by Rohini Manyam Seshasayee
The earth had known these women for just over seven decades. They had known each other for about two. They had met one afternoon, when one woman had moved from her village to the city. She had been introduced to the city mouse by another maid who was leaving to Dubai in search of better pastures. In parting, she had told them her stories of woe, of having to wear the hijab even while working, albeit in air-conditioned quarters. She had impressed upon them how much she would be getting paid. Lakshmi had looked at city mouse with her eyebrows raised. City mouse had ignored her outright, looking straight at the soon to be non-resident Indian. Well, we live in India, she had shrugged. Lakshmi had pursed her lips and looked away.
Today, city mouse sat at the dining table, she could no longer sit on the floor. She used a knife now to cut vegetables, a step she had hated to take. This process was tedious. Her legs itched to place themselves on the end of a long wooden board with a sharp curved knife attached to the end of it. But she could barely sit with her swollen feet together now. Her fingers wanted to hold the carrot on both ends and grate them swiftly on the stand alone knife. The Kathipeta, a relic she knew the future had lost out on. As city mouse’s arthritic chubby fingers laboured on the hard carrots, Lakshmi mopped the floor. Her knees had stood the test of time. She sat on her haunches, reaching under tables and sofas. City mouse looked at her maid wistfully. She lifted herself up from her wooden chair and walked to the old kitchen, cut vegetables in hand. She emptied them into the old deep pan her mother had given her after her wedding, where hot oil and mustard seeds spluttered rhythmically. She added dashes of this and that without a second thought. Her son would be home for lunch. Lakshmi seated herself in a corner of the room and waited for her coffee to be brought. The mosaic floor she sat on hadn’t been changed in more than half a century. She felt at home here.
They talked about their dead husbands, as boiling coffee swept across both their tongues. Lakshmi ruminated that her other patrons did not ever provide coffee as hot as this. This, this was real coffee, she said. She did not understand these changing times. City mouse agreed, coffee should be scalding or not at all. That is how even her late husband had liked it. In fact, when their daughter had once prepared lukewarm coffee for them, he had poured it down the drain. Quite a ruckus that had caused, and much tears. Their daughter was too sensitive anyway, City mouse dismissed. Lakshmi nodded, girls are becoming that way these days. Soon, they will cry for even grazes from vegetable cutting. Oh, my granddaughter did that on her last visit, City mouse shook her head.
Lakshmi sat with her knees up in the air as her hands reached forward between them to the stainless steel tumbler and saucer with the coffee in them. She raised the tumbler and poured some coffee into the saucer and slurped from the saucer. She slipped for a second as she balanced herself and moved a little too much to her left. The cloth bag tucked into her sari at her hip came loose and spilt its contents onto the perplexing floor. City mouse’s eyes ran over them from her vantage point of the dining table chair. No, it couldn’t be. Images of a day long past began to come back in flashes. Her daughter-in-law had cried at first. She had insisted that she had not hidden away the jewels her parents had lovingly sent. Why in the world would she do that? City mouse had rung them up and informed them that she was perfectly aware of the plotting afoot. She had also added some other things that made her own children cringe. City mouse had looked at her husband for affirmation and received it. Her daughter-in-law had become really quiet at that. She had walked out and never come back. Even today, her son came to visit alone. City mouse wasn’t particularly sorry. She remembered how her son had stood with his head down, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes. She had revelled in his inattention, throwing glances of power to her own daughters. She had beamed at her daughter-in-law’s tear stained face. She had told her daughters afterward that they must learn to respect their in-laws or they would bring shame like their sister-in-law had just done.
Where did you get that pendant? She asked Lakshmi, who was cautiously repacking her grease-stained little bag. Lakshmi dismissed her question, she couldn’t remember. No, City mouse repeated, bring it here, I want to see. Lakshmi grunted, no way I am letting you touch my tiny collection of jewellery, old woman. City mouse grew restless and insistent, where did you get that? She began feeling pangs of guilt in her heart and her chest tightened. Lakshmi stopped to look at her old comrade as the pitch of her voice began to rise. She got up from her beloved mosaic flooring and walked up to the dining table, careful not to get close to a chair, a subconscious old habit.
“Here. Is this what you wanted to see?”
City mouse held the pendant in her hand and stroked it. Her eyes bore into refractions as the ruby caught sunlight that came in through a window. Her fingers remembered this pendant. Yes it was the same. She had sat here, with a spread of jewels on the table in front of her, twenty years ago. Her fingers knew the necklace that had accompanied this ruby. She recalled the other stones in the collection she had so treasured in the short time she had bonded with it. Her lips grew morose as all her dashed plans reappeared as regret.
“Where is the rest of it?”
“Rest of what?”
“Lakshmi, where did you get this?”
“I told you, I do not remember. How could I? I have had it for too long. Maybe my mother gave it to me.”
“That is quite impossible. You see this engraving? This belongs to my daughter-in-law.”
“What engraving? “
Lakshmi became thoughtful. She couldn’t be sure. She had stolen so many pieces of jewellery from so many homes over her long illustrious career, but never from her dear friend. She remembered taking only silk dresses that looked like they would fit her grandchildren. City mouse’s grandchildren had been growing out of them reasonably quickly anyway. Then, she knew. She knew where she had got it from. A young woman in a green salwar had handed a small locked box to her, on her first day at work in this house. She had promised her this pendant if she kept the box out of sight for two hours. City mouse was watching Lakshmi too closely. It made her uncomfortable.
“I must have found it.”
City mouse searched Lakshmi’s shifty eyes. She had never trusted her. But how could she possibly know what had really transpired now? She had always known Lakshmi to be thief. She had fought with her husband to let the thief clean their home. Who else could she talk to the way she spoke to Lakshmi? Who else would have coffee with her and still know her place in the household?
Lakshmi snatched the pendant away from City mouse’s limp hand.
“I am already late. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Later that afternoon, City mouse’s son found his mother weeping. Inconsolably.
Rohini lives in the clouds much of the time and comes down to earth grudgingly. She takes life lessons from her pious and wise dog, who spends much of his time gazing meditatively at the sky. She reads and writes because she cannot not. She was recently published in the Bombay Literary Magazine and is slated to be published in The Affair.