"What’s wrong?" Gerard asked without looking up from the newspaper he was reading.
"What else is there to happen?" Maria snapped back.
"You are pacing the living room like a singed cat!"
"Don’t you ever know anything in this house?’ Don’t you know Lakshmi has not come to work? What is it to you? You got your breakfast in a jiffy and in a few minutes you will drive off to the shop."
"And then your world will come to an end?" Gerard folded the newspaper meticulously.
"And your sales girls in your boutique will do the household chores?" Maria hissed and opening the door of the living room peeked into the corridor of the condo. Gerard heard someone say something and Maria said succinctly. "No Meerabhen, she has not come yet; Venisha is getting late for her classes." Meerabhen mumbled something which Gerard did not hear; he did not want to hear either. Meerabhen was the voice of the condo.
"Let Venisha have her breakfast in the college restaurant," Gerard suggested, carefully hiding a yawn. "What do these kids eat for breakfast anyway? A packet of wafers and a Coke?"
"No restaurant!" Maria sounded firm. "She needs one reason to feed her classmates."
"Oh, Lakshmi will come," Gerard prophesized. This got Maria’s goat.
"Oh," she exclaimed. "So she has told you she would be late….."
"No such thing. I…"
"All we women need is a husband to spoil the domestic help we hire. You’re always on their side. Do you know how much I shell out in a year on Lakshmi? Every Christmas, every Easter….carry-home the left-overs, the so called old clothes. Christ! And your daughter Venisha is no better." she huffed.
"And your increasing her work-load is directly proportional to your giving, Maria," Gerard observed and dropped the newspaper on the glass table. "What a big deal!" he murmured.
"What do you mean?" Maria stopped her pacing and stood in front of Gerard with her hands on her hips.
"The moment you have a domestic help, your mixer-grinder, washing machine, dishwasher takes a holiday and you suddenly find the curries most tasty if the masala is prepared on the grinding stone; you drool over all the Mangalorean delicacies and sweets and the steaming, frying and baking starts in the house. Half the products are packed off to your sisters and the rest to Meerabhen. Finally, you clap hands and say, what a good girl I am. Don’t forget, Lakshmi is the seventh one in two years’.
Before Maria could say anything Venisha shot out of her room. Actually, her perfume preceded her coming. Gerard eyed his daughter and clucked his tongue. "Don’t you get jeans that can go down another inch and a half?" he asked, chiding the daughter. Venisha was in the second year of her college studies and everything about her was "the in-thing"; except, perhaps her craze for new stuffed toys.
She had a cuddly stuffed chimpanzee that had arms which were flexible and she could make it hug her. Till the other day she slept with the chimpanzee’s arms around her. But now the chimp had to trade places with Venisha’s new love, a huge teddy bear.
She had given a new assignment to the chimp, though. He was made to cling on to the curtains of her door, keeping them in place. He made a pitiable sight. But there was no telling Venisha.
"Hey!" she chirped. "What are you doing here Dada? "Didn’t leave as yet? My jeans? Dada, this is Bangalore and not your stupid Mangalore where they have dress code for college going girls. Yuk, we do not want your Mangalorean Taliban here. If you have it, flaunt it, that’s the name of the game! Hey Mom, what’s up? Why are you so cheesed up?" Suddenly she turned and nudged the chimp and the curtains started swaying and so did the chimp. "My poor chimp!" she blew him a kiss.
"I hope you get a real chimp for a husband," said Gerard and pulled out a hundred rupee bill from his wallet and gave it to her. She eyed it narrowly before plucking it from the Father’s fingers. "Let me guess," she said with a pout. "Lakshmi has not come. Dada has got his breakfast but mine is not ready. Simple equation…one hundred rupees. But Dada, how can eat alone in the canteen? I am not used to eating alone…."
Maria was watching this, visibly fuming, as Gerard pulled out another one hundred rupee note and gave it to the daughter.
"Pamper her and spoil her," Maria shrugged helplessly. "Now where do I begin?" she spread her arms vulnerably. Whatever said and done, I should get this shrew married off as soon as she graduates, she managed to gather her thoughts as Venisha swished past her and out of the door.
Maria could hear Venisha’s heeled footsteps pause at the elevator. "Mom," she screamed from the corridor. "Your Lakshmi has come and by Jove, she has a cute chimpanzee with her!"
"This girl is nuts," Maria told herself, much relieved. Now that Lakshmi had come, it was a different ball game all together. What do these people know about running a home? "Lakshmi has come!" she couldn’t help announcing to Gerard. He gave her a blank look and went to his study. He would leave in a minute or two.
