As a girl of nine, the last thing on my mind was the waif who suddenly appeared in our house and in the periphery of my consciousness. ‘Appeared’, for she was more an apparition, a shadow crouching among shadows. Light made her uncomfortable; cringe even, as did attention. And it suited me fine, for there were a zillion things to do, rather than notice the wiry, skeletal figure, almost half my size.
A new maid had joined, brought in by the cook- the latest in the throng of helping hands in our colossal house of four floors- and this was her daughter. She was in charge of sweeping, replacing the old lady who had just left.
The girl was hardly visible and never heard; she seemed to have found her favorite nook at a corner of the family room, where she settled as soon as her mother came in to work, and stayed till they left. My mother would try to coax her out with food but they would wrap up their lunch rotis and carry it back, for she also had a brother with whom they would share the food. They would come again in the evening and after her work mother and daughter would take away their dinner. We never heard the child say a word, even to her mother.
In late winter, the sun starts to get some of its power back, but not quite; it is a time when the still short afternoons can be spent lolling on the terrace, amongst drying boris¹ on pristine white sheets, orange peels for home made ubtaans, maturing lemon achaar in humungous glass boyem²-s, and the drying hair of mother and aunt. Their backs turned to the suns feeble rays they would be peeling fresh oranges, and talking nineteen to the dozen with each other.
This afternoon though, as I tried to sneak out some of the achaar from one of the cloth covered jars, no one seemed to notice. Surprised, I paid a little more attention to the group and their conversation. Kanan, our cook was the one speaking as she combed my mother’s hair, in almost hushed tones, an impossibility for her. This made me curious enough to sidle up to my mother and sit with obvious disinterest to my environment, stuffing my mouth with the sweet-tangy orange slices my mother cleaned of their white threads and handed me.
Kanan was talking about the new maid, ‘Baani-r Ma’, they called her, in the fashion of lower class villagers, Baani’s Mother, for that was the waifs name. She was eight, her brother, who I had not yet seen, Goutam, was seven, and the family of three lived with their aunt, temporarily, for it seemed they had just reached this place, having run away from Bangladesh.
“Udbastu” my aunt’s conspiratorial whisper was quite loud, “refugee”, “they infiltrate the border, bribing the men there and will come in whenever they want; criminals”.
“Hush”, said my mother, “she could be right here”.
“We should not keep her in the house. We will start losing stuff soon; you mark my words, chhoto³”.
“Kanan, why did they flee? And why come here when they could easily have gone to Calcutta. There would be more work there. And what about her husband, she wears sindoor.”
“Ive heard the husband is still in Bangladesh. They have land there and a house”
“They all have lands and houses there”
“So, whatever it is, he is still there, and they ran off, or I hear, they had to escape. They have come here to Chandannagar because her sister lives here. You would know her. She works as a cook in the Doctor Babu house. Her name is Purnima. That is how I came to know of her and brought her here to work for you, boudi⁴”
“Bamun?” my mother quipped. “Brahmin” For the Doctors family was Banerjee, and a Brahmin house, would only employ Brahmin cooks.
“Of a sort” Sniffed our cook, “Haldar; not a bona fide Brahmin like me”
Baani-r Ma would come to sweep the room when I would still be in bed, half awake, and my mother, fresh from her bath would be lighting aggarbattis or placing flowers at the small cubicle in the wall which held her gods. The day after the terrace discussion, my mother was finishing with her pooja when the maid came in. My mother, circling her hands with the smoking incense sticks and placing them on the holder, amidst the tinkling of her bangles was asking her where she was staying.
“At my sister’s”, she said, with the peculiar accent of some regions of Bangladesh with its particular stress on ‘s’ as if their delicate tongue could not hold the more harsh ‘cchh’ of this land. “But, soto boudi, I cant stay there for long. Her husband does not approve. As it is we sleep on the verandah. The weather is still cold. Goutam is a strong one but Baani always has the sniffles since we have come.”
“What made you come here Baani-r Ma”
My mother had a reputation of kindness and philanthropy, especially among servants and this one would have heard of it, for she was already keeping the broom aside and squatting on the floor.
“Boudi, may my worst enemies not face what I have faced. I used to be soto bou⁵ of a household too, boudi, just like you. Our house was not as big as yours, but it was a two storied home, with a pond, a small aadi lakshmi temple and land where we grew sugarcane, along with betel nut and coconut trees. Banana trees grew in groves on all sides, and we had mango, kathal and guava trees too.
My father had moved to India back in the 70s and settled here, where my sister married. But he married me into their family, linked through business, because they were the richest in the village of Deutala Bazaar. They had many businesses, they ferried produce from the land to other villages and haats⁶ by boats. We had 2 boats of our own, one for each son in the family. My father in law was an illustrious man, a patriot, and part of the village elders committee.
We had braved wars, Boudi, and were part of the country, our country. People around us, other Hindus, left family by family, one by one. I wanted to leave too, my father kept asking us to come, but my husband would not go against his father, who always said, “This land is our Ma. I can trace back ten generations at least in this very village. I’m not going anywhere”
Then the boys came. Mere teenagers went door to door in the remaining Hindu families, maybe 30 in all, threatening us to leave or else. The elections were due the next month, in October, and there was tension in the air. That was the first year we did not have Durga Pooja in the village. But the temple was generations old, and the Lakshmi Pooja had to be done.
We sorted what we could and the only thing left was the sugarcane for the pooja. My unmarried sister in law said she would go out and get a few stalks. She and Baani, excitedly chattering, went out into the sugarcane fields behind the house. That was the last we saw of her. She was only 20. I don’t know what my daughter witnessed. When she came back running she was screaming, “Tene niye gelo, O Ma ore tene niye gelo.” They have taken her, mother, they have dragged her away. Then they came with the sticks and da-s⁷. They broke into the temple and ransacked it, damaged the statue beyond repair. My father in law tried to reason with them, stop them. They dragged him out and hacked him and hacked him… we saw it. She saw it. She hasn’t spoken since.
