Seeta hurriedly packed two tiffin boxes. One for herself, one for her daughter. She glanced at the clock, oh! She was already late. She had to reach Soniya madam’s flat by 6:45. She shouted, “Neha, get up. Get ready for school. Don’t be late… Am leaving.” And without waiting for an answer, she rushed off.

Seeta rang the bell. Soniya opened the door and said, “Hmm… You are a bit late, but it’s ok, hurry up.” Seeta rushed to the kitchen to make breakfast. She prepared toasted bread and omelette and a cup of hot coffee. And then she packed madam’s lunchbox, consisting roti-sabzi and salad. She had cut the vegetables the previous day, so she could quickly prepare and pack the lunch. Soniya worked in an IT company, and had to leave for work by 8.

After Soniya left, she woke up Rahul baba, and got him ready for school. He was a sweet little boy, but getting him ready was not easy. He’d rather than go to school. So she would have to always think of some new strategy, everyday, to get him ready. “Rahul baba, wake up! Do you know there is a bulbul sitting on our balcony. Can you hear it singing? Come with me, let me tell you a story of a bulbul and a crow as I get you ready…”

She helped him brush his teeth, gave him a quick bath, helped him wear his uniform, got his snack box and water bottle ready, and then took him to the gate from where the school bus picked him up. Then she cleaned up the house and washed the dishes. After finishing the work there, she went to Mrs Banerjee’s flat, for doing the dishes and cleaning up. By then, it was time to go to the gate to pick up Rahul baba. She fed him lunch as he ran around the room playing.

Then she put the clothes out to dry, ironed and folded the dried clothes, and by the time all the work was done, it was nearly 3. Then she sat down for a while to eat her own packed lunch. Rahul baba took a nap in the afternoon, so she sang softly and patted him to sleep. Then she went to the kitchen to prepare for the dinner and the next day’s tiffin.

Soniya came back by 4:30 in the evening. After making a cup of hot coffee for her, Seeta’s work for the day was over. On most days she also went to do cleaning up in some other flats, so that she could earn some extra money. Seeta had been working for Soniya for nearly a year now. She liked Soniya, she was kind and always gave her extra money during festivals. She sometimes gave her some old dresses and handbags, too.

She never found faults with Seeta’s work unlike her previous employer. Seeta was very fond of Rahul baba too,  who called her “Seeta aunty”and treated her as his playmate.

After a long day at work, Seeta returned to her home which was a small one-room apartment in a crowded part of the city. Though the place was small, the rent was huge. Seeta struggled all alone to provide her daughter Neha a good education. Seeta herself had been forced to drop out of school after 6th standard and work as domestic help, when her father had died in an accident.

Then she had been forced into an early marriage to a man who didn’t care one bit for her. All that he knew was to hit her and snatch away her hard earned money and spend it on drinking. She had been secretly happy when he had abandoned her for another woman. More than angry, she was thankful to that other woman for taking away the trouble of her life.

She was happy raising her daughter as a single mother. Even Neha never bothered to ask about the father who had not shown any affection towards her. Seeta didn’t want her daughter to suffer the same fate as hers. So she worked as hard as she could.

One day, Soniya told Seeta, “Seeta, Ashish is coming tonight. He will be with us for at least a month. At last he could get a break from his work.” Seeta knew that sahab was working abroad. She hadn’t seen him, except in the wedding photograph which was kept in the living room.

Madam seemed very happy. Rahul baba was also very excited and told her, as he happily pranced around the room, “Seeta aunty, my Papa is coming. He will bring me lots of gifts and chocolates. I will share them with you.” Next day, Soniya introduced Seeta to Ashish telling him, “Meet my Seeta. I don’t know what I would do without her to help me out.”

Seeta got busy doing various chores. As she was mopping the living room floor, she felt uncomfortable, as if someone’s piercing glance was on her. She turned back, and saw Ashish sahab sitting on the sofa and reading the newspaper. At first, Seeta thought it was her imagination.

When she would be doing work, Ashish sahab would appear from nowhere and would brush against her, touching her in the wrong places. Seeta started to feel uncomfortable. She didn’t like it, but what was she to do?

She decided to take advice from Kanta bai, her kind neighbour. Kanta bai advised her, “It will be better to just keep your mouth shut. What will you tell Soniya madam? That her husband touches you? Is she going to believe you? Anyway, he works abroad, so ignore him for now. Act like nothing has happened. Meanwhile, try not be alone in the house with him. He will soon go away, and your life will be like the old times. This is the fate of our lot….”

Seeta decided to take her advice and ignore these unwanted brushes and touches. She avoided going to the flat when Rahul baba was at school.

Then one day, after she had put Rahul baba to bed, at nearly 4 in the evening. Seeta went into the kitchen to prepare for dinner. Expecting Soniya madam to be home anytime now. As she closed the fridge and turned around, she froze. Ashish sahab was standing in the kitchen. He was slowly walking towards her.

He tried to grab her. She tried to push him away. But he was a tall and strong man. She gathered all her strength and punched him in the face. He reeled back in surprise and pain. Suddenly, the door bell rang. Both of them were startled. The door bell rang again. Soniya was shouting, “Seeta, where are you? Open the door.” Ashish glared at Seeta and threatened, ” How dare you hit me! How dare you, you lowly woman. I will teach you a lesson. Just see!”

