The intercom rings just as I get out of the shower.
“Hi Nandini. How are you dear?” Mrs. Bhaskar, the caller, gets the politeness out of the way, with a sense of urgency.
“I’m good Auntie, how…?” She doesn’t even let me finish mine.
“Have you seen Jaanaki since this morning?”
“Um…. No, I haven’t. But she should be coming in, any moment now.” The clock says 8:30 a.m.
“Yes. I guessed as much. Would you please be a doll and send her over to my place right away?” It didn’t sound like a request, though it was worded like one. “I have guests coming over for lunch and so much is left to do.”
“Sure. No problem.” She always has a reason to summon Jaanaki Kaaki, with a non-negotiable urgency. A knack, which, Mrs. Das from 202 and Mrs. Gupta from 401, are dying to learn from her.
Jaanaki Kaaki is an odd-job woman, who services almost all of the 10 flats in my building. Mrs. Bhaskar believes she owns the biggest share of her time, because she is the oldest resident here.
Kaaki first came to this building, as a ten month old baby, with her mother who worked as a maid here. When she was sixteen, her mother died, leaving these jobs as the only bequest to her. She got married, had two boys, got them educated and settled, all while she worked here. If you ask her how old she is, she would offer an estimate of 60. If you gauge from the wrinkles on her face, and the overall fatigued demeanor of her frail body, you will add at least ten years to that number.
The truth is she has long been relieved, from her duties as a maid by all the families here. With her old age came infirmity. Every other day, her unsteady hands would drop and break an expensive crystal ware or a fancy showpiece. Then there was also the problem of her unintentional tardiness. Her husband, who spent his entire life chewing tobacco and drinking cheap liquor, has been now bed ridden since the last few years with oral cancer and a hoard of other illnesses. Tending to him would often make her late in the mornings. She often missed work too, on account of taking him to the hospital. Soon, enough reasons had stacked up against her. She was too old, to try to get work anywhere else. Besides, she had spent her whole life, with these families. She couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing them every day. So, even after losing her employment, she would still show up every morning, knock on every single apartment door and ask them if they needed her help with something. Cooking? Dusting? Laundry? Babysitting? She never asked for any money in return, only for the leftover food, or discarded clothes. Which made her the ideal additional help. Besides, soon after firing her, most of her employers realized that her replacements, who worked with one eye permanently on the clock and came with a inviolable understanding of what their job ‘does not’ entail; would never provide the kind of dedicated and extensive service like Jaanaki Kaaki. Hence, all the residents jumped at the opportunity to have her back in their lives, especially now when she came for free.
The doorbell rings. I know it would be her.
“Kaaki, You may want to straight away head to…”
“Arre bitiya, I know. She has already called 401 and 302 ten times. But I couldn’t let you leave without breakfast.” Before I can say anything else, she is already at the fridge, grabbing eggs and bread. For the frail old woman that she is, she can be quite determined. So I just smile, and go inside to get dressed.
When I come out, I see only one plate set on the kitchen counter. “Kaaki, how many times must I tell you to make some for yourself too?”
She just smiles in response. The pressure cooker whistles. I hadn’t even noticed it was placed on the stove.
“I made some daal. Now just need to boil some rice when you get back.” Her unapproving gaze is fixed on the box of last night’s pizza sticking out from my dustbin. “You can’t eat this stuff every day. You will fall ill.”
“You are too good to me!” I hug her, gratefully, and start collecting my things.
“And you, to me.” She gives her standard reply, while trying to quickly finish up in the kitchen, because she knows I need to leave soon. That’s the thing about her. You don’t need to tell her much, yet she manages to understand everything anyway.
I moved into this building eight years ago. Kaaki dropped in with an offer to help, before I could even get all the cartons off the elevator. I liked her instantly. But in keeping with my resolve to do everything on my own, I neither engaged her except for an occasional weekend, nor employed any other help. She would, however, every morning, ring my doorbell and ask me if she could be of any assistance. Two years later, when my parents moved to U.K. to live with my brother, my mother sent me a lot of their old clothes. I offered them to Kaaki. She said she would accept all that, only if I let her make my breakfast and clean up my home every weekend. By then, I had been living independently long enough, to come to despise its aftereffects; my always messy home and always hungry for good food stomach. So I readily agreed.
