Madam still lay relaxed in her chair – the cucumber slices placed by Kavitha, securely perched on her eyes. Her large breasts protruded out of the edges of the disposal gown that was unable to restrain their enormity. The skin on her thick arms and thighs, assailed by waxing, throbbed in reddish glow like a war-torn battleground.
After working at a beauty parlour for a few months, Kavitha had joined an app-based firm that offered salon services at home. She was assigned daily jobs based on the online bookings made by customers. She spent a lot of time travelling to different parts of the city throughout the day, tirelessly dragging along her trolley bag that contained her complete kit.
It was her first assignment of the day. Madam had selected the elaborate Gold facial. Her physical and mental fatigue aside, Kavitha had to work on Madam’s rough complexion for the stipulated time. She applied various creams on Madam’s face and sat in waiting.
‘Jal raha hai,’ Madam grumbled.
‘It will be fine early, Madam,’ Kavitha assured her, displaying outward confidence even when she spoke in Butler English.
An hour-long session of massaging Madam’s back, shoulders and head had drained out Kavitha. But she did not let her face display her weariness. ‘Service with a smile’ was one of the most important ‘customer friendly’ values of her company. But did the company or the customer care for her inner battles and struggles at home?
In the early days when she had started as a beautician, Kavitha had felt nauseated by the obnoxious bundle of fat, sweat and odour; wrapped in layers of clothes worn by fashionable women who otherwise managed to look like fresh daisies and smelt like roses from the outside. She was unable to rid herself of the dirt and disgust even after scrubbing her hands and body in the bath after her first day of training. For many days later, her face winced in revulsion while working on someone’s underarms. It was beyond herself to maintain a dispassionate expression; as though the monstrosity of those bodies and the pampering they demanded mocked her poverty and social position. Before long, her physical self was transformed from a seething chamber of hatred to an automaton providing personalised services. None of the earlier emotions bothered her anymore; perhaps, subdued by the financial independence gained by the job.
‘Madam, juice -,’ the house help entered with a tray holding a tall icy drink and placed the glass into Madam’s hands.
Madam scowled at the juice brought in late, and drank it from a distance, conscious of the work in progress. Kavitha swallowed her saliva. Her throat was parched.
She had seen all types of people at home – the kind-hearted ones who offered her food and drink and those who smirked at the mere request of a glass of water. Her firm had laid out strict guidelines to its employees; not to accept anything except water from their patrons.
Nonetheless, Kavitha was not the one to depend upon others’ condescension. She hailed from a modest background of a middle-class upbringing, where money was enough for basic needs, if not to splurge. One thing to never do – she was taught since childhood – was to stretch her hands in desperation.
‘Oh, come on. You are not going to build a bungalow by saving ten rupees,’ Kavitha’s friends would ridicule her, but she would walk to college to save the little money on a bus ticket. Except on a scorching summer day, when she was exhausted by the heat and boarded an auto. ‘Welcome to Augustin’s auto,’ he had smiled and found a way into her heart. More rides, smiles and laughter followed, love blossomed; they weaved dreams together and discovered companionship with each other. An agreeable alliance between the families would not have been possible without fuelling salacious gossip in the small town.
Two years back they had fled and settled down in Bengaluru where Augustin hired an auto to make a living. Despite not having any personal vices like drinking or smoking, his meagre earnings could not meet the mounting expenses in a city like Bengaluru. Kavitha was forced to abandon her studies. Completing her graduation remained a dream for her as earning an income became her sole priority. They overcome all odds and difficulties and filled their home with love that made their togetherness fulfilling.
Earlier in the day when she had accepted Madam’s booking, Kavitha was fraught with a dilemma. August was sick. What was thought as normal fever had turned out to be typhoid. It was already fifteen days since he had gone out for work. She didn’t have enough money to buy medicines and essentials for his recovery. How could she remain at home by his side when she had to go out and earn?
‘Why are you struggling so much, darling?’ Augustin had asked with a mixture of exasperation and concern.
‘Perhaps my life’s journey would have led me to a fruitful destination – had I not eloped with Augustin; instead, I would have finished my graduation, joined a respectable job in teaching, married a well-to-do man according to my parents’ wishes, reared two children and fulfilled my duties towards my in-laws….’ In that moment of a sudden train of thoughts, she felt angry at Augustin. But as she remembered his unfailing love towards her, she consoled herself that there was no reason to compare her life with that of others. It was her life to claim. Moreover, he was not at fault for falling sick.
‘Vo kapda hatao,’ Madam wanted to stretch her foot on the bed. She got annoyed at the house help who had left a large stack of new clothes lying there. Kavitha got up and arranged the clothes to the side when she glanced over the price tags flailing under the fan. Each tag was marked a few thousands. She was distraught at the fact that her income barely exceeded the combined price of two dresses. A part of her was thrilled at the prospect of causing pain to Madam at the next waxing session. Another part of her laughed at her lunacy, guffawed at the futility of exacting revenge on this woman rather than the world that she despised. Besides, the chance of encountering the same customer again was slim.
She started to pack her bag and put her mind on a leash than being tormented by conflicting emotions. Just then, the sharp metallic sound of the hand mirror hitting something drew Kavitha’s attention towards her bag. Not betraying any further curiosity, and in an involuntary action, she looked inside to find a small shining object at the bottom. Intense anxiety mixed with fear invaded her mind like never before; and the apprehension that the slightest of the movement from her current position could dissolve that nascent feeling, bringing her life back to its familiar predicament, caused her to freeze statue-like on the stool she was sitting on.
