The Maid by Dion D’Souza

My mistress’ eyes are like a hawk’s. She’s watching me all the time. I can feel her eyes on my back when I’m swabbing the floor, sweeping, slicing up vegetables. Mopping my forehead with the end of my sari, I can see her reflection in the steel top of the cooking range. Well, you can’t blame her for being suspicious; I’ve only just started working here. It’s been, what, two-three weeks? Her previous bai’s home was razed – slum redevelopment or whatever it is they call it. She got accommodation somewhere on the outskirts of the city – Naigaon or Vasai or some such place. Meanwhile, I’ve picked up a couple of her jobs. It’s not like I live nearby either. I have to take a bus, but the money’s good and worth the extra effort.


My husband’s a good man. He works as a parking attendant at a shopping mall, doesn’t drink, is kind to me, and we’ve recently paid up the loan he’d taken from one of his friends to purchase a small fridge – so that’s a huge relief. My mother-in-law’s gone back to Kerala – now that’s another relief. She’s ok as far as mother-in-laws are concerned, I guess, just that she wanted her morning coffee on time, lunch at so-and-so time, and so also with dinner and lights out at night. It’s good her strict punctuality extended to the date of her departure.


‘Sarita,’ my mistress calls, ‘I’ve kept spring onions. Can you stir-fry them with the paneer – Chinese style? I’ll show you how to.’


Lady, I’ll stir-fry them any style you want: Chinish, Japanish, Badtameez. Yea, my mistress is also ok enough. I mean, I’ve seen worse. Stingy bitches who think they’ve changed your life by giving you torn or terribly faded saris or a hundred-rupee festival bonus. I mean, seriously. Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we don’t have self-respect. And if it’s not the madams it’s the sahibs. One middle-aged man’s lecherous looks nearly necessitated the intervention of my husband. And his wife insisted that I was the one making advances! Can you believe some people?


I examine myself in the stainless steel surface. I’m short, slightly stout around the waist (that happened after the birth of my son; I was in labour for an agonising six hours!). I wear my hair in a neat tight bun, a garland of fragrant flowers wound about it. My skin is brown, my sari a light green. I’m no gorgeous beauty queen. Does my husband find me attractive? Sometimes I wonder what it is men see in us, the ordinary ones. I mean, as compared to the Aishwaryas, the Madhuris, the Madhu Balas. The coy smile, the laughter. A shadow perhaps, a faint glimmer of the beauty of these larger-than-life stars? Munching on peanuts one evening, the neighbour’s girl – in her twenties – told me it’s all make-believe, their glamorous looks, those flush cheeks, lustrous pouting lips, perfectly slim bodies, flowing hair … they do it on computers or something … it’s all a lie … these girls aren’t really that beautiful – it’s makeup and ‘special effects’. I laughed and said maybe it was. And then she fell silent when I asked her whom she was constantly and secretly chatting with on her mobile phone.


Of course it’s make-believe, a necessary illusion; the bond of marriage, my sense of duty towards my husband. And yet the care and concern we have for each other, the intimacy we share all grew out of it. Didn’t it? At least I think so. It may be different for different people. Different for those who fall madly and passionately in love and whose marriages are not fixed by a well-meaning relative when they are nineteen.




When I’m walking out of the large flat with its rambling passages, huge windows that yawn from floor to ceiling with their dizzying fifteenth-floor view, I pass the fruit basket lying on the table in the centre of the living room. The living room is designed like a museum of sorts, crammed full with all sorts of knick-knacks and solid, heavy-looking furniture. Antique pieces, as we like to say. There are paintings on the wall, the side table has paws like a tiger’s, there’s a furry rug, glass beads twinkle in the chandelier…. The wicker basket contains an assortment of fruit: smooth, plastic, shiny. There’s a banana, a pear, a spiky pineapple, an orange, grapes bursting with juice, but the one that never fails to catch my eye is a big luscious red apple. I don’t know why. It’s not that I’m particularly fond of the fruit. It’s not like we have a lot of fruits, some chikoo sometimes, bananas of course and maybe grapes, boras and carambola with salt when I’m in the mood for something zesty and tangy. So, it’s really quite surprising that I should be taken with this apple.


The curtain rustles behind me. My mistress is close. ‘Achcha, listen, Sarita. Can you come a little early tomorrow? I have to go out and I’d like you to finish work before I leave.’


‘No problem, madam,’ I say, in halting English, mopping my face. ‘What time you want that I should come? Nine-thirty?’


‘That should be fine.’