Seeta went to the door and opened it. Soniya asked, “What was taking you so long?” Ashish came into the living room and asked her, “Weren’t you supposed to go with Priya for shopping today? You had told me you would be late today…” Soniya said, “Oh, Priya wasn’t feeling well today, so we dropped the plan. We might go tomorrow…” 

She noticed Ashish’s nose that was a bright red. “What happened to your face?” “You startled me with the doorbell, I banged myself against the bedstead.” Soniya looked at Seeta, “And what’s the matter with you? Are you alright?” Seeta muttered, “I am not feeling well, madam. Is it ok if I leave now?” Soniya looked at her searchingly and said, “It’s ok. You go. I will manage the rest of the work today.”

Seeta went home. She was in a turmoil. She had ignored the brushes and touches so far. But today sahab had crossed the limit. What should she do now? Quit her job? Then madam would ask the reason. How could she tell madam what had happened? But she couldn’t continue working there anymore. The threatening look that sahab gave and his words, “I will teach you a lesson”, echoed in her mind.

She hadn’t really meant to hit him, she did it on the spur of the moment to protect herself. She couldn’t imagine what would have happened if Soniya madam had really gone for shopping today. After a sleepless night, Seeta decided to go to work because she had to meet the expenses, especially her daughter’s school fees which were due next month. She decided to keep quiet, besides she didn’t want to create problems between madam and sahab.

She rang the bell at Soniya’s flat. Soniya opened the door. She looked at her and asked, “How are you feeling today?” Seeta couldn’t look her in the  face, “Am better today.” And she headed for the kitchen. All day she was tensed, but she didn’t come face to face with Ashish. Soniya came back from work at 4:30. Seeta went to the kitchen to make coffee for her.

That’s when she heard Ashish sahab ask Soniya madam,”Where is the ₹10,000 that I withdrew from the ATM yesterday? I cant find it.” He was searching the wardrobe. “I am sure I kept it here. I can’t find it. Soniya, come here and help me.” A frantic search was underway, and clothes were strewn all over the bed and floor. Suddenly Ashish stormed into the kitchen.

He accusingly pointed at Seeta, “I know you have taken it. Where is it? Where is my money?” Soniya came running into the kitchen. Seeta looked at them both, stunned. “Where is your bag? Show me your bag,” Ashish demanded. Seeta pointed towards her bag, sitting in a corner of the kitchen. Ashish pounced on it. He opened the bag and emptied all the contents. Out fell a bundle of money.

Seeta gasped in horror. She hadn’t touched the money, leave alone put it in her bag. But what could she say? That Ashish had planted the money in her bag when she was not in the house? Who would believe her if she said that she was being framed for refusing to give in to his demands. Ashish was shouting, “Look at this thief, Soniya ! Your Seeta is nothing but a plain thief! I don’t want a thief in my house… I am going to call the police..”

Soniya looked at Seeta. Seeta looked pleadingly at Soniya, “Madam, I didn’t take the money. I don’t know how it came into my bag. I don’t know anything.” Ashish was looking at Soniya angrily, “What are you waiting for? Get my phone. I am going to call the police right now. I have to teach this lowly woman a lesson.” Soniya said, “Please wait, Ashish. Can’t we sort this thing out? Must we call the police?” Ashish retorted, “If you can’t get my phone, I can very well get it. I am not going to let her get away with this.”

Ashish stormed out of the kitchen. Just then, Rahul came out of the bedroom, woken up by all the noise. He started crying, “Papa, please don’t call the police. The police will hurt Seeta aunty. I like her very much.” Ashish calmed down a little on seeing Rahul cry. He turned around and shouted at Seeta, “Get out of here. And never come back. Never.”

Seeta slowly picked up her bag, put all the contents back, and walked to the door slowly. She told Rahul baba, “Good bye, baba. Take care.” And she walked out of the door, closing it behind her. She came back home. She had lost her job. She hadn’t got the last month’s salary also. How would she pay her daughter’s fee now? Now she would have to search for a new job . She would miss Rahul baba…

Next day, Seeta woke up early. Then she remembered that she didn’t have work to go to, today. She was wondering what to do. Neha got ready for school. She was surprised to see Seeta still at home. “Ma, aren’t you going to work today?” “Oh, I quit that job. It wasn’t suiting me.” Neha said, “Ma, am going now. Let’s talk later.” As she went down the stairs, she called out to Seeta, “Ma, someone is here, asking for you.”

Seeta came out. She was surprised to see Soniya standing at the doorway. “Madam…”

Soniya interrupted her, “Don’t explain, Seeta. I know everything. I know Ashish very well. Though he is a good person, he has some very serious flaws. I had hoped he had overcome them. But leave it…. That day when I came back and saw the expression on your faces, I had guessed what had happened. Ashish is an egoistic person. He can’t bear someone hurt his ego. So he had to do something about it. He would have called the police had it not been for Rahul. The only person who can melt Ashish’s heart is Rahul. I am so sorry you had to go through this. Ashish is going back next week, will you please come back after he goes?”

Soniya added, “Here is your last month’s salary. I can’t do without you. Seeta, please forgive us for what happened. Let us forget this whole episode and start anew.” Seeta thought to herself, “Forgive? Maybe, after all that’s what I have been doing all my life, but how can I forget?”

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Divya Pai

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