Jyoti Ma hated the way that Hukam-Singh the cook would always take instructions from Aakash, but feigned deafness whenever she commanded the dishes of the day. Yet Hukam-Singh's wife Deepika could call him from the other side of the house and he would always hear her. Why? And why did the cook and sweeper prefer to spend time together instead of attending to her needs?
She felt isolated being away from her family with a new husband in the middle of the Himalayas. And she hated the servants for feeling so at home in the hills. For feeling more at home in her house, with her husband, than she did. The servants could have helped her melt the snows, but her breeding dictated that she preserve all the boundaries between her class and theirs.
Jyoti Ma claimed her space by pushing away the people who served her, to the point where she hated them and resented their service. Even Govinda the mahout was divested of respect and tolerated only at the far end of the verandah. She started blaming the servants for her unhappiness and at every opportunity she would grumble to her new husband about the headaches they were all causing her.
In her anxiety to justify her authority over the servants she even found herself laying traps. Sometimes she would count out the amount of mithai in her cupboard so that she would know when some had been stolen. Almost eager for it to disappear. Then she would carefully empty packets of dust and soil in the kitchen cupboards just so that she could take up Hukam-Singh on the disgusting state of his kitchen.
The servants were no longer allowed to eat all the food they required. Only one dhal, roti and subjee was left for them, because that was all they deserved. Occasionally, when a piece of fruit was only minutes away from complete deterioration, she would donate it to the kitchen with great generosity and tell the servants to share it amongst themselves.
When she took over the accounts of the farm there wasn't a single minor corruption that was overlooked. Every poor farmhand's attempt to wangle a few extra paise out of the roaring profits of Prakriti was severed, like a hand chopped off for its crime. And with these extra savings, Jyoti Ma began her series of infamous shopping trips to Delhi, which were the talk of all the locals.
As a lady of means she invested the profits of Prakriti shrewdly in ornate sets of gold, diamond, ruby and emerald jewelery from every part of India. Then there were the Kanchipuram and Banarsi saris, threaded with heavy gold weave. When the first automobiles arrived in India she shocked everyone by announcing that she had bought one at the cost of three thousand rupees. "How could that be?" the other landowners pondered. "You can build a grand house for that much money."
Her next task was to dispose of the old servants altogether. If she could install a new batch, then none of them would ever question who held the scepter in the house.
Her opportunity came one day when Deepika was sweeping the floors and her back crumpled from the stress of having to watch every move she made around her new mistress. Jyoti Ma continued sipping her tea, rang her little metal bell, and called for her cook to come and carry away his crumpled-up wife.
"Aakash, these servants are absolutely useless. She's a jellyfish! Not made to work. No backbone. We must get rid of the pair of them."
The replacement cook was a villager from Uttar Pradesh who had left behind his new wife after just three days of marriage to go and work so that he could keep her. In place of his wife, the woman in his life became Jyoti Ma - a stern partner and exacting employer. The new sweeper was almost too old to work, but servants were hard to come by even in those days, especially as word had traveled about memsahib's treatment of her household workers. He had a few years of life left in him, though, and Jyoti Ma knew she could make him work for them.
This is a complete excerpt of Chapter 1 from The Seduction of Silence by Bem Le Hunte. Copyright 2003 Bem Le Hunte. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, HarperCollins Publishers.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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