When the nurse came to the city she was barely a twit of a woman: under-nourished, bourgeois, and curious. She had come a long way to reach a position of power for a new family to trust her with their newborn.
‘The baby is quiet and not too troublesome,’ said the latest new mother-employer covering her lactating breasts in a seamless bodice.
The nurse had belonged to a poorer family. It was her father’s death that had set in motion the need for money and once she – Sister Pratibha set out she couldn’t stop. There was no holiday in her life. She had two sisters to marry off, and an ailing mother to care for. She did a course in nursing and worked initially in private hospitals and local clinics. It was a friend who brought along the idea of her earning greater sums of money in the city and so the nurse traveled all the way away from home.
‘What would be your charges like?’ the heavy-bosom, tall-framed woman asked.
‘4000 per night’
There was a second’s worth of hesitation. “Nothing less?”
They settled for 2000 which was also quite good, thought Sister Pratibha.
She once again traded with her night’s dream and sleep to care for a rich couple’s newborn, skillfully negotiating through the dark hours of duty. By now she knew how 12 hours of night passed faster than the same hours of day. Earlier, she even had worked round the clock to ensure the sum of money in her bank account grew, sending it home for her sisters to prepare for their marriages and for her mother’s medicines. Marriages required a lot of gold.
‘You can join from today,’ the silken voice of the woman continued, whom she would now call, ‘Madam’.
On nights when the mistress and master were asleep in the other room, and the baby was fed and left to Sister Pratibha’s care, she would rummage through the belongings of every room, wondering how it would feel to live in a huge house in a frighteningly noisy city with the people you love surrounding you all the time, even while you ate, slept and worked; it had been years since she had known the similar familiarity of her own family.
Sister Pratibha looked at the baby sleeping in the crib, booted, mitted, and capped for the night. What if she walked away with it? How long before its parents would know? What if she sold it to a nexus of baby racketeers? She had heard they priced well, somewhere between a lakh and two for a cherub baby boy, lesser for a girl. She snorted. As if girl children were any less.
Lowering the light of the baby’s room and wandering through the corridor of the house counting her steps as she went along, she reached the main door and felt its brass handle and knobs against the warmth of her face and hand. She peeped through the eyehole.
The racketeers, whoever they were, could move babies fast into the hands of immoral, greedy childless people once it was crossed over just such a door of a warm and safe home.
She returned to the sleeping child.
Abduction was, perhaps, the only thing she wouldn’t do. Though it wasn’t easy after her father’s death for them in any way, even to fend off men of the village who kept eyeing the three young daughters. Their mother did an effective job even in sickness by sitting with a sickle in the courtyard hacking dry coconuts mouthing and mumbling threats to passerby men while worrying inside about her daughters and from where their dowries would come.
‘She will die, Didi’, the youngest would say weep, ‘if we do nothing.’ It was up to Pratibha to find the money – the source of gold for all their woes.
The baby gulped milk from the bottle. One spoonful of baby food for every 30 ml of boiled and cooled water, the irate mothers would reiterate wherever she went as if they knew better. The same women who wouldn’t spare their breasts for feeding fearing it would change their shape forever.
After the baby slept, Sister Pratibha strode to the living room. She was sure she had seen something on the mantelpiece and true enough, smooth-to-the-brush, her fingers touched a pair of thick earrings. Yellow and white metal studded white stones gathered around fat topazes.
She wondered if she was going to have to remake them into smaller pieces for her sisters imagining how the gold would melt into a clot, its shape and beauty distorting forever into an irretraceable obliviousness giving forth the potential of a new design, but never as the one she now held.
No! This she would keep for herself and give it to nobody else, this time.
From every place that she worked, she had picked up some souvenirs. New mothers were so distracted and careless, busy catching up with sleep or their post-partum emotions that they would go easy on their belongings.
The next day she received a check with a minuscule amount in it. ‘But it isn’t even the end of the month, David’, she said to the house manager.
‘But you have been asked to leave. So pack your things and get ready to go.’ He shrugged. These cases were common, where nurses were changed overnight, without explanation.
Sister Pratibha heaved a sigh that she had done whatever was intended well in time. She hurriedly packed the few things that lay by the bedside of an empty guest bedroom and presented herself in front of Madam.
‘I do not appreciate employees lurking around my house at night.’ said the soft-spoken but firm voice of the Madam, ‘you may leave now.’
Sister Pratibha left for her village the same day after being fired, reaching her paying guest’s home and finding the earrings snuggled in white tissue paper in the corner of a bureau drawer, just as she had left them. She shuddered with the sense of their sheer music as she bunched them into her handbag pocket.
When she reached her village, the wells had gone dry, the mango yield poor, the coconuts overripe, the paddy ready for harvest, and the next in line sister absconding with a married man, the younger one sleeping around with men in barns and barracks and her mother confined to a dingy room, coughing incessantly.
She ignored people’s greetings, listening to them whisper of how unfriendly she had become.
Sister Pratibha chose the least painful path, taking her mother to the doctor and concentrating all her energies on finding a respite for her ailments. She ignored all else and if one of her sisters said, ‘Didi you haven’t done this or that she would turn her back on them and continue writing letters on foolscap paper addressed to names she found from the obituary columns of local newspapers. ‘I am busy working’, she would tell them.
