The gurgle of running water: she coveted that sound, the water hissing and turbulent from the old brass tap in the courtyard, spattering off the plates and bowls. Even though Mr. Moitro had warned her not to, she let the water run. Even if it meant losing her job, the few rutis a day, the corner of the kitchen where she slept at night.
The water ran off the dirty pots and onto her bare feet as she squatted before the tap; she would bathe afterwards. And then only the cooking remained. They had a girl to do the clothes, and to sweep and wash the floors. Between the girl, fifty years younger, and herself, they kept this little world going. The clean tumblers stood upside-down in a row, a droplet of water running down the side of the last one. It was a cool autumn morning; the sun on her back was a blessing. A blessing.
She rested a moment, watching the water splash onto the bare cement now, the silver rope constant with change, braiding and rebraiding itself at will. And its sound, its hiss and rush. The sound of the monsoon rain in Calcutta, I’ll miss that. Then she felt someone watching from the house. She turned the tap. It squeaked and fell silent. She put her hands on her knees, elbows angled out, and stood slowly up. Her knees creaked; tendons shifted under her palm.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the patch of white move from the doorway and go inside, into the dining room. Mr. Moitro, in his pajama-panjabi.
The work was menial, but no different from what she would do for herself: cook and clean. Her father, a lifelong Gandhian, had taught her the dignity of honest labor. Every weekend she and her brother had to scrub their courtyard and bathrooms. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, he used to tell them. People who clean bathrooms as their profession are no different from us. They’re better than us: they do things that we don’t like doing ourselves. You must try and do things yourself. Remember that.
That lesson was a blessing, she thought. Her blessings were many. Two fine sons, both settled in the world. A decent husband, even if only for a few years. But very good years. Her health. Really, she wanted for nothing. Never had. A fine life. Her sons had made her proud. She should write, let them know where she was. They would worry. They would try to telephone her cousin Shyamol-da in Calcutta, and find his son instead, who had moved in the day after his father died and turned her out that same evening.
That, too, had been a blessing. She had always wanted to live in Benares.
In the afternoon, after she had served lunch and eaten and washed the plates, she sat down to write a letter to Jogodish. Jogo, she wrote, I have some news. Do not concern yourself; I am in good health. Last month Shyamol-da passed away peacefully in his sleep, and his son Goutom moved into the house with his wife and six children.
She paused and looked up. The sun still stood high above the courtyard, shining down on her outstretched feet, on the water tap, on the hand-pump of the tube-well that had fallen into disuse: shining down fully on everything, as though the world were a world of equals. A visiting cat lay curled in the shadow of the lime tree, its gray side rising and falling steadily to a slow drumbeat. She resumed her letter and wrote steadily for several minutes.
… So really I am fine. The Moitros are a young couple, they treat me like their own mother. I like living in Benares. You can write to me here, but there is no telephone in the house.
She looked up briefly. Was it a sin to lie to your children? The sleeping cat twitched; the sunlight had found it.
Let Mohesh know my new address. Tell him not to worry. He always worries too much. Love and blessings to Parul and Priya.
In the evening, after she had served them their Sunday tea, with kochuris and roshogollas from the market, Mr. Moitro looked at her. “I have something to say.”
“I noticed again this morning how much water you waste.”
She waited with her eyes downcast.
“I’m going to start cutting thirty rupees from your pay. Until the water bill goes down again.”
She didn’t speak. What could she say? These people were the absolute rulers of her world; their word was beyond appeal. And it was true, she did let the water run. He was right. She said nothing.
After they finished, Komola cleaned and wiped the table, then went into the kitchen and gulped down her cold tea. She sat on her stool in her spot in front of the kitchen, looking at the courtyard and the slice of road visible through the bars of the narrow gate.
She could move out of this house, away from this constant scolding. Her husband’s pension would take care of her necessities, and she could rent a room somewhere if she cashed the cheques that Mohesh sent her. But she wouldn’t spend his money, he was a college lecturer, how much could a lecturer make? Still he kept sending her these cheques, for two hundred, three hundred dollars. So much money. She saved the cheques in an envelope at the bottom of the trunk that contained all her possessions: a few clothes, some photographs, a handful of letters from her husband and sons.
It was a comfortable place now, this kitchen, her home within their home, where she cooked, ate, slept. The shelves she had arranged stood around her, filled with rows of steel plates, bowls, tumblers, cooking pots and utensils, canisters, packages of biscuits, and snacks and tea. The small square room was lit by a fluorescent tube, high on one wall, that buzzed faintly. There was no window, only one door that opened onto the courtyard. If she left the door open in the evenings, the moths would come in. Sometimes she left it open, and then their muted browns and grays fluttered softly around the tube, and she lay on her mat and watched their throbbing shadows.
