Mrs. Malhotra was a clerk in the Civil Supplies Department of Delhi government, when she met Shri Mahesh Chandra, the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi.

Mahesh Chandra was an I.C.S. officer.

With the coming of the British and their linguists, the polishing up of the vernacular often manifested in affixing ‘a’ at the end of every name. Ashok becomes Ashoka, Chitragupt becomes Chitragupta, Krishan is turned to Krishana, and Ram to Rama. Following this practice, Mahesh Chander too had given an anglicized look to his name, and had become Mahesh Chandra.

However later on, he was often irritated by its presence. Why couldn’t he just remove this ‘a’ from his name? But no. Having tagged it once, it seemed impossible to drop.

There was another way of getting rid of this problem. The way Daya Ram Ahuja had very easily turned his name to D.R. Ahuja, because ‘Daya’ had a rather rustic sound to it. Mahesh Chandra, however, could not do this, because his surname was, again, a strange one: Khandpur. Naturally, Mahesh Chandra sounded much better than M.C. Khandpur.

He was then the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. Presentable, active, well-dressed. Polished shoes, matching socks and tie, and a matching hankie tucked in his pocket!

Mahesh Chandra was the master of a very respectable personality.

Everyone accepted in the intellectual circles that he was one of them. He was fond of books and music. 

Mrs. Malhotra wrote short stories off and on. Stories that made one cry. Of failed love, cruel society and women harassed by such a society; warring families and bad mothers-in-law; the kind of stories that usually women write in their native languages.

She worked hard on her stories. Very hard. She wrote several drafts, rewrote them, and only then would she get them typed, and send them to the magazines. And imagine the bad manners of the good-for-nothing editors of these magazines — they could not write even a few words to explain why the story was unacceptable and being rejected ! They had pre-printed rejection slips. They would simply tag them to the story, put it in the cover and send it back! That’s it!

It doesn’t cost them anything to return the rejects. The poor writer has in any case sent a self addressed stamped envelope along with the story. This is the established practice, and the editors too insist upon it.

Mrs. Malhotra thought that every editor has a mindless yokel as an assistant, who puts all poems and stories received, in a big basket, tosses them a few times, and picks up those that come to the top, like butter, puts them on the editor’s table, and himself sends the rest back. There is nothing much left to be done. Put them in the self-addressed envelope, lick the flap, seal it, and put them in the letter box.

What do these editors do? They sit and guzzle cups of tea and munch platefuls of snacks! The whole day they meet people and gossip, drinking cups of tea or coffee. The evenings are spent drinking. They reach home late and sleep. That is what Mrs. Malhotra thought.

Isn’t that the reason why no editor reaches office before noon? She had phoned many editors. Till twelve o’clock, it was, ‘Sahib has not yet come to office.’ After twelve, it was ‘Sahib is in a meeting’. After one p.m. it was ‘Sahib has gone out to lunch.’ After two p.m., it became ‘Sahib has not yet come back from lunch.’

Work? What rubbish! When do they do it? Where is the time to do it? Mrs. Malhotra often fumed! 

Once in a while, she would set off to meet an editor. The editor of a newspaper which brought out a magazine section, publishing a story every Sunday. Or the editor of a literary magazine. She was aware that the best time for this was between half-past-three and half-past-four. This was the time the editor would be in his room, comfortably settled in his chair, trying to fight off the lethargy induced by a heavy lunch, with a cup of tea or coffee.

One doesn’t know all these things right at the beginning. One needs a lot of experience to be able to garner this information. All this is enough proof that Mrs. Malhotra had been writing for the last decade or so!

Whenever she would call on an editor, she would be treated with courtesy. The number of women engaged in literary writing is very small. Whatever be their number, not many come knocking on the door of the editor’s. If anyone does come, how can the editor meet her! Surely he would like to talk to her!

Mrs. Malhotra was good looking. A full body, though a little short, but very fair. Her features were regular, her fair complexion enough to cover any other deficiencies. 

People have a strange complex about fair complexion in this country.

Mahesh Chandra would say: ‘It is believed that this is because we have been governed by fair people for the last two hundred years or so. But this is wrong. This complex must have been given by the Aryans. This was their way of telling the dark Dravids that they were inferior. And, the British have not ruled over me for two hundered years. They have ruled over Punjab for hardly a hundred.’ He would laugh because he was a Punjabi, and proud of his Punjabiyat (this is about those times when ‘Punjabiyat’ was the common pride!)

‘The British had ruined the country in the two hundred years that they had ruled here, but they did not have the courage to turn to Punjab. It was only after conquering all the other brave people — Marathas, Gorkhas, Biharis, and Bengalis — all the rest, those who were proud of their physical strength, their culture, and are even so today, that the British, enlisting their help, had dared to attack Punjab. They had ruled the rest of the country for two hundred years, but Punjab, for only a hundred.’

Mrs. Malhotra was also a Punjabi, but she neither had any interest, nor any desire to acquire dry historical facts.

Mahesh Chandra talked to her with courtesy, because she had told him that she was a writer of short stories.

The day they had first met, she had said: ‘Sir, I have heard many people praising you. They all say that it is for the first time that an intellectual has become the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. I also write stories. I want to present my book to you, Sir. I have been wanting to do this for a long time. Today I have had the honour of meeting you. It is my good fortune. When should I come, Sir?’

And ‘Sir’ said, with a smile, ‘Come tomorrow, about half eleven. Will that be convenient?’

‘Absolutely, sir!’ Mrs. Malhotra had almost bent double in gratitude 

Once in a while, Mrs. Malhotra’s story would be published by some small magazine. Most came right back. But she believed that her stories were really good. ‘Now you tell me, these people who never tire of praising Munshi Prem Chand, these editors also must have been returning his stories the same way during his life! Isn’t it so?

‘Some one should ask these stupid critics what is it in Munshi Prem Chand’s stories, that my stories do not have? He talked about the problems of villages and small places, and I analyse the problems of urban life in my stories. And of women trapped in the complexities of life.’

