Ramabai examined herself in the body length mirror fitted in the lift of the Beachfront Colava Apartment building. There was a small blue patch under her right eye that she had somehow hidden with a generous use of makeup. The upper lip was a little swollen but could go unnoticed, she thought. She did not feel much pain on her face; it was her right-hand side ribs that hurt awfully. The pain had become worse after the morning rush-hour journey in the suburban train as she got squeezed and elbowed in a desperate crowd of commuters.
Last night Namdev had kicked her on her right ribs after she had fallen to the ground with the impact of his slap. He had come home drunk and wanted money to buy more liquor. She shouldn’t have argued with Namdev while he was drunk, because drunk he was always short-tempered. But these days, he was drunk most of the time and demanded money most of the time. How much Namdev had changed in last one year since he lost his job, she often thought. He had not only started drinking heavily but had also started abusing and beating her.
They were married for about four years now. When she first heard that she was going to get married to a man working in Mumbai she was very excited. Mumbai was the dream city of movie stars, songs, dances and glamour. “You would be able to see the film stars just like that.” Her village friends had told her jealously. Though excited with the prospect, she had felt a bit nervous too. She had never been away from her village and now to such a big city like Mumbai. But like most of the young ones, she also had dreams of going to new places, seeing new things and meeting new people. Getting married to someone working in Mumbai looked like a way to fulfil some of those dreams.
However, an unshakable fear that hangs over the heads of a large number of girls born in poor Indian households, of getting married to an unknown man whether of their liking or not, also tormented her. ‘Beti, remember that a daughter leaves her parents’ house as a bride in palanquin and leaves her husband’s home only on her death-bed.’ Were these words just the handed down note of traditional wisdom? Or did they also carry a thinly veiled message, ‘Please don’t come back, even if you have to face the worst’? And when her mother uttered these words to her, Ramabai knew that despite all the affection her parents had for her, they were pleading her to endure, to face whatever hardships the marriage could possibly bring. She knew they were not being cruel or unloving. Within their limited resources they had done whatever they could. Her father, a small time farmer, had to take a loan for her marriage and if the harvests were not good, if monsoon failed, if market prices plummeted; he would need to sell a part of his land to repay the loan. Stories of farmers committing suicide, unable to repay their loans, abounded in the rural areas. And with four other siblings to look after, were the parents being unreasonable for asking her to endure? Ramabai had thought on her journey to her new home, which if she ever had to leave for good, it had to be on her death bed! A sad irony it was, possessing such terrible thoughts on a day that was supposedly the most joyous and an usherer of a new life.
Once in Mumbai, she slowly started to grasp the new reality – a small cubicle as home in an old crumbling chawl. Namdev was good and caring within his limited resources. He worked hard during the week, leaving the house early in the morning and returning in the dark. “It’s very difficult these days. Factories are either getting shut down or cutting down the number of workers and we have to work longer to keep our jobs.” He would explain to Ramabai. She felt a bit queasy for mostly staying indoors in that small room but also understood that a large number of people were living worse than her. Still, there was the silver lining in that cloistered existence, the odd Sundays, when they would go out to the beach or cinema. And one day Namdev lost his job. The factory he was working with was shut down. The reality of life now became starker with the miniscule saving disappearing fast.
It was at the time she had decided to take up employment. A number of women living in the chawl were working as maids in the houses of better-off people. Now it was about six months that she had been working as a housemaid with Ms Rosy Dastur. It came as a God sent opportunity to her. Meena, her neighbour, who was working with Mr Bhandarkar in the same apartment building, was pregnant and had asked Ramabai if she could fill in for her. She had agreed. The earning, though not much, would help in running the household and Namdev would also get some support in establishing his bicycle repair stall. After working for eight years in a factory making bicycle spare parts, that was the only possible employment he could think of.
It was while filling up for Meena, she one day met Rosy Dastur in the lift. She always tried to sneak into empty lifts as she felt awestruck in the presence of the rich residents of the building and avoided sharing lifts with them. That day too she had got into an empty lift and as the lift doors were closing, Ms Dastur came running to get inside and had yelled at her to stop the lift. But she got too confused and stood meekly, looking at the closing doors. Ms Dastur had to put her foot between the closing doors of the lift to enter inside. “Why couldn’t you stop the lift? I could have lost my leg.” A visibly shaken Ms Dastur had said in an irritated voice. In a state of confusion and fright, tears had welled in Ramabai’s eyes.
