The shopping mall is a glittering island in the dark, lit up for Christmas. Standing in front of it, Tuli hugs herself. Despite the thick sweater, she feels cold. She had expected the mall to be less busy past midnight. Her destination, though, is not the mall but the Christmas midnight sale within.
The stalls are on a separate floor, set apart from the rest of the shops. Each booth is crowded, peddling dreams under fairy lights, but Tuli stops only at the one selling lingerie. The stuff of glossy pages and neon-lit hoardings dangle before her eyes, their fabric, colours, textures, patterns just like what Rhea wears. The ones she wears graze her skin in summer. She looks at the price tags. With the extra money from her Diwali bonus, she can afford these.
When she reaches home, she feels as though she has lived two different lives over the past hour or so. The fragrances of the mall have been replaced by the stench from the fertiliser factory. How will she dry her new undergarments in this noxious breeze? The sudden thought makes her restless as she opens the door to her one room flat. She has come far, she reminds herself: No longer the girl who had been evicted from her home in the jungle and forced to move into a shanty in the city, with no water and no facilities. The jungle had given her the right to use its water and soil for her needs; in the city, the soil crept into her shanty during monsoons. She is no longer the shanty girl either. She has moved into this one room house of brick and cement in this low-cost housing between a fertiliser plant and a cremation ground.
Tired from the day’s work and her trip to the midnight sale, she slumps on her bed, already looking forward to the next sale. Outside, a group of revellers are singing Christmas songs in Marathi, their voices loud and clear. Her cell phone screen shows 2:35 a.m.
Mornings in this colony are busy. Milkmen, fish vendors, women at the taps, pigs in the drains, dogs at the refuse, and the constant stench from the fertiliser plant. As she walks towards the bus stand on her way to work, Tuli sees a crowd at the clinic. More and more people are complaining of breathing trouble and stomach ailments.
Tuli lets herself into the house where she works as a maid – nine hours daily, four on Sundays. Her employer is kind, generous, but she does not tolerate delays, and today Tuli is unusually late. Quietly, quickly, she goes to the store room to change into her work clothes. The house is large and madam often doesn’t get to know when Tuli steps in. It’s easy to lie to her when that happens.
Rhea is on her way to the garden when she hears Tuli open the store room. She steps in and shuts the door. Did you go? She whispers at Tuli’s neck, making her jump.
Why do you whisper? Tuli asks. Your mother home?
Yes! Did you go?
Tuli nods and holds up the bag from the mall. Colours tumble out of it. They look at each other, their smiles crinkling up their eyes. Rhea had offered to buy for Tuli but she refused, insisted on waiting till she could buy on her own. Rhea picks up a bra and trails it playfully over Tuli’s face, but Tuli shuts her eyes and Rhea lets go the brassiere. She touches Tuli’s face, her fingers trace patterns over her breast, neck, face, eyes. Tuli tilts her head back, her hands over Rhea’s hips draw her closer.
Outside, somebody sneezes.
Ma. Rhea whispers into Tuli’s ear and bites her earlobe.
They sink slowly to the floor, bodies entwined.
I could live in this moment all my life, Rhea whispers.
I could live with you all my life, Tuli says.
They look at each other, new dreams take shape, but their clasped hands are clammy. Fear and doubt are their shadows, they know.
Rhea often thinks of coming out to her mother, but she needs to be sure that Tuli won’t feel intimidated. The difference of a mere syllable – Ma, Madam. How will they overcome the distance of the extra syllable that sets them apart?
When Tuli first came to you, she was a ‘jungle’ girl, evicted from the jungle and forced into the city. The animals were in danger, the forest dwellers had been told. But the animals and we lived together, she protested when she recounted her story to you. She lived in a slum and travelled to work every day.
Three years later, as you watch news on television one evening, she tells you another story. On the screen, people are protesting at the site of a slum redevelopment project.
Housing for us, madam. Gorment made.
This one? You nod towards the television.
But you don’t stay there.
They don’t tell you all the stories, do they?
So, what’s the fuss about? Why are you people still complaining?
They sent us to die there. Her voice doesn’t shake. Media, people on dharnaa. Full day. Nothing happens.
