‘SHANTI…’ Sonal was screaming at the top of her voice. Her poor and old housemaid was once again lost in her own thoughts.
‘Shanti, can’t you see this room is a wreck? So much of work is pending, and you’re sitting idle here, with your head in your hands! What’s wrong with you? I gave you money yesterday to visit a good doctor. Did you visit? Did you? Can you hear me? Shanti?’
Shanti was sitting hopelessly on the ground, hearing every single word, but understanding nothing. The words seem to cross over like stones in the air, causing no effect. Sonal could not understand what was wrong with her. She even told her to leave and that she would find another maid, but her love for Chahat never allowed her to leave.
‘What would happen to Chahat baby without me?’ Shanti would always repeat one single sentence whenever she was asked to quit the job.
Chahat was a lovely six years old girl. Sonal’s only daughter and only support after untimely death of her husband in a car accident.
‘Shanti, you are in your sixties now, you should retire from work and take care of yourself. You are becoming sick and your family is unconcerned. You should talk to them once about it.’
‘Memsaab, nobody wants me, they simply care about their own lives. If I’ll quit this job also, where will I go? Nobody will give me a place to live. Living in my own home is a burden now. My daughter in law…’
‘I’m getting late, Shanti. I’ll listen to your tragedies after work, excuse me.’
Sonal put on some powder pink lip gloss and dashed her clothes with her newly bought Gucci perfume, picked up her Hilton black leather bag and headed for work.
‘Take care of Chahat, she will be home anytime.’
‘Memsaab, your tiffin.’ Shanti walked with difficulty towards Sonal, and Sonal snatched the box, tossed it on the back seat of her car, and drove away.
Soon Chahat was home from her school. Shanti started cooking for her.
‘What’s for the lunch bai?’
‘What do you want to eat, baby?’
‘Ummm….maggie noodles! But don’t tell mom about it.’ Chahat giggled and changed her uniform.
‘Maggie noodles days are over, Chahat baby. How about some biryani and mustard gravy?’
‘I hate mustard!’
‘I’ve mixed the Maggie masala in mustard gravy, and the biryani tastes like noodles. Come, try it!’
Chahat didn’t believe the maid, as she knew she was again being tricked into eating something healthy and nutritious on the name of taste.
‘Everyday, you trick me into this.’
‘But not today, I swear!’ the maid crossed her fingers behind her back.
Chahat reluctantly took a spoonful of biryani with mustard gravy. It tasted horrible, just the way she predicted it!
‘Ugh! Shanti bai…I hate you!’ She rushed towards the washroom to puke it all out. After a few minutes, Chahat was out, and Shanti had prepared her favourite Maggie noodles.
‘Wow! Shanti bai, I love you…’
‘Hmmm, the hate becomes love just by seeing Maggie noodles?’
‘Please give it to me, please bai!’ Chahat was struggling at Shanti’s knee level.
Shanti’s weak knees were somehow restricting Chahat from snatching the plate from her hands.
‘Only on one condition.’
‘You will finish your biryani first. Then you can eat as many noodles as you want to!’
‘You’re so stupid, bai. If I’ll finish the biryani, I won’t be hungry enough to eat the Maggie, right?’
‘Hmmm, smart girl. Let’s do one thing then, what about a deal?’
‘Yes! You eat two spoons of biryani, and I’ll feed you one fork full of noodles, done?’
‘Are you sure you won’t trick me into that too?’
‘Alright then, deal!’
The game began. Chahat was forced to eat big spoons of biryani and in return, Shanti would only feed her barely two strands of noodles in a tiny fork.
‘I don’t think this trick is working.’
‘I’m not even tasting the Maggie properly. My mouth has a taste of the gruesome mustard gravy…yuck!’
‘That’s because, what you hate the most, remains with you, forever. And the loved ones, go away…’ a tear stealthily skipped Shanti’s eyes. She knew Chahat was too young to understand the complications of life. Shanti’s husband was murdered by her own son in the wrath of some property disputes. She was treated like a doormat, and her daughter in law would always force her to do all the household chores. That was the reason Shanti left her home, around 10 years ago, and was living with Sonal and Chahat.
