A misty morning in the monsoon, and I stepped out of my apartment to begin my daily commute to work. Becky, the dog, rested peacefully at the stairs bidding me goodbye with her poignant eyes. She looked more tired than usual or was she ill; I didn’t know. I stroked her black hair, and rubbed her forehead before leaving. The murk of the fog that morning shielded the greenery around – holding a silence that can move you. Taz, the dog, emerged from the murk with Aunty Daisy. I stopped by him for our morning love session, and then continued to walk towards the spot where I board the cab to work daily.
The rain and I do not get along too well. Well, it’s not abhorrence – it’s just that we generally encounter each other in the wrong timing. So, in adherence with our history, it started pouring on the day I forgot to carry the umbrella. Getting wet unwantedly is not my cup of tea (clothes and shoes all spoilt before reaching work – I find no joy in it!). My only respite was the fact that this is Bangalore’s drizzle – where drizzle actually means a sprinkling shower unlike Bombay. (Bombay, my love, you are still special.) The cab wasn’t on time to make things worse. As I kept looking at my watch and wished that the cab arrives before it pours badly, I could feel the shelter of an umbrella over my head. A voice called from behind – “Didi, umbrella?” I turned sideways to see who the protector was. I saw eyes laden generously with kohl that sparkled with the rain drops on her face and a smile so full of life that can brighten a misty morning! She kept smiling while I tried to reassess my memory. I thought of Mumbai a while ago, and the past came alive – was this true? Was I actually seeing Nauheed? Yes, she was there in front of me asking if the umbrella was protecting me well.
I had met Nauheed in a local train in Mumbai. We commuted together to Andheri every weekday in the 7:10 local – while she travelled back from Andheri to New Bombay after the local reached its destination, I trotted off to sweat in an air conditioned office. Nauheed used to sell costume jewelry in the local train. Vendors have a thriving business in the lifeline of Bombay that runs incessantly. The ladies’ compartments are their most remunerative targets for business. Nauheed also resorted to this lucrative zone of the Bombay locals. On the first meeting I had asked her, “Who buys these so early in the morning?” She had replied, “You will see in some time, Didi.” As the train jolted at a station, a gang of college girls entered the compartment, and Nauheed’s baskets were seized. “Limited edition, Didi”, she had chuckled with a twinkle in her kohl loaded eyes. I had scanned her basket, and replied, “Limited indeed. I don’t get these in Colaba too. Where do you hunt for them?” Nauheed had been prompt in replying, “That’s my secret Didi. First rule in the business is to maintain confidentiality of source.” We both had exchanged wide grins, and from then our daily exchange of stories had begun. The stories ranged from far and wide – from her village to my native city, from growing up to surviving, from sustaining to dying – every day a new face of life. She used to speak with such innocence, with an eagerness to narrate.
Nauheed touched my arm, and I was back to Bangalore. She said, “You didn’t answer anything I asked. You don’t remember me?” The innocence was still intact. I told her that it was impossible to forget her. I had drifted for a while to the city that never sleeps. I enquired about how she had reached Bangalore. She said, “I will tell you. Tell me why did you leave the city? You liked it a lot. What happened?” I smiled, and answered, “I found another job here.” She asked, “A better one? I came here for better work too.” The downpour was increasing, and I pulled Nauheed closer to me in the umbrella. It had been a fifteen minute wait, and there was no sign of the cab. I called up the driver to enquire about the delay, and realized there was going to be further postponement to the commute. “For whom are you waiting, madam?” she asked. I wiped the rain droplets falling on me from the tips of the umbrella, and said, “Why are you calling me madam? Has Bangalore instilled pretentiousness in you?” Nauheed answered, “No Didi. I think I have developed it as a habit after working at the salon. I have to address all the clients as madam.” “You work at a salon now. Where?” I asked. Nauheed told me she worked as a masseuse at a local salon. After I had stopped travelling by our common route to my work in Bombay, Nauheed told me a group of goons had looted their house in the slum. A gang bout out broke and things turned ugly. She had managed to elope with her younger brother to her village in the outskirts of Bombay. A man in her village runs an agency for people to find work. He had arranged for her to find work here at the salon.