A couple of weeks later, at about eleven at night—when she was almost asleep—there was a hammering at her door. Dada-babu stood there in his pajamas and undershirt, his hair unkempt. She wondered what she’d done now.
“Komola! There’s a phone call. For you! In the middle of the night!”
“Phone call?” she asked. She had told Jogo there was no phone here. Who could it be?
“See who it is,” he said, leading the way into the living room. “Tell them not to telephone here. This is not a public phone booth!”
She picked up the handset and said, “Hallo?”
“Ma?” It was Jogo, and in spite of Dada-babu hovering about her like a malignant thundercloud, she was utterly glad to hear his voice.
“Yes, how are you, Jogo? How are Priya and Parul?”
“We’re all fine, Ma,” said Jogo, sounding annoyed. “But what is this—why are you in Benares? And without telling anyone? I had to call directory inquiry!” His voice rose.
“Oh, Jogo, you caught me!” She laughed gently. “I didn’t want you to call here, that’s why I said there was no phone.”
“And what are you doing in Benares?” His voice was calmer now.
“I always wanted to come to Benares, Jogo, you know that. And I’m staying with some very nice people.”
“I gave Mohesh your address,” he said. “He was very worried about you. Why Benares, he kept asking.”
“Tell him I’m fine. I’m very happy here.”
She said good-bye and turned to see Dada-babu still waiting at the door, but now the annoyance on his face had yielded to puzzlement.
“Who was that?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t give him the phone number. … Jogodish. He’s my son. My older son.”
“Your son? You didn’t tell us you had a son.” He frowned at her, as though it were a crime. “Where does he live? What does he do?”
“He works for a chemical company,” she said. “In America.”
“In America!” he said, clearly astonished. “But then what—why are you …?” He was at a loss for words for the first time since she’d met him; and she didn’t mind that at all. She waited, enjoying the silence around them. Dada-babu took a breath, then said, “Why do you work here? Doesn’t he send money?” His voice didn’t sound as self-assured as it usually did.
“I told him not to,” she said. “I told him I could manage.”
“I see,” he said, but he still seemed confused. “All right. … Turn off the light when you go.”
Back in the kitchen, she shut the door once more and lay on her mat in the dark. No doubt it would confuse most people. She couldn’t explain it to him: why she needed to make her own life, to live the way she wanted. Her sons would have given her everything she wanted, if she’d asked. Mohesh sent money even without her asking! But she had the right to do things for herself, she thought. And if she needed to work in someone else’s home, as a servant, doing things that they didn’t want to do themselves, she had every right to do that. It was what she wanted to do, to provide for herself, not to be a burden on anyone else, not even her sons. That was all she had prayed for, and she had been given that. She was content. Very few could say that. Truly she was blessed.
A cat cried in a neighbor’s courtyard; it sounded exactly like a child.
She had just emerged from her bath the next morning when the doorbell rang. That was unusual; the vendors usually shouted from the street.
Boudi called out from the dining room. “Komola! Can you see who that is?” Her tone had lost much of its harshness.
Komola went to the front door and opened it. Mohesh stood there, his tall figure stooping, his bespectacled face creased with fatigue and concern.
“Ma!” he said. “Are you all right?”
“Mohesh!” she said, opening her arms and hugging him. “What are you doing here? … Of course I’m all right. … Come in,” she said, then wondered where she would take him, where she could ask him to sit. Not in the kitchen, surely.
But by now Boudi was hovering behind her curiously, and as Mohesh bent to pick up his small duffel bag, she asked Komola, “Who is he?”
Komola said, “My son. Mohesh.”
“Nomoshkar,” Mohesh said. “You must be the landlady.”
“Landlady, yes, nomoshkar, I am Mrs. Moitro,” the woman said, flustered. “Do you live here? In India?” She stared at his clothes, his sneakers, his expensive leather bag.
“No,” he said, glancing at his mother. “In America.”
“Oh. … And what do you do?”
“I teach at a university.”
“Oh,” she said. “Oh, why are you standing there? Come in, please come in.” She led the way into the living room. “Will you have some tea?”
Komola took a step towards the kitchen before the woman could tell her to make the tea. “No, no, Komola-di,” the woman said. “You sit here, talk to your son, I’ll bring the tea.” And she went off to the kitchen.
Komola sat down slowly. Mohesh was looking at her. “She seems nice,” he said.
“Yes,” she said slowly. “Very nice. … I’m very comfortable here.” How could she tell him she worked there as a servant? But she’d have to tell him sometime. What on earth would he think? He’d feel guilty; he’d be distraught. His mother, reduced to such a living!
Distractedly, she asked him about his work, about his friends in Arizona. Did he see Jogo often? No, maybe once every two or three years. They lived very far away, near the east coast. He was on the other side of the continent. Thousands of miles away.