On Sundays, she makes it a point to spend at least a few hours with me. She uses this time, to do whatever chores she could fit in, despite my protests. I can tell she likes to spend time at my apartment, instead of at others’. We chat about a lot of things. I tell her about the problems at work, and she listens with rapt attention, while massaging oil in my hair. Sometimes, she even gives me an advice, one would never expect from someone like her. She is surprisingly wise and well informed, for an uneducated old woman. I have to say, in the absence of my parents, having her around is a real blessing.
I often wondered why she had never questioned me or moralized me about my spinsterhood. The fact that I am well over thirty and still single, seems to bother everyone, from my parents to all the aunties in this building. But not her. One day, I was tempted to ask.
“Kaaki, how come you have never asked me why I am not married yet?”
“Bitiya, you are an educated and responsible girl. I am sure you must have your reasons.” She answered while scrubbing the kitchen counter.
She was the only person to have ever said that to me. To almost everyone else, I was a woman too spoilt by her financial independence, to want to settle down, willingly. I informed her of that distinction. She smiled for a moment, but the very next her lips contracted into a tight grimness.
“Bitiya, despite of what the world would have us women believe… Marriage isn’t the solution to our problems. You are an independent woman. You can give yourself a good life without a husband. Don’t get me wrong… I do pray that one day, you find a handsome Raajkumar, get married and have cute chubby children. But you must do it, only when you find the right man…” Years of pain floated in her lost eyes. “… There can be nothing worse than getting married to the wrong one.”
In the few years that I had been here, some grapevine about her life had reached me. But I never encouraged gossip about Kaaki’s life; someone I had come to like and care for a lot.
“Kaaki, your family… I mean your sons. Where are they?”
“They are married now, have children… busy with their lives.”
“You should ask them to help you out.”
“I tried… it didn’t work. I could never bring myself to beg them for help.” She sighed. “Not that it would have worked either. They do not have the time or the money to spare for their father… who, to tell you the fact, throughout their life, hit them more than he hugged them.” It was hard to guess from her tone, whom she meant it for, with more repugnance; her sons or her husband.
Someone else would have probably, just shamed her sons into accepting their responsibilities. But not Kaaki. That is exactly the kind of person she is. She slogs for 12-14 hours a day in this building, and rarely ever leaves here, with anything more than just enough food for her and her husband. He, incidentally, had never been anything but a burden to her. She was married off to him by a distant relative, who didn’t want to shoulder the responsibilities of a young orphan girl, barely months after her mother’s death. Her husband, who was at least ten years older than her, did nothing but drink alcohol, eat tobacco and play cards all day. He would beat her up, if she refused to sponsor his addictions. The thrashing had only stopped in the recent years, because his illness confined him to the bed. Even now he lashes her with his tongue. I asked her why she put up with it all; especially now, when everyone else has deserted him, except her.
“That is the thing about us women, bitiya. We tolerate injustice or so long that it becomes our way of life… His abuses do not even hurt me anymore, that is how he’s always been.” I saw in her face, the look of sympathy, which I did not think one could possibly have, for one’s tormentor. “Also… I can see that he is in in a lot of pain… he can barely get up … or eat … the medicines don’t help much anymore. He just waits for his end… which seems to be coming painfully slowly.”
It is 8:56 a.m. and Kaaki is still not here. She might just have forgotten that I am back. I have been away, for almost six months, on a project. On the way out, as I hurry towards my car, I just shoot an instruction to our guard Ram Singh, to remind Kaaki that I am back. He looks at me flabbergasted and mumbles something, which I do not catch. I am running too late to bother.
Kaaki doesn’t come in the next day, as well. I’m quite sure Ram Singh didn’t deliver my message; so I decide to stop over at the Bhaskars’ apartment to drop by a message for her.
“Hello Auntie… how are you?”
“Oh! Hello Nandini! When did you get back? How was Australia?”
“Day before yesterday, Auntie… It was good. I’m in a terrible rush. Could you please remind Kaaki, that I’m back?” I turn around to run back to elevator because I know if she decides to interrogate me about my trip, I could be stuck with her for the next thirty minutes. Just as I the elevator door rings open, her words, grab my feet.
“Oh God! You don’t know about Jaanaki, do you?”
“Know what?” I turn around, my heart almost in my mouth. At the age Kaaki’s is at, one is quite prompt to jump to the most dreadful thoughts about her. There is a foreboding look on her face which tells me this isn’t some everyday gossip, she is famous for peddling.
I squeal demanding relief. “Know what, Auntie?!”
She lowers her voice and her tone reeks of abhorrence. “Jaanaki was arrested for killing her husband.”