‘Every one has one’s own area of interest. Each one of us writes about what we observe, and the way life treats us… Isn’t it so? No one understands this! Fools!’, Mrs. Malhotra would fret. 

A name also has its own importance. Had she kept writing under the name her mother had given her, ‘Satyawati’, even the few stories that she had got published, would not have been published. The mindless assistants of editors would have returned them, had they seen the name ‘Satyawati’, without even bothering to put them in the basket to toss them!

But she had been sensible. When she had started writing, she had changed her name to ‘Alka’. A modern, musical and positive sounding name! It melted in your mouth like butter. No, no… who likes butter today? Say ice cream! Ice cream! Mrs. Malhotra would smile to herself.

Mrs. Malhotra finally decided that if her stories were not being published in magazines, it was their loss. They didn’t want good things! They only take things written by people they have to oblige.

Magazines have to sell, because almost all of them are owned by the big newspapers groups. Each group is a part of a large business empire. Their own advertisements, their own newspapers. On one hand, they save money on taxes and on the other, they spend it to publicize their views. They earn profits, they control the politicians. In this country, there is a very close nexus between politicians and big business. This, she had been told by Mahesh Chandra.

But this was much later. The time that I am telling you about was when she had not yet come into Mahesh Chandra’s world— Mahesh Chandra’s personality and the halo of his intellectual standing ensured the presence of several ‘planets’ and ‘stars’ in his special orbit.

Mrs. Alka Malhotra had then thought of collecting all her published and unpublished stories and approaching a publisher. That would give her a good standing as a writer. Isn’t it so?

She started making the rounds of publishers.

Each one of them received her with courtesy, offered a cup of tea, took the manuscript and said, ‘The sub-editor will read it, then we shall get back to you about whether it can be published or not!’

Each one of them took five or six months to get back.

Mrs. Alka Malhotra was fed up. She now decided that she would publish her own book. She got the money out of her provident fund, and the book was published.

She now started going to each critic with a copy of the book. Presenting the book with a soft smile, she would say, ‘I just want to know what you think of this.’

This was the book that she had come to present Mahesh Chandra.

Meeting Mahesh Chandra had been a strange coincidence. Every year the Times of India people organized a big literary function in their large bungalow at Tilak Marg. There would be writers, politicians, of course government officials, and once in a while, if it was possible, the Lieutenant Governor would himself attend the party.

A huge colourful bazaar would spring up on the large lawns of the bungalow. Alongside the edges of the lawns – small beautifully decorated canopies of a variety of eats. Tea, coffee, pakodas, samosas, chaat, dahi bhalla, aloo matar ki chaat, jalebis, kulfi, sweets – just go round, meet important people, eat and leave. Writers cricled around critics, and managers around government officers and political leaders.

It was a celebration of public relations of the most sophisticated kind. This time, Alka Malhotra had somehow managed to get an invitation to this meet. And it was here that she had the chance to talk to Mahesh Chandra…

Next day, she was at the Raj Niwas at eleven thirty, to present her book. The personal assistant scrutinized the list and informed her, ‘But your name is not on the list of appointments today.’

Mrs. Malhotra answered with great dignity – ‘I didn’t take an appointment. The governer sahib had personally asked me to come today at eleven thirty.’

The assistant looked at her steadily, then sent in a slip with her name.

She was asked in. Mrs. Malhotra adjusted her sari pallu and walked in. 

Mahesh Chandra was interested in all the women of the world. Especially women with a fair complexion. For he himself was quite dark.

So Alka also joined the large band of glittering planets in his orbit.

Every sun has its orbit. The space out there extends to hundreds and thousands of miles, and the planets stay rooted to their course by the sun’s gravitational pull.

This friendship was only a minor triumph for Mahesh Chandra, like the conquest of a small village by the king of a vast empire. But for Alka Malhotra it was a lifeline which could pull her out of the quagmire of her lower middle class existence.

After some meetings, Mrs. Malhotra told him that she was sick of her job in the Civil Supplies Department. For a woman of intellect, a writer of her calibre… to be working in that awful office…! It makes her mad. The work takes everything out of her, sucks even the marrow out of her bones. She doesn’t meet an intelligent person the whole day through. Even her colleagues are so ignorant! As it is, no one wants to work. They all wait for the money coming to them under the table.

Mahesh Chandra listened to all this very seriously, ‘What does your huband do?’

‘What can he do? It is a matter of chance… he is not well educated. He is a salesman at some shop in Ramesh Nagar.’ Alka was crestfallen. ‘It is a common thing in this country. No one is concerned if the girl would be able to pull on with this man. They just want to marry her off to whosoever is available.’ Taking out a hankie from her handbag, she wiped her tears.

‘I’ll see… I’ll try if you can be transferred to another department on an easy job… and where you may get a better opportunity to read and write.’

Alka Malhotra was elated. ‘Thank you, Sir! I shall never forget this kindness all my life.’

‘I will not let you forget. I’m not sending you out of Delhi. I’ll keep you here so that I may be able to meet you and not let you forget this obligation,’ said Mahesh Chandra, smiling. 

A few days later, he said, ‘Mrs. Malhotra…’

‘Sir, please don’t call me Mrs. Malhotra. Call me Alka, please…’

‘Sure. Alka, I have seen a place for you. It’s a working women’s hostel. I’ll appoint you its warden, and get the present warden transferred elsewhere. The salary would be in the warden’s scale, but there are other perks. You will get a room in the hostel. You are now living in a rented room. You will save the rent. Free food from the canteen is a perk of the job. There is nothing much to do. Working women live there. They all head out in the morning and come back late in the evening. Yes, there is one thing. The hostel is under the Central Government, and your department is under the Delhi Administration. I would have to manage that somehow, and that may take some time. Now, about the salary, we will send you on deputation to the Central Government. That would mean a deputation allowance too, so that your salary will increase.’

‘But one room would not be sufficient for my family’s needs…’

‘Family? I had forgotten that! I had never asked you! How many children do you have?’

‘Two girls.’

