Story 77: Sampangi

THROUGH THE SQUARE window of the kitchen of Babai Hotel, Sampangi looked out at the seating area. Babu Ram was taking the woman’s order, and he didn’t seem to be in any hurry about it. She waved her arm in that urban way of hers, and tilted her head just so, in order that her hangings glinted in the afternoon light. Her legs were crossed, of course, underneath her maroon-coloured skirt that came down to her ankles. Just the other day Sampangi had dreamed of this woman and Babu Ram dancing in the rain. She was wearing this very thing.

She scrubbed harder at the base of the curry bowl.

‘See, see, Ganga,’ she said, ‘how your master is twirling around.’

Ganga had been with them for the last eight years, ever since she was a wiry little girl of fourteen. She had started in the kitchen to help out Sampangi, but now she was proficient enough to manage orders when Babu Ram was not around. Sometimes, when Sampangi fell sick or felt under the weather, she handled most of the menu items on her own.

Of late, she had begun to wear bright yellow saris. Sampangi had come to know that her folks were thinking of getting her married to her uncle’s son.

Ganga stopped what she was doing at the sink and came to peep out of the window. ‘Yes, amma,’ she said. ‘All men are like this. They see one girl who wears all these fancy clothes and they cannot stop themselves.’

‘We know what she wants,’ said Sampangi. ‘Masala dosa and coffee. We know. Why is he taking so long to take an order that we already know?’

‘Stop, amma,’ said Ganga shyly. ‘He is not taking her order. Look at her, how she is laughing. Wait – is she going to take his picture?’

Sampangi made a gagging sound. ‘Gross.’

‘She is going to take his picture! How dare she do this, knowing that you’re in here?’

‘I know, these city girls have no morals whatsoever. I don’t know why they come running behind married men. And a man who lives in the village. Does she not have men in town who will –’

‘You don’t understand, amma,’ said Ganga. ‘They find village men exotic. If my Sangadu does anything of this sort with a woman, I am going to beat the living daylights out of him. With a rolling pin no less.’

Sampangi sighed inwardly. Ganga still carried the spunk of an unmarried woman. She did not know how things changed once a man tied the knot around your neck, how all your power over him just melted away, how dependent you became on his whims and desires.

She allowed herself a sidelong glance at the girl. She had acquired some winsome curves over the years, and she’d always had a presentable face. Small but bright eyes. Long lashes. A straight nose. A small chin. Decent hair. Once or twice she had even caught Babu Ram admiring Ganga from a distance. There was no reason Ganga couldn’t be the same firebrand after marriage too; but – well, she would discover these facts on her own.

The two women kept scrubbing at their respective bowls, covered in grime and sweat, watching Babu Ram pose for the woman’s camera. First he held his hands behind his back and puffed his chest out. Then he held the menu in front of his chest. The woman kept talking between clicks, and Babu Ram just would not stop grinning like an absolute idiot.

At long last, he came to the window and slid across a sheet of paper.

Sampangi pretended to have just noticed him. ‘Masala dosa and coffee?’ she said.

‘Yes, yes,’ said Babu Ram, not looking at her. His eyes were staring away into the distance. He sighed with his tongue half sticking out.

‘Enough, enough,’ said Sampangi. ‘Go and see if the tank is empty. We’ve not turned on the motor the whole day.’

‘Yes, yes.’ Then he called out to the woman. ‘Madam, do you want some mango kulfi? Sampangi makes the best mango kulfi in all of Dhavaleshwaram district.’

The woman smiled – Sampangi had to admit it was a radiant, almost child-like smile – and gestured as if to say yes.

‘Pangi, write down mango kulfi as well on the order,’ said Babu Ram.

After he had gone, Sampangi watched the woman. Ganga had told her her name was Sneha. It was one of those city names – just saying it in her own mind made her feel a little inferior. These women spoke in English, wore makeup, and their hands were always so – so dainty. And why not? It’s not like they did any work with them. They employed maids for house work, cooks for kitchen work, and spent their whole time looking after themselves.

