Story 56: The Thing about Trust

CHENGAMMA DRAGGED HER LUNCHBOX away from Durga with a face. They were sitting together on the stone slab of the Radha-Krishna temple in the eastern corner of Temple Towers. The mid-morning pooja had just finished. Half-open coconuts lay littered all around them.

Chengamma felt an urge to spit loudly so that Durga would be aware of her distaste, but one did not do so in the temple compound. The priest, Mangalachari, would curse her in some chaste Sanskrit, sprinkle sacred water over her face (for her own good, he would say), and ban her for a good month. It was not worth the trouble. Besides, the gutkha mix in her mouth was just beginning to let out its juice and leave a tingle on her tongue.

‘If you don’t leave by tomorrow!’ she said, not looking at the other woman. It would be a mistake to call her a woman; she was no more than a chit of a girl. She had studied until eighth, the elder sisters at the group had said; she could read, write and speak a bit of English even. But what did all that matter when one’s morals were so loose? ‘It is my house, and you know it. If you don’t leave by tomorrow, I will complain to Akka, and she will take care of you nice and proper.’

‘But Chengamma,’ said the girl, her face scrunching in shame. Fake. All fake. ‘This is the only house I have. You work in four different houses down the street. I know. Can you not leave me just this one?’

‘When I was your age, it took me four months even to get one house,’ said Chengamma, slurping at the stuff that filled her mouth. ‘That is the way of the business. When you first begin, you must learn to wait. What you cannot do is snatch the house of another group member. How much are they paying you?’

Durga instantly looked away at the ground by her feet. ‘Just what they paid you.’

‘If you want to keep working at the house, give me half your salary.’

‘Half! Akka says we should give no more than ten per cent to the group.’

‘Yes, but Akka also says you’re not allowed to poach other people’s houses. Let’s go to her and ask her tonight, then. Let’s see what she says.’

‘No, no,’ said Durga. The girl had clear black skin, the texture and shine of polished wood. She had thin, brown lips and a soft voice. If anyone would dress her up in rich people’s clothes, she would pass off for being one of the residents of the complex. But what of it, thought Chengamma. We were all like that once. Two years in the trade and the skin will begin to roughen. ‘Please don’t tell Akka about it. I will give you – twenty per cent. I cannot give you half, Chengamma; we have to pay Bholu’s school fees today, and you know how much they charge.’

‘Don’t I have children?’ said Chengamma. ‘Three of them! And your mother works in the Gopalan apartments down the street. Those houses pay four thousand a month for just sweeping and mopping. Your father owns a fabrication shop on the main road. Don’t I know? Always crying about money – what do your parents do with all that they get, huh? And why should you pay your brother’s school fees?’

‘Father has that cough problem, Chengamma,’ said Durga. ‘All of his money goes to buy his tablets, Mother says. Bholu’s school fees have to come from what I earn. And if I give you half – no, no.’ She shook her pretty little head. The hair had been arranged in an intricate pattern, and a chrysanthemum had been inserted in its folds. Chengamma thrust out her arm and plucked it out. She examined it for a moment, tucked it into her own hair. Durga did not seem to notice.

‘I have had enough of hearing your troubles,’ said Chengamma, looking around to make sure that Mangalachari was not around before leaning to one side surreptitiously and spitting out half a mouthful of brick-red goo. ‘All of us have troubles, understand? The only ones without troubles are those that employ us – those that live in those buildings.’ She flicked her hand toward the temple’s entrance. ‘Twenty five per cent.’

‘It’s too much, Chengamma,’ said Durga.

‘But it’s fair, for what you did to me,’ replied Chengamma. ‘Next time, when another maid from the group goes away on leave for a week, you will know better than to sweep in and take her job.’

‘I did not, Chengamma, I did not,’ said Durga. ‘They called for me. How they knew of me I don’t know.’

‘Whoever calls whoever!’ Chengamma slapped the slab by her feet in anger. ‘You’re not supposed to offer your work at someone else’s house without taking permission. Now if your father falls sick tomorrow, god forbid, and you have to take care of him – and you cannot work for ten days – how will you feel if I were to come and snatch your house away from you? Huh?’