When do these people work if they agitate daylong?
What work, Madam? If we don’t live only?
She comes in later than usual one day. Dharnaa, she informs.
You were in a dharnaa?
My people protesting day and night. I must also, no?
You ask her to give up the nonsense and shift into your house, to the servant’s quarter in the annexe.
I have my own house, not living in servant’s quarter.
Okay, Tuli. No servant’s quarter. Your own quarter. Okay? Live as you like. Now stop all that tamasha and move in.
My people are angry, and I enjoy here?
You swallow the rebuke.
Weeks later, she comes in with two suitcases. Too much tamasha, she says. Cameras everywhere, so much crowd, nobody listening.
What about your flat there?
She smiles. Such a beautiful smile. If you throw me out, I’ll go back, no?
Your daughter is less independent, but full of stories too. You’re not sure you understand all of them.
My friends and colleagues have no trouble understanding me, she argues.
Generational angst, sweetie.
Nope. You don’t keep with the times.
Don’t try axioms with me, sweetie. You draw the oil down to the ends of her hair. I’ve been there, done that, and more.
She shakes her head. Your “more” may not be as inclusive as mine, though.
The conversation is on your mind as you work on a presentation. Shifting latitudes all the while. Like when Irfan calls. Every six months, he talks of marriage. You want it too but have developed cold feet. Of course, you don’t believe in religious differences, but you believe in the power of the times you live in and the two beliefs don’t match. And so, you keep saying no to Irfan, the one whose love makes you feel alive, young again, full of hope, but for the future, not the rabid present.
By the time that future comes along, we’ll be a doddering old couple, one foot in the grave, he argues.
Or, I a whiff of smoke drifting out of a crematorium, and you turning into soil. You laugh throatily.
A month later, when Irfan returns to the city and you embrace, borders collapse, differences fall apart like smoke.
Leaning against the window of your room one day, he proposes again. You’re tired of saying no, of being afraid. Yes! you whisper into his shirtfront. What’s fear in the face of love?
Rhea walks into your room, discards her bag on the floor and perches on the writing bureau. I’m seeing someone, Ma.
There’s something in the tone, but you set aside the thought, take her hands in yours and smile, Who’s the guy?
Girl. You know her.
Your mind latches on to the noun, the pronoun.
I have been waiting to tell you, but I wanted to be sure about her.
You could be an ostrich at this moment. Standing in the queer pride parade two years ago, in solidarity with friends, could you have thought of this moment? You lean back against the wall, shut your eyes, and think of the many hers you know, but all that you see are the cops who had lined the road that day, not intruding but ready.
Have you thought this through? You ask.
There’s nothing to think. It’s how I feel.
We’ll see, no hurry.
She shrugs. Like everybody else?
Sweetie, there is no “like everybody else”. You’ll have no legal sanction. Do you realise?
What’s wrong with you, Ma? I do know, but how can that determine how I feel?
You won’t be safe, Rhea. You know it!
Safer than you and Irfan uncle.
At the lake, you breathe in the crisp air. Couples walk along its edges, throwing crumbs at the two resident swans. Young children aim soap bubbles at one another. You focus on the luminous, transparent drops of moisture, hoping to catch a rainbow in one of them, but they burst, leaving behind the faintest tremor in the air.
You’re walking in the tiny garden, trying to grapple with your daughter’s coming out, when it starts drizzling unexpectedly. On the clothes line, there are no clothes except for a bra and a panty. The girl has no sense of responsibility, you fume. Can’t even take care of her clothes. You yank them off the line and march towards the house, words of rebuke dancing on your tongue. Tuli comes out with a fresh pile for the washing machine, looks at you, stops short, almost blocking your path, then snatches the smalls from your hands.
These are mine.
Of course not!
She looks defiantly at you, then clutching them to her chest, she hurries away towards her room.
You stand bewildered. Such expensive stuff! The kind that Rhea wears?
At lunch, you don’t let her help with the food. Let it be! you snap, making Rhea look quizzically at you.
At night, you have dinner alone, hastily, before Rhea and Tuli come out of Rhea’s room where they are watching a movie. All the while, irritation nags at your nape, making the hair prickle.
