Beautiful by Kamalakshi Mehta
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‘Wat a byootiful babee…’ crooned the grandmother to the toddler objecting to a flustered hairdresser’s ministrations. Arti repeated in her head ‘Wat a byootiful babee...’ Her English lessons needed all the help they could get.

 

‘Stupid girl ... how long she is taking. Just see, no, has she gone to sleep or what?’ The child’s mother, who was waiting for her manicure, could be heard from the little cubicle where Arti had taken the manicure tools to be sterilised ‘Stupid girl, stupid girl’ ran the litany in Arti’s mind. She shut the door of the cabinet without putting in anything, waited for the cycle to run, and brought the unsterilised implements out with a smile. ‘Sorry ma’am, queue for machine. Ready now.’

 

‘You are sure they are sterilised? All kinds of things you can catch from dirty nail scissors.’

 

‘Yes ma’am, sure. I put in machine.’

 

‘These people just can’t be trusted,’ muttered the grandmother in Hindi, and then smiled indulgently as her grandchild caught hold of a pair of scissors and thrust them in the hairdresser’s face.

 

The tip was insultingly meagre, but Arti knew her next lady would be more bountiful. Preeti Madam lived close to the parlour in one of Mumbai’s most desirable buildings, and was a long-standing client. Lately, however, her husband’s growing wealth had created a gravitational pull. She no longer visited shops or beauty salons; they came to her. This was the fourth time that Arti had been called to attend to her at home, and she was always happy to go. The capacious flat was cool and hushed, and Preeti Madam herself was sporadically pleasant. Arti liked to imagine that one day, when she had propelled herself upward to the ranks of popular hairdressers, she would chatter away to such clients in English, chiding them playfully on their split ends. The hairdressing classes she had been attending in the evenings were progressing well. The dynamics of her English classes were more complicated.

 

Preeti Madam wanted an all-over wax (arms, legs, back, between the legs). Almost throughout the proceedings, even with her knees up by her ears, she was on the phone. Arti could not follow the rapid-fire English, but caught a few words here and there. One was ‘virgin’. Her English teacher had acquainted her with that word. He was known to her father and she called him ‘Teacherji’. The third time she had gone for her allotted hour, he had sat very close to her as she stared unseeingly at ragged textbooks, and had asked her at the end of the lesson if she was a virgin. At her fourth lesson he had reminded her, quite kindly, that her father owed him money and that he was giving her a discounted price for her lessons, a practice he would not be able to continue unless the payment was supplemented. The sixth time, she had paid in kind.

 

The terror Arti had felt at first had now dissipated, and sometimes when she lay pliant on his thin mattress she would calculate how many minutes she had spent there. Ten minutes per lesson, ten such supplemented lessons so far, just a little over an hour and a half. That wasn't so bad. She could pay off her father’s debt soon and learn some English along the way. Nobody needed to know. ‘It’s just for a little while longer,’ she'd tell herself. And occasionally she would spit into the post-coitus cup of tea Teacherji would ask her to prepare for him.

 

At the end of the waxing session, she helped Preeti Madam into a robe and started to pack up her paraphernalia. She felt Preeti Madam’s eyes on her and felt self-conscious. ‘You’re about the same size as me, do you want some of my old stuff? My maids won’t wear them because they’re western.’ Arti smiled her assent without being entirely sure what was on offer as Preeti Madam rang the bell for her maid. ‘Savitri, bring that bag of clothes I told you to put in the storeroom and give it to Arti. And give her some tea or something,’ she said to the diminutive woman who had answered her summons.

 

‘Thank you, Preeti Madam,’ said Arti, when the maid had brought back a large plastic bag and handed it to her. ‘I go now.’

 

‘Thanks Arti. I’ll need you again tomorrow or day after. Eyebrows and nails.’

The maid ushered her sullenly and wordlessly into the kitchen, where she was given tea in a chipped teacup with a couple of biscuits. She sat on a stool by the ironing table, while Savitri, another two maids and three male servants squatted in the verandah, holding their steel glasses of tea – the differing utensils and seating positions preserving nicely a hierarchy that placed Arti in a higher social strata.

