‘O bouthauren, shonen, eida ki tetrish nawmborer baari? Is this No. 33, bouthauren?’
Humming as she patted the baby in her arms to get him to sleep, Mamata had come up to the front door. When she heard the call, she peeped outside. A married young woman of about twenty-five or twenty-six was standing on her doorstep. She was dressed in a short sari with a blue border, her head not fully covered. A broad streak of vermilion in her hair, and a small round dot on her forehead. A set of the thick white traditional shell bangles adorned each of her arms, along with two sets of glass bangles. It was clear at first glance that she was a lower middle-class housewife. Her complexion was on the darker side, and she was thin, too. But still she had a pleasing appearance. Her nose wasn’t particularly sharp, but her features were soft and smooth, and her manner of speaking, sweet.
Walking up to her, Mamata said, ‘Yes, this IS No. 33. Why?’
Without answering, the woman continued, ‘And is the karta named Niradbaran Mukherjee?’
‘Yes it is. Do you want to meet him?’
The woman smiled covertly now, saying, ‘No, not him, I have a letter for his wife, boudidi. I’ve been asked to meet you. Here’s the letter.’
Accepting a folded piece of paper with her own name and address on it, Mamata smiled again. ‘How did you know I am his wife? There are other tenants here.’
Smiling back, the woman said, ‘Don’t try to deceive me, bouthauren, one glance is enough to know who you are.’
Mamata had unfolded the letter and started reading it.
‘Dear Mamata, the other day at the cinema you mentioned you needed a maid. But since I couldn’t find anyone new, considering the difficult situation you’re in, I’m passing on our own Taranga. Not entirely though, half and half. She has been working with us for a month and a half – but how can she survive on a single job? She’s been pleading with me to get her another one, and you need a maid too. So I thought, if I must give someone a share, it might as well be you. Taranga too wanted someone we know, “well-bred people like us”. I told her, I’m sending you to someone who’s even more well-bred than we are. Discuss the salary with her – we pay her twelve rupees. Doing the dishes, fetching the water, helping in the kitchen, getting the charcoal – she does it all. A good-natured sort. You’ll see for yourself. Yours – Ashima Maitra.’
Reading the letter, Mamata said happily, ‘Ah, so Ashima’s sent you. Come in. Just look at Ashima – she lives down the road, but still she has to write a long letter. She can’t stop writing letter, can she. Come in, Taranga.’
An extremely cheerful Mamata re-entered her house with her new maid. The search for a maid had been going on for some time, but she hadn’t found anyone she approved of. Mamata had actually quarrelled with her husband and his younger brother over this. They had even got hold of a couple of aged candidates, but Mamata had rejected them as soon as she set eyes on their appearance and their behaviour. How vain they were! They seemed to think of themselves as the king’s attendants. Besides, none of them was willing to accept less than fifteen or sixteen rupees. How could you spend so much on a maid? She had met her friend Ashima at Rupasree theatre the other day. Mamata had happened to mention her plight in the course of their conversation – how harried she was because of the lack of a maid. ‘I shall get hold of a maid for you somehow,’ Ashima had assured her.
She had kept her word by sending one round to Mamata within a week. It really was hard to find such friends.
Mamata laid out a mat on the veranda for Taranga to sit.
But Taranga was hesitant. Perching tentatively on a corner, she said, ‘What’s the mat for bouthauren, people like us don’t need mats, the floor is good enough.’
‘Why should you sit on the floor,’ said Mamata. ‘Use the mat. Where do you live? Tell me about your family.’
Taranga and her family lived in the refugee camp at Narkeldanga. Her husband was alive, but so what? He had been bedridden for six months – with not a few illnesses: asthma and acidity among them. The camp authorities paid for their rations and provisions, but that did not cover medical treatment and other occasional needs. And besides, there was the future to think of. Which was why Taranga had started working. Her husband Kunja Das has objected at first, but she had paid no attention. ‘I’ll stop once you get better and start earning. But we can’t afford to sit tight only for the sake of honour. You need milk, oranges, fruits – the camp won’t pay for all this. We need money, don’t we?’
‘Don’t you think I’m right?’ Taranga asked Mamata.