‘Hmmm…’ Mahesh Chandra pondered over it a little and then said, ‘I don’t think there should be any problem about that, when you get your transfer order, deputation order, then give me an application that you need two rooms as the warden. People may go hungry in this country, but the file’s stomach must be filled!’ He laughed.

‘All right, Sir.’

‘Meanwhile, you go and have a look at the hostel. The sort of work you would need to do. But don’t say anything to anyone. No scarcity of vultures in this country! Any one may snatch the post! I am only the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, not the Prime Minister of the country. Nothing gets done merely by asking! People are willing to buy good posts!’ He was smiling like a wise man.

Mrs. Malhotra went the very next day to have a ‘look’ at the hostel. She told the warden that she needed a room. She doesn’t have a job, but will get one very shortly. Any day now. Could she have a look at the rooms? And the other arrangements? Food?

The space was fairly large and airy, as it was an old building, with high ceiling. She had already located the warden’s room which was the first one on the left, and the office was closest to the gate as you came in, on the right.

The bathrooms were the problem. There were four bathrooms in each block of rooms on both sides. Filthy and common.

‘Rubbish!’ She grimaced.

She walked up to the kitchen. A large, dirty wooden table in the dining room, and rickety chairs. A strange desolation lay around.

She decided that when the time came she would make it very clear in her application that she would keep one bathroom for her own personal use. Two rooms and a bathroom. There is a maid for work in the kitchen and also two cooks. And if the cook doesn’t cook for the warden in her room and the maid also does not sweep and clean her rooms, she would throw out the fools. They must work for the officer, or else!

As she came out, she cast a full glance on her future kingdom, and smiled with great satisfaction. 

She told Mahesh Chandra. She was happy! Grateful!

Mahesh Chandra also smiled. ‘Then the trip to Udaipur is final?’

‘Final, Sir! Final!’ Alka blushed like a sixteen-year-old, lowering her eyes, giving a full smile.

‘A woman should at least know how to conduct herself according to her age! Having once learnt that one must blush, that is all they do! From sixteen to sixty! Oh God, give these women some sense. You have given them just one weapon with which to please a man! Don’t be so miserly, God!’ — Mahesh Chandra, I.C.S., the lieutenant Governor was busy thinking.

‘There may be one problem there. Women! Twenty-four hours of the day you would be surrounded by middle aged, irritating spinsters! Would that not be a problem?’ Mahesh Candra smiled mischievously.

‘Why would that be a problem, Sir? You’ll be there. She blushed again, giving a shy smile again.

‘Fool! Idiot!’ Mahesh Chandra said to himself.

‘And that fool of yours? Your husband?’

‘Oh that, Sir! Many years have passed, sir. We do not have any relation… I mean (eyes down! A look of infinite sadness on her face, horizon to horizon! Deep sorrow! etc.) .. no physical relations!’

Mahesh Chandra gave her a keen glance through his glasses.

Silence for some time.

Then, tea was brought in.

Sipping his tea, Mahesh Chandra said, ‘I was thinking that most women in that hostel would be school teachers. Some professions are considered safe for women in this country – teaching, nursing, medicine and so on. Nurses and doctors get place to stay in the hospitals. Why would they come to this hostel?’

‘If they are in some posh profession, such as hotel receptionist or air hostess, they would not even consider staying in such a hostel. I think most of the residents of this hostel would be teachers. The sort who set their alarm clocks to get up early in the morning. Those who are obliged to wake up early in the morning, are bound to be irritable the whole day long!’

‘And clerks like me would also be there! As it is, they are likely to be unhappy about their jobs, and that would make them disgruntled!’ Alka smiled.

‘Would you not get tired of this lot?’

‘When I do, I would come to you!’ And she smiled, blushing.

…Idiot! Witless! And she says she writes stories! Mahesh Chandra was irritated.

He recalled that she had given him her book on the first day she had come to see him. In fact, she had come to give him the book. Where had he lost that book? He had not even turned a page. But he had a shrewd idea what to expect between the two covers! He was an I.C.S. officer of the old order. If he was incapable of understanding this, how could he have ruled! Was he not the ruler of Delhi, all said and done? And of this he was fully conscious.

… 

Whatever else Mahesh Chandra may be, but he was not the one to go back on his word. If he promised something to a woman he had spent the evening or night with, he ensured he kept his promise.

He also did not tire of a woman after having spent a few nights with her, as other men did. He was of the view that a man should have many women in his pocket, like loose change. The weight of the coins may tear your pocket, but that did not matter!

It was his belief that each woman – foolish or wise, beautiful or otherwise — should cherished and cared for. Surely he must have been a royal like the King of Patiala in his previous birth! Or who knows, he may even have the blood of some royal in his veins!

Like a prince, he even had a sort of a harem. But it was also true that it was an open harem. There were no eunuchs, no high walls. Go and enjoy yourself! Sleep with any number of men you want. But when I call you, you must come running to me! This was his ground rule. And, in return, take from me what is within my power to give. Job, house, shop, license, promotion, admission of children, industrial plot, anything, whatever.

He got Mrs. Alka Malhotra the wardenship of the working girls’ hostel, as he had promised, with a deputation allowance, and two rooms, which Mrs. Malhotra called ‘ a suite’. The large corridor behind the two rooms was blocked by two large wooden almirahs, and that area was converted into a kitchen. The cooks were told to come by turns, and cook. The maid was instructed to clean and sweep and to do the washing and ironing of clothes. One bathroom and toilet were locked up and small plaques were hung on both declaring them to be private. And everyone was informed that they were for the warden’s use.

Mrs. Malhotra with her two daughters, one husband and her worldly possessions was installed in her ‘suite’. She had sold all her old furniture, as the suite was furnished. New curtains, new upholstery for the sofas, and the new furniture that was needed, she could buy out of the contingency fund of the hostel which was in her charge.

She would come out of her room, and walk up to her office, whenever she wanted, and install herself on her throne.

