The name Kamakshi says it all; she is very beautiful. She has big eyes that capture anybody’s attention. Soon after she started working in our house, I noticed a marked difference in the behavior of our domestic help. Our cook, Muthu, the errand boy, Reddy, and the gardener, Nagappa are so taken by her beauty, they kept messing up their jobs on hand, and for that reason, were getting plenty from me and my mother-in-law, fairly frequently.
Our maid Sayamma fell sick and was admitted into the hospital. We started looking for another maid.
The milkman brought in Kamakshi. He said, she is new in town; came from Coimbatore. He filled us in on other details about her family, too: her parents and brothers run a fruit stall in Coimbatore. Kamakshi, also, was selling fruits from a cart, going from street to street. People would jump to buy fruits from her, which was very annoying to other fruit vendors. They would comment, that people were buying from her, only because of her beauty, and not because of the quality of the fruits. In fact, the fruits in her cart were all rotten and spoiled, they’d say. Still, the fruits would go so fast whenever Kamakshi stood by the cart. On the other hand, for some reason, if her sister stood there in her place, not a single fruit would be sold. Not one person would stop to buy from her sister. Kamakshi’s brothers would comment that her beauty was their enemy. They would get into trouble with somebody or other, claiming that that fellow said something about Kamakshi. They beat them up, and get beaten too.
If it were not the fruits season, Kamakshi would find work as a maid in somebody’s house. On one occasion, she went to work for a Chettiar. He asked her to rub oil on his hair and back. She quit right away. Kamakshi wears no jewelry. Her only jewelry is her sharp tongue, and her agility. We asked her why she was not wearing any jewelry, not even earrings. She said her husband pawned her earrings and the nose-ring.
Kamakshi never smiles. She keeps herself busy, with her chores, and with a grim face. On a rare occasion, if she smiles, her face lights up like the full moon, and the dimples on her cheeks add to her beauty, immensely. She is hardly 25. There is a streak of sadness in her eyes. Her husband is sick with some disease, she said. They rented a small hut nearby, for 10 rupees per month. Her husband used to work in construction. He couldn’t get any work, anymore, since he was coughing too much. He stays home, supposed to be taking care of their 3-year old son. Instead, he spanks him, all the time.
Kamakshi leaves home at 6:00 in the morning, and returns late in the evening. The neighbors told her about her husband’s assaults on the child, and advised her to take the child with her to work. That is when, she decided to send the boy to her mother’s home. She found somebody going to her village, and sent him away, with them.
I told her, that she could bring the child to work, at our house.
She replied, “No, ma’am. If I keep him here, he will miss school. My mother will take good care of him.”
I was a little confused. Why would a father beat up his own child? She said, “’Cause the child won’t call him dad”.
My mother-in-law intervened, “What’s the problem? Why won’t he call him, dad?”
Kamakshi explained her situation, “My man says the child is not his, ma’am. He sent me away to my mom’s home, and was living with another woman. Me was giving me hard time all my life. He is okay, though, as long as he is not drinking. Usually, he gets drunk, comes home, and beats me up. My mother never liked him, and that’s why she took me back, to her home. I gave birth to the baby at my mom’s place. I was okay there; and made my living, selling fruits. How would the child know who the father is, to call him ‘dad’? I was always in mother’s home, as long as he could remember. Just, recently, my parents straightened out things, and sent me and the child, back to my husband. My mother did not like it at all. The man is caught up in another woman’s trap, and gave her my gold chain and my wedding saree, you know!”
My mother-in-law was shocked, and surprised at her patience.
Kamakshi is still afraid of her husband. She would just quit whatever she was doing, as soon as the clock strikes 6:00, and rushes home. “I have to go,” she would say.
“What is the rush? Why don’t you finish the job on hand?” my mother-in-law says.
“You don’t know ma’am! My man is very suspicious, by nature. If, I am late, even by a few minutes, he would come here, and wait for me at the gate. He would beat me up right there, calling me all kinds of names. Please, let me go. I’d finish it first thing in the morning.” she would beg.
“Where is your husband? Bring him here. I will show him his place,” my mother-in-law would say.
“Oh, no, ma’am! One look at him, and you will throw up. He looks like a dry stick, for all his drinking, fretting, and fuming, all the time. Always carries a knife with him,” Kamakshi said, with some concern.
On hearing the word ‘knife’, my mother-in-law changed her mind about teaching him his place, and stopped asking Kamakshi to stay past six. Instead she would rush her to leave quickly.
Her annoyance shows in her other comments, as well. “Wherever you got him? Is he is a rowdy or what! What a headache!. Go! Go! Leave as early as you want. Make sure he does not come near our door,” she would say, anxiously.
And, then, she would turn to me, and continue to express her concerns, “Let’s look for another maid, a better person… We can’t have someone walking around our house, with a knife, can we? Talk to the watchman at the gate, in Hindi, and tell him not to let him in, no matter, however desperately, he pleads. I almost forgot. The watchman also has a knife, right?”
I could hardly contain my laughter, as I try to calm her down, “Yes. The watchman has a knife. We don’t have to fear anybody.”