Eight months since Rhea’s coming out. You’ve decided to take control of your fears, to meet and know the one your daughter loves, but in time, at your own pace.
2018. Queer Pride parade. Police lined up the street. They weren’t interfering, of course, but their readiness terrified you and your companions. You think of that day often, a moment of pride for you, for taking a stand, but along with that is the memory of the police, their readiness to move in, the stories of queer couples being harassed, teased, bullied.
Attitudes are changing, Rhea says.
Nothing has changed, Rhea. You’re not a criminal, but that’s how people will look at you. What rights will you have?
What right does Tuli have in this house?
Where did that come from?
Does she have the right to wear what she wants?
We aren’t discussing Tuli and her fantasies, Rhea. We’re discussing your life.
It’s the same.
She gets up to go but your reflexes are quicker. You grab her sleeve. Wait! What does that mean?
That I love Tuli. She’s the one.
So, you’re the one who bought those expensive things for Tuli? You sound hysterical.
Which expensive things?
You want to slap yourself, but no backing out now. Her lingerie.
That she bought with her money. From the Diwali bonus that you gave her. She stomps out before you have said what is actually on your mind. Your shock hasn’t found its language and you have lost the moment for the outrage that you feel. Or is it that you don’t know what bothers you more – your maid’s aspiration or your daughter’s preference?
At night, you take dinner to your room, refusing the food that Tuli has served.
It is easy to be idealistic when stories mesh and flow out from one another, but you’re in a world that has been bludgeoned into uniformity, where your ideology can exist only conditionally, if it tallies with the majority ideology. How will you keep her happy? Will she be happy?
You are trying to fool yourself, Irfan says. You’re not really thinking of anybody’s happiness at this moment.
Really? So, tell me this. Will she be safe hugging in public, sharing a kiss, or for that matter, living together in somebody’s apartment? Will she be able to get a place on rent? She’ll always have to depend on other people’s whims and decisions, their acceptance…
You’re asking the questions that will prove your point…
The doorbell rings into your conversation.
At the main door, Tuli receives the package from the courier delivery man and turns towards you, but you don’t look at her. Why not ask her to go back to her flat?
Instead, you send her on an errand the next day and enter her room. It’s neat, almost bare, her clothes arranged in the old steel cupboard; three pairs of lace undergarments on a hangar; a black nightie, almost gossamer, on the clothes line outside the room. What a temptress!
When she brings you tea later that evening, you pretend to have a headache and refuse the tea, but as she turns to leave, Don’t dry your clothes on the clothes line, you tell her.
She stands quietly, as if thinking how to retort, but leaves without responding. Smart. Doesn’t get into arguments. She knows which side of her bread is buttered. She won’t let Rhea do anything foolish. Perhaps it makes more sense to keep her on your side.
And there’s no need to watch movies in Rhea’s room.
You’d not planned on saying that, but you’re happy that you have.
The cover story for the annual issue has been hanging fire for a long time. You haven’t yet selected from the list of options your marketing team has mailed to you. As you skim through it, one topic catches your attention:
Human interest story around the lives of migrant labourers: Hackneyed – you write next to it in blue.
You wanted that tilt for the issue, but you’ll find something else to convince your team. Before you can read further, Rhea opens the door and stands leaning against it.
You have to stop interfering, Ma. She speaks from the door, not bothering to enter the cabin.
I’m all ears. You smile.
You’re being mean to Tuli.
You draw your hands away from the keypad and clutch them in your lap.
And unfair to me.
Come in, Rhea.
No. You really need to stop interfering.
You live in my house, sweetie.
I know. We’re leaving. Tuli and I.
We’ve found a place.
You don’t know how to respond.
You don’t know how to respond, but there is always a moment in life when clarity comes unbidden, unsought, unexpected. It shows you your place in the larger world, holds your hand to it and leaves you there. You find yourself in that place now, led by the invisible hand.
Will you be happy?
Hmm. We will.
You nod silently, then get up, go to your daughter and take her hands.
Let go. You listen to your mind’s refrain. Let go. Let go…
You stand still, your stomach clenching, then you let go of her hands.
Nine months after Rhea came out, you return home to an empty nest.