Lakshmi gently pushed the half open door and entered and seeing Maria bowed slightly in salutation. Maria had so much lined up for Lakshmi that she failed to notice the pain in the latter’s eyes.
"Is this the time to come?" Maria was harsh. "Do you know how much work is there in the house? My child went to the college without having breakfast. I could only give a couple of bread toasts and coffee to Anna…"
"I’m sorry Akka," Lakshmi said meekly and stepped aside.
It was then that Maria saw him.
He looked as if someone had put together two arms, two legs and an ungainly head; the boy looked more like a humanoid. The shirt he was wearing was tight with a couple of buttons missing and his protruding navel showed from the opening in the shirt. Some creation, some creature. Chimpanzee, as Venisha said?
But his eyes, those penetrating eyes…Maria gasped inaudibly.
"I had to take him to the hospital, Akka," Lakshmi explained. "I will have to take him for the next seven days…he will have to take an injection everyday…."
Hearing the word injection, the boy recoiled and started whimpering. Lakshmi drew him closer. "It was late to drop him home, so I brought him along." She looked at Maria for an approval.
"When was this one born?" Maria asked sarcastically. ?One a year,’ she mumbled so that the other did not hear.
But Gerard heard. He had come out and was adjusting his tie. "Let them have one a year or two in a year!" he sounded very irritated. "Are you looking after their offspring? Do they dump their children on you? Poor boy has come from the hospital, has taken a shot….let him sit, give him coffee and biscuits….Maria, what is this? What’s gotten into you this morning?"
Lakshmi understood what Gerard had said, although it was in English. She worked in so many "English-speaking" homes that some words made sense to her. "No Anna," she said. "He does not eat any snacks nor drinks coffee or tea. We cannot afford to have them make such habits."
"Enough now," Maria said. "Let him sit here and you get going." She showed the edge of the sofa to Lakshmi.
"Let him sit on the floor, Akka," said Lakshmi, tucking her pallu in the waist folds of her tattered sari. "His name is Thippa."
"Whatever," Maria brushed the boy’s name aside.
Thippa tugged at his mother’s sari and said something. Lakshmi looked helplessly at Maria.
"What is it now?" Maria cracked at her. "Look, if he has to make kakka or su-su…you better take him downstairs….but not in our toilet…quick…"
"No Akka," Lakshmi said, plainly hurt. "He wants to watch the TV. He is so fond of the TV…."
"Watching TV does not become a habit then?"
"That will do, Maria!" admonished Gerard who was on his way out. He went straight to the TV, switched it on and after some thought, he tuned it to a Kannada channel. He turned the volume and looked at Thippa lovingly. The boy’s face lit up in smiles and Gerard could see a thin film of grateful tears in his eyes.
"They take pleasure in small things, Maria!" Gerard said. "When will you learn?"
"I do not want to learn," her voice was all bristles. She went to the TV and reduced the volume. Thippa looked at her and then at Gerard but said nothing.
Lakshmi got going.
Around 10.30 Maria dressed up to go about her business. She came into the living room and instructed Lakshmi to pull the door shut (it would latch automatically) and inform Meerabhen. "Okay," she said. "Enough of TV for now," she switched the TV off, carefully avoiding Thippa’s eyes.
"Avva," she couldn’t but turn and look at him when he called out to her in his feeble voice.
He was pointing at something. She followed his pointing finger and to her chagrin, he was pointing at Venisha’s chimpanzee that hung on the curtains.
"Not on your life, no!" she screamed. "You are a chimpanzee yourself and you want my Venisha’s chimpanzee? Do you know how many years she hugged him and slept?"
Hearing Maria’s outburst, Lakshmi came out from the toilet she was cleaning. "What happened, Akka?"
"You son now wants Venisha’s chimpanzee!" she glared both at the mother and son. "One should learn the art of taking advantage from people like you."
Lakshmi went to Thippa and boxed his ears. The boy burst into tears. "You are not to touch that monkey!" she told the son.
…Laksmi gave Maria a look which the latter was to remember for a long long time.….
Maria felt a knot in the pit of her stomach. "Yes, he is not to touch it but tell him he can sit far and see it as long he wants." She tried to make meaningless amends.
Obediently Thippa got up and went to the door of Venisha’s room and squatted, eyes transfixed on the chimpanzee clinging on to the curtains. Seeing this Maria had a strange warm feeling welling up inside her but she did not subscribe to it. She wouldn’t give in to any useless sentiments.
Six days passed.
