The Red Necklace
The Red Necklace13 mins 1.7K 13 mins 1.7K
The main street that ran through the bazaar always looked like as if it was Diwali - the shops were bright and sparkled with lights, the aroma of hot Jalebies mingled with the scented dhupkathis floated in the air, the multicoloured banners and shop hoardings glowed in the light from the streets, tunes of latest Bollywood movies that played from the radios in the shops mingled with the honks of the rickshaws passing by. The sheer energy of the shopkeepers beckoning customers in their loud voices, people buying, leaving the shops happy with their new purchase was electrifying. The Children ran about laughing, smiling, pleading for new toys while the parents, content and affluent, walked through the maze of shops looking for the best deals and best new things for their homes. It was festive, beautiful and busy all the time throughout the year. The bazaar dressed up even more during the festivals and the wedding seasons, looking resplendent like a new bride, glimmering in all her glory. I absolutely loved visiting the bazaar.
Someone like me, in my old clothes and oily hair was definitely out of place in this atmosphere, but I was not alone; I was accompanying my memsahib on one of her shopping trips. I was carrying her bags, which meant I had access to shops which they would never let me into if I were alone. My Memsahib was very beautiful, she bought sweets for me or a ribbon or a pair of earrings whenever we visited the bazaar, she was way too kind, my memsahib. I was very proud of her, and felt almost as beautiful just walking next to her.
Today we were in the bazaar to shop for a wedding she was supposed to attend later in the week, looking for gifts for her friend’s daughter. "Nothing too expensive!" she had said earlier to me, she told me everything. How she had hated eating karela, how she wished her daughter was more ‘indian’ and how she suspected that her husband was not faithful. I knew everything. I was her confidante. In turn I told her everything.
My name is Khushi, which means happiness, and true to my name I was always happy no matter what. I was born to rice farmers in West Bengal. My father passed away when my brother was twenty-one and I was fourteen, those days when I look back now seem like a million years ago, when living meant nothing but an eternal hunger. Brother moved to Kolkata for better working options so I had to quit school to join my mother in the rice fields working for very little money in return. But I was happy enough to sing songs while I worked, happy enough to swim and splash in our river, happy enough to forget at times that there was no food in the house two days in a row. I was happy to have quit school for half of the times the teachers never turned up, and when they did, they hardly taught us anything. It was a total waste of time walking a mile to go to school with nothing to learn.
We had no money, so when the marriage proposal came my mother was relieved to get rid of me. The grooms’ side didn’t want any dowry, they just wanted a young girl for a man whose first wife died a year back leaving two young daughters. I was married off at sixteen to a man almost 20 years older to me, but believe me I was happy, for I knew my husband’s family had some money and I knew I won’t have to go hungry if the harvest was poor that year. Food equals to happiness from where I come from. He was a good man my husband, old but good, and I was allowed to eat rice as much as I wanted. Somewhere though somehow I felt trapped, I couldn’t sing out loud any more, swimming in the river was out of question, many tiny things, tiny ropes had bound me into becoming his wife, a wife who was well fed.
I became pregnant when I was seventeen, and when I was in my eight month my husband died in an accident. I wanted to cry, real bad, but I couldn’t. His dying felt like a tiny door opening to me, someone kept whispering from that door ‘you are almost free’. I swear I could hear voices at night telling me to leave my in-laws house and run away where ever my feet took me.
My son was born almost at midnight, after thirteen hours of labour pain. I held him very close to my heart. He didn’t cry at all after his birth. His skin was wrinkly and his face blue. He didn’t open his eyes and the midwife declared that he was still-born. He had set me free entirely. I held and rocked him and thanked him for setting me free. I couldn’t cry. I called him shona, my golden boy, no one should die without a name, should they? Women whispered outside the ‘aaturghor’ about how I was unlucky, first my husband then my son, about how I was going to bring misfortune now for the entire family. I held my son close and listened. The men took my shona, my son away at dawn to bury him by the village river, and when they returned I was asked to leave. Raw from labour, I left in pain. I was free, I didn’t cry, I couldn’t cry. My youngest brother-in-law had given me ten rupees for my bus fare to my parents house. I clutched it in one hand and in the other I had a plastic bag stuffed with my little belongings. I didn’t look back once. I walked as fast as I could, away from the closed doors to a new day of freedom.
