Continued from here:
Bewilderment and surprise washed over me again. Faintly in the background, I could hear the clatter of dishes as my parents and the maid cleaned up the mess from the party. I knew I should have offered to help, but I wanted to be alone and did not bother. Instead here I was, feeling choked and claustrophobic with the stench of urine and my grandmother’s stale breath enveloping me. I took a gulp of air through my mouth.
“Many years ago,” began my grandmother, “there was a house,
where there lived a husband, along with his wife and mother.”
I glanced sharply at her, but her expression was bland and impassive, betraying nothing. “Were these people known to you?” I asked.
“Don’t interrupt, and listen quietly,” she replied
brusquely. She continued her story.
The husband and wife were very happily married, very much in
love with one another. The house was a fairly large one, a company bungalow
provided by the British company the husband worked for, and there was an army
of servants to help with the cooking, cleaning, gardening and chauffeuring. The
husband’s mother, who had been recently widowed, had her own room in this big
house, a room with many windows and a view of the garden outside. Many parties
were thrown in this house, with several British sahibs and memsahibs among the
regular attendees. Oh, it was such a diverse crowd, Punjabis, Bengalis,
Gujaratis, even some fair-skinned, blue-eyed Kashmiris, and the mother used to
sometimes mingle with the guests as well, where her tales of the good old days
were listened to with respect and attention.
My own attention began to wander at this point. Throughout
this rambling narrative, I took short, sharp gulps of air, breathing in as little
of the odoriferous atmosphere as possible, and I felt light-headed and
nauseous. My grandmother sensed this.
She gave me a sharp jab in my side and chided me, “Don’t day dream. Pay attention to what I am saying”.
She went on for a few more minutes about the jolly parties
in that house, and then switched to talking about the servants. There was one
servant, Lalitha, who was a particular favorite of the lady of the house. She
was plump and jolly, around twenty years old, just a few years younger than the
wife. The two of them got along
swimmingly; it was almost as if they were sisters, not mistress and maid. The grandmother’s mouth puckered
disapprovingly for a moment at this point, but she quickly carried on. She was a live-in maid, and was available to
help the old mother at night, if needed. Life continued in this happy manner
for over a year.
Then one day, the calm was shattered. Lalitha, who had been
looking pale, and who had been unusually quiet for a couple of weeks, burst
into uncontrollable sobbing one morning while clearing the breakfast dishes
from the dining table where the husband, wife and mother were sitting. She
dropped the dishes to the floor with a loud clatter, and sank to the floor, her
sobs growing louder and more delirious, while around her the plates and tumblers
shattered into dozens of little pieces. The wife rushed to Lalitha and put her
arms around her, comforting her, and questioning her about what prompted this
outburst. The mother came around as well, but the husband calmly continued to
read his newspaper, after casting a quick glimpse at the scene before him.
After much cajoling, this fact was revealed: Lalitha, who
was unmarried, was pregnant. But that was as much as she would say. No amount
of coaxing on the wife’s part would make Lalitha disclose who was responsible
for the pregnancy. There was much speculation on the part of the wife and
mother as to who might have done this to Lalitha, and they came to the
conclusion that it must have been the driver, who had been observed making eyes
at her and flirting with her several times. The mother chided the wife for not dealing with this situation firmly
enough and nipping it in the bud.
The wife took matters into her hands. For all her soft talk and seeming gentleness, there was a clever and conniving side to her, the grandmother said. She called the driver, gave him a generous sum of money, and ordered him to marry Lalitha. Nothing was mentioned to him about Lalitha’s pregnancy, since it was assumed that he was the father anyway. The driver, delighted, agreed. He and Lalitha were given a small room in one corner of the large house, where they lived happily. The crisis was handled, Lalitha’s honor was restored, and things settled back into their routine. A short while later, the wife found out that she, as well, was pregnant.
By now, in spite of myself, in spite of the malodorous air,
in spite of my aversion to my grandmother with whom I had never before spent
this length of time, I was strangely riveted. No longer did my attention wander. I was unable to tear my eyes away
from my grandmother's. I don’t know why,
but this tale about nameless strangers gripped me. As if from afar, although
the kitchen was just further down the passageway, the noise from the dishes
provided a staccato, but soothing, background. My breathing was steady now,
although I could feel my heart, thumping hard.
My grandmother allowed herself a small, tight smile. She had me in her clutches, and she knew it. Taking a deep breath, she proceeded.