Her clients carried secrets inside them like tiny winged termites. The women brought them to Diva, the spa in Sunder Bagh, along with their naked limbs and tousled hair. The termites trembled and whispered inside the women, trapped and desperate, until she released them.
Yes, it was she, Pinky, who was responsible for letting them out into the world. She could almost see them emerging as her clients spoke, dark spots against the white walls of her little beauty room on the second floor. Then they turned into a cloud, floating over the starched sheets and the cart full of sweet-smelling cosmetics imported from Europe. When the women left, shutting the door behind them, feeling infinitely lighter than they had when they arrived, Pinky was left alone with the murmur of tiny wings around her. Not knowing what to do with the things she had helped bring forth, she swallowed them all.
The secrets she knew could fill the pages of all the glossy magazines that lay scattered on tables throughout Diva. Her clients’ trust in her was both a responsibility and a burden. As she grew older, she imagined the insects accumulating inside her until various parts of her body ached from their weight.
That summer, by noon each day, Pinky felt a dull throbbing pain in her right shoulder. But this was no imaginary pain. The doctor had warned her to be careful.
What did doctors know of her life? What did doctors, who sat in their sanitized chambers across the shiny new city of Hrishipur and listened to people’s hearts through instruments, know about living in a cramped two-room apartment in a tenement building with three children who depended on their mother?
What her doctor did know, alas, was that a couple of vigorous massages on a day like this were enough to set the shoulder off. And the day had only just begun.
Yet it had already brought some unexpected drama. When Pinky had arrived at Diva, an hour before the spa opened, she saw Khanna Ma’am, the manager, berating Ajay the pedicurist, who stood with his head lowered at the reception. Pinky shot him a quick glance and noticed that the corners of his moustache were trembling. He was slightly built, about twenty years younger than herself, and Pinky felt a tenderness for him that she always told herself was maternal. After all, he was only a couple of years older than her son. And unlike Sunil, who was teetering on the edge of respectability these days, Ajay still retained an innocence that Pinky found moving.
“We have a reputation to protect,” Khanna Ma’am was saying. Her voluptuous lips were painted a dark red as usual. Her kaajal-rimmed eyes glittered with anger. “You have been taught the rules. One more error like this and you will be out on the streets. We are only giving you a final chance because you came here through Madam and because your father is ill.” she said. “Do you understand?”
Ajay nodded quietly. He walked slowly towards the inner rooms with his shoulders hunched like those of an old man.
Her voluptuous lips were painted a dark red as usual. Her kaajal-rimmed eyes glittered with anger. “You have been taught the rules.”
Pinky learned what had happened once she got upstairs. All the girls were talking about it. Apparently, one of the clients who’d come in for a pedicure the day before had complained that Ajay’s hand had reached farther up her leg than it needed to. No details were necessary. The very suggestion that he might have touched her inappropriately had elicited profuse apologies from Khanna Ma’am and a promise to fire him. But after Ajay literally fell on his knees and begged for another chance, she had placed him on probation. However, he was only to do manicures now, no pedicures. Sitting next to clients was deemed marginally safer—and less tempting—than crouching down at their feet. Also, whenever this client visited the spa, he was to retire inside the staff room and not emerge until she had departed.
The actual reason Khanna Ma’am relented was that she didn’t have the power to hire or fire anyone. On such weighty matters, the owner had to be consulted. Madam, as she was known, was the wife of a wealthy businessman who had started the spa with her husband’s money fifteen years ago and turned it into one of the top brands in the city’s thriving beauty industry. It so happened that Ajay’s mother had been their cook before she died, and Madam’s mother-in-law, who lived with them in a large bungalow a few blocks away from the spa, had promised that she would try to find her son a job. The final words exchanged between two elderly women of vastly different social strata had come to Ajay’s assistance this morning. But it was clear that he could not afford another mistake.
Now, between clients, Pinky sighed and leaned against the wall. She dared not sit for fear of not wanting to get up again. Mrs. Lalwani was late. Every minute wasted meant a minute deducted from her large, round, acne-ridden face. The weekly facials Khanna Ma’am had coerced her—or rather, her husband—into paying a bomb for were helping calm the acne scars, but unfortunately, they could not turn the middle-aged Mrs. Lalwani into a beauty she had never been. Besides, she was Sindhi and gave no tip. Not a single rupee. And she talked incessantly about her children’s accomplishments, which only made Pinky worry about her own son more. If she didn’t show up today, Pinky wouldn’t mind terribly. It would give her a chance to rest her shoulder, go see if Ajay was all right, and maybe even squeeze in a few minutes for lunch.
She went downstairs to the reception to find out if Mrs. Lalwani had called to cancel, but of course she had not bothered to do that.
“Too late now. Forget Lalwani. You have the client from America next, much more important,” Mrs. Khanna said.
Pinky’s shoulders slouched as she recalled the woman, Maneka, who had left her a measly fifty-rupee tip the week before. Besides, she had made Pinky talk, which was not how things were supposed to go. She shook her head at the recollection.
Maneka had been more friendly than most of the clients. Pinky had learned, from the handful of expat wives she had tended to, that this was the Western way. Maneka, like the others before her, had asked Pinky to call her by her name and not Ma’am. But then she had gone further and asked her where she was from, whether she enjoyed working at the spa, and so on. It was unusual for a client to show such interest in her life.
