Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh
At a time when there was a drought of jobs, Nirupama felt uncertain on receiving a job offer. Her husband, Salil Dutta, figured that by looking at his wife. He still encouraged her, “I don’t want to force you, but you shouldn’t let go of Lakshmi if she’s coming your way. That too, when the offer has come on its own…”
“Is getting the offer everything? How will I cope with that kind of a job?” Nirupama’s voice choked.
At forty-five—though she didn’t look much older than thirty–Nirupama was no longer a contender in the job market.
Salil Dutta used to work in an ordinary government job. He had a lot of weight to carry, mostly in the form of responsibilities towards his extended family. Like any refined bhadralok, he carried that load despite drowning in debt all his working life. After that, the inevitable happened. As he stepped on the shore of retirement, he was in deep sea, with no coast in sight. Attempting to cross the shores on a broken boat would be like counting the hours to one’s death.
The family had to surrender the government quarter to find shelter in the stable-like shed of a rich man’s house. Having been used to a life of struggle, Nirupama didn’t complain. For years, she had rowed the boat of this impoverished household with remarkable skill. But when she could no longer manage with her husband’s 150 rupees of pension, she too had contemplated working—at any petty job. She kept it to herself, however. Nirupama was afraid of the outside world.
That’s when the offer arrived.
Some well-to-do women had started a service centre for underprivileged Bengali girls. The chief project was having nakshi kanthas stitched by disadvantaged women from East Bengal. It was an ambitious project. Apparently, the government would earn hefty revenue just by selling those kanthas. A shelter had been opened for nearly a hundred women—widows or abandoned by their husbands—and their children. Nirupama would have to assume charge of the shelter.
There was a time when Nirupama used to play the sitar quite well. Not that she couldn’t anymore, but time was scarce now.
Sitar was what drew the attention of Bardi or Mrs. Basu, the director of Srimangal. Nirupama had once played sitar at a women’s soiree held in the government quarters. Mrs. Basu was the chief guest there. She had since maintained contact with Nirupama. The elderly lady appreciated Nirupama’s talent and was affectionate towards her. She had brought the job offer.
Nirupama was afraid. Terribly. To begin with, she had never had a job before. Moreover, despite being poor, they were cultured, educated people. But none of those underprivileged women were sophisticated. They formed the society’s fringe.
“Why are you so worried, Niru? Take up the job and find out for yourself. There’s nothing to fear. You are an artist after all. Food and clothing aren’t the ultimate ends of one’s life. We also need artistic sensibilities for the soul’s development. That’s why I suggested your name. In your free time, you can entertain them with your music. All they do is worry about food and squabble with each other. They don’t even know that a world exists beyond all that.”
That was what Mrs. Basu had said.
Another world! Nirupama didn’t say anything, but felt a sting. It occurred to her how women like Mrs. Basu had no work at home, were lavished with luxury, wealth and rich husbands to look after them. That’s why they had embarked on providing entertainment to others. But did the “other world” of Nirupama exist just because she hadn’t come out on the street with a begging bowl?
Sadly, Nirupama was bhadralok.
Salil Dutta said, “Women are working in every field. These days, no middle-class family can survive on one person’s income.”
Nirupama couldn’t take it anymore. She had almost screamed, “Then why didn’t you drag me out on the road thirty years ago?”
“Did I know then that the country will be divided and we will lose all our land and belongings?”
“If I only had a capable son…” Tears streamed down her face before she could finish the sentence.
All this was the first act.
With time, Nirupama became too tired to quibble. She would quietly listen to whatever her husband and Bardi had to say. The situation at home had worsened. For days, she had been serving rice boiled with salt and a spoonful of turmeric to family members. She was still scared to death to go out and work.
Mrs. Basu hadn’t given up though. For two months, she kept hovering around Nirupama.
One evening she showed up unannounced. Nirupama had just finished washing the dishes. As tenants, they had only one small room. In front of that was a tiny cemented area with a tap in one corner. The same area was also used for cooking. The tap was defective and ran ceaselessly, leaving the whole place wet all the time.
The bottom of Nirupama’s sari had become wet. It was December in Delhi. Still shivering, she said, “Please go inside, Bardi; I’ll be right there.”
Mrs. Basu flashed her characteristic gentle smile and said, “Nah, dear, I won’t sit. Come with me; I will show you Srimangal. It’s such a beautiful, expansive, ashram-like place on the city’s outskirts. Come, you will like it.”
