Among all our servants--but no, I do not really think of him as a servant--I like Singhji the best. Perhaps it is because I can trust him not to give me away to the mothers the way Ramur Ma does. Perhaps it is because he is a man of silences, speaking only when necessary--a quality I appreciate in a house filled with female gossip. Or perhaps it is the veil of mystery which hangs over him.
When Anju and I were about five years old, Singhji appeared at our gate one morning--like a godsend, Pishi says--looking for a driver's job. Our old chauffeur had recently retired, and the mothers needed a new one badly but could not afford it. Since the death of the fathers, money had been short. In his broken Bengali, Singhji told Gouri Ma he'd work for whatever she could give him. The mothers were a little suspicious, but they guessed that he was so willing because of his unfortunate looks. It is true that his face is horrifying at first glance--I am embarrassed to remember that as a little girl I had screamed and run away when I saw him. He must have been caught in a terrible fire years ago, for the skin of the entire upper half of his face--all the way up to his turban--is the naked, puckered pink of an old burn. The fire had also scorched away his eyebrows and pulled his eyelids into a slant, giving him a strangely oriental expression at odds with the thick black mustache and beard that covers the rest
of his face.
"He's lucky we hired him at all," Mother's fond of saying. "Most people wouldn't have because that burned forehead is a sure sign of lifelong misfortune. Besides, he's so ugly."
I do not agree. Sometimes when he does not know that I am watching him, I have caught a remembering look, at once faraway and intent, in Singhji's eyes--the kind of look an exiled king might have as he thinks about the land he left behind. At those times his face is not ugly at all, but more like a mountain peak that has withstood a great ice storm. And somehow I feel we are the lucky ones because he chose to come to us.
Once I heard the servants gossiping about how Singhji had been a farmer somewhere in Punjab until the death of his family from a cholera epidemic made him take to the road. It made me so sad that although Mother had strictly instructed me never to talk about personal matters with any of the servants, I ran out to the car and told him how sorry I was about his loss. He nodded silently. No other response came from the burned wall of his face. But a few days later he told me that he used to have a child.
Though Singhji offered no details about this child, I immediately imagined that it had been a little girl my age. I could not stop thinking of her. How did she look? Did she like the same foods we did? What kinds of toys had Singhji bought for her from the village bazaar? For weeks I would wake up crying in the middle of the night because I had dreamed of a girl thrashing about on a mat, delirious with pain. In the dream she had my face.
"Really, Sudha!" Anju would tell me, in concern and exasperation--I often slept in her room and thus the job of comforting me fell to her--"How come you always get so worked up about imaginary things?"
That is what she would be saying if she were with me right now. For it seems to me I am receding, away from Pishi's capable hands, away from the solidity of the sun-warmed bricks under my legs, that I am falling into the first night of my existence, where Anju and I lie together in a makeshift cradle in a household not ready for us, sucking on sugared nipples someone has put in our mouths to keep us quiet. Anjali and Basudha, although in all the turmoil around us no one has thought to name us yet. Anjali, which means offering, for a good woman is to offer up her life for others. And Basudha, so that I will be as patient as the earth goddess I am named after. Below us, Pishi is a dark, stretched-out shape on the floor, fallen into exhausted sleep, the dried salt of tears crusting her cheeks.
Excerpted from SISTER OF MY HEART by Chitra Divakaruni. Copyright© 2000 by Chitra Divakaruni. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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