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Then after a sip, she said, “Do you really think that Basanti works so silently because she loves to? Could you really believe that her cheek was swollen due to slipping?“ She was looking straight into my eyes, piercingly.
With a bruised cheek and a swollen face today, she was swiping away the dirt of our home out with a broom. She is Basanti, her name translated as spring, with her phooljhadu. That spring, making every corner shine, smiling at you like a flower. She justified the meaning of her name, completely. Bringing the spring of our home, back. A spick and span home does give a feel of spring especially to a woman. Deft at her job of dusting each item, she was in her zone. In parallel, I was busy tapping on my keyboard to finish a deadline of a coding project, working from home.
Basanti chatted with me occasionally, only when she was happy. She would go on and on narrating the little anecdotes about what she ate, her selfish neighbours living around her jhuggi stealing rice, chappals or vegetables basket.
One day, I noticed a spark in her eyes while she was briefing about her day.
“OO didi, we relished the Machli last night that Paritosh brought. He only cooked the fish, I just steamed rice. It was very spicy.” She uttered in one go, nodding her head up and down stressing on Machli’s tanginess.
Other days, she would just work in absolute silence, meditatively as today.
Noticing her bruises, I inquired, “What happened Basanti, are you not well?”
She paused and said in her unique dialect, ”Oh didi, I slipped from the stairs. This wound is bad“.
I gave her a tablet for soothing the pain, insisting her to go home. She didn’t and continued working slowly.
I was busy in my own newly married tipsy turvy world, stumbling upon many issues on the home front. I didn’t bother to ask more. Newly married life was exhaustive, toiling on all fronts, so much to prove.
After few days, I went to meet Bharti Didi, a neighbour of mine, to initiate socializing in the neighbourhood. Bharti didi seemed wise and intelligent to me, not those interfering types like my immediate neighbour.
That neighbour always stood in her balcony, scanned me from top to toe and made a satirical remark coated with sugar whenever I would step out. I could gauge her judgemental scanner over my pencil skirts. Basanti worked there in Bharti didi’s house too. Being a commonality, I brought up the topic as she put tea leaves and grated ginger in the kettle.
“Basanti looked so weak and grim that day, yet she came. She had fallen somewhere, and her cheek was fully swollen. Moreover, she works very meticulously.” I shared my admiration.
She paused and smirked. The tea was boiling. She poured the piping hot tea and placed the cups in a tray already organized. How perfectly she was serving it!
She kept the tray on the wooden table and gestured to me to pick up a cup.
I swallowed, a little startled at Bharti didi’s sarcasm. Before I could gather myself and respond, she continued.
“Her husband beats her like a beast, and those bruises, the deafening silence, is due to grief, accumulated from years of violence.”
I was aghast, remembering how Basanti covered up that monster with layers of pretence.
“Why doesn’t she complain to us or the police? Maybe we could help her out of this abuse.” My young feminist blood boiled up.
“I have tried, but she has accepted it as her fate. Basanti has been working here since long. Once I probed, but her reluctance held me. If we did it forcibly, she might stop working at our houses. She is adamant too.”
“But why would she choose the abuse?” I couldn’t digest her behaviour.
“Marriages aren’t that easy. She is into an inter-caste marriage, yet not accepted. She gets cursed for not knowing their rituals, background and language. Her husband beats her only when he is super drunk, and she has taken that abuse as a usual habit of husbands.” She sighed.
Time passed, and Basanti kept working with the same consistency and Buddha nature. She stuck to Paritosh without any complaints whatsoever despite insulting beatings, starving, and him cheating on her.
Basanti was fond of having tea. Even if she starved or lived in pathetic condition she maintained her hygiene and dignity. I would make tea for her and myself, and almost around 12:00 pm, when she was done, we used to have tea and snacks. Usually she would sit on the stairs at the entrance to get a whiff of fresh air and I would sit on a chair with my laptop.
Occasionally, we spoke over tea. It often would be a period of silence, camaraderie and reclamation of two women having their tea at leisure. That tea time formed an orchestra of silent kinship bridging the voids. I wonder how we form this music of silence very uniquely. The silence between lovers, the pauses of conversation between two friends, or mother and daughter, are so momentous and defining. Making us understand what is important and not spoken. These pauses bring the truth of any relationship in fore. And that what can’t be spoken, that what is difficult to speak is real. So, on the surface, Basanti was just a part time help, but we understood each other on so many levels.
“I need to take one month’s leave didi.” She muttered in a slow voice.
“Why?” I wasn’t happy at this sudden request.
“I am going to my Sasuraal in Bengal with Paritosh. I would be going there for the first time,“ she chuckled. She was scared and yet excited childlike.
“Sasuraal, okay…” I couldn’t deny her.
“After 12 years of our marriage, I will be seeing them for first time. Need to go to market also.”
“Okay Basanti but make sure to bring a substitute and train her.”
