Rangappa was content to live in a realm of different names. Officially, as per his one-page résumé, prepared for a small sum by one of the roadside typists who served the lawyers outside Bangalore's Mayo Hall, his name was T. R. Gavirangappa. Tarikere Ranganatha Gavirangappa. Anyone reading his name would instantly know that he hailed from the village of Tarikere, near the hills of Chikmagalur, and that he was the son of Ranganatha. His family called him Rangappa for short.
But at work he was known as Raju. This nominal transformation had been announced to him, quite casually, at the end of his job interview. "Your driving test was satisfactory," his prospective employer had said. "The job is yours, provided you are courteous, prompt, and steady in your habits." And then: "Oh, and on the job you will be called Raju."
He had not really thought to protest, so everyone in the house, from the cook to his employer's three-year-old daughter, called him Raju. It took him three days to get used to it. And after a while he even began to like it. There was a film star called Raju. It was that kind of name—snappy, spry, with a certain air about it. After many months on the job he suggested to his family that perhaps they, too, should consider calling him Raju, but his father laughed at him and that was that.
He had heard about the job from his cousin, who worked as an office boy and whose boss needed a driver for his family. It would not be a company job, unfortunately—that was the best kind, with all sorts of perks and bonuses and (best of all) membership in a union that prevented you from getting fired easily. Instead he would be hired directly by the boss's family; but they were good people, his cousin said, and would pay well. Raju (or Rangappa) heard this out with reserve; if he got the job, his cousin would be sure to earn a tip, and the promise of that was bound to make any boss look good.
He was to go interview immediately with the boss's wife, a Mrs. Choudhary. His heart sank at the news. His father, who had also been a driver, had once worked for a Mrs. Choudhary. He had taken the young Rangappa (or Raju) to see her, hoping to receive a gift for his son—some money, perhaps, or even a packet of biscuits. Rangappa remembered standing with his father on the steps of a large house, not daring to sit, waiting for Mrs. Choudhary to emerge for her ritual round of morning shopping. He remembered a formidable woman, clad in silks and jewelry and with a round red bindi on her forehead, drawn so large that it seemed to swallow him up. His father presented him; she ignored him and told his father to hurry up with the car. Rangappa-soon-to-be-Raju had never been more scared in his life.
Now he wished he could turn his cousin down. He decided he didn't like the sound of the job (the other Mrs. Choudhary's voice resonated frighteningly through the years), and besides, he didn't really want to be beholden to his cousin, whom he suspected of harboring evil designs on his younger sister. Far better to say no: to his cousin, to this Mrs. Choudhary. Far better, indeed, to spend his time getting his younger sister married off and safe.
But he didn't have a choice. His salary had to support his parents, his sister, his wife of four years, and their little daughter. The driving job he had right now paid enough to feed any two of them, after he deducted his daily bus fare to and from work. They were all always a little hungry. This new job, this Mrs. Choudhary job, offered much more—at least, according to his cousin.
He woke up early on the morning of the interview, and rushed to fetch two buckets of water for his house from the pump down the road. He hastily washed his face and hands before joining his family for morning prayers in front of the puja altar, manufactured by placing colored portraits of various deities on a shelf and decorating them with flowers, turmeric and red kumkum powders, and a bit of green velvet with gold trim. The smoky fragrance of the incense sticks filtered through his senses. He and his father chanted the Sanskrit prayers for the spiritual welfare of the family and the good of the world, but his mind charted an alternate course of prayer: for this new job, and a little bit of money.
Afterward he stood in front of a mirror that hung lopsided on a cracked and peeling wall. He felt sticky and tired from the heat of the night, but a water shortage in the district prevented him from having a bath. Two buckets of water would have to last his family for that entire day. He took a little coconut oil from his wife's bottle and rubbed it into his hair before combing it neatly through.
"You should take a bath," his father said, from the stoop in front of the house. He had sat there every morning, sipping his morning tumbler of coffee, since an injured back had forced his retirement. "And, very important, you need a new, clean shirt. Otherwise they won't hire you. You should look smart. I know these things. Daughter, give your husband a new shirt."
Rangappa's wife looked timidly at Rangappa. He had no new shirt, hadn't had one for a while. "There is no new shirt, Appa," Rangappa told his father. "Never mind. I'll go as I am."
"Well, don't blame me if you don't get the job. I know about these things. If you come back empty-handed, don't blame me."
