| “Why didn't you come
yesterday?” Ruby was irritated. Deepa took off her cotton shawl and
spread it out to dry. “My in-laws turned up last evening.” Ruby's
irritation died as quickly as it had flared up. “That must be the
reason,” she thought to herself. She had been worried about Deepa's
family situation even before she hired Deepa as a maidservant. Here
was a married girl who had left her husband's family and returned to
her parents' home. How could she manage on the meager earnings from
a maid's job ?”
Along a year ago, Deepa came and bowed to her with a smile like an old acquaintance. “Remember me, Didi ? I used to work in Murty Babu's house when Ahalya used to work in your house?” Ruby couldn't place Deepa at first. Then she remembered the maid Ahalya. In those days Deepa and Ahalya lived in the same slum. One day Ahalya spoke to Ruby in a gossipy way, “Deepa's father hasn't been dead a month and her mother has already remarried to Karma’ father . Deepa had two sibling and Karama had three sibling. All seven children were to live together. Such are these people !”
A few days after this conversation Deepa stopped coming to work. She must have been ten or eleven at that time. Now she was a young woman, twenty-one or twenty-two. Ruby didn't recognize her when she came looking for work a year ago. “I won't quit this time,” she promised. “I'll stay here forever. I left Murty Babu's house because my grandmother took me away and married me off. What did I know ? I was only ten at the time.”
Ruby was in desperate need of a housemaid. She didn't think too much about Deepa's promise to stay or why she had quit her job earlier. It did cross her mind that a married girl could not stay away from her husband very long.
Deepa came to work dressed in salwar-kameez, the way unmarried women dress. She was an excellent maid, completing all her chores to satisfaction before heading home at the end of the day. Neither she nor Ruby probed into each other's personal lives. Ruby was surprised, therefore, when Deepa spoke of her in-laws a year after she had resumed work in the house. Ruby feared she would have to look for another housemaid.
“Have your in-laws come to take you back ?” she asked, speaking calmly.
“No, they came for a divorce. Left this morning.”
The word 'divorce' repeated in Ruby's consciousness. Parting even with a piece of rag or old shoe causes sorrow. Far more a human relationship founded on some intimacy, some privacy, some sand of faith…
Ruby heard the word 'divorce' and instead of being happy for herself began to worry about Deepa. What if Deepa had formed a deep attachment ? On the other hand Deepa's face showed relief. Ruby bided her time.
A month later Deepa arrived for work looking worn: “I haven't slept a wink.”
“What happened ?”
“My mother quarreled with me all night.”
“What about ?”
“Oh nothing. I was born unlucky.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“You know how responsibly I have been working for you, Didi. I do the work to the best of my ability and then I go straight home. A woman who is trying to stand on her own two feet doesn't have time to fall in love.”
“What does your mother say ?”
“A man has been following me that last few days. He walks behind me to the main gate of the colony, then sits and waits in the open field. My mother is suspicious.”
“Tell her the truth.”
“I've told her, Didi, but she doesn't believe me. She says he wouldn't follow me if I hadn't led him on. And I don't know why the mad man has been following me. My mother tells me to quit working.”
Ruby knew such problems trailed after young women. They become involved in affairs. She had noticed working girls seated on the culvert in the colony chatting with young men but she had never seen Deepa there. She told Deepa to ask the stalker about his intentions.
“I asked him, Didi. I scolded him. I threw pebbles at him. I may have hurt his head. I told him to go away. “Why do you trouble me ?” I asked.
“What do you want ?” He said he wanted to marry me.
“Did you let your mother know ?”
“If I told my mother she would kill me. I did shout at him once ; it kept him away for two days. Then back to his following me at a distance. My mother and the new father have a new daughter. Mother says the daughter will be corrupted by me.”
“You have a step-sister ?”
“Ten years old. Goes to school. But I am illiterate, Didi.”
“Do you know the stalker ? Is he the same caste as you ?”
“He lives in our village. His father is a barber. Owns the small shop behind the police station. We are of different castes. He is from Chhatisgarh like us, but of a different caste.”
“You've created a problem for me, Deepa.”
“No, Didi. It's not because of that man. He won't cause me trouble. It's my mother. She doesn't want me living with her anymore.”
“What do you want to do ? Quit the job ?” Ruby asked apprehensively.
“I don't know what to do. My new father sides with mother. Beats me up sometimes. Life has become foul.”
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