There were only three faces in the whole hostel which did not give the impression of being crumpled up pieces of paper. Their presence made one feel that the hostel was not merely a receptacle for garbage — withering fruit peels, dry stones of once plump, luscious mangoes, and other waste.

One was the face of Chitra, never intimidated by the warden or her assistant, always full of wit and wisdom. The second was of Katoria who swept the hostel, and the third that of Kannu. 

*

When Kannu had first filled the application for a room, and put it on the warden’s, that is Mrs. Malhotra’s, table, the latter had curled her lips slightly and remarked, ‘Kannu? Is it a name?’

‘This is my name,’ the girl standing before her answered firmly. Slim, delicate, with a face which seemed carved out of porcelain. Yet she radiated a strange seriousness and strength. Determination glowed in her eyes, eyes forged by hammer blows. Glowing embers still lurked at the corners of those eyes, ready to ignite at the slightest inkling of threat.

Mrs. Malhotra was taken aback. But if she was going to be stumped like this by any chit of a girl, how could she hope to do her job! And, then, the decision of this girl’s fate was still in her hands. Kannu stood before her, application in hand. How was one to tell these modern girls that if you appear in a ‘government darbar’, you have to show some humility!

She signaled to the girl to sit down. The girl sat down.

Mrs. Malhotra remarked, ‘They probably call you Kannu at home! You should write your full name in the application.’

‘This is my full name,’ the girl replied.

Scrutinising the application once again, Mrs. Malhotra asked ‘And surname?’

‘Is there a law making it compulsory for a person to write one’s caste with one’s name?’ The girl’s steely gaze penetrated and challenged Mrs. Malhotra’s kingdom. Her kingdom – which depended on her official position and status!

‘All right kiddo! How can you escape? I’ll get you to tell me your caste and also your father’s caste in no time!’ Mrs. Malhotra told herself and took out a printed form from her drawer and put it before her and announced, ‘Fill this up and attach your application to it. Then we shall see what can be done.’

‘Meaning? Is there place in the hostel or not? You must be knowing!’

‘How does it matter what I know! I also have to get permission from others. Once your application is complete, only then can it be sent on.’

Stupid woman! Kannu soundly abused her in her heart and began filling out the form.

Name : Kannu

Father’s name : A whip seemed to crack in her mind, leaving welts on her naked flesh. But getting a grip on herself, she scribbled: ‘Gautam Navlakha’.

‘Navlakha!’ How she hated this name! (Some great great grandfather or even his great, great grandfather must have dreamt of becoming the possessor of nine lakhs! What is the value of nine lakhs today? One should ask my father! Nine crores, nine billions! Everything is too little for him… his lust for money is phenomenal.

Date of Birth: (Shall I write 1 January 1901?) 30 August 19…

Place of Birth: Mumbai.

Permanent address: (Is any address permanent? Can any man swear with his hand on his heart, that this is my permanent address, unshakeable, never to change.. like the Himalayas.. Then address..?) No 4, Sadhna Building, Napean Sea Road, Mumbai.

Job in Delhi: Tinkle Bells School, Nursery Teacher.

Education Qualifications: (What should I write? Business Management from Harvard University? Nonsense! What is the need?) Honours in English Literature.(This is enough. She is not going to demand my certificate. It is also not a complete lie. This is what I wanted to study, but my sainted father! Literature? Is literature a subject to be studied at the University? A person can study that at home! As it is, you are always reading something or the other! Girls of your age go to clubs, play tennis, gossip, play golf! And you sit at home with your nose in a book! You know I want you to do your business management at Harvard. Take commerce or economics!’ So commanded his highness! Who is the poor daughter to disagree? Mr. Navlakha… in whose house even the flies and sparrows were always fearful, who had no time to talk to anyone, and whose appointment diary governed his life from morning to evening, whose evenings and nights were spent in hosting parties for ministers, very important people, high ranking government officials and foreign visitors – who bought goods from him and sold him goods – parties at which everyone tried to look happy and relaxed, and everyone smiled with great courtesy, and laughed with great delicacy, strolled about casually, nibbled at snacks, and drank the best French wine and Scotch whiskey as if they had no care in the world. But so many things kept ticking in Mr. Navlakha’s mind. Some untiring weaver kept on weaving the warp and woof of his mind, and the thousands of antennae of his mind seemed to be connected with news of the world and with ministers, senior government officers and their wives who are always there. And this very Mr. Navlakha – always grappling with such special and important issues – had given so much of his precious time talking about Kannu’s education. Could any living being who walked on two legs, have the guts to ignore it? Kannu was his property. He had given her life – he was her father.

Any relation in Delhi : (Strange! What will you do with my relations? Do you want to complain to them about my behavior? Or, inform them if I happen to die?)… No.

There were a few more of useless columns which she filled up without thinking.

A box of office pins was on the table. She pinned the form to her application, and put it before Mrs. Malhotra. The first thing she looked at was her father’s name. (Now, are you happy? You have learnt my caste and name!) Then, the date of birth, (Saali! She is trying to calculate my age!) and, then the Mumbai address, (reading the Napean Sea Road address must have made her happy, mean thing!)

‘All right, come next week.’ And she put the application in a file.

(How did this woman forget to ask where I will live till the next week? Stupid! With some boy friend? Or a hotel? And if I had the money to stay in any hotel, would I need to take this small job and stay in this rundown hostel? But, it is good that the government babus’ minds are not capable of thinking of all these things!)

As she came out of the hostel, Kannu was thinking that only two things can happen – either, on learning my father’s name, with which a gigantic industrial empire is attached, she would be frightened, subside the way foam does, and give me a room promptly. Perhaps she may go as far as to clean the room herself with a duster, bow and say, ‘Any other service?’ Or she may simmer in her feeling of inferiority and meanness. Then to flaunt her power, to prove that a warden is no less than any Gautam Navlakha, with a desire to see an expression of helplessness on Kannu’s face, she may say, ‘There is no room, and permission has also not been granted.’ 