The Choudhary house stood in a large garden, two stories high and gleaming whitely at the end of a cement driveway edged with rosebushes whose blossoms would never be plucked for the altar but would remain in the garden to wither and die at their master's pleasure. Rangappa's first glimpse of the house didn't reduce the tension in his back. He knew that the obvious wealth of his prospective employers didn't automatically translate into good working conditions. Some of these memsahibs could fight over the last rupee with all the possessive fierceness of those old crones who sold vegetables in the early-morning market.
The guard at the gate escorted him to the front door, surrendering him to the maid who answered. She asked him to leave his shoes at the door and step into the foyer. "Wait here. I'll tell her you've come."
Rangappa studied the maid carefully. She looked well fed. She wore a sari that he would have loved to buy for his wife. She didn't seem cowed or rude. These were good signs.
"Who is it?" A woman's lazy voice came from the landing of the curving staircase in the corner, and Rangappa looked up. He felt himself seized by shock. He stared at the apparition for a quick instant, and immediately looked down at the floor in embarrassment. The voice said, "Someone for the driver job? Oh, good. Ask him to wait, I'll be right down."
Rangappa's thoughts paralyzed him in disbelief. He couldn't reconcile the bizarre figure he had seen with the haughty memsahib of his imaginings. That slip of a girl, surely no older than his teenage sister, was practically naked: wearing nothing more than a man's banian vest and pair of loose shorts that, together, exposed most of her legs, all of her arms, and a good bit of her chest. The maid didn't seem to be bothered by this, and Rangappa immediately worried, What manner of house was this? He was a decent, respectable man.
The marble floor beneath his feet ran in every direction, giving way here and there to carpets that glowed with the jewel-bright colors of a silken wedding sari. Rangappa's glance traced the dull gleam of the heavy bronze sculptures. Along with the sofas and the paintings and the dark wooden cabinets, rich with objects that glistened and shone, they reminded him of a movie set. But instead of stepping away at the end of a day's shooting, these people lived on in their movie-star lives.
Except, from what he had seen, this set seemed to lack a proper heroine.
The next time Mrs. Choudhary appeared, she had aged about a decade and a half. Gone was that young sprightliness, vanished behind a thick robe, belted at her waist, that stretched from shoulders to ankles. She seated herself on a sofa and asked the maid to bring her some coffee. Her voice was soft and polite, but Raju had seen memsahibs with soft and polite voices turn into screaming banshees when faced with a minor transgression. He stood alert. She sipped her coffee and studied his résumé, which he'd presented to her in a tattered envelope: a single sheet of paper, folded and refolded, marked with brown creases, smudged with fingerprints, and with the word "BIO-DATA" typed at the top of the page in large capital letters.
When describing it all later to his father, he portrayed himself as having had a savoir faire he'd never really felt during the interview, and failed to mention how his hands had left the steering wheel of the car sticky with perspiration during the driving test. He did talk about how she'd made him drive right into the worst traffic the city had to offer, and had praised the way he'd handled it. He talked of her commandments, completely contrary to the conventional wisdom on the crazy, unruly city roads: when driving for her, he was to drive slowly and, oddly, to follow the rules, follow the rules, follow the rules.
Back at her house after the driving test, she resumed her seat on the sofa, her face set in stern lines behind her glasses. His relief at her praise instantly abated. Now began the inevitable battle over his qualifications and his salary, between his need and her whimsy. And by the looks of her now, she would not be a pushover.
"Your driving test was satisfactory," she said. "The job is yours, provided you are courteous, prompt, and steady in your habits."
He waited. He hadn't mentioned his expectations, wanting to hear what she would offer first. Then, if it was too low, perhaps no more than what he was currently earning, he would try bargaining, begging, pleading. He would tell her of his family's poverty and the many mouths that needed to be fed. Not that such a strategy would work, necessarily; memsahibs always treated such stories as just that—stories, tales that their domestic staff conjured up out of the air for a momentary amusement. He waited.
She nodded briskly and offered a salary that was two and a half times what he was making. In his elation he forgot all about the first rule in a wage negotiation: keep an impassive face and hold out for more. He grinned happily and barely heard what she said next: "Oh, and on the job you will be called Raju."
