A Happy Place

Excerpted from The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal. Read the whole story here.

“Roll them,” Asha said, setting down a round ball of flour she had kneaded into shape on the smooth marble slab. “Let’s make a circle, like this,” she gently massaged the dough with a rolling pin, Peter’s eyes growing more rounded as the ball of flour spread to the slab’s perimeter. The top of Peter’s blonde head came up to Asha’s waist. He had turned four a fortnight ago.

“I wanna make a parantha” Peter whined, tugging at her dupatta. “I wanna make one, too.”

Asha knew she couldn’t give in to Peter’s whim. She had to get dinner ready and give Peter a bath before Madam got home. Dinner was at nine, Madam would be back any minute, and so would Saheb. Friday nights, Saheb returned late. On other weekdays, he came home directly from work, usually around seven, just as twilight deepened into night. Madam was not far away from the house. She was at the market next door, giving instructions to Tina (boutique owner cum tailor) about a sari blouse she was getting stitched for a wedding reception. Asha didn’t know who was marrying whom, but she had heard Madam and Saheb talking about the wedding at the dining table – the reception was going to be a grand affair, the dress code was Indian and Madam would wear a sari to blend in with the rest of the guests.

Madam worked hard at blending in. In the six months that Asha had worked for the Mills household, Madam had hosted three dinner parties at home with an exclusively Indian menu – paranthas and korma, kebabs, mattar-paneer for vegetarians – Asha had cooked mountains of food for the visitors. Madam’s guests were mostly Indian friends and acquaintances, except for Melissa and Simon, the American couple who had moved in next door recently. Saheb worked with Simon – no, that wasn’t how it was – Simon worked for Saheb and even at the dinner table, the young man had been acutely aware of their positions in the hierarchy of the American Consulate. He answered Saheb’s questions breathlessly, he laughed too loudly at Saheb’s jokes, almost choking on a bite of aloo parantha once when he burst into laughter. Asha had felt sorry for him. She could hear his thin, nervous voice from the kitchen, the forced laughter laced with panic, the halting tone, too eager to please.

“Ulloo” Peter yelled, running around Asha in circles. “Ulloo, ulloo, ulloo,” he shrieked, grabbing her waist with his bony arms.

Ulloo was the latest addition to Peter’s limited Hindi vocabulary. Not happy with Asha’s resolve to keep him away from the paranthas, he had christened her an owl, a night bird he dreaded. Asha bent down and scooped him up in her arms. He was all bone and no fat, a feather weight for a child of his age. “Ulloooooo…” he let out a mighty scream, ran out of breath and buried his face in her neck.

“Time for your bath,” Asha whispered in his ear. “Mummy’s going to be home soon.”

Madam walked in precisely at that moment. She had let herself into the house without bothering to ring the door bell, unlocking the front door with her spare key. She looked like a ghost – her skin was paper-white, the blood had drained away from her face. She was panting as if she had run all the way home.

“Aap theek ho, Madam?” Asha slipped into Hindi because she was worried, then remembered to rephrase the question in English. “Are you alright, Madam?”

Madam walked up to the refrigerator and poured herself a glass of iced water. She gulped it down before opening her mouth to speak. “No, I’m not,” she said, holding on to her sides. “I most definitely am not alright”
Asha thought she was in pain. Oh my god, we’ll have to rush to the hospital and Saheb is not even home. I’ll carry Peter, she decided. Mani from next door will give us a ride to the hospital and he can call Saheb to let him know – Asha quickly chalked out the plan in spite of the panic welling up inside her.

“Should I call a doctor?” she asked, stepping closer to Madam.

“No,” Madam sank down into a chair and held her head with both hands. Peter slipped out of Asha’s hold and ran to her side. “I need a bloody drink,” Madam was talking to herself, not to Asha. Her head was buried in her hands, her blue eyes were staring at the rug on the kitchen floor. “What good’s a doctor going to do?”

Madam was angry, not ill. Asha felt like an idiot for misreading the signs. “Sorry,” Asha said. “I thought you were not feeling well”

Madam looked up and gave her a weak smile. She had a lean, sculpted face, high cheekbones and a sharp jaw line, a full-lipped, generous mouth. “Please, Asha,” she said, letting Peter climb on to her lap. “I didn’t mean to shout at you.”

Asha brushed aside the apology and offered Madam another glass of iced water. “What happened?” she asked, handing Madam the glass. “You look tired.”

Excerpted from The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal. Read the whole story here.