Meha told her new servant, Jogi that if you had dogs in your house, then angels couldn’t enter it. Jogi squat down and asked how a little girl like her knew such a big thing –Meha touched the side of her nose with her finger and stared in his eyes. Jogi smiled, looking down at her black shoes and white socks, shaking his head. He squeezed her small, fair hands in his wrinkled, brown ones. Meha talked in sign language sometimes because of her previously mute female servant, who would touch her nose with her finger to indicate Meha’s mother. Sometimes, she curled her make-believe moustaches to talk about men but that was rare because there weren’t many to talk about. In fact, Jogi was the first one to ever live in the house, in the backyard where the Servant Quarters were. The two grey rooms with unpainted walls and thin mattresses— Meha never went there in the beginning.
“Mom says to give me milk at eight every night,” Meha told Jogi, who was now standing up. She stretched her neck to meet his hazy eyes.
Jogi listened attentively, a sympathetic smile hanging on his face. He liked the look of his new duty—Miss Meha, the ten-year old connoisseur of dogs and angels.
“Just put it on my bed-side table, ok Jogi?” When he said, yes miss, bending down in a sort of a good nod, she shook his hand with effort, moving it up and down rapidly.
“I hope you don’t run away like my last servant,” Meha said genuinely, still holding Jogi’s warm hands. Her eyes widened and she confessed in horror, “She stole my mom’s jewellery.”
She stared up at his face which looked down at her small body, dressed in a white school frock, with a red belt, her red buttons buttoned up, her straight black hair reaching her shoulders, her neck stretched high up. Jogi thought of ruffling her hair and telling her no, I won’t ever leave, never ever little miss, but instead he shook her hand again slightly and said, “Don’t you worry, Miss.”
Meha smiled, revealing the gap between her two front teeth. A little bit of color rushed to her cheeks.
“I hope it wasn’t too hot in your Servant Quarter last night,” Meha’s mother said to Jogi the next morning. She wore a long, mauve colored robe and sat with a pile of newspapers, pens. Her short and boyish haircut made her face look thin and long. The kind of face well suited for a long cigarette and dark lipsticks. But she didn’t smoke nor did she use make-up. She was attractive in a simple way: she only wore flat shoes and carried large, brown or black leather bags. Her nails were short and clean, her fingers studded with rings. Her olive skin only had color when she was angry unlike her ten-year old daughter whose cheeks pinkened in ebullience.
“No Madam…” Jogi replied, joining his hands. He fidgeted with the off-white Kitchen-Towel that hung loosely on his shoulder. He straightened his long shirt that reached his knees.
“So tell me, was it OK, too cold, too hot?” She didn’t look up at him, continuing to shuffle through the newspapers next to her.
“No, no Madam, perfect room, thank you.”
“Good to hear. The last one complained about it.”
Jogi was hired only for Meha and his duties were also only concerned with Meha. In the mornings, Jogi woke up at six o’clock to receive milk from The Milkman. The Milkman was a middle-aged man like Jogi who always wore the same-looking white loose shalwar and a long kameez that reached below his knees. He only had three of them, which he washed regularly. Jogi received him outside the gate with his large steel bowl, always examining the milk as The Milkman poured it.
“Eh, finally! It seems like you have stopped mixing our milk with water!” Jogi said, one foggy morning as he wrapped himself in a brown shawl. He patted The Milkman, smiling.
“Listen Jogi, don’t push it O.K? I have to put water! You think I will give my cow’s milk thick and fresh for such little money?”
Jogi kept quiet, taking out an old cigarette from his pocket. It was cracked in the middle. Jogi squinted his eyes, lighting the cigarette. There were days when he looked young, with his white hair strands blending in with his black ones.
“This is a rich neighborhood, Jogi. Look around. You think they can’t afford to pay me more?” The Milkman’s frowny-face made him look like an inquisitive, bitter man and it made Jogi laugh. He put his arm around his comrade’s shoulder and they crossed the street, pausing mid-way to give way to a loud Rickshaw—the only vehicle on the road. As a part of their daily routine, they went for Pakistani-style tea with milk across the street, perched on wooden benches. The two men, wrapped in shawls on early foggy mornings, prattled until it was time for Jogi’s chaotic mornings to begin, day after day.
