(This is a short story from our March 2016 print quarterly, ‘At the Cost of Health’. See more from the issue here.)
Bombay, as it used to be called, was the great bustling city where my aunt, uncle and cousins lived and I would visit them in my holidays from my own sleepy town, a hundred and twenty miles away, on the Deccan plateau. In the big city, everyone lived in flats and my cousins in a row of rather posh buildings set one after another down an alley, which was a private road off ‘Breach Candy’, a small beach off one of the bays of southern Bombay. The buildings belonged to multinational companies which housed their executives in the flats. My uncle worked for a large mechanical engineering firm in the city and the other flats in the building were occupied by the families of the firm’s other executives.
At the end of the alley, turning it into a cul-de-sac, was a garage with old and crumbling wooden doors that had been converted into the workshop and residence of Mahesh and Gopi, the dhobi family who were the proud laundry-wallahs of the fifty or sixty flats in the alley.
Each morning the garage doors were thrown open to reveal an ironing board the length of a bed and three or four coal-heated hot irons, which were fuelled with red hot coals from a stove which stood just outside the garage doors.
This child, nine years old, would struggle down the stairs and down the alley to deliver the bundle, with my aunt shouting after her to warn her parents against exploiting child labour.
The heaps of washing would be piled behind this ironing board barrier, in bundles tied up in the bed sheets of each household to keep them from getting jumbled. The system of separation wasn’t perfect. My aunt would regularly complain that the wrong coloured, oversized men’s underwear, which must belong to the fat man who lived two buildings down on the third floor, had appeared in their delivery bundle of laundry. The offending article would be sent back to Mahesh’s garage and the next time he came, he could be scolded for losing my uncle’s underwear.
Mahesh, wary of the fact that he would be threatened with economic sanctions, meaning a cut in the laundry bill amount owing to him, would send his daughter Mahua to collect the laundry bundle. This child, nine years old, would struggle down the stairs and down the alley to deliver the bundle, with my aunt shouting after her to warn her parents against exploiting child labour.
Mahesh would take the dirty laundry away in bundles on an overladen bicycle, which he would then wheel rather than ride, to some laundry dock, where he and other dhobis from across the city gathered to wash the clothes and household linen by hand with huge bars of industrial soap.
The laundry would be brought back dry for ironing. In the monsoon when there was only intermediate sunshine, he would issue warnings to all the flats that their laundry delivery wouldn’t be as regular in the rains. Gopi could be observed doing the ironing at most times of the day and late into the evening. When we went down from the flat to play cricket in the largely traffic-free alley, Mahua would be there, squatting before the rusty metal brazier on which the coals for the flat-irons were lit, loading these in rotation for her mum.
They would work late into the evening and when their workday was done at eight or nine at night, Mahesh would sit outside and smoke a pipe of cannabis, while the woman and child cooked the evening meal on the same brazier. Later, the family would retire to their living space in the rear of the garage behind the fixed ironing board and the wooden doors of the garage would be closed.
My aunt often seemed disturbed that Mahua hadn’t been sent to school.
“The poor child is a slave. That fellow smokes drugs, I can smell it from here three buildings down. She’s such a sweet child and she took one of your old dolls and said she’d make some clothes for her,” my aunt said to my eldest cousin.
“You should tell them to send her to school then,” my cousin said.
“They need her there to help with the work and they can’t afford the school fees,” my aunt said.
My uncle was the silent type and I never heard him join in these conversations but this time he suddenly said “I’ll pay the damn school fees!”
The next morning, when Mahesh was absent, my aunt persuaded Gopi to send Mahua to school, volunteering to pay the school fees, buy her school uniforms, school books and pay for any occasional things the school may demand. It was an offer that Gopi didn’t seem to want to refuse, even though she knew that Mahesh would be furious. He said she had argued and fought with him about Mahua’s education and prospects before. She was for educating the girl, even if it meant sacrifices now. Having a school certificate would increase Mahua’s chances of getting a good husband and reducing the dowry they would have to pay when the time came.
My aunt enrolled Mahua in a Catholic school run by nuns. I was back in my home town by this time but my cousins told me later that there was an almighty row when Mahua first put on her school uniform and ventured out of the garage.