“Isn’t it sad that such a beautiful girl, like Kamakshi, should end up with a sick fellow like him? On top of it, he whacks her, too. What a jerk; and she is such a delicate darling. How could he have the heart to beat her with a stick?”
Muthu, our cook, the errand boy, Reddy and the gardener, Nagappa saw the scars on her body, and were worried, as if, they had sustained the wounds themselves.
“That jerk of a husband should be chopped into pieces,” Reddy said.
“If you see him, you will know. He could not be her husband; should not be. It is not fair, that donkey should be her husband,” said Muthu, wailing at her misfortune.
“She is so beautiful, almost, like a carefully, carved sculpture. How can she have a sickly, and worn-out, man like him, for a husband? Disgusting rascal. Did you see his eyes, blazing red, like charcoal? It seems he drinks varnish*! That is why he keeps coughing all the time,” Reddy said, with suspicious looks.
“Yes. That is true,” Nagappa added.
“Then, Kamakshi might contract it too,” Muthu commented sadly.
“What a misery? Poor Kamakshi! Poor loser!” all the three expressed their deepest sympathies.. They were so lost in their discussions; Muthu didn’t serve our lunch until 2:00 p.m. on that day.
Reddy started talking to himself, dwelling on the misfortunes of Kamakshi, and would heave deep sighs.
One day Kamakshi was delayed, by about a half hour. Her husband came, and was waiting at the gate for her. My mother-in-law heard that he was at the gate, and became a nervous wreck. She hollered for Kamakshi, and told her to go home. “Go, go home,” she kept hurrying her..
Kamakshi begged my mother-in-law not to insist. “I can’t go home, ma’am. Please tell the watchman to throw him out.” She added that, she is tired of her husband’s attitude, and was scared for her own life, in case, she gets the same disease from him. She dabbed her eyes, as she expressed her fears.
Reddy supported Kamakshi’s claim. “That is true, ma’am. What if, she also contracts the disease?” he said.
My mother-in-law cast fiery looks at him, as spoke, “What do you care? Why are you so bothered about her husband? How many times, do I have to tell you not to intervene in her affairs?” she reprimanded him.
“Why do we care, ma’am? We are only sorry for that poor woman. That’s all. She is suffering from that ailing, good-for-nothing, scoundrel. That’s all we care about.”
“Is that all? Really? That’s the only reason for your worry? First, tell me this. Why should you all worry about her, or any other woman, for that matter? Tell me that? I can’t figure it out, you rascals! You explain to me,” my mother-in-law took them to task.
“Really, ma’am. What is, in it, for us? We are just concerned, since we all are working for you, in the same household. Otherwise, why would we care? We heard that his disease is contagious. What if she get it too?”
“Ha, that is what is bothering you? Don’t you worry about it. You just mind your own business,” she said, and then switched to the next subject, “What do you mean contagious? Who says there is anything contagious between a husband and wife*? How is that possible? You stupid fellows! Stop talking about her and her husband, and mind your business,” my mother-in-law would chide him.
Reddy pretended to leave, was standing behind the door, to listen, what Kamakshi has to say.
Kamakshi stood there, like the very incarnation of innocence, and rolling her eyes every second, like the beam of a lighthouse, and heaving deep sighs. Obviously, she was having the time of her life, with all the attention she was getting for her helpless situation, I thought.
My mother-in-law hit the roof at her attitude. She did not appreciate Kamakshi’s request to get rid of her husband. At the same time, she was, also, aware that it was not a good strategy to show too much anger. They would have a problem finding another maid! So, she toned down her fury.
In the meantime, Kamakshi’s husband sent for her, again. My mother-in-law became frantic.
“What should we do now? She is really a pest, I would say,” she whispered in my ear.
“Just let’s keep quiet, and watch,” I suggested.
“Fine. What if these idiots go out and say something to that scoundrel? You know, he is high. He might create a scene. And then, the police will show up; and it will turn into a three-ring circus.” She is getting wild by the minute.
Kamakshi was standing there, with a little pout. My mother-in-law was like Vasudeva in front of a donkey*, started begging her to leave.
“How can I leave, ma’am? I’d beg him to go to the hospital; he won’t listen. He has no intention of getting help. He says he won’t leave me alone, says can’t trust me. What can I do, you tell me, ma’am. The doctors say, I might contract it as well, if we continue to live like this.”
In the meantime, Reddy, Nagappa and Muthu went out to see her husband, who was waiting for her at the gate. He was hardly in his senses. As he saw them approaching him, he pulled out his knife. Reddy, Nagappa and Muthu instantly snuck behind the watchman. Kamakshi’s husband started screaming, that those three men were standing in her way, and stopping her from coming home. He challenged them to step outside. He said he would chop each one of them, and make a minced meat of them.
Then on, the three men wouldn’t go out, not even to a movie, for fear of getting killed by him. Reddy used to go to the second show. Now, he is afraid to go past the gate. “Who knows, what he is capable of? The rascal is never sober. And on top of it, he drinks that cheap varnish. Who can tell what is on his mind, what he might do for vengeance? It’s like a stone in the hand of madman; nobody knows where it falls, when he throws it.”