After returning from his tea-sessions, Jogi rushed around, preparing Meha’s daily lunch, carefully wrapping it in foil, sometimes more than two times to keep it warm till the lunch break. He put it in her baby blue lunch box, which her grandmother had gotten from Abroad along with her thermos.
At nights, Jogi pressed her white school frock and polished her black school shoes. For Wednesdays and Fridays, he whitened her white gym shoes the night before, so they would be dry and white in the morning. Before sleeping, he hung her uniform on her closet door and neatly lay her shoes down with a pair of white socks. Each night, before Meha slept, Jogi religiously asked her, “Miss, what drink you like for tomorrow?” And so, he did his last chore of the night by filling her baby blue thermos with either Orange Squash, Apple Juice or Water (sometimes Meha asked for Grape Juice but that was imported and usually saved for guests) and putting it in the freezer for the night so it remained cold for her during the day. Jogi was always the last one to sleep in the house, retiring to his quarters tired, almost always skipping his night prayers.
Jogi who was usually retentive, forgot to put Meha’s baby blue thermos in the freezer once. That evening, Meha’s mother asked to see him.
“Sit here on the left,” she said making direct eye contact with him, folding a piece of newspaper in her hands. Her short nails pressed against the folds of the newspaper, moving back and forth, straightening the creases. Jogi kneeled down on the left side of the sofa, sitting on the Persian carpet with his kitchen-towel thrown over his shoulder, resting his hands in his lap. He took off his white Kufi skull cap and held it in his hands, glancing at it every few minutes.
“Jogi, do you know that Meha fainted once at the airport?” she said calmly.
“Well, she was four and it was so very hot that…” she suddenly stopped, fixing her eyes on Jogi whose head hung low but was looking at her face, his eyebrows slightly raised. “That she fainted, swirled and fell flat on her head!” Her voice was loud and she was bending forward towards Jogi, her lips tight and thin.
Jogi hardly flinched and then retrieved to looking down at his hands again, murmuring, “Sorry Madam.”
She pointed carelessly towards the wooden table to her right, a tired look taking over her face. Jogi got up quickly, grabbing his towel, and brought her a large brown, leather purse. It had a round and gold handle but Jogi held it flat in his palms.
“Here, take this,” she said taking out a fifty-Rupee note, “and please Jogi, work on your accent. It’s not sarry, we say sorry. Say it. Saw-ree.”
“Saw. Ree. Madam.”
She let her eyes rest on his saw-ree face for a moment, and fumbled a little more in her large bag. She handed him ten extra Rupees.
Jogi spent the sixty Rupees on buying tea for himself and The Milkman, for the next few weeks. It was sympathy money well spent, on teas with biscuits and small talk.
While Meha’s mother’s behavior towards Jogi oscillated between being generous and ungenerous, Meha grew fond of him quickly, immensely, genuinely. He fixed her a swing in the garden, always making sure that she held the rope where he had tied pieces of purple cloth on both sides. “Miss, please, hold here otherwise your hands will scratch, see,” he would say, sitting beside her swing on the grass, watching her fly back and forth in the foggy air. When Meha got a one-feet tall doll in mail by her grandmother, Jogi sewed a rainbow colored frock for her, with yellow ribbon going around the waist and the collar. He gave it to her on a Sunday morning, nicely pressed and hanging on a hanger. He held the hanger proudly, impatiently waiting for Meha’s reaction, who swung her chubby arms around his dark neck, wrapped her legs around his waist and sung, “I love you, Jogi, I do, I do!” Many a times, Jogi’s childhood revived in pleasing Meha and he became as old as her. That Sunday, Jogi laughed a laugh that came from deep within his stomach, he told The Milkman, even though after a few seconds, he asked Meha to step down, “Miss please, Madam will be angry, ok sit on your bed…” Meha’s face beamed while Jogi smiled largely now and then turning his head towards the open room door.
