fiction literature Literature

Authentic and Hospitable

By SHAHNAZ HABIB | 1 September 2011

“OH, GOD. What in the world will I cook today?” Jaya looked at the pile of vegetables on the counter. Her mother, sitting on the threshold between the kitchen and the work area, nursing her first cup of tea, knew better than to respond although many answers itched inside her. First of all, those beetroots would make a nice pachadi, with some of the sour curd from day before yesterday. And the eggplant would not last very long, so maybe an eggplant curry with coconut. If this were her kitchen, she would have already asked the maid to start grating the coconut. It always came in handy. But here, in her daughter’s house, she was a guest—a permanent guest—and she held her tongue while Jaya went through the hand wringing that was daily routine before she started cooking.

“What shall I do?” she wailed. “The man here does not like eggplant, why did Kamala buy so much eggplant? And we just had beetroots yesterday, the boy won’t eat beetroots again today.” The ‘man here’ was her husband; he sat on the verandah reading his newspaper, a cup of tea steaming next to him. The boy was Jaya’s son, visiting from Mangalore, where he was getting a degree in hotel management, gift-wrapped from a shady private college.

“Chechi, you never tell me how much to buy, and then you always find fault with what I buy,” Kamala, the maid, muttered from the kitchen as she changed into her work clothes. She was 21, and unlike the older maids that Jaya had kept in the past, insisted on combing her hair and changing into a purple sari when she went out on errands.

“No, no, it’s not your fault, Kamala.” Jaya made amends quickly. Good maids were hard to come by these days, and she knew for a fact that the retired teacher two doors down had been trying to lure Kamala for a while now. “It is my fault. I never get anything right. My destiny. What else can I say? All my children so far away, my daughter three years married and still not ready to have a child, my son still not settled in life, my husband uncaring… ” She grabbed a handful of beans and, after looking through them suspiciously, started slicing off their tail ends.

Kamala softened and asked, “Chechi, shall I grate some coconut? Maybe we can make beans thoran.”

Beans thoran, the grandmother thought longingly. Beans thoran with lots of coconut and cumin, and crunchy shallots. In her old house, string beans used to grow abundantly next to a compost heap in the backyard. Anticipating the delicious horror of listening to high prices that she did not have to pay, she asked Kamala, “How much were the beans?” “Twelve rupees for a kilo,” Kamala answered. She had recalculated the prices on the way home. Ten rupees a kilo for the beans and a two rupee tip for the maid who had to walk in the hot sun carrying vegetables. “Twelve rupees?” The grandmother savoured the moment.  “Murder. Pure murder.”

“What is pure murder, grandmother? Is there any coffee left?” Rajiv walked into the kitchen, yawning.

“Of course there is coffee. See, I saved some for you.” The grandmother’s eyes lit up. Rajiv sat next to her on the threshold with his coffee. Jaya watched them. How cozy they were, like newborns. No responsibilities. Meals were prepared, the house was cleaned, the laundry got done. It was all on her head. “At least do me a favor and stop sitting on the threshold so I don’t trip over you while breaking my back doing all the work,” she muttered. “Here, go ask your father if he wants more tea.”

It was Saturday morning in Marble Mahal.

Sitting on the verandah, Preman carefully pored over the financial page of the newspaper. His brows were knit from the extreme concentration. He had trouble reading English but English papers always had better financial news. Carefully, he traced the names of various companies that he held stocks in. One by one he marked off their share prices, noting that most of them were climbing steadily. Poise, Inc, for instance. He had invested in Poise the minute he heard about how the prime minister’s daughter was getting married to the scion of the Poise family. So what if he didn’t speak English, he knew how business worked.

“Lord of the manor, would you like more coffee or tea?” It was Rajiv. Just the person he wanted to see.

“Rajiv, what does the word ‘ascendant’ mean?”

“Oh, Dad, are you reading the financial pages again? ‘Ascendant’ means on the rise.” Rajiv plopped on the sofa.

“I knew that, of course. Just wanted to check if you knew, after all that expensive education.”

”Dad, if you wanted to save money, you should have enrolled me in the village school.” Rajiv flipped through the newspaper till he found the sports pages.

“And then you could be even more useless than you are now. Listen, I wanted you to have everything I didn’t have,” Preman announced, as if for the first time. In reality, this was a regular routine of theirs. “I went to this village school. I didn’t learn a thing there. I know the teachers. Idiots who can barely see what is in front of their eyes.”