‘Yes,’ said Durga, twisting her fingers in knots. ‘But I cannot give you more than twenty per cent.’

‘How much did you say they were paying you?’

‘Two thousand five hundred.’

Chengamma jabbed at the fingers of one hand with her thumb, and her mouth moved as she made some calculations. ‘Okay,’ she said at length. ‘Twenty per cent for three months, and from then on you have to give me twenty five. I don’t know how you will manage. Ask the madam to give you some bonus. She is a soft one. If you ask nicely, she will say yes.’

Durga nodded. ‘Okay.’

‘And keep your distance from that Afroz fellow,’ said Chengamma.

A deep colour covered the girl’s face. Her eyes fluttered open and close.

‘Yes, yes, do you think I don’t notice these things?’ said Chengamma. ‘That man is nothing but trouble. Not the kind of man for a girl like you to get involved with. Let him do his work and you do yours. Understand?’

‘Yes, Chengamma.’

‘If this gets out of hand, I will tell Akka, and then she will really lose her top. Maybe even kick you out of the group.’

‘No, no,’ said Durga.

‘Haan.’ Chengamma pushed her lunchbox a foot further away from Durga, and opened it with an angry snap of the wrists.

* * *

That afternoon, after she had finished her round of houses, Chengamma went to their usual meeting spot – under the neem tree in the park, by the broken bench – and waited for Afroz. She had spotted him again with Durga that morning in the corridor of the fourth floor in ‘B’ block, and she would not have known it too if she had not been sent to 403 from 303 to fetch a bowl of sugar. They had been standing at a respectable distance from each other, but they would. No one would dare to do more in such a public place.

But she had seen them a moment before they had seen her, and that was enough to boil her heart.

The look on Durga’s face as she looked up into his eyes. The casual way in which he rested his arm on the railing, barring her movement on one side while his free hand held a long pair of pliers, the smile of the devil on his lips – and most of all, the way they both sprung apart as she approached, as if she had caught them in bed together.

She held a single jasmine in her hand, one she had picked at the entrance to the park. She plucked out a petal, crushed it with her fingers. Afroz would make eyes at Durga, of course. She was younger, more beautiful, could rattle off some English words that might charm his heart. And Durga – well, who could resist Afroz’s wiles? It came easily to him, the smooth words of praise, the concern, the incessant flattery, the gifts, the flowers, the verses of poetry that he said he wrote. Chengamma took a deep breath; she missed having the gutkha in her mouth. But she had already had her day’s quota. She would have to wait until the next morning to buy another packet.

‘Oye, Chengamma,’ said a voice from behind her. She swirled around, fully intending to blast the man from her presence, but at the sight of his radiant face and cool smile, her anger melted. But she kept up the appearance as best she could.

‘Finished cavorting with your new girlfriend, and now you want me again?’ she said. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that he held one of his hands behind his back while the other held the satchel of tools. ‘Don’t drown me with your stories now, Afroz. I saw what you were doing with that girl.’

‘What?’ he said, as if challenging her. ‘What was I doing with her?’

For a moment Chengamma dithered. Did she know what they had been doing? Could it be that she had misunderstood? But a look at Afroz’s sly eyes swayed her back to suspicion. ‘You know best what you were doing,’ she said. ‘Almost kissing her right in the corridor, in front of everyone. Do you know what people will say if they see you?’

‘Is that what you’re worried about, what people will say?’

That was the thing with Afroz. He asked more questions than he answered. The meaning in what he said was not lost on Chengamma, of course. It made her hot in the face, the suggestion that she was jealous for a lover who was never hers. ‘Yes,’ she said stubbornly. ‘Big people live in that building. Rich people. If they see you seducing that poor girl –’

‘Poor girl?’ said Afroz, with a crooked grin. He had the whitest set of teeth Chengamma had ever seen on a man. And the pinkest pair of lips. His hands – yellow except where black hair covered them – possessed the form and grace of a woman’s, and they were always clean, as if they had been just washed. A plumber whose hands never stained? Chengamma would not have thought it possible until she had met Afroz.

