The bell rang at six am, and there was Devi, reporting for duty to put my world back in order. Even at this hour, she wore kajal, a matching bindi and her usual string of fresh jasmine in her hair. It was more than what I did when I dressed for work. She wore her dupatta diagonally, tied across her tiny waist, which she pulled tighter as she headed towards the kitchen to get the broom.
She did not smile or entertain small talk, but her work was flawless. The floor shone when she was done, the kitchen was dry and my clothes were ironed crisp. In the two years she had worked for me, she had never once been late and only been sick two times. She went about her work with such ferocity that I avoided going into the kitchen until she was done there. I even had my breakfast in my room. She never said, but I felt she silently disapproved at how much mess I created between the time I came back from work in the evenings and her arrival in the morning.
I was having breakfast when I saw an e-mail from Poonam di. She was visiting Delhi for a publishers’ guild conference and wanted to drop in on Sunday if I was home. I read and reread three times. It was there, from her to me.
To say it was a strange mail would be an understatement. Poonam di was the star of the family, one you looked at and admired from a distance without expecting to be looked at in return. Yet here she was, wanting to see me. I of course said it would a pleasure, even as my mind went into a frenzy, making a list of things to do to make the flat ready for her, while also wondering why she had remembered me out of the blue. It must’ve shown on my face, for Devi spoke.
“Someone is coming over.”
So this, that Poonam di was my masi’s daughter, three years older to me. They lived in the hills of Nainital, a four hours’ drive from us, but she was a constant presence during my childhood. I grew up on a healthy diet of Poonamisms from Mother. ‘She walks with her back straight’, ‘just look at those shiny hair’, ‘she came first again’. They visited us during winter holidays, but she had her own group of friends here, and I didn’t see much of her. I only got to really see her when she came to live with us in ninety-three. I was thirteen then. They didn’t have great high schools in Nainital and masi wanted her to do well in boards and get into Delhi university, so they enrolled her in our school and she moved into my room, while I squeezed in with grandmother.
She took the school by storm. Not only did she already know the class tenth syllabus, she was good at basketball and bagged the gold medal in track and field. When she descended into the community swimming pool to represent the school in girls’ freestyle, she completed two laps before the rest of us could stop gaping at all that clear skin glowing in the not so clear water.
When she told people that she was living with her relatives, away from home, she rose even higher in their estimation, like a shooting star fleetingly illuminating their world, whose brilliance had to be committed to memory before it vanished. She never once said who these relatives were or that the person whose room she was inhabiting was in the same school, in fact sitting on a bench behind her right now, listening. And when I took it upon myself to redress this act of omission and tell people that it was us she was living with, they looked at me not like a generous host, but like an undeserving sky trying to lay claim on some of her luminescence.
She was no saint. One Saturday night, I was up late and I saw her walk to the bathroom in a strange, unsteady way. While she was in there, I snuck into my room and discovered a bottle of Old Monk hidden behind her clothes. The next morning though, she was up early, bathed and ready for the Sunday morning havan. It was grandmother’s ritual, to have everyone sit around a pit of fire and pray for purification of the air and our minds and souls, and she insisted full attendance. Poonam di sat erect, her face aglow with the orange light, her head bowed in pious concentration, while I got a look for being late and had my back prodded every few minutes for slouching.
I couldn’t imagine why she wanted to see me now. Our childhoods had been similar, but our lives couldn’t be more different. She rose through Stephen’s, went to JNU and joined the Times, where she was now a Senior Editor. I too topped my school in tenth and the state in twelfth, but everyone was still reeling from Poonam di’s absence to take any notice. I now worked as an Assistant Manager HR in a multi-national consulting firm. Our office was in the middle of nowhere in Gurgaon, but it was a swanky, blue-glass building in the shape of a triangle that stood out defiantly amongst other swanky new builds racing each other to touch the sky. The drive was long, but the company provided air-conditioned SUVs for pick-up and drop-off. Our café served gourmet food, I was given a laptop upon joining and they paid well enough for me to live on my own.
I called up mother. She said to make sure the house was presentable.
I arranged with Devi to stay an hour longer every day that week for a deep clean. It was only a one bedroom flat, but I had filled it with more stuff than it could keep in. We tackled my bookshelf first. I feared Devi’s disdain at the clutter, but she went about it doggedly, dusting after me. I emptied it and arranged all the books, indexed by genre and author. The MBA text books that I would never need again but could not bring myself to throw went to the cupboard above the wardrobe. After the bookshelf, I went through my desk while Devi put a fresh bedsheet on my single bed. When we were done, the room looked fresh and new.
“Khali-khali lag rahahai,” is what Devi said.
I hadn’t expected praise from her, but I envied her nerve. She was right, the house did look bare, but I could never say something like this to my boss. It probably came with being beyond reproach at your work. I knew some people like this at work, especially in the new batch. They did their work, spoke their minds in meetings, did not stay a minute beyond six and got away with it too. I minded my own business. I was the liaison between HR and IT, responsible for implementing an automated system for logging and retrieving billable hours, a first-of-its-kind project which promised to unlock four hundred man hours per annum of non-value-added work across Payroll, Accounts, Pricing and Marketing, not to mention increase transparency and accuracy. Every time IT released a version, I tested it and threw it back at them with pages of change-requests. It was in very good shape for the national roll-out actually, and one of the newer joinees in my place might even have declared it launch-ready, but my manager was a stickler for following proper process and documentation, and I saw no harm in that.