She also had an assistant, Miss Prakash! A dry, withered, short, middle-aged woman. Her demeanour showed that she would leave this world empty handed, and thus, never forgive the world for its lack of generosity.

Miss Prakash was responsible for making the bills, collecting room charges, depositing the money in the government treasury, keeping account of the salaries and sanctioning the leave of the staff, and paying their salaries after withdrawing the money from the government treasury.

It was also her task to scold the sweepers of both the blocks, because the bathrooms were always dirty, and these two cleaning women would always be combing their hair, and gossiping with each other, their glass bangles clinking all the while. Whenever they could, they also sneaked out without permission. They thought that they were entitled to do so! So many women, and only two of them to sweep and clean after them. Anyone who wanted a clean bathroom, could clean it before bathing, and put some phenyle in the commode and clean that also. And that is what most of them did. But, when the seat is broken, the tiles of the floors are chipping off, the walls have not been white-washed since god knows when, they are bound to look dirty. How could you make them look clean? After all, the government had given them only brooms to sweep with, not a magic wand! Isn’t it so?

Besides all this scolding and overseeing, Miss Prakash’s list of duties also included keeping an account of expenditure of the kitchen. As it is, when you have two cooks and a maid working in a kitchen, it is very difficult to keep track of money. Just think, where food is cooked for fifty women, how can anyone keep track of how much dal was cooked in how much water? There were continuous squabbles, every day. Daily fights. Many hostellers would stop eating in the mess, but again, start doing so the next month to avoid the hassle that this entailed.

Cooking is an extremely tedious job, especially when one has to cook only for one’s own self. Especially in the evening when you come back to this desolation after a hard day’s work coping with various problems, tired, irritable. Then, cooking just for yourself is a curse.

When they rejoined the mess, the cooks would look sarcastically at them – so your desire to cook for yourself is over! You have had your fill! If you do not like the food here, then why don’t you cook roghan josh and biryani for yourself ? And if you get tired, then Connaught Place is round the corner! There are plenty of restaurants! Go and eat there! Have fun! Bitch! Wants to ride a bullock cart, but tells the bulls not to stir. Complains that the wheels of the rickety cart are too noisy!

The cooks would bang steel plates before the hostellers as noisily and in as cavalier a manner in which food is thrown in front of prisoners, or thrown to the caged animals in a zoo.

Miss Prakash might manage to scold others, but these cooks were beyond even her control!

Who listens to anyone in a government job? A government job means that you are enjoying job security for life. When the government can function without working, and things continue to move even when the daughter succeeds the father, and is followed by the grandson, then why should others work? Isn’t that true?

And is it only for the sweepers and the cooks to run the whole world? 

When Mrs. Malhotra took up the wardenship, Miss Prakash, in a most sugary coated voice told her, ‘You should not worry at all. I have been doing this work, and I shall do it in whatever way you tell me.’

Mrs. Malhotra smiled and thought to herself — Silly woman! What else can you do except work! You are not capable of doing anything else. And I am not worried about anyone! I have not come here to worry!

She answered, ‘Fine, Miss Prakash! I know that you are very efficient. But do report to me every day about everything that happens. After all, I am responsible for the hostel, and it is I who will have to answer for any untoward incident!’

She impressed upon Miss Prakash that though she would do all the work, it was Mrs. Malhotra who would control everything.

Mrs. Malhotra’s — ‘Report to me about anything that happens, daily’ — was interpreted by Miss Prakash to mean that reporting about the personal life and affairs of the residents was also a part of her duty.

She had always eavesdropped on their telephonic conversations, because the office was just one small room, with only one telephone, and the extension wire was short. Who was in love with whom, who was having an affair with whom, who is happy, who annoyed, who is weeping and who laughs, she knew everything. She also knew about those who were married, and the ones who were eternal virgins, though apparently, they all tagged ‘Miss’ before their names. But Miss Prakash knew which woman had left home having been illtreated by her husband, and who had been thrown out of her home by her husband.

She made it a part of her duty to spy on them. Mrs. Malhotra also had no objection to this, for it added to the pool of good plots for her stories.

The story might get written or left unrecorded, but one must have a plot of the story in one’s hand! Like domesticated pigeons sitting on the roof of a house! 

Mrs. Malhotra’s elder daughter Mamta was in love with a Naxalite.

When she had first come to know of it, Mrs. Malhotra was agitated. In love with a Naxalite? If she had to love someone in politics, why couldn’t she have loved a Congressman? He was sure to get somewhere, sooner or later! The mechanic looking after the jeep of the queen’s son has also become a leader, so has his driver.

If you want to jump, at least don’t jump into a dry well!

But Mamta, like her mother, was a very strong-willed woman. If she decided to do something, she did it. No advice, so admonitions, no scolding had any effect on her.

She had given up her studies and was learning to paint, at Triveni. Though no one taught or learnt painting at Triveni! An outstanding painter was the director of the painting department, and his wife was also an artist. Both had a flat in Triveni itself. The whole day long they would keep busy in their work and looking after their children. The director gave some guidance to upcoming painters, but he believed that if there was some sparks and talent in you, it would eventually find a way of expressing itself on the canvas. What is technique? No one can teach painting : one can only teach how to use colours and maybe the brush.

Mrs. Malhotra had given Mamta an ultimatum. ‘You are twenty-two. Another year, or at the most two years. I can’t let you ride roughshod over me. That is it. After that, whether you earn from painting, or complete your college education and take up a job, or get married to that good-for-nothing lover of yours and live on the footpath, I am not responsible for you. I gave you birth and looked after you. Gave you education. Parents cannot look after their children all their lives. Decide for yourself. Or if you need my advice, ask me. You already know what I think.

The younger daughter was named Anusuya, and was called Anu at home.

Mrs. Malhotra loved her refined, quiet, soft-spoken younger daughter more than her independent older one. She was eighteen and had just joined college after completing school.

Mrs. Malhotra was not worried about her. She felt that she would get her the best match — that would also help elevate her own status. There was no need for haste. She should at least complete her education. When you go looking for a boy, it sounds good to say the girl is a graduate.