Mamata nodded. Taranga was right. Mamata went on to extract much more information from Taranga. Their home was in the village of Kharisar of Faridpur district. They belonged to a family of weavers, but she had never seen anyone either in her own home or at her in-laws actually work a loom. Her father was a trader, and her husband used to peddle gamchhas at markets. But illness wore him down so much that he no longer had the strength to carry his load of gamchhas around. Who was going to feed them if they had no income? Meanwhile the price of rice had risen to twenty or twenty-five rupees a maund. They heard on the grapevine that arrangements had been made in Calcutta for food and shelter for the poor. Trusting the rumours, Taranga and her husband had accompanied their neighbours to the city. But Taranga didn’t like living on charity. They would leave the camp as soon as her husband got better and started earning on his own. They would have their own house to live in independently, like decent folk.
As she told her story, Taranga was suddenly reminded of something. Sounding abashed, she said, ‘Now look what I’ve done, I’ve been chattering all day bouthauren. But I haven’t asked the important questions. What’s my work going to be? How many of you here?’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ said Mamata. ‘You’ll do the same things that you do at Ashima’s. As for people, there’s the Mr Mukherjee whose name you had memorised, his brother, me, and our Dolon here.’
Pointing to her sleeping son on the swing, Mamata said, ‘How many is that Taranga? Count for yourself.’
An embarrassed Taranga said, ‘Of course not, bouthairen! Ki je kawyen! How can human beings count each other? I was only asking because of the work. By the way, should I finish here first and go to the other house, or do their work before coming here?’
‘Whatever is more convenient,’ answered Mamata. Then she added with a smile, ‘Ashima is your original employer. You’d best do their work first.’
‘No bouthauren, they aren’t that kind of people,’ said Taranga. ‘I come and go as I please and do my work, they don’t interfere. There’s no one like dadababu either. Very down to earth. And didimoni may be going to college, but she’s not stuck-up or vain at all…’
‘Didimoni meaning Sudhanshu-babu’s cousin Ila?’ interrupted Mamata.
‘Yes, bouthauren,’ answered Taranga. ‘Very simple, even-tempered, girl. But lively too. On the day that I started work she asked me all about my name and home and family, just like you. She said I have a lovely name. I could die of embarrassment.’
‘You do have a lovely name,’ smiled Mamata. ‘What if you’d been called Khenti or Panchi or Jashoda or Manada instead of Taranga? I’d have changed your name, I wouldn’t have spared you. I’m very fussy about named, Taranga – I’ve changed my son’s name thrice. Yes, Ila certainly is lively. My brother-in-law too. He’s very serious normally, but when it comes to a bit of fun, he’s a different person.’
Taranga started work at Mamata’s home the next day. Since the bathroom adjoined the kitchen, fetching the water was not an arduous task. Mamata’s family did not use too many utensils – they were quite considerate in that sense. But Taranga herself was the most diligent – she never shirked her work, doing it flawlessly. Not only Mamata, but also Nirad and Nirmal, the two brothers, were delighted with her neatness. You couldn’t get a better maid. Taranga didn’t limit herself to her assigned tasks – whenever she got the opportunity she also arranged the shelves and swept the floors. Cobwebs didn’t have a chance with her, the moment they caught Taranga’s eye she removed them with a coconut shell.
One day Mamata told her, ‘Someone who didn’t know better would mistake you for the housewife. They’d think you were doing up your own home.’
Embarrassed, Taranga replied, ‘The things you say, bouthauren! You cannot enjoy work if you’re afraid of it or think of it as someone else’s. When you consider every task your own, there’s no such thing as hard work, bouthauren.’
‘Learn from her, boudi,’ declared Nirmal from the next room. ‘Even after seven years of marriage you haven’t learnt to think of your husband’s home as your own – your housework is so lackadaisical, as though you’re in office. But it’s taken Taranga only a few days to…
Suppressing her laughter, Mamata said, ‘Very well, I’ll see how much housework your college graduate wife does…’
‘Ila didimoni from the other house would make a perfect match for chhoto dadababu here,’ whispered Taranga. ‘She may go to college, but she’s not vain at all.’ Mamata smiled, ‘Don’t tell me, tell chhoto dadababu himself.’
A week later Ashima said, ‘What’s it like working for them, Taranga? What kind of people are they? You haven’t told me anything.’
Leafing through her logic textbook, Ashima’s sister-in-law Ila said, ‘Not told us! Taranga cannot stop praising them constantly.’
‘But then I’m not lying, boudi,’ said Taranga. ‘Bouthauren there really is a very nice person. She treats me like family. And dadababu likes me too. Chhoto dadababu even asked me for a cup of tea the other day. “We don’t believe in caste, Taranga,” he said, “not just tea, we can even eat a meal you cook for us.” He’s very lively. Just like didimoni here. They’re very well matched.’