The next day we tackled my clothes. Not that Poonam di was going to open cupboards and see how well I folded them, but I was energized by what we had accomplished in my room, Devi’s observation notwithstanding. In fact, I planned to buy a painting and hang it before Sunday.
A warm, sweaty musk rose from the wardrobe, drifting off a pile of clothes I’d worn once and put back. Devi picked one of them with her finger tips and asked if she could wash them, to which I gave a sheepish ‘yes’. As we worked our way through the clothes, we found a skirt that I thought I had lost and a top I had long forgotten about. I still had some salwar-kameezes that Poonam di had left in my room when she vacated it.
Like everything else, her taste in clothes had been sensational. She came up with the design, bought the fabric and got it stitched. Once I asked if I could go with her and order some clothes for myself. She promised she’d take me one day.
At the end of three years, when Poonam di got into English Honours at St. Stephen’s, no one was surprised. One afternoon, I returned from school and she was gone. I had my room back. Nothing had changed from before, yet everything was different. The air had been sucked out. She had left a stack of school books, for me to use. There was also a pile of clothes. I couldn’t decide why she had left them, was that her way of making up for not taking me to the tailor, had she wanted me to use them, or were they not worthy of taking to college? Whatever her reasons may have been, I kept them and used them sparingly, on special occasions. Some of them had lasted these ten years and I still wore them at home. But there was no need for her to know that, so I slid them at the back of the bottom-most shelf.
We were going through the kitchen when Devi asked, “What will we do for food on Sunday?”
Poonam di’s love for samosas was legendary. When they visited in winters, the one thing we did do together was go samosa-sampling at all the halwais we could find, till as far as our cycles would take us, and wait for her to announce the winner. When she came to live with us, she declared that the best samosas were the ones grandma made at home. Normally grandma let me potter around the kitchen and give her a hand with the cooking, but when it came to making samosas for Poonam di, I was only allowed to knead the dough and no further.
Devi didn’t know how to make them, so we watched a few You Tube videos together and decided to follow a recipe by a chef who seemed to know what he was talking about. He explained why it was important to make a slit in the semi-circular pastry and make a stable seat for your samosa to sit on, patting his backside to illustrate, if you didn’t want it toppling this way and that like a drunk. She made a small portion of masala as a trial. I was no connoisseur of samosas, but it was delicious. We then watched his video on sweet chutney. “Eating a samosa without chutney,” he said, “is like drinking soda without whiskey!” It wasn’t a complicated recipe, just needed a lot of ingredients. We decided she would make it if there was time, otherwise we’d make do with ketchup.
Without me saying, she dove into the pantry and threw out jars of insect-infested dals, mouldy masalas and blackening achars and wrote a list of replenishments.
“How much have you studied?” I asked her.
“High school. Then I started working, then married, then kids.”
This took me by surprise. She was so petite and agile that I had mistaken her to be a young girl, not yet married. Her husband dropped the kids to school in his rickshaw before starting his day, while she came to my place and then went to three other houses before getting back home in time for the children’s arrival. She asked why I lived alone and when I planned on getting married.
“What work do you do?” she asked.
I bumbled an explanation of the e-initiative.
“You like it?” she asked.
“It’s alright,” I said.
She started saying ‘bye’ when she left.
I booked a parlour appointment for Sunday morning, for a full dehairing, eyebrows, upper lip, waxing. I was overdue, as always. I tended to get cleaned up for special events, like a presentation or an office party. Like every other time, the receptionist asked if I’d like a facial as well, and I declined.
Sunday morning, Devi arrived at her usual time. I let her in and slipped back into bed. In my half-sleep, I could hear as she put the potatoes to boil and started cleaning. After a lie-in, I pulled myself out of bed, got ready and went to the kitchen to make tea.
She was filling the pastry with potato and folding it into wide-bottomed pyramids, just like the chef had instructed. Three were already done, hunched in a row.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Parlour,” I said, circling the air around my face. “The house is done, I need to sort myself too.”
As the tea boiled, I opened my laptop, and there was a mail from Poonam di saying she would have to cancel today. The MD of some big publishing house wanted to meet her after the conference. She could have called, she had my number. She could have let me know earlier or arranged another day with the publisher. But she hadn’t, and truth be told, I wasn’t entirely surprised. Part of me was relieved even, to not have to meet her, host her, make conversation with her. Perhaps it was better this way. But another, bigger, part of me was knotting itself sick wondering what to say to Devi. The wok was on the gas and the kitchen filled with the smell of hot oil. She slid the first samosa into it. I could tell her, she could stop right now and put everything in the freezer for another time. Or I could just keep quiet and let her make them.
I placed her cup of tea next to her and said, “She says she’s not coming.”
She looked at me from the corner of her eye, not wanting to let her first samosa out of sight.
“No, something important has come up for her.”
She drizzled hot oil on top of the samosa with the skimmer.
“What’s the point of telling now, ab to ban gaye,” she said, ‘these are done already’, and gently dropped two more in the wok. “You can have them after you come back from the parlour.”
Only, I didn’t go. I changed back into my home clothes and sat in bed with my tea and laptop. Devi went about her work, cleaning, drying clothes, tidying the kitchen. After a while I heard the door click shut. I went out to check. She had left, without a bye. Ten perfectly golden samosas sat in a circle, sober sanyasis sitting reverentially around a bowl of orange chutney.
Issue 95 (Jan-Feb 2021)