At home, later, he handed around celebratory sweetmeats and recounted to his family how he had then been told to go around to the kitchen and how the cook, Rosa, an immense woman (obviously a devoted servant of her own art), had introduced him to the other servants in the house: Shanti, the baby's ayah, who had opened the door to him that morning; Asha, the top-work maid, who cleaned the whole house; and Subbu, the silent little gardening boy. How she had given him hot, sweet tea and a freshly made rava dosa, the semolina batter mixed with onions and green chilies and fried thin and crisp and delicious. And how she had told him that as long as he worked there, all his meals would be catered from that large kitchen, as per the memsahib's orders. Breakfast when he arrived, lunch at one, tea or coffee on demand.
Rangappa-now-Raju did some boasting that day. He never did share that extraordinary first moment, though, when his employer had cavorted into his presence in the most indecent of clothes, like one of those scandalous females on the foreign TV channels. He never mentioned that. And a full week passed before he told his family of the change in his professional name.
And so he settled down to working for Mrs. Choudhary. Of course he didn't call her that. When he first started work, he referred to her as "Amma," but he soon found that even that wasn't quite suitable. The other servants in the house called her Madam, pronounced not as the word's English originators had imagined but, rather, "May-dum." As in "May-dum kareethidhare"—Madam wants you. "May-dum oota maduthidhare"—Madam is eating her lunch.
His routine remained unchanged through the first year. He would arrive by eight, catching two buses to do so, and straightaway wash and polish both the cars, hoping to finish in time to grab a quick cup of coffee before driving May-dum's little daughter and her ayah to school. He always finished cleaning the big black car first. It was one of the latest models, and May-dum's husband, referred to as "Saibru," or "Master," by the servants, drove it himself, jealously refusing to let anyone else touch the wheel. Raju always had it clean and ready when Saibru hurriedly exited the house at eight-thirty. Raju would salute him and receive a nod for his pains; the two men hadn't exchanged more than a dozen words.
Then he'd clean her car, which was just as smart. Even smarter, Raju thought, loving its gleaming whiteness and fancy interior. He was aware that she didn't share his opinion. The car had arrived from the showroom about six months after he'd joined. He had inspected it with extreme pride and possessiveness. This was his car, really—the one that he would drive, the one that he'd be seen driving. It was a prestigious make. He peeped inside at the opulent furnishings: the velvet seats, the gleaming red carpet. His fingers itched to take the wheel. She's going to love this, he thought.
She didn't. She came out to inspect it with a girlfriend, and her first comment was "Oh, God, not white!"
Raju threw the door open for her inspection, and immediately she groaned. "Will you look at this? Velvet seats! Oh, God, and that red carpet! Could anything be in worse taste?"
The friend considered the matter and said, "Well, at least the windows aren't tinted black."
"That's true," May-dum had said, laughing. "Then it would definitely look like a greasy politician's car!"
"Oh, it still does," the friend said.
Whatever their opinion, Raju was proud of the car. He just wished his family could see him driving it.
Some time passed before he began to realize that this job consisted of more than just driving a car. His father, in this instance, had been right after all.
"You must act smart," the old man had said. "You don't know how to act smart. You are going to lose this good job because you must act smart and not like a coolie. When that happens, don't blame me."
At first he had ignored this talk, especially when his father carried on about how to open the car door ("Open the door, hold it open while she gets in or out, and then close it firmly but not loudly"), demonstrating on an imaginary door handle and clutching his aching back all the while. Previously Raju had worked as a transport driver for small manufacturing companies that used minivans to transport goods and people. Cost and speed were of the essence there; the niceties didn't really matter. But now he was in a different sphere. He started to pay attention to how other drivers did things, at the big hotels or at the Club, where May-dum liked to spend time with her friends. It was true. The smartest drivers acted so. One evening Raju really listened to his father, so surprising the old man that he enthusiastically lengthened his lecture by a half hour, and got up to demonstrate so often that his back suffered for it the whole night long.
The next morning Raju was ready. As soon as May-dum appeared, he leaped to open the door, standing (smartly, he hoped) at attention. She paused, surprise and amusement warring on her face, and then she smiled. "Thank you," she said, and slid into the car. The warmth of that smile stayed with him that entire day.
From his father he learned to greet her cheerily the first thing every morning. He bought a can of air freshener with his own money, and, as he'd seen another driver at the Club do, he would spray the car's interior before driving from the car park to the main clubhouse to pick her up. He learned to anticipate her movements, running to carry her bags as soon as she emerged from a shop, staying alert for the sudden sound of her voice. He watched to see which side of the car she approached, so that he could have the door open and ready for her. After a while he learned to tell, just by looking at her clothes, whether she wanted to visit the gym, go shopping, or meet with her friends. Sometimes he could even guess correctly what music she would play on the car stereo.
