Kavita by Saloni Prasad
This story is to remember Constance Lytton who planted a Cupressus Allumii on 23rd April 1909
“Kavita aunty, aap phirse ghutka khaa rahe ho?” I ask my maid. You are chewing tobacco, aren’t you?
“Khaane de na mujhko.” Let me eat!
She may eat but at least I can point out that she shouldn’t.
“Pata hai na kitna nuksaan karta hai?” You know it’s bad for your health, right?
She knows. Yes. She can’t care. That’s the point.
“Jhopunja tula!” Go, go to sleep! Marathi euphemism for stop irritating me.
I like to irritate Kavita aunty. A lot. Her addiction to tobacco is almost like entertainment to me. Though yes, my concern for her health is genuine. She has lost a couple of her teeth. Tobacco has blackened her jaws. I tell her that it’s carcinogenic. She tells me she can’t quit. I entertain myself and to some extent her too by asking her to stop it, every day. It’s a great conversation starter. She feigns irritation and replies in Marathi. I take note of new words and try to speak in Marathi too, if I can, or otherwise in Hindi. And we chat on. I am in 12th grade, mostly I stay at home, preparing for my entrance examinations. Talking to her is one of my favourite ways to take a break from my insane, 15-hour study schedule.
“Main already so chuki,” I reply. I have already slept.
“Accha hai! Kaam karne de mujhe.” Good. Let me work now.
I tell her again that I am saying it only because tobacco can seriously affect her health.
Kavita aunty has been chewing tobacco for a decade now, and she has been fine. Tobacco causes cancer – it’s written on the packet itself but she can’t read English. She is aware of the long-term health risks. But the short-term health risk involves withdrawal symptoms. Her short-term requirement is to be able to work every day. Quitting isn’t the best idea. Kavita aunty works at about four to five houses. She washes dishes, sweeps, dusts, and sometimes cooks. Her work hours begin at eight in the morning and ends around four or five in the evening or sometimes later.
I have never seen Kavita aunty sad. She is always cheerful, looking for opportunities to tease me.
“Angor geli?” she asks me. Did you take shower?
“It’s noon and you haven’t?”
“Chi! Gandi ladki!” Eww, filthy girl!
“And you? Did you take shower?” I ask in Marathi.
She laughs at my poor sentence construction. I laugh too. Kavita aunty is my maid. She is my Marathi tutor as well.
Kavita aunty and I, we are unlikely friends. My mother also enjoys our conversations, which often have no shape, no structure. Do I really care that she quits tobacco? Does she really care if I have taken shower? Do I even want to learn Marathi? Does she even want to teach me?
Kavita aunty’s husband is an alcoholic. Domestic abuse is so deeply ingrained in her life that she accepts it as the only way to live. She has two children – a son and a daughter. Her daughter is in 12th grade too. I go to the most expensive private school in the city. She goes to a public school, where fees are minimal. Her education is in Gujarati. Mine is in English. She does part-time jobs to supplement her mother’s income. I go to coaching classes, to supplement my studies, and they cost as much as my school fees. Rupali works till late at night at a nearby call centre. I work till late at night to complete my assignments. We are born in the same month. I remember she gifted me a decorative paperweight on my birthday. I am not sure if I ever bought her a gift. But she didn’t have to either.
Rupali sometimes works at our home when Kavita aunty is sick. She tells me how she is struggling with her studies. She tells me how she hates statistics. She fears that she might fail the final test. “No, no, you will pass. Don’t worry…” I say, and wish I could help her but I don’t know much about statistics. I am a science student. I would have empathised with her but I have never feared failing an exam. I might have shared my secret – that sometimes I think about suicide, that the pressure of excelling in this queue of examinations is too much and it is difficult to keep up. She struggles to pass the exams and it troubles her. I struggle to top the exams and it troubles me. She is concerned that she might not go to a college. I am concerned that I won’t go to the college.
As soon as Rupali turns 18, Kavita aunty wants her to get married. She is already looking for suitors. Rupali is pretty, definitely prettier than me. She has long thick hair, acne-free skin, a sharp nose and almond-shaped brown eyes. She has a sixth toe on her right foot. She doesn’t want to get married but she knows it’s more probable than her going to college.
Kavita aunty’s son, Prateek, hates his father. But there isn’t much he can do. “He is your father,” Kavita aunty warns him. “Respect him.” Prateek is in school. He has asthma. He tries to work part time as well but it’s difficult for him. I have often heard Kavita aunty complaining about the cost of his medicine.
It’s been around five years since I last saw her.
Rupali is married now. She has a three year-old daughter. In her Facebook profile photo, she looks beautiful. She is wearing a blue saree with a silver border. Her hair is neatly tied in a bun. In her arms she holds her daughter, who doesn’t share Rupali’s attractive features. Her husband stands nearby. They are all smiling. It’s a good family photo.
In the past five years, I have moved to a different city, to a different country, returned home, and Kavita aunty still works in the same society. She is as cheerful as ever, or so I hope. “Jhopunja tula.” I can still hear her voice.
Kavita aunty continues to stay with her husband. She is financially independent. Her children are now independent too. “Why do you still live with him?” I want to ask her. But I know what she will say, “Having an abusive husband is better than having no husband at all.” She will fish the gutka packet out of her blouse, empty it into her mouth. Of course, she still chews tobacco.
Saloni is a writer from Surat, India. She writes about life, people and culture. She likes to listen to Indian Classical music and can often be spotted talking to her own self. She recently completed her Masters in Creative Writing (Nonfiction & Biography) from UEA, Norwich. In her former life, she was a project manager and an electrical engineer. She also has a creative writing blog - www.theturquoiseink.com