The sick and the healthy have nothing in common, thinks Jaan. She’s been dreaming of a solitary man testing nails against wood, but on waking knows there are dozens of men hammering the new world into shape outside, the air dense with the dust they have raised. There is nothing tentative about their rhythm – it is the most confident sound in the world, and it will not allow her to go back to sleep. This is the healthy: they are huge, they dominate the skyline, they eat up the bandwidth. The sick, huddled in bed, are small and particular; they are the punctuation marks in the prose of life. And life rushes forward, tripping over them in its impatience.
I must be sick, thinks Jaan. She glances at the clock. Only four. At least three hours to go before the husband returns from work and she can present herself to him, the whole frozen mass of her in socks and woollen jacket, her teeth clattering under the quilt while outside the sun burns the small brave leaves off the potted chrysanthemums and softens the tar in the cracked roads. She closes her eyes in order to find a point beyond pain, searches in the debris of her fever-wracked mind for an easeful spot in which to rest her sore bones. But every corner has been ambushed by the same word. Sick.
She checks the time again, imagining half an hour has gone by, but it is only seven minutes past four, so she takes up a glass of water and swallows a pill from one of the aluminium strips by her bedside. On the nightstand is a sedimented history of her sickness: pills for her present condition, for the earlier one, and more underneath those for the one before that; medical reports and doctors’ prescriptions; the cloudy white streaks of chest X-rays and the jagged freehand of electrocardiograms; dark bottles with bright labels and even brighter capsules enclosing bitter promises. Right at the bottom of all this paraphernalia is a notebook in which she has recorded the following observation: she does not know what is wrong with her.
There have been times over the past months when she has woken with her blood singing in her veins and her body no longer talking in that language which only medicines are known to silence. She has leapt out of bed, washed her hair, reasserted authority over her maid, cooked breakfast, and then brought out the notebook and celebrated the vanquishing of suffering. But inevitably it has returned, this nameless condition, in a matter of hours or days, always before the body can properly fill up with hope again, pain returns and renders hope a silly myth.
This afternoon, trapped in the burning highs and arctic lows of her fever, she has drawn the curtains, but the sun filters through the thin cotton, softening the gloom. The furniture is veneered chipboard. The floor tiles are a smooth egg white; they are easy to clean and easy to dirty. Paperbacks cram the bookshelves and the suitcases under the bed have airline luggage tags.
Her flat is on the fourth floor of Peaceville, a giant apartment complex of twenty featureless green and cream towers arrayed like silos in groups of five around small patches of lawn. Peaceville has the lustre of the new; the candy colours look good enough to eat, but residents are all too familiar with the chipped mouldings, the cracks in the walls, the paint-spattered banisters. The apartment looms over the surrounding buildings; it is painful to imagine the extent of time and work, cement and sand and water, metal lines and plastic loops that went into its construction. Jaan often looks at it staggered and thinks: it must have appeared overnight.
Across the road from Peaceville, Jamini comes out of her two-room hut, tying up her hair and stomping the dust off her feet before stepping into a pair of sequined sandals.
She has worked barefoot on the earth all her life, helping her husband push reluctant bullocks onto the soil, laying out rice saplings, walking through the slush of rain-irrigated fields and wielding the sickle during harvest time with those feet squarely planted on the ground.
When she left her village in Andhra Pradesh – and came to Bangalore on the promise of making more money than the pittance she earned wearing her back out on the fields every day – it was with a group of women who’d been contracted to work on construction sites, breaking into the ground with iron rods after the bulldozers had levelled it, digging up and carting away the soil so that the foundations could be laid. After they finish, the men take over, and later more women come to pass bricks to the bricklayers and carry panniers of wet cement up the ramps that lead to the scaffoldings. But these are small-built local women, fragile girl-women who leave their babies sleeping in the shade of their makeshift tents and work so slowly it makes Jamini curse and spit. She and her sisters from the village are big, dark and powerful, have huge arms and cropped hair, and are not bothered by the sun. They are used to its harshness on their skins and to the feel of the hot earth beneath their feet.
