Be the Change
by Sukhie Vohra
Chandni walked into her apartment and emptied out her wallet almost absent-mindedly into the fishbowl propped on the console. The change fell with a loud tinkle against the glass. She peered at it, and smiled. The coins had been sorted in heaps at the bottom.
Her super-efficient housekeeper was at work again.
“Thank you Devi!” she shouted, before heading into her room for a shower.
Chandni loved but also hated loose change. Besides making her heavy bag impossibly heavier, it was always a cause for a second security check on the flights she took virtually every week. And yet, she was drawn to it.
Her mom and Devi had a different story to tell. There was a perpetual shortage of change in the vegetable market. Vendors would rather not sell than dish out lots of change for big notes. This was one reason that Chandni had set up the change tank at home.
Mom and Devi had free access to it, no questions asked. Mom dropped in once a fortnight with some homemade meals. She pulled out what she needed. There was a fine balance between mom and Devi now, she thought, as she got ready for dinner.
Both had resented the other’s presence in her life and access to her affection.
“Mummy ji aayin thi,” said Devi as she served her dinner. That meant the chicken was mom’s.
Chandni held back the compliment and said, “Meetha kya hai?”
Devi smiled, put out her favorite Patole on the table and got ready to leave.
Devi was a youngish mother of three kids, abandoned by her husband. It almost seemed like a Mumbai formula for household help. Her cheerful disposition belied her daily angst. Chandni had stepped up to make sure that the kids were enrolled in schools. Her oldest daughter Laxmi was nearly 18, ready to step into the real world and Devi was petrified.
“Kya pata baahar kaise kaise log milenge… ” she would mumble to herself.
If men could grope Devi, a woman in her 30s, surely they would pounce on youthful Laxmi. Not that the home was any safer for a woman…
Chandni tried to reassure Devi, and help her as much as possible. But a strong sense of pride often prevented the lady from seeking assistance.
“Didi, aapne pehle hi mera bahut madad kiya hai,” Devi would often say.
It was true that Chandni had given her a loan so she could move into her own kholi. But that was being deducted from her salary each month.
Chandni often wondered what she would do without Devi’s energetic presence in her life. The woman was not only a diligent housekeeper but a fabulous cook. She had worked in a home kitchen as a sous chef catering to small parties.
Devi’s world had collapsed when the lady running the business had to move out of the city. When her meagre salary stopped, the beatings had started. One day she had picked up courage to go to a large housing complex and ask the guards if someone needed help.
That was the day Chandni moved back to Mumbai. Into an apartment she had rented online. Godsend for both to have discovered each other at the complex gate, where she was hanging around. Hiring a maid without a referral was not recommended but Chandni was desperate.
She had to join work the next day and needed someone who would hold her home together.
Mumbai was both painful, and a relief, for Chandni. She was back to where she had started. Her years of experience in London no longer counted.
But her return to Mumbai was a victory in itself that she was so proud of.
London, some years ago
In the beginning, she had lived a fairytale princess life in London. Married into a high profile lawyer family, Chandni had been swept off her feet with indulgence in haute couture, a cushy job in one of the most renowned law firms and the best of clients and society.
Afternoon Tea with a duchess, Polo with baronets, picnics with the whos’s who was an average month of her life there.
She looked around her Mumbai apartment. A far cry from her Kensington home but she loved that each item here was to her taste, and spoke of her independence, and peace of mind. It had taken her mom two years to come around to accepting her daughter’s divorce.
“Shaadi ek samjhauta hai… thoda adjust kar lo,” was mom’s advice.
Her mental eye flashed back to an image of him drunk and half naked, surrounded by a bevy of Ukrainian women at a party. That familiar feeling of contempt mixed with rage and disgust pervaded her. What’s worse, his family seemed to think it was okay.
“Don’t be so middle class,” said her father-in-law. “This is how we entertain clients. Karna padta hai.”
Look the other way, they said. But she could not do it…
There was a lot of excitement at home the next week. Devi’s daughter Laxmi was turning 18 and Chandni had insisted on a surprise party at home for her. Her mom had been teaching Laxmi English for the last two years so she was going to join them as well.
Buntings were being put up in the living room and the table was laden with sandwiches, pastries and a chocolate fountain. Chandni went into her room
to send a mail to the senior partner regarding the new case they were on, when she froze.
“Hello Darling,” read the title from a very familiar Surya Das, of Janki Das LLP. Her ex -husband.
Her fingers shook as she opened the mail. As she had suspected, they were pitched against each other.
She sighed and dialled her boss to explain. This one would be tough but she was up to it.
Her eyes fell on the three ceramic piggy banks shaped like plump birds, resting on her bedside table.
She reached out and dropped a handful of coins into each of them.
Laxmi arrived, dressed in a familiar outfit. Chandni had insisted that Devi take a few of her kurtas and alter them for her daughter’s slight frame. She had been right, they looked charming on the young girl. After the cake was cut, Chandni went into her room and came out, holding the piggy banks.
She handed over the largest piggy bank to Laxmi, who instinctively looked at her mom for approval.
Chandni smiled. She said, “is gullak ko todo, jo bhi isme hai, tumhara.”
Laxmi’s eyes lit up. Her younger sister Varsha had a little less restraint and she broke open the piggy bank right there, on the coffee table.
They piled the10s and 5s and 2s and 1s and it was a grand total of Rs 545.
Laxmi stood up and spoke gravely. “Aunty, pata hai in paison se main kya kharidoongi? Ek pepper spray.”
Chandni was startled. Where had Laxmi learnt about this from?
“Maine bus mein poster dekha tha,” shrugged Laxmi. “Aayi roz darti hai ki koi usko traas dega. Chinta na kar, agar baba bhi paisa maangne aaya na…”
Laxmi held up an imaginary pepper spray and enacted the scene with ferocity.
There was a moment of silence before Chandni clapped out loud and hugged her.
Laxmi said shyly, “Aunty, main bhi vakeel banoongi. Main auraton ke haq ke liye ladoongi. Aur aaj se main bhi gullak mein paise jamaa karoongi.”
Chandni laughed. Never underestimate the power of a piggy bank…
There had been recriminations and arguments, discussions and pleadings. But she had refused to budge. She had pictures and emails, enough evidence that would support her divorce. Things had become nasty with her in-laws as she had threatened to expose them to the media.
Their law firm had frozen her accounts, she was left with 700 pounds in her wallet and assorted travel folders. She had finally spent one evening going through every handbag and every bedside drawer, besides the family fish bowl, to collect enough pounds to buy herself a one way ticket home.
Be the change you want to see, they say.
And sometimes, a little change can go a long, long, long way.
This piece was written as part of the Writer’s Gym program open to those who have done the Short Story Writing Workshop. It has been edited by Rashmi Bansal.