Sujata by Annie Zaidi

When the doorbell rings, Sujata's hands are soapy. She stands at the kitchen sink, hesitating – should she rinse her hands and turn off the tap, or should she make a straight dash to the door, leaving the tap running?


There is no reason to leave the tap running. The dishes won't get cleaned any better, or faster. But the thought of turning the tap off and then on again is annoying. She hates leaving things unfinished. But the idea of making a dash to the door and back again to the kitchen sink appeals to her. She likes rushing about, having a reason to run from here to there, and back. That's what life is – run, run, run.


But she turns off the tap. There is a fifty percent water cut in Sher-e-Punjab. Even Model Town and Green Fields had cuts this summer. Besides, Lopa didi is always lecturing her about wastage and the environment. Also about not running all the time. Perhaps she is right. On the other hand, Lopa didi hasn't done much running herself.


Sujata pauses to look through the peep-hole although she knows it is no use. The peep-hole is grimed over to the point of being nearly opaque. She can only see the outline of shoulders. A tall person. A man?


She knows that knowing who it is will not help. Yet she wonders. Does he intend harm? Even if he did, would he be holding up a knife or a gun, James Bond style? No, peep-holes can only be used to keep out familiar trouble. And trouble usually wears a familiar face. Landlords, for instance. Wadekar had come knocking in the middle of the night. Twice. She had begun to sneak up to his flat with the rent scrawled on a cheque, handing it over to his wife instead. Thank god she moved out of that flat. Not that Wadekar gave up so easily. He still calls her mobile, even though she never takes the call.


The man standing outside has his back turned to the door. Sujata's soapy hands twist the metallic doorknob this way and that. Her mind goes over the alternatives: perhaps it is the newspaperman, back for another fight. She hasn't paid him this month since he didn't deliver the paper for ten days. But the newspaperman is short. And the garbage man has already come and gone. The ironing man only comes at night. It could be the watchman, in case there's a message from the society secretary.


For a second, she wonders if Mhada wasn't the better option. The rents are low and there are none of these big building problems. But in Mhada, there is too much talk. And everyone has their eyes screwed tightly shut even though nothing is really private either.


When she had left, Kulin had asked: 'What do you think you'll find? What is the outside world like, do you even know?' Sujata hadn't seen the world. But she knew that anything in the world would be better than that one-room-kitchen in Mhada where she grew up.


She's happy now, in this Sher-e-Punjab society where she can lie in puddles of silence in the afternoon. In the evening, she can take comfort in the steady rhythm of noise floating from up the street. There are tip-toe intrusions of sound through the night, but the bell rings only when it should.


It has rung now, though. She puts on the safety chain and opens the door a few inches. The broad shoulders turn. It is a familiar face after all. It is the face of trouble.


Seconds pass as her soapy hands fiddle with the safety chain. She should shut the door now. She should make an urgent phone call. Or she can talk across the chain, ask him what he wants. The safety chain clatters gently against the door as Sujata turns back to go into the kitchen.


The door hangs open.


Sujata thrusts her hands into the cold stream from the tap, rinses off the soap. Her mind is a blank as she reaches for a damp chequered cloth to wipe her hands.


She returns to the hall.


He is sprawled on the sofa. She avoids his eye, feels it ride up and down her body as she walks across the room, towards the door. She wipes the soap off the door handle and knob. Deliberately, she shuts the door with a soft click, puts the safety chain back in place. Then she leans against the door and turns to face him.




Sujata wonders what that 'So?' means. So, what have you been up to? So, did you really think you could disappear? So, where will you hide next? So, are you going to scream now?


'So …' she repeats absently. 'So …'


He grins. He likes to surprise her. He used to watch her face each time he sprung a surprise. Then he'd hold up his hands, miming the motions of taking a picture. He'd point and say: 'Your face! Look at your face!'


She rises to the challenge of his mock-clicking forefinger.


'I know,' she says. 'My face is worth looking at, isn't it?'


The expression on his face is worth looking at too. There is irritation, but also an odd happiness. Why does he look happy?


But she already knows why. Because she has just furnished him with proof that she remembers her old life in all its painful detail. She hasn't forgotten a thing. Nothing has been left behind, even after six years of running.


Kulin sits there, sprawled on her sofa like any frequent, familiar visitor. Like a brother. Not like the time in Colaba where he showed up with an iron file and forced her door. She had found him waiting for her, lying on her bed.