When Mahesh Chandra had asked her ‘How many children do you have?’ she had told him – two daughters. But when he had asked her ‘How old are they?’ Mrs. Malhotra had smiled to herself. ‘You think you are very smart? You can learn my age by finding out how old my daughters are. This is too old a trick!’

She had told Mahesh Chandra, ‘They are young. School going. I think Lady Irwin School is just across the hostel, I’ll get them admitted there.’

Mahesh Chandra had also smiled to himself, ‘Silly woman! You do not know that if I am trying to get you transferred, your personal file will come to my table, and that file will tell me your age!’ 

Now, Mrs. Malhotra had plenty of time to visit Sahitya Akademi, to attend literary functions, to meet other writers and critics.

She had a house in the heart of Delhi — Ramesh Nagar now seemed to be a place where only shopkeepers and coolies lived. If someone were to ask her, ‘Where do you live?’ with an air of nonchalant pride she would say, ‘Curzon Road!’ The listener would at once become more attentive… Curzon Road? Good! Only the rich live on Curzon Road. She must also be from a wealthy family!

Then, the cultural centre of Delhi is in the neighbourhood! Mandi House! Sahitya Akademi is also there! All plays are performed in the neighbouring theatres! All art exhibitions are held there!

Even if one does not understand a play, an intellectual must be seen at these places! Mrs. Malhotra would also go to every place she wanted. She didn’t have to make a great effort for that! Walk out of the hostel, walk down to Mandi House. All in ten-twelve minutes! 

It was obvious that Mrs. Malhotra had the first claim on the official telephone. Miss Prakash did not record these telephone calls in her register kept for this specific purpose. Mrs. Malhotra had not given any such instructions to her. Her long working experience had taught her that one should not behave in a petty manner with one’s subordinates. She might have worked in the Civil Supplies Department, but then there are officers and subordinates in every department.

Mrs. Malhotra had not told Miss Prakash about her telephone calls. Miss Prakash had herself made it a rule that when Mrs. Malhotra opened her telephone diary, put it on the table and made herself comfortable in her chair, she would quietly get up and leave the office.

Mrs. Malhotra would religiously call some ten or twenty writers, five to seven critics, at least two or three editors, and about ten friends… would telephone them without any purpose. Merely to ask them what is happening… what is new about your writing? …we are looking forward to your new poem/story/novel of yours… when is your next book expected?… Good… good. I? What special would I do…? I write once in a while… sure, sure, … I’ll send you my latest story. Then tell me what you think of it… You will call me yourself? That would be wonderful! If you are serious, then make a note of my new telephone number… written it? I shall now wait for your call! This… this is Curzon Road. I have shifted to Curzon Road. What congratulations?… Congratulate me on my new book. What is there in a house? Address? I’ll give that later. At present I am still settling down in my new house! Whenever you want to meet me, give me a call. We can meet at Triveni Café. Or if you prefer, then at Shri Ram Centre’s cafe! Whatever you like, that is my choice too…he.. he…Achcha… come.’

It is great fun to talk on the phone without any specific purpose! It establishes your reputation, people are reminded that a star named Mrs. Malhotra still exists on the firmanent of Hindi literature! How does it matter if it is not yet shining yet? Soon it would glitter brilliantly!

It is an innocent way of engaging in the work of public relations. You need not worry how and when it will bear fruit! One way or the other, public relations exercises are always beneficial. And there is nothing to lose. True it takes your time. But, just think, what else could you do with time? It is not a commodity that you can pack and put away in a freezer, to take out whenever you need it? It slips through. If you invest it sensibly, then it would always be useful! Isn’t that so? 

That evening, there was a celebration at Sahitya Akademi in honour of a very well known Hindi poet. That meant a party! Meeting people! Gossip! And then the poet would recite a few of his latest poems.

This poet was considered the messiah, the vanguard of a new style and new concepts in Hindi. He and two of his friends, also well known, were considered the prophets of the new poetry.

In the literary fraternity each writer thinks it is his duty to pull down other writers and artists. If you want to be considered a big writer, then, it is essential for you to prove that others are inferior to you. It is also necessary that you cut them to size, so that your own stature is enhanced.

But these three poets were unusual. They met every day, gossiped, laughed, drank, ate and criticized everyone else except themselves. These three had led the movement for the new aesthetic and were always planning a three-pronged plan to gain wider acceptance.

Praise one another, and keep at it. Then, you do not need any critics!

It had to be conceded that they were very good poets. And they were discussed, not only in Hindi literary circles, but in literary circles of other languages as well.

Stratagem works only where there is genuine talent. If your style is different and your content is new, if you recite your lines with panache, have an eye for things that are unspoken, then the rest is all words. The ability to use them with skill, after careful consideration is art.

One of these prophets of the trinity was being honoured by Sahitya Akademi that evening. Obviously Mrs. Malhotra had to be there.

But there was a problem. Anu was at home, depressed and alone, as Mamta was out with her Naxalite friend. Mrs. Malhotra in a fit of pity for Anu, took her along to the function. 

That evening, Mrs. Malhotra took her book out from her handbag, and presented it to the poet. The poet was not just a poet. He was after all one of the three founders of a new literary wave, and sometimes he wrote profound articles. It was possible that he might write a few lines about Mrs. Malhotra’s book ‘Jal Bin Machchli’! – (Fish deprived of water).

The poet smiled, and accepted the gift and giving Anu a long look said to Mrs. Malhotra, ‘I have heard a lot about you. I have even seen some of your work. But it is only today that I have had the honour of meeting you.’

Suddenly, Mrs. Malhotra felt that she was gaining height, growing taller than the building of Sahitya Akademi, shooting up towards the sky. She could hear sea waves crashing inside her chest.

Elated, she said, ‘I… I have been yearning to meet you for years… I hesitated because I am a nobody and you are the sun illuminating the literary world. As high as the Himalayas!’

She was also trying to keep track of who was watching them and listening to this; and who was impressed, and who was jealous. People who are impressed are always few in number, and there is no end to those who are jealous.