And in return, she never raised her voice at him. No screaming at him when the car got stuck in traffic. No shouting that he was a fool, and the son of fools. No muttering that he should be fired, the idiot, the rascal, just let him try and get another job as good as this.
That was the nicest thing about her; nicer, in a way, than even the wages, or the good meals, or her carelessly handed- over parcels of food and old but still excellent clothing, which made her especially interesting to his family. She never raised her voice. She was always polite. Raju's father would shake his head slowly when he heard that. "That's rare," he would say. "Very rare. Son, don't be stupid and lose this job and allow your family to starve. Take my advice. You won't get such a place again easily."
She didn't shout even when things went wrong, such as when he dented the side of the new car by backing into a truck that wasn't supposed to be there. That was a moment when, he felt, she was fully entitled to lose her temper and lecture him angrily. Instead she just went over the incident with him in detail, accepted his fervent apologies, and asked him to ensure that it never happened again.
The other servants in the house seemed to be aware of their good luck as well. It was both a fashion and a reflection of harsh reality for domestic workers to complain to one another about their working conditions: the rotten food, the meager salaries, the unsympathetic memsahibs. At times their grumbling seemed almost a competition to see who had it worst. The staff here never did that. Certainly, when eating together and gossiping, they traded hard-luck stories. That was only to be expected, for who didn't have sorrow in their lives? But then they would also tell him, "You know, if you have any problems, you should talk to May-dum about it. She'll help."
But in those early days he couldn't see himself taking the liberty. Besides, just the previous day, for the first time in years, he had bought a chicken on the way home from work, and the rare sweetness of the meat still flowed in his veins, mellowing his view of the world.
After a while he gave up trying to resolve the inherent contradiction in May-dum: that someone who made such an ideal employer—who, indeed, redefined his very notion of memsahibs—could also, simultaneously, present what he could characterize as nothing other than a Lax Moral Outlook. The problem wasn't just her style of dressing—scanty outfits that revealed her arms, her midriff, her legs, in fashions most suitable for a prostitute or a film star or a foreigner. It was also her style of speaking with her friends: curses, jokes, comments and conversation of a frankness that, on the whole, made him grateful he could barely follow the English in which they spoke.
And then, she smoked. When Raju's younger brother had started smoking, their father had thrashed the living daylights out of him as soon as he found out about it. His brother still smoked, but was always careful to do it discreetly and never in front of the family elders. Not so his May-dum. She lit up casually, elaborately, luxuriously, all over the place, leaving a trail of noxious fumes behind her.
He was still very new when, one day, he'd driven her and one of her girlfriends out to lunch. She'd introduced him laughingly as her new driver, and he had smiled politely and touched his forehead at the friend. When they were both inside the car, he heard the friend comment, "Wasn't your last driver also called Raju?"
"Actually, his name was Murugesh."
"Hm. I could swear ..." The other woman looked confused.
Raju knew all about this Murugesh-also-called-Raju: a competent driver, he'd been fired for drinking on the job. At first this knowledge had pleased Raju, as evidence of his employer's probity. But that was, of course, before he'd gotten to know May-dum better. Driving while drunk was what she had objected to. It was not the drink itself, as he'd rapidly learned firsthand.
Sometimes, on a Friday or a Saturday, she would ask him to stay late, past his six o'clock end of duty. She would pay him extra for his overtime, and give him dinner, so it wasn't really a problem. His family liked the extra money.
The first time, she'd gone out to a formal dinner, dressed in a sari and looking lovely. The next time had been different. First of all, she was dressed in a skirt so short that it couldn't have been longer than the span of his hand. Then, she had asked him to drive her to a pub. He knew all about such places: they were nothing more than elaborate versions of the drinking halls that dotted his own neighborhood, where men he'd known as boys had become dissolute and useless and a burden to their wives and families.
He had waited outside the pub for May-dum for four hours, watching the stream of fashionable, alien traffic enter a door from which music, light, and the thin smell of alcohol emerged, until midnight had come and gone. Then he finally saw her again, clinging to the arm of another woman and laughing. "Here's Raju! He'll drop us home."
He had opened the door and stood there woodenly while the two women fumbled and crawled their way into the back seat. The enclosed car was filled with the fumes of their breath. They both smelled of smoke and dissipation. They had laughed and giggled, out of control, all the way to their respective homes.
He knew that this behavior was unacceptable. Immoral. Should be stopped. He also knew that he shouldn't, by any calculation, like and respect May-dum so much. But there didn't seem to be anything he could do about that either.