*

Kannu….!

Gautam Navlakha and his wife, Vidya, had named their daughter – Malvika. This daughter had been born after two sons, Anil and Akhil, and they had decided that their family is now complete, and they did not want any more children.

The three children had three separate governesses, who looked after them and also coached them in the refinement, graces and etiquette befitting the Navlakha empire. 

*

- Anil, why are you playing with Malvika’s dolls? Boys don’t play with dolls!

- What do boys do, Ma’am?

- Boys… boys run factories, fly aeroplanes, earn money. 

*

- Malvika, where were you! I looked for you all over the house!

- I was on the terrace, Ma’am.

- On the terrace? What were you doing there?

- I was learning kite flying from Kathu.

- Kathu? Kathu who?

- That… son of the aunty who sweeps.

- The sweeper is not an aunty, stupid! She is a sweeper. Her son is a dirty boy, and you shouldn’t play with him.

- But Kathu is not dirty. He goes to school in clean clothes.

- How does going to school matter? Ultimately he is also going to be a sweeper.

- No, Ma’am, he will become an engineer.

- Foolish girl, who told you that?

- Kathu told me, Ma’am.

- To hell with Kathu! You will not speak to him. Don’t play with him. Understand? And don’t tell Mummy that you were learning kite flying from Kathu. If you tell her, then she will throw me out. Will you like to lose me, my dove?

- No, Ma’am.

- Good girl! 

*

- Akhil, how did your boots get all that sludge on them? (Intense curiosity in the voice. Full of resentful fear.)

- Not sludge ma’am, it is mud, wet mud.

- Where were you? How did your boots get muddy? And hands? Look at your hands! There is mud even under your nails. When you use your fork and knife at the table to eat, then won’t everyone see your nails? Full of mud! Your parents will kill me!

- Only Anil and Malvika would be there ma’am. And you. And Anil’s Ma’am, and Malvika’s Ma’am. Mummy and Papa will not even know. They will not be at the table.

- But what were you doing with wet mud?

- I was watering the plants.

- And where was that fool Ram Vilas? It is his job to water the plants.

- It was he who was teaching me to water the plants.

- Why?

- Because Ma’am, even plants have life. If we love them, they smile. When I watered them, they shook their heads and laughed.

- Who told you this – that plants have life?

- Ram Vilas.

- I’ll get Ram Vilas beaten by sahib.

- No Ma’am. (The voice shook. Akhil was frightened. Though he knew that Ma’am will not get the opportunity to complain to Papa. Papa is never at home. Even then… who knows…) I will not water the plants.

- Don’t ever talk to Ram Vilas. Understand?

- Yes, Ma’am.

- Good boy! Come change your shoes. Change your socks also. Then I will clean your nails, wash your hands with soap.

- Yes, Ma’am. 

*

When the three children started school, the governesses had some relief. At least, they had some hours of peace. There was no need to watch the monkeys all the time. No need to get them to change their clothes the whole day long. 

*

If the children had their separate governesses, Mrs. Vidya Navlakha, their mother, also had her personal maid, who took out her clothes, ironed them and did her hair, applied henna to it, and even gave her a massage. She put scented supari and other condiments in small decorative boxes. When Sahib and memsahib were going out, then she would check that the small enameled boxes that mem sahib carried in her hand bag were suitably filled.

This maid had come with her from her father’s home, that is, from Jaipur, and was the daughter of the old woman who worked there. She was educated, that is, she had studied till the eighth.

It was Vidya’s father who had insisted that she should be sent to school, but, girls from poor families learn to work with their hands at a very young age.

She was about twenty-five or twenty-six, and had been married for ten years. She had no child, and her mother-in-law got her son, Chameli’s husband, married again. She had cried, ‘You will rot in hell. You will turn into a witch. You are spoiling one more life. You do not know that your son cannot give life even to a mosquito, even if he gets married twenty times. Yes, if she is clever, she will get the seed from somewhere else and say, ‘Here, Amma, your grandson!’ If she can’t give you a bastard, then her womb will also cry like mine. I could take it. I saved the honour of my poor parents. If anyone else can do it, then tell me! Don’t think I will sit here to serve you, for the sake of two rotis. If it is the question of only two rotis, then why shouldn’t I work somewhere else? In some good home where I can watch T.V. in the evening, go to see a movie on my free day, and also eat out! I work here and will also work there and earn my living. Wear good clothes. Do up my hair properly. Here, both you and your son treat me like an animal. I have been slaving for all your children! Your daughter comes visiting with her battalion of children, or, it is your son with his family who is always fighting. Here is Chameli! She will cook for us all! Feed them! What else does she have to do? She has no child of her own. This is what you all thought, wasn’t it? I roll out rotis the whole day long, kneading flour, making snacks, grinding masala or chutney, washing utensils, cleaning the kitchen, sweeping, mopping, washing, stitching and repairing things, tacking buttons, darning collars or trousers, and then at night, dying the slow death of an animal that is being ritually slaughtered because your son, who is sleeping with his face turned away, is impotent! Eunuch!’

When her mother-in-law pulled out a burning piece of fire-wood from the chulah and ran after her, she walked out of the house, ‘Keep your kingdom! I am not going to take your beatings anymore!’

And this is how she came to this house, in Mumbai.

She always regretted those twenty years she had spent living like a mule – carrying a greater load than she had to. It was now that she was living like a human being. She ate well, slept comfortably, and enjoyed herself.

