Moina by Prasanta Das

Moina almost dropped her broom when she heard someone moving in the bedroom. She resumed sweeping when she heard more sounds. Whoever was moving about was doing so openly; it couldn't be a thief or an intruder. Still, there was a clandestine aspect to it that made her a little uneasy. When had this guest come? She was a light sleeper. But she had heard nothing at night and, in the morning Dada and Baidow had not told her that they had a guest. Of course, Dada and Baidow didn't have to tell her everything. Moina knew her place and did not resent it. She never sat on the chairs or sofa, and if she was sent on an errand to a neighbour’s house, no matter how friendly they were, she always entered through the back door.


Her day began early. She got up at five – if she was a minute late, chaos ensued. First she got tiffin ready. Then, after the pressure cooker stopped its imperious whistling, she woke up Debojit and Priyakshi, gave them their baths, and dressed them in their school uniforms. It was only when the school van came that the mistress of the house would get up to say goodbye to her children. Dada and Baidow were college teachers. Moina knew how indispensable she was to the family and, on occasion, was not above stressing the fact to her employers. This she did by sulking and threatening to go home. But home was one place she had no wish to return to. She had left her village years ago because there wasn't enough to eat. She had missed the village and her little brothers and sisters the first year. That was because she hadn't liked the family which had brought her to work for them. But about two years ago Dada and Baidow had lured her away and she had been happy since. Dada was easy going and Baidow, on the whole, was not too demanding.


The house became quiet once Debojit and Priyakshi had been sent off to school. Dada and Baidow left for work at about ten. Until they and the children returned Moina was alone. She washed clothes and did the cleaning and cooking. Though she welcomed interruptions when the fish and vegetable sellers came, few made it to the house since it was at the bottom of a small slope and set somewhat apart from the other houses in the lane. Usually only one old vegetable seller turned up, pushing his thela and carrying news of what was happening in the town. He was late today and sounded quite annoyed. The police was checking everyone, not just the young men on bikes, he said. Moina gave him a glass of water. On most days he rested for a few minutes in the compound, wiping the sweat from his face, and recovering from the heat. But today he left quickly. There was no sign of the milk boy with the two large tin cans on his cycle. Moina guessed he was not going to come. Debojit and Priyakshi would have to do without milk today.


The grey stray cat had appeared almost as soon as Dada and Baidow had left. It used to be a cute kitten. Even Dada and Baidow, who disliked cats, had thought so and tolerated it when it first turned up. But it had grown up and become a spindly creature and, perhaps because it was so needy, it mewed incessantly. When the cat came, husband and wife shouted to Moina to keep the kitchen door closed.  Cats, they believed, were natural thieves. A sort of pact had grown up between Moina and the cat. It now came when the husband and wife left the house. Then it would start mewing and Moina would feed it with the scraps of food she had saved.


But it required some balancing, for Moina was the owner of half a dozen parakeets. The cat, once it had gained entrance into the house, would make for the veranda near the kitchen where Moina’s parakeets were sunning themselves in their cage. Moina would scold the cat – she talked a lot with animals and birds. Then she would coax it out to the back of the house where the servant’s latrine was. Though there was enough space in the backyard to put up a clothesline, nobody came here except Moina. There were a few betel nut trees; creepers and grass partly covered the slabs of the septic tank and the bricks left over from the time the house was built. A mango tree provided welcome shade. This was where Moina preferred to play with the cat.


Her ownership of the parakeets was bit of an accident. Debojit had caught the first one when it had suddenly appeared on the veranda, having probably escaped from its previous owner. He had put it in a makeshift cage but quickly tired of taking care of it. So Moina, who had coveted the bird since it came, assumed ownership. She persuaded Dada to buy a cage and then, because the bird was lonely, to buy it a companion. They had ended up buying five. Dada had laughed when Baidow complained that he was spoiling Moina. He was nice, except when he drank.


Today she had spent too much time playing with the cat. Moina became conscious that she had not got lunch ready yet. And there was a guest in the house! She quickly completed sweeping the drawing room, excited at the thought of cooking some nice dish for the unexpected guest.




Moina was happy. She liked having guests. Gogoi-da had come late in the afternoon. He had cycled two kilometres from his house because he wanted to talk to his friends about the next day. He was a large man whose clothes, even new ones, seemed to hang on him. The back of his shirt was wet with sweat and his broad face reflected the anxiety he was feeling. Often after his visits Dada and Baidow remarked to each other how childlike he was. They liked Gogoi-da but enjoyed making fun of him because it was so easy to make him nervous. At night (so Moina had heard Baidow saying) he went round his house two times making sure all the doors and windows were properly closed and bolted.


Gogoi-da had come to ask if Dada and Baidow would be attending the Independence Day function tomorrow. Baidow, who was rather plump in a fresh, fruit-like way, laughed and began to tease him. ‘O Gogoi-da! All the schoolchildren will be there. Debojit and Priyakshi are going. And you are thinking of staying at home?’


‘The boys call for a boycott on every Independence Day, said Dada. Has anything happened all these years? Do you think they would harm innocent people?’ Dada had black stiff hair and was becoming fat.