This wasn't something he could discuss with any of his co-workers; the maids in the house seemed to have developed a strange blindness where May-dum was concerned, excusing behavior in her that they would have condemned in anyone else. And he could never bring himself to mention this aspect of her at home.
Really, the only person who seemed to criticize May-dum was her mother-in-law—and that was another situation that bothered Raju a lot. A few months after he'd joined, Shanti came out one morning to ask him to have the car by the front door in ten minutes. "She's going to visit her mother-in-law," she said. "The old lady is just back from a visit to her other son's house, in America." Her mother-in-law? Raju inquired in some surprise. Lives in the same city? Why do they not then live in the same house? This was unheard of.
May-dum's face, when she emerged, was preoccupied. He studied it in the rearview mirror while he drove, as she stared out the window at the passing traffic, looking wistfully at cars moving in the opposite direction. They arrived very quickly at another large house.
"Keep the car running and be ready to leave," she told Raju before entering the house. He thought it through and decided that she must have been joking—there had been an odd note in her voice. He decided to wait where he was; if she was in a hurry, he could start the car quickly. He was glad about his decision, because she finally reappeared a whole hour later.
With her, standing on the steps, was a diminutive woman whose voice carried all the way over to him. Was that her mother-in-law? Raju mechanically drove the car up to the steps of the house, opened the door for May-dum, and took a set of bags from her and placed them inside the car before turning to study her companion. He got a shock. The little lady standing next to her was the same Mrs. Choudhary who had terrorized him all those years ago. She still dressed in silk and large bindis, her voice still had that harsh edge that had repulsed him, but sometime in the past fifteen years she had shrunk in size. Now, when had that happened?
As before, she ignored him. She was saying to May-dum, "... so wear the clothes I have bought for you. They will suit you more than that rubbish that you always wear. More proper. More suitable. And the frock for Baby is also very pretty, na? Much better than those shorts you put her in, poor thing. I always feel so bad when I look at her, dressed like that."
May-dum's smile didn't waver, at least not until the car was on its way. Raju glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her eyes filling with uncontrollable tears. And though Mother-in-law Choudhary's words expressed his sentiments exactly, at that moment all he wanted to say was "Please don't be upset by that woman—she's awful, I know, but she shrinks with time."
When they got home, she handed the bags to him. "Here are some clothes," she said. "Perhaps your wife will like them. And take the dresses for your daughter."
He peeked inside the bag before protesting. He could see expensive saris in bright colors, a frilly child's frock in pink. They were lovely, but already he knew that May-dum wouldn't think so. "But, May-dum, they are brand-new."
She smiled kindly at him. "Well, that's good, isn't it?"
Gradually, over the course of the first year, he stopped worrying about her inappropriate deportment and just accepted it as one of life's irregularities, like those politicians who seemed to have earned all the graces of God in spite of corrupt, wicked living.
Didn't think about it, that is, until today.
Today he was once again concerned about her behavior—feverishly, anxiously concerned. What would she wear? Something decent, or not? He had a sudden mental image of her appearing in scanty shorts, a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, and his heart almost failed. What if she did dress like that? Then, he immediately resolved, he would just have to pretend that he couldn't find the right directions; he had lost his way, lost his mind, something like that.
He could never take her to meet his family if she was dressed like that.
This momentous visit was the product of a conversation he'd had with her about a month earlier. It had come about casually enough. May-dum had been busy at her desk all morning, and then had handed him a set of bills, the check payments neatly attached, along with instructions on where each was to be paid. The last item was her daughter's annual school fees, a large but apparently appropriate amount for three hours of supervised singing and paint spattering every weekday.
"And what about your daughter, Raju?" she asked casually at the end, raising her spectacles with one hand and rubbing her eyes with the other. "Are you sending her to school somewhere?"
Raju nodded dumbly. Of all the passions of his soul, one reigned supreme. He worshipped his little daughter. She had just turned three, but when she was born, he could already envisage the successes of her life as he held her tiny body in his hands. She would be educated. She would be healthy and well nourished. She would be proud. Well dressed. Beautiful. She would work in an office, in a job that would one day earn her a car of her own. She would be a may-dum in her own right.