Like Ganesh master, the science teacher who had mocked him in front of the whole class after he forgot to memorise the difference between atoms and molecules: “There isn’t an atom of intelligence in your brain, is there?” Yet here he was, sitting in his three-story house, a TV in each bedroom, his smart, educated son next to him ready to take over the world, his shares ascendant. “Idiots,” he repeated, and lifted his eyes from the newspaper to take in his empire: the paved garden with its rows of terra-cotta pots, crammed with bougainvilleas and orchids in various colours, the pebbled path that ran between the pots, the coconut palms that lined both sides of the long driveway, the massive concrete wall that surrounded the yard, and the two marble lions that sat imperiously over the iron gates. Perched over the iron gates was a metal sign, “Marble Mahal”, a name he had chosen himself. Beyond the gate was the village that had made fun of him when he had been a poor postman’s son. And down the hill was a luxury hotel, Riverside Resorts. Preman looked at his son, who was scrutinising the scores from the India vs South Africa test match. Nobody in the village would make fun of Rajiv, who would inherit Riverside Resorts in a few years.

A cell phone rang. It was Jaya’s phone, wedged in between the cushions on which Rajiv was sitting. He answered it. The call was from his sister, Maya.

“Hello?” he said. “I hope you are calling to say you are pregnant, because Mummy was complaining about her destiny just now.”

“Tell her I have even more dramatic news.”

Rajiv handed the phone to his mother in the kitchen.

“Hello, Maya? Can you call later because it is morning and I am busy, single-handedly getting breakfast ready,” Jaya said. Kamala, who was grating coconut, and the grandmother, who was slicing beans, exchanged looks.

“Mummy, it’s urgent. I have to talk right now or it might get out of hand.”

“What is it?” Jaya dropped her volume. Kamala and the grandmother and Rajiv, who was eating the coconut as Kamala grated it, turned towards her.

“Mummy, Vimal’s mother has her eye on Kamala.” Maya whispered. Vimal was her husband. Maya and Vimal lived with his parents in a town about two hours away.

“Oh, God. Is there no justice left in the world?” Jaya wailed.

“Shhh, Mummy. Nothing has happened. Yet. Be careful, though. She has been asking me how you found Kamala and what you pay her.” Suddenly Maya’s tone changed. In an artificial, cheerful voice, she said, “I never did like that television serial. All their clothes were at least two or three years behind in fashion.”

“Is that wretched mother-in-law of yours nearby?” Jaya asked.

“Yes, exactly. And I was confused by the way the actress who played the wife of the policeman appeared in a double-role. Anyway, I have to go now, Mummy.” She hung up.

Jaya put the phone down and held her hand to her chest. “What am I going to do?”

“What happened? What happened?” everyone asked.

Instead of answering, Jaya walked slowly towards the verandah, rubbing her chest.

“You and Maya should have some kind of password for when it’s safe to talk, like the Naxalites used to have. ‘Comrade, I have matches, do you have a cigarette?’”  Rajiv followed her to the verandah.

“Shut up, Rajiv.” Jaya said. “Your stupid jokes. You have no idea what I am going through.”

“Well, what did she say?”

“Here you are, blissfully reading the newspaper. Not even a thought about me,” Jaya said to her husband, ignoring Rajiv.

“Well, what is the latest melodrama? The fridge door is not closing properly?” Preman did not bother to lift his head from the newspaper.

“Yes, that’s right. Make fun of my troubles.” Jaya lowered her voice. “It’s about Kamala.”

“What about Kamala?” Rajiv was standing next to her, looking serious.

“It’s none of your business. Go away.”

Rajiv settled down on the ledge of the verandah.

“Maya’s mother-in-law wants to poach her away. What will I do?” Jaya whispered loudly.

Preman sighed and put down his newspaper. “So what? It has not happened yet.”

“You can say that. Only I know the troubles I went through to find a good maid and train her.”

Jaya had indeed found Kamala after many battles. There was the village girl she hired who had no idea how to clean fish. Another maid, hired through an agency in town, would only cook the things she liked to eat. The last one before Kamala had been caught red-handed washing whites with reds. But finally, like a miracle, Kamala had landed in their lives. Jaya was visiting her sister who lived in another village. Lunch was so delicious that she had asked if she could give the maid a tip. Nineteen-year-old Kamala was washing up dishes in the old, crumbling kitchen. She had a perfectly round face and her small gold earrings gleamed against the smooth dark skin. Out of earshot of her sister, Jaya had offered Kamala twice the salary if she could start the month after. “And there won’t be half the work you have here,” Jaya looked around her. “It’s a nice, modern kitchen with a big grinder for dosa and idli batter.”

