Her name was Anju and she was fabulous.
She must have been in her late teens the first time we met, a dusky, sloe-eyed girl with a silver nosering she frequently paused to touch; I was four. Her mother was the woman my mother hired to sweep and mop the house – in class conscious Delhi, you didn’t just hire a maid and ask her to clean the house, you hired different people for different chores, usually when they showed up at the door the day after you moved in and informed you that they were did so-and-so task at all the houses in the near vicinity. Anju’s mother was in charge of keeping the floors tidy, of every room but the bathrooms which were the responsibility of a diffident young man (who my mother told me years later was a Dalit when we were discussing caste barriers in urban areas).
In another time and place, she would have owned her own cleaning service. She certainly had the chutzpah and the drive for it. She was a large, thickset woman with a high pitched reedy voice who didn’t bend very well, a distinct disadvantage for a woman who made her living bent over a broom, but she offset the inflexibility of her spine with the marvellous advantages of two young daughters whom she pressed into service as and where required. There wasn’t a house on the block where she didn’t work i.e. distribute between herself and her daughters. I don’t remember her name or much of her face but my lasting impression of her is that of a hulking, creaking bundle of cheap cotton, hauling itself painfully into our house to cursorily check upon her daughter and listen with a deaf ear to whatever complaint my mother had for her.
(Sweeping under the beds has been a lifelong struggle for Ma. She’s been trying to make other people do it all her life and failing spectacularly.)
Anju on the other hand had a sharply vulpine little face that always looked on the verge of a fit of the sulks and she liked the color pink. She would roll through the house on her haunches, wielding the broom and mop energetically yet cursorily, industriously taking her time with bits and pieces whenever she came into orbit around my mother, who was not fooled in the least but accepted that these were the little subterfuges that made the domestic world go around.
She was my very first friend in Delhi. I don’t know how it happened or when – we neither one of us spoke the other’s language and I knew exactly one phrase in Hindi as taught to me by my father: “Aapka naam kya hai?” And while “What is your name?” is a useful conversational starter when you’re in foreign climes, the conversation rather tends to stop there when you don’t know anything other than that. So I knew her name was Anju and she knew my name was “Baba” – the Hindi distortion of my nickname visited on my head my very first day in Delhi by the driver – and there matters ought to have stopped… except it didn’t.
Anju, it turned out, was a Bollywood addict. Every weekend, she and her family would rent videos or go to the theater and catch all the latest releases. And for some reason, she liked to tell me all about the movies she’d seen. I’d like to believe that if Anju had been a teen today and she’d stuck with the impromptu classes Ma liked to hold for all the kids who worked in our home (and there were many – I don’t know about these days but back in my day it frequently felt as though half the adolescent population of the Himalayas were working in the homes of Delhi) – she’d be a Bollywood Blogger today. And she would have kicked ass at it.
I can still remember her nasal tones as I followed her from room to room. She would duckwalk her way around the house, hauling a bucket and mop, not even pausing for breath as she told me the stories with the passion of a person recounting a deeply personal experience. To this day I can’t watch or read about an Amitabh Bachchan or Mithun Chakraborty movie without wondering if this is something I’ve seen with my own two eyes or whether it is a memory I’ve borrowed from Anju – she’d give me such detailed recaps of everything she’d seen.
Sometimes, by way of variety, she’d deviate and tell me the local legends – they almost always involved a virtuous village maiden whose home stood exactly where our home was right then. When she was abducted by a dacoit (South Delhi was apparently once infested with them) who wanted to loot her izzat in addition to her father’s wealth (or lack thereof), she jumped into the old well that sat most satisfactorily under an aged peepul tree a couple of blocks over. Not only did she die but her ghost, said Anju with great relish, was still known to walk.
Actually Anju was very concerned with issues of izzat and its looting. There is a scene from Khuda Gawah, an Amitabh Bachchan-Sridevi starrer set in a mythical Afghanistan, in which a minor character accuses his wife of being unfaithful – from the way she told it, he might as well have said it to her.
Years later my mother shed some light on the issue when she remarked Anju’s employment at our house was the result of crafty planning on her mother’s side. A couple of days in, she knew Ma was not the kind of person who liked to dog her employees for every minute they spent in the house, nor did she like to accuse the household help of theft just to shake things up. But what really made her bring Anju to our house after trying out her married elder daughter out on us was that the only males in the house when she came to work included the cook who was not only ancient but also had very few teeth left in his head, and the houseboys who were teenaged boys from the hills who might soulfully lust after Anju all they liked but were invariably sent to the garden to loaf with their mid-morning glass of tea by Ma, who really didn’t want to stage any Romeo and Juliet nonsense in her household.
Her mother had already married off her elder sister to a young man who worked as a driver for a high-ranking bureaucrat who magnanimously let their entire family live in his garage and parked his car on the street. It was there that I found them one day when I was about ten – Anju, her mother, her father, her sister, her sister’s husband, and a couple of children my age who might have been her younger siblings. Anju’s father and brother-in-law were sitting outside, enjoying the late afternoon winter sun in government issue cane armchairs, while the women of the household fried pakoras and the kids played some game outside. The TV was on but the reception wasn’t all that great. It was such a ludicrously picture perfect moment of The Traditional Family on a Winter Evening, I’ve never been able to forget it.
If I’d ever thought about it, I vaguely imagined Anju to be living the kind of outsize life lived by women in her stories – full of dashing, occasionally cruel, handsome young men who mastered stallions and were complete boors in love. I knew she cleaned my house but this was Anju, after all. She lived a life of such emotional intensity! And for a clincher she even had a nosering – the epitome of cool for me as a child. Even today I’ve been known to make a few sounds now and then about getting my nose pierced – if only it didn’t involve bleeding wounds in places accustomed to the accumulation of mucus.
To see her frying pakoras was a bit of a shock. One look at her sullen face as she spooned them onto a plate, however, and all was right again – hidden under the domesticity was good ol’ Anju. The next day she came over and told me all about Lamhe. “He slapped her – thhad! – across the face and told her he could never love her!” she said, her eyes shining as she absentmindedly swung the mop in a wide arc.