He was waving his free hand now, and the tools shifted inside the bag noisily. ‘She doesn’t need your sympathy, Chengamma. Neither do I. We have done nothing wrong, and even if we were, I don’t think we need to defend ourselves to you.’

‘To me?’ she said. ‘What do you mean by that?’

The smile widened, and his eyes shone. ‘You know.’

‘No, tell me.’

‘Well, let’s just say you’re not exactly the picture of virtue around here,’ he said, and revealed what he had been carrying behind his back. It was a bunch of purple flowers that Chengamma had seen now and then at the florist’s outside the complex. Once she had mustered up the courage to ask the shopkeeper how much she would have to pay for a bouquet. He had suppressed a smile with a cough and said, ‘Go go, I have customers.’

Chengamma did not know what these flowers were called. For a long time she stood transfixed, and when she inhaled, her nostrils awoke to a strong, heady scent. It would have cost Afroz two hundred rupees. At least. She reached out for them. He made his fingers touch hers for longer than was necessary as he handed them over.

‘You think you can buy me with flowers, don’t you?’ she said, and touched her nose to the petals.

He took her by the wrist and pulled her with enough force to send her falling, off-balance, against his chest. ‘Oye,’ she said, but allowed herself to slip into his arms.

‘How much time do we have?’ he said.

‘Maybe twenty minutes.’

‘Then we should not spend it fighting.’ He lifted her chin with his forefinger, and gazed into her eyes. ‘You look so beautiful when you’re angry that I go crazy. Do you know how badly I have waited for this moment all day?’ His other hand slid into her hair, and pulled at it, making her head loll back. He kissed her on the nape of her neck, with no fuss or hurry, as if he knew he could make the twenty minutes count. ‘That girl has nothing compared to you, Chengamma,’ he whispered, and pulled her into the shade, behind the tree’s trunk.

* * *

‘What were you talking to Afroz yesterday about?’ she asked Durga the next morning, on the temple slab as they opened their lunchboxes.

‘Oh, nothing,’ said Durga. ‘He wanted some money. Says his mother is dying.’

That tugged at Chengamma’s heart. The day before, just before he had left, he had taken one of her earrings. He had promised to return it before the week was out, and she had told him that there was no hurry. Nothing was as important as the health of someone’s mother, after all. If something had happened to her and if she had needed money, would Afroz not have done the same? Why, did not shower her with gifts every day? Could one measure the worth of everything with money?

She had thought that she was the only one he had confided in, though. So he had emptied his woes onto this girl as well, she thought. Why did he have to do that? If he had wanted more than one earring from her, would she have said no?

‘And?’ she said, out loud. ‘Did you give him anything?’

Dugra shook her head guiltily.

Something about the girl’s face made Chengamma ask, in a sterner voice, ‘Tell me the truth.’

‘I gave him a hundred rupees,’ said Durga. ‘Madam paid me some bonus yesterday for cleaning her windows. He said he will pay me back today.’

‘Haan,’ said Chengamma, acidly, ‘you have no money to give me, but a handsome man asks and you turn over your blouse. Have you no shame, girl? Did I not warn you that you’re not to go anywhere near Afroz?’

‘I did not go near him, Chengamma,’ said Durga. ‘He came to me.’

‘If he did, you should have run away,’ said Chengamma. ‘Remember. He is nothing but trouble. I won’t be surprised if all this story of his mother’s disease is a lie.’

‘Do you think so?’ Durga stopped eating and looked at her, interested. ‘Do you really think so, Chengamma?’

‘Men can tell all sorts of stories to trap you. You’re still a girl. You will do well to listen to my advice. The next time he comes to talk to you, just say you have to go and run away from there.’ She leaned closer to Durga, as if imparting a secret. ‘There is talk that he goes around with a lot of married women.’

Durga’s eyes widened in scandalous shock.

Chengamma nodded. ‘Not a man of good character. If people see you roam around with him, they will all say sorts of things about you too. Best to keep away.’

‘Okay, Chengamma.’

