Mrs Aggarwal's Mirror by Roshna Kapadia

At the precise moment that two million megawatts of energy ricocheted through her frail frame, throwing off her body and crumpling it into a lifeless heap of charred skin and smouldering flesh, Shanthi was cleaning the mirror near the window inside the Aggarwal family’s bungalow. The lightning bolt that struck Shanthi left a record of the event on the mirror she was cleaning, so that hours after her body was removed from the house and redundantly cremated, weeks after the story was told and retold by the townspeople of Ratlam district, and months after her memory was mourned by her surviving son, the faint but unmistakable outline of a working woman’s face contorted by shock, the lines of her brow, and the glint of her metal earrings remained imprinted on the mirror.


This ghostly addition to the mirror disturbed Mrs Aggarwal who knew that she had been underpaying her house servant. She didn't want to throw or give the mirror away – it had been handed down from ancestors who had bought it for a pittance from a colonial soldier returning to his native England half a century before – but she couldn't look at it every day with its newly acquired image. Mrs Aggarwal took the mirror off the wall and tried cleaning it, sunning it, airing it. She moved it to a darkened cupboard for a time, but the picture of her cleaning lady with her eyebrows raised and her arm akimbo persisted in the glass like a stubborn stain.


Reluctantly, Mrs Aggarwal decided to sell the mirror. She took it to the town's puranawalla, whose job it was to collect, shine, display, and sell a magnificent array of old, discarded metal objects. His stall space, sandwiched between a cane juice booth and a robust banyan, showcased shiny hardware items for plumbers, tinkers, auto workers, and housewives in search of novelty kitchen items.


While other items sold and new items were added to the collector’s stash, Mrs Aggarwal noted with prickly disappointment that her mirror remained in the seller’s stall. This meant she got to see the image of her former cleaning lady on her twice-weekly excursions to the market and temple. Did other people see the reflection, Mrs Aggarwal wondered. Did it look frightful to them? What did the old lady in the mirror want? Should she give the old lady’s son more money?


Not far away, on a small farm in Dilipnagar, Shanthi’s son Ramu lay nursing a sick bull that had refused food for a week. A neighbour who was called in to check on the ailing animal only shook his head after prying open the animal’s dry eyes and mouth. Ramu feared for his own survival with the loss of yet another life on his farm. Only five years old, the animal had worked well with his partner ox, and his prospects on the stud market – until last week – had been excellent.


‘It can’t be your karma to go yet. Drink more water, stay awhile. Stay…’ he begged, as the bull closed his eyes for the last time.


The following day, Mrs Aggarwal came to Ramu’s farm in a white Ambassador driven by a uniformed rail worker. She held a fine opinion of her family. Why shouldn’t she? Her husband was head of the railroad station at Ratlam junction, with clout in the panchayat. The villagers and townspeople looked up to him and often asked him – a man who could write letters on official government masthead paper – to represent their views and grievances at council meetings. As the only townswoman to accompany the Chief Minister’s entourage in caravan cars decorated with national flags on periodic visits, Mrs Aggarwal, too, had been awarded a rank of importance. She came to Ramu’s farm on this day, not only to maintain her elevated status, but also to seek some atonement for having denied his departed mother a four per cent raise request two months ago. Compassion consumed her as she watched the shirtless young man, his back taut with muscle and shiny with sweat, alone at work on his farm.


Ramu raced to the car, wiping his brow on his forearms as he ran. The driver opened the car door and Mrs Aggarwal stepped out in a purple and green nylon sari, her face dusted with light powder, her hair packed neatly into a netted bun. She took off her wide sunglasses and walked directly toward the tin-roofed hut, a bare, two-room mud structure with no windows or doors. In the centre of one room stood a kerosene stove and a dilapidated metal rack adorned with a handful of cooking utensils, metal tumblers, and rags. A string bed was pressed against a newly constructed tan wall on which a picture of Laxmi hung. Mrs Aggarwal’s dazzling sari with its peacock feather motif and the mogra scent from her hair ornament brought in a rare sensation of luxury to Ramu’s home, one he knew he would savour long past the time she left.


‘When I was last here, er … after the crematory service for your mother … hai na? The shed was the house, and the house was the shed,’ she observed correctly.


‘Because of those big trees outside, that part got little light, memsahib. Animals are needing sunshine.’


A peek into what was now the cattle shed showed a lone, seated ox, his fore legs folded beneath him, basking in a rectangle of light that slanted in through the square cut-out in the wall. The smell of wet dung was everywhere, equally strong in the shed as in Ramu’s living space. Mrs Aggarwal pulled a corner of her sari pallu to her nose, and held it there stiffly.

