“I’ve been here longer than any of you. I know her better. She has her moods” …the soft voice was almost a whisper
“Yes, we can see that you’ve been here ages.. look how soft you’ve become!”. There was a hint of laughter in the crisp voice.
“Listen to her, she knows more than you. It is tough being here. Just because you are young and bright doesn’t mean it will be easier for you”, added the thick matronly voice.
“She’s not so bad, really”. The soft whisper was back. “She can be tough, she expects a lot from each of us, but she is fair. No one has to do more than their fair share. See what happens in other households. With anyone else, we’d have been squeezed dry everyday”
“That is true”. There was softness in the matronly voice too now. “I’ve been with one other before I came here. The things I saw there, I could not tell you. There were horrors, horrors”
She wanted to be asked more. They all knew that. It would be cruel not to let her tell her stories.
The younger one piped up, “What horrors? What did you see? Were they… beaten?”
The matronly voice lowered itself, as the others leaned in – as if blown by the wind. “How do I tell you this… there was.. segregation. Some were beaten everyday. They said that it was the only way to get all the bad stuff out of them. But it was worse – one was .. even burnt. I was young then, I thought it was by mistake. But the older ones told me it had happened before.” There was a little shudder in the voice.
“I was glad when she gave me away, but scared too. This is a nice home to come to, I was lucky. We all are.”
“But there are too many of us here”. The young bright one was almost dancing. The wind had picked up speed, it seemed, for they could all feel the lift that brought a lilt to her voice. “Sometimes I feel lost here. As if I’ve been forgotten right at the back”.
“But it is nice too”, she added hastily as she noticed the cold silence around. “At least there is always someone around”
“If there were fewer of us, each would have had to do more”. The voice that spoke was new. But very old. Sharp, edgy. It rasped, as if it had holes. “I have seen my share of such days. Why do you think I look old so soon? Yes, you – bright young chirpy thing waiting for your chance – I know you love the attention. But you would not if you knew how much hard work it is.”
Nobody dared to respond. Till the soft one spoke up.
“I hear you, really. I am almost there myself. I remember when I came you were almost the only one here. A few came and went. I too have gone soft now – we have seen much together, have we not?” The soft whisper was soothing. “You bear the scars of the wear and tear, and I am getting there too. But she will not throw us out, she is too fond of us”
“Yes, that she is, she is fond of us”. You could almost hear a laugh in the rasp – the voice shook. “She has said I remind her of the old days, of the struggles, of simpler times and happier battles. We went through a lot together, we had little else….” the rasping voice trailed away.
“It’s not always like that you know. I have been here a while and know how to stretch myself when needed. A little adjustment here and there and I fit again. But not all can be so adjusting.” The matronly voice had a bit of self congratulation held in check.
Not surprising – she was the one who was called whenever things got difficult. Easily blending into the background, perfect for any occasion. She knew that after a certain age, the mistress would like to rely on an old favourite. She worked hard to keep her prime position. Giving way sometimes to the new bright things, she knew that they would feel too loud after a while. The ones older than her were for comfort – but could not be seen around. She looked after herself even as she greyed gently, always just so, always ready, always presentable. She did the job, no more. Never once seeking attention, she knew she would be safe till she was useful.
“You are right, not all can be so adjusting. Do you remember that one – who came for a day or two and was sent away. She said only one word – suffocating. And that was it. Gone, sent away. Who knows to what fate”
“And then, do you remember that other one? I thought she was tough. But, oh, so …. ugly.”
“Yes, I remember her. She was put to mopping duty. Lost all her colour quickly enough. I saw her the other day – as thin as a rag”
“And then, that one – who would just not get it right. Would go left when asked to go right, would go right when asked to swing left. Just would not do what was needed. She had to go too, was doing more harm than good. She was short too, much too short. I remember the street boys staring at her when she was taken out. I wonder where she is now”
“Why do we care now, she is gone, and so are the others. Some new ones will come, some will go. But now listen, I have a story to tell you. When I went out with her yesterday…..”
The easy chatter carried on. They had all day, it was their day off. There were others on duty that day, holding up the standards of the house.
The sun rose, and then lowered itself in the open sky. There was a gentle breeze. They swung as they spoke. Some stiffening a bit as the day wore on. The shadows lengthened. It would be time to go soon, they knew. The comfortable chatter was silenced in the gloaming. As companions who have known each other long, they knew each other’s silences well.
Soon, the sound of feet climbing up the stairs. The creaking of the terrace door. The familiar face. She had come herself today.
She was happy. She had a friend with her too. They continued laughing and talking as she came closer.
“Look Nandita, I have so many”, she laughed.
“I must have a clear-out one day soon”
They froze, the wind held still as she spoke these words.
But she did not notice, as she advanced towards them.
“I have too many clothes, and you made me buy more today”, her excited voice carried on.
“I will have to give some of them away. Look, some of them are so old, they have holes in them!”, she said as she picked up the dress that was the oldest of them all. “And look at this T-Shirt, soft with age. It feels like a whisper of wind when I wear it, but it is so old. I’ve had these two since I started our business”
She moved on towards the angrakha kurta. “Now this one I cannot live without, it has saved me so often. It makes me look like an aunty, but it works on every occasion. So old, and still looks good”
Gathered together in the basket now, the clothes edged away from each other. Their easy companionship was the friendship of equals. Not any longer – something had broken.
“I’m almost done Nandita”, she trilled. “We can go and have tea in a minute. I’ll just get the new one – isn’t it nice and bright. I thought it would cheer me up”
“A bit too bright for you, if you ask me. If anything, you should give this one away”. Nandita spoke for the first time, but every one of them heard her hard, glittering voice and winced.
“Give them all away. There are so many poor people around”, she added breezily, in the voice of those who like to sound secure. Have a complete clear out. It will be fun! Shall I bring the big bin liners?”
She had no idea of the devastation she had unleashed.
They heard her and edged closer to each other again. Cold dry comfort of those who had lost their voice.
All of them were in the same basket now.