It had not always been this way. When I was younger, Indrani pretended to love me. A child of five or six, I had just arrived in Delhi, and she had recently a daughter who died. She would tell me tales of her own lost beauty. She had been a nautch girl in Lucknow, singing and dancing her seductions. The house was a packrat's museum filled with artifacts of her wiles: A caged green parrot from the South African lover who had joined in Gandhiji's Great Salt March. The yellow gold bells with which she used to adorn her hands and ankles. Saris spangled with silver, headdresses dripping mirrors and pearls. Photographs taken by an Oxford-trained barrister of her Pathaka mudra portraying the sun. For a time she would take me into her bed and hold me, humming the ragas of her youth, petting my "golden wheat-colored skin" and fawning over my turquoise eyes. But the house was hardly a business then. She had only Bharati. She still entertained customers herself, and her heart still possessed some measure of softness.
The madness of Partition changed Indrani. She had a brother in Amritsar who was mistaken for a Muslim. He and his two young sons had their throats cut in their own home. While the Muslim quarter in Delhi burned, Indrani took to drink. Afterward, as business improved and our house became more crowded, she grew fat and hard-hearted, and her tenderness toward me soured. I was a weight pulling her down. I was the biggest mistake of her days. I was the demon child from the north, but I would pay when I finally grew old enough. I would pay and pay and pay.
I knew what Indrani meant. I was the one who emptied the slop pots, carried the water jugs, washed the sisters' clothes and bedclothes and monthly rags. I shaved their lipsticks and kohl pencils, tidied jars of powder and rouge. I combed the coconut oil through their hair, lit incense at twilight, filled their oil lamps, brought the clay cups from which they drank whiskey and gin with their babus. I took them their glasses of tea in the morning and swept up the occasional shattered bottle. Sometimes I tended their bruises and wounds after this babu flew into a drunken rage or that one chose to act out the part of the jealous lover Rama. Unlike Shanta, I did not lurk behind the slit curtains or crouch outside the barred windows. (Shanta was always competing with the babus for her mother's affections.) But even in my sleeping place in the kitchen I was surrounded by the sounds and smells, the undulations of brothel commerce.
"A woman's body is her implement," Bharati told me once as we sat together patting out chappati for the evening meal. "Like the plow of the farmer, it is her means of livelihood and survival. Some say it is sacred. Others say it is evil. But it is a necessary vessel for spirit and for life. If as a girl you protect and use this vessel wisely, it may bring you comfort and wealth, a good husband and many sons. Once violated, however, a woman's body is forever diminished. Like mine, it will yield only daughters and the shelter of the brothel." Knowing the secrets of the flash house, I did not see that the protection and wise use of a body was much under a girl's own control, but I accepted these words as a gift to hold in the back of my mind.
And now as I watched Mrs. Shaw, I thought, yes, here is a lady who succeeds in using her body to secure a good life. Surely that is why she takes such pains to protect it from the violations of dust and beggars and the harsh midday sun. But even as this thought crossed my mind, she did something most unexpected.
There had been an accident. A boy named Surie in the next house had lifted his mother's sari while she prepared the morning meal. Somehow the fire got into the cloth, and both were badly burned. I had seen the victims with my own eyes as the flames engulfed them. They were lucky their faces and hands were spared, the legs not so good. By the time Mrs. Shaw and her escort arrived, the excitement had died away. Plasters of mud had been applied to the wounds. But it was still the talk of the street, and the visitors were drawn in. I went to watch from the communal tap a little down the lane as Mrs. Shaw moved forward and dropped to her knees, not to help the boy as I had thought, but in front of the mother. I heard a cry. At first I thought Mrs. Shaw was going to strike Surie 's mother, perhaps for allowing such a thing to happen to a son. But no, she called for water--boiled water, she insisted, and finally accepted a vessel of tea, which she used to clean the wounds with her own hands. She removed her gloves.
Copyright © 2003 by Aimee E. Liu. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher.
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