In the early days they were alright. She and her husband, who fed the concrete blenders and helped to lay out the latticework of the foundations, could afford the rent on their two rooms. They had electricity for television and water gushing out once a day from the communal tap. The children did not go to school but were safe playing all day in the slums lanes, a self-enclosed world that grew alongside the larger one outside. And then, inevitably, more and more women like Jamini turned up, pushing the daily wages down and making work scarce.
As Jamini laboured on the tall apartment being built along the stretch of road near the slum, as the wastelands filled up with more apartments, office blocks and shopping malls, as the rich came to live and work in spaces where there had, until recently, been nothing, that sense of nothing persisted. There were no trees lining this road, no faces on the pavements that had aged here, and no old houses to contrast with the new ones – nothing to mark the passage of time.
When her heavily pregnant neighbour asked Jamini if she would like to fill in for her as a domestic help for a few months, she affected indifference. She was not about to let the neighbour feel she was doing her a favour. But neither did Jamini take too long to agree; she’d be a fool to pass up a chance to make some decent money. She knows nothing about working as a maid but is convinced that there is nothing to know except that this new job would allow her, for the first time in her life, to wear shoes. So she’d gone out and bought the snazziest pair of heels available for under a hundred rupees. Jamini, tottering a little, is glad she is finally going into one of these buildings. She would like to see how the people she has glimpsed behind car windows live, what they do with the distinction of living on these pristine heights. She crosses the road daintily, learning to balance her bulk on these small squares of sophistication, and enters the tall gates of Peaceville.
‘Let’s go see the doctor,’ says Javed, his eyes on the screen of the laptop balanced on his knees. He is sitting in the easy chair by the bed and scrolling through his emails. Jaan thinks of the vast hospital a kilometre up Sarjapur Road through whose drab corridors she and Javed have wandered so many times, from cashier to lab to waiting room to doctor’s chamber, from one specialist to another and then back to the same crowded pharmacy for a new stack of medicines.
‘No,’ she says, closing her eyes. ‘No.’
‘What then, you can’t lie here and suffer,’ says Javed in an even voice, the same voice in which he speaks to his colleagues on conference call from Europe about incentives and quarterly targets, and the very one he uses with the joint on the corner when he orders takeaway. He pauses in his scrolling and starts to type.
‘Do they still like you in the office?’ she asks her husband. He’s been taking frequent leave on her account and missing deadlines. He chuckles briefly, his fingers flying. He does this every evening, hanging on to his laptop and rooting endlessly in his messages for God knows what, checking every few seconds for new mails and occasionally answering older ones.
Eventually he glances at her and says in that calm, punctuationless way of his, ‘I’m off to Hyderabad for three days tomorrow so let’s go to the doc so you don’t get worse when I’m away, alright?’
Jaan is about to suggest that perhaps what she needs is a holiday in the hills or by the sea, remonstrate with him about his blind faith in doctors, when the doorbell rings. Javed, laptop clutched in one arm, goes to get it. He is gone for what seems like a long time and Jaan drifts off, sleep settling heavier on her weak limbs than the thick covers she is swaddled in.
‘Why are you asleep so early in the evening?’ asks a woman’s voice. ‘Are you sick?’
The lights haven’t been switched on and she cannot clearly discern the woman’s face, but her rough voice, the hand on the hip and her sun-baked smell strike Jaan as imperious. For the first time that day, she makes an effort to swing her feet off the bed, fight the fuzz in her head.
‘Who are you?’ she asks.
‘I just explained it to your husband. I’ve come to work here.’
And so Jamini takes over as their help, turning up at eight-thirty every morning, leaving her new sandals by the door and starting the day by inquiring into the details of Jaan’s health. Shakti, their previous maid, zipped through her tasks with an air of deadly efficiency but inevitably left grease on the dinner plates and curls of hair in the corners. Jamini never seems to be in any hurry. She has a lot to say – about the poor quality of the restaurant food that the couple often order in, the ineffectiveness of their washing machine and the sad state of their potted plants.