At first, Pinky had been slightly wary of this woman who lived in another country and was just visiting Hrishipur for the summer. But when she discovered that Maneka was Bengali, and that her hometown was Kolkata, Pinky had disclosed that she too had grown up in West Bengal, in the foggy hill station of Darjeeling, far from these arid northern plains. She had had an unexpected vision of her childhood home, where she would walk to school before daybreak and watch the mist roll in over the mountains and cloud the tips of the Kanchenjunga before it shifted suddenly, dramatically, to reveal caps of glittering snow. The memory had opened something in her. She had thought she smelled something, and it was not the rose or lavender that floated around these rooms. It was the sharp scent of mustard oil. She had found herself telling Maneka a little story. How every Saturday, a Bengali cook would come to their house armed with a small bottle of the oil. She would use it to cook for the week. Cauliflower and peas, poppyseed paste with potatoes, leftover rice with raw onions and green chilies, and the pièce de resistance—rui fish in mustard sauce. The memory of that pungent odor had turned her mouth moist. Of course, now she didn’t typically buy fish, because it was so expensive.
Maneka had asked if she could eat fish with bones and she had laughed. What point was there to eating fish if you didn’t pick the bones out individually with your fingers? Then she had asked how many children Pinky had. Three. Did they like to eat fish too? Why, they loved it, especially her son. Hmm, Maneka had said contemplatively.
Now she found herself wishing it was someone else who was coming, someone who would tip her more generously and do all the talking and leave Pinky alone.
On her way back up, she poked her head into the mani-pedi room. Poor Ajay. He was cautiously caressing the toned right arm of a young woman who was talking on a cell phone with her left. Pinky gave him a look of sympathy before heading back upstairs.
While she waited for Maneka, Pinky opened the common fridge in the small kitchen. She found her tiffin box crowded among all the others, and took it to the staff room, which was empty. Everyone was inside one of the beauty rooms—as Madam had christened them—where they were tending to the stay-at-home mothers who came in on weekdays to get their legs waxed or their faces scrubbed or their bodies massaged. Lunch had to be taken hurriedly, between appointments. Pinky sat down to eat her slice of bread and chole without bothering to heat it up. The chickpeas were left over from last night’s dinner. Her husband had taken a couple of bites and pushed his plate away so hard that it had spun and hit the wall.
“Is this food?” he’d said, slurring his words as he always did in the evenings.
Pinky had silently cleaned up the mess, refusing to look at Dilip, while the children cowered and the apartment filled up with the odor of cheap liquor. She had gone to bed without eating and stared at the wall for a long time without sleeping. But this morning, the memory of the scene made Pinky feel sorry for her husband. He worked hard all day looking for odd jobs. Laying bricks here, carrying bags of cement there, knocking down a wall somewhere else. It was always difficult for daily wage earners like him to find work. But since all the real estate construction in Hrishipur had stalled, it had become even more of a challenge. Dilip came home famished and despondent every evening, and spent the rest of it in front of the TV, drinking straight from the bottle. What else could a man like him do?
Pinky listened to the piano music piping out of the spa’s speakers and sighed. Yes, it was her fault, for she had burnt the chole in her hurry to cook the food before he came home. Now she wrapped pieces of bread around it to eat it, and it didn’t taste so bad. She didn’t care about taste. So long as her stomach didn’t growl when she was standing behind the bed, looking over her clients’ faces, kneading her fingers into their perfume-scented skin.
She placed two rolled-up white towels on the bed, and scattered a handful of pink rose petals on the white bedsheet.
But usually, right before they fell asleep, the women talked.
Pinky had heard of doctors who charged patients large sums of money just to talk about their problems while they sat in chairs and took notes. But how could any of them possibly compete with this, she wondered? Did they play soft instrumental versions of love songs in the background? Did they spray the room with delicate fragrances before the patients arrived? Did they dim the lights and use their fingers to rub away all the tension from their muscles? That was key. Pinky was known for giving the best massages during facials, longer and more intense than required. When the other girls left the clients alone in the room with their masks on, to use the restroom or get a bite to eat, Pinky stayed with them, kneaded their backs and arms, and listened.
Afterward, she swallowed a couple of pills for the throbbing pain.
Now she walked into the bathroom and nearly gagged. Fifteen years here and she still had not grown accustomed to the smell. Air fresheners were plugged into every socket so they could release generous doses of their sweet, oily floral scents. This bathroom, called the Jasmine Room, was decorated to resemble an indoor garden. A plastic creeper ran up the wall over the sink, along the mirror’s gilded frame. Silk flowers stood in crystal vases on every surface. Artificial potted plants lined the black tile floor by the entrance.
Pinky washed her hands with the jasmine-scented soap to make sure they smelled fresh for Maneka. In the mirror, she saw a reflection of the jagged skyline of the city through the window on the opposite wall.
The spa was bang in the middle of Sunder Bagh, the oldest of all the neighborhoods in Hrishipur, the one that had started it all thirty or so years ago, when the first of the farms were cleared and the farmers nudged west so this area could be developed as a space for call centers and outsourcing offices. Now, the neighborhood was home to five malls, two five-star hotels, and the headquarters of several multinational corporations. The residents lived in gated high-rise communities in pastel colors. Their pinks, greens, and blues shimmered in the bathroom mirror, forming a blurry backdrop to her face with its sunken eyes and permanently etched frown.
Sunder Bagh, she thought wryly. Beautiful garden. City of glass and concrete. The only gardens were inside, like this one, and they were made of plastic.
When Pinky emerged from the bathroom, Maneka was already in the lounge, anxiously studying her watch. The foreign-returned ones seemed to have forgotten about Indian Stretchable Time. However, instead of a scolding, Pinky received a smile.
Maneka held out a Tupperware container with something warm and bright yellow inside.
“For me?” Pinky asked, surprised.
