Ira woke up with a start, her eyes frantically checking if there was someone around. She had taken a longer siesta and her dream had left her a little shaken. It was always the same dream. She would be sleeping on her bed with a blanket on her, and someone would tug at it, trying to wake her up. She’d then wake up to see a pale-looking little girl in a lace frock taking the blanket off her and trying to get on the bed. She’d try to push the kid away. The girl would fall down and again try to climb the bed. That is when she’d always wake up, slightly panting and still feeling a little dazed. Why do I always see this little girl? She wondered.
The bedroom was on the eastern side of the chaang-bungalow*, old and flaking in different places, after centuries of service. The day was silently waning away, leaving the room with the early shadows of a tea garden evening. A cold breeze pervaded the old bungalow. Winter usually augurs sooner in tea gardens than elsewhere; partly because it is open and covered with more trees and bushes than concrete buildings, and partly because an eerie silence clouds them, unless you’re standing next to the bustling factory.
Realising that she was awake after all, Ira finally gave a sigh of relief and got out of bed. Her husband Rajib, was at work, minding the workers and hoping to start the pruning* soon. He would come back only in the evening, after the day’s plucking was carefully hoarded in the factory for the manufacturing process to take over. She had a couple of warm, daylight hours to take a walk around the kitchen garden, tell the maalis (gardeners) not to over-water the plants, ensure that all the chickens had returned to their coop and their fodder was laid out inside it, the cows had come back to their shed and the baagaal (cowherd) had made sure that there was enough grass for the cows to chew on later. Then she’d take her evening shower, offer an earthen lamp in the prayer room and prepare some snack for the evening.
Musing on these thoughts, she quickly went to the bathroom, splashed a little water on her face and was patting it dry when she heard something drop onto the floor. She went into the bedroom to see the talcum powder tin lying on the red mosaic floor, a speck of white powder, next to where the hole was made in the tin. Must’ve been the breeze, she thought. She closed the windows and drew the curtains. She then picked up the tin, put it on the dressing table, and walked out the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. She got down the backdoor stairs, which creaked at every step and made her way to the backyard.
After her chores were done, she went up to her bedroom for a shower and saw the powder tin still lying on the floor. Silly me, she thought, always forgetting things. She put it back on the table unmindfully, pulled out a fresh dress for the evening, and went into the bathroom. The water was reasonably warm from the day’s heat, even without the geyser. She came out after fifteen minutes, put on the lights and dressed up. After a quick prayer, she went to tell the cook to prepare methi pakoras (fenugreek fries) for the evening tea. ‘Don’t put too much salt, Gobinda. Sahib* doesn’t like it,’ she said. Gobinda nodded in acknowledgement.
Rajib got back by sundown, parked his gipsy van on the porch and went straight to the kitchen. ‘I’m starving, what’s there to eat?’
‘Methi pakoras,’ Ira said smiling, as she offered him one, straight out of the pan.
‘Yum,’ he said, blowing off the steam and placing the warm pakora into his mouth. Between gasps of warm pakora breath, he added, ‘The Sodhis have invited us for dinner tonight.’
‘Yeah? When did Sonia arrive?’
‘Yesterday! Baby has settled down apparently. I knew these private boarding schools won’t let any ragging nonsense malign their reputation. They take hefty sums to take care of the kids after all!’
After a brief tea chat about each other’s day, both husband and wife got ready for the evening and told Gobinda not to make anything for dinner. Soon, the driver got the car out and took the couple off to the Sodhis’ bungalow, a kilometer away. Gobinda, happy to be free this evening, strutted off home. On his way, he met Bahadur, one of the pair of chowkidars (watchmen). ‘Your partner is swatting off mosquitoes alone. Go join him,’ he joked. The latter smiled and moved on.
Bahadur and his partner, Gokul, guarded the big old bungalow alternatively (one in the day and other at night), swapping occasionally when one needed a night off. As Bahadur reached the bungalow, he closed the gate behind him, and walked up to the kitchen to fill his water bottle.
Gokul was sitting at the guard’s booth, its blue colour peeling off at the edges. ‘You can leave early if you want to,’ Bahadur said.
‘Yeah sure, ba-ha-dur (the brave one)!’ sniggered Gokul.
They chatted for a while, about their wives going crazy for the pending Durga Puja shopping, about the garden owners always managing to rob them off a slice of their bonus, about backaches caused by their job, about their sahib-memsahib not having a child even after five years of marriage and generally, about the coming winter.
The night had descended and the chill slowly creeping up. Both men parted ways, as Bahadur got himself cosy in his seat near the gate and Gokul packed his things into a bundle under his armpit, ready to leave.
‘Hey, I got an idea,’ said Gokul. ‘Tonight, push the chair to the wall, wrap yourself up and tuck your blanket behind it, and then prop your legs up on the stool. It keeps you warm and nothing can take it off you.
‘Mm, hmm!’ grunted his partner.
‘Anyway, goodnight then! Don’t doze off. Sahib-memsahib will be home soon.’
‘Sure, sure!’ Bahadur drawled. ‘Besides, the little one will make sure of that anyway, won’t she? Tugging at my blanket till I wake up?’
Chaang-bungalow: Literally meaning, bungalow on stilts, a chaang-bungalow is an old tea garden bungalow that was built when the British first set up tea gardens. It was built on top of pillars, in order to be safe from wild animals.
Sahib: Common tea garden house-help parlance for ‘Sir’.