She still keeps that rusty file. She collects those things – the locks that had to be changed, master keys, steel chains of varying lengths, pins, crowbar, hammer. All of it hangs behind the kitchen door, stuffed into an old jute handbag she herself made in a crafts class in college.


Sujata pulls up a chair opposite Kulin. He spreads his arms further along the back of the sofa, like an eagle half-way to settling down. His fingers drum the faded green upholstery.


'So?' he says again.


His neck twists this way and that. He looks up at the ceiling, at the gleaming orange paint on the wall. 'Nice? Settled? Like it here? Quiet, hmm?'


She looks down at her hands and notices white cracks. The detergent is harsh. She remembers she is also out of hand cream. But there should be a tube of Boroline somewhere. He is still speaking.


'No screaming this time? Nice for the neighbours. And so now? What now?'


'Now you are here,' she says, her voice low and even. 'We'll see.'


She catches the expression flitting across his face and wonders at the hatred. What has she ever done to him?


She was six when it began. Childish hurts at first – pinching, shoving, elbowing, the rare punch, a slap on her face, pulling her hair until one of their mothers would come running to break it up. She could have slapped him back, pulled his hair in turn. And in the early days, she did. But the trouble was that Kulin didn't mind. He would retreat and then find a way to make her suffer more intense pain.


He learnt quickly how to attack her with minimum risk to himself. Like hiding under the bed, waiting until she walked past, and then driving the sharp point of a steel compass into her shins. If she went outside to play in the compound, he'd find her, throw stones at her and her friends.


Sujata kept begging her mother to take her away, to go back to their old house. But Ma had only hushed her, saying – 'Learn to live. This is life. Where do you think you were born, in a palace?'


It wasn't until later that Sujata understood. There was no escape. The one-room-kitchen was the only place Ma could go to when she arrived in Mumbai with a bag of clothes and a six-year-old asleep on her shoulder. Besides, it was her house too, her mother had whispered - her grandparents' house and therefore Sujata's property too.


Sujata wonders now if Bua still lives in the same room. Kulin never mentions his mother. Is she even alive?


Sujata stands up suddenly. Kulin's fingers freeze. He doesn't like sudden movements. He had once twisted her foot because she was moving in her sleep, trapped in a nightmare. She had woken up screaming and he had sat there, her foot in his hands, saying – 'Shhhh, just a bad dream. Go back to sleep.' He'd been, how old? Sixteen?


'Do you want something to eat?' she asks now.


He stares. If she has finally gone over the edge, he might grow afraid of her.


Odd, she thinks. He must have been afraid of her. The counsellor at the shelter said so. Hate-fear fear-hate – Siamese twins of the heart. You hate those whom you fear. But why did she frighten him?


The only trouble she had ever caused him was that he'd had to give up his bed to Ma and her, while he slept on the floor on a mat.


When he tracked her down to Marol Pipeline last time, he had said something. Tripped her up first, and as she lay face-down on the floor, he'd rolled up the edges of the carpet around her body, dragged a sofa over her and placed its two front legs on her back. He had been looking for a vulnerable point to crush before he put all his weight on it.


She has worked hard to forget, but stray phrases come back to her now. 'Sixteen years … whore bitch whore … beggar mother-daughter … pay … all for nothing … not for nothing, pay back …'


Sixteen years of being fed, clothed, sent to school and college. But it wasn't like they did her any favours. Ma had worked as long as she lived; she even helped pay for Kulin's schooling. But he dropped out after junior college. He continued to take the bus fare and tuition fees, though, even after he found a job.


The two years when he worked the night shift at Holy Spirit were the only two years of peace for Sujata. She would slip out of the house before he returned, and return only after he was gone.


On his day off, he would make her spread out all her books on the floor and turn the pages so he could check whether she was doing any hanky-panky, writing obscene notes, meeting college boys. He ordered her not to wear dresses, only churidaars with kurtas reaching well below her knees.


Then Ma died. Nothing else changed. Bua still sat in a corner, like a miserable cow stuck in a bog, watching him hit her. Bua couldn't say no to him. She never stopped him. Kulin was master of the house before he earned a single paisa.


So, what was he so afraid of?


But the world can be frightening, Sujata thinks. People are afraid of fearlessness too. Perhaps Kulin was most afraid of the cessation of her fear. Sixteen years of sleeping in the same room, seeing him wander about in his underwear and, when Bua was not at home, having to bathe with his eye pressed to the crack in the bathroom door.