I stand there, unable to move or speak for the next several minutes. She knows I have always been quite fond of Kaaki and quickly changes her manner to display fake empathy. “Oh honey, I know you liked her very much. We all did…” Her chubby arms are almost hugging me. “We can barely believe it ourselves… 40 years that woman has worked for us. She looked so normal … makes me sick, to think that someone who had such free access to our homes… our families… has done something like that! What is the world coming to?”
I try to swallow a knot, swelling in my throat. “But… it could… all… be a mistake.”
“No. No. No. She herself walked into the police station and surrendered.”
I am sitting in my balcony, hoping that the cold February winds slapping my face, would help me break out of my stupor. They don’t. My mind feels as numb as it did walking out of the Women’s Cell in the Vikas Nagar Jail, a few hours ago, where Kaaki is serving a life sentence.
I had to pretend to be a journalist desperate for a scoop, and grease three people, to be allowed to see her, outside of the visiting hours. The windowless visiting room, with the paint peeling off the walls, broken furniture and just one lamp hanging from the ceiling, reluctantly throwing some illumination, had an air of doom about it. It didn’t look like this visiting room had seen many visitors. I broke down hysterically on seeing her, as she walked in; I guess from the confusion of the whole thing, more than anything else. She just sat there, her head hung low. She was obviously sorry to see me this sad, but her face had a kind of serenity which seemed completely out of place here; in this forsaken visiting room, with my wails, and under her current circumstances.
“What… is… everybody saying?” My sobs drowned my words.
“Bitiya, forget all that… How was your trip? When did you get back?… You look so weak. Did you not eat…”
“Answer me, Kaaki! Why did you do it?!” I had never taken that tone with her; or for that matter anyone.
She took a moment to recover from it. The agony of this question was beyond my capacity to handle and she could see that. “Bitiya, he was sick… very sick. I ran out of his medicines. Even if I hadn’t, I doubt they would have helped him anymore. He would cry out with pain, day and night… he was a terrible husband and a bad father… there were times when I hated him and cursed him. But even I never wanted him to suffer like that.” Her voice started to shake under the weight of her confession. Although she had surrendered to the law, on her own accord, it was obvious that she had never told anyone, what she was about to tell me now. Not because no one asked; but perhaps, because she didn’t think anyone would understand.
“I was behind on the rent, for the last six months. The landlord was going to throw us out… You know how cold it gets here in the winters. How long do you think a man in his condition wouldn’t have lasted, out in the open? Wasn’t he already suffering enough…” She paused, swallowed hard, and wiped her eyes with the pallu. “One day… he couldn’t take the pain any more. He begged me to relieve him. I cried for a week, wondering what I was going to do. Any day now, I expected the landlord to come and throw us out on the streets. His cries got louder as the pain increased…He begged and begged… and begged.” Her puny frame trembled as though his pain pulsated through her veins, as she recounted the horrible tribulation of that fateful night.
“…when I couldn’t take his screams for help, anymore, I put a pillow on his face and silenced him, forever. He did not protest…just quietly slipped away.” The relief of finally voicing that confession broke her.
I didn’t know what I should or could say to what I had just heard. I just sat there, looking at her trying to reconcile with her remorse. But then, it occurred to me that her husband’s condition, could have served as a valid reason for a sudden death. No one would have suspected a thing had she not confessed to the murder.
“But… why did you have to tell anyone? It was after all, according to his wishes. And he was sick anyway…”
“That doesn’t make it any less of a crime… Does it, Bitiya?” Her eyes were firm with the determination to atone. If only, I could convince her, what she did was far removed from a crime.
“After he died, I sat there in the darkness of my jhopdi… the whole night. I wanted to hate myself for what I did… I wanted to cry… A part of me also wanted to be scared, wondering what would happen to me next. But I felt none of that… No grief, no fear. Instead, for the first time in years… I felt free…”
I was too confounded to listen to or grasp what Kaaki was trying to tell me. I burst out. “And your sons? Why didn’t you tell them the truth? They could have ensured you get a lenient sentence.”
“They want nothing to do with me. Not that I can blame them… and… you don’t understand. I do not want a lesser punishment. I want this.” Her voice trailed off. She looked at my furrowed brows and creased forehead and continued to explain. “Bitiya, where would I go when they set me free? My landlord wouldn’t let a murderer stay there anymore. Nor would anyone let me work for them… And if I were to stay with my sons… That is, if their wives ever allow it… I would have to pay back for their generosity by working harder than the memsahibs in the building ever made me, and listening to harsher words than my husband ever said to me.”