After 20 days, she returned to work wearing gold ear rings and a nice saree. I saw a new sense of belonging adorning her. I was surprised and happy for her. Despite having slogged there like a servant. Physical pain didn’t tire her, instead that belonging uplifted her spirit.
Paritosh later developed jaundice due to his excessive drinking habits. Basanti started taking frequent leaves, financial help, etc. The veil was unbreakable. It used to pinch me that how she has become a warrior of pain, undefeated. Continuing her work, dressing up in the evening, in a starched saree and respecting her dignity at work.
One day she said hastily, “Oh Didi, Paritosh is going to his parents’ place for his medical treatment. I would need money to send him there to get treated.”
We helped, all of us in best way possible.
Next day she came, “He has gone there didi.”
“He didn’t give me a call that he has reached there. Our daughter, Geeta didn’t eat anything last night. She waited for his call.” She said warily.
Her tension was palpable. She was lost. Dropping utensils, which never happened earlier.
“You call him from my phone then, don’t worry. When would he be back?” I tried to solace.
“He has gone for almost 20 days for treatment.”
He never called, nor anybody picked the phone there. The depression was so obvious in her daily mannerisms, worried about his wellbeing. Basanti looked pale and old suddenly.
She was very sad about Geeta, who sometimes went to sleep without food in bed crying for Papa. We all called frequently to find out, but no signs at all.
Another help told her that he might have remarried there. It must be a plotted conspiracy of her in-laws to call him there. When there was complete silence from Paritosh’s side, somebody told her that he would never come back as he has married a same caste woman.
She was forlorn and never spoke to me in this period around tea time. I wanted to lift her spirit and asked her to send some family member of hers there. But nothing happened.
Her silence got deafening.
“Don’t worry, you and Geeta could shift to our house as we have a spare room upstairs. He was so cruel to you. Try to forget him.” I said.
“Oh didi, I am not worried whether he remarried or anything. His health should be okay. And…it’s just that Geeta gets very sad and quiet in his absence.”
Her “Oh didi” was so heart piercing. I wanted to hug her but sometimes the labels of society hold us back.
After 3 months, while she was working, undeterred to move on, somebody called her. She went out for an hour.
“Geeta’s papa has returned.” There was a twinkle and new lease of life in her voice.
“Good, very nice.” I was relieved. At least Basanti will be her spring.
“But he looks unrecognizable, dark and frail.” She added.
Despite his ill health, they were having meat, and him drinking as she told us, being back to her normal self.
One morning, she didn’t come for work. I had to go somewhere in the afternoon. The house and utensils were ogling. I called up my friend cribbing that Basanti should have informed at least.
In the late noon she came.
“What happened today Basanti?” I said the first thing.
“He is dead, Geeta’s Papa is dead”, she said.
I was shaken and hugged her, caressing her head. She was stiff with no hugging back but the connect in our eyes shook us badly. That hug was awkward, or she just turned into a stone. Despair can do that. Hitting the heart so hard that you become cold.
“Didi, I need money to burn his body and do the rituals properly.” Her words were crude.
I called up my husband in shock. She waited. I didn’t know what to say or do. Thankfully my husband came rushing in just 15 minutes.
He took her back home in the car with all the consolation and support we could do, which could never suffice. I couldn’t go there.
“They had put Paritosh’s body on a wooden ladder and were waiting for us. The moment Basanti handed over some money which I gave, they took him with zero emotions. It was all very mechanical and stinking.” My husband uttered and rushed inside to vomit. I couldn’t imagine the sight and plight.
After two days, early morning she came with Geeta, “we need to go to his native village to get some rituals performed. “
“When would you be back?” I wanted to tell her so much about not slogging, be back and being there.
“In two months’, Didi.” She forced a smile with tears in her eyes.
It has been 3 years. She never came back. No calls yet. I don’t know whether she will come back. On one hand I feel that she shouldn’t come back since no family or reason of belongingness is here, but still I want her to come back to give a life to herself and her daughter, with her earnings and our support.
Would her in-laws have accepted her? “Are they treating her badly?” Would Geeta study? I wish Basanti had a home which she could call her own.
And after all these years, I have understood as a woman that why she chose that silence.
Not knowing what would have been right for Basanti, I miss the silent music of our tea together. That bridge I can’t cross. Though I feel like it, I do not make tea at 12 pm anymore. The absence of that friendly silence, that “Oh didi” haunts me. My friends find it weird that I miss my domestic help, but that bond, the threads of memory are woven of enduring atoms and I still wait to hear from Basanti that “I will meet you yet again”.
Editor’s note: This story was shortlisted for the April 2019 Muse of the Month contest, even though it wasn’t one of the top 5 winners.
Image source: a still from Lust Stories
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Meenakshi M. Singh is an author of three books “SOULFUL SYMPHONY”, “AAWAZ” and “I AM
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