Jogi ate his dinner with the other servants who only had day duties and left for their respective homes at nights. The other servants included The Chauffer, The Gardener (for whom Meha’s mother kept two different kinds of water pipes, one regular, and one imported), The Cleaning man and The Cook. They all ate outside, on the driveway or on grass, depending on how warm the weather was, dipping their freshly made bread (or sometimes that of the previous day) into spicy gravies, holding their hands underneath their mouths in case it dripped. Meha wasn’t allowed to join them but she did once. She stood in front of the yellow light that came from the lobby, holding the heavy wooden door with both her hands. In between her legs, she balanced a jam jar that almost blended in with her strawberry-colored pajamas.
“Jogi, eh Jogi!!” She screeched mischievously. “Open the jam jar!”
“Aray! Miss, miss!” Jogi yelled frantically, his eyes widening as he glanced at his feisty master. He dropped the steel plate in his hands and pointed towards Meha in disbelief, precipitating himself into the situation. “Miss! Come, come inside, please Miss…” he pleaded, giving her his greasy hands, gesturing her to quickly move inside the yellow lobby by opening the wooden door. He grabbed the jam jar from between her legs. Meha shrieked with excitement, her uncontrollable laughter worrying Jogi. The other servants watched from the grass, chewing slowly on their food, their mouths opening and closing, their tongues occasionally licking the sides of their mouths, removing remnants of the curry. They kept their unblinking eyes fixed on Jogi and Meha. The servant and the Master.
It was a warm and dry night and the trees stood stoically, the spectators in the garden. Unlike the opinionated servants that were scattered on the grass, the tall trees dissembled their true self in dust.
“What to do? It never rains! And my water pipe can’t reach that high up now, can it?” The Gardener said, pointing towards the Banana tree. He flicked his hand and rolled his light-colored eyes. “I say, Madam at least give me one ladder on which this poor gardener can stand and wash your leaves, but does she listen?”
The Chauffer and The Cook nodded their heads, not wanting to take their eyes off Meha and Jogi. They licked their fingers after rolling the bread in curry and putting it in their mouths.
“Oho, I say you tell her straight to her face! Tell her,” The Cook said resting his hand in front of The Gardener’s face and swallowing his food, “that you’re no Giraffe’s son now! You need a ladder, so you need a ladder, bhenchod, what is the big problem?”
The Gardener shook his head in dismay, holding a steel glass in his hand, his forehead creased. His were big worries.
“And look at that Jogi now…” The Chauffer started, “tonight, I am sure, he’ll get fired, bloody, she’ll kick him out! Just watch him play with fire.” He paused and glanced at Meha, circling the driveway tirelessly. Jogi seemed to be out of breath and sweat glistened on his forehead. Meha kept switching her hands to pull her pajamas up, holding the jam jar in her other hand. The Chauffer continued, “Little Miss Meha is no angel, I tell you!”
“Don’t think she just sits in the car nicely when I take her to school! Nono, sometimes I have to sta--ap the car and take her inside that store where she buys cha-co-late. Now…” he talked, not looking up, stuffing his mouth with pieces of bread too big for him, “what am I to say when Madam asks why I’m late? Bloody, I have a wife and kids at home, I have to feed them too, no?”
He looked at others for approval and heads nodded, up and down, left and right, in agreement. They dipped their hands in and out of the gravy bowl. Their full mouths moved like train engines rolling, up and down. They all had their concerns but they were also hungry.
That evening, when the servants fed their stomachs sitting cross-legged on the grass, Meha played with Jogi full-heartedly, threatening to drop the jam jar on her feet if Jogi came nearer to catch her.
“Miss please, please…” Jogi said finally, resting his hands on his knees, bending down, and catching his breath, “if Madam sees you here…”
But Meha didn’t stop until she tripped on her long pajamas, and fell on the floor, the jam bottle rolling away. Her cheeks were red and her black eyes beamed and watered. When Jogi insisted on helping her up quickly before her mother came outside and saw Meha lying on the driveway floor, Meha kicked her legs in the air and reminded Jogi that her mother wasn’t even home.
