It was the morning of Christmas Eve – never a big deal in their part of Calcutta – when Putul came in with her mother in a hand-me-down jumper. The Mistress of the Mansion was awake, sweeping the dead leaves in the garden towards the southern wall. She never truly honoured her title, which irked Putul. Her daughter, the Little Madame, was in the last stages of a very confusing dream which would return to her in sputtering fragments during that day then dissipate forever. Cocooned in the maroon Bhutanese quilt, a present from her only international Auntie, Sukanya fell off the top of the telephone tower or drowned in a pond with an algae film and woke up as a girl of nine.
The week before, Little Madame had brought in a strange affliction of the tongue from school. Sukanya went to a private school (of course) that was as tall as the Pepsi factory Putul and her mother walked past every morning and afternoon. She had her blouses and pleated skirts washed, starched, and ironed every two days. And she had been assigned Putul as her shoeshine girl. Some days Putul considered lending her name to Little Madame. Other days, she held on to it dearly for it was ill-fitting and stitched from her mother’s fancies, too private a thing, too personalised now to give away.
‘Call me Sukanya, Ma, not Shoe-konna,’ she declared, tossing off her shoes, coated in mud and blades of grass after a tedious day of Lock-and-Key at the playground. ‘The Bangla tongue is heavy with all that fish and curd. Sukanya. It sounds so pretty, Ma. Yamini Miss calls me Sukanya. She sounds so lovely.’
‘She sounds like an air-hostess is what she sounds like,’ Mistress boomed. ‘She’s an Allahabadi. She’ll never appreciate the Bangla tongue. And I’ll call you Shoe-konna as long as I’m alive. I gave you that name. I have a Bangla tongue. When I’m gone, then you can call yourself whatever you want. I told your father picking Hindi as your second language was a mistake. We should have gone with Bangla. Your Premchand has got nothing on our Rabi Thakur.’ She did not have the heart to tell her mother that they would begin a translation of a Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay short story next week, something about a stray dog.
Little Madame Shoe-kanna never liked having Putul watch her wake up. It was very awkward how she came in the morning, sat by the door of the bedroom, at the foot of the bed, with a brush in one hand, Sukanya’s shoe in the other, and an open disk of Kiwi (black) near her knee. Putul was always careful never to drag the bristles too fiercely against the leather lest she wake Madame up. Today, she had been rather clumsy and let the lid slip from her hands.
‘What are you doing?’ said Sukanya, uncharacteristically disgruntled. ‘Don’t you know today’s Saturday? No school. No polishing.’
‘Oh, yes. I forgot,’ said Putul.
‘What are you supposed to say to me today?’ said Sukanya, buttoning up her pale pink nightie which made her feel like her mother, like a child-woman.
‘Good mo’ning?’ Putul had a good ear for English.
‘Oh, got it! Haepee Burrday.’
‘Hmmm, thank you.’
Sukanya was happy to have Putul because she was a plain little thing who would never be a goddess. Now Sukanya, she had been promised beauty and success. Uncles and grandmothers spoke so highly of her olive eyes, a rarity afforded to no one else in their family. They went on and on about them; someone even mentioned, and he must have been secretly writing a book of children’s stories by night and teaching the Romantics at the fancy ICSE school by day, that someone plucked two moss covered stones from a brook, affixed them to a clay head, and breathed life into her. They said how perfect her head was, a Kumartuli sculptor’s handiwork, a perfect heart shape, glistening and unblemished. How big they had painted the deity’s eyes, lotus-shaped. All this, of course, went to her head.
Putul was seven, and a little short for her age. The Naapit had attacked her head with a pair of shears, it seemed: she had a despairing “boys’-cut”. Her hair had been cut by a Naapit with a mechanical trimmer that looked like a pair of scissors with a shaver head and made her worry for the nape of her neck. Sukanya went to the barbers, with their nice curtains and blow-dryers. Putul went to the Naapits. She had cockroach eyes and a leaking nose — it was always her right nostril. She chewed with her mouth open. Her short legs turned her into a duckling as she followed Sukanya around rapidly, wherever she went, around the house, to the gate to pet the dogs or to the shops to fetch Rajnigandha for Ma. Everybody knew Putul was something Maya called her. Her schoolmasters called her something else but Sukanya never bothered asking. On the other hand, Sukanya, so exotic, freshly unboxed, was exempt from the Bengali custom: she had no holler-name at home.
‘What do we play today?’ Putul asked.
