a short story by Aby Sam Thomas
You could say that it all began when we started looking for a housekeeper.
I was at my cousins’ home in Kerala, awaiting the results of my engineering entrance exams. There were two months left to go for the results to officially come out, and hence I was enjoying the unexpected spell of holidays at home. My sister was in her third year at college, but she often used to come down to the house during her vacations. Our parents were in Dubai, non-resident Keralites toiling under the unforgiving Arabian sun, so that their offspring and family would have a better life. In their absence, we stayed along with our three cousin brothers, and our paternal grandmother.
Our three cousin brothers were typical Keralite Christian men, strong hefty young men in their late twenties, who kept family and church first before anything. They were strict and stern about me and my sisters’ apparent dislike for rules and timelines, but were also extremely protective and caring about the two of us. Despite the age difference, they were good fun-loving individuals, always at our beck and call. Since my sister was in college, most of the time the house’s inhabitants would be me, my three cousins and of course, my grandmother.
Ammachi (Grandmother in Malayalam) was short, reaching only up to my shoulders. She was round and fat, with a likeable wizened old face, and a short bob of golden white hair that glistened in the sunlight. She always wore a white blouse-like shirt that reached up to her waist, and a green and blue checked skirt. She walked slowly, heaving her weight from one foot to another.
I wasn’t rather close to her. I had just arrived in Kerala, and I played the role of the ‘little-blue-eyed-boy-from-the-hills’ to her. She and I didn’t talk much, but whenever she did, it was to enquire about my well-being, or perhaps instructing me to eat more so that I’d gain some weight in my otherwise thin body. My three cousin brothers were busy young men, all with their own important jobs; but they never overlooked Ammachi’s needs, making sure that they took good care of her always. However, I always felt that despite all this, there wasn’t anyone who could actually talk to her. Don’t get me wrong, my cousins tried their best; but then, they had only so much time to spare. My sister, whenever she came home, would always faithfully sit by Ammachi’s side relaying tales of college and other things. But there again, it was my sister who did most of the talking, while Ammachi listened, eyes closed and a smile pasted on her wrinkled face.
I wish I had tried harder to talk with Ammachi. But there was the very obvious age divide, and also a certain dearth of topics that we could mutually talk about. So most of the time, when my cousins weren’t at home, I sat glued in front of the television set, watching MTV or Channel [V]; while my grandmother stayed inside her room, often lying on her bed, staring upwards at the white ceiling. Sometimes I saw her muttering prayers under her breath with closed eyes, sometimes I could see the tear trail from her eyes to the mattress she laid on. I never did ask her what she was crying about, there was this barrier of sorts that prevented me from crossing over to her room.
With my arrival in the house, food became a constant source of worry for my cousins. Ammachi was happy with her kanji (boiled rice in water) and pickle, and my cousin brothers always ate from outside. I often satiated my hunger with the Maggi noodles that we stored in our cupboards, or when my sister was around, we would try out several experiments with food. My cousins however felt that this exercise couldn’t go on. Marrying off the eldest brother would have been a satisfactory albeit chauvinistic solution, except that my eldest cousin wouldn’t hear anything of it. He was still doing some computer-based course, and he didn’t want to marry till he was older. The remaining two brothers, in true Christian tradition, solemnly swore that they wouldn’t marry till the elder one had married. No matter how much all of us tried to reason with them, they wouldn’t budge.
It was then that the idea of a having a cook first arose in our heads. Actually, it wasn’t just a cook that we were looking for. My cousins were of the idea that the house needed a housekeeper, who would cook for all for us, who would keep the house clean and tidy, and also, at the same time, be a good companion to Ammachi. After all, Ammachi was getting older, and they felt that it would be much better for her to have someone in the house all the time. They still didn’t consider me much good, since for them, I was still to grow up, a fact that I seriously argued with them. A housekeeper would be a fine idea, they said, everyone in the house would get good food to eat, the house would be tidy, and Ammachi would have someone to take care of her.