Jogi who had been chasing Meha for over half an hour, stood still, staring down at his bare feet. He let out a relieved laugh, shaking his head slightly. He looked up at the house, the curtains not drawn, the lights not shut. Madam was away.
He let little-miss eat jam with her fingers but still grew frantic sporadically and wiped her jammy fingers, one by one, with his infamous shoulder towel. They missed Meha’s bedtime and Jogi stayed up late, washing dirty dishes. He hummed as he returned to his unpainted Servant’s Quarters.
Soon, it became a routine: Meha skipped her dinning-table dinners and joined her servants for theirs, learning how to sit like them on short wooden stools, with her knees apart and her feet bare.
“Miss please, we will come inside in two minutes, please go inside…” Jogi often pleaded but to no avail.
The other servants dismissed Jogi’s worries with a wave of their hands and invited Meha to their grassy dinners. In return, Jogi would often gesture the chauffer to run to the car and take out a thin pillow for Meha to sit on, pleading, “Miss please, put this on the stool…”
Meha learned how to eat with her hands, dipping her bread carelessly in the gravy-bowl and chewing with her mouth open. She developed a habit of spitting spontaneously like her cook: she would lift her arm up and spit from under her armpits, throwing her head down and then wiping her chin and mouth with both her thumb and middle finger. The Little Master’s fascination with the lower class and their vulgarity.
“This is so spicy! Jogi, get me water, cold water!”
She enjoyed hearing them exclaim, “Miss!” in horror and disbelief at her every new action, clasping their heads with their hands and then pointing them towards her, laughing, their mouths agape. While she sat with her dirty hands in the air, holding them up as if waiting for someone to give her five, they offered the bottom of their long shirts as napkins to her.
“Nono, please do it again, I want to learn!” she would exclaim amidst the hilarity of the situation. And Jogi would stick his finger in his mouth and flick it at his gums, making a pop sound. Meha made futile attempts, spitting each time.
“Abbay bhenchod, this is so entertaining! I don’t want to take my Sunday nights off anymore!” The Gardener declared on one such night. The others nodded, half and modest smiles taking over their faces.
“What’s bhenchod, Jogi?” Meha asked nonchalantly, not looking up from her hands between which she rolled grass. Her question silenced one servant after the other. Chit-chat, chewing, munching all came to a screeching halt. Jogi lifted his steel glass full of cold water. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. He then looked at The Gardener whose hand rested in mid-air, a little as if a fairy had frozen the moment. Red light.
“Miss, please finish your bread, it will get cold, see,” Jogi said, his voice suddenly loud. He touched Meha’s warm bread and replaced it with an equally warm one. His eyes and hands moved rapidly over the steel pots on the grass, hurriedly stirring a yellow gravy, and then covering cold pieces of bread with napkins.
Meha insisted: “Tell me, Jogi. What is bhenchod?” She now stared at Jogi, agog. The Gardener who was in the middle of putting a crushed grass-bite in his mouth suddenly moved back, knocking over the steel bowl with yellow curry. It dyed the grass a sick shade. Meha’s gaze moved from Jogi to the grass and she stood up quickly, stepping back. She looked at the tilted bowl and the yellowness that poured out of it, expecting and hoping the servants would undo the mess.
The Gardener stared below and finally bent down and picked up the remaining steel bowls. His arm knocked into Jogi’s busy hands that were already cleaning the yellowness off of the grass and it irritated him. He finally walked away, holding three small steel bowls, shaking his head. The other servants sat impassively, quietly.
Jogi, at land, managed to smile at Meha, holding a napkin too small for the pieces of bread that piled on it. He stood up straight and faced Meha’s face of inquisitions. He blurted,“Miss, it mean jolly well in English, you see.”
Meha smiled, satisfied. She showed her deep dimples and pushed her straight black hair off of her face. Jogi looked around. They both walked back into the house and the air around them was thickly chill and cheat-like.