Pinky opened the box and let out a little gasp. Several pieces of fish lay covered in yellow mustard sauce, in which shreds of green cilantro floated like seaweed. She closed the box quickly before the smell could float out and mingle with the various floral fragrances, but luckily the reception area was empty. When she went to the kitchen, Maneka, inexplicably, followed her there. Pinky’s hands shook as she put the container away in the fridge.
“I used my mother’s recipe,” Maneka said. “I’m sure it won’t be as delicious as your childhood cook’s, though. It never is.”
Pinky wiped away tears with the back of her hand. She turned around and laughed.
“The mustard oil is making me cry. Sorry.”
After Maneka lay down on the bed, Pinky wiped her face with freshly squeezed orange juice. It was gratifying to hear her make sounds of contentment. Sometimes, the clients moaned with pleasure when she was slowly rubbing their temples or making circles with her fingers over their eyelids. It always astonished Pinky to see how starved these women were of physical affection of any kind, even the touch of a hand. Her fingers, she had learned, could perform magic.
Ever since Diva opened, she had been coming to work ten hours a day, six days a week. During that time, many clients had come and gone. Locked in the small room with her, the regulars relaxed within a few minutes of lying down. Then their tongues loosened and just a casual question from Pinky, such as How was your week? or How is everything? was enough to let the secrets begin streaming out.
Pinky’s presence behind the bed became so familiar, so comforting, that they almost forgot she was there. They felt only the gentle pressure of her fingers and succumbed to the luxurious peace of their surroundings.
In the beginning, their confidences had shocked her. On the surface, they seemed so conventional. They fretted about children not doing well at school, or grown-up daughters not getting married. They complained about how their mothers-in-law nagged them, or how their maids had gone home to their villages on annual leave and not returned on time, thus throwing their households into disarray. But then, she turned the light off, covered their bodies with cool cotton sheets, and began massaging their faces. Pinky’s presence behind the bed became so familiar, so comforting, that they almost forgot she was there. They felt only the gentle pressure of her fingers and succumbed to the luxurious peace of their surroundings. What they disclosed to her in those two hours were things they could tell no one else. Not the women in their kitty parties with whom they lunched and played rummy each week. Not the sisters with whom they were forever competing about the size of their condos or their children’s grades. Not even the best friends with whom they shared gossip about other people and shopped in the malls for branded clothes and accessories. And certainly not the husbands, whom they rarely saw anyway. No, the only person in the world whom they entrusted with their secrets was Pinky.
And she had learned to be there for them. For the one who had never consummated her much-publicized marriage with her husband, the scion of a prominent business family. The one whose husband hit her during sex in order to come, not just with his hands, but with his belt and with ropes and sometimes with her own high-heeled pumps. The one whose cousin had shoved her into the bathroom during a party and kissed her, after which she could not stop thinking about him. The one who sneaked out of her flat every night after her family went to sleep and went to her maid’s little room to lie with her for a few hours.
Pinky listened in silence, without judgement. The women just wanted to talk, often rambling for a while before abruptly falling asleep, exhausted from the exertion or perhaps simply relieved from letting it all out. Every now and then, Pinky made comments like And then? or Really? Certain of her enrapt attention and undivided interest, the women felt encouraged to continue. They never asked for her perspective or advice, which was just as well. If they had, she would have told them that marriage did not appear to have done any of them much good.
Today, Maneka seemed quieter than on her previous visit. All she’d said after she slipped off her blouse and lay down on the bed was, “You don’t seem that busy today.”
Pinky, who had steeled herself against a barrage of questions, waited for it for a few minutes as she worked. Then the thought of the home-cooked fish curry cooling in the fridge slackened her resolve to the point where she blurted out a question herself. “Are you married?”
Maneka hesitated, making Pinky wonder if she was unhappy with her husband like all the others. “No, but everyone always asks me that when I come to India.”
“You live all alone in America?” she asked.
“I could never do that. You must be so brave.”
“It’s brave to be married,” said Maneka. “To not be free.”
In the darkness, Pinky whispered some advice about lightening her skin with homemade yoghurt mixed with chickpea flour. “Leave it on for ten minutes before your shower,” she said. “It will get the tan off.”
Maneka laughed. “I don’t share this Indian obsession you people have with fair skin.”
She was definitely odd. The spa was full of women who came in for skin lightening treatments. But Maneka had said “you people” with a slight sneer. As if she were different somehow. Maybe life in a foreign country made you like that, always separate, never able to quite blend in. Pinky noticed the clear tan line on her skin, a sign that she had only recently been out in such relentless sunlight.
“Is it very cold there?” she asked.
“Snows for five or six months,” Maneka said. “And you have to drive your car in it and walk in snow boots and be careful not to fall and break a leg. The snow swirls all around you and the wind blows hard. And just like the Loo scorches your face here in the summer, there the wind freezes your face in the winter.”
“You drive yourself? There’s no driver?”
Maneka laughed again. “No driver, no servants. I do my own laundry, cook my own food, buy my own groceries.”
Somehow, Maneka’s laugh did not sound to her ears like a happy one. Pinky felt sorry for her. Her life seemed more frightening than those of the other women, the ones who confessed to infidelity, the ones who lied to their husbands and children all day long.
Every time she pressed down on Maneka’s skin, a stab of pain shot up her right arm. She had to grit her teeth to keep from crying out.
In the comfortable, cool silence, Maneka went on talking, as if it had been a long time since she had talked to anyone. Her mother had died a few months ago. Her father was alone in Kolkata. She worried about him, about how he would live the rest of his life alone with his only child so far away. She wished she had visited her parents sooner, but she had kept putting it off, summer after summer, until it was too late. Now she was in Hrishipur to do some research for her work and was discovering this city for the first time. She was surprised by the number of malls.