“Chechi, do you have cable TV?” Kamala had asked. Jaya’s sister still got only Doordarshan; the cable TV sealed the deal, and Kamala had arrived in Marble Mahal two years ago.

Every afternoon, Kamala would retire upstairs to watch afternoon serials. Jaya installed an old TV on the landing of the staircase and then placed the ironing table strategically in front of it. “So you can catch up on the ironing. You won’t even notice it while you are watching TV.”

But now it was all going to come to an end.

Rajiv sighed. “Everyone wants a piece of Kamala. Why don’t you just auction her off?”

“And who will make you pickles and wash the load of clothes you bring home every weekend and wait on you hand and foot?”

“Don’t worry, Jaya. Maya’s mother-in-law has no way of contacting Kamala.” Preman pointed out.

This was true. Rajiv nodded. Even Jaya had to agree. “Still, this is not good for my blood pressure. I am going to lie down.” She went inside.

Kamala appeared soon after with a cold compress. “Chechi, shall I massage your head? You work so hard and don’t take care of yourself and now you have this pressure problem and sugar problem.”

“Kamala, you are my only solace. You have no idea how difficult my life is. What would I do if you left me?”

“Chechi, I will never leave you.” Kamala murmured. “You are like my own mother.”

“And you are like a daughter to me, Kamala. Don’t I take good care of you?”

“Of course, chechi. This house is like my home.”

“You have seen how hard some maids work? They have to grind the dosa batter themselves using a mill. Here, all you have to do is press a switch. And you can watch TV all you want. And whenever you want to call home, you can use my cell phone.”

Kamala called home once a week with Jaya sitting nearby whispering, “Tell them about the TV.” But Kamala did not bring this up. Instead, she murmured and massaged and mollified Jaya till she fell asleep, a little sweaty, mouth open, dreaming of Rajiv’s wedding. Then Kamala got up from the floor, shook her crumpled sari, retied it tightly around her waist, smoothed her hair, and walked upstairs. The breakfast dishes were done and lunch was ready, waiting on the table, steaming hot. It was time for some TV. The grandmother, who was sitting in the puja room, explaining to a small bronze Ganapati that she was not ready to leave the world till she saw a great-grandchild, watched Kamala slither upstairs. Even as her lips mumbled prayers, the grandmother could not help but notice the curve of Kamala’s waist, bare in between her sari and blouse, and her long hair gathered into a loose braid. The grandmother, too, had once been very beautiful. And look at her now. Life moved so fast. Oh, Ganapati, remover of obstacles, you have given me a long life, a good life. You cannot give me back my youth, but give me a little one to play with and I’ll be happy.

Then the grandmother noticed something strange. Kamala was extracting a cell phone from the fold of sari at her waist. Ganapati forgotten, the grandmother leaned forward to watch. Kamala put the phone to her ear and whispered into it. Jaya was asleep and Preman outside on the verandah. Kamala laughed and covered her mouth with her hand. Then she disappeared up the stairs.

The grandmother rubbed her eyes. Kamala had a secret cell phone? Nobody in the household knew of this phone. Who was it that had called her? A few minutes later, Jaya found herself woken up rudely.

“It must be either my sister or the teacher down the road. Maybe one of them even gave her the cell phone as a gift in order to win her over. That teacher is always in and out of this house, asking to borrow this or that.”

“You don’t think it could be from Maya’s mother-in-law?” Jaya’s detective zeal was beginning to infect even Preman. He was in hushed conference on the verandah with her and the grandmother.

“No, she never got a chance to be alone with Kamala. It must be the teacher.”

“Well, the question is, since she is clearly receiving communications from them, how do we figure out if she is getting ready to leave?” asked the grandmother, who was feeling quite proud of herself for breaking the news.

The question stumped everyone. The phone had revealed that Kamala was a woman of secrets.

“Can’t you use one of your contacts in the cell phone company to find out who she is calling?” Jaya asked. Preman had a vast underground network of allies, most of them operating in legally grey areas. But this time he shook his head.

“We don’t even know which cell phone company she is using. How about we offer her a raise?”

“I suppose that is the only thing to do.” Jaya agreed gloomily.

Later that day, the retired teacher who lived down the road dropped in for a visit, as she did once every couple of days. She brought some freshly fried banana chips with her.

“Saraswati, I was wondering why we haven’t seen you lately,” Jaya welcomed her with a giant, fake smile.

