“Jhumki, why are you running away? Come here.”
Sunita caught hold of her hand and made her sit on the ground of their little shanty. She sat behind her and began combing her hair. The comb with half its teeth missing went through her oiled hair, struggling to detangle the tangled hair.
“Where were you going?”
“Chinu and the others were playing I spy. I want to play too.”
“Jhumki, I told you already. You cannot just play around all your life. You have to grow up now. Otherwise, what future will you have?”
“Hmm.” Jhumki nodded sadly.
Tying up her two plaits with red ribbons neatly, Sunita turned her face towards herself.
“Okay, if you promise to be a disciplined girl and listen to whatever your ma’am says, then I will allow you to play in the evening.”
She jumped up. “Really, maa?”
“Yes. Now, take this water bottle. We have to go.”
She saw her friends playing as she passed by them.
“We will play when I come back in the evening. Bye.” She smiled and waved them goodbye.
Clutching her mother’s hand, she went ahead, waiting for the evening to set in.
Yes, she was smiling but inside, she was sad and scared. She didn’t want to go. How she wished someone would stop her! But, no one did.
Her heartbeat raced as she reached the place. A huge wrought iron gate stood there. There was also a small gate beside it and there sat two well built watchmen. The blank and serious expression on their moustached faces seemed to give the assumption that they never smiled.
Jhumki stared at the big buildings on the other side of the gate with awe as her mother talked to the two watchmen.
The world behind the gate seemed beautiful but Jhumki knew that it wasn’t. That’s why she dreaded the thought of going inside. But, fate had other plans.
Jhumki walked behind her mother, clutching the end of her pallu. They entered one of those tall buildings. The building had an elevator, but Sunita took the stairs, thinking it might annoy the people staying there.
They reached the third floor.
Naman Singh, Flat No. 304- This was the flat Rita had told her to go to. She pressed the doorbell.
A lady opened the door. “I’ll talk to you later,” she hung up the call.
“Memsaab, Rita has sent me.”
“Oh. Yes, come in.”
Jhumki peeked from behind her mother as they entered the flat. It was neat, beautiful, and huge. She stared in awe.
They sat on the floor while Mrs. Singh sat on the couch, with her baby on her lap.
“So, this is your daughter?”
“Come here,” she pointed towards Jhumki.
She was scared and hesitated, but went ahead when her mother told her so.
“Can you wash the utensils?”
She nodded with a yes.
“You will also have to take care of the baby.”
“Yes, memsaab. She will do that,” Sunita responded.
“Okay. I want her to be here at 10 am sharp and she can go back at 6 pm.”
“Okay, memsaab. I’ll come back in the evening to pick her up.”
“I’ll see her work for a couple of days and then we’ll decide on her pay.”
She held Jhumki’s hand and told her to work nicely and listen to madam’s orders.
“I’ll come in the evening. Bye.”
Jhumki refused to let go of her hand. Sunita patted her back, smiled and left. The pain pinched her heart too. But, she had to do this. Being the sole earning member of her house, her earnings were not enough to feed her children and get her bed-ridden mother-in-law treated.
“Aye ladki, what is your name?”
“Okay. Go to the kitchen and wash the utensils. I’ll tell you what to do next. The kitchen’s over there.”
She slowly walked towards the kitchen. There was a pile of utensils kept at the washing area below the sink. She sat down and opened the tap. Looking around for the dishwashing bar, she got up and saw it on a slab, well above her height. Balancing herself on her toes, she managed to reach the slab and picked up the bar.
A glass fell shattered on the ground.
Mrs. Singh rushed to the kitchen.
Her eyes raged with fury on seeing the glass, broken down to pieces.
“What have you done? How can you be so careless? What were we you doing?”
Jhumki shivered with fear.
“C’mon, speak up. What were you doing?
“S… Sorry, madam. I… I wanted the… the soap,” her voice trembled as she spoke.
“Why didn’t you ask me? Lower class people like you should never be trusted. Now, clean it up and don’t you dare to make another mistake.”
Jhumki began to clean up the mess and carefully threw them in a polythene bag. A tiny glass piece pricked her foot.
Tears fell down her cheeks. She sat down, examining her foot. The tiny piece was half inside the thumb of her foot and it was bleeding. She touched it, but it hurt. But, her mother wasn’t there to help. She had to take it out. Taking in a long breath and closing her eyes, she pulled it out and cried out in pain. She quickly covered her mouth with her hand, lest madam would hear her and get angry.
She remembered her mother’s words, “You cannot just play around all your life. You have to grow up now. Otherwise, what future will you have?”
She had grown up that day, but to a future that was nebulous.
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