And very soon, we had got our housekeeper. Her name was Nalini, and she was a woman in her early forties, or perhaps in her late thirties. She had a small round face with beady eyes, and black hair tied in an untidy bun. Her husband had walked out on her a month ago, and she stayed alone with her young daughter in a small one-roomed house some distance away from our villa. She didn’t speak much, and when she did, it was in a squeaky small voice. She addressed my three cousin brothers as ‘sirs’, and never seemed to look directly at them. Nalini agreed to my cousins’ conditions, and the deal was closed with Nalini agreeing to start coming to the house after a week.
Of course, none of us had bothered to consult Ammachi on this matter, and so, when she came to know of this arrangement, she spewed violent Malayalam abuses on my three cousins. My sister and I giggled when we heard her firing away at my three stolid looking cousins. The thought of having Nalini in the house was almost revolting to her. “Are there no Christian women in the world or what? Can’t any of you three get a decent Marthoma girl to marry?” she angrily said to them. In that one week before Nalini was due at the house, Ammachi tried everything in her power to stall Nalini’s entry in the house. “Imagine, a Hindu in our home cooking for us…oh, if my husband was here, he would have cut me open! Oh, the shame!” she hissed to my hapless sister. “In my day, we had women married and brought into the house to cook for the family, we wouldn’t bring just any stranger!” she muttered aloud in her room when my cousins had returned home in the night. Ammachi made clicking noises with her tongue, furiously complaining to any visitor who came to the house, pleading with them to make the three ‘devils’ change their mind. But my cousins had made a decision, and when they made one, they stuck on to it.
And Nalini came into the house from the next week. Ammachi didn’t even bother to turn her head towards Nalini when we introduced Nalini to her. She merely nodded, and continued reading the gospel of Luke in her old tattered Bible. Nalini, on her part, didn’t say anything either. When my sister escorted Nalini away, Ammachi turned towards me, and shook her head sadly.
Nalini proved to be a fine cook. I was happy to let go of my instant noodles packets, and I savoured all the fine food that Nalini cooked for us. Spicy red fish curries, warm fried beans and carrots, crisp and light pappadams, thick yellow dal, aromatic sambar-ah, it was amazing food. My cousins were only too glad to have good food in the home again, not having to suffer my sister’s burnt chappatis and stale potato curries. Nalini was also a strong woman, and every week, she would arm herself with her broom and go dusting the entire house, her sari’s pallu covering her nose. My sister instructed Nalini on the medicines that were to be administered to Ammachi every night. This took some time, as Nalini found the English names of the medicines a little hard to remember.
But Ammachi was definitely not impressed. Nalini used to sleep in the afternoons in Ammachi’s room, and Ammachi would always look the other way on her bed, so that she wouldn’t have to face Nalini. After Nalini would lay the dinner table with her food, Ammachi would wait for her to leave the room, and then find fault with Nalini’s preparations. She would take a small pile of rice from the top of the vessel, and lightly press it in her palm. Showing me the squished rice remains, she would say, “Rice overcooked again…What are we supposed to eat, gum?” Or she would dab her finger in the chicken curry and lick it gingerly. With a dramatic hiss, she would gulp down a glass of water and say, fanning herself, “What is she doing, burning my tongue?” My cousins often would shake their heads helplessly. The strange thing about all this was that Ammachi never voiced her complaints to Nalini directly. But Nalini wasn’t deaf either. She would always be standing in the kitchen, and I’m quite sure that she heard all of this.
Then, one day, it so happened that Ammachi and I had just sat down for lunch. Nalini had made a small pot of rasam. Ammachi, as usual, poured out some of the rasam in her cupped hand, drank a little, and then shook her head. “Not enough salt…” she said, and after a pause, “Again.” Almost immediately, Nalini ran into the dining room, holding in her hand, a small jar of salt. She kneeled next to Ammachi, held out the salt, and said, “Ammachi…I also felt that the salt wasn’t enough…But I don’t know how much to put in…”
I stopped stuffing my face with food to see this. Ammachi was definitely taken aback, she certainly wasn’t expecting this. However, without missing a beat, Ammachi took two pinches of salt, added it to the rasam, and said triumphantly, “Now taste it.” Nalini obediently took a spoonful of rasam, tossed it into her mouth, and her face erupted into a grin. “Perfect! Ammachi, just check, na…” she pleaded, grinning. And, wonder of wonders, Ammachi drank a spoonful, and nodded her head in approval. Nalini grinned looking at me, and ran back inside in the kitchen. Then, Ammachi looked into her plate, and I noticed her smiling as she chewed on her rice.
