Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Walking the walk

Rupo vaguely remembers her arrival in Kolkata with Moina mashi. It was the first time that she had stepped outside of her village, Buroputi. Moina had promised her mother to find Rupo a good job that paid a monthly salary that she could send home. A family of 15 hungry mouths, her mother had been more than happy to part with the seven year old. Kalpona Sen, baromashi to Rupo, became her first employer. She was a kind hearted woman. Rupo had enough to eat, a variety of handed-down, mended, but clean clothes to wear, a place under the stairs to sleep. Moina would collect Rupo's salary of a hundred rupees at the end of each month to send to her family.

Rupo's new life was very busy. It did not leave her time to feel homesick. Her first chore early in the morning was to sweep the uthon which is a square piece of land inside of the house connecting the main house to the kitchen. Then, with the municipality water supply starting at 6:00 AM, her job was to do the pile of dishes from the night before. She would first scrape the lightly dirty ones with ash. Then she would scrape the burnt pots and pans with aluminium caps from milk bottles and some detergent. Things had to be squeaky clean! Baromashi had actually thrown a saucepan at her one time for the left over grime. Rupo learnt her lesson well. Soon she became an equal fanatic. After the washing, Rupo would fill up two large cast iron drums that stood on the side with the fresh water for use for the rest of the day. Rupo's next task was to make tea for the family. She served bed tea to Kalpona and her husband. The only son of the mistress, Pinku dada for Rupo (dada as he was three years older to her), got served milk with two teaspoon of Bournevita.

After tea, Kalpona would come down to the kitchen to make breakfast. Rupo got to eat her breakfast after Pinku was off to school and baromesho (Kalpona's husband) was off for office. She ate all her meals in a spotted bent aluminium plate, legacy from her predecessors across several years. She did not mind it. Her utensils were clean and kept in one special corner of the kitchen. Mornings were roti (bread) and alur tarkari(potato curry).. or, sometimes she had roti with a piece of jaggery. She had this with tea from a slightly chipped porcelain cup. She really looked forward to the days she got a burnt piece of toast layered with a pinch of butter and sugar. Her other chores included cutting vegetables for Kalpona to cook and sweeping the rest of the three rooms and the stairs that constituted their living quarters.

Rupo did not go to school. Kalpona tried to teach her some alphabets and some numbers on a black slate that her husband, Charon, got for Rupo. Rupo was bright but she was not a serious student. Kalpona could not keep at her to pursue her studies. After a while, the effort to educate her was abandoned. Rupo's focal interest it seemed was watching the TV whenever she got the chance. Her employers were semi-indulgent of her obsession. She was allowed a couple of shows for regulars. Rupo got really mad with Pinku because he would force her to get up and do something for him in the middle of her favorite shows. Pinku devised wicked plans to tease Rupo. She was a novelty in their house and someone he could boss around and play with. An affectionate relationship blossomed between the two.

When Rupo was ten, Kalpona went and opened a bank account for Rupo. Her salary was to be split into two parts. One part was to go to her family, and the other part was to go into the bank account to save for her marriage. Kalpona had to argue quiet a bit to get Moina to agree. No one questioned it that the little child had not once been taken home for a visit in three years.. though she continued to send her salary to them religiously! Around fourteen, a new ambition begun to grip Rupo. She had to work hard and save so she could marry and settle down. A boy from the carpenter's shop across the house where she lived had caught her fancy. He advised her to stop sending money home. At this point, Rupo no longer cared about anybody in her home anyways, so this was fine. Moina did some more theatrics, but she knew a lost cause when she saw one.

When Rupo was seventeen, something sad happened. Pinaki came home drunk one night. He had quarreled with his girlfriend because she was being very strict with him. He made a pass at Rupo. Baromashi was furious... with Rupo. Rupo cried all of two days. She lay listless in her dirty mattress under the stairs where she'd lived for these past fourteen years. "How can you be so ungrateful? Get out of my house..", said Kalpona. "Where will I go, baromashi?", Rupo wailed. Kalpona threatened her lest she open her mouth about this. "Do not lie. No one believes you." Kalpona hurried to get Rupo married to the boy across the street. The boy demanded 20000 rupees in cash. He had gotten wind of the situation. Charan wanted Rupo to take some of it out of her savings bank account. Taposh, the prospective groom, refused to let that happen. That was Rupo's money. He forbid her to give her thumb impression. Kalpona and Charan had minimal sympathy for Rupo now that this outside boy seemed to have so much influence on her decisions. Finally Kalpona agreed to pay the sum. Whatever had happened, of course she had to stand by Pinaki. But she did have a soft corner for the little girl who had grown into a woman under her roof. Besides, the money was a small price for protecting her son's reputation.

Rupo spent a few happy years in a slum in South Kolkata. Taposh was a nice to her. His sisters and mother treated Rupo well. She had after all come with a fair amount of dowry for someone in their position. Taposh had actually gone to school up to tenth standard and was considered quiet a man of the world. Into the third year of her marriage, Rupo went to get Kalpona's blessings during Bijoya. She took the customary sweets with her for her baromashi. She had forgiven them in her heart. Kalpona also received her warmly.

But things were set to change. In the next three years, Rupo miscarried three times. Her husband and inlaws blamed her for her misfortunes. The laughter and frolic was wiped out of Rupo's world. Taposh was considering marrying again and the family had started seriously misbehaving with her. Rupo came to the only mother she had known.. to Kalpona. Pinaki had been married the year before and had recently had a baby. The house was ready for another helping hand. Charan was not happy with Kalpona's decision, but agreed to play along. At 23, Rupo re-entered the Sen household, came back to her bed under the stairs. A tin door was now added to that area to give her some semblance of privacy.

Rupo was a trustworthy nanny. Pinaki's wife Nandita liked her, liked the care and attention in everything Rupo did for the baby. Pinaki stayed distant.. he badly regretted what had happened between them and felt pity for the events in Rupo's life. He also knew that he was in no position to make anything right for her... not then, not now. He would try to bring her things she liked to eat and give her a little extra money now and then. Nandita caught on and from then onwards Pinaki became even more distant from Rupo to avoid the ugly quarrels. When his daughter turned three, Pinaki got a transfer order from his company. Before he left with his wife and daughter, he spoke with Rupo "Look after your mashi and mesho." Rupo had not dared to look up at him. She had silently nodded assent staring down at her feet and cried.

Rupo has dutifully served Kalpona and Charan since. Some years ago Charan passed away and now Kalpona has also died recently. Nandita and Pinaki have come down to Kolkata for her last rites. They want to sell the house and close the chapter here. Nandita asks Rupo where she wants to go.. they can arrange for her transport to wherever she wanted. Clearly coming with them is not one of her options. Nandita is not keen on having Rupo over.

Rupo is sitting on a train holding tickets to go back to Buroputi. Pinaki has bought a bit of land with a small kachha hut on it for her, with money that Kalpona had left her in her will. Rupo is told that she is lucky to have employers that did so much for her. Rupo knows no one there, but there is at least a roof over her head, some money for food and clothes. Her brother also lives close by. He was interested in her when he heard she had some money, but after Pinaki made arrangement with the post office such that her money could not be touched except for the monthly intersts that only Rupo could collect, his fraternal interests seemed to have waned sharply. Pinaki is standing on the platform waiting for her to be off. Rupo wants to say something like, "Take care" or "Keep in touch" or perhaps, "Dont forget all about me." But her throat is constricted with tears. The train starts and Pinaki raises his hand in silent farewell. He has done all this in the best way he thought he could to make ammends. As the image of Rupo moves away his heart fills with pity and regret, but he consoles himself that she will be happy amongst her own people.

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