Sneha Madam (that was how Sampangi thought of her, as Sneha Madam) was holding her tripod on her side with one hand, and with the other she examined the screen on her camera. It struck Sampangi that the woman was probably looking at pictures of Babu Ram, and that thought made her blush.

Suddenly the woman looked away from the camera, directly at her. And smiled.

Sampangi turned away in panic, and shouted a loud order at Ganga.

* * *

That evening, after they had put away the crates of eggs, and after they had double-checked that they had added the right amount of curd to the milk so that it would set overnight, Sampangi and Babu Ram settled down to sleep on the floor of their house, on two separate mats laid next to one another.

‘Listen,’ said Sampangi, after they’d watched the ceiling fan for a while in silence. ‘Would you like it if I wore skirts?’

‘Hain?’ said Babu Ram. ‘What rubbish is this?’

‘Answer the question, no! Would you like it if I wore skirts?’

‘Do you have any skirts?’

‘What if I don’t have any right now? I can buy them. Ganga is going down to Dhavaleshwaram this Sunday – I can ask her to get one for me.’

‘Is this all Ganga’s idea? I am telling you, that girl needs to get married. Fast.’

‘It is not Ganga’s idea,’ said Sampangi. She dared to touch his foot with hers. He did not flinch or draw away. But he did not react either. ‘Listen, if you would like me in skirts, I will wear them for you. But only when it’s you and me. Not in – front of everyone.’

Babu Ram blinked a couple of times at the ceiling, and then his face cleared. ‘Oh,’ he said, and turned on his side to face her. He propped himself up on his elbow. ‘I think I know what this is about.’

‘What?’ asked Sampangi. ‘What are you talking about?’

He smoothed her hair with his hand. ‘Pangi,’ he said softly, ‘clothes like that don’t suit people like us, my girl. Imagine Devenderayya walks into the hotel tomorrow and sees you in a skirt!’

‘I said it was only for you!’ said Pangi, and swatted his hand away. ‘You’re such a liar, saying that you don’t want skirts and then wagging your tail for that madam whenever she comes in.’

Babu Ram frowned for a few seconds again, and again his face cleared. ‘Oh, that is what this is about.’

‘What?’ said Sampangi. ‘It is not me saying it. Do you think people don’t notice? You hover around her as if you’re a bee and she is this – this big honey pot! Do you think people are not talking about all your shenanigans?’

‘People are talking, huh? Which people?’

‘Well, Ganga noticed this morning how happily you were modelling for her. What are you, some hero that she has just met?’

‘Arey,’ said Babu Ram, ‘she said she was putting together some album or something – she has come to do a project on our old shivalayam. She said she would like to put a picture of Babai Hotel in her book. And I said why not? Free publicity.’

‘Yes, that is why you were grinning from ear to ear.’

‘Hain? What must I do when someone is taking a picture? She said smile and I smiled.’

‘Haan, okay.’

For a while they did not speak to each other. Babu Ram thought the conversation had ended, and returned to lying on his back. His hands came to rest on his chest, and his eyes began to droop.

‘Listen,’ said Sampangi.


‘I think that woman is trying to steal you away from me.’

‘What? You mad woman.’

‘I am the mad woman?’ said Sampangi. ‘Ganga has told me long ago. She said that after three years of marriage, the man begins to get these cravings for other women. Three years, she said. And here it is, right on the dot.’

‘What are you talking about? Sneha Madam is trying to steal me from you?’

‘Yes, otherwise what is behind all of this oh hello and oh it’s such a nice day and did you sleep well. What is it any of her business how you sleep?’

‘Arey, Pangi,’ said Babu Ram. ‘You don’t know these city people. They just smile and say all of these things without meaning any of it. When I see Rama Shastri in the temple every morning, I say have you eaten? Do I care whether he has eaten or not? It’s just something you ask.’

Have you eaten is perfectly fine. It is what you expect a hotel owner to ask you. But if another person – a woman, mind you – asks you if you’ve slept well, what is the meaning? Huh? Does she mean that I do not allow you to sleep? Is she saying that she will do a better job of putting you to sleep?’