“Yes,” she said. “Everybody’s so far away.”
Mrs. Moitro came in with the tea tray, the cups rattling in their saucers.
“Here, Mr. … uh, Mohesh-babu,” she said, setting the tray on the table.
Komola realized that Mrs. Moitro did not know her last name. She’d never asked.
“Yes, Mohesh-babu is fine. No need to call him Mr. Ghosh,” she said. “So formal!”
“Tea, Komola-di,” Mrs. Moitro said, without looking at her. Three equal cups sat on the tray. Komola wondered how she must have felt, making tea for the domestic help. But here she was, smiling at her son.
“It’s very lucky,” Mohesh was saying, “that my mother found a room to rent in such a nice house, with Bengalis. It’s like living with family …”
“Drink your tea, Mohesh, it’ll get cold,” Komola said.
“Yes, please do,” Mrs. Moitro said, and then, “Komola-di, can I ask you about something in the kitchen?” She rose, and Komola followed her into the kitchen.
“Really, you should have told us,” Mrs. Moitro said, her voice low.
“I didn’t know he was coming, Boudi …”
“Please don’t call me Boudi,” she said, “call me Rina. … He can stay in the guest room. Tell him it’s your room.”
“Oh … that’s very kind …”
“Please take your trunk into the guest room. Make it look like you live there.”
“Yes … all right.” Gratitude washed over her; she had completely misjudged this woman.
“Quickly,” Rina said, walking out towards the living room.
A few minutes later, when Komola walked back into the living room, she found them chatting comfortably. Seeing her, Mohesh stood up and said, “Can I wash up? And I might take a little nap—I’m still on Arizona time.”
“Yes, yes,” Rina said. “Komola-di, why don’t you show him the bathroom?” She pointed in the direction of the bathroom that she and Mr. Moitro used.
While Mohesh took a nap, Rina helped her prepare lunch; she even cooked the dal herself. “I can make dal,” she said. “But I’m not very good with the vegetables. … We’re very lucky to have you here. Your Dada-babu likes your cooking. No one else could satisfy him before.”
“Really?” Komola said, pleased.
Mohesh ate a late lunch and went back to sleep. In the evening, after Mr. Moitro had returned from work, Rina asked her to step into the living room. Dada-babu stood waiting.
“Rina has told me about Mohesh-babu,” he said. His voice, like his wife’s, was transformed: he sounded positively cordial. “Of course he should stay in the guest room as long as he is here. Maybe you can sleep in the living room? We have a folding cot.”
“That’s very kind, really, Dada-babu.”
“You can call me Koilash if you like. We would be very happy if you stayed on here with us.” He glanced at his wife; she smiled at him, then looked at Komola.
“And if you could still do the cooking … I’ll help you, of course,” Rina said.
“Yes, certainly. I have to do something, otherwise how can I stay here? You’re both being so kind …” And she had wasted all that water, all their money, for her own small, selfish reasons. They were only a young couple trying, like herself, to make ends meet.
“You can have the guest room. We don’t use it anyway,” Koilash said, then paused, cleared his throat. “Also, the salary … I don’t want to insult you by talking about the money, Komola-di, but of course you should take the salary, the full salary.”
“No, Koilash-babu, the room is enough. I can’t pay you rent, but I if I can do the cooking and some work instead, I’ll be very happy.”
“All right. But if you need any money, let me know.”
Mohesh insisted on sleeping on the cot in the living room—“What kind of son would turn his own mother out of her room?” he said, laughing—so Komola had the guest room.
She turned the light on and shut the door. It was a medium-sized room, not as large as the Moitros’ bedroom, but more than enough for one person. A window opened onto the street. Komola pulled up the bolt with some effort and pushed the window open. The air felt cool against her arm; the rhythmic squeak of a passing bicycle drifted up to her. A dog barked in the distance, and another answered, then another. After a while the barking died away, and slowly the silence returned.
Her blessings kept on coming. It was a spiritual city, Benares; and in a place like this, kindness was everywhere, the true nature of people waiting to rise up and be discovered.
As she stood there, looking out over that patch of light into the surrounding dark, a few drops of rain fell silently on the street. She looked up. The rain gained in strength and now came drumming down upon the pavement. For a few minutes it rained hard, and she stood there motionless, eyes closed, head tilted back, listening. The rhythm of the rain played inside her head and all around her, all through her, until she felt she was herself part of this glorious music; and then the rain slowed and stopped as suddenly as it had begun; and, as the silence unfurled itself from within the echo of falling water, she opened her eyes and looked out from her room onto the still and glistening street.
She was so lucky, she thought, to live in Benares.
Prasenjit Gupta is a writer and translator whose work includes A Brown Man and Indian Errant: Selected Fiction by Nirmal Verma. Some of his translations from Bengali are available online at www.parabaas.com.