I can never forget the look on my mother’s face when I arrived. She knew all was wrong, in her eyes all were lost. I was a widow at seventeen, a free woman, a mother whose child was still-born.
Mother decided to move to Kolkata and stay with my brother, as the people in our village started talking about me bringing a bad omen to the village. When we moved to Kolkata it is needless to say my sister-in-law wasn’t charmed, but she didn’t throw us out either. Their 10 by 12 room in the slums of north Kolkata was barely enough for them and their two little boys.
I loved being in kolkata though, the sound, the chaos, the life around me, everyone seemed so alive, so in the fight of life. My sister-in-law got me this job with memsahib. She works as a cook in the same building, and she heard that Sen Memsahib needed a maid for chores throughout the day and recommended my name. I happily accepted to work, both for the money and for the time I would get to spend out of the suffocating room in the shanty. I liked being free.
The work was easy, cooking, cleaning and doing everything the memsahib asked me to, and the food at their home was beyond delicious, it was nothing like anything I had tasted before. And whenever they had leftovers from a party or a puja they would let me take the food home for my nephews. Memsahib gave me bag full of old clothes which belonged to her daughter. Memsahib had kitty parties at home, and she loved telling my story, how my son died and I was left alone to all her kitty friends. Once she said, "It’s like watching a Satyajit Ray film, I tell you, that how khushi’s life was." The other madams would click their tongues in unison, look at me and shake their head and say, "How unfortunate, so young..." Though I didn’t understand what it meant, but it made me feel important. I was happy.
The first time I touched the money I had earned was exhilarating, it was my money, to buy, to gift, to waste, my money. Those two thousand rupees felt like a bright beaming sun right in the middle of my palm. It has been two years since, and I was happy, as happy as I could be.
Meandering through the lanes of the bazaar after buying few things we entered a jewellery shop as memsahib wanted to buy a pearl necklace as her gift to her friend’s daughter. I am sure I looked like an idiot with my mouth agape at the handcrafted gorgeous designs in the shop, but I didn’t care. My eyes froze at the counter, amidst many other jewellery pieces, there was this magnificent red necklace displayed in the glass cabinet, I couldn’t tear my eyes off that stunning piece. The red stones shimmered in the bright lights. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life.
Memsahib startled me, "What are you looking at Khushi?"
"Nothing" I fumbled.
The shop keeper smiled at me, rather jeered at me, "You want that necklace?"
I stood there lowering my eyes knowing it was not my place to answer. He continued, "This is Almandine Garnet, set in silver madam, only twelve thousand rupees," pointing at the necklace and turning to my memsahib with a tang of derision in his voice, which was directed at me. I didn’t know what Almandine Garnet meant, but I gathered from the tone of his voice that it was not for me to buy, or even look at.
Memsahib finished her purchase of the pearl necklace, I stole a glance as we were leaving the shop, and the red necklace shined and shimmered behind the glass windows and mocked my poverty.
The rest of the shopping trip went on in a haze, the world faded around me. I could think of nothing but the beautiful red thing, and how it would look around my neck. I went back to our shanty still thinking of the necklace. While having boiled rice and potatoes at night I told my mother and sister-in-law about the pretty necklace. How the red stones were set in shimmering silver, how it glistened in the lights of the shop and how marvellously crazy it would be if I could touch it for once, just once. They seemed mesmerised at my description of the necklace, and nodded in unison. It’s such a funny thing, how women bond over the stories of jewellery they don’t even own.