She knew, but there was nothing to do. Ma was gone. And at nineteen, she was already begging Bua to marry her off, even as Kulin sniggered soundlessly, eyes pinned to the gyrating shapes on vh1.


Whatever you choose to pack or throw away, you carry it around. Baggage. That's the word Lopa didi used. Baggage. She carries Kulin around no matter where she goes.


He too must be carrying her around. She has moved eight times in six years, zigzagging across the suburbs, all the way up to Colaba and back, not to mention the weeks she spent at the shelter while she recovered. Each time, she lay low, waiting until a new job and house was found for her. Each time, he tracked her down.


This time she has tricked him by not moving too far. He thought he knew the way her mind worked. But Sujata knew how Kulin's mind worked even better. She knew he would begin looking for her in the furthest places – Virar, Vasai, even Karjat, Chembur – scanning railway platforms, bus depots, working women's hostels. So she just moved from Marol to Sher-e-Punjab, a fifteen minute bus ride.


She knew he would have gone back to the shelter, tried to bribe or charm someone who had access to the office records. It would have taken him months to succeed. Then he would have realised that she no longer updated her address at the shelter. Only Lopa didi had her phone number and address.


Then, slowly, Kulin would have worked out that Sujata has already worked out his system. He would have cursed. Then he would have chuckled at her cunning and begun searching again. Her cleverness won her a respite. It took him a year and a half to find her. But he has found her now.


Her phone is right there, sitting on the window ledge, plugged into the charger. She glances at it. Kulin follows her glance. Sujata goes into the kitchen.


She rolls back her sleeves, shrugs back her hair, and begins to rinse out the remaining dishes in the sink. A moment later, he is standing right behind her. He has a quiet step but her ears are trained.


Sujata silently curses herself for buying glass crockery. She should have taken the unbreakable melamine set. She has learnt to look at objects the way he does. Everything has multiple uses. A compass can be used in geometry class, can be used to trace a name on your forearm, can dig into shins. A glass tumbler can be used to drink from, can be smashed to cut short an argument, can be left broken inside school shoes. A bed-sheet can be slept on, can be hung up on the wall, can be turned into a straightjacket, can be used to climb in and out of windows. A pillow-case can be tossed over someone's head to blind, disorient, suffocate. Oh, she should just have stuck to melamine.


Sujata is careful not to stiffen as Kulin opens cabinets, fingers the crockery, opens the fridge.


'There isn't much. I don't cook much,' she says as he peeks into the dark cool interiors of the fridge.


He is at the sink beside her. He turns the tap this way and that, feels the soapy stickiness. He frowns. She turns the tap so only a trickle spews out noisily.


'There's a water problem. Be careful,' Sujata says.


Her palm moves back and forth across the plate, waiting to feel a squeaky clean surface before she puts it into the red plastic basket. A spoon follows. A glass. He is watching her hands.


What use can a red plastic basket be put to? She wonders why she bought it. Light, sieve-like, can't hide much.


'What do you want?' she asks.


He looks at her face. She keeps her eyes trained on the thin stream of water.






'Do you still call yourself Sujata? Has that changed too?'


She picks up a soaped-over butter knife from the sink. It is still coated with butter. She scrubs vigorously.


'No. What else has changed?'


He crosses over to her left. Her weak side. Her vision was impaired in the left eye after the beating outside Oshiwara bus depot. Not at home. That one time he had wanted to make a point in public. He'd dragged her off the bus, one hand stretched out to ward off onlookers, shouting, 'Mine … whatever I do … family … personal business.'


Afterwards, he had grabbed her purse, taken out all the money, the house keys, and then put her back on the idling bus, saying – 'Go, go to work. Go to your Lopa didi.'


They had kept their distance – bus driver, passengers, conductor, all of them – right through the beating.


Not 'beating', she reminds herself. Assault. Lopa didi has told her to practise saying it: spell it out, leave no room for doubt. It was an assault that led to Holy Spirit. The first time she was there, the hospital staff asked her to file a police complaint first. Then there was another assault in the hospital, while she was still admitted there. They didn't arrest Kulin though. Family matters were supposed to get sorted privately. Personal business.


