Her Treasured Secret

Short Story - By Eva Bell

Ritu slumped in her armchair, resting her weary legs on a foot stool. In her hand was a tall glass of Bacardi Coke, and she sipped on it, savouring the ice cold drink as it trickled down her parched throat. “How nice it is just to relax and enjoy my own company!” she thought. “I should seriously think of retiring. Now that I’ve achieved all that I set out to do I can afford to call it a day.”

With the help of her maid she had put away most of her precious possessions. Her clothes were neatly stacked in cupboards, with moth balls generously scattered on every shelf. The house looked almost bare except for the few pictures on the walls. She was no connoisseur of Art, but someone had mentioned that they were a good investment. Paintings of Goddesses exuding sensuality, reproductions of titillating carvings of Belur and Halebid! Anyone entering her house could tell at a glance what her profession was.“I’m finally on holiday – the very first one in my life. Don’t know for how long, but there’s no hurry to get back.”

Ritu’s excitement was tinged with nervousness too. Though she had travelled to a few places in India on her assignments, going abroad was something new. She hoped she wouldn’t draw attention to herself by committing embarrassing blunders.

“In a way, my life is a success story of sorts. Most people wouldn’t condone the route I’ve taken. But those who criticize may have never experienced the pain and desperation I’ve been through. I’ve harmed nobody. Perhaps I’ve even brought happiness to some lonely lives. They say ‘God helps those who help themselves’ and He has surely helped me.”

She had a few hours more before she could head for the airport. Her ticket to Australia and back, her foreign exchange and other documents had been safely tucked into a roomy brown handbag. She knew she would look dapper in her sober brown pant suit, and comfortable shoes to match.“No one will ever suspect who I am,” she giggled.But then, a wave of emotion swept over her and she burst into tears.“No, I’m really not proud of who I am. Just a cheap hussy capitalizing on Man’s lust! And no matter how I look, I’ll have to carry that shame to my grave.”

Ritu was married at seventeen, even before she could pass her matriculation. Naraynan was a teacher in a government school, and they made a pretty couple. “Such a caring, loving husband! He taught me what marriage was all about. My Naraynan was tender in his love making, and always put my needs before his own. ‘We must live together in such a way that we feel secure in each other’s love’ he used to say.”

With the arrival of their daughter Gita, their happiness was complete.“A daughter changes the emotional tone of the home,” he said, “She is such a beautiful baby.”

But two years later, tragedy struck this family. Naraynan lost interest in everything around him. He withdrew into himself, excluding Ritu and the baby from his thoughts. He was lethargic most of the time either curling up in bed or staring vacuously into space. He soon lost his job, and the little savings that they had was used up. People said he was possessed, and many mantras and pujas followed. There was nopsychiatrist anywhere in their district.

Ritu tended him as best she could. But with no money coming in she had to find a way to keep the home fires burning.“I would beg food from the neighbours, but there was a limit to their generosity. Hunger and desperation drove me to the streets. I would slip out at night when my husband and daughter were asleep, and return hours later, with a measly twenty rupees in my hand.”

Naraynan was growing increasingly insane. He would throw off his clothing and wander naked through the streets, muttering to himself. Urchins pelted him with stones and called him names.“When the neighbours came to know of my nocturnal activities, they drove us both out of the village.”

Ritu had to find help. If she could find somewhere to leave husband and child, she could go looking for a job. Naraynan was attracting too much attention. At the nexttemple they passed, she left him muttering on the steps. There was no one around. She prostrated before the idol inside.“Swami, let the priest look kindly on my husband and give him shelter.”

With Gita on her hips and a small bundle of her possessions on her head, she kept walking until she could walk no further. She came to the edge of a small town.“I am ready to drop down dead, and must find a place of rest. This child too keeps whimpering nonstop. If only I could find some poison for both of us! That’s the best way to end it all.”

They were both exhausted, and fell asleep on the vacant verandah of a house, the child in the circle of her arms. Sometime later, she woke up to see an old man staring down at her. He was dressed in a clean white shirt and mundu, with a white shawl draped over his shoulder. There was a sandal wood paste mark on his forehead, and his hair was pulled back into a top knot.

“Don’t be afraid my child. I’ve been watching you from my dispensary opposite. You seem to be in some kind of trouble. Come with me. I live only a few yards away. I am an Ayurvedic Pundit. Come…..” he said.