‘I heard your animal died?’ she said from behind her nose veil.


‘Yesterday. We need a pair to do the work.’


During his life, he had lost his father, all his siblings, and most recently, his mother to random incidents and illnesses. Yet, Ramu continued to speak in the collective ‘we’.


‘Could you offer this ox up for, er … I mean to say … husbandry?’

‘No. He cannot … it cannot happen, Memsahib.’


‘Govind-of-the-town has lots of cattle to sell. Instead of money, for some months, you can give half of what you produce to him. Achchha? In return, you’ll get a new bull. Do you need a left or right animal?’


‘The animal that died was a leftie. But memsahib, we are Bhils. Govind and his people … they don’t work with Bhils.' The last time Ramu had seen him, Govind had hissed in his direction, causing Ramu to jump off the footpath in haste.


‘Never mind that. They will work through me,’ Mrs Aggarwal said confidently. ‘What do you grow here?’


‘What we eat – greens, tubers, gram. Any extra produce is bartered.’


‘And who cooks?’


‘After Mataji died, I…’ his voice trailed off the unfinished sentence.


The spectre of Shanthi popped up again in Mrs Aggarwal’s mind. She imagined her cleaning lady here, crouching on her haunches, stone grinding spices, and cooking meals for herself and her young son. Mrs Aggarwal pressed her lips together tightly, and said, ‘OK, then! I’ll settle negotiations with Govind-of-the-town. He’ll give you a bull in ten days’ time. You can give him two-thirds of what you produce for four months. What say?’


The car reversed itself on the dirt path it had carved on its way leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. Ramu went back to the field wondering why Mrs Aggarwal came to visit his farm. Why did she make eye contact and speak to him directly, and not through her driver? Why did she enter his home?


When ten days had passed, Ramu came to retrieve the new bullock, carefully planning what to say to Govind. But the animal he was shown was a rightie. This was evident from the violent way in which he agitated while placed on the left side of the yoke.


‘We have no use for another right animal,’ he told Mrs Aggarwal later in the day, at her home. ‘It’s not possible to retrain an animal to change sides under the yoke.’ He had tried it once; the animal had kept going around in circles.


Ramu looked around the house in which his mother had worked for four years. She had mopped the floors here, cleaned bathrooms, and washed clothes which she would have had to stretch onto the tips of her toes, he guessed, to hang dry on the line he saw outside. But today she was gone, and memsahib’s house was clean; its tiled floors sparkled brightly and smelled like lemons. How easily his mother’s worth had been replaced here!


‘That Govind! He knew very well that he was supposed to give you a left animal! Go home now, Ramu. I’ll deal with that scoundrel myself.’


The next day, Mrs Aggarwal went to Govind’s place, her face red with anger, to work out a bigger, better deal for Ramu. ‘Eh! Govind? Govind! You think we are stupid? Look, you will give up the animal you are hiding one year from now to Shanthi’s son. Until then, you can use the boy’s land, and buy off your terms of the bonded-labour agreement he inherited from his dead father. Don’t take too long to consider this – you know it’s a good deal.’


‘Yes, memsahib.’


'And there's one more thing,' she said, her tone turning dulcet. 'Pray hard that nothing happens to Shanthi's boy or land, hahn? If word reaches the panchayat's ears, that you had something to do with the bull that died last month as part of your plan to swallow up Ramu's land, people will start questioning the other deaths and mishaps in his family. Understand?'


Thus, Ramu temporarily surrendered his plot to Govind’s clan, and took a train to the city. From the window of the overstuffed bogie he scoured a panoramic view of cultivated fields. Although he had spent all his years within a few miles of his town, he was able to identify crops – millet, wheat, corn, cane – for over a hundred miles, until darkness fell. Then, leaning against the window bars to sleep, he prayed that Govind might take good care of his land, and that a paying job would not be hard to come by in the city.




On his return to the village a year later, Ramu was welcomed back as though he were King Ram himself, reuniting with his people after forced exile. Quickly, neighbours and friends gathered around him, slapping his back, wanting to know all.


‘How big is the big city? What was your job?’


Ramu skipped telling the unsavoury parts – about his role with gangs of petty thieves, and about his roadside living arrangements: for almost three months he had slept on park benches or in construction culverts during the rains, making the railroad tracks his toilet, and cleaning himself only when he could, at the sea side, until he had found a regular paying job.


‘I took work as a servant in a small house in Bambai.’


‘Kyu? We thought you were going to build those big tall buildings?’