Ila went away, burying her red face in her textbook. Ashima giggled. The prospect was not to be ruled out. Mamata’s family were Rarhi Brahmins while Ashima’s were Barendra Brahmins, but that didn’t come in way of a marriage these days. Besides, Mamata’s brother-in-law Nirmal had a steady job at the telegraph office. Ashima considered writing to Ila’s mother.
But Mamata didn’t stop at Nirmal, she also sang Mamata’s praises. Mamata had given her one of her own blouses the other day on seeing that Taranga’s blouse was torn.
‘Let me see,’ said Ashima, approaching Taranga with curiosity.
As a matter of fact Taranga was dressed in that very blouse. Both Ila and Ashima noticed that it was practically new. A beautiful blouse with fine embroidery on the sleeves and the neck – usually no one gave away such things to a maid.
Ila and Ashima exchanged glances.
A couple of days later Ashima gave Taranga an reddish-brown old handloom sari with a wide border.
‘Why are you giving me a sari, boudi?’ asked Taranga in surprise. ‘What will I do with it?’
‘Wear it, of course,’ said Ashima. ‘This short and dirty sari of yours doesn’t match such a lovely blouse. Wear it with this one, they go well together.’
It wasn’t as though Taranga wasn’t tempted by the sari, but she said hesitantly, ‘No boudi, people like us don’t deserve such saris.’
‘Just take it,’ Ashima said almost like a rebuke. ‘If you can wear such a fashionable blouse, why not this sari?’
Eventually she said, ‘I’ll be very unhappy if you don’t take it, Taranga.’
‘Give it to me, then,’ said Taranga.
When she saw Taranga wasn’t dressed in the sari the next day, Ashima was annoyed. ‘What did you do with the sari, Taranga?’
‘I’ve put it away, boudi. It’s such a good sari. I’ll keep it for special occasions.’
Ila said, ‘Very well, I’ll give you another sari for special occasions. But please don’t wear that short and dirty sari anymore Taranga. It looks terrible. You’d better wear the sari that boudi gave you instead. It suits you.’
‘All right,’ said Taranga, therefore.
Mamata was a little surprised at Taranga’s reddish-brown sari the next day. ‘Well? Bought a new sari, Taranga?’
Shaking her head, Taranga said, ‘Impossible, boudi, do you suppose we can afford such saris? Boudidi from the other house gave it to me. I didn’t want to take it. You tell me, how can I accept a whole sari even before I’ve completed two months at work? Aapnee kawyen? But boudidi wouldn’t take no for an answer. Do you know what she said? I’ll be upset if you don’t take it. Look at her. What can I say, bouthauren, their hearts as generous as the gods’. You don’t see such people normally.’
‘Hmm,’ said Mamata grimly. Examining Taranga’s sari with her fingertips, she said, ‘Be careful with it, Taranga. It’s an old sari, you see, I don’t think it’ll survive more than two or three washes. Never mind, I’ll buy you a new sari next month. Not too colourful, but one where the fabric is strong, you’ll find it easier to work in it.’
‘No bouthauren, I don’t need any more saris,’ said Taranga, trying to forestall her. ‘Didimoni has promised me one too. What am I going to do with so many saris?’
‘Hmm,’ said Mamata, even more grimly.
Four or five days later, Mamata suddenly made a proposal to her. ‘Can you come around two in the afternoon tomorrow, Taranga? A quarter past two will be fine too.’
‘Why, bouthairen?’ asked Taranga.
‘I need you for something,’ Mamata told her. ‘I want to go to the cinema, you will come too and look after Dolon. Have you ever watched a film? Talking pictures.’
‘No bouthauren, I haven’t,’ answered Taranga. ‘But how can I go? I have to do all the work at boudidi’s house, and then I have to fetch the water and do the dishes for you too in the afternoon.’
‘I’ll manage somehow that one day,’ said Mamata.
‘But how will boudidi over in the other house cope?’ asked Taranga.
Curling her lips, Mamata said, ‘It’s not much to cope with. Can’t the two of them fetch a couple of buckets of water themselves for once? Is that how uppity they have become these days?’
Changing her tune suddenly, Mamata said with a pleasant smile, ‘Don’t worry, they love you very much, after all. If you explain to them, I’m sure they’ll let you go for an afternoon. There are things you’d like for yourself, after all, aren’t there? You just have to explain to them. If you ask for me, they won’t say no.’