‘Finish!’ Chahat put forward the plate of biryani, which was empty now. Her little hands were smeared in the gravy and Shanti got up to clean up the table and wash Chahat’s hands.
‘You want to eat Maggie now?’
Chahat caressed her tummy and told Shanti that she was too full to even eat a single strand of noodles.
‘I want to watch powerpuff girls! I told mom to dress me like blossom for my fancy dress competition in school!’
‘Well, it’s 4pm, and right now, Tom and Jerry will be on the TV, and not powerpuff girls.’
With Chahat, even Shanti had memorized the timings for cartoons. Chahat was like a grand-daughter to her, and with her, she would forget the worries of her life. She would feel like a kid, once again!
‘Shanti bai, how is your ghost? She still hurts you?’
Shanti had told Chahat about her daughter-in-law once, by describing her, as the ghost of her life. From that day, Chahat daily asked about that ghost.
‘Oh, come here baby. You don’t need to worry about those things. Let’s watch some TV and then you have your nap-time, remember?’
‘No! I don’t want to sleep…’ Chahat started throwing tantrums.
‘TV…let’s watch some cartoons, come on!’ Shanti picked up tiny Chahat and carried her to the lobby. Chahat sat on the giant couch, while Shanti sat on the floor.
‘Why don’t you sit here, with me?’
‘No baby, that couch is for you, your family and guests!’
‘Bai, you live here?’
‘You cook for me?’
‘You clean this house?’
‘Then you are family! My teacher says, the people who live with you, work for you, are family. It can be a mother or a father. Fathers are strong and they protect their kids. My friend says her father is a superhero. I don’t have any father, will you be my father, bai?’
Shanti couldn’t say anything. For a moment, her lips were sealed with concoction of grief and happiness; grief, for Chahat being a father-less child, and happiness, for being something to someone. Her own kids treated her like dust, while this little girl, who didn’t even know her properly, was asking her to be her father, a guardian, a superhero; a regard, which her heart always yearned from her own son.
‘What happened bai? Don’t you want to be my father?’
‘I will be…’ Shanti broke down.
‘Why are you crying? Are fathers bad?’
‘No…’ Shanti’s voice was choked.
‘Do fathers cry?’
Shanti started writing something in her diary.
‘What do you keep writing, bai? I always see you with this old diary in your room, what is written in it?’
‘Nothing! A fairy-tale, that I’ll narrate to you shortly!’
‘Really?’ Chahat’s gleaming eyes were excited to listen to it, right now!
‘Yes, very soon!’ Shanti held her face and kissed her forehead.
Meanwhile, Sonal was back from work, and she saw Shanti kissing Chahat.
‘SHANTI!’ Sonal shouted and Chahat was frightened. She started crying.
‘How many times have I told you not to touch Chahat? You don’t even wash your hands properly and now you’re kissing my daughter? Do you want her to be sick? Get out! And don’t come to work from tomorrow, get lost!’
‘Memsaab, I washed my hands…’
‘I said get out, right now! Or I’ll have to call the security.’
‘Memsaab, Chahat baby…’
‘Chahat will not die if you leave. I can find much better caretakers for her. Just because I allowed you to live in this house, doesn’t mean you will do whatever you want to!’
Sonal walked to the kitchen to get some water. After her husband’s death, she was hardened, she felt nothing, emotions crawled their way out of her, and it was only Chahat now, whom she was concerned about.
‘Who the hell made Maggie noodles today?’
‘Memsaab, Chahat baby didn’t eat…’
‘Oh, so you ate the biryani and fed Chahat those noodles? How many times have I told you not to mess with my daughter’s food!’
‘Why the hell are you still standing here? Get out!’
Shanti picked up her torn jute bag, wore her tattered pair of slippers and walked away. Chahat was crying badly.
