“Charu, were you touching my make -up? Look, you closed it without rotating it and now it is broken,” said Sadhna holding the misshaped lipstick.
“Sorry Didi, I was just looking,” said Charu sincerely. “Look, I have made your favourite upma today. Just like Kakimaa!”
Sadhna’ heart melted as the 13-year girl served her upma. She tasted a bite, her eyes welling up.
“Please don’t send me away,” Charu started crying. Sadhana put the spoon back in the dish and stormed to her bedroom. Why God? Why?
5 years ago
Sadhna, a sales manager lived with her widowed mother, Neerjala in a posh apartment complex. Sadhna’s job involved travelling and she needed a trustworthy person to take care of her mother and stay overnight in her absence. She found that trust in Chhaya. Chhaya was a hard-working and devoted housemaid, who would slog to earn two square meals a day for herself and her little daughter, Charu, only to get beaten up by her drunkard husband. Charu was a sweet kid, and Chhaya brought her to work regularly. Neerjala had taken an instant liking towards her. While Sadhna was away on business travel, Chhaya and Charu would keep her company in their otherwise lonely 3 bedroom apartment. The trio would watch movies together, go for walks, and chat and laugh about little nothings.
Chhaya wanted her little girl to live a life of dignity, and was struggling to give her an education. Neerjala would assist her financially in any way she could, being an emotional and compassionate person. Sadhna did not mind as she was earning well, and her father had also left enough money for them to live comfortably. She did not care what it cost her to retain Chhaya. She just wanted her mother, her only family left to be healthy and happy. But one mundane Tuesday night, when Sadhna was outstation for work, their lives changed forever.
There was a sudden power cut. Neerjala called out to Chhaya who along with Charu was sleeping in the servant’s room. Chaaya found a candle but could not figure out why there was no electricity when all other flats seemed to be fine. She called the security guard, who had been hired recently, to come and check. He told them that the invertor seemed damaged. It could not be fixed unless they pay Rs 8,000 for repair. This was a big amount and Neerjala refused to give it to him unless he called the electrician. He seemed drunk and started abusing Neerjala, forcing her to pay her atleast some money. Chhaya intervened, seeing Neerjala being disrespected and they got into a scuffle. The guy refused to leave the house. Neerjala struggled to find the estate manager’s number who lived in the same building. Sadhna had sent it to her through an sms. But she never understood how to save a contact, despite Sadhna teaching her repeatedly. Frantically, she called Sadhna who contacted the estate manager.
The guy finally left when Chhaya threatened to call the police. The estate manager came with the electrician and their problem got fixed in an hour. However, the two women were completely agitated. Chhaya complained against him, and he was called before the management. Chhaya accused him of cheating and misbehaving with a senior citizen. She also believed that he had deliberately switched off their main connection to extract money, seeing the vulnerability of the women. He was fired immediately.
A week later, as Chhaya was walking home alone at night, he came out of nowhere. He asked her to take the complaint back, as he was in dire need of a job. He was having difficulty finding another job in the neighborhood as people had heard that he had some “issue” at the previous job. Chhaya insisted that it was not her fault. It was his own wrongdoing and there was nothing she could do. He started calling her names and grabbed her by her hair. She screamed for help. He covered her mouth. She resisted. He strangulated her. She died on the spot.
The news of the tragic and horrendous murder spread like fire. Neerjala was shattered. How guilty she felt! The poor woman died because of her. Had she not been in her house that day, she would have been alive. She could not bear to think of the burden she would carry all her life.
Few days later, one of Chhaya’s relatives brought Charu to their home. The child looked so different from how they had known her! So weak, so malnourished. Such sad eyes! Neerjala’s heart went out to the little girl. The relative told Neerjala that Charu’s father had sold her to a 60-year-old man. He locked his house and left town. Now nobody knows his whereabouts. Charu escaped and came back to relatives but nobody wanted to take responsibility for her.
“How to leave her on the road, Kaki. She is a girl. I already have 4 children. How can I feed one more? Please put her in some orphanage,” said the woman before leaving her.
Sadhna started looking for shelter homes where they could send Charu. But Neerjala did not want to send her away.
“What is she becomes a human trafficking victim? What if she is starved?” Sadhna tried to convince her that she would look for a verified and safe place for her. But Neerjala was inconsolable.
“My Chhaya! How she died, screaming for help! I will take care of Charu like my daughter. Then only her soul will rest in peace.”
Neerjala would keep mumbling all day. Sometimes talking to herself, sometimes to Chhaya. Sadhna was worried that her mother would lose her sanity. She decided to keep Charu till the time that her mother became stable. She transferred Charu to a better school nearby.