The poet gave Anu another long glance through his thick glasses, and asked, ‘You also write?..’

Mrs. Malhotra laughed, ‘No no, she is my daughter. She is completing her education. She is not interested in literature, but accompanies me to these functions now and then.’

‘Achcha, achcha…,’ the poet remarked. Looking at the book he said, ‘I’ll give you a call after reading the book.’ Mrs. Malhotra quickly handed him her card which had her telephone number and her address – ‘Curzon Road, New Delhi.’

‘Curzon Road? That means you live almost next door!’

‘Yes, just behind Sahitya Akademi.’

‘But there is no number, no indication where on Curzon Road! One gives this sort of address only when one wants to say: ‘Look here, don’t barge into my home one of these days!’ And he guffawed in his signature style.

At this, even those who had not been keeping an eye on them looked their way. Some whispering could also be heard: ‘Who is this woman with whom he is laughing?’

The secretary of the Sahitya Akademi heard his laughter. He came and quickly led the poet to the dais.

This was the first time that Anu was impressed by her mother, that is, impressed by the fact that she was a writer. 

The poet had already been married three times. His first two wives had quietly given him a divorce. The poet had now tired of his third wife. But she was adamant and was refusing to give him a divorce. This was being widely discussed in literary circles.

The poet was on the run these days. Now in Mumbai. Then in Kolkata. Again back to Delhi. When he came back to Delhi, he would not go home, because that was now a war zone. He stayed with one or the other of his two friends, or at India International Centre.

Be that as it may, one had to accept that there was something magical in his poetry. That was why people ignored the talk about his personal life and continued to respect him. He was like the emperor Akbar of the contemporary Hindi literary scene. It was a fact that there were three Akbars ruling that empire, and all three of them had the same brilliance. The court was the same and they all considered that the assembly of the navratna, the nine jewels (or nine hundred, or nine thousand, and even nine lakh!) was their common property!

… 

The poet rang up on the third day, ‘Very good stories! Excellent! I shall soon write about them!’

Mrs. Malhotra was gratified.

‘Now tell me what I am supposed to make of ‘Curzon Road.’ Give me some number! Should I be in the vicinity, I may drop in for a cup of coffee! If you don’t want to give me coffee, then, of course, you need not give me a number.’

Mrs. Malhotra told him. And that very evening, the poet came over. 

Thus started an arrangement of coffee drinking. Thus was established the ritual of endless rounds of coffee. Endless coffee drinking evenings.

When he was expected, Mrs. Malhotra would wait, all dressed up.

She would often wonder if the poet was falling in love with her!

‘It is different with Mahesh Chandra. He is in power today, tomorrow he may be a nobody. He should be about to retire. All government officials, however high, lose their halos after retirement. Now this poet! He shall never retire. He is widely respected! One must hook on to some such anchor in order to survive in the stormy waters of the world these days! Isn’t that so?’ It seemed to Mrs. Malhotra that the poet could give her reputation as a writer a tremendous boost. He knew many people. He even visited the prime minister. He could be useful, not only in the literary field, but in many different ways and areas.

Also, there is hardly any danger of disrepute. He is a writer and so am I. If two creative persons like to meet, what problem can there be! Isn’t that so! — She would think to herself. 

Miss Prakash informed Mrs. Malhotra that some women in the hostel were objecting to these visits, though this objection was still more of a whispering campaign. They say that when we have visitors we have to meet them only in the guest room, but when someone wants to meet Mrs. Malhotra they walk straight into her room. This is not fair!

There is a fixed time for others to entertain their guests in the one and only guest room of the hotel. The chowkidar walks in rather rudely at eight and tells the visitors to leave. But there is no fixed time for Mrs. Malhotra’s guests. They may leave at nine or even at midnight!

Mrs. Malhotra’s cheeks burned with anger. At her age, cheeks forget to redden, they just burn. Furiously, she told Miss Prakash, ‘Tell these bitches that I am not hiding here. I have been officially appointed here. This is not my room, but a regular government (she stopped short of saying bungalow) quarter. It has been allotted by the government, as other government officials are provided accommodation elsewhere. It is my home. And who comes and who goes, what time they come and when they leave is not a matter of hostel rules and regulations.’

‘Very true madam! This is your home. Had it been in some government colony, who would have kept track of your guests?’, Miss Prakash consoled her implying ‘madam don’t worry, I am with you’. Said in tones implying individed support and loyality.

Mrs. Malhotra’s cheeks cooled a bit. ‘And then, I am not a spinster like them, nor have I been thrown out of my home. I am not social garbage like them. I come from a respectable family. If someone comes at nine and stays on late after dinner, then I am not alone at home with him. My husband is there and so are my daughters. The cook and maid are also there. I am not like them…’ She could not think of anything more to say. She had wanted to say she was no longer hungering for a man and sex. That she had a man of her own. She had not grown old waiting for a man. But all this seemed a bit hazy because the poet’s face appeared in her mind’s eye and she was a little nervous.

A few moments passed in a tense silence.

Miss Prakash looked at her from the corners of her eyes. She however gave the impression that the matter was now over and she busied herself with her account books.

After some time had elapsed, Mrs. Malhotra spoke in a calm voice: ‘I am a writer. I have a creative personality. I am not an ignorant rustic like them that I work, earn, cook, eat, buy clothes, sleep, get up, gossip, criticise others, and then… finish! The same routine the next day. Bitches! What do they know what being an intellectual means! Middle aged women are not going to come to me, only an intellectual like me will come to visit… a writer or a poet! Some editor may also come.’

The last was a dream she had long cherished that one day editors would themselves walk up to her and say: ‘Many days have passed and you have not sent any new story for publication. This will not do, Alka ji! Our readers are asking us when are we publishing Alkaji’s new story! Give us your new story, please.’ 

A sale was on at Khadi Gramodyog Bhawan. Mrs. Malhotra was looking for a good sari, and hoping to get a bargain she walked over in the evening. New clothes had to be bought for everyone as Diwali was near. Why not look around at the sale?