In that house, new clothes were bought, worn once or twice, and then thrown away in that drawer of the wardrobe where those clothes were relegated which had ceased to please the mistress. Whenever the mistress felt some affection for Chameli (one shouldn’t treat servants as equals, or show affection for them, shouldn’t give them a smile wider than two centimeters, or they get spoilt. Servants should always be kept at a safe distance. Only then do they respect you, this is what they say), she would pass on a few saris and blouses and a few suits to Chameli. Suits of such soft silk, and beautiful saris, the likes of which she had not seen anyone wear in Jaipur. She had never imagined that she would wear such beautiful clothes.

Chameli loved her mistress for her regal temperament!

Vidya’s huge bedroom (yes, you are right. Mrs. Vidya Navlakha and Mr. Gautam Navlakha had been sleeping in separate bedrooms for a long time though they had adjoining rooms, and the communicating door was always left open by the servant who made the beds at night. Vidya would, however, close it herself at night. If he feels the need, he’ll open it, was her argument. But, this arrangement suited Mr. Navlakha so well that the door mostly remained closed) had a large dressing room with a bathroom attached. Chameli slept at night in the dressing room. She had a quarter in the servants’ quarters, but Vidya wanted her near her at night (if she were to ring for her, she should be there in ten seconds!) because she suffered from cramps at night. When the muscles are cramped, she needed someone to massage her legs and give her some fomentation. Winter or summer. Chameli was now an expert at masseuse. 

*

The room next to Vidya’s dressing room was of her youngest child, Malvika.

At night, the governesses of each child would put her charge to bed, tuck him or her in, wrapping the blanket properly round the child, (obviously, as the house was centrally air conditioned, blankets were needed, winter or summer) switch off the lights, and call out ‘good night, darling’, then closing the door behind her, go away for the night. Then, she was free to go to her own room, or go out for a coffee with a friend. This was the rule of this household. When they were being interviewed, they were told that no one should come to meet them here. If they wanted to meet anyone, then they could go out after the children have been put to bed. But they were to return before eleven, and retire to their room.

Gautam Navlakha often remarked that children should learn to be independent at a very young age; especially at night, they should sleep in their own rooms by themselves – and learn to fight their own fears. 

*

But when Chameli heard the sounds of Malvika’s sobs, she would softly open the door in between and go to Malvika’s room. She would lie down with her, hugging her small trembling body to her chest.

Chameli felt that this girl should really have been born to her: it was by mistake that she had gone to Vidya’s womb.

She would keep awake, hugging Malvika. If Mem Sahib rang the bell for her she would hear it and go to her. Never mind the lack of sleep! She could sleep as much as she wanted when Mem Sahib went out. 

*

Whenever Vidya went abroad, Malvika and Chameli would imagine themselves to be masters of a kingdom! After the governess retired to her room, they would talk to each other in soft tones. Chameli would tell her stories, sing to her.

Hearing Chameli sing, Malvika would also start singing. Chameli would kiss her and say – ‘Hai, my lado, my sweet little darling, you sing as sweetly as Kanan Bala!’

It was then that Chameli started calling her Kananbala! It was like a secret codeword between the two of them. Kananbala! Kannu!

She was not Malvika, she was now Kannu! This was the name given to her by her beloved Chameli, her real name.

One day she told her governess, ‘I am not Malvika, I am Kannu!’ The governess laughed.

She told her mother Vidya, ‘My name is Kannu.’ Vidya also laughed. There was no question of telling Papa. They rarely met! ‘And anyway how does it matter to him, whether I am Malvika or Kannu,’ her young mind had decided. 

*

When Vidya had finished the task of giving birth to her children, she was bored. She would change saris throughout the day! Gossip with her numerous friends! Buy as much jewellery as she wanted! Shop as long as she wanted!

But then shopping also bored her. She would often recall those days when her husband was a salesman in a store in Dubai. It was difficult to make both ends meet because he was saving up and dreaming of coming back to India to set up his own business. He would give her just enough to run the household, and the balance of his salary he would put in the bank.

In a place like Dubai, where the stores were overflowing with all sorts of goods, Vidya would keep gazing at the shop windows. She could never gather enough courage to buy something for herself.

She could not buy anything for herself even in Jaipur when she had been with her parents. There was not enough money. Five children, limited means; and a small house. She had always thought that once she got married, she would do whatever she wanted, go wherever she wanted; go to the cinema, visit new places, buy beautiful clothes, decorate her home, with a lawn outside, and grow beautiful flowers, water them herself, and her husband would love her very, very much.

Now, she keeps herself busy buying the most expensive saris, jewellery, footwear, and all the accessories that go with these things to avenge herself of those days of deprivation. She had a strange sense of satisfaction after a shopping spree.

Now, she had a big beautiful house. There was a sprawling lawn in front. There were flowers, trees of Ashoka, and Chinese oranges — small tiny oranges peeping from behind the leaves! Inside, there were carpets, exquisite Iranian carpets and Chinese vases. Hussain’s paintings on the walls, Italian statues. Servants, children’s governesses, her own imported car, and a capped and uniformed chauffeur to drive the car. Membership of all the clubs in the city. Beauticians at the beauty parlour to keep her glittering and shining from top to toe. But, time still weighed like a heavy stone on her chest.

Gautam was out from early morning till late in the night… often she went to sleep without seeing him at night. Am I no longer attractive to him – after having these children? What is wrong that Gautam doesn’t need me at night…? These questions nagged her all the time.

One night, when she had been sobbing, Gautam had been sharp, ‘I don’t like these tantrums. I come home tired after working the whole day. I need peace at home. If you are going to spoil my nights with this, then I am not coming home any longer.’

This frightened her, and she became silent.

In the morning, they were together only for breakfast. Two people sitting at a very large table, waited upon by half a dozen servants.

