A KEY FOR MOINA
(Anjana is a well known author of several books and short stories. Of late she has been writing books for young adults. However her style is distinctly of Bengali flavor)
Every time I see a key. I think of you. That stiff truncheon of a front door key is there because of you. Pocked with holes down its phallic fake brass length. Uneven patterns of holes front and back. If the key is lost we will have to send all the way to Mumbai to replace it because this is a key that cannot be hacked out by the local chabiwala for anyone who asks him. It is a key meant to ensure security for the house it guards. All because after you went, we discovered that you had copied all the front door and side door keys and left thinly stamped versions hanging on the ring behind the door.
In the first flush of anger, Ma said you were a thief. She raved up and down all the rooms ferreting out the keys big and small to find out how many of them you had had secretly cut behind her back. I told her that knowing you, you had probably lost the original in the fishmarket and had the replacements cut so that Ma would not find out and shatter the four walls of the building with her screaming. The whole house would come to know that you had lost the keys and that would be a crying shame. Some of the ladies with light fingered maids, all friends of yours, would say you were a thief. That you and they huddled together during the afternoon siesta with the snores purring comfortingly in their eyes from the bedrooms, to plan quiet thefts. You all had boyfriends in the neighbouring shops, or who did driver duty in the multistoreyeds. Quick chikna boys oiled like penknives – at least that was what all the Mas in the building guessed. They had only seen one or two of them after all – Ashish the boy who delivered the papers in the morning, most often late, or Benu who wrestled the Seth’s SUV out of the next door drive. Those two were enough to hint a whole horde of others into existence, boys just waiting for a music system or mobile phone to drop into their laps if they could summon up a girl with the right key.
One of them was your admirer for sure because you had slipped out one afternoon to watch a movie and Ma had found your fingermarks in her jar of cold cream and sniffed a trail of French perfume in the air. “We should get rid of her!” she raved, whenever that happened. But again, after reflection, calmed down again and locked up the bright bubble perfume bottles. After all, what kind of thief advertised her thieving as openly and innocently as you did? Silly we said. Hardworking and silly. They were good virtues to have, along with a mouthful of white teeth always ready to flash in a smile.
You would smile whenever he came to visit me. That shy up and down dip of the eyes and flash of white teeth. “Dada has come,” you said. You saw us go into the room and I am sure heard the click of the door as we locked it behind us, sure that Ma was out and we would not be disturbed. We would lie side by side afterwards on the bed for a small fleeting moment and he would ask me about you, about whether your smile meant that you knew what was happening behind the door. That used to worry him more than it worried me.
You didn’t jiggle your hips as you walked like your other cronies. Nor did you have any information about the world around you. Ma showed you a television programme one afternoon and came out to report that you had looked at a tiger and asked whether it was a cow. We said you would die if you ever went to the village and predicted that you would run away from your fields and family if it ever came to that.
You were supposed to be the city girl, with your heart set on street smart boys. Every time Ashish delivered the paper late we said he was doing it so that he could put it into your hands. Any earlier and you would have been out picking up the milk. That paper – it switched from The Statesman to The Telegraph to the Times and back again. It would get to Baba rumpled because you had riffled through the pages trying to find pictures of Hindi filmstars so that you could improve your sadly lacking knowledge. Like the cow and the tiger, you called Amitabh Bachchan Sharukh Khan and giggled on that up and down scale when I corrected you.
You had phone calls when we left the flat – we knew because we found the receiver off the hook when we came back and because Ma answered countless calls that were quickly hung up the moment she said hello.
Then one morning you sidled onto the verandah just as we were sipping our cups of tea and beginning to rouse ourselves for a long working day. You said that you had received a marriage proposal and that you had to go back to your village to be looked at. Your eyes dipped up and down from the granite tiles to Ma’s face as you said that. Ashish, I said, and couldn’t help smiling. But you shook your head vigorously and said no, not Ashish. This was a boy who lived in the next village. Your mother and sister in law had picked him out.
For a village girl, you had money. I would sort out your bankbooks whenever you brought them to me and deposit part of your salary every month so that it would earn interest. Yes, you did take out loans to build a house for your mother and to buy seeds, so that you used the little bit of land your family had profitably. You had more money, in fact, than your brother in law did. Ma shook her head and said that it was a plot to rob you of your money – then her eye was caught by Ashish just below the verandah with his papers and in between yelling at him for late delivery, she called out the news of your impending marriage.
But he was just as much a prisoner of the city as you were. He didn’t want to marry a girl who worked and lived in the next house. He wanted a girl to till the fields and help him build his home and have children, one every year and stay in the village looking after things there. When he heard the news, he just flashed his teeth, dropped his face and went away with his papers. So Ma helped you gather a trousseau together, old not too worn saris, new saris, a wedding sari glittery with rolex-lurex that you insisted on choosing despite Ma’s repeated yelling. They were rolled up into the tin box that you had come to us with along with toothpaste and fairness cream and god knows what else.
After you were gone Ma was in a state of chain explosions, reporting missing astringent, missing handkerchiefs, missing shampoo. But the replacement maid she got proved silent and sullen, apart from drowning everything she cooked in oil. She was easily prostrate with colds and demanding of new saris or even old ones. She had visitors in her room in the afternoon and that little square room that was mostly tin trunk became the breeding ground for a thousand and one conspiracies in the building. Finally Roma, or whatever her name was, walked out and took one of Baba’s Marks & Spencer’s cardigans with her.