“I have to cook, Bardi…”
“Come back and do that. How long will it take in the car anyway?”
“You go, Ma, I will prepare everything for dinner. You come back and cook,” reassured fifteen-year-old Shampa. She was in class ten and lately had been busy because of the approaching annual examinations. There was a secret reason behind her selfless act—she felt a sense of pride when an esteemed lady like Mrs. Basu took her Ma through the neighbourhood in a car.
Nirupama ended up being even more scared after meeting the women at Srimangal. They had always been the rejects of society. But even when someone tried to help them, they didn’t always feel grateful. If aid came from the government, they considered it their right. And if it came from non-governmental sources, they deemed it the whim of the rich. Society had taken their innocence away.
A few barrack-like boxes were divided into four rows. At the end of two rows, there was a patch of open space—green with the women’s’ kitchen garden produce.
So this is an ashram!
A fierce fight had broken out for claiming the rights over two community taps. Blood streamed down the forehead of a woman who had been hit by the end of a bucket.
Looking at the quarreling women Mrs. Basu said with a soft smile, “Don’t worry about that. They are always like this—will become friends in no time. Come, I will show you your quarter.”
“Yes, if you take up the job, this is where you will have to stay.”
Presently, Mrs. Basu had brought Nirupama right across the barracks. Six small houses stood there. Barbed wire fences had lent these houses some distance from the other departments. There was a small verandah in front of all the houses. It looked nice from the outside.
“We made these houses for the staff here. Five of them have been taken. Just one is left. Now if only you joined…” As she stepped on to the single stair leading to the verandah, she said, “Come I will show you inside…”
The gatekeeper had already unlocked the house. Upon entering Mrs. Basu said, the rooms are small, but then you will get two of these.”
Nirupama felt as if Mrs. Basu was taunting her rented stable. She was hurt.
“Look, we have also kept a little verandah in the back—it’s covered. Open the door and you enter the walled backyard. On this side is the bathroom; the toilet is on the other side. And over here…” Mrs. Basu pulled open the door of a small room on the right, “is the kitchen.”
“Yes, the kitchen. It’s not too big, but must be double the size of the kitchens that come with rented houses in Calcutta. Look, there are two big shelves—they can hold a lot. Besides, you have a meat safe of your own too. I don’t think you’ll have any issues.”
Nirupama remained immersed in scanning the kitchen. Mrs. Basu’s words escaped her ears.
They had left the government quarters nearly two years ago. Nirupama didn’t have a kitchen anymore, and she alone knew the misery of that situation. As she cooked, something would fall from above, or the landlord’s ten-year-old son would drop something that would land straight into the wok cooking vegetables or the pot bubbling with rice. Weeping remained her only option at such times. In the current economy, it was already a challenge for the lower-middle class to rent an accommodation. If on top of that one heard the word “retired”, even that slim chance was lost. And there wasn’t a second earning member who could be propped up to boost the landlord’s confidence. Even her two children were late harvests in Nirupama’s life—still young. One could deal with not having a bathroom and living in a cramped room, but being denied a kitchen…
“We won’t be able to pay you a lot; it will be a hundred and fifteen rupees in total. However, all utilities are free—electricity, water, accommodation…”
Nirupama had started walking in the opposite direction. She had crossed the distance of forty years…what a huge kitchen her mother had in the village house. Her father didn’t have a pukka brick house. It had a tin roof, tin fence and mud walls. But her mother’s tender touch had turned it into a painting. How tidy Mother used to keep the kitchen!
The kitchen was Mother’s daytime chamber. She would place wooden piris on the kitchen floor to welcome any girl or woman from the neighbourhood who dropped by as she cooked. Mother used to cook for a long time. The spread would be huge—complete with vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Baba loved his food.
On rainy days when it became impossible to step out of the house, little Niru would arrange her doll’s box in one corner of the kitchen. As she played, she would observe her mother picking chilies off a plant she herself had planted next to the kitchen. Fat, blackish chilies hung from the branches almost all through the year. Neighbours would take chilies off the plant whenever they needed some.