The next morning, Gautam had tried to make up, ‘Look Vidya – you know that you are also a director of the company.’

‘May be, how does it matter?’

‘It may or may not, but you do know that you are a director?’

‘Only for signatures! What else! To save income tax.’

‘All right, it may be the way you say it. But it is as a director of the company that you can go shopping all over the world — London, America, Europe — anywhere. You can do whatever you like, and I can also work in peace for a few days. All expenses would be paid from the expense account of the company, as you would be touring for business promotion.’

‘Then?’

‘Then what? Who gets the chance to shop abroad this way? To travel?’

‘Alone?’

‘Do you want to take an army with you?’

Gautam was losing his patience with this dimwitted woman!

‘Why not?’ Vidya thought angrily. ‘If he can spend his nights with other women, then why not! I am not a wall or an object in his home, that I should stay put and keep waiting for him? I’ll go out, and what can’t one acquire with money!’

Then, an unusual thought came to her, ‘If a beautiful girl can become the mistress of a married man with children, tolerate his ugly paunch, the impermanent and hollow nature of the relationship, then what is it that I lack? I am well preserved! Why can’t I have a mistress… there must be an, equivalent for the word ‘mistress’ in the masculine gender! After all, in ancient times, the queens couldn’t be waiting all their lives for the nights that were allotted to them by the kings with large harems. They must also be having men in their lives! Male mistresses! Why not? I have money, I am good looking, and have a well preserved body. Why shouldn’t a woman keep a man?’

‘Let Navlakha Sahib go to hell! I am not like my mother and grandmother that I should spend my life weeping and sighing. Why should I? When I have seen harsh poverty, why shouldn’t I enjoy this wealth now?’

‘Besides, I have done my duty and given birth to sons. That is no mean achievement. Never mind that the third child is a girl’. 

*

The scenario changed dramatically. When Vidya was not abroad on some business promotion, or rather a shopping trip, with some gigolo, then she would be found at some club, playing bridge at high stakes, buying gold, or getting a massage, because she had learned to prize her body.

She had also become the patron of a few social service organizations. She would deliver a short speech, and would then sit down, pink faced, to thunderous applause. She now had a special secretary, an ever struggling poet, who wrote her speeches. He had come to Mumbai hoping to write lyrics for films and failed to make any headway. His poetry had then sunk in the dry sands of his failure.

There was a social secretary for appointments, and before any meeting or conference, she would entertain the reporters of all the papers in the city. She had some T.V. and radio correspondents at her beck and call on account of her public relations skills, and through wining and dining them at posh hotels, with food, drink, and sometimes, sexual favours!

This ensured that Mrs. Vidya Navlakha’s face would smile from some paper or magazine every now and then, and could also be seen on T.V. fleetingly, particularly when her organization was to be honoured by the visit of some minister, because T.V. was still a government trumpet – and the face of the government had to be prominently displayed on it.

Gautam Navlakha was very happy with all this. It was extremely good for his business that his wife should be connected with these social organizations. This is how the stink of money is washed away. These gimmicks act like a deodorant, otherwise who or what is ‘society’? And which person in his right mind serves ‘society’? 

*

When Mr. Gautam Navlakha’s secretary got Malvika admitted to school, her name was entered as Malvika on the admission form. When attendance was taken in class, it was to this name that she responded. But to her friends she said, ‘My name is Kannu, and I’ll answer only to this name.’

That was the first act of rebellion. Her first ‘no’ to her father’s kingdom, and her mother’s silks and diamonds. 

*

Children weave strange stories in their fantasy world. And, then they begin to believe these stories.

In Kannu’s world it was Chameli who was her real mother. She was poor, and could not bring up her daughter, therefore, she had come to Vidya and had pleaded, ‘Mem Sahib, take pity on me. I cannot feed and clothe her. I don’t have any money. I will serve you and do whatever you say, put oil in your head, massage your feet… but, please bring up this daughter of mine.’

And Vidya had agreed, ‘All right, I will bring up your daughter in return for your services. But no one should know about this. Else, what will people say that Mr. Navlakha is bringing up the daughter of a poor woman! Do you accept?’

Chameli had bowed her head at Vidya’s feet in gratitude. ‘I accept, hukum.’

(Even now, whenever she heard Chameli use the term ‘hukum’, she would be astonished. Vidya would call out – ‘Chameli…!’ and Chameli would immediately get up and say – ‘Ji, hukum…!’ Kannu would lisp.. ‘Tameli.. what is hutum?..’ and Chameli would answer with a laugh… ‘ In our Rajasthan, we say ‘hukum’ to those who are superior to us.’ Kannu would say – ‘Tameli.. you are older to me, shall I say ‘hutum’ to you?’ Chameli would give her a hug and laugh, ‘My little doll’).

Then, Vidya said, ‘But Kannu is a very strange name! A name of the low born!’ (This word ‘low born’ she had heard at home many times.) We would have to change her name. Some name which goes well with Navlakha! Malvika! Yes, that is it! Malvika Navlakha!’

Chameli had answered in a choked voice, ‘Ji, hukum!’

Since that day, Kannu had become Malvika. She was taken away from Chameli, and put in a separate room. ‘But, Chameli is, after all my mother, and that is why she comes in immediately on hearing me weep, lies down with me, and hugs me and croons to me.’

In this fantasy world of Kannu, there was only a mother. There was no thought of a father. What was the need of a father? It is mothers who give birth to children. Fathers are like Navlakha papa, with no one knowing what time of night they come home. 