 

By the time Arti got home, she needed a wash to take away the grime of the day and the imprints of groping male hands on the bus, but the water supply in the communal bathroom was confined to a set couple of hours in the day. The kholi was on the second floor of a three-storied tenement building, with a partition that provided the illusion of two rooms – one for sleeping, the other for cooking and eating. Arti made do with sluicing a little water from a covered bucket over her face and arms, and brewed herself and her father tea on the kerosene cooker. He nodded listlessly in acknowledgement, not looking at her, as she set down a cup on a crate in front of his rattan chair. He sat in that chair for most of the day, occasionally glancing at a newspaper, sometimes watching a cricket match on the television set, but almost never speaking to the other inhabitants of that confined space. His silences, piled one on top of another, had solidified into something impregnable. There must have been a time when things had been better, when her father had been more than this, but Arti only had a dim recollection of him before he had developed the condition no one cared to name.

 

Her mother, loudly offering up her miseries on the altar of the greedy god Krishna, filled the silences when she was at home, but right now she would be cooking in someone’s household, translating the only skill she had into income. Her brother, caught in a dead-end job as a mechanic in a garage, would come late, with strange odours clinging to him and wet patches on his shirt, ostentatiously noisy as if wanting to provoke questions that were never asked.

 

That evening, she decided to go over to Geeta’s place. Geeta lived on the first floor with her parents, a younger sister and a brother, and had a job in a nearby nursing home. She texted Geeta to say she was coming, and rummaged through the bag Preeti Madam had given her. Several vests were too revealing, a couple of skirts could be saved for special occasions. She found a floral shirt that she wore with her own jeans. She could smell the expensive detergent used on it. She would wear this shirt a few times before washing it, just to preserve this connection with laundry facilities that would never be hers.

 

Arti hoped to catch a glimpse of Vipul, Geeta’s brother, or rather, let him catch a glimpse of her, but when she got to their kholi, the females were in possession. Geeta was texting urgently. Her mother was cooking dinner and smiled stiffly at Arti. Geeta’s eight-year-old sister – a costly mistake for the parents – was cradling a plastic doll with a menacing red smile and teased blonde hair. Rashmididi, who lived on the same floor, had brought over her infant son and was sitting with him on a low stool, watching a soap opera on the new television set.

 

Arti had known Geeta ever since her family had moved to the chawl more than a decade ago, and considered her by way of a best friend, but recently some constraint had crept into their relationship. Vipul had got a job as a bank clerk and his stature, and consequently that of his family, had shot up. Parents of unmarried daughters invited them for tea, and boxes of sweets were brought over on festival days. Arti’s own mother had taken to cooking bhajiyas for him and having Arti drop them off at times when Vipul was likely to be home. As a result of all this attention, Geeta and Vipul’s parents had developed a new confidence, and their mother took her spot at the head of the morning queue for water as if it were her due. Geeta herself spoke airily of new clothes and a new smartphone, and carefully avoided asking Arti about the disintegrating fortunes of her family.

 

For want of something to do, Arti dropped to her knees near Rashmididi and stroked the baby’s hair, murmuring awkwardly, ‘wat a byootiful babee. You come to me?’

 

‘Arre wah, Arti!’ said Rashmididi, momentarily distracted from the screen. ‘It seems you’re speaking good English now. Don’t study too hard or you won’t find a husband!’

 

Geeta, who had finished texting, saw Vipul pass along the corridor outside and beckoned him in. ‘Ay, boss – why are you hiding?’ Vipul came through the doorway, filling the little room in height and width. He smiled around vaguely, said namaste to Rashmididi, snatched up a chapati from the pile his mother was making and said to Arti, ‘You’re taking English classes, no? Just give me the phone number of your teacher.’

 

Arti kept her voice casual. ‘Why do you need English classes? Your English is already good.’

 

‘He wants to keep up with you, Arti,’ teased Geeta.

 

Vipul ignored his sister. ‘It’s ok but if I take a few lessons I have better chances at the bank. Does he teach well?’

 

‘He’s fine for beginners like me but you should go for someone better,’ said Arti, feeling her nervousness seep its way through the floral shirt. She would have to wash it now. Stupid girl, stupid girl.