Pinky was surprised by Maneka’s reaction. Why, everyone always said that now India was becoming more like America. “Are there no malls where you live?” she asked.
The place Maneka described sounded nothing like the America she had caught a glimpse of in Hindi movies. It was a small, sleepy town, dotted with farms and orchards. Everyone grew their own vegetables and went swimming in the lake and camping under the stars. Most of Maneka’s friends did not even have cable TV.
“What?” said Pinky, shocked.
“No, no, don’t laugh,” Pinky said hastily. “The mask will crack.”
Despite the pain in her shoulder, she was doing her best, and clearly it was working. A few minutes into the massage, Maneka spoke more softly, as if she were half asleep. “Can I tell you something?” she said. “I haven’t really shared this with anyone yet.”
Pinky nodded, even though she knew Maneka couldn’t see her. But she was suddenly struck with genuine curiosity about her client, something she had not felt in a long time. She wondered what revelation was coming, and braced herself for the whirring creatures that would soon fill up the room.
“So, there is this guy I’ve been seeing for a while. He’s forty-four. Ten years older than me. He is not yet divorced.”
“Indian?” asked Pinky.
“Gora?” asked Pinky again.
“I hate that word, but yes, he’s white.”
Pinky wanted to ask why she called him white but hated the term gora, but before she could say anything Maneka continued. He was a nice person. He had been married for twenty years. His daughter, whom he adored, was fifteen. He had tried hard to make his marriage work for her sake, but these things were so complicated. And now he was preoccupied with legal stuff, selling their house and all that.
“I can’t even keep track of it all,” she said. “I find it tedious.”
The man was kind, taught at the same college as Maneka, and loved Indian food. And yet there was something missing.
“When I talk about my childhood, like you talked about yours the other day, he doesn’t really understand. You know?”
Pinky had no idea what American men or women thought, but she couldn’t imagine that they would understand what life was like in India. “No one knows about him?” she ventured.
“About Mike? Oh, everyone knows. All my friends there. We’re always together. Even his wife knows. It’s not a secret. That would be so sordid.”
“Yes,” she sighed. “I was always arguing with my mother about it. I wish I could call her and argue now.”
“But you said you wanted to tell me something that no one knew,” Pinky said, confused.
“Oh, that. Yes, I was coming to that.” Maneka said. “I met someone here.”
There was a photographer, a few years younger than Maneka this time, who was escorting her around the city as she did her research. He was a witty, roguish fellow who made fun of Hrishipur and its residents. For some reason, Maneka found this charming.
So, what was the problem? She wasn’t married and neither was he.
“I am leaving in a couple of months. Who knows when I’ll be back. My life is there now, for better or worse. Ashok is so sensitive and sweet. What if he gets serious? What will happen at the end of the summer? And also, I have someone there who depends on me. He would be hurt. Of course, he doesn’t have to know.” Her voice trailed off as if she were considering this option for the first time.
Pinky touched Maneka’s face gingerly to see if the clay had hardened. She wanted to give her neck an extra few minutes of massage. She had not forgotten about the fish curry in the fridge. She would not be able to make up for last night’s dinner for her husband with this, but her son and two daughters would have a feast they would savor and linger over. The thought made her want to sob with gratitude. Instead, she let out an involuntary cry.
“What’s wrong?” Maneka asked.
Pinky closed her eyes to prevent the tears from spilling. She bit her bottom lip until she tasted blood. It distracted her from the shooting pain in her shoulder. “It’s nothing. Something bit me, that’s all.”
“Pinky, what do you think I should do?”
Pinky froze, her arms poised to attempt another squeeze. “Me?”
“Yes, you are older than me and you live here and you must know all these people. Hairdressers, beauticians, they are always the wisest people. I want to know what you would do.”
Maneka lay with her face covered in clay, her eyes shut beneath the slices of cucumber. She looked just like any other client on that bed, just a body under the sheet and a face that wore no distinct marks of identity.
Then Pinky thought of the fish again, and the fact that Maneka’s mother had just died. “Maybe,” she said, a little hesitantly at first, then growing surer of herself and her words, “maybe this one summer, you should not think so much. Just do whatever makes you happy.”
The advice seemed too simple, but it was all Pinky could think of.
Beneath the thin crust of clay on her face, she saw Maneka’s lips curl up in a smile. Relieved, Pinky began to gently wipe the mask off her face.
“A little rose water.” She sprinkled drops of the cool, scented astringent on her freshly scrubbed face.
Before leaving, Maneka opened her purse and took out fifty rupees.
“I will be back next week,” she said. “I can never afford a facial in America. I may as well get some here,” she said.
Later that afternoon, when Pinky told Ajay how much Maneka had tipped her, he thought it was rather cheap for someone who lived in America.
“But she brought me fish curry,” she said. “She cooked it herself, though apparently she can barely cook. She eats only sandwiches and salads.” They were standing just outside the side entrance, from where they could look out onto the street. “And she asks me all kinds of questions and is genuinely interested in my life.”
You never knew what might happen when you were oiling and moisturizing the arms and legs of entitled women married to influential men.
Ajay did not look impressed. He was a dour fellow; he wore his melancholy like a cloak. That was one of the things Pinky found endearing about him. Today, obviously, he was in a particularly unhappy mood. He told her his version now of what had happened the day before. The woman who had complained about him had been on her phone the whole time, while barking orders at them as if they were waiters. She wanted tea, followed by lemonade, then an extra cushion, and finally someone to fan her while she sat with her limbs splayed.
