by Devika Kumar
Thin and undernourished, Saoli dragged herself to work in the colony every morning. She was one of the team that swept the roads and gutters, cleaned out houses and toilets, employed by a perfectly eccentric Secretary of the RWA of Hetram Colony. He would offer, as a privilege to the sweeping staff, their turn to clean his house free of cost. Free for him!
Saoli came with her scrawny three year old daughter and an infant son. A tattered and faded sari was hung from a low branch of a tree with scanty leaves. The baby was deposited in it and the girl set to swing it till the baby fell asleep. Then she sat on a stone bench near the tree to shoo away flies, inquisitive birds, dogs and even monkeys. The ground was adjacent to the house of an old couple whose children were now away from home, working in different cities.
“Will you give me some water for my baby, memsahib?” said a voice through the window. Memsahib was Mrs Johri, wife of a retired army officer. She gave her water and, in her usual inconsequential way, drifted outside to look at the baby. It was fretful and a touch revealed that it had fever.
“What is your name?” asked Mrs Johri.
“How long have you worked here?”
“Six months, I think.”
“Hmm. You have relatives working here?”
“My husband, memsahib. Jugal.”
“Where is he? Your baby has fever. Take him to a doctor.”
“Husband is not here. He’s at home. And I don’t have money for a doctor.”
First things first, decided Mrs Johri, making up her mind quickly.
“I’ll give you a parchi (note) for the doctor. He’ll see your child and give medicine.”
The parchi was written out and Saoli went with her baby, her daughter trailing after her, chewing a biscuit given by memsahib. The doctor gave her some drops for the infant.
The next morning a voice called Mrs Johri to the window.
“Memsahib, my child is well. Will you see him?”
Mrs Johri came out with some biscuits and a little bottle with milk.
“Give this to your baby. What’s his name? And your little girl’s? ”
“Bhuria. And she is Gori.”
“What happened to your face?”
Saoli smiled, a lop-sided smile, her face decorated with blue-black and purple lumps. The matter-of-fact reply was, “Jugal. He thought I spent money for the doctor. He takes my wages every day for his daaru.”
“And how do you eat?”
“Sometimes we eat. Sometimes we don’t.”
Mrs Johri fumed and went back inside. It became a daily chat with Saoli. Her baby son swung under the tree and Gori ate a few biscuits. There was
a cup of milk for each of the two and tea for Saoli. A little bottle of oil followed. The next morning, Bhuria had been given an oil bath and Gori’s hair was oiled and plaited.
“Why do you allow Jugal to beat you or give him all the money you earn, Saoli?”
“What else can I do, memsahib?”
“Put some in a post office if you can or somewhere he won’t find it.”
“Won’t the gods be angry if I hide it from him?”
“Nonsense! Gods are angry with him for beating you and taking away your money. You could have fed Bhuria and Gori. Maybe you can even send them to school later.”
“Why do you say gods will be angry with him?”
“You pray to Mata Rani for Navratri, don’t you? How many hands does she have? And what does she do with them?”
“She kills a demon with all her eighteen hands!”
“Well, aren’t we like her? Why should you not kill a demon too?”
“Arre, memsahib! My Jugal is not a demon!”
“Of course not!” said Mrs Johri and Saoli nodded sagely, quite unaware of the sarcasm. “But he can be possessed by the demons, can’t he?”
This was something Saoli knew all about.
“Oh, memsahib, in my village there was a boy who was possessed by a terrible demon and they beat it right out of him!”
Mrs Johri went in with the remains of the food, quietly leaving the thought to find its rich soil and grow.
For three days there was no sign of Saoli and her children. On the fourth day she was back. The baby’s cradle swung under the tree and Gori sat waiting on the bench for her biscuit and milk. Saoli stood at the door, smiling.
“Arre, Saoli, Namaste! You look so happy! I got worried when I didn’t see you for three days. Is everything okay?”
“Yes, memsahib. I threw out the demon!”
“He came home drunk as usual, so it was easy. I tied him to the charpay (a bed, usually woven with rope on a wooden frame) and stuffed his angocha (a scarf used as a towel by villagers) into his mouth. Then I took a jhadoo (broom) and beat him till the demon went right out! He gave me these bangles! Aren’t they nice?”
“They are really good,” smiled Mrs Johri.
“I have told him the goddess will return if he touches daaru (liquor) again. He’s on duty on the other lane, memsahib!”
Mrs Johri came in and did a happy little jig in the drawing room. “Thank you, Ma!” she told her little deity. “You taught her to fight the demon!” ***