She starts cooking for them. She decides that the ironing man who comes for their clothes overcharges, so she takes on the ironing. Then she starts to find fault with the vegetables and fruit that Javed picks up on his way back from work and is soon bringing in the groceries as well.
Jaan’s fever abates but is replaced by a long spell of vertigo. She watches from her bed, the room tilting and spinning around her, as Jamini takes over her life. Jaan used to, even if sporadically and half-heartedly, boss over Shakti – point out her shortcomings and threaten to slash her pay if she didn’t shape up. Shakti would just mumble her assent and carry on as before. With Jamini there is nothing to find fault with.
‘What day is it, ma?’ she asks Jaan one morning.
Jaan is not sure, a sign of grave degeneration she thinks, not being able to tell the days apart. She is getting worse.
‘Whatever day it is, you’ve been in bed for too long. Get up,’ says Jamini.
Jaan pretends to be asleep but the maid bullies her till she drags herself out of the room and her bed clothes can be soaked in a tub of foamy warm water. Jamini lugs the mattress and blankets to the balcony to sun them. She gives Jaan some peas to shell and goes off into the kitchen saying something about onions and masalas; the grinder howls and then a faint aroma, familiar yet elusive, starts to fill the house.
Jaan sits at the dining table with the peas, trying to ignore her dizziness and focus on the question of what distinguishes people from one another. All the flats in Peaceville are of exactly the same size and design. The people living in them work similar jobs, their kids go to the same schools, they shop in the same supermarkets and their TVs spew the same stuff night after night. Could their headaches be identical too? And the smells of their kitchens, and the contents of their dreams?
She’d always assumed this was so. But since Jamini’s arrival something has shifted in the atmosphere of her own house and she knows now that people, no matter how alike, are always different, and that each family has its own secret recipe for existence.
Jamini comes to get the peas and asks if Jaan plans to leave the house. She wants to dust the furniture and needs her out of the way.
‘There’s nowhere I want to go,’ says Jaan. ‘I’m dizzy.’
‘You don’t have work?’ asks Jamini sternly.
Jaan thinks of her job – as a statistical analyst for a marketing research firm – from which she is on indefinite leave. It worsens her dizziness.
‘I could take a walk around the building,’ suggests Jaan, although that is the last thing she wants to do. Looking at Jamini’s beefy frame and her hard black eyes, she realises she is a little afraid of this woman. But it’s just a game – the bossy servant and the timid boss. If she wanted to, she could fire Jamini without notice.
Jaan goes down in the lift aghast at the callousness of her idea. Jamini is not a gift she can throw away. She is obliged to her. What could I offer her, she wonders, making her way gingerly around the walkway by the lawn, calibrating her vertigo with every step. Everyone is away this early in the afternoon except the toddlers just back from preschool, expending the energy they still have left by running around in circles, out of the clutches of their nannies. Jaan looks at the kids and their chaperones and wonders if she knows them. They look half-familiar like everyone else here, the people she and Javed sometimes nod to in the elevators. She smiles tentatively at the children, then moves away from them.
When Jaan returns, the house is agleam and lunch ready. After they have eaten, Jamini begins to talk.
‘You know about Shakti, don’t you?’ she asks.
‘Has she had her baby yet?’
‘Where is your memory, sister? The baby is already a month old. She’s started to talk of taking her job back.’
‘Well, it is her job.’
‘I want to stay,’ says Jamini, the words spoken with her usual forthrightness but in a tone that is also subdued, pleading. This show of dependence makes Jaan nervous. She goes back to bed and shuts her eyes. Jamini follows her to the bedroom.
‘There’s a new family in 409. I saw them move in day before yesterday. They’ll need help, they have two boys. I can send Shakti to them instead.’
Jaan is impressed at her resourcefulness. Where did she develop it, in what kind of life lived in what kind of desolation? With Jaan’s assent, Jamini rushes off to talk to the lady of the house and convince her to hire the maid she’s recommending.
She returns, beaming and successful, and settles on the floor near Jaan’s bed. Jaan can feel the heat of her happiness; she opens her eyes sleepily and closes them again. The horns on the busy road outside make an incessant symphony about the pleasures of speed. The world does not need her, she thinks. She is spun around slowly and then faster and faster on the pivot of her vertigo. She tries to yell but the car horns feel louder.