‘And don’t ever give him money again.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Haan, now eat.’

As they ate in silence, Chengamma lapsed further and further into thought, until a few minutes later she was not eating at all.

* * *

‘Do you even have a mother?’ she asked Afroz in the shade of the neem tree, smelling another flower – a yellow one, this time – he had brought her.

They were sitting on either armrest of the broken bench. He chuckled and looked up at the overhanging branches, the twittering birds. ‘What a question,’ he said. ‘If I did not have a mother, how do you think I came into this world?’

‘No,’ said Chengamma, feeling silly. ‘I meant do you have a mother who is sick and dying?’

Afroz’s face changed at once. ‘I come to you to forget my troubles for a little while, Chengamma. Why do you remind me of them in the little time we have together?’

‘No, no,’ said Chengamma, and thought that in saying that, she sounded much like Durga. ‘I meant that you never showed me her pictures. Her medical bills. Something belonging to her. Nothing.’

He frowned at her. ‘Why do you want to see all of this? Don’t you trust me?’

‘Of course I trust you.’ The way he said that made her uncomfortable, so she took solace in the flowers instead. ‘I trust you more than I trust anyone.’ That was true. It was a relationship that neither of them could label or acknowledge, because she was married with two kids and he was single, and she was ten – or eleven, she did not know anymore – years older than he was. And a few other things.

‘Good,’ he said, and went back to looking up at the birds. ‘I trust you too, more than anyone. You know the thing about trust, Chengamma?’


‘It is tough to build and easy to break.’


‘Now, I could take you to meet Ammi,’ he said, and his voice quivered at the last word with such intensity that Chengamma looked in his direction. ‘But then she will ask me who you are. What shall I tell her? Shall I tell her that you’re the woman I love? Can I tell her that?’


‘Can I tell her that you’re the person who will take care of me once she’s gone?’ He cleared his throat, and the muscles of his face were clenched tight. ‘You know the sad thing, Chengamma? After all this is done, after you have had your fill of me, after my novelty has worn off, you will go back to your husband. Your kids. Your old life. But me? Where do I go?’

‘Don’t talk like that.’

‘I only have my mother now,’ he said. ‘And soon I won’t even have her. Sometimes I wonder what I am doing in my life – if I trust the right people, if those who say they love me truly do so.’

‘They do!’

He gave her a forlorn smile. ‘If they do,’ he said, ‘would they ask questions like these?’

Chengamma took refuge once again in burying her nose amid the flowers. This was all due to that idiot girl, Durga. It was she who had sowed all these doubts in her mind. Now look at what she had done; she had gone and angered Afroz, and they had already spent most of their time today fighting. As if the fights at home weren’t enough.

‘Forgive me,’ she said, after a minute of silence, when he showed no signs of budging.

‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘Maybe I deserve it. Maybe what you say is true; we’re not right for each other.’

‘Don’t say that.’

‘But no matter how right we are,’ he said, half-turning to lean toward her. Maddeningly, he was still smiling in that crooked way. ‘You’re not going to leave your husband and come away with me. Are you?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I can’t.’

‘You can. You just don’t want to.’

‘My children,’ she said, staring at the flowers and frowning, tears forming in her eyes. ‘I cannot leave them. And – and – what will everyone say?’

‘You know what the problem with you is, Chengamma?’ said Afroz. ‘You want everything. And after all this, you had the nerve to ask me to stay away from that girl. Do you think you own me? Well, you don’t.’

‘Stay away from that girl,’ said Chengamma. ‘I will give you anything you want.’

He wound up like a coil, and opened his mouth to say something cruel, but he swallowed the words at the last moment with a great show of effort. He got off the armrest and stood with his chest out, hands linked behind him. In this stance he did not look feminine and graceful at all. He looked just like any other man.

Chengamma waited for the breeze to blow, for something to move, for a sound – any sound – to interrupt the heavy silence.

Eventually, it died on its own. Afroz sighed and came to where Chengamma was sitting. He placed his hand on her cheek and said, ‘Hey.’

She buried her face in his shirt and began to weep.