She was very happy these days. She walked on air, floated in blue ozone of the sky! She had decided to buy a silk kurta for her husband. He was like a pet, docile and obedient. He had tolerated all her whims and fancies and just wagged his tail!

If one possesses a pet, then it has to be properly looked after. Isn’t that right? She smiled to herself.

Carrying a few packets, she came out of Khadi Gramodyog. Why walk back with all this load? She came up to the Regal to wait for an auto.

Suddenly, at the corner of the road, she saw the poet leaning slightly against the railings. First she thought of walking up to him. Then she felt that with these packages in her hand she looked like a typical housewife. This would damage her image of an intellectual, and she gave up the idea.

She was still waiting for an auto when she saw Anu crossing the road from the other side. She seemed to be coming towards the poet.

Mrs. Malhotra stood transfixed for a moment.

There was a broad smile on the poet’s face. A soft and loving smile.

Anu came up to him and he put his arm on her shoulder. Both walked into the Gaylord restaurant clinging to one another. 

Her first thought was to immediately follow them and to catch Anu by her plaits and pull her out.

To drag the poet out on the crossing and thrash him and to ask him: ‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You are my age! She is like your daughter! Couldn’t you find any other girl to flirt with! The only girl you found was my daughter! After all, I am also a writer, an intellectual! I am known in the literary circles! I’ll bury you alive! You will not be able to even show your face anywhere in literary circles.’

Then she remembered his visits to her home for the last six or seven months. His loud laughter! Talking for hours! And Anu, a girl given to silence, who did not like any of her mother’s friends, would sit talking with him freely!

‘All this had been happening right under my nose all these months, and the fool that I am, I did not realize what was happening!’

‘I thought that Anu was improving, and opening up! I was happy that at least she did not dislike one of my friends!

‘And when he was expected to dine, Anu would herself roast the chicken on a slow fire for hours! As if that was the most important task in the world. That roasting the chicken, soaked in all those spices on a slow fire, and all those mouth-watering aromas rising in the air, was the most important work of her life!

‘Fool and stupid that I was, I thought it a good thing that the girl had started taking some interest in household tasks. I thought it was out of affection for me when it was actually for this thief!

‘I deluded myself all this time that the poet was in love with me. Ignorant! Stupid! The poet and my own daughter! They were plotting against me! Right in front of my eyes! And I was blind!’

She did not know how she managed to get an auto rickshaw and reach the hostel. Throwing the packages in a corner, she fell heavily on the bed, like an uprooted tree. 

Then began a long period of recrimination, of tension, of heart-burning. Things unsaid. Accusations and counter accusations.

She had given Anu a sound thrashing. A bad one. But, Anu bore it all silently. She neither resisted nor did she utter a sound. She did not even shed a tear. She lay there, lifeless, like a bundle of clothes being severely beaten up by a washerman.

When Mrs. Malhotra, tired and broken, fell back on the sofa, weeping, her hands covering her face, then Anu spoke. In a controlled voice, serious, weighing each word that came out of her lips carefully: ‘There is no need to cry and weep. All through your life, you did whatever you wanted. We never ever said a word. I am no longer a child. I am more than eighteen! I am, in fact, nineteen. You cannot impose your will on me! Its my life (the ‘my’ was heavily emphasized) and I shall do what I want with it. If you think that I cannot make my own decisions as long as I am living under your roof, eating the food here, wearing clothes that you buy for me, then fine. I will leave with him. Happy?’

There was no anger in her voice, no complaint. No whining about ‘cruel’ society. She made no great show of her own sorrow, so that others would pity her. A firm announcement of a serious decision; steady as a rock. If the rock were to come hurtling down, it could destroy everything that obstructed its way.

Mrs. Malhotra bent double on the sofa, crying and sobbing. She sat like most Indian women do, because they are incapable of making their own decisions, and whatever is done to them or happens, they are always full of self pity and cringe about it all their lives. People who take their own decisions, sit straight, the way Anu was sitting, even though each bone in her body was aching. It seemed as if Anu had beaten her mother.

… 

Mrs. Malhotra also talked to the poet. She pleaded with him and was also curt with him. She could be harsh only upto a limit, because she had her literary aspirations to think of. He could still make her a shining star on the Hindi literary firmament. When it is a question of one’s whole career, one has to be careful. You may have been deeply wounded, suffered an unbearable sorrow, but must still keep a tight rein on your anger! But he kept looking at Anu and kept smiling.

‘Look, Mrs. Malhotra, no one deliberates about such relationships. Nor does one plan them. That evening when you came to Sahitya Akademi with Anu – it must be some seven eight months now! No? – that very moment, in the fraction of that moment, Anu and I were caught in the grip of this relationship.’

‘But she is neither a writer nor does she have any understanding of literature. What sort of relationship is this which is not based on sharing of ideas, only on sharing a bed!’

‘Now, now, Mrs. Malhotra, that’s not fair! We shouldn’t use the language of the gutter. You may be extremely annoyed with me, but you must not stoop so low!’ The poet admonished her in a sweet tone.

‘You tell me, you are the same age as I. This girl is your daughter’s age!’

‘I don’t have any daughter,’ he laughed his usual loud laugh! This laughter had been used to render all opposition ineffective, to demolish any counterpoint. It was this laughter which illuminated the gatherings of writers, friends, followers and worshippers. It was this laugh with which he cajoled his publishers to give him his proper dues so that he could live like a king.

This was a magical, miraculous laugh! Mrs. Malhotra also softened. The ‘original’ power of her voice, the high pitch on which she had started the war, had relaxed. She said, ‘But your third wife? I hear that she is not ready to divorce you. What will you do about that?’

‘There is one way — that I murder her,’ again his laughter rang out. ‘But that I cannot do. Actually, any soft hearted man is by nature a coward. Even if I throw off my cover of soft heartedness, what guarantee is there that it will leave me? And it should not. In this lies my redemption. Otherwise, how will I write? Now, you tell me, had I not been a poet, what would have happened to me? You wouldn’t have come to Sahitya Akademi that evening, and I would not have met Anu…’

‘Please be serious. This is no joking matter.’