Every morning Lakshmi would come, dragging a weeping Thippa straight after he got his shot. If Gerard was around, Thippa would mutely plead with him to switch on the TV; if Gerard obliged (he always did), Thippa’s one eye would be on the screen and the other on the chimpanzee. If Venisha was around she would fondly massage Thippa’s bald head and say "My chimp!"
Seeing these actions of the Father and the daughter, Maria did feel that she should give the chimpanzee to Thippa and let him play with it. "But no!" she told herself. "They should be kept at a healthy distance."
On the seventh day Lakshmi came late again and before Maria could say anything she broke into uncontrollable sobs. "I have just admitted Thippa to the government hospital, Akka," she said. "Last night his health took a turn for the worse. I will…finish the work here and rush back to the hospital."
"I…"stammered Maria. "You can take an advance on your wages." But little did she realize she had not asked Lakshmi what was wrong with her son. Gerard and Venisha were not in the house.
"Government hospital, Akka," Lakshmi wiped her face with her pallu. "Money does not work there, only God has to work." Maria failed to notice that Lakshmi was eyeing the chimpanzee with a strange look in her eyes.
Lakshmi did not ask for money and Maria did not ask what was wrong with Thippa.
Maria went out with the standard instructions to Lakshmi. There was some meeting at St. Patrick’s and it was well past lunch time when she returned.
"Your Lakshmi took off almost the minute you left," said Meerabhen.
"Her son is in the hospital," Maria brushed aside Meerabhen’s report.
"That’s safer, I should say," Meerabhen sounded concerned. "These women work in our houses, bring in their children and what infections they carry with them only God knows."
"But do we have a choice, Meerabhen?" Maria asked philosophically. "If we want the society life which we are leading now, we need people like Lakshmi. Oh hell, how much we depend on these miserable creatures, I am ashamed to think"
She unlocked the door and coming into the living room slumped on a settee and stretched. Her gaze went around the living room aimlessly.
Something was amiss.
She smiled to herself.
The TV was there, DVD player, the curios on the mantelpiece….oh hell.
The chimpanzee was missing. The curtains now hung loosely on Venisha’s door.
Maria sat up with a start and rushed to Venisha’s room to see if she had come. No, she had not. She rarely came for lunch. Her glut for fast-food would not allow her.
Who then? Lakshmi? Possibly. She had not brought Thippa to the apartment for over a week. Maria had not bothered to ask.
"Let her turn up tomorrow!" Maria clenched her fists. "I will show her, her place." She fumed.
Lashmi did not come the next morning, nor the next, nor the next. Meerabhen was kind enough to line up a new domestic help for Maria when Lakshmi failed to turn up for ten consecutive days. Neither Gerard nor Venisha asked Maria about this change and they went about their business as usual. Venisha did not even notice her chimpanzee missing. "This is exactly what they would do when I conk off!" Maria said to herself. "The selfish lot."
On the tenth day Laksmi made her appearance.
"What the hell you have now come for, Lakshmi?" Maria asked her triumphantly, pointing to the new domestic help who was busy cleaning the living room. "What do you think? If you do not turn up it would be the end of my household? Stupid woman!"
Tears welled up in Lakshmi’s eyes but they did not burst.
"I just came to return this, Akka," Lakshmi said, holding up the chimpanzee.
"Ah, yes, yes," said Maria. "I had totally forgotten about it. Where were you hiding it anyway? I had so much of trust in you and you betray the trust just for an old stuffed toy? Good that you stopped coming on your own. I would have fired you anyway."
Lakshmi wept silently.
"My Thippa just refused injections, Akka!" she sobbed. "Even the doctors could not find veins to push the needle in. Then I told him, if he bears the pain of the injections I will bring him this chimpanzee. He meekly agreed and bore the pain without a whimper. Then I could not cheat him, Akka and I took the chimpanzee without your permission…I know how possessive Venisha Akka is about her toys." She paused and wiped the tears. "Now, I do not need this chimpanzee."
"So he got well then," Maria tried to sound cheerful, indicating an episode being over.
Keep the chimpanzee for Thippa. I am sure it is infected…no you would not understand. Yes, yes, give it to your son as a present from me….."
Laksmi gave Maria a look which the latter was to remember for a long long time. Lakshmi got up and went to Venisha’s curtains, gathered them together and wrapped the chimp’s arms around them.
The chimpanzee started swinging lifelessly and it appeared as if his eyes fell once on Lakshmi and next on Maria.
Maria had a vision of Thippa hanging on to the curtains.
Her breath throttled, she felt like screaming.
Then Laksmi stood in front of her and her gaze caught Maria’s squarely.
"Akka," said Lakshmi. "Thippa died this morning!"
Author: Edwin JF DSouza- Mangalore