Niru and her six siblings had sat down for lunch along with her father and uncle. A number of wired bags, neatly strung together by Mother, hung from the roof. She would fill up pots, pans and bottles with food, even fried fish, and hang them in those bags. This was to ward off stealing cats. On the right hand corner of the wall adjoining the stove, there was a raised bamboo platform. After cooking, Mother would keep her cooking utensils there. If, by chance, the kitchen door was left ajar at night, dogs and foxes would come in.
“How did you like the quarter? Nice, isn’t it?”
At the time of Partition, the loss of her father’s mud house had brought Nirupama the greatest sorrow. Mother was no more. But those pretty, colourful wired nests still hung from the kitchen roof. Sigh.
“The kitchen has been designed to my liking. Look how big the windows are. Enough room for light and ventilation. The very reason behind the ill health of our women is the kitchen—it’s the dirtiest, darkest, smallest—the most neglected space. That’s why I laid special emphasis on the windows.”
Nirupama remembered the kitchen in her in-laws’ house too. It wasn’t as big as the one in her father’s house. Her in-laws were a zamindar family. A huge corridor enveloped the two-storied house. A ground-level room in the north was the dining room. Everyone used to sit on piris to eat. Men, however, never ate in the kitchen. Only the female members ate there; they were the ones cooking too. One of the male elders, Nirupama’s uncle-in-law, didn’t eat food cooked by an outsider Brahmin cook.
As her aunt-in-law cooked, young Niru would stare out of the window. She would be eager to know if the mangoes had ripened on the tree of orange-red mango, right next to the kitchen window. When the mothers-in-law retreated for their post-lunch siesta, all the daughters-in-law would sit down to play cards. This sport didn’t have the approval of the elders, hence the kitchen had been chosen for this indulgence. Following cards, they would relish raw mangoes, tamarind, chalta, karamcha—whatever was in season.
“The job won’t harm you, Niru. You can see the state of our country. A war is on, who knows for how long. More miserable days might be in store for this nation.” Mrs. Basu added the word “nation” as a careful afterthought. The lower middle class of the society was extremely sensitive and sentimental.
The warning of “more misery” jolted Nirupama out of her slumber. She remembered her husband’s words, “1971 is a year of misfortune for India. Such pressure on the country’s economy.”
The kitchen looked truly beautiful. A lot like the one in the government quarter. Could any household do without a kitchen? Of late, when it rained, Nirupama stayed inside the dark, cramped room, waiting for the rain to cease and the water in the courtyard to clear so she could cook.
The stable had served as the landlord’s garbage dump earlier. He had got it painted only before renting it out to Nirupama’s family. Notwithstanding that, he had made it clear that no cooking would be allowed inside as that could damage the room. Despite all the penury, Nirupama had never felt such despair before. So when her husband referred to 1971 as a bad year, she had said, “My year of misfortune started two years ago. What can be worse than this?”
For two years, Nirupama had been cooking in the courtyard. For two years, she didn’t touch the sitar. On one occasion Salil Dutta had lost his patience and said, “The country is going through such turmoil, but you can’t be bothered about anything other than your kitchen! It wasn’t for no reason that Hitler wanted to push all the women into the kitchen.”
Pausing her study, Shampa had asked, “Baba, what will happen if our prime minister leaves everything and goes cooking?”
“I have no idea where the country was or is. But you knew that, it seems. That’s why we are in this shed with our children,” Nirupama had retorted.
At that moment, son Sanjay had hurled another dart at an uncomfortable Salil Dutta, “Baba, the task of cleaning the mess created by our forefathers has ultimately landed on a woman’s shoulders. So the kitchen’s role can’t be totally negated in a nation’s progress.”
The drone of airplanes flying overhead unnerved Mrs. Basu as she hurriedly carried her bulky weight over to the inner yard and looked at the sky. “Oh my, so many of them together!” she exclaimed.
The mechanical birds were flying overhead with rapid, noisy flapping of wings.
“I will take the job, Bardi. When do I have to join?” Nirupama asked, transfixed to the kitchen.
Amiya Sen is a Bengali novelist and short story writer. Her writing has been published in various Bengali journals, including Desh, Jugantar, and Basumati. Aranyalipi and New Delhi-r Nepathye are her non-fiction books. She also wrote a children’s book called Shonai Shono Rupkatha.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English–My Days with Ramkinkar Baij–has been published by Niyogi Books in January 2012. This work also won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation in 2009. Bhaswati blogs at http://bhaswatighosh.com/