It’s been raining for three days straight. It’s monsoon season, and the streets of Mumbai are flooded but mercifully empty as I walk to work this morning. The wind hisses through the narrow tunnels between the buildings that shoot out vertically toward the sky, determined to escape the city’s squalor. It whips away with my umbrella, stripping me of my only defense. I am sopping wet on the outside but bone dry on the inside. The rainwater turns into tiny rivulets as it runs down the puckered and scarred contours of my face, finding new pathways to old sorrows.
(2) Sweep and mop floors.
(3) Clean toilets.
(4) Wash and dry wooden bowls.
(5) Dust glass shelves.
(6) Water plants.
(7) Become invisible.
At half past nine, the first salon worker arrives. She creates a big puddle by the door, and I have to mop it clean. Two others follow her, and then memsahib arrives at ten grumbling about the rain. Each time I walk over with a bucket and mop up, the rain puddles.
“Did you make a big pot of chai, Biju?” she asks, and I nod. “Good. Bring me a hot cuppa.”
In the kitchen, the girls have gathered and are helping themselves to the chai I’ve made. I hear Devi, the fork-tongued, complain as she smashes some ginger and tosses it into the chai. She’s memsahib’s right hand, and she is not happy that memsahib gave this job to a disfigured Nepali girl.
“Madam, this is a beauty parlor. It’s bad for business,” I’ve heard her say many times.
The rest of the girls look away when I enter. They continue their chattering in Hindi because they think I don’t understand their language, but revulsion and pity need no words. I understand them perfectly well.
I hand memsahib her chai with three spoonfuls of sugar. Just like my baba used to take it. He’d hold his cup with both his arthritic hands and take a slow, long sip. He didn’t speak much, my baba, but his eyes said all I ever needed to hear. When I woke up at the hospital with two broken ribs and my face covered in bandages, I imagined him sitting next to me, looking at me with his gentle eyes.
The salon door opens and a large woman enters with a young girl in tow. The woman is wearing a bright kurta that is too small for her, and the material strains against her ample bosom and rump. She pauses at the door to catch her breath.
“I hope you are open for business.” Her voice rings like a crow’s cry in the empty salon, and she fixes her beady eyes on memsahib. “I need foot massage, mani-pedi, and mehendi.” She pulls the young girl, who stands stiffly a few steps behind her, forward by her arm. “Her wedding is this weekend.”
“Congratulations!” memsahib beams at the girl, who looks about twenty, a few years older than me.
The girl stares back; her eyes are deep dark pools of nothingness. I seat them and fetch them each a cup of chai.
“Oh, this baarish is unbearable. What a nuisance with the wedding and all!” She gives memsahib a meaningful look and says, “Three hundred guests invited. At the Sheraton, too.”
Memsahib nods with admiration. “Excellent choice. They have the best chef in the city. Your daughter is a lucky girl.”
“No, no, no. She’s not my daughter. She is my brother’s daughter. Poor man, he’s no more. Died suddenly of a heart attack, and this bechari has no mother either.”
Memsahib makes a few sympathetic sounds. Sounds that ring hollow to everyone but the ones making them. I pull my dupatta over my head, grateful for its protection from the gratuitousness of strangers.
I fill the wooden bowls with warm water, scatter rose petals, and add a few drops of sandalwood oil. I carry each carefully, my head lowered. The older woman leans back on the leather chair with a sigh and soaks her feet in the bowl. The young girl doesn’t move.
“Arre, roll up your pant legs and soak your feet in the warm water. Do I have to tell you everything?” the older woman craws. Turning to memsahib, she says, “Life is so unexpected, na? Six months ago, after I married off my last daughter, I thought finally I could relax and enjoy my life a little. No rushing about here and there, worrying about everyone.” Shaking her head she continues, “But then God calls upon us to help others in need, and how can you say no? This bechari was going to the university when her father died. Just like that at his office desk. Can you imagine? Of course, there was no money to continue to send her brother and her to university. So I decided to take her under my wing. What is that saying? No rest for the weary, na?” She crackles, and her entire body wobbles with merriment.
Wicked, I think remembering my English teacher, Nanasahib. No rest for the wicked. Poor Nanasahib returned to Kathmandu to teach after studying at Cambridge. Study hard, Biju, he told me, lending me his books and poems. I would read them late into the night with a dim kerosene lamp, intoxicated with the musty scent of the old yellowing pages. I remember seeing his body lined up next to others who were pulled out of the rubble. His face was covered in dust, but strangely retained an expression of wonderment. I waited every day for two weeks as workers pulled out mangled corpses, but there was no sign of my baba or my two brothers. It’s a miracle you survived, the nurses at the hospital told me. You must let them go. Grieve, beta, they said. I have tried, but my dry eyes won’t push out a tear.
In the small closet, I prepare the mehandi. I dissolve the greenish-brown henna powder in warm brewed tea, squeeze a lemon, and add some sugar water as memsahib has taught me. From the half-open door, I watch the girl. She is soaking her feet now, but sits rigidly, her hands grasping the arms of the chair, her fingernails digging into the soft leather. Her eyes have the look of a trapped animal.
Two salon workers emerge from the back of the shop and seat themselves on short stools. They begin scrubbing the feet of each woman with a pumice stone. Memsahib turns on the massager for the leather chairs, and the chairs murmur soothingly as they knead the women’s backs. The older woman wobbles with pleasure, while the girl sits still, rejecting the chair’s invitation to surrender. Memsahib returns with a few magazines, but the older woman waves them away and continues talking.
“Her groom is the son of Ramesh Chawla of Chawla Enterprises,” she whispers in a venerated tone. “Crorepatis, they are. Own so many properties in the city, too. My husband does business with them.” She turns and slaps the girl’s hand lightly, and the girl jumps, splashing the water from the bowl where her fingers are soaking. “This girl cannot dream of finding a match like this—no dowry, nothing. So what if he is a widow with two children? She has to have children of her own anyway. This will be good practice, na?”
“You have a kind heart, madam,” says memsahib. “Young people these days have no idea how hard life is. They have much to learn.” Dropping her voice to a whisper, she continues, “The girl you saw earlier with the dupatta over her head—I took her under my wing, too, just like you. Lost her family after that terrible earthquake in Nepal a year ago. Bechari’s face is very scarred.” I hear the woman gasp. “Nobody wanted her. I took pity on her and brought her here to work at my salon. Costs extra for me—her boarding and food—but it’s our duty, isn’t it, to help those in need?” The older woman gives her approval with a circuitous head waggle.
I lift the brush with which I’m stirring the mehandi to check for consistency as I hear memsahib paint her version of the truth. I remember the women at the refugee camp urging me to go with memsahib. You’ll have a better life, they insisted. I sleep in the damp, rat-infested basement of memsahib’s three-story home. I wait for the family to finish dinner, and eat the leftovers. The basement is cold, and there is no light, but I don’t mind that. At night, I lie in the dark listening to the sounds of the house. Sometimes, I imagine my two younger brothers sleeping in the cot next to me, my baba snoring gently in the corner. I take comfort in knowing that if there were another quake, I wouldn’t survive it here. In the darkness, my hollowness grows, stretching its tendrils deeper and wider every day.
I hand the mehandi mixture to memsahib, and my skin tingles as I feel the curious eyes of the woman trying to pierce through my veil.
“Did you add lemon, Biju?” I nod. She scrutinizes the mixture and says, “Add some more and fill three cones and bring them to me. Did you notice their chai cups are empty? What have I told you? Always refill their cups, and bring some ice water too.”
“She is still in training,” memsahib says to the woman as I walk away. “Doesn’t say a word.” She sighs, “Very slow learner, but she makes good chai, and she’s good at mehandi.”
Words rush out of people’s mouths like sewage gushing through the open drains of Mumbai. I prefer the silence, even if it rings loud and insistently inside me like a temple gong.
I bring her the cones, and she squeezes the top of the cone and the mehandi leaks gently out of the tip. After drawing three lines on her palm to test its consistency, she is satisfied and begins to apply the mehandi to the girl’s left hand, motioning me to start with the right. The girl’s hand trembles as I hold it in mine. I rub it gently with my palms.
“Relax your arm, beta,” says memsahib as she begins to draw a pattern of a peacock. I follow her lead, starting my own design of paisleys on her right hand. “You will make a pretty bride. Not many people have a generous aunt like yours. What did you study at the university, beta?”
The girl doesn’t answer. Her eyes are fixed on a spot on the ceramic tiles. I notice that she is quite pretty—her skin is soft, stretching flawlessly across her gentle features.
“Shy, are you? It’s okay. I was shy, too, as a bride. My husband couldn’t get a word out of me. But with time, you’ll learn to talk. Marriage is like anything else, beta. You have to get used to it.”
We both work quickly. I’m immersed in drawing arches, circles, floral motif—the patterns emerge naturally as the mehandi cone leads and I follow. The girl’s palms and forearms are covered in delicate patterns.
“What do you think? Do you like it? With your fair skin, the henna will turn a nice deep red. You know what they say, the darker the mehandi, the more your husband will love you,” memsahib teases, but only the older woman laughs.
“What does your husband-to-be look like? Is he handsome?” asks memsahib, unwilling to accept the girl’s silence. The girl says nothing, but her aunt answers.
“He is rich. Very rich. So what if he’s a bit old? These young people have their minds corrupted with romantic nonsense. Romance doesn’t put food in our mouths, does it?”
We are now etching patterns on the backs of the girl’s hands. I steal a glance at her and notice her lips trembling, but her eyes are fixed on the same spot on the floor. We finish her hands, and I get up to bring more mehandi cones for her feet and to refill their cups with chai. When I return, the girl’s toenails are painted bright red.
“Looks so pretty, na?” cooes memsahib. “Do you like it? Say something, beta. Otherwise, your husband will think he married a mute.” She laughs.
As I put down the cup, the girl looks up at me. Her eyes caress my shirred skin. They widen slightly as they meet mine, naked without lashes and eyebrows. I feel the urge to comfort her. To tell her that she will survive. That she will find some small solace in this difficult world. My fingertips graze her arm. Startled, she stands up quickly, and the hot chai sloshes, scalding my hand. I drop the cup, shattering it and spilling its content on her aunt, who shrieks.
“What a clumsy girl you are, Biju! Look what you have done.” Memsahib apologizes profusely to the woman and runs to get a cloth to mop up the mess.
My eyes are fixed on the young girl who is now standing, paralyzed, holding her hands covered with mehandi in front of her as if they don’t belong to her. She looks around wildly, and in her eyes, I see something I recognize quite well. Suddenly, she turns on her heels and rushes to the front door, opens it, and stumbles into the pouring rain. I stand transfixed, watching her run barefoot, past the iron gates, into the water-clogged street.
Phat. phat. phat.
Phat, phat, phat. phat.
Phat, phat, phat, phat, phat, phat, phat, phat, phat.
I yank the salon’s glass door open to its full range, applying a force far greater than the hinges can handle, letting it close behind me with a loud bang. The door shudders shut, and the glass shelves tremble and collapse onto themselves, raining glass and nail polish. The crash briefly drowns out the insistent patter of the rain outside. The silence that follows has a familiar taste. Of dust and smoke. Screams and wails. I long for silence to be noiseless again. Everyone in the salon is riveted to their spot, faces frozen in disbelief, as thick pools of pink, saffron, and crimson start to spread their stains on the white tiles I had scrubbed clean that morning.
I follow the girl out into the rain. She is running through the traffic, her fingertips dripping greenish-brown mud. She doesn’t stop or look back. My dry lips part in an unfamiliar smile. The rain falls hard, like pebbles flung from the sky. I let my dupatta fall back and raise my face to its fury. It pelts my wounded skin, and the network of scars reroute the rainwater. As it batters me, I recall a line from a poem that Nanasahib made us memorize about the rain: “That the flowers actually knelt / And lay lodged—though not dead. I know how the flowers felt.”
Then I turn and run.
Hema Padhu grew up in Chennai, India, dreaming of being a writer one day. Her short story Kulfiwala was recently published by Litro Magazine and received an honorable mention in Lorain Hemingway’s 2016 short story competition. She lives in San Francisco and is working on a short story collection.