‘Why are you crying now? What’s wrong with you? Have I told you to leave the house? No, right? Then shut up and go to sleep! I’ve had a bad day already.’
Sonal banged the door of her room shut, and Chahat ran to the balcony to see Shanti bai. Being old, she had hardly managed to reach the ground floor of the building, and she was walking towards the gate, slowly and difficultly.
As Shanti bai reached the gate, an auto-rickshaw came out of nowhere, and knocked her down on the road. Shanti’s weak body couldn’t take the shock and she collapsed. The driver managed to pull back and run away. A crowd of people gathered around her, and she got bruises on her body.
Chahat was witnessing everything from the balcony, as the rickshaw hit Shanti, Chahat squealed and she started crying and screaming. She banged Sonal’s door several times, requesting her to help Shanti bai, but Sonal was sleeping with her headphones on. She didn’t hear anything.
Chahat rushed down and on ground floor, she knocked on the door of a man, about whom she was sure that he would help her.
Mr. Sahni, who shifted in their building just a year ago, and was a very friendly man. Chahat remembered him as candy uncle, as whenever she met him, he would always give her candy, none of which Sonal allowed her to eat.
‘Candy uncle…please open the door!’
‘Hey, Chahat. How are you? Want some candy?’
‘No, uncle my bai…’
‘Shanti bai had an accident, please help her, uncle!’
Without thinking anything, Candy-uncle ran towards the building gate. Shanti bai was still lying on the road, unconscious, and unidentified.
‘Why the hell nobody called an ambulance?’
‘Saheb, she’s a poor lady, a housemaid and old too. How many days do you think she would have survived anyways?’ said a man from the crowd.
Chahat was rubbing Shanti bai’s hands and asking her to wake up. Someone came forward with a water bottle, and Mr. Sahni sprinkled some water on her face.
Shanti bai was partly conscious now.
‘Chahat baby…’ she spoke with difficulty.
‘Shanti bai…wake up, bai. I’ll talk to mom and she’ll keep you back on work. Please don’t go to God, please…he already has my father and I’ve never seen him since then…’ Chahat was crying incessantly.
Shanti gave her torn jute bag to Chahat.
‘I’m alright, just give this bag to memsaab…ouch!’ Shanti howled in pain and held her chest.
‘Shanti bai, I’ll never hurt you, I’ll eat mustard gravy daily, I’ll never ask for noodles. Please don’t leave me.’
Meanwhile the ambulance arrived. Mr. Sahni had called the hospital and called an ambulance. A team of nurses and ward-boys got off with a stretcher and picked up Shanti to take her to the hospital.
‘Check her nerve…’ said one of the nurses.
The other one pressed her fingers against Shanti’s wrist.
The ward boy placed the stethoscope against her chest and placed his two fingers in front of her nostrils.
‘She’s not breathing.’
One of the nurses stepped forward and pressed her chest harder in rhythmic motion. Still Shanti’s heart was not working. They kept trying for fifteen minutes, but nothing happened. No miracle saved her life.
‘We’re sorry, sir. She’s no more…’
The team from the hospital left. The crowd left. Shanti was left alone on the road with Mr. Sahni and Chahat by her side.
‘What are you doing here? I was so worried for you, Chahat!’ Sonal came rushing down towards the gate of their building.
‘Shanti bai went to God!’ Chahat screamed and hugged Sonal.
‘What…?’ Sonal couldn’t believe her eyes. Just a few minutes ago, she had fired her from work, everything was still fine. How could she die?
Mr. Sahni explained the whole situation to Sonal, and she couldn’t help, but cry.
Sonal had no idea where she lived, so she told the gatekeeper to inform Shanti’s family about her death.
The next morning
Sonal was ready and she left for work. As her car approached the main gate, she was horrified watching Shanti, sitting at the pavement. She called the gatekeeper, who came running towards her. She lowered down the window of her car and talked to the gatekeeper.
‘What is that?’