“What can I say, Jaya? It is so hard to take a break from the kitchen. My old maid just sits there sunning herself in the backyard and I have to do everything.”

“These maids!” Jaya rolled her eyes. “There is one here also, but what is the use? By the time she has put on her makeup and got dressed up for work, I have finished all the chores. The younger ones are worse than the older ones.”

“Who, your Kamala? But whenever I look into your yard, she is washing clothes or watering the plants.”

I see. So that’s how you spend all your time, looking into my yard, Jaya thought. “If I stay on top of her and keep telling her do this, do that, she will get some work done. Otherwise, she is in front of the TV. These banana chips are so good. Here, let me get you coffee.”

Kamala, who had heard the visitor’s voice, had already put the milk to boil. Jaya went to the kitchen and put away the banana chips. “That senile teacher is here. She says whenever she looks into our yard, she sees you lounging around.”

“Her eyes are not so good, no, chechi?” Kamala asked, pouring two cups of steaming coffee.

“Her eyes are not good and her heart is full of evil. Better not to take anything she says seriously,” Jaya said. “One has to be neighbourly, otherwise I’d not talk to her. I say this for your own good.”

“I know, chechi. You are like a mother to me.”

“And you are like a daughter to me.” Jaya said absently. Where had she left her phone? Ah, here it was, she had almost put it away into a tin with the banana chips.

After the teacher left, Jaya called her daughter.

“Can you talk now?”

“Yes,” Maya whispered. “I am in the bathroom.”

“We think Kamala is getting ready to leave. She has a cell phone which we didn’t know anything about.”

“What?” Maya gasped. “She’s even more slippery than we think.”

“Have you noticed your mother-in-law making any suspicious calls?”

Maya thought for a minute. Her husband’s household was full of intrigues.

“She has been on the phone a lot. But I think she changes the subject if I come anywhere near her. And she has been dropping hints to me about firing our current maid.”

“What am I going to do, Maya? Who will take care of the baby?”

“What baby?”

“The one Rajiv is going to have. After he marries a nice girl.”

“Mummy, you promised me that you would pass Kamala on to me after we move out of here. Rajiv’s wife can find her own maid.”  The sternness in Maya’s voice was stern.

“You can have Kamala if you have a baby,” Jaya said in a broken voice.

“No, mummy, that is not our deal. I am not doing all this for your hypothetical daughter-in-law. Do you want my help here or not?”

“You shameless girl. Blackmailing your own mother. Okay, okay,” Jaya agreed. “You can have Kamala after you move out from your in-laws. But who will take care of me in my old age?”

“What old age, mummy? You are as young as a girl, still. Don’t worry—just keep an eye on Kamala and be very nice to her. Does she still make garlic pickles?”

“Yes, I’ll give you a couple of jars when you come to visit next. Listen, you keep an eye on your mother-in-law, okay?”

The kitchen was fragrant with roasting spices when Jaya stepped into it after the conversation. There was no doubt about it: the family had been eating much better food since she had arrived. Kamala was making tomato chutney. It would go so well with dosas and idlis. If Kamala did indeed betray Marble Mahal, it would be a good idea to stock up on her chutneys and pickles.

“Kamala, this weekend when you have some free time, make sure you make some extra pickles.”

“Okay, chechi, what should I pickle?”

“Let’s see. Lemons, mangos, carrots, beetroots, cauliflowers, green chillies. And garlic, of course. Three or four jars each.”

“So many, chechi? Are you going to start a pickle factory?” Kamala giggled.

“You can joke. Everyone expects pickles to be on the table whenever they want. And if they aren’t, it’s my fault.”

Then she remembered Maya’s injunction to be nice to Kamala, and added, “It is actually easier to make lots of pickles in one go than to make one every month. I am always thinking of ways to lighten your load.”

“As you like, chechi. Can I use your phone to make a call?” Kamala asked.

The hair on Jaya’s arms stood up.

“Yes,” she managed to gurgle. “Of course, Kamala. Where did I leave the phone now?”

As usual, the phone was nowhere to be found. But finally Rajiv called her phone from his phone and found it in the wastebasket. He handed the phone to Kamala, and Jaya made a show of wandering out of the room so Kamala would be bold enough to talk freely.

Kamala punched the numbers. The phone rang in some distant village at the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

“Hello, patti?” she yelled into the phone. Kamala’s grandmother yelled back, loud enough for all of Veeramala to hear. “Kamala? Are you well? Are you eating correctly?”

“What is this, patti, asking all the time if I am eating correctly? As if I am a child. Anyway, I am calling to ask you for your cut mango pickle recipe.”