His mother had wanted to call the baby Akkamma, after her own mother, but Raju had said no. He'd already decided to call her Hema Malini, after the film actress, his first sight of whom (as a young boy) he'd never forgotten: she was the most beautiful woman in the universe, a dream girl with liquid eyes and glowing skin and hair that tumbled down her back. His father had told him that the baby's name didn't matter. He commiserated: "Your firstborn is a girl. That's a shame. My firstborn was a boy. A man should have three sons and a daughter, just like I did. That is glory. But don't worry. Next time you will have a boy. You are my son, after all."
Raju wasn't worried. He had thought the whole thing through quite a while back and, independent of his father, had made a few decisions. That night, after dinner, while lying next to his wife and listening to the heavy breathing of his parents sleeping in another corner of the same room, he told her his ideas: not having a son didn't matter; they would bring up their daughter to be strong and self-reliant. In fact, with the cost of living so high, perhaps they shouldn't try for another child, boy or girl, no matter what his father said. Better to have one child and look after her well than to have more and leave them half starved. If money improved, then later, perhaps, they could reconsider. In the meantime, they had been visited by a little goddess and they should be grateful. His wife was herself one of nine children, born into a family where daughters were considered the usual burden. If she was uncomfortable with Raju's odd ideas, she didn't comment.
After Raju got his job with May-dum, he was doubly convinced of the truth of his belief. Little Hema, with her tears and laughter and mischief, was none other than a manifestation of the goddess Lakshmi herself, giver of wealth and prosperity.
"Where is she studying? She's three years old, isn't she?"
He nodded again, and mentioned the name of the little one-room school that his daughter attended. He expected May-dum to nod and send him on his way, but she didn't. Instead she asked him a great many questions about his life, and especially about his daughter.
Before he knew it, he was telling her everything: all his hopes, his dreams, his fondest wishes for his beloved Hema, and the despair that had dogged his footsteps these past few months. For how was he to continue to educate her with so many mouths to feed? His higher salary seemed to be eaten up just as quickly as his old one, in medical bills and food and, most recently, the need to collect an amount large enough to marry off his younger sister. How could he possibly take care of Hema in the manner of his dreams?
Later, he'd emerged from May-dum's study in a curious mixture of horror and delirium. Horrified that he had divulged everything so freely, he who always kept his own counsel. Delirious because May-dum had said that she would take care of little Hema's education herself. He was not to worry.
Furthermore, she said, she would like to see where the little girl studied, and could he please arrange a visit?
Once his excitement settled down, he and his family had needed a full month to organize things. His father assumed generalship of the affair, and Raju let him. He himself was at work the whole day, and this was not a matter he could leave to his wife; she lacked the experience. She was not a man of the world.
Raju and his father would stay up late every evening, immersed in progress reviews: What should they do to the house? Could they afford to repaint it? Didn't So-and-so's brother-in-law work in a paint shop? Perhaps he could get some cheap color for them at a discount. And what would they offer her to eat? Would she consent to eat anything at all? Would she show them that respect? And how should they all dress? As if for a wedding? Or more casually? "Respectably," said Raju, to whom that word evoked the best images. "Respectably."
And so they had planned and arranged and organized. Raju spoke to his daughter's schoolteacher, who was awed and delighted at the prospect of a visit to her little school from such an important patron.
The day before the visit he reviewed everything. And now, as he stood outside his employer's house, cleaning her car as never before, he acknowledged that the only unforeseeable, unplannable catch in the whole event was May-dum herself.
His family probably envisioned her as a standard memsahib, traditionally and expensively dressed, preaching morality and good family values. And—uniquely—acting on them too. What if, after all his talk and boasting, she disgraced him as only she could—carelessly, in the things that were to her utterly trivial, matters of dress and feminine deportment? He would still be loyal to her, but his pride, his prestige in his family and neighborhood, would be lost forever.
The car was cleaned and polished and ready. Instead of following his usual practice of going around to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, he stood waiting expectantly, staring at the door. Yesterday she had said that she would be ready to leave around ten o'clock. He still had almost forty-five minutes to go, but he didn't feel like wandering away, as if that might cause her to change her mind, or tempt her to sneak away from the house on foot or on her daughter's small bicycle.
At ten minutes past ten his heart sank. He scolded himself for getting his hopes up, for expecting this visit to actually occur. He hadn't yet seen May-dum, but he'd seen enough to know that she wouldn't be going anywhere that morning. Just five minutes earlier the gates had opened to allow a car through. It was May-dum's mother-in-law, come to pay a surprise visit. This could last anywhere from five minutes to a full day, depending on her mood and her daughter-in-law's quiescence.