*

As she grew up, she started to vaguely understand the fact that Chameli could not have given her birth all on her own. There had to be someone, who had betrayed her! Must have left her after putting me in her womb. Left alone, what could Ma (meaning Chameli) do? People would have stoned her to death. She came to this house and sought shelter. And if Vidya (she never used Ma or Mum for her; it had always been Vidya!) did give her shelter. She must have been good at that time, No?

In return for this one good deed of Vidya’s, Kannu could forgive her seven murders!

Then, Kannu in her fantasy wove the idea that it was Mr. Navlakha who had forced himself on Chameli. And when she had become pregnant, he had begged his wife to agree to this arrangement. He must have bribed his wife with diamond jewellery, and a Mercedes, and entreated her that the child could not be left to rot in poverty. It is the seed that is elemental, and after all, it was Mr. Navlakha’s seed. What difference does it make where it had been sown? He cannot abandon any child of his in a desert of poverty to wilt under its hot winds. How does it matter if Chameli is a servant in the house. When the child is born, it would be taken from her and brought up as a member of the family.

Then, she was born. A girl! Mr. Navlakha would have said, ‘There were already two boys. One girl is necessary in the family. It adds to the grace of the house. Now, my family is complete. Vidya, my queen, you didn’t have to undergo any discomfort, but got a readymade daughter.’

But, Vidya never forgave her husband for this, and also the other womb, and the girl born of that womb.

‘But, how is it my fault?’ She would angrily ask herself.

There was only one Ma for her, Chameli Ma, to protect her from the searing heat of this anger and rebellion. She stayed on in this house, even after being raped by the master. As a servant, for my sake. I have to look after my mother when I grow up. I must make her forget all the trouble and the pain she has had to bear. Kannu would decide all this with great determination and feel grimly happy.

‘But, this is also true that one cannot bring back time that has passed. One can only apply a salve on the painful wounds left behind by those troubles, but the scars can never be erased. And, I also would not be able to bring back that part of her life that has gone by and her lost youth for her,’ Kannu would think to herself.

As Kannu grew up, her hatred and rebellion grew, and its cloud ever shadowed. A dark cloud! One day, if I also come home crying, and tell Mr. Gautam Navlakha that somebody has raped me and he tries to say something, or tries to scold me, then I would also look him in the eye, and say, ‘History has repeated itself, what is so strange about it!’ 

*

When she was eighteen, then, like Anil and Akhil before her, she was also made a director of the company, (which had by now grown, and had many offspring — with a whole network of companies).

‘Why? To save income tax?’

‘Why not? That also has to be saved!’

It was the first time that Mr. Navlakha had come face to face with the fact that his children were no longer toys that could be wound up and made to dance. They are living human beings, equipped with weapons of a different point of view, capable of standing up to him, and perhaps, even revolting against him.

‘Strange! The boys did not say anything, but this little girl…!’ Gautam Navlakha, who had every minister and every senior government officer in his pocket, and no one had ever dared to upset his plans, was a little scared of this little girl. It was not only fear, but he was shaken by a small shiver in his heart, and found it hard to suppress it.

‘Why?’ Kannu looked into his eyes.

‘Why meaning?’

‘Why meaning why?’

Now, Navlakha was really angry. A red hot flame rose from his feet and shot up to his head, and he shouted, ‘I don’t owe you any explanation. Who do you think you are!’

‘What I think perhaps has no relevance. But people think I am Mr. Navlakha’s daughter.’

Mr. Navlakha’s hands trembled. He wanted to give her a sound thrashing. She had been educated in such a good school, had a governess, had been given all facilities, from riding to swimming and tennis to golf! I brought her up as a princess! And the result was this?

‘Get out!’ he thundered.

‘It was you who called me, which in itself is rare! I was already wondering…’ and with this she walked out.

That evening, Mr. Navlakha came home early. Restlessly, he paced up and down in his room for a long time. He, also, did not eat anything.

This dark mood of his frightened Vidya. Mr. Navlakha was usually calm and courteous. A civilized human being. That was why he practically had the whole government in his pocket!

Vidya had not closed the communicating door yet, for it was neither time for her to go to bed, nor time for Mr. Navlakha to come home.

Fearfully, she crossed into his room. What could the problem be? What could be troubling such a big businessman?

A raid by the income tax department? Impossible! From the senior most commissioner down to the junior most clerk in the department, everyone was obligated to him. This was his unique quality, his special skill, that whatever officer, whatever department he had dealings with, he did not overlook even the peon of that department.

Labour on strike? Some threat by the labour union? That too was impossible! It was his policy to employ some goons in every factory, and assign them in the various departments. Even if there were only fifty such men, like pet bull dogs, scattered among five thousand, no trade union could hold out a threat of striking work.

There was a cultural organisation in each factory, and an organisation of the women of the factory workers with Vidya Navlakha as the chairperson. In each factory, there was a dispensary, a make-shift hospital, which was usually supervised by a retired army doctor, who knew that he could not set up his private practice as most of the medicine he had learnt, he had forgotten during his twenty-five or thirty years of service in the army, and this job was good for him. If, after all this, a trade union threatened to go on strike, then it was asking for trouble. The trade union leaders also needed to keep their leadership role intact. Any adverse publicity could prove suicidal for them.

It may be that some minister was annoyed with him! But Mr. Navlakha was not the one to worry over such trivial matters.

Our saris are unique! Woven on looms from different parts of India with different styles of woven embroidery, beautiful motifs woven into these soft silk saris. Wear our saris, and put the maharanis of olden days to shame! When he sees you in this sari, then kneeling before you, with a rose bud in his hand, he will tell you that you are his queen. Wear our lipsticks and nail varnish, and see how quickly your Prince Charming will put a diamond on your finger. Our oil! Look – all film heroines use this oil, and look at her, the film heroine on the T.V. screen tosses her head, and a cloud of hair is let loose!

- Our soaps.