And although Jaya stood next to the window in the dining room, ears trembling with anxiety, all she heard for the next five minutes was the importance of chopping the mango into small pieces and marinating it in fenugreek.

Over the next few days, the house began to feel like the headquarters of a secret plot to overthrow the government. Jaya and her daughter would exchange notes in deeply coded conversations everyday. The grandmother followed Kamala around like a tail, never letting her out of sight. Rajiv was instructed to do all the grocery shopping in case anyone seduced Kamala on the street. Even Preman was roused from sitting on the verandah and fantasising about adding teak trees to his garden. His job was to watch the neighbour Saraswati’s movements and report anything suspicious.

Only Kamala seemed to go through her day serenely, stirring the pickles that were constantly simmering on the stove, spreading sarees out to dry on the roof, watering the rosebushes and bougainvilleas in the garden twice a day, stooping to pluck out dead leaves as if nothing else mattered. The grandmother never saw her use her cell phone again and would occasionally wonder if she had hallucinated. Perhaps Ganapati had played a little trick on her old eyes.

In the middle of all this silent frenzy, Jaya had to prepare for the homestay guests. These were Preman’s guests from Riverside Resorts who had opted for the Kerala-in-a-Nutshell package, a brainchild of Rajiv’s. The package consisted of ‘Visits to Beautiful Local Temples’, getting a ‘Pampering All-Natural Ayurvedic Massage’, and a homestay in which the guests stayed overnight with an ‘Authentic and Hospitable Kerala Family’. The family in question was, of course, Preman’s. And so, once every month, Jaya had to wrap herself up in a Traditional Kerala Saree, cream with a gold border, and play smiling hostess and serve Nourishing Delicious Meals to wonderstruck foreigners. The Kerala-in-a-Nutshell package was a huge success, and had convinced Preman that his son and heir was worthy of him.

Jaya, on the other hand, always had a nervous breakdown after each Authentic and Hospitable Homestay. Kamala may have done all the cooking, but who was responsible for seeing that the guests were herded only to the bathrooms that had Western toilets and who had to assure the guests that all the water used for cooking was filtered and who, she wanted to know, had been forced to look up the recipe for mango lassi, a drink she had never heard of? All Preman and Rajiv had to do was wear Traditional Kerala Clothes and eat with their hands.

And this time around, as she sat there in the living room of Marble Mahal, feeling hot and sweaty in her silk saree despite the air conditioning, brooding over Kamala’s imminent departure, she could barely focus on the guests, a couple from California. Luckily, they were leafing through Maya’s wedding album, an activity that was guaranteed to produce questions about Arranged Marriage that she had fielded so many times before that she did not have to think any more. Yes, Maya’s was an Arranged Marriage. No, she was very happy with her husband. Indian daughters and sons preferred to have their parents’ Wisdom and Guidance in these matters. No, Maya was free to leave her husband’s house when she wanted to, to work, to drive her own car, to produce girl children. (If only she would produce any children!) The girl from California, a thin little thing in her giant sack of a kurta chosen carefully according to Lonely Planet’s instructions under “Warding Off Sexual Harassment on Indian Streets” box, heaved a sigh of relief.

“Mrs Preman, this food is delicious. I have never tasted anything like it. Did you make it?”

“Yes, yes, thank you. Food is delicious. I made it. I mean, I gave very good directions to my maid.”

“Oh, I wish I could steal her from you. But that would be bad karma, right? Hahaha!”

Jaya tried to laugh along, but the joke jolted her out of her moody worrying and struck a raw nerve, somewhere underneath the 21-karat temple design gold jewelry.

“Very bad karma,” she said severely. “Stealing maid is a very bad crime. Never do it.”

That night, unable to sleep, Jaya wondered about karma. Could God be punishing her for stealing Kamala in the first place? She tried to shove the thought out of her head. Her sister was younger and stronger and did not need a maid as badly as she did. Besides, she was giving Kamala a better salary and an easier life. What did Kamala lack in Jaya’s house? Did she want a TV? She had it. Nobody took care of maids any more.

But she and her sister had stopped talking to each other after Kamala came to work for Jaya. Rajiv and Maya, who still visited their aunt, had reported back that she still held Jaya’s subterfuge against her. “Why didn’t she just ask?” Jaya’s sister had told Rajiv. “Why did she have to be so underhanded about it?”

