Leaving the office with my briefcase and portfolio, I got into my old Nissan and drove toward the estates in Pasadena. The appointment was at 9:30 AM.
I drove through the hills beyond Rose Bowl, overlooking the country club, where all the ‘old money’ lived. My boss Mr. Chen, the owner of Yin & Yang Designs had told me our new clients were Indian, and preferred an Indian designer for decorating their new home. The lady spoke no English.
“Better not mess this one up,” Mr. Chen had said.
I wish he had told me about the meeting yesterday so I could have dressed in an Indian outfit to better impress the client. I looked at my beige blouse and black skirt in dismay. I’d neglected to wear pantyhose for it was forecasted to be a hot day, and hoped the clients wouldn’t be too traditional.
Mr. Chen had hired me just for providing service to the occasional Indian client in a Chinese-American dominated neighborhood of San Gabriel Valley, but I had the least experience on field. I’d worked on the projects with other designers, but was yet to get a client on my own.
My career depended on this meeting…
Parking my car a block from the estate, I picked up my portfolio filled with designs and ideas for ‘Ethnically Oriented Interior Decorations’ that Yin & Yang boasted, and walked up the winding driveway.
An English butler opened the door and told me to wait in the morning room. The ‘mistress’ was a little late.
I looked at the beautiful home, bereft of professional decorating, but elegant nonetheless. The family room and formal living rooms still had a few unopened cardboard boxes. A spiral staircase led to an upper level, and from the room I was to wait in, I could see the hallway, in which stood an impressive oak table cluttered with old photographs, with an empty box beside it.
Unable to resist, I walked to the table and started looking at the black-and-white pictures, my professional mind already dreaming up beautiful oxidized silver frames which would show off their pristine beauty.
My eyes went to framed newspaper clipping dated seven years ago, about a rags-to-riches story of an entrepreneur who had made it big with his Indian pre-cooked frozen foods. The frozen food packets, initially launched for paying-guests and hostel-dwellers in Mumbai were now being exported to the United States.
I was familiar with the name “H & S Foods, Enjoy Home Cooked Meals Without Cooking at Home,” having sustained myself on those for nearly a year. H & S stood for Heat and Serve, the article informed me.
I placed the newspaper clipping back on the table.
Then I saw an old and yellowing photo of a family I knew a long time ago. Surely it wasn’t them? Yes, the old man, the frail woman, and the two girls.
The older girl with the plain face, and the little one with the limp.
I grew up in a little town in central India known for its high academic standards. On evening I was struggling with my Math homework when Mrs. Bapat, my mother’s co-worker at the High School visited us. I craned my neck to listen.
Mrs. Bapat said, “They need a place to stay. Just for a few months, until things settle down.”
My mother was hesitant. “I’m looking for someone to help cook and clean.” She waved to the stacks of homework papers she had to correct. “My maid left to go back to her village, and I’m too busy with teaching to do everything.”
In the officer’s colony where we lived then, every house had a separate detached suite with a kitchen and bathroom, meant for the servants. The dwellers of these quarters were locals from the nearby villages; the lady would cook and clean and sometimes baby-sit, and the husband would perhaps tend to the garden, or do odd jobs around the house. They lived rent-free.
My mother was justifiably tentative about the idea of the Deo family staying in our servant’s quarters. They were Brahmin by surname, and would surely not like to mingle with the commoners in the other servants’ quarters. Brahmins considered themselves to belong to the upper echelons of society, and living in the servants’ quarters would certainly cramp their style.
“They don’t mind,” said Mrs. Bapat. “Mr. Deo isn’t doing too well, but Mrs. Deo is willing to do any work. And her daughter has learnt stitching. I’m sure you’ll like the family. Just meet them, as a favor to me!”
My mother agreed.
The next day, Mrs. Deo, a skinny woman of dowdy complexion, knocked on the door. “Mrs. Bapat sent me.”
She wore her saree rather high, showing off bony ankles over frayed sandals. Her hands were gnarled and her teeth large. She said that their family had owned a large tract of land back in the village. Her husband had been the surpanch, the locally elected village chief, but drought after drought had wiped out half their orchards, and the citrus blight had obliterated the rest. They were left penniless, and decided to move to the town to find work. That’s when Mr. Deo had got sick.
But Mrs. Deo smiled bravely and said, “My daughter Divya is a skilled tailor. She can stitch your children’s clothes. And I cook well. You won’t regret it.”
And so the Deos came to live in our servants’ quarters.
Whereas Divya stitched beautiful dresses for me and my sister, Mrs. Deo was disappointing as a housekeeper. She didn’t wash clothes to my mother’s satisfaction, and the floor always felt dusty after she had finished sweeping.