- Our T.V.s.

- Our VCRs

- Our shoes! Our chappals!

- Our nonstick utensils!

- Our gas stoves – cook four dishes at the same time! Save time. And use that time for partying and gossip!

- Our cold drinks!

- Our Maggi noodles.

How can anyone escape these assaults? But those who attack you from all sides, do not tell you from which ‘kalpavriksha’ to get the money!

The naïve, middle class girls, barely educated, go out to work — knocking on a typewriter in the office, taking dictation, attending the telephone! What should these poor girls do? Small fish in the kingdom of crocodiles?

So, Vidya knew such small matters could not upset Mr. Navlakha so much.

Then a cold shiver passed down her spine. Has he, by any chance, fallen in love with someone and was perhaps devising ways and means to tell her that and asking for a divorce?

Mr. Navlakha saw Vidya and stopped in his tracks. Vidya’s heart skipped a beat. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Isn’t it strange, after having lived on the surface, one feels that one has been able to master that fear of drowning! But then a moment comes…

‘Do you have any idea of what our daughter is up to?’ he said, shaking with anger.

‘What has Malvika done?’

‘She says that I am making her a director – to save income tax!’

‘Oh! Was it this small thing?’ Vidya’s breathing settled down.

‘If I earn a crore, then out of that I have to keep some twenty-five apart. This has been the rule since the beginning. All politicians are paid, whether in power or out! Who knows when one may come back to power! I give regular donations to all political parties. Who knows which politician will become the presiding deity? Where does all this money come from? My forefathers had not planted a tree which rains gold coins! The whole arrangement has to be carefully planned… manipulated and contrived… That chit of a girl is challenging me! Tell me why!! How dare she?’

To rid himself of this problem, Kannu was sent to Harvard by Mr. Navlakha. Two years in America would change her, he thought.

‘A couple of years without her signatures would not matter much. I will myself sign for her, at least for the time being. And on paper, show her to be on a business promotion trip to America. One has to keep the books in order. No officer in the income tax department is upright enough to challenge my books! After all, I fill their pockets every month and two years, in any case, is not a long period if the director of a company is looking for partnership for a joint venture. The joint venture may be in this country or that, for instance, even in the Middle East! She can spend two years there… no?’ Mr. Navlakha was trying to reason to himself. 

*

Two years passed, and Kannu came home after completing her business management course.

She met Mr. Navlakha that very night. That itself was very surprising. Navlakha gave her a sweet smile and declared, ‘I cancelled two appointments so that I could meet you!’

‘Thank you!’

‘So, you are back after two years!’

‘Thanks!’

Next morning, she was at the dining table with Mr. Navlakha and Vidya for breakfast. This also seemed like an arrangement to welcome her.

She was a little tense, and kept fiddling with the omlette on her plate.

‘Now you are a full-fledged business partner.’ The manner in which it was said, Kannu knew he must have been rehearsing it for quite some time.

‘I am not!’ Kannu answered, very calmly.

‘Meaning?’ A hint of thunder could be heard in Mr. Navlakha’s voice.

‘Meaning, that I have no interest in your company.’

‘You may or may not be interested. You were sent to study business management, and that meant something. Anil and Akhil are also there. They did not get an opportunity for this sort of education. They are working with me – they are both directors.’

‘They get to travel almost every month, I have only seen Harvard. They are always going to Europe and America, Japan or Hongkong, all the time.’

‘They are also working.’

‘And Mummy?’

‘This is a pointless discussion. You will come to office with me from tomorrow. There are many papers for you to sign – waiting for you since the last two years.’

‘Signatures? Why? I did not sign for the directorship.’

‘That, I did myself.’

‘This means you forged my signature?’

Kannu was rightly and truly astonished.

‘What forgery? After all, they are the signatures of my own children!’

Mr. Navlakha was nonplussed.

‘Forgery is forgery, and I am neither your director like Anil and Akhil, nor your slave like Mama.’ With this she flung her napkin on the table, pushed her chair back, and went out of the room. She turned once, to look angrily at Mr. Navlakha and Vidya, who were still sitting at the table, and declared, ‘It is my life, I will take my own decisions.’

And the storm of rebellion gathered strength till one day Kannu packed her suitcase, and taking Chameli with her, walked out of home.

Delhi!

Reaching Delhi, Kannu decided that as she had to find employment, the best way to humiliate Mr. Navlakha would be to take up a governess’s job. But where will I keep Chameli?

- Or take up a receptionist’s job in the posh office of a millionaire. And if he asks me one day, ‘What are you doing this evening?’ then I should say… then I would say…

- No, such intense anger is not good. I don’t want to break down trying to avenge myself on my father. I have to protect myself. I have not run away from that decadent world only to collapse! Then, Chameli is also with me! My mother! I don’t want to hurt her.

Then, she got a job in a nursery school.

In all this running about, twenty days had elapsed. All the money that they had — Chameli had more, and Kannu less — was sufficient to enable them to live at a reasonably good hotel, like Lodhi Hotel. They ate at some inexpensive dhaba at Lajpatnagar, or Nizamuddin.

- As it is, food is not important. One can eat anything. You just have to fill your stomach, Kannu thought.

- But, then why do people like my father work round the clock, as if Doomsday is at hand, and if they do not manage it the world will come to an end! Perhaps, Hitler also must have thought the same! Any person obsessed with anything, is a Hitler in some way or the other – the obsession may be with money, or about setting up an industrial empire, or of controlling the whole world, or even religion. Look at Khomeini. He thinks he is serving his country by making it follow the path of Islam. He gets plastic keys put around the necks of small boys and orders them to fight for Allah. ‘Go out to the battlefield. If you are killed by the Iraqis, your martyrdom will take you to the doors of heaven. I have handed you the keys of that door. And, if you come back victorious, then I am there to protect you, your guardian! You will be showered with honours, awards and estates.’