Jaan is brought awake by the sound of Jamini’s voice. She sits up in terror and looks at her.
‘You have to get better,’ Jamini says. ‘Maybe a massage will help.’ She goes to heat up some oil in the kitchen and starts with Jaan’s feet. A shock goes through her body. Jamini’s grip is so powerful, Jaan is certain that the little life she has left is going to be knocked out of her by this woman’s inhuman strength. She has big, calloused hands and seems to know nothing about massage.
‘Tell me if it’s too hard, I’ll do it gentler,’ she instructs, but it seems that she can massage only one way – brutally. She starts to sing as she rubs oil into Jaan’s back, her voice rough and off-key, but the song’s rhythm works its way into her hands and they relax without losing their grip. Jaan starts to breathe more evenly; her distress over the nightmare slowly fades. Jamini tells Jaan the meaning of the words – a folk song about two birds who build a swing on a well with a piece of thread. Then the swing breaks but the birds don’t fall into the well, they fly away. The song seems no less absurd to Jaan than Jamini’s friendliness or the odour of sesame oil and chewed betel leaf suffusing her room.
The massages and the songs – prayers for a good harvest or paeans to ancestors – become a daily affair, as do Jaan’s walks in the grounds. Jaan half-listens to the singing, dozing or, as her dizziness slowly recedes, trying to make sense of the newspapers. At other times she chats with Jamini about her life back in the village, a life that revolved around growing, nurturing, storing and cooking food, pouring work into the land, worshipping it, singing to it, loving it through the turning of the seasons. And all this despite the fact that the land always belonged to someone else, and that in their upland village where no river reached and rains could be erratic, the land was as much a curse as a boon.
Unlike the other maids Jaan has known, who write themselves off but are desperate for their children to get somewhere, Jamini seems to have no ambitions for hers. Send them to school, urges Jaan, and Jamini says, we’ll see. She feeds her children ragi and the cheapest greens in the market and they seem, from her description, to be growing strong and capable. The boy works as an assistant at a scrap dealer’s, sorting through the piles of broken electronic goods that come through these new apartments, learning to assess the value of seemingly valueless things. Her eight-year-old daughter dreams of being a salesgirl: tapping her painted nails on the glass counter of a cosmetics shop and speaking rapid-fire English. For the time being she helps a neighbour package fried snacks to sell in the small shops lining the slum.
Jaan and Jamini go shopping together. When they walk out on the roads around Peaceville, Jaan sees the great and constant agitation of the city while Jamini sees a lone woman selling guavas that are ripening fast in the sun, and therefore liable to be bargained for. She notices the glint of a goddess’s nose ring in a small wayside shrine to which she must close her eyes and fold her hands; or points out the man standing by a cigarette and tea kiosk with sawdust on his pants, looking new to the city – a carpenter from Bihar? – who for a reasonable price could perhaps make the shelves Jaan wants. She sees the policeman extorting the chaat stand owners so that they can ply their open-air trade in over-spiced snacks every evening, and she whispers to Jaan about the driver who is cheating on his Peaceville employers by taking their car out in the afternoons to pursue a sideline as a real estate broker.
Gradually, Jaan becomes well enough to consider going back to work. She lies awake at night, feeling like she has exhausted a lifetime’s quota of sleep, and thinks of Jamini. She asks Javed one morning if they should give her more money. In between his perpetual email scrolling, his absent-minded eating of his breakfast, his fleeting goodbye kiss, Javed says that a pay hike is a good idea. So Jaan tells Jamini. Jamini smiles and says, ‘I will stay with you people. I’m not going anywhere,’ and Jaan feels foolish, as if she were trying to bribe her.
Later that week, Jaan returns to work and the days slowly start to acquire the shape they once had. She submits to the compressed rush of the morning, feeling the press of deadlines in the small of the back when switching on her computer, the jokes and small talk, the gossip and innuendo over lunch, the slowness of the afternoons when troubling questions about the meaning of it all make their daily appearance. A reviving cup of coffee at five o’clock, some scrambling around to complete the work one had hoped to finish much earlier in the day, and an hour or two later, the release. When Jaan returns Jamini is there, waiting for her. She does not know a thing about statistics. This alone makes Jaan love her.