‘A round of hopscotch, then teacher-teacher?’ said Sukanya. She had, for a very brief moment, considered playing “kitchen-kitchen” with Putul’s utensils pottered from the wet earth during the moody monsoons of that year. It had begun raining torrentially when Sukanya was in school and Maya had suggested, commanded, that Putul skip her 12 noon class, her entire day altogether. And Putul was never the one to argue: her mother, unlike Sukanya’s, didn’t spare the palm against the cheek. Once the clouds retreated, she sauntered downstairs and loitered among the rose bushes. She felt the gooey earth shift underneath her and, scooping up a fistful of the topsoil upon which homes and countries are built, she began to fashion little cups with ear-shaped handles, pots with lids, spoons (not made to scale, obviously), and a little stove, the size of a matchbox, that resembled a boom box laid to rest. Maya had suggested, commanded, that Putul leave her earthen Lilliput utensils behind for Sukanya to play with. ‘Why?’ asked Putul. ‘Because they will make a mess of things in our house,’ is what Maya said rather than ‘The earth is theirs, not ours.’ And with the arrival of Little Madame from school came the return of the rains; the earthen crockery laid out in the driveway to dry in the sun was washed away, returned to bed.
Putul set to work as she dragged a piece of chalk against the asphalt, right in front of the porch of the family to whom Mistress had rented out the rooms of the ground floor. Money was thin. Putul had always liked the woman in the house. Whenever she saw the girls play, she greeted them with the same tone, and called them both by their names; it did not matter if they were holler-names or proper ones. There was no lilt and drop in “Shoe-konna” and “Putul”. That was precisely why she liked her. Little Madame’s relatives greeted here with “Oh, how big you’ve grown” and followed it with “Do you know how I want my tea? Your Ma will tell you”, directed at Putul, whose familiar new blouse they wouldn’t take note of. Despite liking the woman, Putul never knew what her name was, calling her only “Auntie” when she poked her head through the grilles for a chat with the girls, and always seemed to forget her face as soon as she retreated into her home.
‘What subject will be doing in teacher-teacher today?’ Putul asked as she finished the last square of the arrangement.
‘I was thinking English.’
‘But we did that last time.’
‘But I really like talking about stories.’
‘Can you teach Harshavardhana today? Or maybe RAM and ROM?’
‘Only if you can tell me what ROM stands for.’
‘I remember, just give me a minute. I have it. I have it. Read. Only. Memories.’
‘Memory. Correct. I suppose I could teach Computer today. I could teach you about word document or spreadsheet. We learned about them last week. But those are very boring things. And Harshavardhana was a real person. I don’t like talking about real things.’
‘But it would be like telling a story, yes? Doesn’t your Ma tell you that you should remember history like a story and then during exams everything will come to your head just like that?’
‘Yes, but still. It happened. Harshavardhana happened. It’s no good. I want to teach people who never were. People who did things that were never done. And nothing really happens and no one really lives yet things happen and there are men and women in it who breathe and die and say things you or I could very well say. And it’s all a lie but it seems very truthful. It is like magic. Or a dream you can go over any time you want.’
‘But doesn’t Harshavardhana also speak in your textbook?’
‘Yes, but the woman who wrote the book didn’t put his words within quotation marks so it is a little hard for me to believe.’
‘OK, fine. English only. But what story?’
‘That will be a surprise.’ Sukanya repeated her teacher’s words that gave her so much joy when she heard them between the stories and poems that were taught in class.
‘I know,’ Putul submitted, as she always did during “Teacher teacher”, which is what they liked to call it, this game of theirs, which they played on the balcony of the first floor of Sukanya’s mansion. There, the four varnished chairs against the wall overlooking the garden downstairs were turned to face Sukanya during playtime, when she would place her slate on a chair and herself on another. Putul would fetch a used but not exhausted notebook from a previous year and play a diligent student with whom Sukanya could find no fault; yet Sukanya had to round off her role in character so she rebuked or scolded an unruly, invisible student behind Putul, who knew she would always be the student in this game.
Mistress of the Mansion, who never honoured her title, was pouring tea into an array of sixteen cups in the kitchen. Fastidiously, she placed two squares of 50-50 in each saucer. She was out of breath, not because she was exhausted but because she was a little anxious. What was there to be anxious about? They were all there in the sitting-room, some of hers and some of her husband’s, exalting Little Madame Shoe-Konna. There was the Sylheti woman from downstairs who was a godsend when savings turned into trickles. If only Maya and Putul weren’t late.