This is what a father like Mr. Navlakha says, ‘I am doing all this for my children. To protect their future.’

Future? Who has seen what the future is? If you have the guts, then talk about the present. Of this moment. Of the happiness you are giving your children right now.

But man sacrifices the present moment to dream about happiness in the future. 

*

She got the room in the hostel.

When Mrs. Malhotra saw Chameli, she raised her eyebrows, and asked, ‘Who is she? You need to take separate permission for her.’

Chameli answered, ‘I am her mother’s maid. I have been sent here to look after her and cook her food.’

Kannu looked at Chameli with stormy eyes.

-Servant? Why did you say that? I was about to tell her that you are my mother. Why did you cheat me of this pleasure?

Chameli set about putting the room in order. She knew that Kannu was annoyed with her. To divert her, she began humming to herself.

‘Will your singing set things right? Why did you say that to that clerk woman?’

‘One has to be tactful at times, child. A small lie is useful for evading all sorts of unpleasant questions. Both of us know this, that I am your mother and you are my daughter Kannu! Kanan Bala! My darling.’ And she hugged Kannu.

The storm had abated. The manner in which small boats of sunlight ride on sea waves to reach the shore and then as the waves recede, they carry with them some seashells and conch shells to the shore. Yet many secrets lie buried in the heart of the ocean. 

*

Kannu’s happiness often surprised me. In this barren hostel where every girl, every woman, was living in a no-man’s land between hope and hopelessness, how could this girl shine like this and light up the world like a ray of sun, which breaks through the delicate curtain of clouds that fly over the skies like vagrant birds, and paint it in blue, grey, orange and magenta.

Kannu and Chameli needed no one else. They were a whole world unto themselves.

She was my neighbor in the hostel, and we would often cross each other, like gusts of breeze.

She would tell me about her nursery school, ‘Tinkle Bells’, where very small children came to study.

‘Such schools are an easy and profitable industry for earning a great deal of wealth. It surprises me that one can earn a great deal of money so easily!’

‘And what do you get?’

She would laugh, ‘Why me? I am merely a small part of this industry! I am being paid twelve hundred rupees, and sign on a receipt for two-and-a-half thousand.’

I was surprised. ‘This is theft! And abetting this is also a crime.’

She would laugh again at what she termed my foolishness. ‘And what about the manipulations that big industrialists and white clothed politicians indulge in all the time! The whole system is rotten – rotten at the core. You must have seen an apple which is bright and red and looks fresh from outside. But when you cut it, it is black and rotten inside.

‘But my work is very easy. I play with the children, or get them to lie down to take rest, or make them eat their sandwiches which they bring from home. Teach them a nursery rhyme… ‘Twinkle twinkle little star…. Baa baa black sheep…’

She would become sad as she talked. ‘The child goes back home and repeats it all before the mother, if she is at home, or else to the ayah or governess. She smiles because it is her duty, and encourages the child. Hollow smile, which has been bought, and a false encouragement.

‘If the father is not on a trip to America or Europe, or is not caught up with some ministers at lunch or dinner, then the child perhaps recites it to both the parents: “Row, row, row your boat”… and they are happy. And, Papa, very carefully orders his secretary to send the cheque to the school for the next term. After all, you have begotten the child, and he is your responsibility. Isn’t it so?’

She would look at me and her eyes reflected the anguish of a childhood sacrificed at the altar of ambition, behind a facade of cheerfulness.

‘Yes, if the child comes from a middle class family, then the parents work hard to raise their standard and social status, and that is why they send their child to a school like ‘Tinkle Bells’. And when the child recites “twinkle twinkle” to them in its piping voice, they are happy. When they have visitors they call the child and ask him, ‘What rhyme did your Miss teach you at school?’

The child keeps silent under the middle class burden. It is an astonishing fact that the children have an antennae which reveals the secrets of their parents’ status to them. They are aware of the fact that Rajesh sitting next to them is the son of an important politician, because he exhibits the confidence generated by political power. The child is the ‘dada’ of the class. And, Annu is the daughter of a millionaire businessman, because instead of her mum-dad she mostly talks about her ayah, governess, cook, butler and chauffeur.

Mummy and Papa are apologetic for his silence and tell the visitor, ‘he is shy.’ And, then with a glance at the child, ‘Good children are not shy, don’t be shy. Only girls are shy. You are not a girl, are you?’

Baba looks down at the carpet. The guests laugh.

‘Come on now! You were reciting it last evening, ‘Twinkle twinkle little star…!’ The mother prompts him.

‘And the boy recites the poem in a quivering voice, even intent on counting the knots of the carpet, ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star…’

‘Mummy and Papa applaud him, ‘Good boy!’ The visitors also encourage him, ‘Good child!’ 

‘The wife of one of the visitors looks at the father archly and remarks, ‘why shouldn’t he be! After all whose son is he!’

I take a deep breath. I have a long experience of this middle class. Going back to that time or even earlier, when I may have laughed and clapped for the first time at my first glimpse of a sun beam, a sparrow or a butterfly, with my small hands.

‘The memsahibs of rich families need to be rid of their children. That is why schools like mine are very useful. At least, for five hours they are free. But I pity these poor children when they are pulled out of bed early in the morning, and put in the bus like bean bags, half asleep.’

Kannu laughs bitterly. Short but sharp as a dagger. ‘The memsahibs have no problem with their children, for as it is, their children are brought up by the ayah or the governess.’

There was silence for a long time. The dark shadows of the past flickered on her face in a dance of light and shade.