One ordinary, midweek morning, after Javed has left, Jaan becomes preoccupied with a conundrum as she puts on her shoes. She noticed the previous day an error in one of the excel sheets with the data samples that she and her team have been basing their mathematical model on. Bringing up the error now is undoing two weeks of work. Ignoring it means giving a misleading report to the client. What is the right thing to do? She sits staring at the clock and then realises that this worry has been replaced by another. She’s running late for work and Jamini hasn’t turned up yet. Jaan gives it another five minutes, then rushes through the door. There’s no sign of her maid in the evening and when she doesn’t turn up the following morning either, Jaan realises that Jamini does not have a phone. So she calls Shakti.
‘She died,’ Shakti says.
‘She died,’ repeats Shakti, in an altered tone, as if imparting fresh information.
Jaan disconnects the call in shock and waits for something to happen – for the maid to turn her key in the door or Shakti to call back and explain. How can Jamini die? Who or what can kill her? She’s never taken sick leave or discussed mortality.
Jaan has to call again.
‘Shakti, I don’t want to know what happened,’ she blurts before the girl can speak. ‘Please just tell me where she lives.’
Shakti doesn’t say anything, then says, ‘What’s the use of your going there? I’m finishing at 605 now, do you want me to come over and do the dishes?’ Jaan says no, gets directions and puts away the phone. She searches deep in her lungs for the next breath. It’s okay, she was only your maid. She isn’t dead, it’s a misunderstanding. She was killed by overwork, you’re responsible. She can’t be dead, I need her. Let the whole world die but her. Please, please, please, not her.
She is chewing hard on her lip as she stands by the four-lane road near Peaceville, waiting for motorists to notice her panic and allow her to cut through. When she finally enters the thoroughfare of the slum, the traffic is different in kind but equally ferocious; she takes a few timid steps in and then retreats in the face of the crazy tempos loaded with bundles of mattresses or crates of soft drinks, cows and motorbikes and honking cars.
She makes it into the bylanes and then there are no further obstacles; here life proceeds without shoving itself in her face. People live half indoors and half out; everywhere are pushcarts of wilting vegetables, water pitchers and bicycles, women in nightgowns and children with screechy, commanding voices. Jaan finds Jamini’s house; she sees through its open door a teenage boy sitting on the floor, playing with a toddler. A TV stands muted on a shelf. A shaky-looking bed takes up most of the space and has a big mess of clothes piled on it. There is nothing funereal about the scene but as soon as Jaan asks, ‘Jamini?’ the boy, in a man’s voice, says, ‘She’s dead.’
‘How?’ Jaan says, softly so that her voice doesn’t break. She is still standing at the threshold; he hasn’t asked her to come in. A couple of women gather around Jaan and peer into the room as she is doing, apparently in search of an answer to the same question. When the boy doesn’t say anything, they heckle him.
‘How did she die?’ he finally says. ‘How do people die? She fell ill, she died.’
‘She used to come to me. She was never sick,’ counters Jaan.
‘She had a headache. Then she died.’
Jaan can now see exhaustion in his face, and the grief he has already exhausted. He puts the baby aside and goes into the inner room. Jaan waits for him to come back, then realises he’s started cooking. The reek of the kerosene stove he has just lit fills the windowless two-room house. Around the stove, on the floor, are a small collection of battered pots and plastic spice jars. The baby bangs a toy down and speaks out in a private language.
Jaan steps inside and calls out, ‘What happened to her? She’s always had good health.’
Again, the boy takes his time answering her, and when he does it’s with his back still turned.
‘Every second woman in this colony is looking for work. Go talk to them if you want a new maid.’