Meha’s mother, when home, was vigilant concerning Meha and the things that concerned her. But her eyes only noticed what they wanted to notice. Like the School-Day Mornings, when she watched Jogi frantically fumbling with toasted bread and foil paper in the kitchen, running in and out of the house tending the gate for the Newspaper Man and the Chauffer. She saw him chase Meha, holding her red schoolbag in one hand and her lunchbox in the other, saying, “Miss, your bag,” “Miss, lunch for you is chicken sandwich today,” “Miss, you allow me to tie your left foot laces?” She liked the servants knowing their duties—and place.
But she saw only this and not her daughter’s playful winks at Jogi from the car; the way she put her hands around her lips and mouthed, “ten o’clock” to him, smiling as the car drove out of the long driveway, lined with plants in red pots on both sides.
Meha was usually detached from her mother but when those unusual moments of pining for her mother did bust in, her mother was busy with files, pens and sometimes men. Men that entered the house discreetly, dressed in dark suits, preened with bold ties and branded cufflinks. They were the ones who never accosted Meha, never lifted her up to their laps or gifted her chocolates. They came for other reasons. While Jogi received The Milkman during early mornings, the corner of his eyes still crusty from sleep, Meha’s mother’s mornings passed in receiving and returning favors. Meha almost never asked to sleep with her mother. Jogi thought she was independent before her time.
One night, Jogi was bringing Miss Meha her bedtime milk when he walked past the open glass doors of the dimly lit drawing room. He was counting his chores for the night when he saw Meha’s mother get up and draw the curtains over the glass doors.
“Oh Saw-ree Madam,” Jogi said, abruptly watching her male friend approach her from behind her, holding a glass in his hands. She glanced at Jogi with little care and gestured him to shut the door, which he did. He saw the lights disappear from under the door and went up the stairs, holding the milk glass in one hand and resting the other one under the glass.
“When I was small, my mother used to sing to me and my shishter every night.” Jogi recalled in Meha’s room, as she drank her milk. Meha sat in her bed, listening to Jogi hum the lullaby:
Let’s go to a place where
I can make my bed and lay my head
In your lap, day and night,
Day and night,
as the clocks tock
tick tock, tick tock
Meha stared at him when he finished singing and it made him feel important. She looked at him enviously and he smiled largely, his eyes proud. He had a fleeting moment looking back at his childhood but Meha’s childhood, the present one and without songs, was more important.
“My mom is too busy, you know?” Meha defended her ten-year old self. She dwelled in her small, childish grudges that were heavy with melancholy and Jogi listened, his mind racing back to the drawing room, Madam, the man.
“It doesn’t count if she couldn’t sing well,” Meha concluded, folding her arms after unfolding her childhood to Jogi.
“She sang badly, Miss.” Jogi’s contrite heart spoke, offering forgiveness to his Master of her unmusical childhood and his own sing-song one. Meha groaned and Jogi shut his eyes, resisting his urge to take his Master in his lap for just one song.
After he left her room to return to his Servant Quarters, Meha flopped herself on her bed, pining for nothing more and nothing less than a song from her mother. With sudden promptness, she left her room and skipped to the drawing room, Jogi’s sing-song past in her mind. The room with an unlocked door and things unseen-before inside it. She went in without knocking and came out feeling more possessive of her mother than ever before. She threw furtive glances towards her mother’s male friend who no longer wore his tie.
“But I want a song!”
“Meha, not right now! Please,” her mother touched Meha’s cheek and the affectionate instant spoiled her further.
“Why not? Do you know that Jo--…”
“Meha, enough!” Meha’s mother’s cheeks were pink. She grabbed Meha’s arm with all her strength, dragging her away from the drawing room and it’s Big Male presence, the one that mattered.
“What has gotten into you tonight!”
“You never sing to me, Jogi’s mom always sang to him. And you never…” Meha had so many points to make but none that her mother had ears for.
Meha. Jogi’s ten-year old Master was creating trouble-bubbles for him while he sat in his Servant’s Quarters, ready for a rest. She meant no harm and yet none of her remarks turned out to be innocuous.
Meha’s mother’s male friend left, holding his jacket elegantly over his arm. He managed to smile at Meha with tight lips, waving his hand inertly. Meha’s mother’s goodbye tone was apologetic and apprehensive: were there going to be no more visits?