The gold ring that Madam had kept aside during waxing had accidentally fallen into her bag. Gold ring! Her eyes widened at its lustre. Shall I keep it back at its place? Her mind swayed indecisively.
Only if all were well, she would have returned it without any doubts. But the vision of a bedridden Augustin and his dishevelled face reminded her that he awaited her care. Gauging by the thickness of the woman’s finger, the ring must cost at least 25,000. My goodness!! That is equal to four months of my salary. I can afford to take a month off from work, nurse Augustin to recovery and pay my college fee with the remaining money. My life would soon be on the right track.
Wasn’t she told since she was a little girl not to desire for nor try to gain something that is not hers? Wasn’t it shameful? She broke into a sweat in the AC room.
Shall I pretend I didn’t hear anything? Can anyone accuse me of wrongdoing if I walk away with my bag without the cognisance of any sound? Neither are there any witnesses. Nor did I steal. It fell into my hands like a gift from Lord Jesus. In that moment of half-guilt, she couldn’t bring herself to remember Shiva or Ganesha, whom she revered daily; it seemed like the benevolence of Jesus.
Then she sensed those price tags gaping at her and mocking her: Don’t be silly! This ring wouldn’t cost more than one of these designer dresses. Why are you so hassled? It’s not worth it. Keep mum. Moreover, Madam might remember about her ring when you are leaving, and then you can pretend to search for it and hand it over as though you found it just then. Convinced that it was an easy way out of an awkward situation, Kavitha soon finished the final stages of the facial.
Madam gazed at herself into the mirror for long. Would she ask about the ring now? Or a moment later? Kavitha was jittery. Overwhelmed with anxiety and confusion, unsure if she should be relieved or worried, she stood transfixed like as an invalid.
‘Ho gaya na?’ Madam glared at Kavitha as she would treat a pest and indicated her to leave. Kavitha was still thirsty, but Madam didn’t seem to be the kind of host who would extend any courtesies – this woman would dander even if I asked for water. To slink away with the ring, seemed like fitting treatment for a haughty woman who carried expensive price tags on her sleeve.
Kavitha walked out without wavering more, restrained her heart from beating too fast, cancelled all pending appointments for the day and headed towards home. Throughout the way, she was consumed by fear; the fear of being followed by someone or someone calling on her mobile and branding her as a thief. THIEF! She broke down at the accusatory word. Teary-eyed, she managed to reach home.
The moment she entered home, she prostrated in front of the Gods and muttered incoherent prayers. Augustin coughed heavily on the bedside and looked at her nonplussed.
‘What happened, Kavitha?’ She dared not respond to his question and returned a faint smile.
‘Our company is paying out bonuses. We will be soon out of our financial troubles.’ She was amazed at how glibly she could lie.
‘Is it? Praise the Lord. How much are they paying?’ His eyes widened before his words chocked in a fit of cough.
‘We will know everything on Monday. Why don’t you sleep now? We will talk about this later.’ She said with a hint of annoyance in her tone and helped him lie back. His coughing had come to her rescue, avoiding further conversation. She desisted from looking back at the worship place where Shiva, Ganesha and Jesus rubbed shoulders with each other.
Kavitha remained restless throughout Sunday. It was comforting to her that Augustin was ill, and she wouldn’t have to take him to the Sunday church. None of those moral sermons and remorse over sins committed. The cynic in her commented: All that preaching serves well for them who have their stomachs full; it is unwarranted for poor people like me who struggle at the crossroads of life.
Kavitha tried her best to put on a brave front, but the possibility of receiving a call from Madam or the company still pricked her. Tomorrow is Monday. I will go to the pawn broker’s shop. Let the day come soon. This night is hard to pass by. That pawn broker lady, Subbamma, is a kind woman. She is professional, trustworthy, and has held many secrets. If I can pass on this ring to her, I can be at peace.
Augustin noticed her restlessness since Saturday – absentmindedly repeating the same chores, abstaining from proper meals – but refrained from probing her, wary that she would snub him. He ate whatever she served him and grieved silently in his helplessness.
At the break of dawn, Kavitha hurried through her household chores, left home and reached the doorstep of the pawnbroker shop.
“Come in, dear,’ invited Subbamma who was tying her betel leaf into a paan. Kavitha dithered for a while, entered the shop, took out the ring from her bag and placed it on the table.
Subbamma picked up the ring and scrutinised it, as she would always do. Kavitha waited anxiously for her verdict. Subbamma was known to never cheat in her estimation of any piece of jewellery for she had given a fair price when Kavitha had to sell her earrings and bangles on a previous occasion of dire need; this reassured Kavitha and helped maintain her composure.
‘Dear, is this indeed yours?’ asked Subbamma, lifting her head from the ring. Kavitha was shaken by the question that was never asked of her before.
‘Yes. My husband had gifted me for my first anniversary.’ She was glad she was prepared with a believable lie.
Subbamma gave a wry smile and said, ‘Don’t be disappointed, dear. This one is fake. Poor fellow – maybe, he couldn’t afford to buy real gold then. But don’t I know him? Your man is as good as gold. Now, don’t go home and fight with him –.’ She rambled on.
Kavitha couldn’t comprehend if she should feel relieved at not being deemed as a thief or despair at her dreams being shattered. She walked out of the shop and threw the ring into the storm drain.
Photo By: Anthony Delanoix
Original Story in Kannada by Sowrabha Karinje
Translated by Ratnakar Baggi