“Oh, you woman. Why are you crying? What did I say to you?” Ms Dastur said, feeling guilty for shouting at her. At these words, Ramabai who so far, somehow, was holding her tears had actually started crying. Out of the lift, Ms Dastur had taken Ramabai to her apartment and had offered her a glass of juice. It was over the glass of juice that she had sipped hesitantly, she had narrated her story. And once Meena was back on her job, Ramabai started working for Ms Dastur.
Work at Ms Dastur’s wasn’t demanding. She lived alone and was out of the house most of the time. Ramabai often fancied the way Ms Dastur lived in that big apartment by herself. It was such a contrast from her own life – the master bathroom itself seemed bigger than her room in the chawl where she cooked, slept and entertained occasional guests. However, what she fancied most about Ms Dastur was the loads of flowers she received almost every alternate day. Many a time when she arrived for work, she found bunches of flowers in different shapes left at the door. On such occasions Ms Dastur was either still sleeping or hadn’t returned home the previous night. She had instructed Rambai to bring any flowers inside and set them up in various vases that filled the apartment. Her apartment appeared more like a flower garden to Ramabai who always thought that flowers were meant for offering to gods and goddesses in temples.
“Who sends all these flowers, memsahib?” One day Ramabai asked Ms Dastur.
“Oh, you know, all these men. They want to make me happy and they know I like flowers and they keep sending me these expensive flowers.” Ms Dastur was arranging a fresh bouquet of tulips in a new porcelain vase. “They look pretty. Don’t they?”
Ramabai nodded her head in affirmative but a rather more practical question started buzzing in her mind. She, who always had to count her every single penny, had asked.
“Are flowers expensive memsahib? How much would they cost?”
“Oh, yes Ramabai, these flowers are expensive. I don’t know exactly how much they would cost, but maybe 800 rupees or even 1000 rupees.”
It was a shocking revelation for Ramabai. Thousand rupees were about her ten days’ salary at Ms Dastur’s. Moreover, she could not believe that flowers could cost so much. She always assumed that flowers grew in public parks, gardens and in the wild. In her village one could pluck as many marigold flowers as one wished from the flower bushes. Even in Mumbai whenever she visited Ganapati temple and bought flowers, it was only for two rupees. When Namdev was still working and hadn’t taken to drinking, sometimes they went to Chaupati beach on Sunday afternoon. They would eat pav-bhazi and drink coconut water. Later Namdev would buy her a chameli gajara worth ten rupees. She always protested spending that amount on gajara but a thousand rupees for a small bunch of flowers was beyond her imagination.
“Do you ever get flowers Ramabai? Does your man buy you flowers sometime?”
“When he had his job he used to buy me chameli gajara whenever we went out. But these days he doesn’t have work.” Ramabai had answered in a shy defense of her husband.
“But he can still buy his booze. All these men are similar, selfish to the core.” Ms Dastur said in a bitter voice.
“No, no memsahib, it’s not like that. He is trying but it is not easy these days. He says factories are shutting down. He is a bit desperate; otherwise he looks after me well.”
Rosy wanted to say something more scathing but decided not to. She, who had earned her media and public relations degree from the Harvard University and was running a highly successful advertising agency, might treat men differently but Ramabai and millions of other women still revered their husbands. It was not just an issue of economic independence for women, it also required a drastic change of the mindset, she often thought.
Ramabai, however, couldn’t digest the fact that flowers could cost so much of money – a single bunch costing almost her ten days’ salary. Her salary was seen as a respectable amount by other housemaids including Meena. They had told her that she was lucky to be at Ms Dastur’s house where for so little work she was paid quite nicely compared to other housemaids. This had given her a sense of pride in her work. But now suddenly she started doubting that her salary must be a pittance, just enough to buy a bunch of flowers that would last only a couple of days. The fact troubled her and she didn’t know how to verify it. She discussed it with Meena who quickly dismissed it with an argument that the rich people were high nosed and to prove their worth they always inflated the value of their possessions.