‘No. That work’s not for me!’ he declared, shaking his head like a crazed pendulum, ‘Too dangerous.’


‘Why did you come back to the village?’


‘I am a farmer. I came back for this,’ Ramu said, scooping up moist, black soil into his fists. ‘Besides, the sahib died accidentally. I was told to leave soon after that. Anyhow, the family gave me extra pay. Look.’


‘Were they rich?’


So rich! They ate on plates made of glass. They wore shiny shoes. You know, the lady of the house, she bought soap twice monthly!’


Other villagers joined the crowd. ‘Were you ever robbed?’ they asked. ‘Did you see Dev Anand? Rajesh Khanna?’


‘No, but I saw many people that looked like film stars,’ Ramu described men wearing tight pants and ladies in small clothes, motioning to his thigh to indicate how much leg a Bombay city girl might bare. ‘I even got to see foreign movies with Shumeet, the memsahib’s little boy.’


‘Movies about firangi people, in their big cities?’


‘No, not in cities but in the mountains. Everybody rode a horse and did lots of shooting,’ he said, pretending to pull out a gun from each side of his imaginary holster, ‘like this: “Tho! THO!!”’


‘How did the firangis speak? What did they say?’


‘They did fast talking, like this: “few few few.” I didn’t understand anything. But the man with the biggest hat always took all of the gold.’




Ramu was enjoying his new-found celebrity when Mrs Aggarwal came by again with her driver to see if the transfer of land to the owner had been successfully completed.


‘So, you have returned to your land. Govind took good care of everything properly, hai na?’


Indeed, the deal with Govind had worked out well. Ramu awoke once more to the intoxicating sight of chromatic greens glistening with morning dew. Inhaling the delicate aroma of carefully planted herbs, watching his cabbages and tomatoes grow full and plump made him happy to be home again, where he wanted and needed to be. Govind’s people had tilled the land, planted the next season’s crop with care, and left a corner of the field deliberately fallow to retain moisture. Ramu explained that Govind had, for cryptic reasons, insisted that he keep a cow as part of the exchange. ‘I get three to four litres of milk to drink and barter now. More manure, too.’


‘Achchha? That’s your good fortune!’ Mrs Aggarwal exclaimed. ‘Now, it’s time for you to get married. Young Oho would suit you well. She is a runaway. But that’s okay, hai na?’


Leaving him no choice of rejection Mrs Aggarwal surveyed the man as though he were a prospective furniture purchase. Then, she measured Ramu’s height against a mark on the staff she had brought with her. Smiling triumphantly when she noted that he was more than a fist measure taller than the line that signalled his intended bride’s height, Mrs Aggarwal cocked her head to the right and gave her eyebrows a rolling twitch. ‘This means you can marry her! What say?’


Ramu knew the girl. Young Oho had rutilant cheeks and hair as dark as coal, which she worked into thick braids. This was the girl that looked away, too deliberately he thought, when anyone but her widowed father addressed her. The murmur in the town was she had run away from her husband because he had beaten her daily with a stick.


The marriage ceremony was performed for an audience of nine, on a crisp day in December. Oho came to the marriage with a few necessities – some clothes and a blanket, pots for the kitchen,  kumkum powder for the part in her hair, black nylon ribbons, silver anklets with little bells – and parental blessing.


‘Plant a tree and have a son,’ her father had advised the new couple, ‘and show respect for both.’

The village barber had puffed up Ramu’s hair in the manner of the 1970’s screen stars. Covered in new clothes from the money he had earned in the city, he faced his bride for the first time on their wedding day. She dodged his gaze even as they exchanged marigold-strung garlands. Ramu wondered how long it would be before they shared laughter, and the warmth of a cot. How soon before there were children to bounce on his lap?


Obedient to prayer, the following monsoon winds carried the right amount of rain that fell placidly so as not to destroy his crops or flimsy rooftop. Ramu marvelled daily at his being an independent farmer on the family plot. His assets now included a couple of oxen, a bull, and a spotted cow, some money saved in an emptied can of Dalda buried deep in the ground by the potatoes, and a caring wife for daily comfort. Stopping for a water break under the copious shade of a sal, he motioned for Oho to join him. She walked toward him, her jingling anklets heralding her arrival, and lowered her rotund figure, carefully, to sit near him.


‘Oho, smile for me and for the baby inside you,’ he pleaded.