A memory she had almost forgotten swam through Jaya’s mind. Jaya and her sister were eleven and seven years old. They were sitting on the washing stone in their mother’s backyard eating neyyappams. Jaya had gulped down hers but her sister was still nibbling at the neyyappam. When she saw Jaya looking at her neyyappam wistfully, Jaya’s sister held up her share to Jaya. And what did she, Jaya, do? She ate the entire crust, the best part of the neyyappam, before her sister could object. And the worst part was, her sister did not object. She was seven years old and she did not know that the best part of the neyyappam were the crisp, thin sides, not the thick, heavy middle. So she took her neyyappam back and went on eating it, swinging her little legs that did not reach the ground.

Jaya sat up in her bed. Had she exchanged that sister for a maid?

She had to apologise. In fact, she would beg for her sister’s forgiveness. She would get her sanity back.

Jaya slipped out of the air-conditioned bedroom in which Preman was snoring gently. The house looked calm in the gentle glow of the mosquito-killing vapour machines. She found a piece of paper and a pen, sat down at the long mahogany dining table which Kamala covered with food three times a day, and started writing.

My dearest Ambili,

Hope you are well. I made a huge mistake in taking Kamala from you. I was carried away by my arrogance. But now God has shown me that what goes around comes around. Peace of mind is more important to me than anything else.

You told me how Kamala first came to you, looking for a job. She didn’t know anything then, and you had to teach her—how to cook, how to clean, how to wash clothes. You trained her very well. She is a credit to you. She makes all of us happy here.

But in your home, things must be difficult? I hear you haven’t found a good maid since Kamala left. How difficult it must be, especially if you don’t have a grinder for dosa batter. Ambili, you must get one. Makes life so much easier. Why should we women suffer all the time?

Anyway, I hope you will forgive me for taking Kamala from you. Please don’t curse me—remember that I have blood pressure, diabetes, and a heart condition. And your Kamala has a good life here. We take very good care of her. Please visit anytime.

Your extremely loving sister,

Jaya

As soon as she licked the envelope, Jaya felt a weight lifted. This was the thing to do. She knew now. Although she could not bring herself to give Kamala back, writing the letter had opened her up to emotions she had ruthlessly stamped down. A feeling of shared sisterhood welled up inside her. She stood watching the moon through the arched windows of the dining room.

When she crept into bed next to Preman, she put her arm around him. “Teak trees. That’s the thing to invest in. Appreciate in value all the time,” he murmured lovingly.

The next day, Jaya floated through the house with a halo around her. She sent Kamala to mail the letter. She looked up some neyyappam recipes—they were Authentic and Nourishing Kerala Snacks. She sat in the puja room and prayed with the grandmother for a grandchild and felt that the time would come soon.

Then the phone rang. She waited for Rajiv to bring it to her but Rajiv was at Riverside Resorts. Where had it disappeared to this time? When she finally found it, on the second shelf of the refrigerator, she wished she hadn’t picked it up. It was Maya’s mother-in-law.

“I am calling for a huge favour. But I feel comfortable asking because we are family, after all.” Maya’s mother-in-law said, her voice dripping sugar and honey and coconut milk.

Jaya took a deep breath in. “Of course. What are families for?”

“I am throwing a party in exactly a week to celebrate Vimal’s promotion at work. And I was wondering, could you send Kamala over the day before to help with the cooking?”

Jaya’s brain whirred into action. “Exactly a week, did you say? Oh, no!”

“What happened?”

“I was planning to call you today and invite you. We are having a little party here in exactly a week.”

“Oh… what is it for?”

“It is… it is… well, it’s a surprise. We are going to announce some good news when everyone is assembled… ”

“Oh, I see.”

The air grew thick with unsaid reproaches. Both women knew exactly what had happened. Then they both started talking at once.

“Well, in that case… ”

“Naturally, any other time… ”

When she got off the phone, Jaya was no longer feeling sisterly. “Cunning, scheming witch,” she said aloud. “Does she think she can fool me so easily?”

But now she had to plan a party. If there were no party, word would certainly get around to Maya’s mother-in-law. Appearances had to be held up. What reason would she give for the party? Jaya couldn’t think of any cause for celebration. Well, she could come up with that later. The most important thing now was to figure out the menu. This party was going to be the talk of the town. She would show Maya’s mother-in-law.

“Kamala…,”  she called out. “Come here, I need your help.”

But no Kamala came running eagerly. “Kamala!” Jaya called out again and again. She ran to the kitchen. It was empty and clean. Shining steel plates but no Kamala. Panic started rising inside Jaya’s chest. Preman and the grandmother joined her. Together they searched every corner of the house. “Where is that Rajiv when you want him? Otherwise he is always underfoot,” Preman muttered. It looked like Kamala had not returned from the post office. That was three hours ago.