‘It is strange that even when I am very serious, people think that I am joking. And when I am joking, all of you think that my heavenly father is telling me to write the Bible, and I have just descended from heaven and that divine voice is dictating to me. What should I do? Everything is topsy turvy about me. But, seriously, do you know a good astrologer? I think I should try that as well and get my horoscope read.’

Mrs. Malhotra was again losing her cool.

Anu sitting at some distance was smiling.

Mrs. Malhotra said, ‘I was asking you about your third wife. If she does not agree to divorce you, then, will you live on the road?’

‘That’s not a bad idea! What do you say, Anu? As it is, the very idea of a house is old fashioned. The word ‘home’ imprisons a man. What a prison-hole my ancestors and yours have created! Home! The fools did not think that this beautiful sky, this vast land, these free winds and fragrances, morning and evening, this moon, stars and sun – all this has been created by God for us to play with! Then there was Man, the fool. What did he do? He said ‘No’ to them. A big fat ‘No’! A ‘No’ which spread from one end of the vast horizon to the other. From North Pole to the South Pole! No, I don’t want your blue sky, your stars and moon and sun, your vast plains and green fields, your swaying trees and flying birds, your beautiful mornings and evenings, your fragrant winds, mountains and rivers, and bottomless oceans!’

‘He just said ‘No’ and put up a barrier of walls around him. He was the master of such beautiful land, seas and winds, was a part of them, the divine potter had created him like that. But he rejected all those blessings, those gifts, put them outside and shut himself within these walls. Then he looked above. Oh that blue sky! Those wandering clouds! These vagabond free flowing winds! Stop it all! I don’t want all this! And he put up a roof over the four walls!

‘If you ask me honestly, this Man, our ancestor, who for the first time made a ‘home’, was the biggest idiot. Forgive me, I don’t think he was any ancestor of mine ( a great deal of emphasis on mine! And then that ringing laughter!) because there is a billowing sea within me! All the beauty of the world is in me. The rustling of the wind, the white snow glittering on the peaks of the mountains is within me! Also, there is a sky within me where the stars, the moon, and the sun are always shining. These days the stars of my third wife are setting, have almost set, and Anu’s sun is illuminating my sky!’ And he looked at Anu, his eyes brimming with love.

‘Oh yes, you were asking if my wife doesn’t agree to a divorce, then where would I keep Anu? Your question is pertinent. I lost myself in prattle. Any mother would ask. You have a right to ask this question. The world is so big! There are large cities! There are thousands of houses in these cities. I shall rent any one of these houses! Why Anu, what do you say?’

Anu inclined her head in affirmation.

Mrs. Malhotra was upset, ‘How can you do that? How can you live with anyone else without a divorce from your wife?’

‘When she finds out, then she would have to think about the situation. Then, as it usually happens, the whole family will congregate, put their heads together, think about it, get a lawyer, go to the court. Then I shall be sent summons, and I will get a lawyer, then dates would be given, then lawyers would argue over the issue, the judge will then hand out another date. Till that time, all this time, limitless days, months, years, we shall live as we want, the way we want! That is a very simple, minor matter, Mrs. Malhotra!’

… 

The next day the poet took Anu away. Anu had a small airbag in one hand, in which she had put some salwar kazmeezes, her comb, toothpaste and tooth brush.

Both were laughing when they left. As he was leaving, the poet put his hand on Mrs. Malhotra’s shoulder, pressed her hand and in dulcet tones said, ‘I will never give you a chance to regret this moment. After all, this is the difference between an ignorant mother and an intellectual mother with a creative personality. You are really great, Alka ji!’

This was the first time that he had embraced her in this manner, showed any affection, and called her Alka ji. She softened and wiped her tears with the back of her hand.

When they had left, she asked the cook for a cup of coffee, gulped down two painkillers, and also a sedative.

After some time when she felt a little calm, she thought ‘Let them be happy! Daughters leave their homes some time or the other. She did not make me spend even one penny when she was leaving her father’s home.’

Suddenly, she felt that there was something wrong with this idea ‘Father’s home!’ My foot! It should be ‘Mother’s home!’

Just before she fell asleep, as she was drowsily slipping into a stupor, it came to her in a flash: ‘How will he escape me now? He is now my son-in-law!’ And she told herself ‘You are now a famous writer! He has to make you famous! He shall!’

Not even a month had elapsed, when Mamta also left home to live with her Naxalite friend.

She told Anu on the phone, ‘Thank you, Anu! All this time, I was needlessly afraid. You showed me the way.’

For some time, Mrs. Malhotra’s vanity dimmed. Her forceful voice, her masterful air vanished, as did her spiteful angry glances at the hostel residents.

Gradually, as all storms abate, this storm also waned.

Long discussions and loud peals of laughter of both her sons-in-law and daughters could be heard till late night in Mrs. Malhotra’s apartment.

Her arrogance and her egotism made a comeback. 

Almost two months later, she suddenly thought of Mahesh Chandra. She rang up Raj Bhawan, took an appointment, and presented herself there with two boxes of sweets.

The same coquetry, the same shy blushes. Presenting the sweet boxes she said: ‘Both my daughters have passed, sir! They are like your daughters! I felt that I must share this happiness with you, with sweets!’

‘There are other ways of making me happy, Mrs. Malhotra!’ Mahesh Chandra remarked with a twinkle in his eyes. (It was to his credit that if a lady of his harem did not put in an appearance for a year or two, he welcomed her whenever she came and never complained about her absence. Who wouldn’t love and die for this!)

‘In what way, Sir?’

‘I am going on a tour of Leh! It is only a pretext to get out of this scorching heat of Delhi! If we go together, that would make me very happy!’

‘Sure, Sir!’ Soft velvety voice. Eyes lowered, a shy smile on her lips. She sank deeper into the chair she sat on, blushing, and smiling to herself!