And so it began. Whenever Ammachi muttered a few words of disapproval on any of the food Nalini made, Nalini would run in, listen carefully to Ammachi’s words. My cousin brothers got the shock of their lives when they saw the ‘I’m-too-old-to-walk’ Ammachi sitting at the back of the house, monitoring how Nalini cut the fish for the afternoon meal. When my sister arrived one day in the house, her mouth nearly hit the floor when she saw Nalini cutting vegetables in Ammachi’s room, with Ammachi saying, “Nalini, cut it more finely… if it’s less bulky, it will get cooked faster…”
In the next few weeks, Ammachi began to remarkably cut down on her fiery comments on Nalini’s cooking. Nobody believed me when I said that I saw Nalini happily skip like a little girl, when Ammachi said that her fish curry was ‘as good, if not better’ than Ammachi’s own cooking. Nalini tried to complete her morning duties early, so that she would get more time to sit in Ammachi’s room in the afternoon. Both of them had given up on their afternoon naps, and instead used that time to chat with each other. Sometimes Ammachi would read out her favourite portions from the Bible to Nalini. Nalini identified strongly with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and she would ask Ammachi to read out Psalms 23 to her often. Nalini also used to ask Ammachi about food preparations, and I would see Nalini painstakingly write an entire recipe on a small scrap of paper. Even if I gave her a full sheet of paper, Nalini would tear it in fours, and use each scrap separately.
Ammachi began to accompany Nalini when she did her duties. When she cooked, Ammachi would sit besides the stove, watching carefully. When Nalini watered the plants, Ammachi also walked painstakingly barefoot around the entire perimeter of the house. Nalini told Ammachi stories about her family, about her child, and about her missing husband. Ammachi would console her, and in turn, replay her longings for seeing all her children together again before she died. They talked loudly, their laughter ringing through the house. After a bath while Nalini combed through Ammachi’s golden tresses, Nalini would tease her, “Ammachi, shouldn’t you look pretty? The Prince of Persia is coming to marry you!” Ammachi would curse violently, but with a huge grin pasted on her face. In the evenings, Ammachi would seat herself on a small stool in the courtyard, and passersby would stop outside the gate, and exchange news and gossip. Ammachi smiled, laughed, tickled young babies, and teased young about-to-get-married women, doing all of this with her trusty sidekick Nalini. Nalini was a quick-witted person as well, and the two of them proved to be a funnily rocking twosome.
I realize now that they had found some kind of solace with each other. Ammachi was an old woman, who had seen the world, who was missing her children, and now who had resigned herself to her lonesome fate. Nalini was the wronged woman, deprived of a husband, and having to take care of her child alone. Both of them were lonely, and they found a relationship with each other, a friendship, a bonding. Nalini had come in to the house to be a housekeeper, but she had proved to be more than that for Ammachi. Ammachi and Nalini grew to become close friends, and all of us were happy that Ammachi had a companion now. This would have remained the case, had it not been for my sister.
No, my sister didn’t have any spite against the two of them. But one day, I was out in the courtyard playing with our pet dog, when she called out to me.
“Hey…did you eat the biscuits that we had bought the day before yesterday?”
I pinned Pooky the labrador to the ground, and called out, “No… Actually I didn’t even know there were any here!”
My sister looked into the empty transparent plastic jar, and said, “That’s strange.”
A small investigation followed. Nalini had left for the day, so we couldn’t ask her. But my sister asked our cousins when they came back home in the night, and they too replied in the negative. My sister shook her head sadly, and said, “That is strange. I’m sure there was one full pack, unopened in this jar.”
Like a Hercule Poirot mystery solution, the evidence clearly pointed to only one person. Nalini had to be the one. But why would she take away something like that? The damage, however, was done. All of us began to remember things that had gone missing in the house, with each of us thinking that the other had perhaps taken it. It was all small things- like a new tube of toothpaste, a pack of tea powder, sugar, even rice. My youngest cousin brother also brought to light that his watch had gone missing from the house, and he was under the impression that I (he suspected me!) had taken it. The eldest brother had, however, noted the seriousness of the matter.