“Fat spoilt cow,” he scowled now as he rolled his beedi. He took a long drag before speaking. “Husband probably refused to buy her more diamonds. Takes out her bad mood on me.”
A storm was brewing, and not just in Ajay’s heart. The clouds rolled in from the south, and the wind picked up pace, blowing dust from all the construction sites around the city. Pinky glanced up at the sky, worried. Her flat did not do well with storms. She hoped her younger daughter had come back from school without lingering to talk to boys on the street, and that she had had the sense to shut the windows.
The rich sweet smell of the beedi brought her back to the present. Ajay stared into the distance with a wistful expression.
“I did the best I could. I thought I was giving her a good massage. I am always so careful. I cannot lose my job. Babuji’s medicines cost so much. Then there is my sister. I have to save up for her dowry.”
Pinky heard thunder overhead. The spa employed men exclusively to administer pedicures and manicures, although most of the clients were women. Pinky did not know the reasons for this decision, except perhaps that there were more unemployed men out there, willing to do anything.
But tending to these women was a risky business. You never knew what might happen when you were oiling and moisturizing the arms and legs of entitled women married to influential men. One wrong move, a slip of the hand here or there, and before you knew it, your job was gone, to one of the many young men in the area who needed it, and you were out on the street where it was forty degrees Celsius, feeling dazed and disoriented.
“Don’t worry,” she said, patting his arm. “You are still here. Now you be more careful. Ask Raju or someone else to keep an eye so they can bear witness.”
“What good will their word do against a client’s?”
Pinky was silent. They knew so many private details about these people’s lives—she because they directly confided in her, and he because he couldn’t help but overhear their phone conversations. They had enough material for a good blackmail, like in the movies. And yet they all chose to keep their mouths shut, out of some sense of decorum, yes, but also because no one would believe them, or even if they did, they would never openly admit to taking a servant’s word seriously. For that was what they were: servants. Pinky earned the same amount each month as a full-time driver in Hrishipur. And Ajay earned a little less than that.
“Do you want me to go with you to the doctor?” he asked her suddenly.
It made Pinky wish she had not touched him. She tended to forget that even though he caressed and held women’s hands all day long, he was seldom touched, even by accident.
She took a slight step backwards, so that they now stood on either side of a large flower pot. The orange marigolds were dry and wilting in the heat. Maybe that’s why people preferred artificial plants in this city.
“No, I will go on my way home. It’s the same old thing. Half an hour of physiotherapy, and maybe he will change the painkillers.”
The wind kept blowing the dust around, knocking things over. That was the way in this part of the country. Just a hundred kilometers east of the Thar desert, the air here remained dry and the landscape brown most of the year. People looked up with parched lips and throats on days like this, yearning for rain the way farmers did in the villages. The sky teased them, splitting apart with streaks of lightning, and even cooling down the air in anticipation. But the rain stayed away and, disappointed, everyone resumed their lives as usual.
For a second, Pinky thought of the rain in Darjeeling, how it fell in a soft drizzle all through the summer and turned the whole world green. She blinked, and it was gone.
Dr. Gupta’s chamber was in a narrow lane inside Meena Bazaar. It was one of the oldest markets in the city, older than any of the fancy malls that had sprung up around it. Most of the shops were still run by the original owners’ sons and nephews. People sent their servants there in the evenings to buy fresh produce or other groceries for which they did not need to go to one of the brightly lit new stores that sold imported foods. Pinky wove her way through the makeshift stalls. A shopkeeper was using his weighing scales to measure out quantities of dal for the maids. “Didi, come see,” one boy shouted out at her as she passed the plastic hair clips and colorful hairbands spread out in front of him. She walked past buckets of flowers and piles of fruit, and kept going until she reached the clinic.
The harsh white light allowed for little privacy. A fat yellow lizard stuck to a corner of the wall, peering down with beady eyes.
The small waiting room was so full there was nowhere to sit. She signed her name in the register and stood leaning against the door. There was a young mother with a child who kept crying, a girl who stared at her feet the whole time, a young couple and a few others, all of whom looked equally depressed. The harsh white light allowed for little privacy. A fat yellow lizard stuck to a corner of the wall, peering down with beady eyes. Pinky turned away from it. Reptiles terrified her. Her father, a junior clerk in a government office, had died of snakebite when she was eleven. Her mother had gathered all their belongings and taken her older sister and her to Siliguri, a bustling city in the foothills, to live with their uncle. There her mother, a skilled seamstress, had worked at a local tailor’s shop to eke out a living and send her daughters to the government school for girls. And gradually, their days spent in the cool green hills became only a memory.
As always, Dr. Gupta was behind schedule. She never understood why patients were given appointments ten minutes apart when he saw each one for twenty or thirty. Pinky messaged her older daughter Smriti on WhatsApp to make brinjal bharta and rotis for her father when she got home from college, and to ensure that she did not burn the food. She hated asking her to do things like this, both because the girl was trying to study for her exams, and also because she wanted to protect her from her father on the nights when he came home tired and drunk. But who knew when she herself would get home tonight?
The door to the doctor’s office opened, and an old couple emerged. The woman clutched her husband’s arm, guiding him. Pinky couldn’t tell which of them was the patient. They looked equally helpless. She wondered what would happen when one of them died. Who would escort the other to the doctor then? Maneka had mentioned something that morning about her father struggling to do things without her mother around. Pinky thought it was selfish for a daughter to go away to another distant land, leaving her aging parents behind, but she’d said nothing. Those who were poor stuck together more than those who were not. Maybe that’s why they remained poor.