 

‘That’s right, Vipul,’ chimed in his mother. ‘Arti just needs a little bit of English in her parlour, you need much more for your office work.’

 

‘Just give me the number,’ said Vipul, ‘I’ll meet him and decide.’ Arti took out her mobile from her pocket. Willing her fingers to be steady, she looked up the number in her contacts list and read it aloud to Vipul, who entered it into his own phone.

 

Arti had come to chat with Geeta, laugh about Preeti Madam wanting to wax down there, but now she needed to flee. She left with Rashmididi, who cradled her child close and launched into a tale of the mad man newly arrived on the third floor. He had lost his wife and children in a rickshaw accident and now cursed all infants in the chawl with his evil eye.  Arti had heard a version of this in reference to an earlier tenant – except in that rendition, the wife had run away, taking the children with her. Everything was recycled here, including the stories. Pausing in the doorway of her own room, Rashmididi eyed Arti speculatively. ‘When Vipul came in something happened to you. You should be careful. This job of yours, and learning English from a man ... people will start getting ideas about you. You have to think about your future.’

 

The future, thought Arti as she made her way upstairs, was indeed the problem. That night, she dragged her mattress to the cooking area, away from the quiescence of her father, the laments of her mother, and her brother’s injured snores, and lay awake for hours, finding patterns in the mould on the ceiling, and occasionally muttering the obscenities favoured by the boys in the building. ‘Behenchod, Madarchod.’ Said fast enough, they had a curiously calming effect.

 

The next day she went to work as usual, listening to music on her earphones while sitting in the bus in an effort to block out images of Vipul’s meeting with Teacherji. But her stomach was clenched in foreboding and proved an accurate barometer for the day's proceedings. Not long after she had reached the parlour, the difficult client of the previous day burst in, holding aloft a reddened pinkie. She walked over to Arti, who was tending to someone’s feet, and started shouting. ‘Look at this! It’s got infected. I am in so much pain. I knew you didn’t sterilise properly. I’m going to tell all my friends to never come here.’ Arti’s lady immediately took her feet out of the basin of warm water where they lay awaiting the tools that were potentially laden with germs.

 

Arti protested her innocence, but grovelled sufficiently for the irate client to depart, at which point the manageress took her aside. ‘Maybe she did something else to her finger and is just blaming you, but you have to watch it. Some of the other girls are saying you think you’re too good for your work. You better do your job properly or I’ll give Preeti Madam’s work to someone else.’

 

During her lunch break, she called Teacherji to tell him she wouldn’t be able to come for her lesson as she was feeling unwell. He volunteered the information she had been dreading. ‘Your friend came this morning to see me. Nice boy.’ She wanted to ask him if they had discussed her, and in what terms. Had Teacherji pointed out the mattress and said that’s where much of her education took place? How could she have been so stupid? (‘Stupid girl, stupid girl’). Why hadn’t she cried foul the first time it happened? Why had she gone back?

 

When she came into the chawl compound that evening, she saw Rashmididi on the first floor corridor, pointing out some birds to her son. Arti was about to wave, but Rashmididi glanced down at her and turned away. Arti felt the clamminess creep up her back and under her arms. She ran straight up to her place, keeping her head down and weaving through the many people standing outside their rooms. Through the barred window of her kholi she saw her mother’s tired face, creased in concentration as she sewed a button onto a shirt. Her father held a newspaper on his lap, but his eyes were fixed on the wall. Arti stood just inside the door of the kholi and called Teacherji again. ‘What did you say to Vipul?’ she hissed. ‘Look, my wife is suspicious,’ he said. ‘When your friend came to talk to me, she told him that you weren’t very good at learning English, but you were very good in matters of love. But don’t worry. If he says anything just tell him it was a joke.’

 

It was indeed a joke. On her. By tomorrow everyone would know, or at least have grounds for speculation. She had to leave the chawl, leave her parents and brother to the shame that would perhaps be more bearable if she weren’t around. A couple of years ago, when her brother had taken to beating her randomly, she had looked into the possibility of shifting to a women’s hostel, but the cost had been out of her reach. It still was.

