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My Problems Don’t Always Go Away But Seem Less Important, Less Hopeless When I Smile

‘As your employer, I expect respect and obedience from you, not that cheeky, impudent smile every time I ask you something.’

Gayatri crossed her arms and looked disdainfully at the 19-year-old girl across the kitchen. Hadn’t she told her just yesterday that she had visitors coming this evening? Important visitors. And yet there she was, her hair unwashed and grimy, her face smudged with dirt, humming away as though she had not a care in the world. The impudence!

Pursing her lips, Gayatri strode across the steel and granite kitchen. It looked beautiful with its gleaming countertops and modern gadgets. ‘The only eye sore is the girl herself,’ muttered Gayatri to herself then. She drew a deep breath and decided to confront her.

‘Maya! Have you come to work without a bath again? I know it’s cold but still! Ambika’s in-laws are coming today for tea. What will they think?’

Maya smiled. She didn’t respond to Gayatri’s lament but her hands stayed busy, scrubbing at the dirty utensils in the sink. As for Gayatri, she was livid at the girl’s insolence. Always she was smiling, that idiotic, mocking smile as though she couldn’t care less about what her employer was saying. The other day too when she’d scolded her about putting too much salt in the food, all she had done was smile stupidly.

‘Stop that cleaning. Answer me!’ Gayatri’s voice had risen considerably by then. Maya turned off the tap. Gayatri couldn’t help noticing the nasty new blister on her left wrist which hadn’t been there before. The red and green bangles that she always wore made a tinkling sound as she wiped her hands with a kitchen towel. Her grimy hair was matted to her head and beads of perspiration dotted her smooth, brown forehead.

‘I’m sorry Didi.’ Maya raised her head a little but did not lift her eyes to meet Gayatri’s. ‘It was so cold today and we don’t get hot water in our area,’ she explained then but Gayatri looked unconvinced.

‘What about that immersion rod I gave you last Diwali? Don’t tell me you gave it away to one of your relatives?’

This time her smile had a hint of sheepishness. ‘My sister had come to visit last month. She had a baby recently. A little girl. They’ve named her Maya too!’ There was palpable pride in her voice but it was the last thing Gayatri was interested in.

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‘Well, this won’t do from tomorrow, understand? I don’t care what you do but I want to see you looking clean and tidy when you come to my house. Now you’d better shower and change before our guests arrive. I’ll ask Indu to let you use the quarter for once.’

Indu was the family cook. A stern looking, 55-year-old woman, she’d worked with the family for a long time. She wasn’t fond of Maya and didn’t like her using the quarter, a small but comfortable room just off the kitchen that had been her private space ever since she’d come to work here.

‘Indu Aunty doesn’t like anyone using her room. I’m only allowed to use the toilet. She’d never allow me to use the shower.’ That ingratiating smile again!

‘Is that supposed to be funny?’ Gayatri decided to take the bull by the horns. She’d had enough of her cheek.

‘Um…no Didi.’

‘Why do you smile like that then?’

Maya looked surprised as though she hadn’t expected this. Her hands clutched the end of her dupatta and she twisted it around as Gayatri watched. Nervous was she? Well, at least she wasn’t smiling anymore.

‘I asked you a question.’ Gayatri adjusted the drape of her expensive crepe sari and looked at Maya expectantly.

‘I’m sorry Didi.’ Now she had the grace to look contrite and Gayatri felt a sliver of satisfaction but she still wasn’t finished.

‘As your employer, I expect respect and obedience from you, not that cheeky, impudent smile every time I ask you something.’

‘I’m sorry Didi,’ repeated Maya but this time she raised her eyes to meet Gayatri’s. ‘It was never my intention to be rude.’ Hesitating just for an instant, she decided to continue. ‘When I was young, my mum used to work in an old lady’s house. She was nice, that lady, not like some of the others. Sometimes she’d give me biscuits and allow me to watch cartoons on her television. Charlie Chaplin was my favourite character back then and I used to love his program.’ She paused and Gayatri couldn’t help but wonder why she was telling her all this. How was it relevant? She glanced pointedly at her watch but Maya seemed oblivious to her employer’s obvious disinterest in her childhood story.

‘One day,’ she continued then. ‘I was watching his program. I remember it was a bitterly cold day.’ She glanced out the kitchen window. ‘Just like today. Anyway, at the end, after the credits, they displayed a list of famous quotes by him. One stuck with me. I may have many problems in my life. But my lips don’t know that. My lips always smile.’ Maya smiled again. ‘And I started smiling. And once I did, I realized that life seemed better. Easier. Happier. The problems didn’t always go away but they seemed less important, less insurmountable when I smiled. So I smile. I always smile. Even when my father lost his job and we didn’t have enough to eat. Even when I had to give up school and work in houses instead. Even when it’s bitterly cold and there’s no hot water to bathe. I’m sorry Didi, I really didn’t mean to be rude to you. I didn’t know my smile bothered you so much. I’ll try not to smile here but it may take some time. It’s an old habit you see.’

It was the longest she’d ever spoken to Gayatri. There was a silence after she’d finished, punctuated only by the staccato whirring of the washing machine outside. A few moments later, Indu shuffled into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes which were still heavy with sleep. She always retired to her quarter for an afternoon nap after lunch. Then she usually had a cup of tea before she started preparing for the family’s evening meal. Today of course she knew there would be no time for tea. The Madam’s daughter’s in-laws were coming.

‘Maya, get the gram flour out.’ Indu gestured to Maya to get moving. ‘I’ll fry up some pakodas for tea.’

‘Wait Indu.’ Gayatri shook her head. ‘Can’t you see how grimy this little scamp is today? Do you know she hasn’t had a bath? She has to shower and clean up before the guests arrive.’

‘Well, she’s not entering my quarter,’ objected Indu at once, wrinkling up her nose.

‘It’s ok Didi.’ Maya hurried to the door. ‘My house is just a short walk away. I’ll clean up and be back in time for the visitors.’ She turned to go but Gayatri lifted a hand to stop her.

‘There’s no need to go anywhere. You can shower and change in the guest bathroom.’

For a moment, Gayatri couldn’t decide who looked more surprised, Indu or Maya.

‘And…um….Maya?’ she continued then.

‘Yes Didi?’

‘Don’t stand there gaping. That look doesn’t suit you. The smile suits you more.’

Maya looked more bemused than ever but then suddenly, almost like the sun breaking through a cluster of rain clouds in a grey sky, her face broke into the familiar smile. Gayatri couldn’t help noticing how it lit up her entire face. It really was a beautiful smile. And for the first time since the girl had come to work for her, Gayatri smiled back at her.

Image source: a still from the film Nil Battey Sannata

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About the Author

Rrashima Swaarup Verma

Rrashima is a senior corporate analyst with over 20 years of experience in the corporate sector. She is also a prolific writer and poet and her articles, stories and poems are regularly published in leading read more...

9 Posts | 15,607 Views

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