Still Taranga mumbled, ‘No bouthauren, it’s too embarrassing. I’m not ill or anything, why should I not go to work…’
Displeased, Mamata told her, ‘What difference can a single day make? I asked you because I could do with the help. And you’d have seen something new too.’
‘All right bouthauren,’ conceded Taranga, ‘let me ask boudidi.’
The proposition was a little strange, but having thought it over, Ashima agreed eventually. She would have appeared mean-minded to Mamata if she didn’t. Besides, Taranga had worked two months without missing a single day on the pretext of bad weather or illness. Ashima’s own standing would suffer too if she couldn’t be generous enough to grant Taranga an afternoon off. Ashima concluded that despite Mamata’s attempt to flaunt her wealth by taking the maid to the cinema, she had still been forced to eat humble pie by having to beg Ashima through Taranga. Only because Ashima had been magnanimous enough to grant Taranga leave had Mamata been able to dress up and go to the cinema, complete with her son in the maid’s arms and the feeding bottle. This wasn’t just a case of seeing a film, but also showing off.
Taranga didn’t skip work, however, arriving at Ashima’s house in the evening instead, her face glowing with happiness.
Ashima had begun breaking the charcoal into smaller pieces. Pushing her away, Taranga said, ‘What’s this boudidi, why are you doing this? Let me.’
Ashima had not expected Taranga today. Pleasantly surprised, she said, ‘Did you go for the film?’
Elated, Taranga said, ‘What an amazing thing I saw, boudi. Talking, singing pictures. And what songs! And then with a lovely unmarried girl like didimoni here…’ Taranga giggled. ‘And the man was just like our dadababu from the other house. Then the two of them held hands and…’
‘Enough, Taranga!’ Ila pretended to scold her.
But Taranga didn’t stop till she had provided a complete description of her experience at the cinema. There was no one as wonderful in the Mukherjee family as bouthakrun – she was as large-hearted as the gods. And as beautiful as Lakshmi. Mamata had dressed up for an hour in front of the mirror. Not just herself, she had dressed up Taranga too – teaching her how to put on a sari in the modern style, and redoing her hair. She had even given an old pair of sandals of hers to Taranga, who had died of embarrassment. She had never used slippers in her life – and kept tripping over her own feet. But she hadn’t stumbled although she had been afraid she would – in fact, she had quite enjoyed walking with her feet encased in boudidi’s sandals. Then she had watched the film from a cushioned seat right next to boudidi. Who had ever offered her a seat this way? Who had ever taken such care of a maid? Mamata had bought a couple of soft drinks for herself – and forced them on an unwilling Taranga too. Not cheap drinks, but expensive ones. She could still taste them. The drinks were followed by paan, with delicious flavours. Extraordinary paan. Mamata hadn’t asked for the sandals back, giving them to Taranga and asking her to wear them when she had go somewhere. There was no one like bouthakrun.
Ashima listened, without commenting on her friend’s generosity. She neither concurred not demurred.
On her way back to the camp after work, Taranga ran into Manada and Khentomoni. They worked as maids too. It was Manada who had got Taranga her job with Ashima.
‘Ki lo, why so late?’ asked Manada. ‘Are they making you work very hard?’
‘No one can,’ Taranga replied. ‘I work hard of my own free will. Just today one of my employers took me to see a film, and another one gave me a sari. Do you think I work like a maid anywhere? As long as I’m at their houses I’m like one of them, they treat me like their sister.’
Khentomoni smiled, displaying blackened teeth. ‘Aa mawron. Oh my, just listen to our Tarangi. All these are tricks to make us work like dogs. There’s still time to learn how to look after your interests, how to shirk. Else you’ll just slave away till you drop dead.’
Khento and the rest of them had told Taranga the same thing earlier as well. But she had never paid attention, no matter what they said. Taranga was not a professional maid like them. She was a housewife, forced by poverty to take up work. None of them considered her a maid either, taking care of her like a member of the family. Taranga was treated well by both families. No maid was offered such affection and respect anywhere.
Taranga told stories about her two mistresses not just to her fellow-maids, but also to her sick husband and aged mother-in-law when she got back home. Bouthakrun and boudidi were incarnations of Lakshmi and Saraswati, respectively.
As Kunja peeled oranges in bed, a smile appeared on his illness-afflicted face. ‘And you are their mounts – owl to one and swan to the other.’
