They hung in a noisy jangle a few inches to the left of Padma’s well padded belly button, tucked snugly into her sari’s waistband. Keys of iron and brass, jostling each other around a communal ring meant for expensive Harrison locks and cheap padlocks. The center of power in the house.
Every morning, the cooking lady, Neela, shuffled in, her children trailing her blankly, their eyes solemn and adult, cowed by the intimidating presence of Padma. The keys were waiting, ready to officiously dispense the morning’s rations, and then to return to their privileged station.
The Verma household was run in the manner of a siege – the contents of the kitchen pantry were under constant threat from thieving servants. Tins full of lentils, rice, and flour, and smaller jars of jaggery, turmeric, chili and spices, guarded zealously by Padma and her keys.
The surveillance of household servants took up much of Padma’s time. There was the cook to watch, of course, but also her three children, aged two to seven, and a myriad of part-time workers. Sometimes, in a voice weary with the responsibility of overseeing such a well-stocked pantry, she cautioned the younger women in the neighborhood about how servants could not be trusted.
“The more temptation you present them with, the harder it becomes for them to resist. I lock everything – that way I know I keep them honest.” The younger women would listen and nod, taking in all this household wisdom on servant management.
The keys ensured Padma’s status as a guardian of a wealthy household. The key holder had elaborate decorations, a peacock’s tail that fanned out over the underlying hook. Padma had received the peacock keyholder as part of her marriage dowry. Made of solid silver, with blue and green meena work, it had been a family heirloom, passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
Little bells on the peacock tail announced Padma’s imminent arrival into a room, the delicate tinkling sound jarring incongruously with the bulk of her body when she appeared. The keys were quiet when Padma snoozed in the afternoon. If there was no electricity, a child fanned her sleeping frame to keep the flies away. Padma would awaken sometimes with a start, then relax when her hand touched the cold metal of the keys to ensure their continued presence.
During the day, the weight of the keyholder was a familiar tug on the left side of her waist. So one day, when it felt heavier than usual, she was surprised to see the lock still attached to the brass Harrison key. Flustered, she wondered how long the stores had been left open to possible plunder.
Her eyes narrowed at the half-empty jar of lentils in the store. Surely it had been almost three-fourths full the day before? She cursed herself silently for her carelessness in leaving the store-room open. She was employing a gang of petty thieves, apparently. Self-righteousness welled within her. She would have to redouble her vigilance.
She secured the room hastily, and wondered whether to inform her husband, Vermaji, of this security lapse. She decided against it, her lips tightening slightly. The sequence of events did not present Padma in a good light. And anyway, Vermaji was prone to half-listen to her domestic tales, his eyes invariably straying to the newspaper as she talked.
No, she would not tell Vermaji. Her husband would probably chastise her anyway. He would say that she was too hard on the servants. That was, if he could even tear his eyes away from the newspaper to listen to her. Her lips tightened further at this thought and settled on a thin line of discontent. Though she prayed for serenity and chanted ‘shanti shanti shanti’ every morning, the overwhelming desire of Padma’s inner lioness was to devour in entirety her goat-like husband. It was Vermaji who found his tea over-sugared and his dal over-salted on the days that his grunts of feigned participation missed the syntax of the conversational flow. In her imagination, she felt her lioness claws retract as she prepared to lunge at the piteously bleating goat bearing Vermaji’s visage.
Only when Amit called from America did Vermaji give any conversation his undivided attention. How she missed Amit, and the calming effect of her son’s presence on her ferocious psyche.
Vermaji was an administrator, and spent his days in the office, processing files full of mind-numbing legalese. All day long, he received visitors, hopeful members of the public who wanted their files to be extricated from the waist-high stacks of government files in the store room. Over glasses of milky tea, the visitors explained the special circumstances that merited such exceptions, and furnished letters of introduction from colleagues and relatives. Vermaji tolerated such interruptions to his work as part of his day. Life had been kind. His son had shown an aptitude for his studies, and had been rewarded with spectacular American success. Vermaji’s face shone with pride at the thought of Amit.
That was before the phone call and its dreadful news.
Padma had been in mid-sentence when the phone rang.
“Chai bana. Hello?” She completed her instruction to the servant before turning her attention to the caller.
It was with disbelief that Padma heard the phone call. Surely her gem of a son could not be headed to an American jail. Why, the whole family name would be dragged through the mud. Her headaches started that day, becoming longer and more insistent in time, and all three of the servant children would patiently rub Tiger balm into her forehead with their little fingers. Only when Padma waved them away would they leave the darkened room.
No one must know of this ignominy, was the constant refrain in Padma’s mind. Vermaji was still in service, and she could not bear for their misfortune to become gossipy chatter among his colleagues and their wives. And how Vermaji suffered. His son’s life had been carefully planned and supervised by him, and Amit’s career ascendance was a source of private satisfaction. And now, they had become mired in this disgrace. Had he not coached his son to avoid controversy and potentially sticky ethical situations? Vermaji enjoyed a stellar reputation as an honest bureaucrat, and it was an embarrassment to him that his son had inherited none of his high-minded aversion to graft.
It was all too much. Padma’s interest in her domestic empire waned. How could she continue as if petty pilfering of dal and rice mattered when her son had allegedly dipped his spoon so brazenly in the pot of honey that belonged to other Americans? The household keys were left still attached to the lock of the store-room. This was a new Padma, forgetful and uncaring. Vermaji had taken a leave of absence from work and flown to America, and he returned shrunken and withdrawn.
Funds were needed to launch a legal defence. Vermaji liquidated his retirement savings and sent international money orders to USA. Mealtimes, low on conversation at the best of times, were especially punctuated by silences. A heaviness of heart had descended upon them. That their son was a crook was unthinkable. They hoped that it was just a matter of time before his name would be cleared, but the court case dragged on. How had this happened? They had raised a successful business executive, not a white collar criminal.
As Padma’s decline continued, accompanied with introspection, issues of innocence and guilt began to weigh on her. She was absorbed, in an interior courthouse of her mind, by issues of culpability, and forgiveness. Would the jury have a large heart? Or, like hers, had hearts become many sizes too small? It was unclear whether her son would be exonerated for his crimes, but Padma had made a small, seemingly unrelated decision on her own.
So, one day, the unthinkable happened. Instead of personally supervising the exodus of lentils and rice for the day’s meal, she left the storage room unlocked. “Take out what you need for today and make sure that you close the lids tight.”
It was time to retire the peacock keys.
Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.
This is a fictional story. Any resemblance to real people is entirely coincidental.