Nagappa also changed his habits. He used to go out for tea, on the hour. Now, he hardly leaves home. Somebody told him that Kamakshi’s husband visits the same tea stall! Kamakshi did not go home, for two days now. Her husband is showing up everyday at the gate, and sending for her. Reddy, Muthu and Nagappa would not go anywhere near the gate.
Kamakshi’s husband wrote her a note saying that he would swallow poison and kill himself. Reddy, Nagappa and the cook, suggested, unanimously, that we should let her go right away.
Kamakshi was preparing the dough, on the grinding stone, for breakfast. She saw the note, and broke into tears. She washed her hands, and said she would go out, and talk some sense into that stupid husband of hers. Nagappa, Reddy and the cook begged her, not to go with him; they made sure that my mother-in-law was not watching them while talking to Kamakshi. Kamakshi gave them her word. They were very anxious to hear what she would say to her husband, but would not dare, fearing the knife he was carrying. They were pacing up and down the hallway, like the cat with a burnt foot. They kept casting uneasy looks at the gate, every few seconds, and waiting for her to return.
Kamakshi came back, wiping her tears. All the three gathered round her, like the flies on brown sugar. “What happened,” they all asked her, anxiously. She was silent for a while, kept heaving deep sighs, and rolling her big, beautiful eyes pitifully. She sat down, and resumed grinding the dough.
Reddy sat down, near the door, and across from Kamakshi. “So, what happened? Did he agree to go to the hospital?” he asked her.
Kamakshi shook her head, a negative.
Nagappa made himself at home, on a nearby bag of chaff, and said, “Of course, he wouldn’t. He’s sworn to harass her.”
Muthu was near the door, leaning on it. He said, “May be we should ask our saar* to pull in his weight, and get him thrown in the hospital.”
Reddy is vexed with all this. “In one word, tell us. What is his problem anyways?” he said.
Kamakshi broke into tears again. It seems, he is willing to go to some hospital, stay there for a year, and get help, provided she gives him two hundred rupees. She has no way of raising that kind of money.
Nagappa, Reddy and the cook looked at each other. Next minute, Reddy is all sympathy for Kamakshi, and started comforting her, with great concern.
“He is stupid. What kind of a man would ask his wife for money? How could a woman raise so much money?” Reddy said, losing himself in a reverie.
“What if he does not leave, even after getting the money?” the cook expressed his doubt.
“He is not going to go, anywhere, without Kamakshi. Probably, he would throw away that money on his drinks, and would be back in no time. No point in humoring him,” Napappa said, sounding desperate.
“No. He will not be back. He said, he won’t. Even if he comes back, I made it clear, that I would not leave this place. He said he would give it, in writing. I don’t want that kind of a husband,” Kamakshi said, looking down.
With those words, the cook, Reddy and Nagappa were happy. They, nearly, started jumping up and down, that Kamakshi is, finally, free from all the hassles. They all, decided to show their big hearts, and donate their savings, and help her out.
The next day, Kamakshi’s husband left town. After 4 days, she received a telegram saying that he got sick, drinking varnish, and she should go there, at once, to visit him.
Kamakshi, tearfully, threw herself on my mother-in-law’s feet. She said, she has to go to see her husband in the hospital; or else, the world would not let her live, and, that, at least, for the sake of saving her face, she must go. My mother-in-law made her promise, that she would return in two days, and advanced some money, from her paycheck.
Kamakshi took the money, and asked me if I could spare an old saree, since all her sarees were worn out. I gave her a saree.
At the time of her departure, Reddy, Napappa and the cook gathered around her. They told her not to go near him. They said, that she should visit him, only from distance, and return home soon. Kamakshi took the money, their life’s savings, and left to visit her husband in Velur.
One week passed by; and then, two weeks. There was no sign of Kamakshi. Reddy, Nagappa and the cook started getting nervous. They were getting worried sick about her. We all were, pretty much, worn out, while waiting for her return.
One day, my mother-in-law asked the milkman, “When, do you think, she will return from her village?”
Kamakshi and the milkman were neighbors. “What do you mean ‘returning from her village’? She and her husband never left town. They are here, all right. Kamakshi is working in some other house,” he said.
Then, he added, that Kamakshi and her husband are used to playing games like this; that they are not really married; and that they earned considerable amount in this manner.
My mother-in-law went into a shock, kept beating her forehead, thinking about the money, she advanced her. “Shrewd, shrewd,” she kept saying.
Reddy, Nagappa and the cook heard this, and collapsed. The money, they gave Kamakshi, is not small. They felt, like the thief stung by a scorpion*. As if that was not enough, my mother-in-law handed them a punishment. She said, they have to finish the chores of Kamakshi, until they find another maid.
Reddy, Nagappa and the cook were, anxiously, waiting for a new maid.
My mother-in-law is searching for a woman with gray-hairs, and without encumbrances.
(Originally the Telugu story w published in a collection, Attagaru- nakshalaitlu).
Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net March 2002.