I arrive promptly at nine-thirty and set to work. It’s something important that’s keeping the mistress on her toes; the phones, landline, mobile, keep ringing and she keeps rushing from one to the other, from one room to another, as if yanked by invisible cords. The chirpiness in her voice remains intact though: the long hiiiiiis and helloooos, the extended laughter. I pick up a word or two I can make sense of as I scuttle about, mop in hand, swinging the bucket around the many obstacles the room is furnished with: booking, everything ready, fantastic…. I don’t need to cook so that’s time saved for me. She volunteers a little information when her ear isn’t stuck to a receiver. It’s some get-together with a bunch of old friends from her college days, etc. They’d been planning this for years and finally it’s happened; they’re all in the city at the same time. She is in charge of making the arrangements so of course she has to get there early; she still doesn’t know why she agreed to play organiser! Naturally there is to be a stop at the parlour before the late lunch (which is why I had been summoned to work earlier than usual): she has to look her best. She giggles anxiously: God knew how they had all turned out, how kind or unkind time had been to each of them. Well, she says, she will soon find out.


I nod solemnly through all this, unable to understand what the fuss is all about. But then, I had no chums from youth to be reunited with. My education hadn’t extended beyond primary school and after that there were chores aplenty at home. I remember in my adolescence running along the riverbank, sitting in the shade of a mango tree, sucking on a ripe fruit if it was the right season. I had one close friend. Rekha she was called, from the house next door; together we would go scampering about when we could, our flowery skirts dragging about our ankles. I remember how one day when we were playing we had found – she or I, I don’t remember who – a fake pearl necklace. It was the most fascinating thing we had seen in our lives! Discarded like that, not far from the marketplace. We fought over it for hours, chased and even hit one another, until finally, running out of patience and flying into a rage, I flung it into the river. Dear Rekha: she was my best friend. I hope now that time is being charitable to her wherever she is.




The master bedroom door is ajar. Through the crack I can see the mistress as a vague shape, lifting one dress after another out of the cupboard and sending it flying upon the bed; it seems to me, standing outside and waiting to take my leave, like some sort of strange performance.


‘Medum,’ I call. ‘I going.’


‘Haan, haan, Sarita. Ok.’


From where I am, in the centre of the living room, she can’t see me. I pause for a moment, unsure, and then in a flash, moving as if I had planned this theft all the while, I pick up the fruit and shove it into the plastic bag I’m carrying. It’s the apple of course, too red after all for me to resist, rattling now with some stuff another woman’s given me, discarded makeup, a box of half-spoiled sweets. I’ll ask the neighbour’s girl if she wants the makeup, a little something to impress her secret friend when she meets him.




The neighbour’s girl is eyeing me suspiciously. I can feel her gaze on me as I stand before the mirror, drying my hair with a cloth, my son crawling close by, black dot prominent on his forehead, babbling to himself as he tosses about wooden building blocks. At first I think it’s nothing more than harmless curiosity: I’m in an ordinary nightie, my head tilted sideways so that my hair falls freely and I can wipe bunches of it. But then, watching her reflection in the far right corner of the mirror hung on the wall before me, crouched like a small nervous animal, ostensibly playing with my son, I realise that those darting looks out of the corners of her eyes are prompted by more complicated emotions: envy and befuddlement.


‘What is it?’ I say.


There is a long pause. Then she says, hesitatingly, ‘Didi, don’t mind my saying this, but you’ve changed….’


‘I’ve changed?’ I ask, spinning round, astonished. ‘What do you mean?’


‘Everything about you … I was just looking … I’ve noticed these small-small differences in you over the past few days. Someone else may not even notice. But I, as your next door neighbour who knows you for so long and almost like your sister… I’ve noticed….’


‘Well, you’ve always been a sharp one,’ I say, bending down and scooping my child off the floor. A brightly coloured block falls out of his hand and lands with a soft clunk. Meanwhile, the girl continues to scrutinise me in the light of the single tubelight.


‘You think I’m talking nonsense?’


I couldn’t tell from her tone if this was a rhetorical question.


‘Changed? But how do you mean?’


‘I don’t know … everything about your appearance…’


‘For better or worse?’ I ask, rocking my son in my arms.


‘Your skin is so … so radiant, so much more glowing and full of life, full of happiness. Soft looking. And your figure also, you’ve lost just the right amount of weight. After having baba you had become quite plump, but now all that extra weight has gone and you’re looking better even than before marriage when you came here … slim and sexy…’ She breaks off and laughs a little, to conceal her embarrassment, then adds, ‘And your hair also … just now when you were drying it … so thick and lustrous … it’s like somebody has done on you ... I don’t know ... special effects...’