She left the kitchen in a mess, but made fluffy rotis, and her potato curry was to die for. Her other Indian dishes were adequate, although she always over-spiced them, hoping, no doubt, for extra left-overs that we would send over to the servants’ quarters.
It turned out that the Deos had a second daughter, Jyoti, whom they tried to hide as much as possible, for she walked with a distinct limp.
Mrs. Deo said that Jyoti was born with one leg shorter than the other. She never sent Jyoti to school, or taught her to stitch. While Divya was plain and somber, no doubt suffering from the change in their status, Jyoti’s handicap was well compensated by her beautiful smile.
Of Mr. Deo, we didn’t see much, but were painfully aware of his existence from his nocturnal coughing bouts.
After school, my big sister, my younger brother, and I would eat a delicious savory snack prepared by Mrs. Deo, and play the board game of carrom before settling down for homework. A game played on a lacquered board of plywood, wherein, with the skill of the flicking fingers, one slides a marble ‘striker’ across the polished surface in an attempt to get the pieces into the holes at the four corners, carrom was our favorite pass-time.
Carrom is a two or four player game, with white pieces going against black; the winner is the team that gets all their pieces in first. Three was clearly a crowd. So we would fight over which two got to play, and were in constant competition to finish the snack and get to the board first.
But we finally decided to let Jyoti play with us, to make the fourth player. We’d have a three-way coin-toss, and the loser would go to the servants’ quarters to beckon Jyoti. Since she usually had nothing better to do, she’d come willingly.
Jyoti became fairly proficient at the game, making us wonder if it was really the loser of the coin-toss who should get her as the partner. In a few weeks, we often found her leaning against the door while we finished our snack, a big smile on her face, hoping for a chance to play.
Months went by and the Deos settled in very well; they did mingle with their neighbors, it appeared, and Mrs. Deo often shared the juicy servant-room gossip with us.
My mother began to trust Mrs. Deo enough to let her watch us when she went to the theater with my father.
On one such occasion when my parents were out, Mrs. Deo dressed up in the prettiest saree she possessed, and came into our living room, looking at the door every few minutes.
When we heard a knock, she shooed us out of the room to receive a well-dressed gentleman and lady, and another younger man, who was apparently their son.
“Please be seated,” she said, and hurried into the kitchen to prepare upma, a light Indian snack made with roasted semolina.
My siblings and I were burning with curiosity about the identity of the strangers, but stayed in the guest bedroom, eavesdropping by the door.
Soon, Divya came in, dressed in a yellow saree, which I suspected was my mother’s. She wore a flower garland in her braid, but was otherwise unadorned.
“Is this the girl?” asked the older gentleman.
Mrs. Deo came hurrying out of the kitchen and said, “Yes, this is Divya. She is a good cook, and can stitch very well.”
“Can you walk across the room, Divya?” asked the lady.
Divya did as she was told, while the three strangers watched with a hawk’s eye.
“Now say something,” said the older man.
“What should I say?” asked Divya softly, her eyes downcast.
“I’ll marry her,” said the younger man.
That’s when we realized that Mrs. Deo had asked the family to see Divya for an arranged marriage. And she was using our home instead of the servants’ quarters to do so.
Right then, we heard my parents’ car pulling into the garage. The show was sold out. My mother walked in and was aghast at the drama in our living room.
To her credit, she didn’t create a scene. My father merely nodded at the visitors and went into his room.
My mother called Mrs. Deo to the kitchen, “What’s going on?”
“They are a good family. They want to see Divya for their son Aditya. For marriage. Please don’t get angry with me. If they see the servants’ quarters, they’ll never take her.”
“Fine,” said my mother. “Please don’t ever do this without my permission.”
Divya was married to Aditya. The wedding took place in my house.
Aditya’s family had realized that the Deos were not wealthy. They had wanted dowry before the wedding, but decided that Divya’s stitching could give them a constant income.
Divya went away to a neighboring town to live with her husband’s joint-family. Aditya had a brother, we heard, but he had rejected Jyoti because of her limp. And so Jyoti stayed on in the servants’ quarters with her mother; Mr. Deo passed away soon after Divya’s wedding.
Our carrom sessions continued but were sparse due to my sister’s high school finals. My brother and I played against each other.
One day, Jyoti came and peeped into the room, hoping to be allowed to play. I felt her shadow upon me, her breath tense with anticipation. She was leaning by the doorway, standing on her short right leg, her longer left leg folded at the knee, the heel balancing on the right foot. I ignored her, and continued playing with my brother.