‘Also, children of rich families don’t use the school bus. A long row of bright chauffeur-driven cars can be seen in front of our school – morning and afternoon, bringing or fetching the baba log from school.’

Another tense moment of silence. Many times, a person may talk about something very ordinary, but you hear the tumble of the thunder of an ocean of dark memories behind them. One can drown in that ocean. It is intensely dark in the heart of an ocean.

‘These schools are very useful. Middle class mothers can get rid of the chitter chatter of their kids, and enjoy the kitty parties and pretend to be modern. Isn’t it so?’

‘Hmm… but I have no such experience. My mother would start grinding daal the moment she was free of me, and make badis, and paapads from the daal powder. Or she would grind turmeric, coriander, rock salt or cumin, for my father believed that one must grind all spices at home. That alone can ensure purity of food.’ she tried to imitate the deep gravelly tone of her father’s voice. We both laugh.

Kannu would retort, ‘Where is that breed of mothers now?’

‘I don’t know.’ I would be downcast.

Kannu would tell me again about her school, in a light vein.

‘Women of high standing are involved in social service. The husbands are also very busy and have no time, either for their wives or for their children. So every successful man’s wife is always bored. They shop and take up social service. The husbands are happy because this way, their wives may meet some minister’s wife or the other, or the wife of a senior government officer. No businessman overlooks the smallest chance of gaining entry into a government officer’s home. If necessary, he may enter it in the form of an ant or even a mouse.’

‘But, these days, our queen’s younger son is himself guarding all the holes. Isn’t it so?’

‘Yes. He must have said, “Mummy, this system is wrong, that first the minister sits on a file like a hen on her eggs, and then the chickens hatch. He himself sucks half the eggs dry. Why shouldn’t I play the role of the hen myself?”

‘All the eggs are now being collected, and they have sent for many computerized incubators from abroad,’ Kannu laughed.

I was surprised to see all this sharp wit in such a delicate girl!

‘How do you know all these things?’

‘Because I come from a family of ants and mice’, was her answer. Innocent laughter! Free!

‘The government doesn’t need any Tom, Dick or Harry! Small eggs can be fried and consumed. Good eggs can be incubated, and as soon as they are hatched and the chickens come out and declare that they are ready and may be sacrificed whenever required. They can also be roasted and eaten. ‘But be quick about it, because our import licenses, our extension programmes, our diversification plans, our new factories, licenses, for those factories, public issues… all await your blessing, O Empress, O elevated Prince!’

Why does one cry even when one is laughing? 

*

Perhaps, Mrs. Malhotra’s mind was working overtime, and that is why she wrote to Kannu’s father. She very well knew that if the daughter of a millionaire father is working at some insignificant job, there is definitely something fishy about it.

She also must have thought in her own calcaluting style, that it may benefit her or her children if she climbs that ladder.

So next month Vidya Navlakha was in the hostel.

She glared at Chameli, ‘You betrayed us…’

Scared Chameli trembled, ‘Yes, hukum.’

Vidya looked at the bare room with disdain and then asked Kannu, ‘Why, Malvika, why? Why did you do this?’

Have your eyes never cried, Vidya mem sahib? Have your eyes never shed tears — Kannu mumbled to herself.

‘Come, come back home.’

‘No.’

‘No means what?’

‘No means no. I am very happy here.’

‘And what problems did you have at home? I have brought you up like as a princess!’

‘I am not a princess. I am Kannu.’

Vidya was unsettled. Tension floated in the air.

‘Come home. Do whatever you want to do there,’ Vidya pleaded with her.

‘Whatever I want?’

‘Yes, absolutely.’

‘Has Papa consented to this?’

‘It is Papa who has sent me here.’

‘Oh! Papa!’ Sarcasm! Sharp like a dagger. ‘If I want to open a school in Mumbai?’

‘I will open it. Land, building, all laid out.’

-I will take only those children who have enjoyed the love of their parents for at least five years, Kannu thought. A storm of tears rose within her, but she suppressed it in her throat.

‘Do whatever you want.’

‘And Kathu will also study there.’

‘Who is Kathu?’

‘Never mind. You don’t know him.’ Then, she thought Kathu must be grown up by now. He may also be married. And have children too. Uff ! How time passes! All gone waste!

‘And Kathu’s children also.’

‘Teach whomsoever you want.’ Vidya said in a defeated tone.

‘Promise?’

‘Promise!’

‘And Chameli will stay with me. She will not be your maid’.

‘All right.’ Vidya flung a bitter glance at Chameli.

‘And I will not be a director of Papa’s company, or of the Navlakha empire!’

‘All right, I will explain it to him.’ Her voice was low.

‘And you will not look for any boy for me. You will not compel me to get married.’

‘Why? Why do you not want to get married?’ Vidya was upset.

‘It is my life, and I will decide how I want to live it.’ 

*

Vidya, Kannu and Chameli went back to Mumbai. Before leaving, Kannu met me.

‘Friend, another experiment! If this does not succeed, I shall be back here, with you! Yes, whenever you marry, have children, keep them close to your heart for five years. Then, send them to me. Come to Mumbai yourself. Teach in my school.’

‘And what will he do, the father of my children?’ I laughed.

‘Yaar, I have the right to blackmail my father. We will pigeon hole him somewhere in that huge empire of Mr. Gautam Navlakha!’

We laughed again.

Vidya ji had not yet come from Oberoi Intercontinental with her car.

Chameli was busy packing, in silence.

Kannu turned to Chameli and hugging her, ‘Amma, why are you so sad? I am here. No one will dare look at you! Don’t you trust me?’

Chameli patted her cheek and smiled.

Kannu said, ‘Come, lets raise a slogan. ‘Working women’s hostel, zindabad! Stupid, mean Mrs. Malhotra murdabad!’

And she was gone, giggling!