She gave him a fugitive smile, but quickly reverted to her serious expression. ‘I’ve been having thoughts of my former mother-in-law.’ ‘Here, take this to the panchayat,’ she had whispered to the bleeding girl one day, handing her a switch. ‘Tell them that he is beating you with this stick. Hurry, go!’ On measuring the switch and finding it to be wider than the wife-beater’s thumb, the council had wasted no time in deciding that Oho could leave her husband and return to her parents’ home, with no punishment or loss of face. ‘She saved my life, my mother-in-law,’ Oho said in a low rasp.

Ramu stroked his wife’s hair lightly. ‘If I ever see that man, you know what I’ll do to him?’



‘I’ll take out my pistol and shoot a silver bullet through his khopdi like this: “THO!” I’ll send him tumbling to the ground so hard, the earth will shake,’ he demonstrated a dramatic collapse. ‘Then I’ll put on a big-big hat and ride away into the mountains on a golden horse. With you, Oho. With you.’


Oho giggled gleefully. Grateful for a second chance at life, happy to be cooking greens pulled from their own soil for one man who loved her only gently, not three miles from her childhood home, Oho felt she was almost certainly the luckiest girl on the lush horizon that stretched before them.




Ten, twenty, almost thirty years pass; it is the cusp of a new millennium. In his Washington DC office, Shumeet Sen receives an overseas mailing. Tucked into the package from his uncle is a wedding invitation, written in tight Devanagari scrawl on a pictureless postcard: ‘Your honoured presence is requested for….’ Shumeet arranges for a train reservation from Mumbai to Delhi, with an overnight stop in Ratlam, on his next visit to India.


A month later, he arrives at Ratlam junction on the 2951 Rajdhani Express. While waiting at the depot for a connector bus to Dilipnagar, he notes the modernisation of this town. All around him in this new India are billboards and colourful signs and advertisements for consumer items in plastic and synthetic textile, and wireless connections for phones, computers, and televisions.


The bus drops him off under a tree whose broad, dusty leaves provide a natural cover from the mid-afternoon sun. Shumeet walks in the direction of the farm immediately recognizing Ramu leisurely riding a bicycle in the distance. Shumeet’s heart bounces lightly in his rib cage as memories of carefree times, of fun and laughter, of teaching and learning, crowd his mind: he remembers having shown his former servant how to use a toaster and iron. Ramu had, in turn, taught the boy to choose dry kindling to start a fire with, and to measure time before and after noon by using a makeshift sundial.


Ramu dismounts from his bicycle, thrusting his neck forward, as he tries to size up his approaching guest, a jacketed man with a leather bag slung across one shoulder. Slowly, his face cracks into a smile to show gaps where long teeth once stood.


‘Arre? It is you, Shumeet bhai! What a big sahib you have become. Your mother is well?’


Shumeet replies that his mother has passed on a few years ago, and that he now lives and works across the great water. ‘And you?’


‘After I came back from the city, I quickly married. Have four children, and even grandchildren! You missed my youngest daughter’s wedding last month,’ he points to colourised photos mounted on the wall. ‘Here is Tanmay, my son. Do you know? He can read and write,’ Ramu beams, as he continues, ‘Works in the town’s clinic. Now he advises me on what to grow to make medicine from. Come, see!’ Then he calls to his wife, ‘Oho! Hot chai!’


While they tour the field, Shumeet talks about memories and stories from their shared past in the city, but Ramu has little to say. He appears to have forgotten riding the Giant wheel with Shumeet at the mela. ‘Metro cinema’ doesn’t elicit a reaction, even though they had seen at least a dozen spaghetti westerns in that grand cinema hall. Shumeet is disappointed; Ramu had been important in his life as a fill-in for his father, lost to alcohol and early death.


They walk back to the house. ‘I built these three rooms myself. New roof, see? Even the monsoon’s most mischievous winds won’t blow this roof away!’ Ramu shows off a water pump and a couple of bicycles. Chickens scurry out of the bovine-crowded shed followed by a toddler that Ramu scoops into his arms, whispering words of love and comfort, in a tone immediately familiar and comforting to Shumeet. Seeing Ramu thriving thus on his farm leads Shumeet to conclude that the man has willed himself to forget his life as a servant in Bombay.


Oho drops her pink sari pallu over her face like a curtain in a theatre, and serves them steaming hot tea, sweetened with a little stone of jaggery. As she cooks supper, the air fills with the smoky aroma of bajra ki roti and frying onions and spices. Shumeet feels a rumble rise in his stomach. ‘I should take your leave,’ he says, with a nod in the direction of Ramu’s wife, who is squatting over a stove, her sari folds spread out like a crenulated fan between her bent knees.