‘Right now, anyone will do a better job of putting me to sleep,’ said Babu Ram. ‘We have to wake up early tomorrow. Shall we?’

‘Haan, whenever I want to talk, you want to sleep,’ said Sampangi. ‘But when that woman comes and sits in that chair of hers – why does she always sit on the same chair, huh? Is it some sort of signal between you two?’

Babu Ram rubbed himself on the forehead. ‘Rama,’ he murmured under his breath. Out loud he said, ‘People like to have their own places in the hotel. Doesn’t Devenderayya and Rama Shastri take that other corner every Monday night? That smelly corner?’

‘This is different.’

‘Okay,’ said Babu Ram. ‘I don’t know why she sits in that same spot every day. Tomorrow I will ask her to move. Shall I?’

‘Don’t do anything because I am asking you to,’ said Sampangi. ‘What business is it of mine that you’re cooing like a cuckoo for this woman? You married me only for the kitchen work, I know. So I will stick to kitchen work.’ She had promised herself – and Ganga – that she would not cry. But her own words seemed incredibly sad to her. She could not help but sniffle a couple of times. ‘You do whatever you want.’

Babu Ram sighed as Sampangi wept. She turned away from him and folded her arms. Her hands ached, her feet ached, and now her heart ached. Why couldn’t that damned woman pack up her bags and leave them alone?

After a few minutes of this uneasiness, Babu Ram placed an arm around her. Gently.

She did not push him away.

‘Pangi?’ he said. ‘Pangi.’

‘What do you want?’

‘You know very well that I have eyes for no one but you. Don’t you? And what makes you think that Madam likes me? I am uneducated, uncultured – can’t speak a word of English. Such a woman – why will she go for a man like me?’

‘Hmm! Hmm! That means you want her to want you.’

‘No, no, listen to me,’ he said, caressing the back of her hand. ‘How come your hands have become so hard, Pangi?’ He squeezed her fingers with his. ‘Listen – even if that madam wants to marry me, even if she wants me to leave everything and go away with her to America, do you think I will go? What will I do with her? I won’t be happy with her! It is you that makes me happy.’

A small smile crept onto Sampangi’s mouth. She turned her head into her pillow to hide it.

‘From tomorrow, I will make sure I don’t even smile at her. Okay?’

‘No, no.’

‘From tomorrow, let her come and sit and wait for ten whole minutes for me to take her order. And why do I need to go and get her order? She gets the same damn thing every day!’

‘No, no,’ said Sampangi. ‘That sort of thing is bad for business.’

Babu Ram crept up close to her now, and gave her a kiss on her ear. ‘Pangi,’ he said in a whisper. ‘You know I cannot sleep when you’re angry at me. Come, no?’

Sampangi turned around to face him, and slapped him on the cheek. ‘If she ever tries to steal you away from me, I am going to pluck her eyes out.’

‘Haan,’ said Babu Ram. ‘I will let her know about it. Shall we sleep now?’

‘You have to promise. Promise promise that you will never leave me.’

‘I will never leave you. Even if you slap me every night for the rest of our lives.’

Sampangi gently dabbed at her husband’s cheek with her fingertips. ‘Did I slap you too hard?’ She kissed him on it. ‘I am sorry.’

He pulled her into his arms and buried his face in the crook of her neck. ‘Forget it. Let’s sleep. Sing to me, won’t you?’

* * *

The next day, at the usual time during the lull after breakfast, as they were scrubbing the stains out of the bottoms of bowls, Sampangi looked out of the kitchen window at the empty seat that Sneha Madam usually occupied.

Ganga said, ‘Are you sad or happy that she isn’t here, amma?’

‘Shut up,’ said Sampangi. ‘Do your work.’

Babu Ram was walking around the seating hall with a mop in hand, cleaning table tops and whistling a tune. Then his phone rang.

Sampangi pursed her lips and said in a fierce whisper to Ganga, ‘There you go!’

The two women stood by the window and watched as Babu Ram giggled and said madam this and madam that. He played with the mop in his hand. He said yes madam a lot toward the end, and asked if he should come himself.