“Now, Meha. What is this singing business?” Her voice was calmer than before.
“I just want you to sing to me one night!” Meha stamped her feet a little bit and it worried her mother who rolled her eyes, resting her hands on her hips. She turned around, looking into the dimly-lit drawing room. A man’s satin blue handkerchief lay on the white sofa. She walked towards it, for a moment forgetting her strangely recalcitrant daughter.
She sat down on the sofa elegantly, holding the handkerchief to her nose. It had his initials sewn on it, M. R. “Very attractive”, Meha’s mother thought plopping down the handkerchief in her lap and looking at her crying ten-year old, the one that was so used to being the Master.
They both stared. Meha’s mother, a little sluggishly, her hands resting in her lap. And Meha, a few feet away, leaning against the drawing room door, stamping her feet, crying. After a few moments of silence, Meha rushed outside. Meha’s mother watched her run across the garden and to the back of the house, to the Servant Quarters. She waited five long minutes for her daughter to return, smelling the handkerchief and then throwing it on the floor. She stared at it and then raced outside to the porch. Meha! Meha! Come inside, now! Right this instant! Meha!
A long minute afterwards, Meha walked out from the Servant Quarters and skid past her mother who stood bare-feet on the cold marble porch. Meha entered the drawing room, stepping over the satin handkerchief, feeling her foot slip a little. She threw herself on the sofa, hiding her face in her hands. When she felt her mother’s tall figure standing in the doorway, she yelled. And yelled till her mother’s cheeks went as red as Meha’s did in her moments of glory. “Bhenchod!”
All puppies made mistakes—some learnt only this way. A few moments later, Meha absconded to her room upstairs.
Meha said it and what followed was nothing, no slap, no whatdidyousay, no hitting on the bum. She stayed in her room, not wanting to leave her den. Downstairs, the altercation between her daughter and herself left Meha’s mother stunned. She stood still in the doorway, her eyes fixed in mid-air. Her hands shook when she turned her head to look at the stairs and then back at the sofa where it had all happened. The beautiful, lustful beginning of her evening and the horrifying ending of it all. The man and the daughter, making and spoiling her moments.
Meha’s mother who was hesitant to go to the Servant’s Quarters saw The Gardener enter through the gate. It was late and he was entering to return the imported water pipe he had used to water the mini-garden just outside their gate. Meha’s mother saw his skinny body struggle with it.
“Ask Jogi to come see me right now,” she said, only realizing it then that she had been clenching her teeth.
While Meha rested upstairs, having fallen asleep within a few moments of plopping down on her bed and weeping, Jogi stood silently frozen in front of Madam. He held his hands together behind his back, not prepared for what came next. He expected the worst but not this, not the way his Madam slapped his face. Back and forth with force. Three times. Left. Right. Left. Like a soldier. The rings on her fingers feeling like knives, cutting him. Cut, slash, cut. He fell to his knees, abasing himself, unable to look into his Madam’s eyes. The Gardener watched it all happen, in slow motion. He saw Madam, the Aggressor, snatch away Jogi’s left-over pride. He saw her beat him.
When Jogi returned to his haunches, he sat on his thin mattress for hours, rocking himself. He touched his face, side to side, his eyes fixed on the sandals he wore, his eyes watering now and then, his chest moving up and down, heavier and heavier. The middle-aged man whose stumbles left him crumbling started to pack his belongings. He folded his wrinkled clothes, on and off rubbing his hands over them in an abortive effort to make them wrinkle-free. He put away his skull cap. He moved slowly, pacing his small Servant Quarters, his misty eyes examining every corner desperately. He picked up his sandals in his hands and walked out, his heart feeling like a big, tight ball of sorryness. He shut the gate behind him and saw The Milkman making his way to the house. Jogi put his sandals on and wandered off into the early morning fog.
Next Story: ........................................................................................................................................... ......... Top
Web Graphics and design by Smita Maitra * Background graphic by Kabir Kashyap* concept by Amrita Ghosh * Please read the disclaimer
This web journal is sponsored by The Caspersen School of graduate studies, Drew University