When the doctor finally called her name, she went in and sat down on his examining table. He pressed her shoulder with his fingers, gently kneading them almost like she did with the clients. A sharp pain shot through her arm, forcing her to cry out. He looked grim. He had suggested an MRI, but, at a cost of seven thousand, it was out of the question. The X-rays had been bad enough at nearly a thousand rupees. She felt terribly guilty for having to spend so much on herself.
Dr. Gupta was a serious man in his fifties. His thin grey hair barely covered the top of his head now, and he kept running his palm over it as if to remind himself it was still there. He frowned as he looked at the X-rays. “No dislocations, but there is a slight tear in the rotator cuff.”
“Can you give me more painkillers?” she asked.
He shook his head. “At this rate you will have kidney failure in a few years. You need to stop popping the pills.”
“But I have to give massages.” She stopped and looked at him, pleading with him silently to make the pain go away.
He put down the films and looked at her over the rim of his reading glasses. “You cannot give any more massages for a few months. You have to stop. If you don’t, you’ll lose the arm. It will become inert and you won’t be able to ever use it again. Is that what you want?”
She stared at him, feeling miserable. The spa counted on her to give massages.
“I could cut them down slightly,” she offered.
“I am telling you that you should not use your right arm for any lifting or pushing down for about three months. Then, once it heals completely, you can resume. But if you don’t rest it now…” He stopped ominously and looked at her like a schoolteacher issuing a warning.
Pinky gathered her things and got up to leave. The doctor stood up too. His expression had softened.
“In three months, it should be fine.”
“Has he stopped drinking?”
“Do you think that’s possible?”
“Ask him to come and see me again,” he said. “For a check-up of his liver.”
Pinky sighed. She had already reminded him several times, but he’d refused, saying there was nothing wrong with him.
When she walked outside, lights flickered inside little shops, making the market look like a festival. She groped for the fish curry in her bag, hoping it hadn’t spoiled in the hot weather, and sent Smriti another message, asking her to put some rice on the stove to boil, before starting her walk home.
In the aftermath of the storm, the world had become quiet and still, as if it regretted its outburst. The roads were left drier than before from all the dust that had blown around. The temperature was already beginning to rise again. Overhead the moon was round and full, and shone with a reddish glow above the roofs of the highrises. On the horizon, to the far right, gold letters shone with the words trump tower.
Her fantasies were spun from simpler cloth—that her husband would stop drinking, that her son would get a job, any job, that her daughter would pass her college exams.
All through the day the sign stood there, high above the others, a constant reminder of the construction going on beneath it. But once the sun set, it became a carnivalesque billboard, flashing its presence across the city and even out to the highway that led away from Hrishipur, toward Delhi in the east and the state of Rajasthan to the west. Like the neon signs that announced the presence of malls, or the shimmering logos of five-star hotel chains, this sign suggested an opulence that to Pinky was beyond the realm of dreams. Her fantasies were spun from simpler cloth—that her husband would stop drinking, that her son would get a job, any job, that her daughter would pass her college exams, that her shoulder would stop hurting. She stared at the sign absentmindedly while waiting to cross the thoroughfare. The property was located just two kilometers away, but it may as well have been a distant planet sighted every evening across the skies, alien and unreachable.
Pinky walked home along the crowded lane where stray dogs jostled with rickshaws and honking scooters. A man yelled inside one of the tenements. She hoped he wasn’t yelling at his wife, and if he was, that she wasn’t alone.
She arrived at the chawl, the long two-story building they shared with twenty other families, and fumbled with the key. It was nearly ten. A cloud of insects hovered around the yellow light in the common courtyard, reminding Pinky of the secrets whirling inside her.
She approached her flat with some trepidation, half expecting to hear a glass shattering, or a voice yelling foul curses, or, worst of all, sobs. But when she opened the door, all she heard were the sounds of a cricket match. On their old TV, Pinky recognized the jerseys of two Indian Premier League teams—the Chennai Super Kings and the Delhi Capitals. Sunil leaned forward on the divan, his fists poised to pump in the air. Pinky felt a familiar sense of frustration when she saw him. He was twenty-three, old enough to start supporting his family, but all he wanted to do was play cricket. The coach at his academy had given him a part-time job helping train young kids, but it didn’t pay enough. There was no future in sport for someone like him. He needed to give up that dream and help his family.
Sunil’s father sat next to him on the bed. He wore a vest that had once been white, and a red and black plaid lungi wrapped loosely around his legs. On a small table next to him sat a bottle of Royal Stag whiskey and an empty glass. But he didn’t seem to be in a foul mood. On the contrary, he stretched his hand out as Pinky walked past and pulled her to him.
“Rani,” he said, slurring his words only slightly, “Come sit with us. Delhi is about to win, and the weather is beautiful.”
“The weather is terrible. You’re crazy,” she said.
“Rani,” he said again, drawing out the syllables. When he called her by an endearment like that, he was not too drunk, just pleased about something.
“Why are you so happy?” she asked.
In response, Dilip felt around the divan for something and then held up a five-hundred-rupee note. Pinky’s eyes widened.
“Construction. The new one, across the bridge. The American one. They need a lot of labor, and I was in the right place at the right time today.”
“What did you have to do?”
“Helped to dig the swimming pool. There will be an outdoor one and an indoor one. Lots of work ahead.” He grinned and rubbed a hand across his belly.
“Be careful. Don’t strain your back too much. You remember what happened the last time? They stop the construction suddenly and you are left with nothing.”
“Arrey, those Indian builders are useless. This is an American project. The person who owns the whole thing is the president of the United States. Do you think someone who can run such a big country will not be able to finish a construction?” Dilip’s eyes shone as he reached for his glass. Pinky noticed the gaping hole in his vest just below his underarm and resolved to darn it on her day off.