‘I’ll take you in my cart,’ Ramu offers. Shumeet is hungry; he would have preferred the speed of the bus, but he climbs onto the seat, which creaks and sags slightly under his weight. ‘Have you ever ridden in one of these?’ Ramu asks, as he flicks up the reins with a ‘Haiyaa!’ that sets the bullocks in motion.

Shumeet shakes his head, no. The cart transports them slowly along an uneven road flanked on either side by small dry fields separated by sal and babul trees or short walls built of rough stone. The sky is cloudless, and in the fields, shades of yellow and brown dominate. The reticulated cracks on the road ahead confirm this to be the dry season.


They pass a huddle of camels, resting all but their jaws, and an open-air auto shop, where disassembled parts of scooters, cars, and trucks await oiling and repair. A bird calls in a series of coos rising up the scale as a breeze rustles tree leaves and sends odd bits of brush swirling into tiny, cylindrical dust storms.


‘It is a matter of much sadness when one’s mother leaves this earth,’ Ramu says, as if the news of Shumeet’s mother’s passing has only now registered with him. ‘There was a memsahib who lived in the town here. She was kind, like your mother was, to me.’ He tells stories of Mrs Aggarwal, of how she had the town’s wells deepened to relieve water stress in the dry season and started a locally run cooperative bank. ‘She even sent my son for higher study,’ Ramu says, his face radiant.

‘Where is she now?’


‘Her husband took a job in Delhi, so they left. The panchayat decided to name a park after her. Want to see?’

At the town’s periphery, Ramu halts the cart and ties the reins loosely around a cow post. The men walk around Aggarwal Bageecha, a little oasis of greenery where children swing as their mothers watch; past the clinic where Ramu’s son works as a medical technician; and through the bazaar, a noisy place of rapid business activity.


Shumeet stops to buy a snack at a food stall: sticky jalebis in florescent orange and freshly fried bhajias wrapped in scraps of newspaper. He eats hungrily, and gives some to Ramu, who tucks the warm package into a pocket of his sweater vest. Shumeet notices a stall nearby displaying random gleaming objects. He hopes to find curiosities – a multi-stem hookah or a composite animal carving – when he spots what he assumes is a large picture, lying face-down in a pile of junk.


He picks it up carefully, turns it over, and blows off a little cloud of dust from its surface. He sees that it is in fact a mirror, whose attractive frame is not silver, as the seller claims, but pewter, cast in one piece.


Ramu’s face turns ashen. He knows this mirror as the last thing his mother had touched before she had died; the mirror from the Aggarwal house! They both search the piece, Shumeet, for what he sees in it – intricate swirls and curves on the frame – Ramu, for what he does not.


‘Is the glass clear? What do you see?’ Ramu asks Shumeet, as if to confirm the absence of his mother’s reflection in it.


‘I see me … and now you,’ Shumeet says tilting the mirror to check for flaws in the reflective glass or scuffs in the frame.


‘That’s all?’


‘When I hold it like this, I see the sky … and a skinny tree with few leaves.’


‘Anything else?’


Irked by Ramu’s persistence, Shumeet thinks that perhaps Ramu is seeking a philosophical answer. ‘Whenever I look in the mirror, I always see my mother looking back at me. My long-gone father, too. Why?’


Then Ramu understands it this way: everybody sees someone important in the mirror! Ramu had seen his mother; Shumeet saw his own parents; Mrs Aggarwal had seen her cleaning lady, because she had been important. That explained why Mrs Aggarwal came to Ramu’s farm to talk to him, to help him and his people, and his boy. Yes, that was it.


Grinning widely, he asks, ‘Do you want to buy this glass? I can bring down the price for you.’


Shumeet refuses politely, and pays the vendor’s asking price. The men say goodbye, before Shumeet heads toward the government rest house where he will stay overnight. He walks awkwardly, trying to carry the mirror in such a way as to keep shoppers and buskers in the crowd from bumping into his new purchase. He decides the mirror is best carried on his side.

Over the din of percussive insects and noisy hawkers selling hand-embroidered shawls, pickled fruit rind, coir mats, pinwheels, balloons, buckets, and brooms in dazzling colours behind him now, Shumeet hears a familiar cry, ‘Shane, come back! Shaaaaaane. Khum baaaaack!’


Shumeet sets the mirror down and gives Ramu a wide-motion wave, feeling a warm satisfaction that Ramu remembers more than he lets on from his stint in the city so long ago. Strapping the bag across his left shoulder, Shumeet wrestles with his mirror once again, completely spinning it around his body for a more comfortable grip. For a brief second during its rotational journey, the mirror reflects both men’s smiles.



Roshna Kapadia lives and works in a Washington DC suburb. Her work has appeared before in Out of Print.