After a hearty meal which the pundit’s wife served, Ritu poured out her story“I feel guilty that I have abandoned my helpless husband. I wonder if the temple priest will give him some food and let him stay.”“Don’t worry. Sooner or later some one will take him to an institution for mental patients where he will be cared for. But what are your plans?”“Ayya, Amma, would you be so kind as to keep my child with you until I find a job and a place to stay?”The couple readily agreed.“We live alone and we have no children or grandchildren. You have nothing to fear. She will be well cared for. We will love her as our own.”

Thanking them a thousand times, Ritu stepped out of house when Gita was asleep. It was a heart rending moment. But the old couple seemed good people.

She finally found a job washing dishes at a roadside restaurant. It was on the National Highway where truck drivers stopped for a meal and some rest. From washing dishes she soon graduated to the position of resident prostitute.“It’s only a job,” she told herself, “No strings attached.”

She was just twenty, and with three square meals in her belly, her body began to fill out in the right places. Ritu earned a tidy sum. She retained a small portion for herself, and sent the rest to the pundit and his wife.“I cannot come personally as my employer will not give me leave,” she bluffed.“Gita is growing up well and is a healthy child,” the pundit wrote. “We are looking after her like our own. She has brought sunshine into our old lives. You don’t have to worry.”

It was five years before Ritu summoned the courage to visit her daughter. She was sure that the pundit would see through her and despise her for the profession she had chosen. She had learnt the wiles and cunning of her trade. But the richer she grew the more her self- loathing.

The manager of a Dance Bar in Bombay stopped at the restaurant for a meal one day. He could spot a good bargain when he saw one.“You’re meant for greater things than this roadside dump,” he said, “If you know how to wiggle your body, you can join my dance bar.”“But I don’t know how to dance. I’ve only learnt a few movements by watching TV,” Ritu said.“That will do for a start. Go pack your bags while I talk to the Manager.”“I cannot come immediately. There is something I have to do before I leave.”“The sooner you come the better,” he said, handing her his card.

Ritu arrived at the pundit’s dispensary at noon the next day.“I am going away to Bombay for a better job. Before I go I’d like to see Gita.”“By all means. But will you be able to answer her many questions? Will you have the courage to tell her what occupation you are engaged in? I have told her that you a clerk in a government office. Someday she will have to know the truth.”“Not yet,” begged Ritu, “Maybe when she is older. I’m doing this so that I can give her a better future. A good education will take her a long way.”

Ritu’s heart missed a beat when a school girl in a blue pinafore approached. She was tall for her seven years, and looked happy. Her hair was plaited in two strands, with ribbons to match her uniform. It took all of Ritu’s will power to refrain from throwing her arms around the girl.“Ajja,” she said, embracing the pundit, “You know what happened in school today….? Come let’s go home. I want Ajji also to hear.”Ritu quietly slipped away, tears in her eyes.

Bombay was a place of immense possibilities. As work in the dance bar began only in the evenings, Ritu had time to take lessons in dancing. She wanted to perfect her numbers. Her eyes were set on the Film industry, where she knew the pickings would be better.“When I have earned enough I will have a decent apartment, and then Gita can come to stay with me.” This was her dream. “I’ll make up for all the years we’ve spent apart. I’ll tell her the story of my life, and I hope she’ll understand.”

Years went by. Gita had passed her SSLC with distinction. The pundit and his wife were the only relations she knew. They were her Ajja and Ajji. They rejoiced in all her achievements, and encouraged her to study further.“You must be able to stand on your own feet before we die. A good education will help you find a good job. But even after we die there is someone who will take care of you. You must meet her soon.”

Ritu was excited as she planned a special trip to meet her daughter. She had come loaded with presents for all of them.“Today I’ll introduce myself to her as her mother. If she’s willing to come and stay with me she’ll lack nothing.”

Gita looked forward to meeting her benefactress. She had been told that they were able to live a comfortable life and also send her to the best of schools only because of the lady’s generosity. While Ajji prepared the soft fluffy vadais, Gita ground the chutney on the old grinding stone. There was rich carrot halwa too, and Ajja had plucked a fresh bunch of bananas from their tree.

Ritu arrived from the station in a taxi, and the couple rushed out to greet her. As they settled down to tea, Ritu nervously asked “Where is she?”Gita had worn her best salwar kameez, and had stuck a strand of jasmine in her hair. As she came through the door head bowed, Ritu smiled.

