Autumn-Winter 2002

By Abha Iyengar


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Leftovers. That’s all I seemed to eat. Yesterday’s leftovers, morning leftovers, anybody’s leftovers. And if I didn’t get them, I asked for them. You might be wondering at the indignity of it all. Imagine asking for other people’s leftovers! But hunger creates in you a desperation that pushes everything else aside. 
That’s why I didn’t feel shy or hesitant about asking. “Bibiji,”--that’s what I called the women whose households I worked in: “bibiji,” "my lady"-- “anything to eat?” They would then rummage around in their kitchens and finally hand me a couple of stale bread slices and some vegetables from the night before. Whatever they gave I accepted with grace. In my struggle for survival the first thing I had discarded was any sense of shame. Putting in a day of hard work on an empty stomach was impossible. So I asked for leftovers, and I got them. It came to seem as if leftovers symbolized my life. I myself was the leftover of somebody’s one-night passion for my mother, and I survived on leftovers thereafter.

Anjali Bibiji was one of the many ladies whose houses I cleaned and otherwise looked after. I sometimes wondered at how these ladies passed their own time. They seemed to be perpetually taking their ease in air- conditioned rooms, cocooned in luxury, while people like me did what we had to just in order to survive. But I did not spend a lot of time pondering such questions. And I only speak of Anjali Bibiji because she was not aloof like some of the other ladies. She took pity on me and often gave me large helpings of leftover food. 

One day she said, “Munni, why don’t you ever bring something from your own home to eat? Don’t you get time to cook? What about your family? What do you cook for them?”  I laughed off her questions with a shake of the head and began mopping the floor even more vigorously. 

I liked working for her. In the heat and dust of the Delhi summer she somehow looked cool and dainty in her crisp white lilac and lime-green cottons, with embroidery as delicate as the blush on a young girl’s cheek. Her hennaed hair was tied in a loose chignon from which a few stray tendrils escaped to lend more charm to her glowing complexion. I presented the ultimate contrast in my own shapeless clothes, my well-oiled hair tied back tight from my flat, brown face. My only feminine indulgence were the multi-colored glass bangles that jangled on my broad arms, though my splayed feet had to make do with blue rubber slippers a size too small.
I felt no need to explain to her the reason for my failure to bring anything from home to eat during my work day. She knew very well that people like myself had no choice but to try and make ends meet, fill our bellies and then go back and work for our next meal, day in and day out. I cooked just enough to feed my family, making sure no penny was spent unnecessarily on food or anything else.

I could not tell her the secret that was closest to my heart, so closely guarded that I dared not even whisper it into the air, never mind to Ramesh, my no-good husband, who would have made sure it remained unattainable forever, philanderer that he was. It was a secret all my own and worth even the sacrifice of going without my share of the food. 

And then one day I discovered I had finally saved enough coins and one-rupee and two-rupee notes--what I considered a huge amount--to buy my secret desire. I tied the money up into a piece of cloth and ran down the narrow flight of stairs leading from our flat to the market below. The shops were just opening for the day. The bright sunlight winked on all the items on display. I all but ran to the jewellery shop at the corner and asked for the silver anklets I had had my eye on for so long. Paying no attention to the amazed shopkeeper, I put them right on and walked quickly to Anjali Bibiji’s house to begin my day’s work. The tinkling of the anklets as I walked was music to my ears.

Anjali Bibiji opened the door for me and then stood transfixed by the happiness she saw on my face. But I immediately noted a huge red weal on one side of her own face. It seemed so angry and fire-like on that normally cool white skin. 

“Bibiji, what happened?” I said and her hand went up involuntarily to her cheek as if doing so could obliterate the mark. 

“It’s nothing, Munni,” she said, “I just hurt myself, I don’t know how.” 

She sat down on one of the many sofas that adorned her well-appointed drawing room. But the room suddenly felt claustrophobic and stuffy, as if the air hadn’t circulated there for days. I sat down at her feet, my anklets and happiness forgotten for the moment.

“Have you put something on it? Shall I call the doctor sahib next door?” There was an old doctor who lived in one of the adjoining flats, lived there all alone in his palatial home while his children travelled the globe on his hard-earned money. 

“No, Munni!” she pleaded, her eyes welling up with tears. So I sat waiting quietly, knowing full well the dam would soon burst. “I can tell you, Munni, but please don’t talk to anyone else about this.” I nodded, aware what a strange confidante I was for this woman to make, our lives poles apart but somehow bonded in suffering.

“Last night I forgot to take the medication I take every night to sleep. Other- wise I can’t sleep at all. I got up from my bed at about twelve and heard Munish—my husband--talking on the phone. I picked up the extension in our bedroom to ask him to bring me my sleeping pills when he finished his conversation. But when I heard a woman’s voice on the line I kept quiet and listened, hoping they would not hear the racing of my heart. When I had heard enough, the receiver dropped from my hand and I went running out to confront him. He did not deny it! Can you believe it?”

I could. What was so different about her husband? All men had their little peccadilloes. We even became thankful for them: better someone other than ourselves to suffer their stinking, drunken advances. But Anjali Bibiji was new to all this, having been married for just a few years. 

She went on in the same vein, overcome by her anguish, her breath coming in hard sobs. “I could not believe it. My husband…he just laughed…said I was too soft, an innocent…had no style or finesse. He said he loved this other woman. He said he planned to divorce me and marry her and that it was… just as well I found out this way. Saved him the bother of…bringing up the subject himself.”

She looked hard at me, her eyes windows of misery.

“When I threw myself on him saying I would not let him do this, he flung me aside and I fell and hit my head on the edge of the sideboard. That beautiful sideboard, Munni, you see it?” She indicated the sideboard with an accusing finger, as if the piece of furniture were responsible for her agony. “How can something so beautiful cause so much pain?” she wailed.

But I knew it was her husband who was the hard one, not the sideboard.
“He has been giving all his love and attention to someone else. I have been getting the leftovers,” she said. “I suppose in that sense we are not so different, are we, Munni.” And then she began weeping so uncontrollably that I got up to fetch her some tissues from the stained-glass box on the dining table. As I did so she heard the sound of my new anklets and when I handed her the tissue a watery smile broke through her cloud of pain.

“So these are what is making you so happy today, Munni? And does this mean that now at least you will be able to get fresh food for yourself everyday?”

I did not tell her that instead of improving my diet I had decided to begin saving for a second-hand bicycle for my son. I would go on living on leftovers…just like her. 

(Abha Iyengar studied Economics and Business Management. She now writes full time and is Assistant Editor of United Planet. Her poems/ essays/stories have been published both in print and online. She has recently been an Anthology Contest winner (Kota Press). Her e-mail address is: abha_iyengar@hotmail.com)