She gets up at seven in the morning. She doesn’t have a clock, but her mental clock wakes her up at seven, daily. She still gazes at the empty side table the first thing after she wakes up, where her mother’s watch always rested, but it has long been broken; smashed into tiny pieces that never made their way back to the table or her. She silently walks into the kitchen and helps herself to a drink of water. The water direct from the tap is already too hot. It must be scorching hot already.
She dresses herself carefully and then binds her hair into a braid. There is a broken mirror behind the door but she doesn’t wish to look at herself any more. There is nothing that holds any attraction at all. What would she see anyway? Eyes that speak of hurt? A broken past and a non-existent future? Pain and sadness? There was no innocence left in her weak body, the innocence portrayed on her face was nothing but a lie, it had long been extricated from her in a series of events; every time life had thrown a pebble at her, she shed her innocence and cast a thick layer of stubbornness over herself. In her adolescent years she had barely anytime to think about playgrounds where she ought to be playing or the rain that called to her while she slaved.
She wraps her dupatta sensibly around her head spreading it diligently across her upper body, again without the aid of a mirror, before rushing out, but silently. She has already wasted too much of her time thinking. There is no time to clean the tiny apartment. She’ll have to deal with the consequences later. She was rather used to it. She walks swiftly with her tattered book under one arm. Her books were as tattered as her life, she wondered. What with a drunken and abusing unemployed father and two little siblings to support. There was no mother. There was but she managed to get away from here and gave up her children to a world of abuse and slavery for that. Were they supposed to be like that, the mothers? Maybe her mother was different.
She kept looking for some hope in the absence of her mother. Maybe she would come back and take them away. Maybe she went away to get help. Or for their security, maybe. All consolations were hollow of course but they were solaces at least.
The doorman opens the gate and barely gets to a side. He smirks at her. She holds her dupatta firmly under her chin and quickly passes through the gate, rushing to the kitchen door. She puts her plastic slippers in a corner and enters the kitchen bare foot. She proceeds to wash her hands and then takes a quick peek at clock. Too late. She draws out the bowl of kneaded dough and starts making chapatis: greased in fat. Her tiny hands work fast under the scrutiny of the mistress’s dark eyes. She keeps being bombarded with instructions and comments on her tardiness.
She cleans out the kitchen and then dusts down the rest of the huge house, sweeping out the rooms. If she gets all her work done before time the mistress might teach her the next lesson. She’s worked really hard on the first, as hard as she could in the time she has. There is a still a lot to do though. But if she learns all this she can even tutor the kids around her home. And she might grow up to be a teacher. She would teach lots of kids for free too. But she’d earn too and that will help them getaway, too.
Jewelry glints all around the room, where she sweeps, carelessly thrown around. Her mother stole some gold bangles when she vanished. She knew because she saw them shining under the hem of her dupatta which covered her wrist the day she went away. And her mother had never owned any gold. The wife of a drunken abusing man doesn’t get any gold. And if she has any it goes away and there is no use making futile attempts at fighting for it because they only get you more bruises and a sore body.
A slap on her jaw brings her back to the present. It’s the mistress. The tears sting but don’t leak. She is lecturing her about her daydreaming. And she pulls in her sluggishness in the lecture. She says she might cut her pay short. She stands silently with a clenched jaw, her head drooped.
Her father hit her today when she got home. She hadn’t washed out the only two glasses in the house that he uses for his drinking. He pulled her hair hard and had clumps of it when he let them go. She stood silently with a clenched jaw and head drooped low.
Everyone and everything is silent. Except the fan that whirs above. It makes more noise than it swirls air. The air is suffocating. It doesn’t matter where she goes, she always feels smothered. As if the air molecules around her have vowed to drown and choke her in her own sadness. It’s becoming too much to bear, everything. She is not responsible for her mother running away, of her father being an alcoholic, of the mistress’s house, of the penetrating gazes of the male bodies, of her doomed past.
She huddles inside her blanket and takes off her dupatta and opens the knotted corner. Inside are two rings. They are the mistress’s. Yes she stole them. They glint in the faint light. They are too pretty and intimidating. She’ll run away, she decides. Freedom clouds her vision.
She didn’t sleep. She held the rings in her clenched fists and waited for dawn. Once the light started to break through the sky, she got up silently. She goes through her usual routine of getting ready but it’s three hours early. Once she’s done with wrapping her scarf about her, she looks around the room. Her eyes meet the innocent sleepy ones of her younger sister. Innocence still prevails there. She whimpers and comes to hug her. Don’t go, she says, don’t leave us like mother. Don’t be her.
Don’t be her.
Is she not responsible for her siblings, she thinks, about her deeds, about the purity of her soul, about becoming like her mother? And how could she be something that wasn’t her. She wasn’t their mother. She wasn’t a hollow hope. Did she have to make her life more morbid and dark than it already was?
She thought while she sang her sister back to sleep. She went to the mistress’s house at seven. She silently put the glinting rings back. They seemed dull, now. All there sheen lost. She burned under the doorman’s gaze. She was degraded by the mistress. She violated her body by doing twice the amount of work. But when she proceeded for home, she felt more hopeful and fresh than she had in days. It wasn’t everyone’s imagination. The girl who had a solemn expression on her face for the past two years was indeed smiling today when she walked home with a jump in her step.