‘You’ve gone mad,’ I say and pull my son’s pinching fingers off my face. He lets out a loud yelp and then starts whining.


‘He’s hungry,’ the girl says, getting up reluctantly. ‘You don’t believe me, but I told you what I felt…’ Her eyes are lowered; twisting her dupatta between her fingers, she says good night and leaves abruptly.




At first I dismiss the girl’s remarks as silliness, but then I begin to notice how more and more people are acting strange around me. My husband, the one who naturally should be the most perceptive to the slightest alteration in my appearance, makes no overt comment about any change in me. After the birth of our child, he had become a little preoccupied with work and earning more to secure a better future for the family, but now all of a sudden, over the past few days, I’ve sensed a change in his attitude toward me. He returns promptly after his shift, there’s little presents for me now and then – nothing special, flowers for my hair, glass bangles, chocolates I like, jamuns and carambola – and he’s more attentive and caring in general. Probably, as the girl put it, this transformation occurred subtly, gradually. I can’t help but be flattered by his renewed attentions.


Then I find the hawk’s eyes trained on me, her gaze sharp, probing, discerning something fishy, something amiss, but in the end, not entirely certain if her suspicions have any foundation. Her gaze prickles all the more, because I’m not sure if she’s linked me to the stolen plastic fruit. And then there are the men, doing double takes in the streets, ogling openly – one distracted delivery boy nearly rode his cycle into a vegetable vendor’s stall the other day! Their behaviour has started to disconcert me.




It’s past eleven and I’m full of worry. I look at my son, bundled up on the mattress, thumb in his mouth, peacefully asleep and I wonder where my husband could have disappeared. He’s never been this late before, at least not without having informed me. I try his cell phone but I can’t get through. I’m starting to panic. I can’t leave my son behind and go looking for my husband, and even if I could leave the house, where would I go in search of him? Finally, leaving the door open a crack, I go to the neighbours’. The girl comes to the door; I tell her what’s happened and her father puts on a shirt and rushes out.


‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, dear,’ he reassures me. ‘It’s the last day of the month, he must have gone out for a little while.’


‘But where?’ He would have told me.


‘Don’t worry, I’ll go check around.’


The girl offers to wait with me but I tell her it’s not necessary. As I re-enter my house, I realise I am preparing myself for the worst.


My son is sleeping in the dark; the thin sheet tucked about him rises and falls gently with his breath. I watch his tiny face, the hair falling in curling strands on his ears and cheek.


The old man returns, breathless and embarrassed. He’d taken the shortcut past the garbage heap outside our gulley and bumped into one of the youth from the slum, who told him a brawl had broken out at the country liquor bar; my husband was involved; the cops had been called.


My husband, who never touches alcohol, had accompanied a few friends. After several drinks, one of the men had passed some lewd remarks about me; the others had joined in or laughed. The remarks got worse. A scuffle broke out. It seems my husband had flown into a rage. Furniture was upset, there was blood. The police came; someone refused to cooperate, turned on a constable. The whole group was taken away. Some of the other men’s people had come, appealed. But the cops were adamant; they had set their hearts on a fixed sum of money.


I don’t know where I’ll get the cash from; we’re fresh out of one debt. With a breaking heart, I realise I might have to break into our savings. I don’t have much gold, not much of an option. I may have to approach one of the ladies I work for.


I leave the financial side of it for daylight, my head will be clearer then. There’s something heavy upon my heart meanwhile, an oppressive regret. I’m thinking about how it all started and how I need to put to an end to it. The magic will wear off as gradually as it set in. I’ll wake up one day and go back to being ordinary, every eye-catching sharpness, every accentuation in my features wearing off with each passing day like old skin shed unnoticed.


Standing before the mirror in the faint light coming in through the gap in the windowpanes, I polish the plastic fruit with my nightie and turn it round in my hands. Using tongs I hold the apple over the flame. It wrinkles slowly and horribly, turns black, shrinks. The stench is pungent, unbearable, worse than the smell of rotting flesh. I release the window latch. One hand covering my nose with my nightie, I toss the apple out of the house and into the night.



Dion D’Souza works as an editor. Alongside, he writes verse and short fiction. His work has appeared in Kavya Bharati, Nether, One Forty Fiction, Helter Skelter, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Muse India, The Bangalore Review, The Big Bridge Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry and Vayavya. He was shortlisted for the Toto Funds the Arts Creative Writing Prize in 2013 and the Raedleaf India Poetry Award in 2014.