I have been living in this town, in this very locality, for twelve years. I had a smaller house before I could afford the big one I have now. A young girl works for me as a sweeper. Her mother used to clean my previous house. She was youthful then, at least as close to being so as these women can be.
A little acquaintance with a young woman is irritating to me. She should either be intimate with me or be a complete stranger. That woman was easy on the eye. She wore the cast-off clothes of the women she worked for, sported rings in her ears and veiled her face in the presence of the men of her community. I yearned to talk to her but did not quite know how to start. I was shy.
One day I was sitting outside my house in the sun. My wife was not at home. The woman came and started doing her chores. After she had finished, she went to the kitchen to get her daily allowance of food from the servant. But he was not there. She came back and stood at a distance. Then, looking away from me, she said to the wall.
“Don’t know where the servant is gone”.
“Did you want anything from him?” I asked, catching the thread of her utterance.
“I wanted the food, sir,” she said, turning her face towards me.
“Come, I will give it to you.” And I got up and walked to the kitchen.
I gave her the two chappatis the servant had kept for her.
“Anything to eat these with?”
She did not at all appear anxious to move away.
I fumbled around but found nothing. Since she was looking, it was not necessary to explain.
“All right, give me a little gur,” she begged.
I handed her a big lump of it.
She smiled in gratitude and blushed.
This lucky start made me feel a great deal lighter. The size of the lump of gur could not have been lost upon her. She had spent her life asking for things.
A few days later my wife was out once again. The woman knew this but preferred to pretend that she was unaware of it.
“Where is Bibiji, sir?” She asked, bursting with joy.
“She has gone out”, I showed her the green flag.
She moved back a couple of paces as if she were about to go away.
“What did you want to say to her?” I asked her hastily. Had she actually gone away, I would have been undone.
“I wanted to borrow some money, sir. Our stock of atta is finished today”.
“How much do you want?”
“Two rupees, sir”.
I held out two one-rupee notes towards her. She took them.
“All right, sir. I will return the money to you. You need not tell Bibiji about it”. Probably she thought it was hard on me to have to spare two rupees. Little did she know how I valued my little investment.
But actually it did not turn out to be as valuable an investment as I had hoped it would be. Try as I did, I could not enter her life in the way I had wanted to. She was not too mindful of her body, which did not interest me much. But she would not let me enter the world of her mind. Probably she considered this of little interest to me. One the other hand, she considered it a great achievement to extract a few annas more from me now and then.
“Please, sir, give me a rupee today. I have to repay the shopkeeper’s loan.”
“No, I don’t have a rupee.”
“All right, give me an anna for biscuits for my daughter.”
“No, I don’t have even an anna.”
She had a daughter, five or six years old, whom she sometimes brought along with her.
Late she started bringing along her infant son. It was extremely cold in the mornings with hardly a soul stirring out of doors. She would walk into the house with a basket on her head and her infant son on her hip. She would then lay the child on a rag and start doing her work. Blue with cold, the child would keep yelling and kicking while she went through her chores with a painful and determined look. I would close my eyes and take refugee in a quiet corner of the house.
This was twelve years ago.
I now live in another house, a bigger and better one. The fact is that I have grown richer. And it is not me alone. All my fellow brick-kiln owners have grown rich. It is lucky to have a permit for coal. Bricks are selling very dear. But the cost of making them is the same as before.
And it is not he brick-kiln owners alone. Everyone seems to have a lot of money. In my big house I have steel almirahs in place of wooden ones and foam-rubber pillows and mattresses in place of cotton-stuffed ones. Hot water flows into every bathroom. I used to wonder why manufacturers spent so much money on newspaper advertisements. I, for one, never read any advertisements before. But now I pay more attention to them than to the news.
Now, when I enter a shop, I immediately ask for the best, the costliest. I have no longer any use for the ordinary.
My big house is cleaned by the daughter of the woman who swept my earlier house. As a child she used to come with her mother. She was small then. Youth has changed her completely. In her appearance, she has exceeded my expectations and also possibly those of her own people. She is very fond of talking. It is not difficult to start a conversation with her. But for some time nothing passed between us.
One day, when my wife had gone out, I saw the girl coming. I went into the house and brought out of packet of sweets. Thrusting it into her hands, I said; “Here, take these sweets.”
“What are these for?” She asked without showing much surprise.
“These are for you”, I replied without nervousness.
She cast an enquiring glance at me. I looked back reassuringly and she understood. Lights went on within her. I had never seen her like that before.
It was no use pursuing her any further just them. I sat down in a chair and started reading my newspaper. After finishing her work, she came and stood close to me.
“Where is Bibiji, sir,” She smilingly asked.
“I wanted to borrow some money, sir. Our stock of atta is finished.”
“How much did you want?”
“I will give it to you,” I held out two-one rupee notes towards her. She took them.
“All right, sir, I will return the money to you. You need not tell Bibiji about it.”