“Perhaps she had an accident on the way back,” Jaya said hopefully.

Preman and the grandmother looked at her pityingly. Preman made her sit down. “I think she’s gone, Jaya,” he said softly.

The grandmother started sobbing. “She didn’t even finish the beetroot pickles.”

Jaya nodded. “After all we did for her. Sneaked out at the first opportunity. And how I underestimated Maya’s mother-in-law. Calling up as if she had no idea.”

The three of them sat there silently in the living room with its marble floors and the French windows, curtained with red velvet. The next homestay would have to be cancelled, Preman thought. There was no way they could pull it off without Kamala. Rajiv would be very upset. The grandmother wished she had at least asked for the beetroot pickle recipe. Oh, Ganapathi, the tricks you play on us humans. We think we have all the time in the world. Jaya wanted nothing more than to lie down with a cold compress on her head and someone tender and knowing massaging her feet. She missed Kamala with a sudden pang of something close to love. The house felt empty.

Then the iron gates of Marble Mahal clanged open and shut. Feet were heard on the pebbled path. Keys were inserted into the lock and the living room door swung open. Kamala and Rajiv walked in, hand in hand.  They were both wearing Authentic Traditional Kerala Clothes. Jaya felt her heart rate going up. Kamala looked like a film star in the cream saree with its gold border, her hair covered under jasmine flowers. A thick gold chain snaked down her chest, indicating proudly that she was now a married woman. She came forward and stooped to touch Jaya’s feet.

“Chechi, please forgive me. But true love is divine and eternal.”

Jaya’s eyes bulged. She recognised the lines from an afternoon serial that she had watched the other day on her bedroom TV, while Kamala watched it upstairs. Upstairs. All those afternoons when Preman and the grandmother and Jaya were downstairs—what exactly had been happening upstairs? With a superhuman effort of will, Jaya stamped the thought down. At least now she knew where Kamala’s cell phone had come from.

“Daddy, we went to the registrar’s office in the morning and then to the temple. Please bless us. You are going to be a grandfather.” Rajiv was saying, looking at his feet. Preman, unused to melodramatic situations, looked at Jaya for a cue.

“Don’t worry, chechi, I didn’t forget to post your letter,” Kamala murmured, standing up. “You are like a mother to me.”

Jaya replied weakly, out of habit. “And you are like a daughter to me.”

At least this way no one could steal Kamala from this house, she thought. Not even that shameless daughter of mine. That reminded her of something.

“Children,” Jaya said, “you have my blessings. I am going to throw a party next week to celebrate.”

“OH, GOD. What in the world will I cook today?” Jaya looked at the pile of vegetables on the counter. Her mother, sitting on the threshold between the kitchen and the work area, nursing her first cup of tea, knew better than to respond although many answers itched inside her. First of all, those beetroots would make a nice pachadi, with some of the sour curd from day before yesterday. And the eggplant would not last very long, so maybe an eggplant curry with coconut. If this were her kitchen, she would have already asked the maid to start grating the coconut. It always came in handy. But here, in her daughter’s house, she was a guest—a permanent guest—and she held her tongue while Jaya went through the hand wringing that was daily routine before she started cooking.

“What shall I do?” she wailed. “The man here does not like eggplant, why did Kamala buy so much eggplant? And we just had beetroots yesterday, the boy won’t eat beetroots again today.” The ‘man here’ was her husband; he sat on the verandah reading his newspaper, a cup of tea steaming next to him. The boy was Jaya’s son, visiting from Mangalore, where he was getting a degree in hotel management, gift-wrapped from a shady private college.

“Chechi, you never tell me how much to buy, and then you always find fault with what I buy,” Kamala, the maid, muttered from the kitchen as she changed into her work clothes. She was 21, and unlike the older maids that Jaya had kept in the past, insisted on combing her hair and changing into a purple sari when she went out on errands.

“No, no, it’s not your fault, Kamala.” Jaya made amends quickly. Good maids were hard to come by these days, and she knew for a fact that the retired teacher two doors down had been trying to lure Kamala for a while now. “It is my fault. I never get anything right. My destiny. What else can I say? All my children so far away, my daughter three years married and still not ready to have a child, my son still not settled in life, my husband uncaring… ” She grabbed a handful of beans and, after looking through them suspiciously, started slicing off their tail ends.

Kamala softened and asked, “Chechi, shall I grate some coconut? Maybe we can make beans thoran.”