Exactly one hour later the elder Mrs. Choudhary vanished in a blaze of satisfaction down the drive. Raju began to feel nervous all over again. Would May-dum decide to leave now, or would she decide it was too late, and that they would have to postpone the whole thing till the next day? Would he be able to? His family had used precious water to scrub themselves clean that morning, and they were all instructed to be on their best behavior. His wife had prepared a sweet and a savory with ghee, the clarified butter that he had bought specially for the occasion. The food wouldn't last long in the hot weather. He didn't know if he could marshal all these resources for two days running.
Shanti, the ayah, appeared. "May-dum wants you to bring the car to the porch," she said routinely. His heart skipped. He watched her return to the house, and was almost tempted to call her back. He hadn't yet confided in any of his colleagues about May-dum's proposed visit to his house. The very idea of it would be as startling to them as it had been to him. Would they approve, or would they be envious? They were all good people, but Raju didn't want even a hint of a jealous, evil eye cast upon this visit. Let it happen, he told himself. Then he would tell everybody.
He drove the car around to the porch, watching the door and wondering once again how she would be dressed. The door opened. He heard her voice call out to the cook to bring her a glass of cold water. Two minutes later she emerged. Raju almost laughed in delight and relief. She was wearing a lovely salwar khameez, the full-sleeved tunic flowing elegantly down to her calves, her ankles modestly covered by the loose pants below, the crisp, transparent, shawl-like dupatta draped and pleated over one shoulder. She looked like a movie star. Better than that, even, she looked every inch the memsahib.
She paused near the top of the steps and smiled in his direction. "Ready to go, Raju?"
Raju spent an hour and a half on two buses to get to and from work every day. The gleaming, air-conditioned car made the trip in thirty minutes. The route took them away from the posh residential areas of the city, into and past industrial areas, and into regions that weren't really scaled for human habitation but had nevertheless been colonized by the hordes of workers who fed the appetites of a hungry city. As they neared his neighborhood, Raju kept glancing nervously into the rearview mirror. She was gazing intently out the window. What was she thinking? As he'd done for a month now, he tried to see his surroundings through her eyes.
"How much farther to the school, Raju?"
"Hardly five minutes, May-dum."
She started asking him questions about the neighborhood, and as he had once before, Raju found himself talking freely to her. Housing ranged from tenements to small single-room dwellings. These buildings had few power connections, even fewer legal ones. The water supply was haphazard. The buses, thankfully, ran fairly close to the area—he could catch one into the city just a half kilometer from his house.
He turned off the main road and immediately encountered a problem—one that he hadn't foreseen. The asphalt changed to muddy pathways ravaged by the rains. The people who lived here usually either walked or traveled on two-wheelers that could slither and slide and navigate their way through these roads that were never intended for heavy four-wheel traffic. Raju inched the car along, feeling it slip down muddy slopes and miniature sand crevasses, hearing the wheels catch and spin in the mud. He had a horrible vision of getting his employer and her car stuck here, and forcing her to walk in the hot, muddy road. He shifted into the lowest gear and concentrated on getting the car down the side of a hill. At the bottom lay the school, a little further on his home.
They were two hours later than planned. Raju parked the car and escorted May-dum to the door, where the schoolteacher immediately appeared, ready and waiting for them. Raju noticed that the one-room school was a little tidier than usual. The chairs were in a straight line. The twelve little children who studied with his daughter were mostly dressed in worn, ill-fitting clothes that were yet cleaner than their stained faces and dusty hair; a few were in newly acquired blue-and-white uniforms. A new map was on the wall. A chair had been placed next to the teacher's, so that May-dum would have somewhere to sit. He glanced briefly at his daughter. She was staring open-mouthed at May-dum, as were all the children. He was pleased to see that his daughter was the best-dressed child in the class, but that was natural. For months now she'd worn nothing but May-dum's daughter's castoffs: best-quality outfits, thick sweaters, sturdy shoes—clothes that made Raju's heart squeeze with pleasure when he saw his daughter in them.
He went out to wait by the car. He could hear the murmur of voices as May-dum talked with the teacher, and then the shrill sounds of the children as they were put through their paces in front of their audience: spelling, geography. In Kannada and in English. And finally their mathematical tables, in English, recited in a monotone: Vun-toojh-a-too, vun-theejh-a-thee, vun-fojh-a-fo.
May-dum followed him out fifteen minutes later, her face pensive. Her voice, though, was brisk. "I have paid your daughter's school fees for the entire year," she said. "In return, the teacher should provide her with books, two sets of uniforms, pencils. Please see that she does do all of that. Let me know if she doesn't."