‘VIPs don't go anywhere without security,’ complained Gogoi-da, getting agitated. ‘But what about ordinary people like us? Why are they forcing us to go?’


‘You will lose your job, if you don’t go,’ said Dada.


Gogoi-da stopped arguing after this. He got up to leave saying something about making his will, which made Baidow burst out laughing. The bandh was to begin at midnight but already you could feel the town coming to a standstill. There were almost no cars on the roads and most of the shops had closed even though it was not yet evening. Moina, seeing how worried Gogoi-da looked, felt sorry for him and was sad to see him leave.


The guest in the bedroom appeared soon after Gogoi-da had pushed his cycle to the top of the slope and rode away. Moina had seen him before. He was sunburnt and of medium build. Some months ago, he had come and spent a day in the house sleeping in the bedroom, after which there was a quarrel between Dada and Baidow.


Dada was in a good mood. Moina guessed that he had already begun drinking even though it was still not quite dark. Soon he and the guest got into the car and she heard them driving away. They had some bottles with them when they returned. Dada boasted how the police had not stopped his car because they knew him. Somehow this made Baidow angry. But it was difficult to resist the gay mood that Dada was in.


A second man emerged from the bedroom. He was tall and young and tried to catch Moina’s eyes several times but she was careful not to look at him. Baidow could be quite sharp with her comments. In fact, she had often told Moina that she was no longer a child and ought to behave accordingly. She had even bought her a maxi because she said that Moina should no longer wear frocks.


Whenever Moina went to the kitchen, she met the young man in the corridor. The corridor was a narrow one and Moina began to feel that these meetings were not accidental. But instead of becoming angry, she had found herself giggling.


Later she heard the car being started. Dada had fallen asleep by now and Baidow was watching a TV serial. The children too had gone to sleep. The car came back an hour or so later. Moina was still awake and heard the two men returning.




When she got up the next morning, they were gone. Moina did not have to get tiffin ready for Debojit and Priyakshi to carry to school since they expected to be back by ten thirty. But dressing Priyakshi took time – she was wearing one of her mother’s mekhelas for the Independence Day function. The school van came, the girls looking pretty in their mekhelas; some were even wearing lipstick and had their cheeks rouged. At the last moment, Moina decided to give a bunch of flowers to Priyakshi while the driver blew his horn and the excited children cried out impatiently.


 ‘Hurry up, Priyakshi!’


‘Moina-ba! Bye bye! Ta ta!’


Soon after, Dada and Baidow left in their car. Moina first cleaned the parakeets’ cage. Then because the grey cat hadn't come as yet, and Debojit and Priyakshi would return home earlier than usual, she went to the kitchen. She wondered what she should cook and regretted not asking Baidow whether the guests would return.


There was the sound of an explosion. Moina wondered if a gas cylinder had burst somewhere.  Baidow had often impressed on her the need to be careful with the gas cylinder in the kitchen. She told shocking tales of gas cylinders exploding and people dying because of some servant’s carelessness. Then Moina heard the screaming of sirens and knew an accident of some kind had occurred. She ran out of the house to the top of the slope but there was nothing to see. For some time she waited hoping to meet someone who would tell her what had happened. But there was unusual quietness in the neighbourhood and nobody came her way. She returned to the house and switched on the TV. A local channel was showing the town’s parade field. Chaotic scenes greeted her: ambulance workers and policemen were shouting and gesturing urgently, flowerpots lay scattered and the camera kept returning to a broken wooden platform. The news reporter was saying that a bomb had gone off at the Independence Day function and killed several people and some children. He began to interview eyewitnesses. Moina watched dumbly as Gogoi-da, looking more dishevelled than she had ever seen him before, appeared on the screen and began to talk about security lapses.


Dada’s car screeched to a stop near the gate and Moina was relieved to see Dada, Baidow and the children get down. But Baidow did not even look at Moina. Instead she pushed past her and rushed to the bedroom with Debojit and Priyakshi and locked the door from inside. ‘Fool! Fool! Fool!’ she wailed. ‘You drunkard, you have destroyed your family! The police will find out where they stayed. We are ruined! O, you fool, fool, fool!’


Dada beat his head against the door and begged Baidow to let him in. Moina had never seen him behave this way before, even when he was drunk. It distressed her and she retreated to the kitchen. But thinking she would suffocate there, she stepped outside.


And then she saw him. The tall young man was lying in front of the gate. Perhaps he had come back because he considered the house safe. At first she thought he was dead. But he was breathing and Moina realised he was only drunk. From her experience of Dada’s drunken stupors, she knew it would be some time before he came to his senses. She looked up at the sky. It was mid-morning but already the heat was becoming intense.


Moina grasped his feet and began to pull him. He was heavy and she had a hard time as she dragged him by the side of the house, trying to avoid sharp pebbles and fragments of broken bricks. But she was finally able to get him to the backyard and under the shade of the mango tree. She waited for a while, looking down at him, before returning to the house. He lay where she left him, quiet and still.



Prasanta Das is Professor of English at Tezpur University in Assam. He has been a two time Fulbrighter (Cornell and Harvard). His short stories have appeared in Out of Print, Pyrta, and Mascara Literary Review.