Beans thoran, the grandmother thought longingly. Beans thoran with lots of coconut and cumin, and crunchy shallots. In her old house, string beans used to grow abundantly next to a compost heap in the backyard. Anticipating the delicious horror of listening to high prices that she did not have to pay, she asked Kamala, “How much were the beans?” “Twelve rupees for a kilo,” Kamala answered. She had recalculated the prices on the way home. Ten rupees a kilo for the beans and a two rupee tip for the maid who had to walk in the hot sun carrying vegetables. “Twelve rupees?” The grandmother savoured the moment.  “Murder. Pure murder.”

“What is pure murder, grandmother? Is there any coffee left?” Rajiv walked into the kitchen, yawning.

“Of course there is coffee. See, I saved some for you.” The grandmother’s eyes lit up. Rajiv sat next to her on the threshold with his coffee. Jaya watched them. How cozy they were, like newborns. No responsibilities. Meals were prepared, the house was cleaned, the laundry got done. It was all on her head. “At least do me a favor and stop sitting on the threshold so I don’t trip over you while breaking my back doing all the work,” she muttered. “Here, go ask your father if he wants more tea.”

It was Saturday morning in Marble Mahal.

Sitting on the verandah, Preman carefully pored over the financial page of the newspaper. His brows were knit from the extreme concentration. He had trouble reading English but English papers always had better financial news. Carefully, he traced the names of various companies that he held stocks in. One by one he marked off their share prices, noting that most of them were climbing steadily. Poise, Inc, for instance. He had invested in Poise the minute he heard about how the prime minister’s daughter was getting married to the scion of the Poise family. So what if he didn’t speak English, he knew how business worked.

“Lord of the manor, would you like more coffee or tea?” It was Rajiv. Just the person he wanted to see.

“Rajiv, what does the word ‘ascendant’ mean?”

“Oh, Dad, are you reading the financial pages again? ‘Ascendant’ means on the rise.” Rajiv plopped on the sofa.

“I knew that, of course. Just wanted to check if you knew, after all that expensive education.”

”Dad, if you wanted to save money, you should have enrolled me in the village school.” Rajiv flipped through the newspaper till he found the sports pages.

“And then you could be even more useless than you are now. Listen, I wanted you to have everything I didn’t have,” Preman announced, as if for the first time. In reality, this was a regular routine of theirs. “I went to this village school. I didn’t learn a thing there. I know the teachers. Idiots who can barely see what is in front of their eyes.”

Like Ganesh master, the science teacher who had mocked him in front of the whole class after he forgot to memorise the difference between atoms and molecules: “There isn’t an atom of intelligence in your brain, is there?” Yet here he was, sitting in his three-story house, a TV in each bedroom, his smart, educated son next to him ready to take over the world, his shares ascendant. “Idiots,” he repeated, and lifted his eyes from the newspaper to take in his empire: the paved garden with its rows of terra-cotta pots, crammed with bougainvilleas and orchids in various colours, the pebbled path that ran between the pots, the coconut palms that lined both sides of the long driveway, the massive concrete wall that surrounded the yard, and the two marble lions that sat imperiously over the iron gates. Perched over the iron gates was a metal sign, “Marble Mahal”, a name he had chosen himself. Beyond the gate was the village that had made fun of him when he had been a poor postman’s son. And down the hill was a luxury hotel, Riverside Resorts. Preman looked at his son, who was scrutinising the scores from the India vs South Africa test match. Nobody in the village would make fun of Rajiv, who would inherit Riverside Resorts in a few years.

A cell phone rang. It was Jaya’s phone, wedged in between the cushions on which Rajiv was sitting. He answered it. The call was from his sister, Maya.

“Hello?” he said. “I hope you are calling to say you are pregnant, because Mummy was complaining about her destiny just now.”

“Tell her I have even more dramatic news.”

Rajiv handed the phone to his mother in the kitchen.

“Hello, Maya? Can you call later because it is morning and I am busy, single-handedly getting breakfast ready,” Jaya said. Kamala, who was grating coconut, and the grandmother, who was slicing beans, exchanged looks.

“Mummy, it’s urgent. I have to talk right now or it might get out of hand.”

“What is it?” Jaya dropped her volume. Kamala and the grandmother and Rajiv, who was eating the coconut as Kamala grated it, turned towards her.

“Mummy, Vimal’s mother has her eye on Kamala.” Maya whispered. Vimal was her husband. Maya and Vimal lived with his parents in a town about two hours away.

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Shahnaz Habib is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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