‘Where do you think she is calling him?’ said Ganga. ‘Such shameless bitches, these women. If it were left to me…’ she thumped her hand at the vessel she was cleaning.

After finishing the call, Babu Ram came to the window. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘Madam called.’

‘Yes,’ said Sampangi. ‘We know. The whole village heard you speaking to her just now.’

Babu Ram smiled in such a bemused way that Sampangi wished she had slapped him harder the night before. It would be quite a sight to one day do the deed in front of Ganga, just to show her that she was no pushover.

‘Anyway,’ said Babu Ram, ‘she gave a delivery order. Two idli, two vada, double chutney.’

‘You’re not going to deliver it to her,’ said Sampangi.

‘Heh?’ said Babu Ram. ‘Madam said the same thing. She asked if you would do it.’

For a moment Sampangi stood staring at her husband. ‘What?’ she asked. By her side, Ganga had stopped her work too and had turned to face Babu Ram.

Babu Ram raised his eyebrows at them. ‘What?’ he said. ‘They don’t allow men into the Ladies Hostel rooms.’ He pulled out a piece of paper, wrote down Sneha Madam’s order, and underneath it he put down a number and circled it. ‘She is in room one zero four.’

* * *

Sampangi felt like a first-rate idiot waiting at the door of Room 104. She intended to stay no longer than necessary, of course; she would hand over the parcel, collect the money, and flee. She had actually asked Ganga if she would deliver the order, but the girl had said, ‘Ammo. Ammo. No way!’

Now, if Madam would make conversation, if she would say something about Babu Ram – here Sampangi paused and allowed herself to imagine how that might go. What would madam say? Sampangi had seen movies in which an educated, modern woman would offer something of a bribe to a village girl in exchange for her man. What if she asked for one night with Babu Ram in exchange for some money? That would be so disgusting, so in keeping with Ganga’s assessment of these – harlots – but what if she did dare to make such an offer? What would she say?

It would depend on the money, wouldn’t it? Immediately she erased that thought from her head. No, she told herself. No, no, no. No amount of money would make her say yes to that.

It was while she was shaking her head in this way that Sneha Madam opened the door.

‘Oh, hi,’ she said. ‘Come on in.’

‘Parcel, Madam,’ said Sampangi. She noted that Sneha Madam looked much younger from this close. Would she be nineteen, perhaps? Twenty at the most. But Sampangi still thought of her as madam.

The food changed hands. Sneha pushed her loose hair away from in front of her eyes. ‘Come on in,’ she said. ‘I’d like to take a picture of you.’

‘No, Madam, please?’ said Sampangi. ‘Babu Ram is waiting.’

‘Babu Ram said I am free to take a picture of you,’ said Sneha. ‘And call me Sneha, please. Madam makes me feel old.’

Then the woman did something altogether unexpected. She took Sampangi by the wrist and pulled her into the room. And kicked the door close.

‘Ever since I first saw you, I thought you were so beautiful, you know?’ she said.

Sampangi looked around her. A single bed had been pushed to one corner. A two foot by two foot square window on the outer wall. Dark brown curtains, half-drawn. There was a table and a chair pressed up against the wall to her left, on which Sneha placed the food.

‘We’ll use natural light, okay?’ she said. ‘You came at the perfect time.’ She zipped open a backpack and pulled out her camera. ‘Smile!’ she said, and clicked before Sampangi could react.

Sampangi’s hand rose to her lips, and then fell off.

‘Don’t be alarmed,’ said Sneha. ‘I am just checking the light. Just be your normal self. Or you can smile. Either way works.’

Sampangi placed her hands rigidly to her side, and licked her lips. ‘I –’ she said.

Click. ‘Perfect,’ said Sneha. ‘You’re so beautiful when you speak. Your mouth makes the most exquisite shape. You know, I’ve told Babu Ram that the only reason I’ve been visiting your hotel every day is so that I can look at you. Does that sound stalkerish of me? I don’t care!’ She giggled. ‘Now, look at the window, please. No, keep your face turned toward me, and look at the window just with your eyes. Yes, perfect!’

Sampangi did as she was told.

