. We heard that sahib wanted a court marriage, and then a family dinner. Only a few in the colony were invited. However, the excitement of preparations for the family dinner soon became palpable in the air. A month after that morning, cars started to pour in- white ambassadors, maruti, and what not. The once barren home of Hari, now stayed filled with people. People brought boxes with them, covered in red cloth and would leave them at his home. Sometimes, a blast of wind would arrive and blow away the cover, only for a moment, but enough for us to witness what it held. One day it was apples and oranges, more than the box can hold. But once, we heard that the box held only gold. Hari was getting richer, it was apparent. After the decision of marriage, he had given up his job at his sahib’s house, and taken up a job at the cash counter at one of the shops that they owned. The pay was not that high, but the respect he now got was much higher, no one could deny that. He dined with the masters now, told the servants what to do, and had even received a bike as a gift, on which he would take his daughter for prayers in the temple every morning. And for some days, it seemed as if Hari’s disdain for his daughter had ended, and peace finally had found abode in their small home.
However, a week before the wedding was to take place, one night the perfect silence was pierced by Hari’s screams-‘Thieves! Dacoits!’ Soon, the house was clamoured with people carrying sticks and daggers to rescue the poor man, but all they found was him sitting on his cot. The house was stripped of all the possession that had been kept for the wedding-jewellery, clothes, money, and the bride too. But there was no sign of any struggle, nor any sign of intrusion.
Hari was questioned as to what he had heard when it happened, if he had seen anyone in the night, but he remembered nothing. All he could tell us was that he was asleep, and when he woke up, everything was gone. And soon, the realization struck everyone.
Had she eloped with the master’s son?
The house of the master was soon visited, but the son was asleep, we were told. Sahib was furious when he heard about it. Everyone thought she had run away with the money, that she had no intention of marrying his son. In the morning, Hari was dragged to their home, questioned insistently, barbarically, about his knowledge on this matter. When he wasn’t capable of providing anything, he was thrown in the streets, sworn that his daughter would be killed by nightfall. The news spread in the residence, search parties were sent in the town, a report was filed in the police station, but no one heard any more words of her. No one knew what happened of her, but me.
Remembering something we had once laughed about, I went to the master’s home that evening, and talked to the servants.
“He left a week ago,” the servants said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, everyone knows. He stole a necklace from memsahib.”
I didn’t tell them anything, lest Hari might suffer more. Could it be, I thought. Could she have fled with the servant, Ramesh, when his master from America had proposed to marry her? Could she have been doing this so that she could make up a life with him? It didn’t seem plausible, but the truth was I could not sure about this. Love is a tricky thing, or was it hate towards her father that made her do this?
I went that night to Hari’s home to tell him about what I had found, that maybe she had fled with another man. But he was very drunk. And I when I told him about what I had found, he brushed off my concerns like so many times he had done before.
“I see her mother in her,” he kept slurring those words.