The flat door swung open and Bholu stood there with reproach in his eyes. He was the 18-year-old mundu of the household, the general dog’s body…almost like a member of the family, or at least like a far removed poor relative.
“Did Memsa’b not ask you to come earlier than usual today?” he demanded authoritatively. He liked to throw his weight around. After all, he had been in the house for more than 12 years now. He took every little opportunity to show the maid Kuntibai that his was a more privileged position in the pecking order.
Kunti remembered the injunction now. Completely contrite, she slapped her own brow with despair. ”Hai bhagwan…how could I forget?“ She appealed to the boy. “Are there many vessels to wash? Will it take long?”
Her submissiveness at once appeased him. “I washed many of them myself,” he told her grandly, “so that Memsa’b would not miss her omelette saucepan or the tea kettle at least.” He frowned. ”Now hurry up…stop dawdling here talking all the time…”
She smiled at him gratefully and entered the kitchen as quietly as she could and began to scour the dirty dishes. She made as little sound as possible so that the mistress would not know that she had come just now.
Aastha Bhanot entered the kitchen in a cloud of perfume. She was freshly bathed, and dressed in a light green chickan work sari. Her short hair, flecked with auburn tint, sat like a smooth cap on her head. She was in a good mood.
“Ah….Kuntibai…I see you have almost finished. Will you do some work for me today? Please help Bholu to clean the drawing room thoroughly….it is Kritik’s birthday on Monday…did I tell you that?”
“ No, Ji… Baba is 5, isn’t it? Bhagwan usko sukhi rakhe…”
“Yes, and we are calling some friends over…” explained her mistress over her shoulder, as she opened the fridge and took out a carton of fruit juice.”I want you to clean the house, Kuntibai….remove the cobwebs, dust the window-panes…
“Don’t worry, Bibiji, I’ll help….but first let me finish the Saksena madam’s work….and then I will come here…I have to go home early too…shall I come early tomorrow, instead?”
Aastha leaned against the fridge, sipping the juice from a tall glass. Her lipstick left smudge marks on the rim.
“Why are you going home early, Kuntibai?“
“You see, my bitiya’s janam din is also close….and she wants a new frock…a ribbon…” Kuntibai laughed and raising an arm swept the hair from her face with her elbow. Water and suds dripped from her hands. She turned and plunged them into the sink once more, scrubbing a kadai strenuously to remove the burnt food.
“When is her birthday, Kuntibai?” asked Aastha. She walked to the sink and put down her used glass in it.”What is her name?”
Kunti turned to smile at her employer.”My bitiya’s name is Shamli, Memsa’b. And I don’t know when she was born….who remembers dates?” She turned to the sink again.
“She has come here many times with me….you must have seen her too, Memsa’b…”
“Of course, I have…she looks about 4 years old….she is younger than our Kritik.”
“Yes, I think so, Memsa’b…” murmured Kuntibai. She opened the tap and started washing the stack of vessels and plates scrubbed with Vim powder. Then over the sound of the running water, she went on, “I don’t know which day Shamli was born…but I cannot forget that day.”
“Why?” asked Aastha. She was now carefully filling a small steel container with rajma curry. This with 2 rotis would be her lunch.
“Because,” began Kuntibai, turning back again from her chore, “that very day, there was that terrible fire in those 3 buildings on Karve Street. Do you remember, Memsa’b?”
“But…but….that…” began Aastha with a thoughtful frown.”That was….”
“I remember…how he put me in a rickshaw to go to the municipal hospital….my water had burst….and I was in such pain…and the rickshaw could not move in the crowd which had blocked the road….my God, Memsa’b….I can never forget that day…”
“But Kuntibai…that was the day my Kritik was born…it was the 23rd of November, 5 years ago…” cut in Aastha. Her face wore a look of disbelief.”But your girl is much younger than Kritikbaba…”
Kuntibai stood staring at her mistress confused for a few moments. Then she shook her head with a laugh… ”She looks younger….she is very thin, Memsa’b, and of course, our food and drink is much simpler…Do you mean to say, both my Shamli and Kritikbaba were born on the same day?”
“Yes…my goodness!” Aastha said, looking very pleased with herself for settling the matter of the little girl’s birthday. “This year, celebrate her birthday on the correct day, Kuntibai. Give her present on the 23 November…”
“And she will get sweets from her classteacher, Memsa’b…my girl be very pleased that she will celebrate her real birthday this year…”
Aastha turned to leave the kitchen and then returned to address the maid again.
“I will also give her a present…after all, she was born on the same day as my son. Ask your child what she wants from me….and tell me tomorrow… Anything at all… I promise you…whatever she wants, I shall do it.”
Kuntibai’s face was wreathed in smiles.” There’s no need for all that, Memsa’b….only your blessings on her head will do…”
“That of course,” laughed Aastha,” but what does your girl like to have? Ask her….and don’t forget to tell me tomorrow morning…”
Bholu who was listening to the exchange on the pretext of dusting the dining-table and chairs slipped into the kitchen as soon as he heard the front door close behind Aastha. The house was now quiet. Aastha’s mother-in-law was in the puja room and in the middle of her elaborate morning rituals.
The old lady was not the interfering type and, except for shuffling into the kitchen to ask Bholu to heat up a glass of milk, she did not bother them.
“What will you ask Memsa’b for, Kuntibai?” asked Bholu excitedly.”Why don’t you ask her for Rs 500….you can buy a lot of things with that.”