Then, saying that she would deliver the letters herself to the post office she would walk to the bus stop near the paddy field and watch how fisherwomen and farmer’s wives clamored around the doors of the buses dragging their crying snotty children behind them, feeling like a stranger in her own land. This was their life, their time.
She wondered about the new nurse who would now be taking care of the baby she had left behind. She missed swiping her palms over polished furniture, touching her cheeks to cold brass, or smooth marble tops and surfaces wondering at the precise moments they would turn cold again. She missed the rush of mothers, their hair tumbled, clothes unbuttoned exposing their breasts in hurry to their babies cries. ‘Why didn’t you call me?” or ‘Why is it crying?” they would ask testily.
She was sure the Madam at this very moment was lamenting over the loss of her jewelry. That’s why Sister Pratibha always preferred to have the gold melted once it came into her hands, to rid them of lingering aromas of somebody else’s nostalgia.
Mala always came back to things. They reminded her of a time and behavior captured in them. They reminded her of moments, feelings, thoughts, memory. She felt the baby blanket around her sleeping child: blue felt with a teddy bear appliquéd on it. Everything had memory and she held on to everything, did away with none.
During her days as a teenager in Scotland when she would be back from shopping from the lonely deli across the road, she would stow away the grocery bags piling loads and loads of them in shaky towers in a drawer.
When it was time to leave for good and arrive home, her mother was shocked to find the quantum of memorabilia filled in Mala’s suitcases, which she earlier assumed to be shopping items. “Why in the world did you bring so much nonsense home? What has gotten into you, Mala? Were you depressed, homesick or did you think I would need all these shopping bags to wallpaper the house, sell them for a fortune or have an exhibition?”
Mala had laughed soundlessly. She loved cherishing things, their contours, shapes, sizes, textures, character, history, and legacy. Her husband did not give as much feeling to the old, but she was a mute beholder of their uniqueness.
So she went in furious rage after her earrings went missing. The last place Mala thought she had kept them was on the dressing table. But when she did not find them there she went to the bathroom, her fingers probing into unknown crevices everywhere, under her night pillow, grabbing and dusting at folds of the neatly folded duvets and bedsheets. She even checked the corners of the baby cot before returning to the mantelpiece, almost half-seeing them there, as her hand seemed to grab air. Then the notion of them being thieved slowly stole over her: a sharp and ugly sense of betrayal, almost like tasting something that had gone sour.
Who else but the maid or the nurse for no one else was allowed in the antechamber? She was red with rage, seething in surges, short breaths riding in waves up her chest. She had given them everything, treated them with respect, paid them more than they deserved, and… she was enraged enough to not hear her baby’s cries.
She watched sleep stack on the infant’s tiny eyelids as she dialed for the police. The maid had been checked, stripped to her bare clothes, her bags and room checked. She was threatened till she shudder-cried her innocence. Now it could only be the nurse. How could she do it!
News flashed on the television screen. A frame full of mud and rainwater moved to a wide angled shot showing acres of a green muddy waterbody with triangular shapes jutting out, which on zoom in turned out to be roofs of huts and houses. A whole village had been gulped by a misguided river; dead animals, swollen bodies, baskets, trees, and debris floated toward a path of the sea.
This was where the scoundrel was with her earrings, Mala thought, un-muting the channel. She had already sent the police there. There were two recruits in the police only to take care of the rich and they traveled through the night on a train that carried relief packages and other aid.
When Inspector Despande and Yadav reached the village they saw how its geography had diminished – a river bloated, uninvited. Hiring a boat they headed into the interiors of the green water mass reflecting the saddest coconut trees. Word was that even through this, quite a few people had been spared.
“Where are those survivors?” they said.
In the cold, shivering in the rain under a makeshift blue tent amidst dented aluminum pots of rice and dal sat the nurse with one of her sisters. Their mother was missing but Sister Pratibha banished the rest of the thought. Maybe amma just held on somewhere…saved, clutching to a tree, for life. They had lost everything, their home…even the new TV she had bought just a day before.
She was the first to see the re-touring boat coming with a boatman whose torso was the same as the soggy boat he commanded, though it didn’t seem to come loaded with anything. No food packets, clothes, or water.
As the boat docked, an announcement on the loudspeaker shot her name in the air like perverse hope pierced in the recurring moisture. And then it all fell into place. They were here because of the earrings. Her hand reached the corner of her bra. It was luck that made her sleep with them the previous night clutching a tight fist as if they were a key to her world of dreams. This was some time before the cyclone brewed over the paddy fields. She had not managed to negotiate a good price with the local jeweler and had not even persisted instead happily returning with them and clutching them all through the evening as she wrote an evening letter to an unknown dead person. Then she had gone to sleep only to wake up stranded in the middle of an ocean with everything blown to pieces.
Before she knew it they had singled her out. The police officers had in their hand a picture of her, blown up to a distinguishable size. She stood too still to react.
“We will need to check you,” barked the fatter of the officers, coming close and grabbing her by her arm.