But despite mocking her, Kunja was captivated by his wife’s qualities. You couldn’t ask for a better wife. Taranga worked at two jobs, kept two mistresses happy, and brought him bread and butter and fruits to eat. And she also earned the praise of the families she worked for. Many of the other women at the camp worked as maids at people’s houses – but there were so many complaints against them, so much grumbling. Some were lazy, some pilfered, some were scolded for trying a bit of hanky-panky with the young men – all sorts of scandals. Although he spent his day in bed, Kunja Das could hear everything. But no one had ever complained about his wife Tarangabala. No head of a family or young babu had ever turned up to accuse her of skipping work, or to make enquiries about her on some pretext or the other. Everyone in the camp praised Taranga’s luck with her mistresses, and Kunja Das’s, with his wife.
On the day after the film show, Taranga woke up even earlier than usual and went to Ashima’s house in Haramohan Ghosh Lane. She fetched the water, did the dishes, swept the floor and lit the stove. Then she said, ‘I’m off now, boudi.’ Ashima said, ‘Oh but it isn’t even seven o’ clock yet Taranga. Please slice the fish for me before you go.’ Taranga said, ‘There are so many tenants at the other house, you see, and just one tap and tank between them. Bouthauren can’t cope unless I fetch the water for her early.’
Without abandoning her smile, Ashima said, ‘You have to take care of everyone’s interests, Taranga. Besides, I don’t make these demands every day, but two of your dadababu’s friends are coming to dinner tonight, so there’s extra work to be done. I got blisters on my hands trying to break the charcoal yesterday, or else I’d have sliced the fish myself. And besides, you come from the land of fish – you like slicing big fish, and you know it how to do it too. So I thought…’
Sudhanshu had lathered his face and was shaving in front of the mirror. He said, ‘Yes you’d better slice the fish, Taranga, it’s too big for your boudi to handle. She might spoil it.’ Smiling at his wife and sister, he said, ‘Our Taranga does a better job with the fish than either of you. I knew as much the moment I saw her slice the chital the other day. A poorly sliced fish kills half the taste. Education isn’t everything, slicing a fish is a special art. I don’t trust anyone but Taranga with such expensive fish.’
‘There you are, did you hear that?’ said Ashima.
Pleased with the praise, Taranga proceeded to slice the fish. It took about an hour to slice and wash the pieces. On Sudhanshu’s request, she also had to marinade the fish with salt and spices. That took a lot of time too.
Taranga arrived at Mamata’s house in Peary Mohan Lane at seven-thirty. The family usually needed their water fetched well before this hour. The wives of the other tenants had occupied the bathroom already.
‘So late today, Taranga?’ said Mamata. ‘You know how difficult it is to fetch the water if you’re not here early. So many tenants…’
‘Two of dadababu’s friends are invited to dinner at the other house, you see. So I had to slice and wash the fish for them.’
‘Hmm,’ said Mamata. ‘While you were slicing their fish, my arms began to ache from fetching the water. You have to take everyone’s needs into consideration, not just one person’s.’
Taranga had never been reprimanded before. After a short silence, she said, ‘All right bouthauren, I’ll fetch water for you from the tap in the street.’
Tarange returned home after pacifying Mamata with two buckets of water drawn from the municipality tap.
In the afternoon Taranga usually went to work at Mamata’s house first. Today, too, she was there by three o’ clock. But she couldn’t leave at four-thirty as usual. Although she was done with her tasks – fetching the water, getting the charcoal ready and doing the dishes, Mamata suddenly said with a dazzling smile, ‘Are you leaving, Taranga? Just a minute.’
‘Wait a bit,’ said Mamata. ‘Your dadababu’s bolster has split, see? There was cotton wool all over the bed last night. Can you just darn it before you leave…’
It was Sunday. Lying back in bed with his head resting on his palm, Nirad was reading a novel. ‘I couldn’t sleep all night, Taranga,’ he told her with a smile. ‘Cotton wool all over me, in my nose. Stuffed like a pillow, you might say. If you don’t fix the bolster it’ll be the same story tonight. If I leave it to your boudi it won’t be repaired till I die. You have to do something about it.’
Taranga had taken on these small additional tasks willingly. Dadababu and boudi didn’t just pay her a salary, after all, they also gave her saris and petticoats and blouses and took her to the cinema. When they got delicacies at home, they always sent a portion for Taranga’s sick husband. She felt inadequate if she couldn’t do these extra things in return. It was embarrassing. So Taranga had added on tasks like dusting the bed or putting the pillows in the sun to her list of duties.
