“How dare she?” fumed Mrs. Pooja Juneja, picking up all the newspaper pages off the table and trying to stack them in place. But her trembling hands couldn’t even hold them for a minute. They dropped to the floor and scattered with the wind from the whirring fan. Sweat beads dripped down her forehead and soaked her kurta. “I’ll show her!” She grit her teeth and clenched her stubby fingers, digging her long painted nails into her skin.
Mrs. PJ plopped back on her sofa, picked up her phone and once again opened whatsapp. The group was silent now in the aftermath of her argument with Ritu, her new, abominable neighbour. As the society’s ex-president’s wife, Mrs. Juneja considered it her duty to always think of ways to make the neighbourhood better. With dengue cases on the rise, she proposed another round of fumigation. Mrs. PJ scrolled up to see which of the women had agreed with her. Several even applauded her constant endeavours regarding the society’s matters. Only Ritu had the galls to contradict. Ritu – the ex-Miss whatever queen!
“That’s a good idea, Mrs. Juneja, but don’t you think we should check our own houses too? Afterall dengue mosquitoes breed in freshwater.”
“Our houses are clean,” Mrs. Juneja interjected.
“With due respect, sprinklers that run for hours in your garden not only waste water, they also create puddles. That is where mosquitoes breed.”
How dare Ritu suggest that she, Mrs. PJ, kept her sprinklers running on too long? How could small puddles of water pose any threat when most of them anyway dried up during the day? Ritu had then crossed the line when she asked Mrs. PJ to use a down-market bucket and mug to water her garden. And to think, Mrs. PJ had introduced Ritu to the group few days ago.
Mrs. PJ re-read all the messages, her heart pounding hard within her, her nostril flaring with each word. Worse, some others agreed with Ritu. She wanted to throw Ritu out of the group. She’d surely have a word with the admin. But, Mrs. PJ wanted more. She desired to disgrace Ritu the way Ritu had done to her. Tit for tat. An eye for an eye.
“Madam…,” her maid entered the room and wiped her hands on her chunni.
Mrs. PJ grunted and waved a hand in dismissal, not bothering to grace Kusum with more than a flitting glance. On other days, Mrs. PJ always scrutinized her maid as she left, visually ensuring nothing was hidden within the folds of her clothes. Although, her scrawny frame had little cloth wrapped around it to hide much anyway.
But today, Kusum did not move. “Madam,” she squeaked again.
“What is it now?” Mrs. PJ spoke with irritation, throwing the phone back on the sofa.
“I need some advance.”
“Advance? Why now?”
“Baba is ill.”
“Didn’t your brother get a job?”
Kusum hung her head. Mrs. PJ stared at the young girl with disgust. Why were these people always so needy? She picked up her purse and pulled out a five-hundred rupee bill and held it out. Without a word, Kusum took it and scampered away.
“Kar legi na?” Mrs. PJ asked Kusum a third time, narrowing her eyes at her maid’s blank expression.
“Don’t panic,” Mrs. PJ advised Kusum.
Kusum nodded again. With some hesitation, she opened her mouth to speak.
“I have already given your mother half the money. Don’t worry, I’ll be watching you. I’ll not let anything happen.”
Kusum did not react, only adjusted her dupatta.
“Oh, how many times do I tell you not to pull it up. The plan will not work.” Mrs. PJ adjusted Kusum’s dupatta to again reveal her cleavage. Kusum’s teenage body was so underdeveloped, Mrs. PJ had to even lend her a bra to push up her immature breasts. Didn’t her parents feed her anything? What did Ritu’s driver see in this girl anyway? “Wait here. Let me first check outside. And don’t pull the dupatta up.”
Mrs. PJ walked out to her porch and stood there, as if enjoying the wonderful breeze. She turned her head towards Ritu’s house in a casual manner and found their car waiting outside the garage. Much to her glee, the driver stood at the back of their car, wiping the window. Always that white uniform and that cap.
“Huh! As if a uniformed driver is any better!”
That moment she spotted another car in the driveway.
“Damn!” She needed the driver alone there. Mrs. PJ carefully scanned the entire driveway. There was no one else in sight. She breathed a sigh of relief and walked back in. Kusum stood frozen like a statue in the exact manner she had left the girl moments ago. “Go…,” she commanded.
Mrs. PJ watched Kusum walk out with uncertain steps. Kusum stopped at the door and turned back.
“Go…,” Mrs. PJ mouthed and waved a hand in irritation. She hoped the girl wouldn’t goof up. All she was required to do was walk up to that lad in the white uniform. Maybe talk a little. Give him a little attention. That was all. The rest, Mrs. PJ would handle.