She had met with no human ferocity in the resignation of the entire cold, wet rainy day as people wailed around and his warm hand clutching her brought back something basic. She somehow felt joyous, surreal. A crowd had started to gather up as if a film was about to open in the midst of the locust eating season of their crops. Marvel in terror. The fatter policeman stuck his stick between his thighs and began tugging at her wet clothes.
She protested her voice as meek as the prayers from everybody against the rain.
“Where are the stolen earrings, you bitch?… Get what you have in front of us.”
Suddenly the Inspector burst out laughing, surprised by his own gut in the maddening rain. How could he have seriously meant what he did? Get what you have in front of us! He had meant the contents of her bra when she was actually flat-chested. He let out rings of hysteria. Oily hair strands painted over his forehead, he remembered his not-so-long-ago nightlife of full-breasted, heavy-bosomed bar dancer girlfriends.
The earrings fell to the muck, dazzling aimlessly in the dull dirt and the crowd gasped confused with both the shock of their village woman’s robbery and the policeman’s mirthful laughter. Some women clucked out in disappointment.
Inspector Despande picked up the earrings. Not less than two lakhs was his analysis. He eyed Sister Pratibha as rain beat down whatever little respect she had in front of the villagers.
They looked around. Then Inspector Deshpande folded his handkerchief and bunched the nurse’s wrist tying them together.
“Under arrest.” He said, his eyes lingering over her chest.
Only the rain made erratic sounds like a young musician on the plastic roof of the relief camp, as the crowd watched.
Sister Pratibha was shoved onto the boat and headed to the train station, the only place that wasn’t submerged – enough to mete out a fine punishment.
‘Never do this again. Right? Never! Again!” the Inspectors barked through the rain.
A pit developed in Mala’s stomach. Mala had always asked her employees about their native land before hiring them to keep tabs on this spate of crime. She knew this was Sister Pratibha’s village, which was now on TV, summing up in the water.
By stealing her earrings the nurse had demolished the barrier between employee and employer. She had shown Mala that as women they could fancy the same things. She made all of it informal.
How many times had Mala smelt other women on her husband’s vests but sharing personal jewelry was beyond everything? It was okay to part with human beings. They were disloyal in any case, but not inanimate objects, which were perfect in their snug belongingness.
With admiration, and regular use she could infuse life into any object she fancied. It could look better with each day, shine with the attention and care she gave them.
Like the affection, she had longed all her life for but her father was too rich and her mother too generous with the money that came from her husband’s businesses. And generosity was business, too. It required time-management, record keeping, and tracking of various social service organizations, donation drives, and public promotions all of this left Mala orphaned, and lonely in a unique way: poor and rich at the same time. It was then that her fascination for objects had grown. They sought for her attention and stayed with her for as long as she wanted.
Go and find those earrings, she yelled when she caught a glimpse of any servant. “You were here last night and all the nights before and yet you couldn’t keep an eye on that woman or my things”
Objects warm in their bodies and little bellies, teddy bears, first-use cosmetics gone hard or brittle and sour in their bottles, lingerie, shoes, clothes too tight, old-fashioned and short, even frayed, jewelry, bags, accessories. Even books stayed where they were supposed to. Indexed. She could talk to them. For hours. They sometimes had eyes and ears and even developed faces. Their volume growing in boxes and later suitcases and cupboards, that she bought even when she left her childhood home, and now those cupboards of nostalgia sat right beside her gaze in the diagonal room of her marriage. Even her mother knew to leave them alone.
The only thing that could not be preserved was food or the body of her dead cat.
By now all the servants knew they would get brutally assaulted by her words and various ranges in her voice if they went near. Furniture was shifted around, cupboards searched through, and carpets rolled back. It was as if the earrings had morphed into mice and could be scurrying around.
Mala threw things around till she had a crackling-voiced phone call from Inspector Deshpande, one wet monsoon afternoon.
Out on the cold night, as the nurse lost track of time, she was getting ready for her first true body violation. She could not fend them forever, their hands reaching out for her, clasping wetness from rain. She looked around the train station disbelieving that she had disembarked from it just three nights earlier rushing away from the city from where these two men had come.
She screamed for the sheer need to hear her voice and see something change or stir – a soaking wet crow flutter on a half-standing branch.
This was not even a nightmare. There was no escape of sleep or wakefulness to it. Two men undoing their police clothes, inching toward her. The moon and the sun stuck together in a weave of clouds in an eclipsed twilight. Suddenly there was lightning and for the first time, all three of them saw each other more than the shapes of their body form. A raw nerve, a commotion in thunder-like warring animals in a jungle later, the wet crow flew, and further thick black dark descended.
In the morning when the waters receded and more government relief workers inundated the place, the bodies of two bloated police officers were found, their heads smashed to the platform, bashed by tree bark, and smeared in the muddy rainwater.
Sister Pratibha had escaped with the earrings held tightly in her hand. Her only possession, other than the memory of losing her village faced her own personal loss and her lone sister left behind in the relief camp.
To her, the earrings were a symbol more than anything of hope and beauty beyond the destitution of ill fate, the hard blow of evil in man and nature.
It was best to rely on objects.