"She will," Raju said. "She is a good woman. A good teacher." After a pause he said awkwardly, "May-dum, thank you so much for this. It is a great kindness on your part."
"It's nothing," she said. "I am happy to do it. Now, Raju, do I get to meet your wife?"
He grinned and held the door open. "Yes, May-dum."
The visit was as he had hoped it would be. She didn't let him down. From the time the car stopped outside his house, he knew. It was written in the manner of her walk, her look of interest, her polite and gentle words to his father, who was waiting at the door. Her performance was in some oblique way a reciprocation—for all the times he had anticipated her movements and moved in concert with her expectations. Now she seemed to be doing the same for him.
He watched his father usher her into their house. She paused at the door and, respectfully, slipped off her shoes.
"May-dum, you don't have to do that!"
"That's all right," she said.
Raju was later glad that his father had seamlessly taken charge. He watched May-dum being escorted to a bench inside, where she sat down. He watched her join her palms in greeting to his mother and his wife, and then make animated, interested conversation with his parents as though they were acquaintances she might meet at the Club. He felt his cheeks burn as May-dum praised him to his family. His wife vanished into the kitchen, presumably to re-emerge with refreshments, but she never did. Raju went in after her and found her waiting there nervously, a hot tumbler of coffee prepared and a plate with the sweet and the savory ready to serve.
"Go on," he muttered to her.
"No, you do it," she whispered back, shaking her head.
"Don't be silly," he said, but he saw that she really was too shy. So, in a facsimile of the tray that Rosa, the cook, used, he picked up a metal plate, placed the food and coffee on it, and took it out.
"Oh, so much trouble!" his May-dum said. "Really, you shouldn't have."
"No, no, please eat," they murmured.
Raju's mother, with a feeling of duty done, joined her daughter-in-law in the kitchen with great relief. Raju could see them peeping at May-dum from behind the curtain that hung in front of the door. So it was Raju's father who chatted with May-dum: Yes, it was a nice little house, two rooms and a kitchen for the six of them, but the rents were too high and increasing every year. Their landlord lived next door, and had built two more houses just like this down the road. He was a lucky man, with great foresight, to have bought this land when it was cheap. Perhaps someday Raju would be able to do something similar. Already, in this one year of his employment, they had been able to acquire a radio and a black-and-white TV. They were grateful, deeply grateful. He didn't mention that the house had been painted this clean, bright pink just a week ago, or that this impromptu living room was usually cluttered with the mess of living, now shoved into the room next door. Now, in addition to two benches, it had just the pink walls, clean curtains, the puja altar, and the TV.
Raju watched May-dum eat. She finished all her coffee, and ate enough of the sweet and the savory to indicate that it was to her taste, not beneath her at all. She praised the food, and Raju could hear his wife giggling with pleasure in the kitchen.
When they finally stepped outside, Raju could see that word had spread. The road was filled with neighbors, all watching him, May-dum, and the car with unabashed curiosity. May-dum slipped on her shoes and said her good-byes to his family, pausing outside the car instead of climbing in immediately. With every eye upon them, she exchanged a few pleasant words with him with a casual air that provoked his neighbors to ask, even a week after the visit, "So, what did she say to you then?" To which Raju would shrug and say, "Nothing special." And that impressed them even more.
On the drive back into the city they continued to chat about his family. May-dum praised his home and his parents, and Raju filled her in on his sister and their plans for her marriage. He found himself talking easily, and was surprised that he hadn't really ventured to earlier.
"If you need any assistance with your sister's wedding, please speak to me about it."
"I will, May-dum."
"And please do see to it that your daughter's schoolteacher provides all the things that she has promised ..."
Raju nodded. He would do that. He turned the car in to the Club. He wanted to thank May-dum again for all her kindness, and also for the courtesy of her visit, but her attention was suddenly distracted.
"Saroj! ... Raju, stop the car."
May-dum's friend looked at her elegant dress in surprise as she got out of the car. "Oh, my! Look at you! Where have you been?"
"Visiting," May-dum said.
He watched her for a minute, walking away toward the main clubhouse, one arm linked loosely around her friend's and listening appreciatively to some anecdote. Then Raju-once-Rangappa climbed back into his seat behind the wheel, shifted into first gear, and swung the car slowly around the flowered lawns and up to the parking lot, where all the drivers waited until they were summoned.
This article available online at: