Winter 2005
The High Stool
by Abha Iyengar
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There was so much of it. Cheese, tomatoes, bread, mangoes, rice, butter, eggs. The fridge was overflowing. Bottles and bottles of cold mineral water. The first day I had to stop my eyes from popping. The kitchen was large too, all aluminum and granite and high-polished wood that made your eyes blink in the white light of the sun. The sun filled the kitchen, pouring in through the plate-glass windows. Madam told me I could draw the blinds when it grew too hot and turn on the fan as well while I cut the vegetables. She gave me a high stool to sit on to work. I tried it a few times but finally gave up, preferring to squat on the floor instead to do my cutting and peeling. That's how I did it in my first home in the village, and that was the way I did it in my chawl here in the city. I did not think I could ever get used to using a stool. 

Madam fixed my salary on the first day, just as she had fixed my working hours. I asked for a sum that seemed to me exorbitant and was surprised when she readily agreed. She even threw in the mid-day meal. That was good, since my stomach started growling after seeing all the food inside the fridge. 

The ceiling fan whirred pleasantly as I sat on the cool kitchen floor doing my chores. For me it was a luxury just to have such a big uncluttered work space all to myself. I think my room in the chawl must have been as big as this kitchen, but the space there was always occupied by an entire family. When relatives visited, it became even more cramped and we had to put mats down on the mud floor outside to sleep. Neighbors stopped by to borrow salt or share the latest gossip over a cup of tea. There was always a lot of noise and activity, and only stopped for a few hours between midnight and dawn. 

There was a chullah in one corner for cooking and a string along the other end to hang clothes on. Black wires dangled dangerously--connections for the light and fan and the black-and-white television that was the focal point for our evening. My children forgot hunger when they watched their favorite shows. They crowded around the television with their friends, jostling for elbow room, the place smelling of their sweat and dirt, their intense faces shining in the glow of the flickering screen. 

The walls were lined with pots and pans and prints of Gods and Goddesses. They symbolized our life. We prayed to them for enough food to fill our stomachs. As I sat on my haunches in front of the clay stove, filling it with brown sticks that hardly burned, I would think of the glimmering gas range in Madam's kitchen and its instant flame. 

My first week Madam asked me to stay late on Friday for a party she was planning. I was hesitant, since my family expected me home to prepare their own food, but Madam made up my mind by saying she would pay overtime.

I arranged for my eldest daughter, only nine years old, to do the cooking and cleaning for that one day. My husband usually came home late anyway from his job with a construction company. He worked long hours in the hope that they would make him a permanent employee. Even so, he did not like the idea of my staying late at Madam's, but in the end agreed because of the extra money involved. 

Immediately on my arrival Friday morning I got busy cooking and preparing the dishes Madam had asked for. I loved to cook, and because she provided me with all the ingredients and gave me a free hand, I came up with delicious and sometimes even exotic fare. Just before the guests were scheduled to arrive she gave me a sari to change into. It was a pretty pink polyester with blue and yellow flowers. She also handed me a sweet-smelling soap and a towel and comb and told me to take a bath in a tub located just off the kitchen, and to make sure to clean up after myself. 

Bathed and dressed, when I looked in the bathroom mirror to put my bindi back on my forehead, I saw what a difference a real bath could make to my appearance.

"Why, Tara, you look so young and pretty," Madam said when she saw me. 

Till then I had scarcely been conscious of my looks. But I was still young- looking at twenty-five and, despite the children I had borne, my figure was  trim. All the hard work I did ensured there was not an extra ounce of flesh on me. My skin was brown and smooth, my eyes big, my lips full. My hair was black and well-oiled, combed back into a neat bun. Madam often marveled how my sari never was askew and my pallav always in place despite the long hours I worked. I wanted to tell her that in my village one learned the art of keeping one's sari in place, or the men would call out, "Look at that girl. She does not know how to conduct herself in the presence of men. See how her pallav is falling. Her mother needs to teach her a few things." 

My mother would have died of mortification if she had heard such words.

But life in Madam's world was very different. Madam went about in short skirts and even briefer tops. Her breasts pushed out over the tops of her blouses, and her thighs showed beneath her skirt hems. Her flesh oozed out of whatever clothes she wore, always trying to break out of the restrictions of cloth and thread. It was gooey-pink flesh that often turned to ashy white or blotchy red. 

When Madam's husband came home from work, her face paled at the sight of him. He never said anything to me. I knew nothing about him, except that he made lots of money and his family was very comfortable. But Madam seemed to shrink in his presence, except sometimes when she suddenly got angry and her face puffed up and sprouted big red spots and she threw things around. At such times I could not understand her behaviour, but I kept my counsel. 

The guests began arriving. The small diyas and colored candles I had helped Madam arrange lent a soft glow to the surroundings. Rose petals floated in shallow earthen vessels placed in strategic corners. Soft music played in the background. Out in the garden, fountains tinkled and paper lanterns created magical patterns of light and shadow. Madam smiled and laughed as she welcomed the guests. Her husband stood beside her, very imposing in a grey suit. Soon the guests had filled the house and the air was thick with tobacco smoke, the scent of expensive perfumes and chattering voices. By the time the last of them left I was exhausted. 

Madam came into the kitchen as I was stacking the dirty dishes, having rinsed them preparatory to scrubbing them clean.

"Leave the dishes, Tara," she said, "leave them. Come, sit by me." 

Her lipstick had smudged a bit and was leaking from the sides of her mouth. The kohl she wore had spread and darkened the circles under her eyes. She caught hold of my hand and led me into the bedroom. I was reluctant to enter her that room, but since her husband was nowhere to be seen, I soon relaxed. I sat down on the floor, and she put her legs up on the bed. They were fat smooth legs, with red spidery veins at the knees and ankles. 

"Please massage my feet, Tara."

I looked at the clock as she plopped onto her stomach, her feet dangling from the side of the bed. I seemed to have no choice, so I began pressing her small feet, soft and yielding as bread dough in my firm hands. I do not know when she fell asleep, but when I heard her begin to snore I decided it was okay to leave.

Suddenly the lights went out. Power cuts were common in the summer months, so I simply waited for the generator to start humming and the lights to come back on. A sudden movement in the dark caught my eye, but before I could react I was thrust against the wall, the wind knocked out of me. 

"Don't move." 

I recognized the voice of Madam's husband. Without saying another word he lifted my petticoat, at the same time clamping his hand over my mouth. 

The lights came back on, but I closed my eyes in terror. His hands held me in a tight grip, my back hard against the wall. I was scarcely able to comprehend what was happening.:

Madam awoke with a start. Her husband moved away from me now. He told Madam to give me some money. “Make sure she reports for work to- morrow,” were his parting words as he turned on his heels and left the room. 

Madam rose from the bed and told me to wash up. I began bawling, until she hit me hard across the face, her own face breaking out in those red blotches. They even spread to her chest and arms, glaring at me like angry red eyes.

"Quiet, now," she said. "I will pay you for what he has done. Forget about it." 

I sank to the floor, my head in my hands.

“I cannot satisfy his hunger,” she said in a quieter voice, her face contorting with emotion.

She walked over to her large wardrobe covered with big, shiny mirrors. Then, pulling my hands away from my face, she thrust some money into them, closing her fingers tight on it.

Her driver took me home. As the car glided along the road toward my village, I sunk down into the plush backseats. This, I thought, would be my life from now on. 

"Stop here," I said, preferring to get out before reaching the chawl

The car's headlights lit up the road ahead for a moment before disappearing. My daughter opened the door for me, relief flooding into her face. I found my way through the darkness and lay down next to my husband, who was fast asleep and had obviously not heard my knocking. I felt like waking him, but did not. I just lay and stared up at the slow ceiling fan, circulating hot air onto my face.

I did not sleep and was up early. My husband was very pleased to have me there to serve him morning tea. He did not notice the dark smudges under my eyes. I told him Madam would pay me the overtime when I reported for work that day, though I had already counted the notes she had given me. Such a large amount would require an explanation and, besides, I had already decided to hide away some of it. 

Now I stay late at Madam's quite often. My husband and children don't ask any questions. We have moved to a two-room flat in a better area, with an attached bath and running water. My children are well-dressed and go to proper schools. Many saris hang in my cupboard, all given me by Madam. With the money I earn I have bought my family's unwitting acceptance of the work I do, and Madam has in turn bought my silence.

I sit easily on the high stool in the kitchen and no longer on the floor. Some- times my pallav falls when I serve Madam’s party guests, but my indiscretion does not bother me, as it might have in the past.

(Abha Iyengar lives in New Delhi, India. She is a writer, traveler and yoga enthusiast. She has studied the practical (Management Studies), the creative (Interior Design), and the spiritual (Yoga). Publication credits include Femina, Life Positive, Enlightened Practice, Gowanus, Riverbabble, Writers Against War, Insolent Rudder, Raven Chronicles and others.)