In the Beachfront Apartments street there was a big fancy flower shop and through the glass panels she could see that the flower bunches inside looked similar to the ones Ms Dastur received but she knew that she would never be able to muster the courage to go inside and find out the price.
The whole economics of flowers, however, had given Ramabai an unusual way of amusing herself. Every time a new bundle of flowers arrived, she arbitrarily calculated its worth in terms of her salary. Her simple formula for such calculation was the size of the bundle and the variety of flowers. “It’s my twelve days salary in this container.” She would tell herself arranging the flowers in a vase. Sometimes she would calculate the costs of flowers in different vases in the apartment and would be surprised that they were worth more than her whole month’s salary.
Yesterday’s incident made Ramabai determined to verify the worth of flowers. Yesterday morning when she arrived, at the door, there was a very big and intricate bouquet containing a variety of flowers. Picking it up, she quickly calculated and was certain that it would be worth more than her whole month’s salary. And as she took it inside, Rosy was just getting up from her bed.
“There are flowers for you memshahib.” She told Rosy form the hallway.
“Bring them here Ramabai. I do really need them today,” said Rosy who was looking worn down and tired. But once she read the note attached with the bouquet she called Ramabai.
“Ramabai go to the back of the apartment building and throw these away.” Rosy said handing her the bouquet.
“Just do what I said. The bastard thinks he can buy anything with his money. And just take these away from my eyes.” Rosy said in an agitated voice.
Ramabai understood that something was unusual but what intrigued her most as she threw the bouquet was that so much of money was wasted for nothing. This confirmed her opinion that flowers couldn’t be as costly as Rosy had made them to appear. She quickly devised a plan to check the facts. Out on the street, on the way to the train station, there was a wooden stall that sold marigold flowers, rose petals and chameli gajaras. Three young boys who appeared like tapories ran the stall. She would ask one of them to go inside the fancy shop and check the prices. She would indicate him a bouquet from outside the widow. She would buy a chameli gajara for herself as a return of favour. Namdev might be happy to see her in a gajara after such a long time, she had thought. For a moment, she quickly reminisced about the early days of her married life; the odd Sundays, walking on the cool sand of Chaupati Beach when despite her protestations ten rupees was spent on the chameli gajara and Namdev snuggled his face on her bun inhaling the aromas of mustard oil mingled with that of chameli flower. She used to feel like a woman, satisfied in her simple little world and loved by her man. And now the thought of buying herself a gajara bought a faint smile on her lips.
“The bouquet that you indicated is for twelve hundred rupees.” The boy who had gone into the shop told her. “But why do you want to know? Are you going to buy one?” All the three were very curious. “No, no it is my memsahib who wanted to know. And I haven’t gone inside such big shops, so I was scared and asked for your help.” She explained and paid ten rupees for the gajara. Now that her curiosity was quenched, she felt relieved, though the cost arithmetic of flowers was still beyond her grasp.
Namdev as usual had come late and was drunk. She had cooked food and was waiting for him, the gajara tied to her bun. He looked at her for a moment and asked for money.
“Why do you need money at this hour?” She questioned.
“You have no business to ask. But anyway since you have asked it is to buy some liquor.” He responded in a drunken voice.
“But you are already drunk.”
“That’s none of your business you bitch.”
“Well, I don’t have money.” She responded, feeling hurt by the abuse.
“But you have money to buy the gajara. Or have you been seeing some of your lovers, you whore.”
These words pierced through Ramabai’s heart but before she could respond in protest, Namdev had slapped her with full force. And as she fell down with the impact of his slap, he had kicked her on her ribs. Pain had darkened her senses. All she could see was that while going out of the room Namdev had crushed the gajara that had fallen to the ground under his shoes.
The lift had stopped and one last time Ramabai looked at herself in the mirror. She wished that Ms Dastur was out of the house. She swiftly walked through the corridor to the apartment. But at the apartment door her feet came to a sudden freeze. A bouquet similar to the one of yesterday morning was lying there at the door. Ramabai’s first thought was to take it straight to the back of the building and to throw it into the gutter. But then drawing a deep breath, she picked the bouquet, and entered the apartment door.