With dadababu requesting her in this fashion, Taranga had no choice but to darn the bolster. Since there was no cotton-wool left in it, she had to split open another pillow to transfer some of the filling. Darning both the pillows took quite some time.
When Taranga arrived at Ashima’s house around five-thirty, Ashima said sullenly, ‘What was it, the cinema again, Taranga?’
‘No boudidi, I had to repair dadababu’s bolster in the other house. What a state the pillow was in!’
‘Hmm, of course you’re going to do all that while we run out of water here and the stove isn’t lit. If this is what you’re going to do every day Taranga…’
A mortified Taranga said, ‘No boudidi, it won’t happen again. Just this one day that I got late…’
Taranga had to put in another hour’s work even after darkness fell. She was made to prepare some extra charcoal and fetch more water. Still Ashima looked unhappy.
It wasn’t just a matter of a single day, however. The same thing began to happen every day. Ashima had extra work for Taranga every morning. And Taranga was late arriving at Parry Mohan Lane every day. The same trouble and reprimands followed. Mamata said angrily, ‘We do pay you a salary, Taranga. It’s not as though you work without pay, or that the money we give you is useless.’
And afternoon always turned into evening before Taranga could get to Haramohan Ghosh Lane. Mamata had several chores for her, which didn’t allow Taranga to leave quickly. Mamata’s son Dolon wouldn’t drink his milk quietly unless it was Taranga who gave it to him. Mamata’s husband loved it when Taranga did his wife’s hair. When Taranga seemed anxious to leave, Mamata said, ‘How can we manage if you want to leave as soon as you turn up, Taranga? I’ve noticed exactly how much time you spend working here.’
Ashima echoed the same sentiment. ‘Just look at the time, Taranga. We pay you too. While they don’t pay you before the seventh or the eighth of the month, we always pay your dues by the second. How can you be so unfair? I’ve employed you, and so has Mamata. You’re the maidservant for both of us. It’s not as though you’re a permanent maidservant for Mamata alone. How can I cope?’
Maidservant! Taranga had never heard Ashima use the word before. Her face reddened, and her ears began to buzz.
After a while she said, ‘Bouthauren doesn’t consider me a maidservant, boudidi.
Her face contorted, Ashima said, ‘Of course not, she considers you her mother-in-law. Very well, if they’re such good people, go and play mother-in-law there, who’s stopping you? There are plenty of other fish ready to take the bait.’
Mamata didn’t hold her in the same regard as before either. Her pleasant behaviour and sweet way of putting things to Taranga had changed drastically.
As Taranga was leaving after her work that evening, Mamata said, ‘How can you be leaving already, Taranga? Didn’t I tell you had to prepare the charcoal?’
‘You have enough for today, bouthauren,’ answered Taranga, ‘I’ll do more tomorrow. I’ll get late for them…’
‘All you talk about is them,’ snarled Mamata. ‘Isn’t your heart in this house anymore, Mamata? Don’t you take the work here seriously nowadays? Very well, if you’re so drawn to Ashima’s house, why not spend all your time there? No one’s tied you down here. You can always give up this job if it isn’t suitable. I cannot tolerate paying out twelve rupees every month while you leave your work undone day after day.’
After a pause Mamata continued, ‘Money is no easy thing, Taranga. You have to work very hard to earn it. You could dig deep into the earth and not come up with a single coin, you know.’
After a silence Taranga said, ‘It’s all very well for you to say all this, but boudidi over in the other house…’
Mamata flared up even more in her rage. ‘I know, boudidi rinses your mouth out with milk. She is the last word in kindness.’
Taranga had noticed for some time now that bouthakrun here was no longer as receptive to kind words about boudidi there. But then it wasn’t as though boudidi there was particularly pleased to hear good things about this bouthakrun.
Taranga paused before continuing, ‘That’s not what I was saying, bouthauren. I was saying that when I got a little late getting to her house after doing your work, she hurled abuses at me. Apparently I do extra work at your house and shirk my tasks at hers…’
‘Is that so?’ said Mamata. ‘Is that what Ashima said? Naturally. She was always a cantankerous type, never a kind word for anyone. She couldn’t utter a sweet phrase if her life depended on it.’
Taranga observed that Mamata was once again displaying signs of compassion and intimacy.