She walked up to me and wiped my tears with her rough bony fingers, and sat down next to me. She took my hand in hers and started stroking the back of it, lovingly, as if I were the one who needed to be comforted. Her eyes were fixed on nothingness that surrounded us. After a long pause, she spoke, not to me, but to that nothingness.
“The last time I remember feeling this free… of responsibilities, of worries, of pain… of anger…” The last one, was something she had never even admitted to holding inside her. “…was when my mother was alive… But since, she died and I got married… I always felt trapped. Responsibilities had me tied down. I didn’t have the time to stop, or slow down…or even complain. I had to keep working through my sickness and fatigue to support my drunkard husband, educate my sons and get them married. I kept telling myself, I just need to brave up to it all, till my sons are old enough to shoulder my burdens. Just when I thought my ordeal was over, my husband fell ill. My sons deserted us, and I was back where I started…”
I placed my other hand over hers and gently squeezed it. It reminded her of my presence in the room. She turned to me.
“There were times… especially in the last ten years, when I couldn’t even get up from the bed in the mornings. But then I would have to, because otherwise I wouldn’t have any food and my ailing husband wouldn’t have any medicines. My body would revolt, but my brain would quickly remind it, that I was too poor to allow myself to feel tired”
She could tell from face that even I, who prided herself in being more sensitive towards her than others, had never quite understood how overworked and tired she was. Her ever so jolly demeanor always had me fooled too. She read my guilt, just like everything else I had never had to verbalize to her. She cupped my face in both her hands. Her shaking, gaunt fingers had more strength in them than my whole body, at that moment.
“Bitiya, don’t worry about me. I am fine here. I no more have to worry, about the roof over my head or the food on my plate… Can you believe I have been eating three times a day since I got here?” While she beamed with genuine happiness, ironically, the agonizing truth of that sentence was slowly dawned on me by the second, like a poison that spreads slowly.
“And I feel so relaxed… I have nothing much to do. I just laze around all day… Chat up with a few other women … Teach the younger ones how to stitch, or cook. They assigned me some duties, when I first came in. But a month later Superintendent Madam, relaxed them. She says she likes me. Even if I volunteer to help, the younger girls don’t let me. They all call me Jaanaki Amma.” She said it with more pride and endearment in than I had ever seen her using for her sons or her husband. Her words were sprinkled with the excitement of a six year old, finally at a vacation she had always dreamed of. “The other day I fell sick… fever…must have been 103-104. They did not let me get off the bed for three whole days! One person was messaging my feet, and another one was keeping strips of cloth soaked in cold water on my head. I felt like… like… one of the memsahibs from our building.” She smiled. It was one that radiated straight from her heart.
Sitting here now, thinking about my visit to Kaaki earlier today, an odd sense of comfort mixed with shame inundates me. There’s comfort, because she seems relieved. She is free of worries and hard labor. She is surrounded by people who care for her. She is home. And, thankfully, she will have all this, for the rest of her life. But there’s an inescapable sense of shame too. Because she found all this in a building full of convicts and so called ‘social rejects’ instead of us – a society which wrung her dry, till the last ounce of her strength had been squeezed out and used; but failed to stand by her when she needed it. I was sure; the idea of asking any of us for help, never even crossed her mind. I try to tell myself that if I was around, she would have come to me and I could have helped her. But that illusion vaporizes quickly, too. Because I know, that is the kind of person Jaanaki Kaaki is, always interested in over-delivering and content in being under-compensated.
I don’t know if I should grieve for my respect for our society, which got irreparably dented today, a society which comprises of people like Mrs. Bhaskar who washed their hands off Kaaki in a heartbeat; or celebrate for the restoration of my faith in humanity, represented by people like Kaaki. People with exemplary strength of spirit, compassion without any expectation of being compensated, wisdom which no amount of education can ever bring and integrity to surrender for a crime which no one even suspects them of committing. Someone, who is as poor as they come and yet manages to give everyone what they want, often, without them even having to ask for it; her sons, her husband, Mrs. Bhaskar, Mrs. Das, Mrs. Gupta. Me.
I wipe my face with my hands. I don’t even remember how long I have been crying and for what. I look at my palms. The tears on them glisten as they catch the faint moonlight. Quite like the way the contentment on Kaaki’s face, sparkled under the pale light of that bulb, in the visiting room, as she spoke the words. “Bitiya, I feel free…”
PS – This short story, on the theme of ‘freedom’, was selected to be published in FWBA’s first edition of their eMagazine – UnBound.