‘Madam, I tried calling at her home, the number is wrong I guess. I don’t know her address, nobody came to claim the body. Her body is lying here since yesterday. I just placed it on the pavement as it was blocking the entrance.’
‘You fool, can’t you call the cemetery people?’
‘I called them, they’ll come in the afternoon. They’re too lazy when the bodies are unclaimed. A begger’s body was lying for two days, here in front of you. I and a friend buried it in the ground. Nobody came to pick that up even!’
‘Holy mother!’ Sonal folded her hands for a moment and drove away. Thanking God for a better life.
Chahat was at home as her school was off today. Her maternal aunt was at home, accompanying her.
‘Aunt Seema, I want to show you something.’
Chahat brought a frayed and scruffy, dirty looking jute bag from her cupboard.
‘What is that? From where did you get it?’
‘It’s of Shanti bai, my superhero. She went to God yesterday!’
Seema was immediately reminded of their old maid, Shanti, whom Sonal mentioned a lot over the phone.
‘She went to God?’
‘Yes, she had an accident in front of the building.’ Chahat started crying.
Seema hugged her, ‘Brave girls don’t cry! Come here baby…’
‘She told me to give this bag to mom.’
Seema opened the bag. It had some smelly clothes, and a diary, and in the inner pocket, there were Rs. 2500. She started reading the diary, it had some notes, scribbled in Hindi.
For a moment, Seema couldn’t assimilate her thoughts. Whatever she was reading was unbelievably shocking. Streams of tears flew from her eyes, and she awaited Sonal.
In the evening, as Sonal was home, Seema showed her the diary. Sonal read it and she couldn’t even stand upright. The sudden shock paralyzed her legs and she almost fell on the ground. She sat on the ground, holding the couch. The last note made her cry like a baby.
‘What happened mom?’ Chahat couldn’t understand what was in the diary that was making everyone cry. She was anticipated now.
‘I’m sorry, Shanti bai. I’m sorry for never believing you, for always scolding you and for threatening you to throw you out of my home.’
Sonal immediately ran towards the main gate, Shanti’s body was still on the pavement. She called the gatekeeper, who placed the body on the back seat of Sonal’s car. She, along with Seema, went to the cremation ground and burned her body with all the rites and rituals.
‘Goodbye, to a lady, who was always more than a mother to me!’ Sonal said, hugged Seema, and cried her heart out. She never knew Shanti would do so much for them. Despite being a housemaid, she was attached to them as a family.
Back at home, Sonal again read that diary and cried herself to sleep.
The Diary said:
Nobody knows I’m a homeless lady. I have no husband, no son. My husband, who was murdered by my son, left me a property worth half a million rupees. But what’s the use of that money when I have no family? My son, who fled away with his wife ten years ago, is like a dead man to me. He is someone, who never even attempted to contact me all these years. I have only one family now, Sonal memsaab, my daughter, and Chahat baby, my granddaughter. I am not educated enough to do the paperwork, but this diary will be enough of a proof, for my daughter to believe that she is not alone in this world.
Sonal memsaab, if you are reading this, I want you to read this with a smile. It’s a request from your mother. In this bag, there are property papers, and I’m leaving everything for you and Chahat baby. Please accept it as a dowry from a mother, to a daughter. I had no daughter to rejoice the pleasure of getting her married in a lavish way. This is all I can do before dying…this is all I can do to give some peace to my soul. You have given me a roof to live, food to eat, and a lovely granddaughter, who always made me forget the tensions of my life. This is nothing compared to what you did…
What you hate the most, remains with you forever, and the loved ones, go away. I know, one day I’ll also have to leave this house. I’m beginning to forget things, I’m lost in my own thoughts, I’m losing my conscious, amnesia is taking its toll, but I always pray to God, that the day you throw me out of this home, he should call me to his home, I don’t want to be a homeless person…ever…
That diary of a maid, gave Sonal deeper lessons, her act of kindness was never forgotten…