‘Now,’ said Sneha, after taking a dozen or so photographs. ‘I think you will look amazing in one of my skirts. Would you like to?’

Sampangi knew she had to say no, but she found herself nodding with a greedy smile on her face.

‘Yes? Great!’ said Sneha. She fell on her knees, and dragged out a bigger suitcase from under the bed. Throwing open the upper flap, she said to Sampangi, ‘Come, take your pick.’

Sampangi chose a green and gold skirt, a blue top, and then looked around her while hugging it to her chest.

‘You’re looking for a place to change?’ said Sneha. ‘The hostel has common bathrooms. Why don’t you change here? I promise not to look if that helps! I certainly won’t click.’ She put away her camera and showed Sampangi her hands. ‘See?’

Sampangi said, ‘Okay, madam,’ and turned away to the corner. She undid her sari, kept her blouse on, and wore Sneha’s skirt and top.

‘Can I open my eyes now?’ said Sneha, and did it anyway. ‘Wow!’ she said. ‘You look absolutely perfect. I wish I had a mirror to show you how gorgeous you look. Babu Ram, you lucky dog!’

Sampangi giggled this time with Sneha.

‘Now, Sampangi,’ she said, ‘come here and stand by the bed. Hoist your leg on top of the mattress – yes, that’s great – and place your hand on your hip. I want you to look at me as if you’re – as if you’re the owner of this hostel here. Mm hmm. Some more meanness. Yes, curl your mouth just a little – you have such a beautiful mouth. Yes, that’s perfect.’

That went on for a while. Sneha would ask for a pose and an expression. Sampangi would do her best. And Sneha would sing her praises. After a while Sneha gave her a bright red sleeveless top to wear, and got her to show a little bit of her cleavage.

After an hour or so, Sampangi suddenly remembered that she had to get going. Right at that moment Sneha was in the process of adjusting her arm to precisely the right angle. The light from the window threw a shadow of the girl’s hair across her face, and when she looked up at Sampangi, it felt a little like time stood still.

‘Madam?’ she said.

‘Do you have to go?’ asked Sneha.

‘I don’t want to,’ said Sampangi. ‘But Babu Ram –’

Sneha sighed. ‘I understand,’ she said. ‘If you would like me to show you all the pictures I took, we could sit and watch them for a while.’ She nodded at the bed. ‘Won’t take us more than fifteen minutes.’

Sampangi looked at the bed, then back at Sneha. Something in the woman’s voice made her think that the invitation had an undercurrent to it. But what hidden signals could there be between two women?

Sneha took her by the hand, then, and squeezed it. At that moment Sampangi was certain. A bolt of tension arrested her body, and her hands went cold.

‘Shh,’ said Sneha. ‘From the first moment I saw you – I wanted to… you know, look at pictures with you on the bed.’

‘Madam,’ said Sampangi. Could she admit even to herself that this was not unpleasant, this touch, this exchanging of sly glances, this sharing of a delicious secret? ‘I – I don’t know…’

‘You don’t have to know anything,’ said Sneha. Her voice had dropped, and her eyes had taken on this serious intensity, even as the lips remained smiling. ‘Will you stay for fifteen minutes with me, while I get you out of my skirt and top? I will help you wear your sari afterward.’

Sampangi shook her head. ‘No!’ she said. ‘No…’

‘No?’ Sneha covered the distance between them in one step, and raising herself on tiptoe, kissed Sampangi on the chin.

‘No,’ said Sampangi. ‘I thought – I thought you wanted my husband –’

Sneha was calmly kissing her face now. Chin. Left cheek. Tip of nose. Right cheek. She placed her hands on the mounds of Sampangi’s bare shoulders. Not squeezing, not caressing. Just resting.

‘You did?’ she said. ‘I like Babu Ram, but not in that way. From the very beginning, I’ve had my eye on you. Just you.’

A knock appeared on the door. ‘Madam?’ said a female voice. ‘Is everything okay in there?’

Sampangi jumped back against the wall. Sneha said ‘Fuck’ under her breath. Out loud she said, ‘Yes, everything is fine. Thank you!’

‘Okay, madam. Thank you.’