“Some of my friends have also started working for them,” Sunil announced, without looking up from the TV. “They will have a lot of work. They have promised to help me too.”
Her eyes immediately went to the short, unkempt beard he had recently started sprouting. It made him look older. Pinky had tried to persuade him to shave it. She was worried that people might mistake him for a Muslim. There were rumors of men dressed in saffron clothes walking about these days, spying for the government, trying to find Muslims to harass. But Sunil didn’t care. He stroked his beard now, and grinned at her, challenging her to nag at him.
Pinky sighed and looked at her younger daughter for comfort. Namita sat cross-legged on the floor, making dolls out of fabric. Scissors, wool, and pieces of cloth were spread on a sheet of newspaper. She’d made nearly everything that was pretty in their home. But she did it at the expense of her schoolwork.
“Did you study, Namu?” Pinky asked.
“Hmm,” Namita said, her brows furrowed in concentration. Every time the crowd roared on TV, she looked up and asked her brother what had happened. He always patiently explained things to her. That was not out. He missed a catch. Don’t think they can make it, just three overs to go. His tone changed when he talked to Namita.
Pinky entered the bedroom she shared with her daughters, where Smriti sat on the bed, studying.
“Did Baba eat?” Pinky asked softly, reluctant to disrupt her concentration.
“Yes,” she replied. “He liked the food.”
They both smiled in relief.
Pinky quickly heated up the fish curry, which, she was glad to find, had not spoiled. There were five pieces, one for each of them. Since Dilip did not eat fish and had finished his dinner, though, that left an extra piece. Pinky wanted very much to give it to Smriti. Fish sharpened the brain, and her exams were approaching fast. Besides, she was a responsible girl. She tutored children in the neighborhood—for very little money, but still it filled Pinky’s heart with pride.
Sunil took the plate of food she held out and started to eat it, still watching the cricket match.
“Come to the table, beta,” she said. “You will make a mess.”
He ignored her, his eyes glued to the TV. “Yes,” he yelled as another batsman got out.
Her husband peered at the plate in disgust. The smell of fish repulsed him. Even if it had been more affordable, Pinky would not have dared cook it at home.
“Eh, take the plate away,” he ordered his son, who reluctantly got up and sat at the table.
The rui was delicious, fleshy and sweet, the sauce sharp and spicy from the mustard seeds and green chilies. They mixed a little sauce with a lot of rice to make it last longer. Sunil kept staring at the TV, but the girls wanted to hear about the client from America. Did she speak with an accent? Not at all, which was strange. Did she eat beef? Who knew, she hadn’t asked her that. How old was she? Thirty-four, she had asked her that. Was she married to a gora ? She was not married at all.
“Hai,” said Namita, shocked. “She lives alone in America?”
This threw Smriti into a pensive mood. She stopped asking questions and chewed in silence.
Pinky tried to ignore him, but his strong body, sitting hunched there in the chair that was too small for him, suddenly looked so vulnerable that her heart melted.
When Sunil had finished eating, taking large bites as always, he stared hungrily at the last piece of rui. Pinky tried to ignore him, but his strong body, sitting hunched there in the chair that was too small for him, suddenly looked so vulnerable that her heart melted. He was her firstborn, her only son. And he was a good boy. He didn’t get into fights or harass women on the streets or carry a knife around. Yet. He didn’t drink, which was a miracle. But lately he had begun to come home later and later. If he continued to go about with his new friends, those good-for-nothing loafers, who knew what might happen. She wanted to envelop him in her arms and keep him safe. Before she could stop herself, Pinky took the piece of fish and put it on his plate. His face cracked into a grin.
“Me, what about me?” Namita wailed.
“Here, you can have half,” her brother said, breaking off a piece—not quite half, Pinky noticed.
Smriti exchanged a look with her mother. In that moment, with her entire family around her, and the sounds of the home team celebrating on the TV, Pinky felt perfectly content. She didn’t think it necessary to mention her shoulder right then. The next morning would be a new day. A day to tackle problems one by one.
Before going to bed, she performed the nightly ritual that gave her more pleasure than any number of spa massages could. She bathed with the cold water stored in a clay pot in the corner of the bathroom. She poured it over her body with the plastic mug, letting it wash over every part of her. In this way she tried to cleanse herself of the scent of other women’s bodies, and of the sickly-sweet jasmine oil she had inhaled in the bathroom garden.
The following day Khanna Ma’am’s lips pursed together tightly, making her mouth a single red line. Without looking up at Pinky, she offered terse instructions to her new assistant, who kept saying “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am.” Pinky stood waiting in silence. With every passing second her sense of dread increased. Behind her, she was vaguely aware of staff walking in and signing the ledger on the white marble table.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, even though the wall clock above the reception desk showed that it was only ten past nine, Khanna Ma’am looked up at her, closed her eyes for a second, and took a deep breath. Her frustration almost made her seem human.
“If you can’t do massages, you can’t do facials,” she said simply.
“I can,” Pinky cried out without thinking.
The look on Khanna Ma’am’s face stopped her. Embarrassed, she spoke in a lower voice.
“I can do everything else, and maybe someone else can come in for the massage part. That’s only five minutes. I can ask them myself. Jaya or Kim or Baby. They won’t mind. I’ll return the favor when I’m better, I promise.”
Khanna Ma’am shook her head and spoke slowly, as if trying to explain to a child. “You don’t understand, Pinky. Not only will that throw our entire schedule out of joint, because the girls will have their own appointments to keep, and we can’t have people running between rooms, leaving clients alone. But also, the massage. That’s your signature thing. Every time we ask one of your clients for feedback, they say you give the best massages. That’s why they want you and no one else. If we tell them you won’t be doing that part, they won’t want to get facials from you.”