Charu was always a well-behaved kid but a good atmosphere at home and school did wonders for her. She was smart and did reasonably well in studies. Sadhna got her good clothes and Neerjala taught her good manners. As time passed, nobody could distinguish that she was not part of their family. Sadhna continued to search for foster homes for her. But it was difficult because most people were not interested in adopting an eight-year-old girl.
A year later, Sadhna mustered up the courage to speak to her mother.
“Maa, I have got in touch with an NGO. They give a place to stay to girls like Charu and even teach some vocational courses. I am thinking…”
“Over my dead body!” interrupted Neerjala. “Her mother died because of me. She came in my dream and told me now she is at peace because I am with her. Till I am alive, she is going nowhere. She goes, I go!”
Neerjala got so hysterical that Sadhna did not dare to bring the topic again. She was annoyed, having to support another human being, who was not her blood relative. She had nothing against Charu. She was a loving child. She would have supported her financially. But was there any need to keep her in their house?
Meanwhile, Charu had become a fan of Sadhna didi. How pretty she was! What nice clothes she wore! How she went to office! How fluently she spoke English! She was always trying to impress her. Even though she was still a kid, she loved cooking and she especially loved cooking for Sadhna didi. Kakimaa, as she fondly called Neerjala would teach her to make Sadhna’s favourite dishes.
They all lived peacefully together for the four years until tragedy stuck this home again. Neerjala passed away after a sudden cardiac arrest.
As Sadhna looked at her mother, lifeless and cold, she felt a pain so strong that she was sure she would die too. Charu clung to her like a baby as they both hugged and cried for the only person in this world who loved them true and pure, who was now gone. They were alone.
The next few days were unbearable, living in the haunting emptiness of this house without Neerjala. Sadhna would think she saw her mother or heard her only to realise that the reality was so hopeless. Her only solace was Charu. It is surprising how intuitive kids are. She was not even a teenager yet, still she believed that now she was Sadhna’s caretaker. She would do the things that Kakimaa did for Sadhna didi. Morning she would ask her if she kept her lunch box and what time she would come back. At night she would remind her to drink milk. She would also convince her to go out for movies and shopping, something Sadhna had lost interest in. Charu was there for her, when her world had collapsed.
Life was looking up for Sadhna. She had finally found love with her boyfriend, Kunal. They were planning to get married.
“You have to get rid of that maid, okay? It is so annoying; I can’t even come back to your apartment because she is there. Just put her in some orphanage for God’s sake.”
But, how could she? Charu was like family now. They had been living together for 5 years. She was distressed because Kunal even objected to support her financially.
“You want to continue spending on her? We will have home loans and car loans and our own kids. Don’t be an emotional fool.”
Sadhna had mentioned to Charu about her marriage and that she would find her a good place where there would be other kids her age. Charu had cried and cried and begged her to let her stay.
Sadhna felt horrible. But was she being selfish? Was she not supposed to think about her future? Kunal would be her husband. She could not just disregard his opinions. She did not want to end up alone…
Kunal had arranged for Charu’s stay at an orphanage in Orissa.
“How can we send her so far? Let us find her a place in Kolkata only. Atleast I can keep visiting her.”
“Let me make it clear, Sadhna. I don’t want this maid in our lives!”
The day had arrived when Charu had to leave. Charu who had been pleading and crying was now completely silent. It was as if she had resigned to her fate. She had packed her suitcase. Kunal and Sadhna would drop her to the railway station where somebody would accompany her.
Charu looked at one of the photo frames of her, Kakimaa and Sadhna.
“Didi can I take this, please.”
Sadhna felt choked with emotion as she nodded. Charu hugged her and cried uncontrollably.
Over my dead body! Over my dead body! She goes, I go…
“Can we go now?” said Kunal irritated. “The train will not wait for her.”
“No!” Sadhna broke down. “I can’t!”
“Not again”, said Kunal shaking his head. “This girl is not even your blood relative! She is your maid’s daughter!”
“Stop calling her maid! Maa treated her like her own child! Maa wanted her to stay. If she goes, Maa goes..!”
“Your mother is dead!”
Sadhna gave him a tight slap. Charu who was still hugging her, held her even more tight.
“I don’t want to enter into new relationships with people who cannot respect my existing ties.”
“Stay with her, you *****. Remain a spinster. Which man will be willing to adopt a 13-year-old girl with you?
“A man who is a bigger person than you. If not, this home has always had self-sufficient women. Goodbye!”
That night both Sadhna and Charu dreamt that Neerjala was in the house. She looked happy and healthy, the way they liked to remember her.