The two women looked at each other.

Sneha broke into a smile. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t planning on that.’

‘Madam,’ said Sampangi. ‘Please don’t be sorry. I have to go.’

‘Yes,’ said Sneha. ‘Yes, of course. I will send your photos to Babu Ram.’

‘No!’ said Sampangi. ‘No, don’t do that. Keep them.’

Sneha coloured in her cheeks, and seeing that Sampangi went red too.

‘Shall I close my eyes?’

‘Yes, madam. Please.’

Ten minutes later, Sampangi was ready to leave the room. Sneha’s clothes lay in a heap on the bed.

As she paid her for the food, Sneha said, ‘Listen. I am leaving for town in two days.’

Sampangi clutched the currency note in her hand, tight. She refused to look into the woman’s eyes.

But Sneha went on. ‘Tomorrow. Same time. I will place the same order. Will you come?’

Sampangi shook her head at the floor. She did not say no, though. She said, ‘I don’t know.’

‘I’d like it if you came,’ said Sneha. ‘I promise I will not get you pregnant.’


‘I promise, okay?’ Sneha giggled. Sampangi forced herself to look into her eyes in that moment. For the first time that afternoon, it registered in her mind that the woman had honey-brown eyes. And that she wore a silver nose ring. ‘And I promise no one will ever know. It will just be you and me. Here.’

Sampangi turned around and opened the door. Sneha said again, ‘I’d like it if you came.’

* * *

All morning, Sampangi hoped that Babu Ram’s phone would not ring. She had failed to sleep even a wink the previous night, and for once it was not her husband’s snoring or the old ceiling fan’s creaking that kept her awake.

Babu Ram had asked what had taken her so long, and she had been honest with him. Sneha Madam took some pictures of me. Yes, that had been the extent of her honesty. What else could she say?

She had heard rumours – from Ganga, and from some others – that some women liked to do things with other women. Sampangi had laughed at it, derided it, and had given it no further thought. If a woman ever came on to me, she had thought, I’d be disgusted.

But she had not been, not yesterday. Not the way Sneha Madam –

Did this mean that she was one of those women?

As they stood in the kitchen and cleaned utensils, Sampangi ventured a careful look at Ganga. The girl was smelling of jasmines this morning. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to find an excuse to get a little closer to her, just to take a deeper whiff of her scent –

Babu Ram’s phone rang right on time. He said madam this and madam that. He said yes, madam. I will send her, madam.

Ganga snickered and said, ‘Can you believe it? Speaking to another woman in front of his wife like that? Men are all the same.’

Sampangi looked up at the approaching figure of Babu Ram. He was tearing off a piece of paper from his pocket notebook. Then he placed it on the counter and said, ‘Two idli, two vada. Double chutney.’

Sampangi stared at the fluttering piece of paper, held down by his fingers. She shook her head.

‘I have a headache,’ she said. ‘Will you deliver the parcel?’

* * *

‘You must be crazy,’ Ganga was saying. ‘To send him right to her house. Did you see how wide his grin was when you asked him to go?’

‘They won’t let him in, Ganga,’ said Sampangi. ‘He will just give it to the warden at the front gate.’ She did not tell her that even if Babu Ram found a way to visit Sneha Madam in her room, nothing would happen between them.

Babu Ram returned in less than fifteen minutes. Of course he did. He carried with him a small plastic bag. ‘Sneha Madam gave this to you,’ he said.

Of course she did. Her green-and-gold skirt, her blue top. Something to remember the afternoon by. Sampangi had to restrain herself from snatching it off his hands.

‘Ganga,’ she said, ‘leave those utensils in the sink, I will wash them. And take the evening off.’

That night, she wore the skirt and top for Babu Ram. She did not feel strange in them, even though they belonged to her. They made love on their mats on the floor, under the squeaking ceiling fan. And as she rested her cheek against her husband’s sweaty arm afterward, waiting for sleep to take her, Sampangi remembered that Sneha Madam was leaving by the first bus the following morning. They would never see each other again.

Two days ago she would have given anything for it. But today, it only made her want to cry.