We left that night with my brother in law and his family. I would not stay there one more day with my children but my husband stayed back. It was hopeless trying to save the land or the house, and the last rites had to be completed in his father’s beloved land, he had to trace his sister. We came to Dhaka but the few relatives there made it clear they could not risk their lives for us. They lived in mortal fear themselves. Some had taken false names, Parveen, Mahjabeen; married women had stopped wearing sindoor.
We left along with some others, and crossed over to Badalpur, the border village. We had to pay a lot of money, Boudi. My gold is all gone. I’m left with nothing. My brother in law’s family travelled to Calcutta to try and find work. I came to the only place I knew, my father’s house, now my sisters and her husbands. We travelled like cattle, on lorries, or goods trains, we walked miles.
I have heard from my husband once in the last two months. I don’t even know if he is alive.”
The days went by. I started noticing Baani with more attention now. I was horrified even imagining what she would have been through, what she had seen. I made it my personal mission to cajole her to talk, to smile even. She was just a year younger than me. I gave her my old school books; she took them from me with bowed head, kept them beside her, treated them with god-like respect, but took no further interest in them. I cannot say that I wasn’t a little disappointed with her lack of responsiveness to my efforts. Her eyes always held a vacant faraway look, and the goddess of smiles seemed to have deserted her forever.
She also never gained in health. My mother was concerned, in her own way, which was no white-man’s-burden like mine. She fed her, gave her my old clothes; the girl accepted the daily glass of milk with gratitude on her face, and she wore my clothes which always hung from her bony shoulders like from a hanger. But if anything, she looked sicker with every passing day.
They changed their home to a one room shack, with a broken tin roof, further into marshy land, for even in 2002, there were areas which were unlivable in Hugli district, which were given out to the ones who could afford nothing else. Goutam started going to a corporation school, but Baani would not. She stayed in her corner, morning and evening.
A new academic year in June drowned me in hectic schedules of a new course, homework and projects. I still tried reaching out to Baani but I saw her rarely. She had started staying back in their shack, cooking and cleaning for the family as her mother took more and more work to make ends meet.
One development was that we managed to pass on our phone number to Baani’s father, and he called once a week. It was quite hopeless with the land or his sister, he said, he was being hounded almost every day to leave, and he had had to go into hiding in Dhaka for some time too. They were just waiting for him to go so they could take over the land, and if he didn’t leave soon, he would most certainly be killed. He would be joining them very soon.
The call would come every Friday, exactly at noon, when the streets and the payphone in Deutala Bazaar would be deserted. The family of three would be by the phone, and Baani’s eyes would shine when her father spoke to her, but she didn’t ever speak back, and only when she heard her father would be joining them, something resembling a smile seemed to cross her face.
The rains started early.
As is wont, every morning, school time would be rain time in Bengal monsoons. And everyday Baani’s mother would come sloshed in mud, knee deep. Their tin roof leaked, their mud floor seeped water. The pond next to their shack overflowed and submerged everything surrounding their home. She asked my mother for some money to buy a wooden charpoy, something to save their bedding which was always damp now. She was ashamed to state the conditions they were living in.
“Where is Baani”, my mother asked one day.
“She is always sick, Boudi. Sneezing one day, coughing one day, body ache another. It’s the damp. It gives her fever.”
“You cant leave her in that snake pit of yours, Baani-r ma. Get her here. You can stay in the outhouse till the rains subside.”
But they would not come. They would not live on anyone’s charity. She took the money my mother pressed on her for a doctor, though. But the medicines were not helping.
“The neemonia is in her mind, Boudi. It is as if she wants to fade away from this world” She said in tears, “She relives that day all the time. I see it in her eyes. She screams inside all the time.”
“Take her to a hospital in Calcutta, Baani-r ma. Don’t worry about expenses”
“Let her father come, Boudi, he will take her. Soon.”
A few days later we were rained in. It had poured non stop for two days and the water had reached the top stair of our main door. The maid had not come in three days but this day she arrived in a state. Their home was waterlogged, she said. Baani was very ill. She was raging with fever. For days she had been delirious, screaming in her sleep all night, finally speaking, calling her lost aunt, and her murdered grandfather, slipping in and out of consciousness. Now she was not responding at all.
“Go home right now and bring her here. We are calling Doctor Banerjee. And here, take rickshaw fare. Don’t make her walk.” My mother was screaming.
She did take a rickshaw back, but she came with Baani prone in her arms. She laid the girl very gently down on the verandah. Her face was mud streaked, and they were drenched through, hair streaming, sopping wet. She was eerily calm.
“Boudi, can you check, I don’t think we need the doctor anymore“
Doctor Uncle left, shaking his head. There would not even be a death certificate. They were Bangladeshi-s. In this country they were state less; rather, they simply did not exist.
No one remembered it was Friday till the phone rang exactly at mid day. Baani’s mother stared as the phone’s urgent ringing echoed through the house. In a low voice she started keening, rocking her body to and fro, as finally tears mixed and ran with the rain water coursing in tiny rivulets down her face.
1. Bori: Sun dried in cone shapes, mix of paste of pulses and spices, used for savoury dishes.
2. Boyem: Large ceramic or glass jars traditionally used to store pickles
3. Chhoto: Small, in this case younger sibling or sister in law
4. Boudi: Sister in law
5. Soto Bou: In the particular dialect, Chhoto Bou or Younger Bride
6. Haat: Weekly market, held in villages and towns
7. Da: Sharp weapon, usually used to hack crops in fields