Having a school certificate would increase Mahua’s chances of getting a good husband and reducing the dowry they would have to pay when the time came.
Mahesh demanded to know what this natak, this drama, was all about. What were his wife and daughter playing at? My aunt and even my uncle had to go down to the garage and intervene. Various neighbours responded to the commotion and went down to join them, finding Mahesh in a rage holding on to the weeping Mahua’s wrist.
My uncle conceived the strategy in response to Mahesh’s protest that his daughter’s labour was needed and that if she went to school the family would die of hunger.
“If you don’t let her go to school, you’ll die of hunger anyway,” my uncle said. “We will go with our clothes to another dhobi who doesn’t use child labour!”
A few other householders joined in. “Yes, Dhobi, that’s what we shall do. We’ll go somewhere else.”
“How can you do this to me, Seth?” Mahesh appealed. He may have been smoking ganja when he woke up that morning because he got emotional. He started crying and he let go of Mahua’s wrist and squatted in front of my uncle and touched his shoes in supplication.
“Do what you will, Seth, you are powerful people, we are dirt under your feet…. “
My uncle took a few smart steps back. He was embarrassed. Gopi stood by clutching Mahua.
“Stop your wretched natak, your melodrama!” my uncle said. “Stand up like a man and I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll get my engineering firm’s plumbing-wallahs to get you a water tank, maybe an old bath tub or something and fit a water supply and drainage so you can do all the washing here instead of going to the dhobi ghat.”
One of the other men from the flats, my uncle’s colleague said he would see to it too. Mahesh seemed incredulous.
“Seth, you are making fun of a poor man.”
“No, no, he means it,” one of my uncle’s colleagues said. “He can do things in our firm like this.” He clicked his fingers to demonstrate.
“We can start the work tomorrow but the child goes to school now and no word from you about it to your wife or anyone.”
Mahesh now did touch my uncle’s shoes and then stepped back with folded hands.“Seth, you know me, I believe in education like no-one’s business and I am always so distressed when I am washing your children’s school uniforms and thinking if only my Mahua had the chance that the rich children have. But then it is my karma to be born a poor man, a dhobi, and I think all day about where the next meal is coming from.”
“The next bottle of moonshine liquor and the next packet of opium is what you mean!” one of the women residents said. “He always stinks of it and his eyes are always rolling when he comes up with the laundry.”
“They spend their whole day in water so they need the stuff,” the finger-clicker said and got a dirty look from my uncle. Mahua wiped her tears and was sent on her way to school.
I was back in Bombay when the term ended for a week or two of my holidays when my aunt called me to the window of the flat.
“He didn’t want to send her to any school and fought with his wife and with me,” she said “and now look!” I looked out of the window and saw Mahua hand in hand with a nun in her white habit and black wimple walking down the alley to the garage.
“She is a very clever girl and this French nun’s favourite. She is teaching her to speak French. The nun comes and gives her lessons in the garage. She could teach her in school but these Europeans like to think they are helping the poor in India, you know that.”
When I visited Bombay the next time, a few months later, my aunt’s speculation about why the nun was making regular visits to Mahua’s parents in the garage had turned into a certainty.
“That Gopi, when I went down to fetch your uncle’s dressing gown started telling me how in Christianity there are no castes and everyone is equal and there is no rebirth as a punishment if you repent and pray to Jesus. I wonder where she gets all that from?”
“That French nun whom we saw?”
My aunt smirked knowingly.
A few days later Mahesh put up a painted sign on the garage:
We watched him nail the sign above the garage doors.
When my uncle came home from work at tea-time my aunt drew his attention to it.
“Since I got that washing tank and platform built for him, he’s got prosperous and cocky with it. Putting up signs in our compound.”
“It’s not a compound, it’s just a dirty little alley,” my cousin said.
“Whatever it is, haven’t you noticed the name?”
“You mean it should be Bombay Laundry or Breach Candy laundry? This ganjeri Mahesh probably doesn’t know where Bethlehem is!”
“Oh yes he does,” my aunt said. “They know that Jesus was born there and his name is not Mahesh any more. It’s now Joseph.”