‘Hey,’ he said. He was cradling her head with both hands now. ‘Hey.’

After she had finished crying, she sniffed and said to his torso, ‘I don’t know what came over me. It’s that stupid girl, Durga. It’s all her fault.’

‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know. You have been with me all this while. Don’t forsake me now. I can’t bear it.’

‘I won’t,’ she said. ‘I won’t.’

‘I got angry because I came to share with you some good news about Ammi,’ he said, wiping her tears, looking into her eyes. ‘I took her to the big hospital yesterday. They said one operation and she will be fine.’

‘Oh!’ said Chengamma. ‘Oh, god. Really?’

Afroz nodded and beamed down at her, his own eyes glistening. ‘Yes, really, you crazy woman. And once she is all right, I will take you to meet her. No, no, I’m not asking you to come away with me. But since you want to, can you wait for a month longer?’

‘Oh, of course. Of course.’

Chengamma found that she could not stop crying. It was one part pleasure that Afroz’s mother was finally going to get better, but many parts shame that she had chosen this of all days to cast aspersions on him.

His face clouded over once more, right then.

‘What is it?’ she asked, pushing herself onto her feet. ‘Is anything the matter?’

‘There is just one problem,’ he said. ‘If you could find some way of – I feel terrible about this – arranging for the money we need for the operation – I know you’ve helped me out many times so far – I will give it all back – all of it – as soon as Ammi becomes well –’

Chengamma wiped her tears off with quiet determination. ‘How much do you need?’

‘No,’ he was saying, shaking his head, ‘I cannot face myself in the mirror if I take more of your jewels.’

Chengamma held up her hand and made a few calculations. She told him of the jewellery she had in the trunk of her house. She had not worn any of it in years, and she wouldn’t in the future either. They could pawn it, she told him, and get it back once Ammi got better.

‘How much do you have?’ asked Afroz.

Chengamma told him, and Afroz nodded with a serious face, his mouth covered by his palm. ‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘Yes. That will be enough. You will save my mother’s life, Chengamma. I will be forever in your debt.’

‘No,’ she told him. ‘This is what people do for those they love.’

He took her hands in his, pressed them to his eyes. They were moist. ‘I know,’ he said, softly. ‘I believe you now.’

‘Meet me here in the evening,’ she said, ‘and I will bring the jewels to you.’ A slight pang of hesitation struck her just then. ‘They’re my mother’s. You will take good care of them, won’t you?’

‘I will guard them with my life,’ said Afroz. ‘You will get them back in two months from now. Less than that, even.’

Chengamma nodded, and kissed him on the forehead. On the way back home, she remembered her mother telling her that she was not to use the jewels in any situation but an emergency, and the base of her stomach turned into a knot at the thought. But then, she thought, if this wasn’t an emergency, what was?

She swatted away all the negative thoughts with a fierce wave of an arm, and told herself that Afroz was going to be all hers again. With this one move, she would sway him away from that Durga once and for all.

* * *

Chengamma sat on the temple slab, opening the knot on her lunchbox, alone. She looked at the entrance gate; schoolchildren, office-goers, walking grandfathers. Housewives waving from the balconies. A few of the walkers stopped for a few seconds to touch their foreheads and their lips while facing the idol in the sanctum.

But there was no sign of Durga.

Chengamma swallowed the lump in her throat, and focused on the knot. But it would not open. Her fingers were too sweaty. She tried again, then set it aside to take a couple of long breaths.

The priest, Mangalachari, passed her by with a plate of offerings on his palm. He gave her a raised eyebrow.

‘I am waiting for Durga,’ said Chengamma.

‘Oh,’ said Mangalachari. ‘You haven’t heard?’

Chengamma did not ask what it was she hadn’t heard. Somehow, she felt she didn’t need to.

But something about her face must have told the priest to go on, because he paused just a moment before saying, ‘That girl and the plumber boy had run off during the night. The girl took some money from her father’s box – imagine being stolen by your own daughter – no one knows where they went, but the police are on it. They were all over here this morning, asking questions. Where were you –’

He kept speaking for a while yet, but Chengamma had long stopped listening.