Jaan finds herself speechless with anger. For so long, she could see nothing beyond sickness; then Jamini came and taught her a certain selfless grace by example. But she’s gone now and it’s absurd for Jaan to be in this smelly room – a room almost cinematic to her in its poverty and crumminess – and be insulted by a stranger. She thinks of the hour that has gone by and the office work that the tragedy of the day has rendered impossible. Rage flares in her again.
‘Come back here. I need to know what happened,’ Jaan shouts at the boy.
She frightens the baby but not him. He leaves off his vegetable frying and comes close to her. ‘Madam, I don’t have time to answer your questions. I have to feed this child.’
‘Who killed her?’ says Jaan, trembling.
They stare at each other and the curious female onlookers still standing by the door murmur something. Unexpectedly, the boy laughs. He takes up the squalling baby and shakes his head.
‘You heard?’ he asks his neighbours. ‘My mother died and before we can find a picture of her to hang on the wall some fancy lady comes to our house and says we killed her.’
‘You got the wrong house,’ says one woman.
‘She didn’t wake up yesterday morning, no matter what we did. You should have come then if you cared,’ says the other.
Jaan looks at the hostile faces. How could her wise, loving sister belong to this mean place? She is turning to leave when she notices the glitzy sandals peeking out from under the bed. They look cheap and ridiculous. Jaan stares at them in horror. She saw them every day. Yet she’d never noticed them before.
She finds herself sinking to the bed, felled by sudden tears. The neighbours come into the room now to study Jaan at closer quarters; someone gives her a glass of water. They confer over her head in a language she doesn’t understand and in a tone that seems to suggest she’s largely irrelevant to them.
‘She was my maid,’ says Jaan, blowing her nose. ‘She took care of me . . . I liked her.’
The women nod, but look disbelieving. What does liking amount to anyway?
The boy completes his cooking and relents, talking to Jaan as he forces fistfuls of rice into the goggle-eyed baby’s mouth. His name is Shankar. Two evenings ago, says Shankar, as his mother was returning from work, she was knocked down by a speeding car jumping the lights just as they turned red. The man had stopped and helped her up. Before a crowd could gather or the police get wind, he had urged her into his car and they were off. She was dizzy but otherwise fine, and there was only a small gash on her forehead. She told him she didn’t need to see a doctor. He left her outside St John’s with a five hundred rupee note in her hand. She walked back, bought two portions of chicken biryani from Royal Biryani Corner, got home, told the family what had happened. They were happy about the biryani. But Jamini couldn’t eat it. She started vomiting, then had a headache. Soon after, she went to sleep and never woke up. They cremated her the following afternoon.
Shankar’s father is back at work and Shankar does not know where his sister is. She’s been acting strange since their mother died. The baby is his cousin. Jamini’s younger brother and his wife, daily wage labourers like her, turned up from the other end of town when they got news of her death. Early this morning, they heard about a call going around for a spot of digging required in the neighbourhood so left their baby with him.
Jaan’s face is wet again. She wants to be there, ensuring Jamini goes to hospital, cursing the bastard who ploughed into her.
‘What can we say when Devi wanted it,’ says Shankar, raising his tired, old man eyes to a small garlanded picture of the goddess in an alcove in the wall.
So then there is nothing left to say.
‘Your mother was . . . a good person. Did she ever talk about me? I live in Peaceville, those big apartments nearby . . .’
‘I don’t know,’ says Shankar. ‘I’m at work most of the day. We need money.’
Jaan remembers and digs into her purse.
‘I owed her this,’ she says, handing the notes to him. He smiles at her for the first time and his teeth resemble his mother’s, teeth so remarkably white and solid they seem like a form of wealth he carries around in his mouth. But he has no money. She gives him more, emptying out her purse blindly and feeling the weightlessness of the notes between her fingers. He thanks her and shakes her hand and asks her to stay for tea.
Later, back home, Jaan sits down with her notebook and looks over the half-finished entries about her broken health and her fear of extinction. She starts writing about Jamini’s sandals. Maybe her daughter will return and at the sight of those sandals cry like she cried.
Then she goes to bed and waits for it to come, the tremor or flush or twinge. The string has broken and she waits to see if she will drown or fly away.
Photograph courtesy of Vincent Huang