“No.” She waved, cutting short whatever it was Pinky was about to say. “I’m sorry. There’s no other way. I am not firing you, Pinky. You are one of our oldest and you’re very valuable. And I, we, are not inhumane. You need rest, fine. Get rest. Take three months off and come back when your shoulder is healed. With a doctor’s note.”
Pinky clutched the desk with both her hands. The room blurred.
“I can do something else. Haircuts. Waxing.”
“You are not trained. We don’t have the time or resources to train you now. No, you’re our most valuable facialist, and that’s what you will do when you come back.”
Three months without a salary. Fifteen thousand rupees lost each month. Without that they would be solely dependent on Smriti’s tuition money and Dilip’s daily wages which, despite his optimism of the previous night, were never going to be stable. How would Sunil react? What if it finally drove him over the edge, to drugs or alcohol or even worse? Pinky felt sobs welling up inside her, threatening to burst forth. She looked at Khanna Ma’am with pleading eyes.
“Three months’ salary gone, ma’am,” she whispered. “I have a family to look after.”
The young assistant looked up at Pinky, who felt ashamed of having shown such vulnerability.
Khanna Ma’am was busy thumbing through the family discount cards she had persuaded clients to get for their husbands and children, to ensure they never went to any spa or salon but Diva. Pinky assumed she’d been forgotten and turned to leave. Just as she reached the door, she heard her voice.
“Pinky,” Mrs. Khanna said gently, without looking up from the stack of cards. “Don’t worry, your job will be here. We won’t replace you. Only three months. It will pass quickly. Why don’t you use this time to relax a bit? Read some books, go to the fairs, spend time with your children. Think of it as a nice little break.” She looked up and smiled indulgently, pleased with herself for having offered comfort. Then the phone rang, and she answered it and her voice changed completely. “Yes, Madam. Yes, of course, Madam. No problem, Madam. I’m so sorry, Madam, it was our mistake. It will be ready when you come in, Madam.”
Her hands trembled as she replaced the phone in its cradle, and she stood there for a moment without speaking to anyone. All Pinky could see was her back, heaving as she inhaled and exhaled. Her hair was brownish gold, a color that did not suit Indian skin. Pinky watched her gather up her hair and drop it again with still-trembling hands. Despite her own worries, she felt curious. What could rattle Khanna Ma’am this way? Was she worried about her own job? Then Pinky remembered that she had just advised her to enjoy her “vacation.” She stifled a bitter laugh as she walked out through the side door, making sure she would not see Ajay on her way out. She couldn’t endure his pity.
It occurred to her that she had just joined forces with the millions of people all over the country who were wandering around without a job.
Pinky felt almost renewed as she emerged from the chilled spa into the furnace outside. Something about the world felt more real to her now. It occurred to her that she had just joined forces with the millions of people all over the country who were wandering around without a job or a steady income to rely on. But it was impossible to dwell on the world’s problems when she was reminded of her own. Of her daughters who would need dowries, and a son whose eyes already burned with hatred for the world. Pinky’s legs suddenly gave way, forcing her to sit on a ledge on the sidewalk. A sprawling banyan tree dropped its roots around her, offering a little shade, but the dry, relentless heat scalded her face.
Feeling dizzy, she looked up at the burning sky until she saw right through it into another world, decades ago, when she ran about in the hills, calling out to the furry dogs and goats that ran with her. It was after school, and she was waiting outside the little cottage where she lived for her father to come home from work. The air smelled of pine trees and rain. The whole world had seemed like a garden then.
On the road in front of her, fancy cars went by at great speed. Her clients rode in cars like that, driven around Hrishipur by their chauffeurs. She wondered what Maneka would think if she drove by now and saw her sitting there. She wondered how long it would take her to learn that this city, with its shiny buildings and beautiful people, was all fake, just like the plants inside Diva. She sat there thinking Maneka might be better off with her kind, middle-aged, boring American boyfriend after all, even if he didn’t understand everything.
She wondered if her regular clients would miss her. Would they just slip off their clothes when they went for their facials, lie in a different bed in a different room, and begin to spill their secrets to someone new? Or would they wonder about her and hope she was being loyal to them? Would they be afraid that she might divulge their secrets?
From her conversations over the years, it seemed that everyone wanted to either get married or stay married. Even the unhappy ones. They would have affairs, chat with strangers online, hook up with their exes. But they would not leave their husbands. It occurred to Pinky now that perhaps they couldn’t leave even if they wanted to. They didn’t have the means to make it out there on their own. You could never count on Indian courts to enforce settlements and long-term alimony. The children would be dismayed. The elderly parents would be mortified. Even Maneka had mentioned that she sent money to her retired father in Kolkata. Perhaps she couldn’t return to her country even if she wanted to. In the end, they were all trapped in their lives.
Pinky laughed. The burning-hot Loo made her giddy. She thought of the flying insects she’d pictured in her beauty room over the years. She imagined opening her mouth really wide to let them all out. How wonderful it would be not to hold anything inside. To release your secrets into the air and move about with abandon, wearing and saying and doing whatever you liked. Perhaps they were not termites. If she breathed out all the women’s secrets she’d kept within, perhaps they would emerge as butterflies, not sordid after all, but beautiful creatures with iridescent wings. They would fly in different directions, covering the horizon with their many colors. They would set free all the women who had held them in for so long. This barren, harsh city would be transformed into the garden of her childhood, into a green place that swam with butterflies and smelled not of jasmine but mustard oil.
She closed her eyes and exhaled.