Shoili Kanungo is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer from New Delhi, where she has lived most of her life. She has also lived a year in Tokyo and seven years in Sydney. She likes walking through cities, and reading comics. Her website is www.shoilikanungo.com.
About the toothbrush though, she would have to figure something out. One of the houses where she worked as a part time maid, the first one, kept plenty of extra toothbrushes in the bathroom cabinet—the airplane variety, each in its individual plastic wrap with a minuscule tube of toothpaste. They stood there squeezed into a broken mug, forgotten and forlorn. She would probably be doing them a favour if she took a few of those. Making room for new ones to come. She looked outside and saw a hint of purple light enter the sky, slowly uncovering the darkness. Just perfect. Light enough to find her way and dark enough not to get caught. She took a last look at herself in the tiny mirror in its pink plastic frame. She liked the way the synthetic yellow kurta hugged her body. She dabbed her face with a white powder that was many shades too light and a touch of lipstick. Satisfied by the effect, she cloaked herself in a dark grey shawl to avoid being seen in the semi light, thankful that her mother was still deep in slumber, snoring peacefully in her corner.
He was sitting alone on the narrow ledge under the bus stop, all hunched up, with a bidi hanging on his lips. She scowled in mock annoyance. He extinguished the cigarette and flicked it away. She stood beside him politely, her heart swelling with anticipation.
Up until this morning they had always met in short intervals between her work shifts. “It’s no fun meeting you like this under the bright sun,” he had said. “You’re always so tense that your friends are watching us…that your parents will find out and you’ll be locked away till they marry you off to that weasel.”
“Well obviously I can’t meet you at night or in the evening.”
“You are such a good little girl,” he had teased. “I like your decorum. Just the kind of person I would like to make my wife.” She had blushed with pleasure when he had said. He was exactly what she wanted in a husband; smart and educated—he even spoke English, and had an office job. She didn’t know what exactly he did in the office, but to her, it meant that he worked at the same level as her employers. But fate, who was her mother, had a different husband in mind for her. She had been presented with a photograph of a skinny man from a small town deep in Harayana. “He has started his own taxi business and should be doing really well. You won’t need to work at all.” Her mother had said with pride. Lavi had responded with disgust. “I am a city girl, Ma. I grew up in Delhi. I don’t want to be sitting around on a charpai all day, making chapattis for him and his clan. He doesn’t look educated or romantic or modern. Does he even know what February 14th means?”
Her reverie was cut short by her boyfriend’s voice. “I almost thought you wouldn’t turn up. Early morning is respectable enough, isn’t it? It’s quiet and romantic, too. We won’t have the whole world and its siblings watching us.”
She smiled and came in closer. He caught her by the waist and pulled her towards him. She collapsed on his lap without resistance. They kissed forgetful of the sun as it rose higher in the sky stealing their invisibility. Suddenly aware of the rapidly changing light she jerked herself away.
“You’ve still got time,” he said, and pulled out a sheet of paper, folded in four, from the back pocket of his jeans, bowing his head low in a gesture of subservience as he handed it to her. “With this, I make you my wife. Happy Birthday in advance.”
She jumped back horrified, a questioning look in her eyes, resistant to take the paper from him.
“It’s a marriage certificate from the court. You are now officially my wife.”
She continued to look horrified, reluctant to accept the piece of paper.
“Clever girl. You don’t yield easily do you? Well, first we run away to my village. I have already told my mother about us so she is expecting you. And then, we announce to your parents that we are married. They will have no option but to agree. Then, we will have a nice ceremony with a pretty red lehenga for you. This is called eloping. And we are like Laila and Majnu. Isn’t this romantic? Like living a movie?”
Her horror turned to a mixture of disbelief and excitement. “Why not,” she thought. “It’s not like I will miss my grim routine of sweeping floors for other people.”
The intricacies—like the fact that the court would have required them both to be present for the marriage—did not occur to her. He suddenly looked away.
“We have another hour. I know a place we can go to, someplace private. I have a bike I borrowed from work.”
He turned to read her response in her eyes.
The first house Lavi visited every morning was the house of sleep. The mother would open the door in silence and slip back into bed. The daughter was always asleep when she came in. The tiniest of sounds, like the push of the chair while she swept, would awaken the girl from her slumber. She would open her eyes, frown, click her tongue in disapproval and fall back asleep, her mysterious life tangled between a thin sheet and a light blanket.
With every stroke of the broom Lavi’s eyes moved this way and that, picking up bits of information to weave a history for the girl. This was a game she played every day, conjuring up stories with the clues she found. There were piles of shoes under the bed. Dirty gym shoes, flat shoes in pink, high heels with silver straps, still wrapped in tissue. Onthe floor the girl had tossed her clothes from the night before. Soft and slinky, the smell of perfume still clinging to them. Lavi picked them up, folded and placed them on the chair. She combed through the red waste paper bin to see if there was anything of interest. Sometimes it carried things that could be easily fixed or reused. Perfectly good bangles with a tiny chip, or the fancy packaging for a new watch.
Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed the familiar packaging for a medicine that she too had used earlier that morning. He had insisted that she swallow the pill to avoid complications. “But we are married now!” she had said. “I know. But I want to spend more time with you alone before our child comes along.” She stood there thinking of her rendezvous in the little room, and felt her legs go weak as she thought of how he had yanked her clothes off. She had loved the feel of his hand going under her kurta, greedily clutching her tiny breasts. But she hadn’t really enjoyed the rest of it. “It’s always like that the first time,” he had said.
“Why are you staring at me?” Her musing was interjected by the girl, who was now awake. Startled, Lavi hurriedly left the room.
Later that afternoon she sat on the stairs with the other girls who worked in the block, exchanging tidbits and lunch. Residents would complain that they dirtied the stairway, inviting flies and dogs, but they turned a deaf ear to all protests.
“My pant-wali madam is such a kharoos,” said Jani. “She got me to cook a giant pot of Kheer, and I sweated it out for two hours, slow stirring in her fan-less kitchen, but was I offered even a teaspoon to taste? No. But never mind, there’s always a solution!” She pulled out a tiny box filled with Kheer and the other girls squealed in delight.
“Hush hush, someone’s coming.” They waited for the resident to pass, ignoring their disapproving glances.
“I got all the leftover Chinese,” announced Govima as she opened two little little plastic pots buoyant with a dark gravy.
“Just gravy?” asked Jani peering into the contents suspiciously. “Do they think we are beggars? Chuck it out.”
After lunch the girls spread out their mat and rested on each other’s laps.
“You know what? I think the didi upstairs has a boyfriend she does it with,” announced Lavi. “She uses that medicine that we see on TV for stopping babies. I found it in her dustbin.”
“Pill?” Jani looked at her strangely. “What ad and how do you know?”
“Oh it comes quite often—if you watch English channels, which I do” smiled Lavi sweetly. “I have seen a car come with a bhaiya in it who comes around at times.”
“No, it’s an old battered motor cycle” burst in Govima. “I saw your didi hop onto the back seat. She even held the bhaiya on the bike around his waist—nice and tight. He looked really scraggly. Our boys look better you know.”
The speculation had begun, and would probably keep the girls occupied for a few weeks. Lavi smiled happy at this juicy contribution to her group. In a few weeks, she too would be a story for the girls to remember her by. A fat, juicy story. A legendary story, she thought, holding her secret close to her heart. And she would be far, far away living her dream.