She inspected the chicken curry, the parathas, the paneer, and the desserts — rice pudding and roshogollas from Ganguram. She and Maya had spent all morning and a good part of the afternoon in the kitchen, slicing and dicing. Maya was impressive today as she ground the spices with a rolling pin heavier than her hand against the door-shaped slab of stone. Putul took a little break from playtime to flatten the paratha dough with a rolling pin more suitable for her frame. The rice pudding — ah, the payesh — only Maya could ladle all the sweetness and the viscosity of giddy celebration of the world. How long would the two of them take?
As her mother carried the tray of trembling cups into the living room, Sukanya bounced from one lap to the next. An aunt smelling of talcum powder pressed a five-hundred rupee note into her palm and proceeded to form a Russian doll of fists: hers enclosing Sukanya’s clutching on to the note. ‘Don’t tell your mother,’ she said. ‘Spend it on whatever you like.’
‘Like another frock?’ Sukanya whispered to her mother’s sister.
‘I doubt you’ll be able to exchange your note for one prettier than this,’ she said as she tugged at Sukanya’s ochre yellow sleeveless frock, with its sash around the waist and large, neat bow.
‘I wanted it to be a little longer, you know. I wanted it to go all the way to the bottom of my feet. Last year also I had a frock that was till my knees. It was almost the same dress that the doll had which Baba gave me when I was five. Do you remember that one? The one with the yellow hair who closed her eyes when you put her down? The frock was very bad to look at. It was white. White is boring. I’ll wear white when I get older.’
As Sukanya’s mother began setting down the cups, she looked at the clock: in about an hour’s time, they would cut the cake. The cake could not be cut without Maya and Putul. What was keeping them? Sometimes she wondered if she should have given Putul some money for all the sundry activities she did around the house, like getting a dozen eggs from Jisu’s shop at the end of the street for her perfect round chapatis. If Maya was training Putul, rearing another maid in the family, she had better get an early start when it came to wages, shouldn’t she? Putul had to learn what was adequate for her services. Was she being ripped off? No, Sukanya’s mother thought, that is rather crude. She had to learn how to negotiate. How much was she worth? And then she looked at her own daughter, who was imploring between accepting birthday wishes and blessings and presents and envelopes with rupee notes, imploring her mother with all her heart to make sure that she would do all the serving during dinner time. What was she doing with her plaything? Was she not raising her to be like herself? Stubborn and aware of what she wore, ate, spoke, and wrote? Trained to blot out other voices if they bled into her? Yes, of course she was. Then, what set Sukanya and Putul apart? Their make. Sukanya was porcelain, her mother thought. Putul was clay. And a pretty dress looked pretty on every doll, didn’t it? Ah, that stream of consciousness, blast it, always alienating you from present company. What’s done is done, Sukanya’s mother. It was a gift. Everyone is happy. Everyone is appropriately compensated.
‘Should we cut the cake without Maya and Putul?’ she asked her daughter.
‘No, no, no. Let’s wait for them a little longer.’
‘But do you want to keep your guests waiting?’
‘They don’t have anywhere to go.’
‘They have to go home. Biplob Uncle here has to take the Metro. Kavi Nazrul to Dum Dum. That’s a long journey, Shoe-konna.’
‘No, we will wait.’
You will live a hundred years, the Bengalis say, because we were just talking about you; Maya walked in wearing a papery maroon sari with golden diamond block prints. She had taken her aanchol and wrapped it over her other shoulder as well. Two “imitation” studs shone in her earlobes. Her bindi was barfi-shaped, tiny, you could mistake it for a mole.
‘See, I told you it would suit you well, didn’t I?’ Sukanya’s mother walked up to her, admiring the sari she had bought for herself a fortnight after her husband passed under the June sun in the bazaar right when he was about to part with his money for the hilsa. She had not even pulled out the fabric from the Seal King bag. She tossed it to Maya as she was cutting that hilsa which Putul would then drop into a wok of simmering mustard oil. ‘Here,’ she had said to Maya, ‘gift.’
‘Yes, thank you very much. This is really comfortable. And it smells so good. Smells like you.’
‘No, that’s alright,’ she said, rather uncomfortably. ‘Are you wearing a petticoat?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘She’s a little shy.’
‘Where’s Putul?’ Little Mistress said.