Encouraged, she said, ‘Leave alone sweet phrases, she said such nasty things – I tell you, bouthauren, never mind decent people, even servants like us cannot possibly use such language.’
‘Decency or the lack of it is not defined by class, Taranga, it is evident in people’s behaviour,’ Mamata told her. ‘I know very well what Ashima’s tongue is capable of.’
Taranga felt a pinprick in her heart on the way back. What she had done was not right. She had loosened her tongue too much today, overstepped her limits. But she also remembered that Mamata had bared her heart to Taranga after a long time. And she hadn’t even objected when Taranga had left without preparing the charcoal.
When Ashima scolded her again today for being a little late, taunting her about shirking her work, Taranga applied her new weapon for winning her employer over. ‘What can I do, boudidi? Even after my work is done bouthauren there holds me back on some pretext or the other. She gets me late deliberately.’
‘Naturally,’ responded Ashima. ‘I found a maid for her with my personal effort – she must take revenge for that, mustn’t she? Never help people, Taranga. I’ve met many women, but I’ve never seen a woman as jealous of other people as she is. Her mind’s as twisted as a screw.’
‘And her language, boudidi, I can’t tell you,’ said Taranga. ‘I work for you too, you scold me too if I don’t do things right. But her foul tongue! Even we cannot bring ourselves to use such language, boudidi.’
‘Mamata was always foul-tongued,’ declared Ashima.
Emboldened, Taranga said, ‘And do you suppose she uses it only on me? The things she says about you, boudidi, the things she says… But never mind, it’s none of my business.’
‘No, now that you’ve brought it up, I might as well hear it all. It’s good to know people for what they really are. Tell me everything, Taranga, whatever she’s said about me. Don’t worry, you needn’t be frightened. Not a word of this will get out. Never mind the turmeric paste, I’ll take care of it.’
Ashima brought her tin of paan out from beneath the bed. ‘Come, have a paan.’
She hadn’t been so warm with Taranga in a long time. How could Taranga keep herself from responding?
Taranga progressed in leaps and bounds after this. It was a marvellous method. With every passing day she discovered to her joy that it was possible to worship one person by vilifying another, that it was possible to earn their empathy and compassion, that it was possible to reach their heart. The gifts had dried up of late, but now they were resumed. Ashima offered her paan, and Mamata held out the tin of zarda. One day Ashima handed Taranga half of one of the three mangoes – recent arrivals in the market – that she had bought for her husband. And Mamata gave her an entire pineapple out of the four that her parents had sent her from Jalpaiguri. Kunja Das was delighted when he tasted the pineapple. He forced a slice or two on his wife as well. Such sweet pineapples – you just didn’t get them in Calcutta. So Taranga’s fingers began to itch to offer Mamata spicier, tastier tidbits.
‘Do you know what happened yesterday, bouthauren?’
‘How will I know unless you tell me?’ said Mamata.
‘Important people do things their own way. But even common people like us don’t have such scandals. But never mind, why get into all that?’
Mamata was bursting with curiosity. ‘Oh, just tell me. That’s the problem with you.’
Tell her? Did it even bear telling? Ashima was visiting her parents in Baranagar. She wasn’t supposed to be back that night. But, returning unexpectedly, she discovered that dadababu had taken Ila didimoni to the cinema. They came back in a car at midnight. Taranga had heard about it the next morning, while doing her work. How bitterly the husband and wife had fought. And Ila didimoni stood by, ashen-faced. It was obvious her mind had been corrupted. The girl was no longer innocent.
‘Shame!’ said Mamata. ‘They are cousins, after all. How fortunate we didn’t consider a match with my brother-in-law.’
Nirmal was writing poetry for a monthly magazine in the next room. Scratching it all out, he began to chew his pen, his ears pricked to catch the rest of the story.
Sudhanshu dadababu had stammered unconvincingly at first. But then he let the cat out of the bag. Ashima was no incarnation of virtue either. Did she think Sudhanshu had forgotten her exploits? Didn’t he have to throw his friend Binoy out once? But it hadn’t been Binoy’s fault alone – you can’t clap with one hand.
‘What!’ said Mamata in astonishment. ‘She’s been married four or five years – but she still hasn’t given up on her ways. What a shame, Taranga, she makes you want to cover your ears. What kind of nature is this, what sort of impulse?’
Taranga chuckled. ‘Binoy-babu still comes over whenever he gets the chance, bouthauren. And then they start whispering inside the room…’
‘So Ashima still hasn’t given up on her vices. Shameful!’
