She saw her reflection in the shiny steel plate and smiled just a little.
She looked good, and she had done a good job cleaning it. Her mom would have been proud.
She thought back to the time she had learned the trick - she was around 10 but she couldn’t be sure. There was no concept of birthdays in her family, so she never knew her exact age, and years were just a hazy concept she didn’t completely understand until years later. She came to understand months sooner, because of salary and the blood on the mattress.
She remembered the day that, instead of school, her mother took her to someone’s house. Initially she was excited when her mother said she didn’t have to put on her wretched hand-me-down uniform with loose threads hanging from the skirt, and she happily retrieved her only good pair of clothing from under the mattress: A pink and yellow salwar-kameez one of her mother’s employers had given her.
When she put it on, it was at least a size too big for her. But she loved the colours and didn’t want to take it off, so she made a mental note to keep hitching up the salwar as she walked so it wouldn’t get dirty.
She had thought there was some party or function at school. Confusion first set in when her mother took her down a completely different route.
No answers were given to her repeated queries about their destination until they arrived at the house. Inside, her mom had handed her a scrub, pointed to a cake of green soap and ordered her to clean the stacks of utensils towering over the sink. The pleasant smelling soap had surprised her; at home, they did the cleaning with sand.
Nevertheless, ever the obedient daughter, she got cleaning. It made her nervous when her mother left her alone in the kitchen, but her voice kept wafting in as she conversed with the owner of the house, a woman.
The owner had later looked at her and gushed over her pretty features. That was the first time someone had said that to her, and thinking back to the day still made her smile.
A pleasant memory from a day when, she thought now, all her opportunities were stolen from her.
After she had cleaned all the utensils on that first day, her mother came and inspected each one, all of steel. She wasn’t happy. There were still spots on the plates from the food they had last held.
Her mother dumped all the clean utensils in the sink once again, then picked up the scrub herself. After she’d cleaned all but one to her satisfaction, she picked up a plate and held it in front of her daughter’s face. “You see this?” she said.
“What?” the daughter asked.
“You should clean utensils in a way that they can serve as a mirror; it should show you as you are.”
The mother had saved one of the plates washed by the girl and now held that up to her.
“You see the difference?”
She did. The stains gave her clear skin a blemished appearance. Even then, she understood that it was in the interest of girls to have clear skin. Her aunt, often discussed as a liability around the household, had at least twice been rejected by prospective grooms because of the spots on her face.
On the way back that first day, her mother had explained the message further. “Beta, we are poor people. We can’t send you to school anymore and chances are you’ll spend the rest of your life as a maid, like me.
“It’s not the best kind of work and the money is less. But for what it’s worth, our family has taken great pride in being sincere workers. We may just clean utensils, but we should do it better than anyone else.
“Remember what I taught you today. Every plate and every spoon should reflect your hard work and dedication. Every stain is a blemish on your person.”
The message was a little too deep for the child, but she retained the essence of it. From now on, when she stared into a plate she had cleaned, it should reflect her pretty face. Someone had called her pretty that day, she thought as she walked holding her mother’s hand, stumbling slightly every now and then as the salwar caught under her feet. She smiled to herself and the resolve rooted itself in her young mind.
She had kept her word to this day, sometimes to the bemusement of employers and at times to their consternation. This one time, when she was taking a glance at each plate before stacking them in the cabinet, an employer noticed and launched a tirade that made her feel like a thief.
“What are you doing?” the employer had screamed, storming into the kitchen and snatching the plate from her. “You think this is some sort of a fashion show? You bloody two-penny maid come here for modelling? You’ll do fashion on our time, you bloody classless good-for-nothing? Don’t forget where you come from.”
She stopped going to that house from the next day. It meant foregoing 28 days’ pay, but she couldn’t stand for such behaviour. Finding work was never a problem. She was a good worker and word-of-mouth always landed her a job when she needed one.
This other time, when another employer saw her doing that, she was gifted a beautiful hand-held mirror the next day. The employer, an extremely gracious, polite woman, said the mirror would serve her purpose better. She had blushed at the gesture, slightly embarrassed. She was sure the employer meant her no ill will, but she despised being pitied.
She wondered what the employer must have thought before buying her the mirror – “Poor child doesn’t have money to buy a decent mirror.”
She couldn’t obviously go around explaining to everyone why she did what she did, so she politely refused the mirror and set about her work once again. The subject was never broached again.
Thankfully, at most homes, people were too pleased with her work to care about what they saw as a quirk. This one time, she overheard another employer whisper to a guest that she found it so sad that the pretty girl was trapped in poverty; that she could only seek solace in her appearance; that she probably cursed her fate every time she looked at her reflection, put off by the chasm between potential and reality.
She quit that house too. The words had pierced her ego.
She obviously understood that her life could have been much better than what it was. She’d seen kids studying what she once did and grow up to have office jobs with money and off-days. But nobody had the right to criticise her lot in life, except her. And even she did so only in the dark of night, in the safe corridors of her mind.
