I can see Malati from the window, wielding her long broom. She is an artist with her brush, giving the driveway one expert sweep after another. Today she is lingering longer than she ought on the narrow sun-lit strip. The winter has suddenly descended over Delhi and the sun is more than welcome. Besides, I think she likes shining with the select few: the path, the tree, and a bit of the car.
She has been cleaning for us for ten years now. She has her own little glass from which she slurps tea every day and gossips about her neighbours or relatives, until mummy’s screams pierce through the walls of the house, hitting the patio and then our ears, drawing blood. When I was a child, I would very often find Malati with a swollen lip or a bruise which, when asked, she would blame on her husband's drunken bouts. Now he’s dead, thank god.
I had always wanted to ask her how she managed to get up every day and come to clean my house when her husband beat her and my mother screamed herself hoarse at her. I would wonder if she ever felt like burying herself under the covers and pretending she wasn't there; I myself felt like that quite often even though my teachers liked me and never screamed at me. But what I ended up asking her invariably fell short of what I wanted to ask; I could not fit it all into words. I asked her if she cried every night because her husband beat her and made her unhappy. She would pinch my cheek and reply that only little ones like me cried. I asked her if she wanted to beat him up too and she would laugh. I never asked her how she felt about my mother; it would have been too grave a betrayal.
She is all grey now but she was pretty then. Her hurriedly applied red nail paint and her long, greasy, plaited hair; she was a mystery to me. How did she manage when everybody was so mean to her? I wanted to know what she wouldn't tell me. I was sure it was a magical secret that she staunchly guarded, like the women my mother complained of…the ones who wouldn't give away a recipe. I was right, and one day she did tell me.
In class that day, I was called on by the Maths teacher to do a sum on the blackboard. I was good at Maths so could not stand it when I botched up this time. The teacher and the entire class were looking on expectantly; I had failed. I could barely look directly at the teacher, feeling sure that I had dropped several notches in her estimation. I walked back to my seat lifting each foot painfully, conscious of my defeat. When I returned home I threw myself and my bag on the sofa. Malati asked me what was wrong.
"Don't speak to me!" I yelled, "I never want to go to school again! I will never be able to get out of bed now!"
Malati came closer saying, "If school problems trouble you so much, what will you do when real ones come knocking?"
"You have never been to school," I said, "you have no idea."
"But my husband beats me every day…those things do teach you a little something about life," she said with a smile.
And my mother screams at you every day too, I added to myself, feeling ashamed. "Malati," I asked her, "how do you feel when you sweat and clean while I sit and eat?"
"I feel nothing," she replied, "just a little hungry maybe."
"Aren't you the happiest when cleaning the driveway?" I went on. "You seem like you're dancing."
She smiled, and said that I ought to concentrate more on my homework rather than spy on her.
"Tell me, Malati, what do you think of at that time. Do you feel like a dancer?"
She rested her back against the wall with a sigh and finally began: "Yes, I feel wretched everyday till I get to that driveway. I feel like I am buried neck deep in filth. The pull of the earth is so strong and the weight on my shoulders so heavy that I feel I would collapse and become one with the earth. It is at the worst of these times that I feel the wings. I feel them sprouting just below the shoulders. A strange sensation, as if my skin were breaking, but not painful, only ticklish, and it sounds like the crackling of wood in fire. And in a few seconds they grow bigger than the car, bigger than the trees even. But so light that I never feel their weight, in fact all weight is lifted from me; my body feels lighter than this broom I carry around. I can't see my wings, since they are behind me, but I know exactly what they look like. They are made of tiny drops of fire, blazing orange and gold, leaving a sparkling trail behind as I move my body. They come to me most often on that driveway, but I can feel them sometimes at the bus stop too and sometimes while walking down the road. It is a gift from the sun I think. The moment they appear and light me up with their brilliance, I am dancing, and rising into the air. People think I am still around but I really have disappeared into the sky. When your mother calls me, sometimes I am sitting on a cloud dangling my feet. It takes time for her voice to reach me, which is why she is hoarse with screaming for me. There I sit and look down on the world. My body glistens because of the wings and feels a little warm; the clouds feel cool like water and I sit reclining, naked, my clothes burnt off from my body."
This was too strange a secret for me to stomach. I told my mother, at night when we were in bed, that Malati turns into a fairy sometimes.
My mother smirked and asked me why I thought that.
"Malati told me herself!" I said.
My mother laughed out loud and my credulity embarrassed me.
In the morning I told Malati that she had lied to me. She just smiled.
Jahnavi Misra is a writer, researcher and filmmaker based in London. She was brought up in India and most of her stories reflect the complex relationship that she has with her home country. Lately, the intricate landscape of her adoptive country has also started finding its way into her stories.