Taranga smiled with great pity. ‘It’s not something you can give up, bouthauren. Once a woman’s got it, it doesn’t leave her till she’s on her pyre.’
Taranga was not ungrateful. She displayed no partiality. Ashima’s mango had been delicious too. So she didn’t deprive her either. Before leaving once her work was done in the evening, she drew Ashima aside to tell her, ‘I didn’t know decent folks could do such scandalous things, boudi.’
‘What is it, Taranga?’ asked Ashima in excitement. ‘Why are you keeping things from me?’
‘No boudidi, I’d better go,’ said Taranga. ‘People like us shouldn’t be involved in important people’s affairs. I’m off ,boudidi.’
Ashima held on to her arm. ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, tell me everything, Taranga. Don’t be afraid.’
‘What to tell you, boudidi,’ began Taranga. ‘Does it even bear telling? She’s not young, she has a child, but still such behaviour… for shame.’
It’s not worth telling, I shouldn’t be telling anyone – Taranga abandoned her stance on Ashima’s request to reveal everything. When she went to work this afternoon, she found the couple quarrelling bitterly. It was terrible to hear. The brothers had fallen out with each other. And why not? How can a man stand for all this? Hanky-panky with your young brother-in-law day in and day out. And not just smiles and jokes – positively falling on each other. Taranga herself had often seen them. She had had to tear her eyes away.
Startled, Ashima said, ‘What are you saying, Taranga. Imagine doing such things even after you’ve had a child! And Nirmal – I always thought him decent.’
Taranga’s laughter lit up her deep experience of human nature. ‘Everyone is decent, boudi! I knew at first glance that if you have evil ideas it’s bound to show on your face. But unless a man got encouragement from a woman, would he dare…’
‘It was a near thing, Taranga,’ said Ashima. ‘Thank goodness I didn’t write to Ila’s mother about a match with Nirmal. It would have been disastrous.’
Just back from college, Ila was arranging her books on her desk, with her ears pricked to listen to what Taranga was saying. Suddenly she pushed several books off the table in her eagerness, saying loudly, ‘Why are your hairpins and cosmetics on my desk, boudi? Don’t you have anywhere else to put them?’
‘You’ve had a narrow escape, Ila,’ Ashima said, looking at her.
As Taranga was leaving, Ashima handed her a slice of jackfruit. ‘Take this home, cook it for yourselves. You’ve saved us, Taranga.’
A couple of days later Ashima said, ‘Come early tomorrow, Taranga. My parents are coming for dinner. Lots of work.’
As soon as Taranga told Mamata, she said, ‘Don’t you dare be late here. I’ve been thinking of inviting maama and maami – I’ll send word today. It’s Sunday tomorrow – an ideal day. You’d better come to my house first.’
‘All right, bouthauren,’ Taranga said, nodding.
When she left the camp early the next morning, Taranga paused beneath the bakul tree, wondering whose house to go to first. She’d be stuck wherever she went. The devil and the deep blue sea.
Manada and Khentomoni were on their way to work too. When they saw Taranga, they stopped.
‘Well Taranga, what are you standing there for?’ said Manada. ‘Planning to skip work by any chance?’
Khento said, ‘Oh no, whom do you think you’re talking to, Maanu? Does she even know how to do all this? Our Taranga belongs to the family of the upright Yudhisthira.’
They were about to leave, but Taranga called them back suddenly. ‘Just a minute, Khento-didi.’
‘What is it, Taranga?’ said Khento.
‘Can you do me a favour?’ asked Taranga after some hesitation.
‘Both of you know the houses where I work, don’t you?’ said Taranga. ‘One of you go to Haramohan Ghosh Lane, and the other to Parry Mohan Sur Lane. Tell them Taranga can’t go to work today. She’s practically dying of cholera. Do this for me, please. I will give you paan and zarda.’
But even before she could make good on her promise, Manada and Khento said in elation, ‘Really, Tarungi? So good sense has dawned on you at last. If only it had occurred to you earlier, you wouldn’t have worked yourself to the bone.’
Before leaving, Khento planted a small kiss on Taranga’s cheek, saying, ‘I was so worried about you. You’ll survive now.’
Taranga stood a little longer beneath the bakul tree after they had left. Khento had bad breath. Trying to rub her cheek with her palm, she left a black smear on her cheek. And suddenly her eyes filled with tears. This was not how she had wanted to be. Why, then?