 

Arti woke up early the next morning and bribed a younger girl to let her take the girl’s advanced position in the morning queue for the bathroom. To linger in the chawl was unthinkable. She put on a yellow tank top from the collection of Preeti Madam's hand-me-downs underneath her parlour uniform.  Perhaps this connection to worlds outside her own, worlds with possibilities, would help her determine a course of action.

 

The chawl was teeming with morning rituals, and the smell of the toilets mingled with the fragrance of lunches cooked and waiting to be packed for impatient husbands and school-going children. Arti ran down the stairs, smiling perfunctorily at neighbours who called out to her, hoping that the few curious stares she got were merely due to her unusual haste. As she stood at the crowded bus stop, she saw Vipul in the distance, walking towards her. He didn’t normally take a bus from this stop, so why was he coming here? As he came closer, eyes clearly on her, she saw a smirk on his face she could only interpret in one way. A bus came along and she got on in a panic, unmindful of the fact that it was the wrong one.

 

Several bus changes later, she reached the parlour and was shouted at for being late. Fortunately, Preeti Madam’s appointment was in the afternoon and Arti held on to the promise of a short respite in her flat like a talisman as she massaged bunions and threaded upper lips. Perhaps she could talk to Madam about her plight.

 

Arti reached Preeti Madam’s flat at the appointed hour of 2 pm, but was told to wait in a little anteroom as Madam was doing an exercise class in the gym room. At 2:15, Arti went into the kitchen to ask one of the maids to check on the situation but could see no one around. She knew that the servants napped in the afternoon but there were usually at least two on hand in case Preeti Madam should need anything. It was a sprawling duplex flat, and Arti had only seen Preeti Madam’s bedroom on the upper floor and the kitchen on the lower, but now did a surreptitious tour of some of the rooms on the lower level. She could always say that she needed to find one of the servants to tell them she was getting late.

 

When she saw Preeti Madam in a clinch with a man through a door left ajar, she thought that the husband must have returned unexpectedly, and she turned away and hurried back to her perch in the anteroom. A maid came to call her a few minutes later, and Arti told her that she could come back another time if Madam was busy with Sir. ‘Who told you Sir was here?’ asked the maid belligerently. ‘There’s only the exercise teacher. Now hurry up. Madam is waiting.’

 

Arti went upstairs to Preeti Madam’s room, her head reeling. She set about completing her tasks mechanically, and later, as she was packing away the manicure set and Preeti Madam was sitting in an easy chair with her head back and her fingers splayed in front of her, she said abruptly, ‘Madam, I want little help please.’ Arti started in English, but the look of resigned wariness that came over Preeti Madam’s face prompted her to switch to a language that placed her on equal linguistic terms. ‘I need money.’ Madam’s eyebrows rose at the peremptory tone but Arti pushed on. ‘I can’t stay with my parents any more. It has become too difficult. I will have to stay in a hostel but I need money for the rent. Could you help me?’

 

Preeti Madam replied in Hindi, ‘I can give you a little bit, but not some big amount Arti. I don’t even know you well, it’s not like you work for me and...’

 

Arti cut her off by saying, simply, ‘I saw you. With the exercise teacher.’

 

Preeti Madam looked at her, then examined her freshly painted nails. She told Arti to wait outside the room and came out a few minutes later holding a wad of 500 rupee notes that she held out wordlessly. Arti took it, but waited. Preeti Madam remained expressionless but returned to the room and came out with some more notes.

 

‘I am giving this money to you from compassion,’ she said. ‘But I won’t be needing you anymore. You can leave now.’

 

Arti thrust the notes into the capacious pockets of her uniform, picked up her bags without looking at Preeti Madam and made her way out of the flat. ‘Wat a byootiful girl,’ she whispered to herself as she headed down in the lift. And before she reached the ground floor, she undid a couple of buttons in her uniform to let the tank top show.

 

*


Kamalakshi Mehta grew up in Bombay and did her BA and MA degrees in the US. She worked as an Equities Reporter with Reuters in New York before moving to London, where she was Deputy Editor and then editor of World Link, the former magazine of the World Economic Forum. After the birth of her children, she has worked on a number of freelance writing projects and is also involved in various charitable concerns promoting the education of girls.