Mrs. PJ waited for few minutes before proceeding outside behind her maid. She heard the neighbouring gate open with a squeak and suppressed a smile. Within seconds Kusum came into view in the neighbour’s driveway. From the corner of her eye, Mrs. PJ glanced at the car. The uniformed driver wasn’t where he stood moments ago.
“Now what?” she mumbled to herself and whipped her eyes around the front yard. Just two cars and Kusum walking towards the one ahead. Why the hell was she still there when the target had disappeared? Mrs. PJ searched again and found the door of the car slightly ajar and a white uniform seated inside. He was bent low, maybe trying to tune the radio. Mrs. PJ’s eyes darted back to Kusum, who gave her a fleeting glance. Mrs. PJ knit her brows and shook her head. Kusum turned her eyes away and approached the car. She stood in front of the car’s front window, her back towards Mrs. PJ.
Mrs. PJ smiled with satisfaction as she imagined the view that the driver would be getting that moment and the actions that he would follow it up with. Kusum had confided in her two days ago how the driver often ogled at her. She had explained her discomfiture and wanted Mrs. PJ to talk to Ritu about it. That’s when the idea struck Mrs. PJ.
If only Kusum would move aside a little so Mrs. PJ could get a better view of the driver. Suddenly, Kusum’s hands flew to her mouth and she staggered backwards. Mrs. PJ had expected the opposite. She had expected Kusum to be pulled inside. But even this would do. The car’s door opened and a pair of ragged black boots stepped out. Mrs. PJ’s cue.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” she yelled and ran across her garden and reached the neighbour’s driveway in record time. “Ritu!” she screamed out her neighbour’s name.
Mrs. PJ reached the car and pushed her way in between the startled couple. Pulling the lad by his hand she stormed forward towards the house.
“Madam,” the boy spoke meekly, but Mrs. PJ continued to stomp ahead.
“Madam,” Kusum scampered behind her, but Mrs. PJ was on a mission.
“Ritu,” she screamed and rapped on the door.
The door flew open in no time and a smartly dressed couple stood at the door, the man two steps behind.
“Mrs. Juneja?” Ritu spoke in surprise, “What happened? Please come in.”
“What happened you ask me? What happened? This driver of yours was molesting my maid.”
“Your maid?” Ritu’s eyes darted behind Mrs. PJ.
“Yes. My maid. I saw your driver sitting there for long and thought maybe he could do with something to eat. I sent my maid to ask and look what he was doing.”
Ritu gaped at her open-mouthed. Mrs. PJ smirked inside. She ensured her voice was loud enough for other neighbours to hear.
“No, madam…,” the boy behind her began to speak.
“You shut up. You dirty scoundrel.”
“What happened Mrs. Juneja? Please come in.”
Ritu’s husband spoke up in a calm voice. Mrs. PJ glanced at him and found another man, a tall, well-built fellow, by his side.
“You heard me. Your driver was molesting my maid. And no, I won’t come in until this matter is settled. I will take him to the Police,” Mrs. PJ ranted.
“Madam…,” Kusum squeaked from behind, but Mrs. PJ ignored her. She’d get her moment- but not now.
“Please calm down Ma’am first. Let me talk to them,” the tall man addressed her.
“What will you talk to them? She is a small kid, barely fourteen. Can’t you see how scared she is? What will she say?”
“She is only fourteen?”
“Not even fourteen, I think.”
“And she works at your place?” the man was now on the porch, standing by her side. His presence seemed to intimidate her, but she refused to back down.
“Who are you?” She took one step back and noticed heads bobbing out of windows and figures materializing in balconies. “Their driver molested my maid,” she shouted loud enough for the crow flying overhead to lose its balance in fright.
“Ma’am, please leave his hand,” the man told her in a calm voice.
Her hand obeyed his order without thinking, but her mind refused to give in. “Why should I be talking to you?”
“Because he is my driver.”
“Sir … sir… I didn’t do anything!”
“Oh, your driver?” Mrs. PJ made a face. “So, what? He still did something wrong.”
“Madam,” Kusum whispered and tugged her sleeve.
“Look, how scared she is…,” Mrs. PJ pulled Kusum to her side.
“Madam,” she whispered again, with more confidence, “He is my brother.”
Mrs. PJ jerked her head to stare at Kusum. Kusum dropped her eyes.
“He didn’t do anything,” she mumbled and fidgeted with her dupatta. Tears sprung from her eyes.
Mrs. PJ gaped at her maid, too stunned to glance back.
“So, ma’am, she is your maid?”
“And how old did you say she is? Fourteen? Not even fourteen? Child labour, is it? Maybe you can visit the police station with me. I work there.”
<< THE END >>