“How much she resembles her father! How proud he would have been if he were sane and still alive!”“Gita come and greet this lady,” Pundit called, “She is your long lost mother.”

Gita looked up into Ritu’s eyes and her face contorted in pain.“No – No, she cannot be my mother. I’ve seen her face in the newspapers several times. She is the Item Girl who has been booked for obscenity several times. Oh yes! I’ve seen her photographs – half clad, immodest, gesturing shamelessly at the men around her. She’s a liar. She’s not my mother.”

It was the cry of an injured animal. She dashed out of the door. Ritu burst into tears.“She hates me and I can’t blame her. My life is nothing to be proud of. I can understand her shock at discovering that her mother is a common whore.”She went out to the waiting taxi, wiping her tears.“I will never come back again. It was sheer fantasy to expect her to welcome me with open arms. When I abdicated my responsibility as a mother, I took the risk of losing her.”

On a rebound, Ritu threw herself into work. Her sensuous performances made her very popular with the crowds. Now she could name her price for each stage show. Though the charges were steep, people were ready to hire her.

Rita moved into a fashionable neighbourhood. Her apartment was done up by an expensive interior decorator. People who had previously snubbed her now doffed their caps when she drove past in her maroon Innova.“Money speaks,” she thought, “And money brings power. All other shortcomings are condoned or forgotten. Even the bloody policemen who harassed and fleeced me for so many years are now ready to bow and scrape.”

But for all her wealth, she had never felt lonelier. All her maternal yearnings craved for the girl who had spurned her like so much garbage. She recalled the loathing in Gita’s eyes when she was introduced as her mother. If there was such a thing as a broken heart it had happened then. “Even if they do mend,” she thought, “The keloids they leave behind are ugly.”

The pundit and his wife were both dead, and Ritu lost even that tenuous connection with her daughter.“And so I went on living, pretending not to care but dying a little bit every day. Would I ever see her again? Would she never forgive me?”

Ritu was nearing fifty. Most people would say, “Too old to be an Item girl.” But she had preserved her figure through rigorous workouts and diets. She was confident that she could still beat the newcomers.

Even so, in the last one year the thought of retiring had crossed her mind.“Why do I have to kill myself by working so hard? When I retire I have enough to live comfortably, thanks to my sound investments. I’ve come a long way from street prostitute to bar dancer to Item Girl. I’ve earned my rest.”

There had even been a few proposals in her lifetime. Some were good men who wanted to make an honest woman out of her. But the majority were undesirables out to exploit her and feast on her money. She had turned them all down. Deep in her heart she hoped that Gita would return to her one day.

And then last month, a letter had arrived from Australia. Turning the letter over and over, Rita wondered, “From whom can this be? No one ever writes to me – and that too from a foreign country.”

She tore it open, searching for the name of the sender.“Gita! Oh my goodness! Does she want to inflict new wounds by lashing out at me?”

She sat down abruptly as her legs had begun to tremble.“Mother,” she wrote, “It feels strange to call you Mother. I’ve been so judgemental. Put it down to my naiveté. Before Ajja died, he told me the story of your life. I know the reason why you kept your distance. You wanted to spare me the stigma of being your daughter. Even so, it has taken a very long time to write this letter to you. I am truly sorry and beg your forgiveness.

I will soon be getting a good job, and I want to make Australia my home.

Would you consider relocating to this country, and leaving your past behind? We could still have many happy years together, and I promise to look after you.”

After the initial shock it was time for jubilation.“My daughter has finally called me Mother. I must go at once and meet her. What a wonderful reunion that will be!”

She went about, secretly making her plans to go. No one even knew that she had a daughter. But relocating to Australia – that was a different question. She would first have to see if Gita and she could really hit it off.

Rita was shaken out of her long reverie by the door bell.“Who the hell…” she thought, “And that too so late. The guy seems to be leaning on the call bell. What can be so urgent?”She flung open the door, ready to yell at whoever was there. Light bulbs flashed in her face and all around her, and a news hound tried to push himself in.

“Get out,” she said, giving him a shove, “What on earth is all this? Could the news have spread already? Oh these terrible reporters. Always barging into other people’s lives. I’ll be gone in a few hours. Who cares what they write? I’ve been in the papers before for all the wrong reasons.”

The morning newspapers carried Ritu’s photo with the caption

“ITEM GIRL DREAMS BIG – DAUGHTER A COMPUTER ENGINEER IN AUSTRALIA.”“Clever sleuth unearths one of the best kept secrets………….”

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