‘Happy birthday, Shoe-konna. Ah! You look like a Rajkonna. Proper royalty, yes. Here, come over. I have a gift for you.’ With both hands, she held a lemon yellow plastic bag that made a noise of clay pots clinking. ‘I cannot give you much. But, I have a sister in Kokrajhar and I told her it was your birthday. Last week, there was a huge mela near the Gouranga river, so I asked her if she would get you a set of these.’ Within the bag was the loam of the Gouranga bank shaped into a perfect kitchen set. ‘The rain spoiled your last kitchen. I felt very bad. But look. Isn’t this much prettier?’
‘It wasn’t my kitchen,’ Sukanya murmured to herself, then a little louder she said, ‘Have you got Putul one set, too?’
‘No, she doesn’t need it. She cooks at home with our pots.’
‘Where’s Putul?’ said Sukanya’s mother, a little sourly.
‘She’s out in the verandah. Oi, Putul. Come inside. Stop being silly.’
The nimble footsteps of that slight being with her jingling silver anklets were heard. No sooner had she entered the living room than she plunged behind her mother. She had done something to her hair, Sukanya thought. Yes, she had. She had wet-combed it flat. She could only catch a steal.
‘Oi, Putul you silly girl. Come out.’ Maya reprimanded, ‘come out.’
‘No, it’s alright,’ her daughter whimpered.
Sukanya, chuckling, giggling, was about to egg on her playmate. She wanted to tell her that it was no big deal. The present company in the living room were as much strangers to her as they were to Sukanya. The blowing of the 9 candle, the sectoring of the cake was mere drudgery. Then, they would retire to her room with their cake and Coke and play until dinner time. Her birthday was a means for old family to congregate and engage in a peer review of their pensions, their malai curry shrimp recipes, and their allegiance to Mamata or the lack thereof.
Putul stepped out, a vision in cumulonimbus white. The sleeves of her frock were generously puffed. Its bodice was boxy and plain save for a little lacework that would escape the eye of the oh-there-she-is. The skirt was the hero, oh yes, a fountain of foaming water, one layer, then another, then another, and the final one. That’s how they had learned to make Christmas trees at Art & Craft in Sukanya’s school: make your cones and stack them and paint them green and add your tinfoil ornaments with the tricky Fevicol and there you are. Putul looked like Christmas Eve on Christmas Eve but that is not exactly why the smile rapidly dissipated from Sukanya’s face.
Sukanya noticed the little butterfly embroidered on the cotton below Putul’s throat and only one frock that white, with a skirt that fir-like, had been worn in that Mansion. She noticed the bit of chocolate that she had spilled on that right sleeve last year. She had not meant to wipe it off when she grabbed a fistful of that sleeve to deflate it. Then, she tugged, then pulled, then spun Putul around and pulled down the zipper to expose her dark, spotty back. Putul resisted: she spun, she pushed her playmate, slapped away her teacher’s hands as they tried to rip the frock away from her being. She saw no playmate or teacher now. She saw her mother’s mistress’s daughter who, de facto, became her mistress.
‘Take off my frock!’ Sukanya screamed, spit spinning out of her mouth. ‘My frock! My frock!’ Putul, who had suppressed an urge, was now shuffling where she stood, confused because she had been reminded of a place she had always suspected she belonged in, a place of subservience and quiet submission, began to sob and hiccup. ‘Baba got me that dress. Baba got me my doll. Putul, you take it off now. It is not yours to take.’
Sukanya’s mother wrapped her arms around her daughter’s, which would be just as fuzzy and twiggy in a decade’s time. She said loudly: ‘What is wrong with you, Shoe-konna? What is wrong with you? Putul always wears your things and you’ve never behaved like this. Only this morning she wore your jumper. Then you said nothing. Why are you angry now?’
‘I wore this last year. Baba got this for me.’
‘You threw it away, remember? You said you never wanted to see it again, remember? The month after the Shraddho? So, I gave it to Putul.’
‘If she wants to wear a white frock, she can ask her own father. Why didn’t you tell me you were giving it to her? It was the last thing he bought me. Why can’t you throw it away? Why are you so stupid? I told you I never wanted to see it again, didn’t I?’
‘What did you call me?’
‘Stupid, stupid. You’re stupid. You can’t even say my name right and I’m your daughter. Take your kitchen. I don’t want want it. It was never mine.’
Handing back the plastic bag to Maya, the Little Mistress stomped down to the end of the living room where she shared her bedroom with her mother and banged and bolted the door shut. Mistress of the Mansion wondered then, as she looked at her aghast guests and the simpering girl, if she truly was the mistress or if she had delegated her and passed on the Vice of I Eat at the Table, You Eat on the Floor to the Little Mistress.
Photo: Max Pixel