The mild downpour had stopped by now, and yet my cab had not arrived. The driver called, and said that another cab will be coming. “What will you do madam, sorry, Didi, if the cab doesn’t come? Will you take the bus?” I shrugged, and said, “I will just go back home. Going by the bus is absolutely a waste of time now. Actually, I am thinking I might as well go home now. It’s late already. Do you want to come? It’s getting cold. I will make tea.” Nauheed said, “It isn’t that easy to go home madam.” I was perplexed at her answer, and asked, “What do you mean by that?” She diverted from the question, and said that she was waiting for a friend. They both were travelling to Belgaum today.
A few seconds later, Nauheed’s friend Leela arrived. She was clad in a sari, and decked up with makeup and flowers in her hair. Nauheed introduced me to Leela as her ‘Didi’ from Bombay. Leela glanced at me, and asked, “How much do you earn in a day? You don’t put makeup to work?” I didn’t quite know how to answer that. My mind started calculating my salary per day. After a moment I held back my mind, and asked myself, “Are you seriously thinking of answering that?” By then Nauheed had nudged an elbow to Leela. I could see that she was fuming, and whispered mildly something to her friend. Her words seemed to vaporize into the moist atmosphere. I tried to read her lips but in vain. She told me, “Sorry madam. She didn’t mean it like that.” “Like what?” I asked. Nauheed diverted again saying that Leela’s home is in Belgaum, and they both are visiting an ancient shrine there. “Oh is it? Which shrine? I have read about Belgaum. I’ve heard that it’s beautiful” I told them. Leela lost no time to answer, “Have you heard of Saundatti and the temple of Yellamma there?” I had read about it in Nine Lives, one of my favorite books by William Dalrymple. My mind was thinking a thousand thoughts now – Saundatti, Yellamma, Devdasis, servants of the goddess, concubines, and the thoughts were endless. The whole world occurred to spin around me.
I brought myself to composure, and controlled my emotions. Maybe I was over thinking. It was possible that Leela and Nauheed were plainly visiting the ancient temple of Yellamma in Saundatti. However it was hard to believe that they were plainly visiting the shrine. Why would they do so? The ancient Devdasi system wherein young girls were dedicated to a life of sanctioned prostitution and their virginity was auctioned in the name of service to the goddess was banned in the 1980s. When I had read the history behind the whole concept I was flabbergasted by the orthodoxy and malevolence that kept this practice alive for so long, and continues to keep it alive clandestinely. In the wake of unburdening themselves, poverty afflicted parents continue to see it as a means of ‘better work’. Better work – that is what Nauheed had told me. Nauheed couldn’t have been a Devdasi, could she? I had known her for so long. What about Leela? I was struggling to find the answers that were haunting me.
Leela and Nauheed were busy counting money and discussing some route details. I interrupted them saying, “Are you travelling to Saundatti for the first time?” The cab arrived. I was looking at Nauheed waiting for an answer from her. She was silent. The silence was killing me. “Why?” I asked. Leela was arranging the folds in her sari, and was sitting on the pavement now. The driver was honking. He opened the door of the car, and called out, “It’s getting late, madam.” I sat inside the cab still waiting for an answer. Nauheed closed the door for me. The cab started moving, and then she ran behind the cab. The driver halted the cab. Nauheed tapped on the door. I lowered the glass to see her kohl enamored eyes, again. “Didi, I was born as Nirupama. I was dedicated when I was seven. I was sold when I was twelve. I started working in the red light area in Bombay when I was fourteen. You keep this umbrella with you, Didi. You don’t like getting wet unwantedly, I know”, she said. “Madam, can we go?” the driver asked me. “Go” Nauheed told him, and the cab sped past.
Life – the moment you think that you know it all, it will surprise you like never before. Servants of god – that is what these girls are called – the literal translation of Devdasi. What dogma dictates this? I fail to understand why humans are the most loathsome creatures on this earth when they have been bestowed with the most beautiful emotions. I had never imagined that one of those “Nine Lives” from Dalrymple’s travelogues will meet me in real life. As I alighted from the cab that evening when I was back from work, the rain came pouring again. However, this time around we were meeting at the perfect time – a time when I opened Nauheed’s umbrella to shelter myself and the rain’s twin adorned my eyes. I strolled back home. Taz was out for his evening walk with Aunty Daisy. I stopped by him again for our moment of love at dusk. I kept walking towards home remembering the black beauty. Becky was there to welcome me at the stairs. As I folded the umbrella, “What did you do all day, missy?” I asked her. She was jumping to sniff the folded umbrella – yellow colored with black spots all over it. A little butterfly came fluttering in from nowhere. It fluttered for a while around me, and finally rested on the umbrella. We all were home.