The butter knife makes a slight clanking sound as it goes into the basket. Sujata picks up a soapy fork. She sees Kulin's hand reaching into the red plastic basket and picking up the knife.


She wills nonchalance into her torso, her eyes. She rinses the fork. It clatters into the basket. She picks up a pressure cooker, the last pot in the sink.


The butter knife is still in Kulin's hands. She hasn't heard it clatter back into the basket. Sujata removes her apron.


'Very hi-fi,' Kulin says. 'Fork-knife lifestyle. You eat with these? Put sharp things into your mouth? It feels good?' and he pokes the roof of his mouth with the knife.


She brushes past him, goes to the fridge, does an inventory. Three eggs, two leftover slices of pizza, one quarter of a loaf of bread, half a pat of Amul butter, half a papaya. Her head against the cold fridge air, she riffles through memory for a phone number. Damn mobiles, damn speed dial. Lopa didi's number isn't locked into her memory.


She brings out the bread and butter and begins to toast slices on the tava. Lopa didi will shout at her now. Why did she open the door in the first place? What's the safety chain for? Why does she not leave Mumbai? Does she want to go to Dubai? Or to Delhi?


'Pee-zza!' Kulin is saying. 'Pee-zza she will eat. Enough money for pizza, butter-bread. All alone, spending money. Such are your family values – all alone, eating pizza?'


Sujata shrugs. 'You didn't like leftovers, so I thought …'


His hands are on her waist, the butter knife is cold and wet against her bare navel.


'No,' he is saying. 'I don't. No.'


Inside her head, she goes over the digits of Lopa didi's mobile number. Nine-eight-two-zero…


With her other hand, she switches off the gas stove. Minimise risk first.


'Shall I cook something?' she asks. 'If you want to stay, I will.'


Pandering isn't useful, Lopa didi says. They kill everything within you that is worth saving, and then they kill you too eventually. But life is marked by one big 'eventually', isn't it?


Sujata doesn't take counselling too seriously. Lopa didi meets all kinds of bruised woman and probably cries into her pillow at night, swearing at god for allowing the world to spin. No, Lopa didi will never understand why.


The world spins. God sits up there. People live with people as long as they can. Some things you accept. Other things you deal with. No, calling Lopa didi is not a good option. Sujata will deal with this alone.


She grips Kulin's hands and firmly pushes them off her belly. In that moment of tense surprise, the second of hesitation, she reads his mind.


'Listen,' she says. 'I don't mind your coming-going. It is nice to have someone from the family look in on me.' She wipes a plate dry with the end of her saree. 'How is Bua, by the way?'


She looks into his eyes. Maybe it is for the first time in years. When has she ever looked at his face, except when he pushes it up close against hers?


Kulin runs a finger along the blunt edge of the butter knife. He is loath to put it away.


'She's there,' he mutters.


'Same place?' but she doesn't let him answer. Of course, same building, same room. And Bua still working to pay the bills. 'She won't leave that house, will she? I never care for houses in this city. If you don't own it, why get attached? Give that here.'


She takes the butter knife from his hand, lifts warm bits of toast off the tava, daubs on bits of butter, puts them on the plate, puts the plate in his hands.




She picks up the pressure cooker, puts it on the stove, lights the gas, pours mustard oil into it.


Kulin seems rooted in stone. Standing in her house, a plate of toast in his hand, the smell of Amul butter – this has never happened before.


Sujata glances at him and a faint smile rises to her lips. The digits of Lopa didi's number melt away. It should always have been this way – cousin comes to visit cousin in Mumbai. Rings the bell, nicely sits on the sofa, eats whatever is in the fridge. Why didn't she have the brains to handle it this way until now?


She keeps an eye on his hands – he will break the plate and use that if he wants to – and leans into the fridge for a slice of pizza.


'I like cold food,' she explains as she puts it on another plate. When he doesn't follow her out of the kitchen, she asks. 'What's the matter? Come, let's sit in the hall and eat.'


Sujata and Kulin are sitting in the hall. She takes a bite of the pizza, chews the rubbery crust, forces herself to swallow. The plate in his lap gleams. Bits of his face are reflected in it. He picks up a toast, folds it over, then over again, thrusts it whole inside his mouth.


'Kulin,' she begins.


He is chewing, cheeks bloated, eyes fixed on her face. How many years since she has taken his name aloud? Four? Five? Five and a half years. She remembers telling the sub-inspector: her name, his name, family name, address.