The following day I went to work as usual, the necklace popped into my head once in a while. I made up my mind to walk to the bazaar on my way back, just to have a look at it. It was there, I could see it from outside, displayed in the glass cabinet beautiful as ever. It had then become an obsession of mine. I kept coming back to that spot looking at that necklace time and over. I even told my memsahib how I went there to look at it from time to time, she had just laughed. One day as I stood near the shop trying to peer in and catch a glimpse of the necklace a burly man came out of the shop and stood right in front of me.
"What do you want? Why do you keep coming back to our shop and stare inside?" his voice was pure venom.
I was scared; I lowered my head and ransacked my brain for a suitable answer. He suddenly gripped my hair and pulled my face up towards him.
"Never be seen in front of the shop again, or else I’ll call the cops," he threatened and pushed me roughly.
I ran as fast as I could, never looking back once. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened that day, but my heart sank at the thought that I might never get to see the necklace again. I don’t think I was this sad even when my baby died. Funny thing this heart.
I went on with my life as usual, three weeks passed since that day. That incident had sucked all the happiness out of me. I functioned but I barely existed. Then I came up with a brilliant plan, I would ask memsahib to go in the shop and get her to buy it for me. And I would work it off, the entire debt from my salary, if my maths was right it would take me only six months to work it off. Happiness returned to me with my brilliant idea engulfing my head. I even told my plan to memsahib and she brushed me off laughing "Dekhchi," she said, "I’ll think about it. Now go clean the bathrooms."
About a week passed since my brilliant plan when memsahib came back with a smile on her face, as if something is going on. Later that evening memsahib and Isha her daughter called me to their bedroom. I went instantly and waited for her orders. She got up from the bed and opened the cupboard to bring out a red velvet box. She handed it over to me, this is for you she said. I stuttered, "I I.."
"You have been with us for two years now, and we just wanted to show our appreciation,"’ Memsahib smiled kindly. I opened the box, and my mouth fell open. It was the same necklace. Both of them burst out laughing at my reaction. I didn’t know how to react. "It’s...It’s expensive," I stammered,
"Not for us, it’s not," she shrugged.
I wasn’t happy, funny thing, this heart of ours. It felt like someone has stolen my dream and placed it in a gift box and given it to me. I stared at the necklace without touching it. Memsahib came forward, "What’s the matter khushi? It’s the same necklace you looked at isn’t it?" she placed her hand over my shoulder, "You have been a sweetheart to us, and we wanted to do something nice for you."
I didn’t reply. Isha, her daughter said from behind, "Ma she is overwhelmed, that’s why she is not replying, why don’t you put it round her neck yourself."
The red necklace embraced my throat like a collar. Memsahib turned me towards the mirror showing me my reflection. "Lovely, isn’t it? Just wait isha, till the next kitty party when I tell them about this. No one has ever bought something so nice for a maid, they'll be so jealous, I can totally imagine the look on Mrs. Ahuja's face. Then we will ask Khushi to put on the necklace and serve us tea, it’ll be so damn funny...." her voice slowly trailed away, all I could see was me.
I stared at me through the mirror, my oiled hair, old clothes and the red necklace round my neck. I looked like a joke, a mockery of what I was. Ridiculous yes I looked ridiculous and I started laughing, laughing madly at my reflection. Suddenly it burned; it burned like hell round my neck. My maniac laughter was replaced with a cry of agony, I screamed out loud, tears running down, I wanted to take it off, but the latch wouldn’t come off. I tugged at it, memsahib looked at me with horrified eyes, "What’s wrong?" she kept asking. I didn’t answer.
"Ahhhrggghh.." I screamed.
"What’s wrong with her?" she asked her equally shocked daughter.
By then I had managed to take it off, flung it on the bed and started to run.
Wait.. I could hear memsahib calling me from behind, but I couldn’t stop. I had to run, the red necklace was too heavy for my neck, and it was too heavy a price for my neck. It didn’t give me any 'khushi', any happiness.
I ran clutching my throbbing throat and never looked back. All I wanted at that moment was to be free.