Don’t get me wrong, my cousins paid her well, and she had full freedom in the house. So, there wasn’t any real need for her to take- or steal- anything from the house. But then, Nalini had done exactly that. Of course, the items she took were perhaps of not much value, but put together, it did mean that there was a lot of money simply going down the drain. The five of us agreed that in effect, the stolen items didn’t mean much to us-but yes, our trust was betrayed. Nalini had stolen small things- she could go on to bigger things next. It was decided that Nalini will have to be let go of as soon as possible, we will just have to wait till we find an alternative for Nalini. She had betrayed our trust-and like every righteous Christian family, we weren’t going to take betrayal lightly.
From that day onwards, we kept a watch on Nalini, and all the things she brought and took back to her home in the evenings. More disappearing acts of food items were seen, but we decided not to confront Nalini just yet.
However, Ammachi was happily oblivious to all of this. She and Nalini continued to bond-they had even begun to pray together now. Nalini had learnt one Christian hymn by heart, and she often sung it to Ammachi. My sister kept a close eye on Nalini, and she checked that Ammachi’s gold chain and earrings were intact at the end of every day. This continued, until one day, my eldest cousin came with the news that he had found a replacement for Nalini. The replacement was to be a Mrs. Mathai, a rusty old lady in the church.
The news had to be broken to Ammachi. My sister had been assigned the task of telling all this to Ammachi, and she didn’t mince her words when telling the truth to Ammachi. I was sitting right opposite her, and I saw Ammachi’s face. Her eyes widened when learning of Nalini’s acts, and she shook her head vehemently. But my sister reasoned with her, and very soon, Ammachi stopped arguing. She nodded at the end of it all, and looked outside the window when my sister said that we had found a replacement for Nalini.
The showdown was scheduled for the next day. Early next morning, Nalini was called to the main room, and my cousins confronted her. Almost immediately, Nalini broke down, crying and nodded as she agreed to her crimes. She tried to say that she had only taken-we noted that she said taken, and not stolen-some small things. But the thing was-we didn’t actually care whether it was small or big-she could have just asked, and perhaps we would have just given it to her. But now, we could no longer trust her. Nalini was asked to leave that day itself, take away all her belongings, and she was no longer required to come to the house.
An hour later, my cousins handed Nalini the remaining salary that was due to her. She accepted the money gratefully, and tried saying a sorry again. But my cousins simply asked her to leave, and they went back to their rooms upstairs. My sister didn’t even bother to say goodbye, she had taken the water hose and had begun watering the plants outside. I was in the main room, watching television. I nodded to her lightly, when she bid me goodbye. And then she walked to Ammachi’s room, clutching her bag.
“Ammachi…” she said quietly. Ammachi was looking outside the window. She didn’t reply.
Nalini sighed sadly. “I am leaving, Ammachi…I won’t be coming anymore,” she said. She let out a loud sob.
Still looking outside the window, Ammachi began to speak. “You can leave, Nalini. You don’t have anything to lose. You can always find work somewhere else. It doesn’t matter to you, I’m sure it doesn’t”. She turned around, and I was watching her from the main room. I had never seen Ammachi like this. Her eyes were all puffed up and red, I couldn’t see the white in her eyes. Her face was streaked with tears, and she looked older and wearier. She continued, “But Nalini, I have lost you… You may have just lost a job. But I’ve lost my friend… who I trusted…” Ammachi’s voice broke, and she had broken into tears.
“Ammachi…I am sorry, I didn’t know…” Nalini tried to reason.
Ammachi stopped for a moment, looked at Nalini straight in the eye, and said, “That’s just it, Nalini. You never knew. Or perhaps, you didn’t bother to know.”
Nalini didn’t say anything more, and she walked out of the house.
Mrs. Mathai came to our house as our cook the next day. Ammachi didn’t speak to her at all that day.
She never did.
[image courtesy: http://indianblogworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/holding-hands.jpg]