'Kulin, it took me a long time to understand. Last time I understood. You want us to behave like family. I had not been behaving properly. You shouldn't just walk away as soon as you have a bit of money. People have a responsibility to others. This time, I have been alone for one year and eight months. I had time to think about my life.'


He has finished the second piece of toast. She comes towards him, one hand extended.


'Give me the plate,' she says. 'I am thinking of making khichdi for dinner. But first I'll make chai. Bring Bua next time …' she trails off as she enters to the kitchen.


Kulin's head is swivelling left to right, taking in each object. Woollen wall hanging with tiny mirrors. No carpet. No centre table. Nothing that can easily be lifted. Except the phone directory lying on the floor. The yellow pages too has its uses – find number of shelters for women in distress, tear out page after page and stuff it down the throat of a girl who makes an emergency phone call.


In the kitchen, Sujata pours more oil into the cooker. She keeps the conversation going from the kitchen.


'I work the evening shift. Did you know already? You still take three spoons of sugar?'


His head swivels towards her. He doesn't reply. The heavy phone book is in his hands.


The oil is so hot it will catch fire any minute. She turns the flame down. Damn mobiles, she curses to herself. Why can she not remember the phone number? Eight-zero-eight… She squeezes her eyes shut. The house is full of mustard oil fumes. Time to measure out a cup of water.


Her cell phone, lying on the window sill in the hall, bursts into an old film song just then. Kulin stares at it.


'Will you take that? Kulin? Take the call,' Sujata calls out, quietly bringing down a cup and saucer from a shelf.


Kulin goes towards the phone. The number flashing on it has not been saved. It is a landline number, probably from somewhere in Andheri.


'Who is calling you?' he yells back.


Sujata lifts the cooker off the gas. From the kitchen door, she says, 'I cannot see the number from here, can I?'


Kulin's turns to pick up the phone. He waits for a 'hello' from the other end. There is nothing. He finally speaks. 'Hello? Who is it?'


His back is turned to her, and she is five steps behind him. Then three, two.


His voice is angry as he repeats, 'Hello? Hello!'


'Here,' she says, holding out the cup.


Kulin jumps at her sudden appearance at his elbow. He knocks the cup to the floor deliberately and it takes him a second to realise that it is full of water, not chai. But it is a second too late. He hasn't yet seen that her other hand carries a pressure cooker and that it is full of boiling oil.


He is heaped on the floor then, moaning, as she runs back towards the kitchen. He is trying to crawl towards the front door, but Sujata has already unhooked the heavy jute bag. She returns to the hall, feeling the heft of the years – iron file, steel chains, padlocks, dozens of keys, crowbar, hammer. He is struggling with the safety chain as she swings her arm.


There comes a day eventually, Sujata thinks, when you escape yourself. You just need to allow time to get inside of you so that it can do its work. Time will replace itself and re-order you life. God sits up there. He marks time. The earth spins. Things go around and then come around.


Sujata rips the sheets off her bed. She knows what to do. Bed sheets can be turned into straitjackets.


She wishes she could call Lopa didi right now and make her understand that the world is a big place, divided only by time. Dubai from Mumbai, college-educated nanny to call centre executive, fear to freedom to trust – just a matter of time. And if your life isn't confined by place, then how can it be changed by leaving a place? You just have to wait it out. And when this time is past, you will see that you have moved on, carrying all your baggage with you.


Everything has its uses, after all. Baggage can be carried, can be swung, can be tossed into the creeks or landfills. Baggage can be allowed to sit at the bottom of the garbage heap that the municipality truck will only touch a week later. When the truck pulls away, it will leave your locality a little cleaner, a little more liveable.


All places can be made liveable. When she came to the old Mhada complex as a child of six, it was a desolate concrete blob in the wilderness. People whispered about leopards near Mahakali Caves and ate obscenely fresh spinach. Just look at it now!


Maybe on Sunday, she will call Lopa didi over, and cook a simple meal, show her that she is quite happy with her life as it is right now.


Sujata brings back the pressure cooker to the sink. It is still warm. She soaps it, fills it with water, and leaves it to soak through the night.



Annie Zaidi is the co-author of The Bad Boy's Guide to the Good Indian Girl (Zubaan, Delhi, 2011), and the author of Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales (Tranquebar, Delhi, 2010), and a collection of illustrated poems, Crush (Jaico, 2007).