At these times, sleeping in a prison-cell-sized room with her family of six, she also tried to remember the few things she’d learnt at school. One thing she remembered better than all else: A for apple, B for ball, C for cat...
She knew all the 26, even though she didn’t know what they were for. She’d seen random compilations of the letters strewn across hundreds of boards everywhere she went, but didn’t understand what they meant. A silent prayer escaped her lips every time she came across such strings of letters – “I wish I could...”
One day, one of her oldest employers let her go because they were moving out. The owner, this wonderful elderly lady finally going to live with her son and his wife, gave her three months’ pay and a lifetime’s blessings as severance. “Do well in life, child, I’ll pray for you,” the woman said as her son led her wheelchair away.
She was sad to leave the job, but the added heft of her wallet made her feel powerful for the first time in her life. She had the money she needed and then some. She wouldn’t give this money at home, she decided, and tucked the money deeper into her bra than her usual stash, letting her skin play sentinel. Later that evening, she purchased a cheap wallet from the weekly haat to store her treasure.
The next morning began her 132nd period, which made her realise all of a sudden that she had been an adult quite long. Many of her friends were married by their 48th.
That day, a woman approached her as she made her way to work and asked if she had time to take up another job. She replied she did, and the woman asked her to arrive by 12.15. It was 10 at the time, so it fit into her timetable perfectly.
At the house, the woman was teaching her child when she arrived. They were seated at the dining table, which stood right outside the kitchen.
When she was almost done with the utensils, she heard the mother prodding the child to recite the alphabet. When the kid hadn’t replied to “A for...” for the fifth time, she spoke out from the kitchen: “Apple.” The mother turned to her: “B for...”
When she had answered the whole alphabet correctly, the mother summoned her. She sent the child off to play, and made her sit down on the floor beside her. “If you are educated, why do you work as a maid?” she asked.
“That’s all I know,” she replied.
“Oh,” the mother replied.
“Is it an important thing to know? They teach everyone this.”
“Oh yes. If you learn this, you can learn so much more.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s... how do I explain it? See, it’s the written expression of what we speak. The building blocks. You know what language is?”
She shook her head.
“Language is what we use to speak to each other. You and I are talking in Hindi. A,B,C are English. There are thousands of languages in the world. English is the most widely spoken and that’s why everyone is taught A, B, C...”
“For what do you use them?”
“To write your name, for example.
“Your name is Kamlesh; to write this, we pick from the alphabet the letters that match each sound, then put them together.
“Wait, I’ll show you.”
As the mother wrote the letters down, Kamlesh looked intently. She wanted to point out at first that her employer was writing the letters down in the wrong sequence, but kept mum.
“See, this is how you write your name. K A M L E S H.”
“That’s my name?”
It seemed an alien but fascinating thing, that this random sequence of letters depicted her name. Her identity. She ran her hands over the letters and felt pride. She felt a feeling she’d not felt in a long time, of being swept away by the force of new knowledge. It used to happen in school every day. She remembered that feeling very well.
That night, she stepped out of her house, sat under a streetlight and memorised the sequence of letters. Half-an-hour later she knew she knew it so well she’d never forget it.
The next day, she asked her employer for a new sequence of letters to learn. The employer gave her five, and a pen and a pad. “Practice,” she said, “I’ll give you more tomorrow.”
Shortly, she understood why the alphabet was taught the way it was. It was not just a poem. Every letter was taught with a word that began with the letter. It made her proud that all her life, for everything she didn’t know, she had at least known 26 whole words.
Words she knew how to write from memory by the end of the week.
The plates took a backseat as a new fascination set in. She would stop at boards and try to say the sequence of words, then note them down and ask her employer their meaning. Two months later, she could put together small sentences. It was all so new to her: That these random shapes held so much meaning; so many different meanings.
Within the year, she had also learned the Hindi alphabet. It was tougher; there were so many more letters. But when she’d learned it, she found using it much easier. She could write exactly what she thought. And when she read it, she understood.
She began spending time near a street bhelpuri vendor to read off the scraps of newspapers he kept – it liberated her, the new universe that had now been opened for her. She had even begun to read books her employer would give her every now and then. Thin ones, with stories of fairies and princesses.
“Did these things actually happen?” she asked her employer one day. “Did the wicked witch really eat children?”
“No,” said the employer, a young woman who wore really pretty suits, and then explained to Kamlesh the concept of fiction and non-fiction, adding, “It’s just like films.”
It took Kamlesh - who hadn’t seen a movie ever, only their posters - a couple of days to wrap her head around the idea that people could build entire universes in their head. And she read ever more furiously – rushing through chores at home and sleeping less so she could spend some more time in these worlds.
Over the next few days, she realised she only occasionally gave the plates a second glance; when she did, it was only to ensure her work remained spotless as before. Her reflection didn’t interest her so much anymore. She now dwelt in another world.
