CW: Reference to human trafficking.
I am 17 and in Paradise. It feels like I have been here forever.
Flashes of life before keep coming to me in my dreams; Mother feeding grains to the clucking hens and Father slumped on the floor with an empty toddy bottle rolling next to him. Now I live with Didi, Bhaiyya and their little angel.
I wake up without an alarm. It must be around 4.00 a.m. now. I wake up to a space filled with food around me- just like yesterday, the day before and the day before that. I fumble with my cold hands and flick a switch in the dark. The marble and granite around me sparkle. I pull my hair back in a tight bun, roll the quilt and stow it away at the pantry.
I take out the steel coffee filter Didi got from Chennai. I scoop three teaspoons of Bru Green Label coffee, lift the lid and the pressing disc of the coffee filter, spread the coffee powder evenly, put the disc back in, pour hot water and breathe in the heavenly aroma before closing the lid. I measure and soak the lentils and check the idly batter kept in the microwave oven to see if it has fermented. Didi grew up in Chennai before moving to New Delhi. I grew up in Nepal before I was moved to flat number B -101, Paradise Apartments.
I carry a bucketful of cold water, open the front door and splash the water on the floor. I step outside and run the broom pushing the swishing brown water down the drain. Then I squat down with the rangoli powder, cock my head to the left and start with putting seven dots on the wet floor. A Lotus with twelve petals blooms.
I take a quick cold-water bath, collect the newspaper and the milk left at the doorstep, place the newspaper on the dining table and carry the milk packet back to the kitchen. I hear Baba stirring in his crib. Soon he will be wailing. I got to hurry up.
I grease the idly stand, pour the batter into the glistening mould and place it into the steamer. Then I throw in sliced vegetables into soaked lentils, add a dash of turmeric and a teaspoonful of oil and lower the vessel into the cooker. I break open the coconut, scrape out its kernel - then add tamarind, green chillies, chutney dal and salt to it and blend it. Prep for the lunch to be packed is pending.
I hear Didi cooing to Baba and know I have to go to bathe him shortly. The steamer starts making a shrill noise as the cooker gives out the first whistle. I slice the onion, tomato and toss them into sputtering oil that has crisped the curry leaves and has started pelleting out the mustard seeds. I sauté them for a few minutes before Didi calls out,
“Gudia! Baba is awake!”
I say, “Coming Didi,” and wait till the third whistle and turn off the stove. I’ll come back and finish it.
I move to the bathroom and run the hot water for Baba. On my way I glance at Didi and Bhaiyya, their faces turning like sunflowers to their 6-month-old son. A few minutes later I inform, “Didi, water is ready”. Didi hands over Baba to me with great effort as if he were attached to her forearm. Bhaiyya moves away quietly. Mercifully, he doesn’t give me a very unbrotherlike look today. At times when he does, a knife turns at the pit of my stomach.
Bhaiyya and Didi leave together for work at 9 a.m. Didi turns on the surveillance camera and locks the door grill that envelops the front door from outside before she leaves. In her words, “It’s for your own safety Gudiya. You don’t know how dirty the outside world is! If something happens, what will I tell your parents? That too with Baba around, I don’t want to take any chances… Keep the mobile with you at all times.” I think Didi is right. What do I know about the world outside Paradise?
Didi is very careful that way. She keeps all the cupboards, documents and refrigerator under lock and key. The only thing she trusts me with is Baba. In that somehow Baba and I are equals; He doesn’t know there is an outside world and I don’t know about the outside world. She leaves the pumped milk in the icebox for him and measured provisions for cooking dinner on the kitchen counter for me.
I stand leaning on the grill with Baba in my arms. I hold his right hand up and wave till Didi is gobbled up by the elevator doors. Then we come inside. I settle him down in his pram close to the balcony. I warm two leftover rotis from last night’s dinner; make a tall glass of milkless, sugar-laden tea and squat next to the pram. I dip my roti into the tea and suck the sweet syrup off it. The shape-shifting clouds outside float a distant memory; my brother and I running barefoot in sorghum fields, picking the tender ears, roasting them over the fire and chewing the grains till the sweet, milky syrup fills our mouths.
Baba fidgets and cries. I quickly swallow the rotis, put my glass in the sink, grab the milk bottle and warm it. I lift him, feed him, change his diaper, carry him in my arms, lull him to sleep and put him back in his crib.
I check on the plants at the entrance as well as in the balcony- hung on the hooks, kept on a stand and water them.
I sort out the laundry and start the washing machine.
I do the dishes left at the kitchen sink. Dry them and stack them.
I take out the laundry and line dry them.
I pick up the rag and dust every little souvenir and piece of art Didi and Bhaiyya have collected from their many trips. I do it every day as Paradise is next to a busy square and Didi is allergic to dust. I move from one room to another making beds, wiping tops, mopping floors, cleaning toilets all the while being watched by the red-eye on the walls.
A whimper from the crib quickly turns to a howl. I pick Baba up, feed him again and put him on the carpeted floor along with his teddy bear. I bring out his rattle and move it around as his eyes chase the sound. I pass him the soft blocks- one at a time and he throws them away with a giggle. I too giggle but my arms feel like loose blocks ready to fall. I prop him up in his pram, hand him a banana-shaped teether and make a second cup of tea for myself. We sit on the balcony for some time watching the world outside go about its business before it gets too hot and dusty.
Now it is music time for Baba. Didi has kept an old record player for this. She doesn’t like me fiddling with her latest music system. Baba bobs his head and sways his upper body to the nasal voice of a lady singing A…B…C…D. I sit and mend a little tear on my quilt. I bring in the dried laundry, iron, fold and arrange them in neat piles. The music ends.
It’s 4 p.m. I feed Baba, change his diaper and roll his pram along to the kitchen. I pare a raw banana, slice it sideways and keep the chunks immersed in water. Then I prepare the batter to make the fritters. Didi likes to have them with evening tea. I begin to prep for the dinner. I shell the green peas, cube the cottage cheese and prepare the paste for the gravy. I carve the cucumbers, carrots, onion and arrange them on a platter. Then I knead the dough, cover it and keep it aside.
Bees are droning on in my head and stinging. I splash water on my face, make another cup of tea and eat a couple of glucose biscuits, swirling the tea with them. Baba is getting irritable. I gulp my tea down. I lift him from the pram and carry him to the window that frames the black silhouettes of birds flying in the orange sky. He is not impressed. He begins to cry. I look for the rattle and shake it frantically around him. He bawls.
I hear the jangling of the grill door. Didi is here. Her tired form bursts through the door within seconds and glares at me before planting a kiss on Baba’s forehead. Baba stops crying abruptly. Didi dumps her office bag on the table and dawdles to her room saying “Gudia, get me some tea and fritters before we give bath to Baba. Huh! What a tiring day it was!”
I say “Yes Didi!” as I put Baba down in his pram and slide through the kitchen door. As I put on my apron a crumpled bit of paper falls from its pocket. I pick it up. My mind replays the words of the lady who slipped it to me through the door grill this morning. “If you want to go home or need help, call this number”.
Is there a better place for me than Paradise? I don’t know.
I fold the slip, stuff it in my rucksack and turn on the stove.