And then the phone rang and Ma said that you were coming back. You, the tin box and all those saris except for the wedding one and your smile. They had said you were too dark at the viewing and the man had preferred your younger sister. So much for all those fairness creams. You left the rolex bordered sari for her and came back to work, while we all predicted that Ashish would finally be won over.
Your brother and sister in law came to visit, trailing children behind them. We would find a wide-eyed little girl wandering around the flat on the most unexpected occasions. The visits came without warning and drained Ma’s supplies of rice. Your mother came once and touched Ma’s feet to thank her for looking after her daughter so well.
A sister to the hospital, a brother in law’s emergency demand for money, “Serious, bring money!”. You dealt with them all and went up and down between your village and the city armed with your bankbooks and the tubes of fairness cream that seemed to make no difference to the girl with the burnt face who came back.
Perhaps that was your future, to be the family breadwinner, the one who was exploited by the rest because you were single. Your mother started bleeding three years after her menopause and came to Kolkata to be treated. Ma found a cheap dispensary where the doctors were at least reliable. Cancer they said and you sat in the verandah and wept, while Ma raved at the thought of repeated visits and treatment. When she was a little better, your mother was sent home.
And your trips up and down began to increase again. Sometimes it was a week’s disappearance with just two hours’ warning. Ma would have to juggle part-timers and order in food since she was getting too old to stand over a hot stove three times a day. The mornings were chaos with the floor wiping, dusting maid and the dishwashing, spice grinding boy. We were there for breakfast and out to work. Ma had to sit and supervise the comings and goings and occasional breakings – plates, cups vases- more in a week than you had managed in two months. And Ma thought she had seen everything when she hired you!
But then there were the other things – the way you dealt with a guest who had diarrhoea, cleaning up the mess when her bowels had got the better of her half way to the bathroom, without a word of protest. Your running back and forth with glucose and eyedroppers without a murmur for Ma just after she had her cataract operation. You sat beside the bed patiently until we came back and even then was on call all night.
Very caring, agreed the other ladies in the building grudgingly. But what will you do when she goes to look after her mother? Nothing we said, armed with the knowledge of all those others. We would wait. Cancer after all was an unpredictable kind of condition. And the way you looked when you came back from the village was unmistakable. You hated having to go to the fields whenever you needed to use the toilet, or use a neem twig instead of toothpaste. You were a city girl, after all, one of us.
Even he asked for you once, when I opened the door. He looked around the drawing room wondering and grimaced at the tea I made him.
So you came and went and came and went. And every time Ma’s patience frayed a little more until the memory of your concern became a pattern of stray threads sticking out of a rag. Threads that could be picked out one by one till the pattern was almost gone.
Simple as you were, you could tell that too. One day you told Ma that you were leaving. They had found another boy for you, who was willing to live in your home and sow the fields with you and look after your mother if you came to the city. It sounded almost too good to be true.
“She’ll be back,” predicted the building ladies’ committee grimly. So this time we did not give you so many saris. Certainly not a wedding sari. In any case you said guiltily that you would buy one with your savings. What you did not say was that you thought the last one had been bad luck. At the last moment, Ma had a change of heart and gave you a thin gold chain. Then you touched our feet, one by one, and were gone. You had a bundle this time to go with your tin box and your brother in law came to collect you.
The duplicated keys turned up two weeks later. Ma found the missing food before that – salad cream that was bound to curdle on the journey, a cheese spread, some biscuits. And the missing overnight case. I shouldn’t have given her that chain!” Ma ranted. To replace the keys cost some three thousand and it was such an unwieldy impractical thing. The door had to have a new lock put in and the floor wiping woman jammed it within a week. That meant more expense and more rage. Ma had a collapsible gate put over the front door for double security. It creaked and groaned shut in the afternoons when Ma was alone – she had the dishwashing boy close it for her. When the new lock jammed it gave her extra security – she could leave the front door open and see who was outside.
Ma was determined not to have you back. Even though she hated your replacement who switched the TV on the moment we were out and sat on the back verandah and combed her hair so that all the durwans could see her. Even though she grumbled about having to order in food, about the part timers. The paper on which your sister’s number was scrawled gradually twisted and turned yellow in the phone table drawer.
We heard through the maid network that this time you had got married. There had been no mistakes. Ma wondered briefly what you would do without fairness cream and what use the duplicated keys would be. But that was all. I swore that you would be back and broke up with him as if to make a point.
Why did I do that? Because he thought that I was there to be taken for granted, a source of funds and a place to stay, so that he could be a home husband too? Or because his mind had taken to wandering from the day he asked why you weren’t there to bring him tea?
It was a Sunday morning when your sister in law finally called. And there was no question of your coming back again. That was how long after you went away? I had stopped counting after I said goodbye to him. You had been pregnant with twins when you went into labour at eight months. One of them, a girl, had been born. The other. Well… Your sister in law spoke of complications. Your mother had been with you at the last she said.
Why did she get married I asked angrily? Single was good I told myself being walked upstairs to the door at night by a different man who pulled the gate back and waited till I inserted the truncheon key and turned it on the sliver of light that was left for me in the sitting room. I didn’t miss him though, once, the touch of a hand had felt like his and mine had recoiled from that familiar sensation.
The new ones all commented on the truncheon key. “People want to get married,” Ma said, looking darkly at me. Did they really, I wondered. And what for.
Funny it was raining in Kolkata that morning, a torrential downpour with thunderclaps. Did it mean anything? Ma said that a smarter girl would have managed, but then, how could a girl who couldn’t tell the difference between a tiger and a cow manage any better? You were a city girl after all.
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