When her mother saw her livelier gait and distracted demeanour, she asked Kamlesh if she was up to dishonourable business. “Nahi,” Kamlesh replied and congratulated herself as she saw the two syllables take shape in her mind and stand next to each other to form the word she’d just said.
She just couldn’t get over being able to see what she spoke. At times, in her dreams, she entered her mind and touched the different forms, felt their shapes; she took pride as they populated the corridors, surprised how the more letters took residence in her mind, the more space seemed to open up.
She didn’t walk as much as she flew.
Rarely, just rarely, bitterness threatened to stall her flight as the thought crept in that she could have learnt all this much before had her parents not been poor. But she immediately packed it off. She never let this sentence take shape in her mind.
One day she heard that her immediate neighbours – an alcoholic and his loud-mouthed wife – had pulled their daughter out of school, while letting their sons continue.
It crushed her to see the child go through what she once did, and decided to do something about it. So she went to their house one morning to talk them out of it.
When she announced why she had come, the girl’s father shouted at Kamlesh: “Where will we get money to raise three kids if she doesn’t work?”
“What about the money the two of you earn?” Kamlesh asked.
“It’s not enough. We can’t afford school for her any longer.”
“Why can’t you stop blowing all your money on alcohol? That way you’ll have enough to send all of them to school and then some.” Kamlesh was beginning to get angry too.
“Don’t interfere in our family matters. Who do you think you are? I brought them to life, I’ll decide what to do with their life.”
Luckily, the man left for another city for work a few months later, and Kamlesh took the chance to start teaching his daughter, and some of her friends.
Because she had spent so much time devising ways to retain the new knowledge she was learning every day, she made a very good teacher, she realised. She explained things to the girls in a manner that seemed to give them an immediate grasp.
The quick grasp was probably something innate in her students, but she thought she deserved some credit, if just for sustaining their interest. By now she had also learnt basic addition and subtraction. So, what she now offered her students for free was an entire classroom experience that would equip them with some basic knowledge to face the world, and possibly build on later.
But for that one problem father, people were more or less happy for the help. Some couldn’t send their kids to schools and were pleased that they were still getting some manner of education; others were grateful for the extra help. Her classes served as tuitions for these children, and they were surpassing their peers at school.
To show her gratitude, Kamlesh dug into her savings and gifted her employer a sari. It was very simple, but the employer was touched. In return, she found Kamlesh a factory job with much better pay and weekly offs and a few other benefits.
Even so, Kamlesh found time to work at this woman’s household for sheer gratitude. And for the things she kept learning. At the end of every school year, the woman gave Kamlesh all her child’s textbooks and new worlds opened up for her with each page.
She slowly began to understand other things too – why plants were good, why it rained; that she lived in the capital of the country; that there were many other countries in the world; that touching pickle while on your period did not spoil it; that the gender of children wasn’t something mothers could help.
If they had been alive, she would have taken the fact straight to her grandparents, her father’s parents, who had beaten up her mother for years blaming her for Kamlesh. But they were dead, and Kamlesh was sure they were also beyond books.
Somewhere around this time, Kamlesh’s parents fixed her marriage with a neighbour, a labourer, Ramesh, considered a catch around the locality for his good behaviour and stable job.
When Kamlesh first met him, Ramesh told her that he had always wanted an educated wife – “though you should never tell my mother that,” he had added, laughing.
On their wedding night, she had read him a poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan: ‘Mera Naya Bachpan’. He told her that the way she had recited it, it almost seemed like a song. “Can we do this every day?” he asked, “This was beautiful.”
She smiled and nodded, her bridal finery giving her nod a rattle. That night as she turned in for her first sleep beside her husband, she saw their names beside each other – in two languages - just as she closed her eyes. Sleep came just as the ‘addition’ sign forced its way between them – Ramesh + Kamlesh.
About a month later, the drunkard returned. And though his daughter was still working and bringing home money, it angered him that she was getting an education; that too from her.
Who cared if it was for free? She had defied him.
This one night, when Kamlesh was seated under the streetlight near her house, reading, the man came to her and slashed her face with a knife. He went away then, wavering in his drunkenness, as blood oozed from the gaping wound. He’d barely missed her eye. In that moment, she was horrified, yes, but mostly grateful that he’d missed her eye.
A few days later, back at work, she was cleaning the utensils at her teacher-employer’s house, and decided to sneak a peek at her reflection. Her cheek was swollen around the stitches, the wound shaded black around the edges; her right eye shut from the inflammation.
Today, she thought, no one would call her pretty.
But, strangely, she realised, the disfigurement didn’t bother her much. She knew better, but just to be sure, she tried stringing together a few spellings in her head. When she could, she sighed with relief. The sigh clouded the plate where her breath hit the steel, but it cleared up in a moment, and Kamlesh got back to work.