“And her name is Mary?” my uncle asked, biting into his afternoon samosa.
“Her name if you please is Immaculata! They have kept it quiet, but Mahua told me when she came to collect the laundry that her mother and father have both converted to Christianity. The French nun has done a good job on them.”
And the rest of it I heard the next year.
My cousins told me that Mahua became ill and stopped going to school. Her throat swelled up and she started making gurgling sounds. Joseph and Immaculata took her to some medicine man they had faith in and he gave her some draught to force down her throat.
“The nun comes and gives her lessons in the garage. She could teach her in school but these Europeans like to think they are helping the poor in India, you know that.”
My aunt and the other ladies in the building urged Joseph to take her to a proper doctor, but Immaculata told them that they had perfect faith in this Christian healer who assured them that the swelling would go down. She took them into the garage to reassure them. Mahua, now known as Mary after she was baptised, was sitting on the wide bed her mother and father shared and she smiled at them. Her throat was bandaged.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she said to them. “Not even when I speak.” She picked up a bible lying next to her and began to read in French.
My aunt said her voice came out of her throat but it wasn’t her voice, it was much more squeaky, she said.
“You see, it’s nothing. It’s God speaking to you through my child,” he said.
When my aunt reported this back to my uncle, he said “The fellow’s a fool, or he’s a rascal.”
The swelling in Mahua’s throat grew steadily and her throat grew out under her chin and began to hang down. The young girl would now, they said go to sleep or fall unconscious as she sat there and would gnash her teeth and say things, words, phrases, whole incantations that no one hearing them could interpret. It wasn’t Hindi, or English or French.
My aunt, who was no longer welcome there intruded and came back saying the child was delirious and babbling.
Two nuns visited and brought with them an Indian monk. Joseph proudly told his clients in the buildings that this Brother was a skilled exorcist and he had concluded that the child Mary was pure and untainted and that there was a benevolent spirit speaking in tongues through her.
When he said this to my aunt, she said they had to go to a doctor with the child or she would call one. Joseph just grinned and said he didn’t need my aunt’s patronage any more. She could take her laundry elsewhere or wash her clothes herself.
In the days and weeks that followed, a few people at first and then streams of them came down the alley bearing candles and flowers. Joseph took down the BETHLEHEM LAUNDRY sign and another sign went up, which said “GULLAY MEY JESUS”, which is Hindi for “Jesus in the throat”!
My uncle and the other residents complained to the police to try and stop the constant flow of people to and from the garage. Joseph and Immaculata were defiant. They were no longer a laundry and no longer needed the patronage of the alley’s residents. Joseph told the protestors that he would take the police to court if they interfered with his visitors. God had blessed their family because Jesus was grateful that they had led the way and converted to the true faith, foreswearing all idol worship. He was so grateful that he had lodged himself in their daughter’s throat and was addressing the congregations that had heard of and come to participate in the miracle.
The police said the visitors couldn’t be legally stopped, except at night time, and the residents of the buildings in the alley would have to put up with it. Visitors to the ‘visitation’ would gather in numbers on Sunday and queue right down the alley all the way to the main road and the beach at Breach Candy.
My aunt said she knew that Mahua or Mary was in on the game and that she was playing up by inventing the tongues and sounds she burbled in and watched her parents collect a fortune in donations from the visitors who were now labelled pilgrims.
One day, the garage closed its doors. Twenty four hours later a frantic Joseph came at night to my uncle’s flat. The child hadn’t recovered from a trance for two days and would my aunt or uncle please come. They were the only ones Immaculata said who would understand why they had sinned against their own daughter and against God.
My uncle drove the child to the hospital. The cancer in her throat, at first benign had turned malignant with unusual rapidity. They tried to operate but Mahua died that night.
Mahesh and Gopi were childless and broken but they were rich. My aunt said they disappeared leaving nothing behind except the board which proclaimed that Jesus had come to reside in a girl’s throat. A new resident of one of the flats hired the garage and parked his vintage Rolls Royce in it. Every Sunday his chauffeur would use the dhobi water-tank to wash the car before he polished it. They didn’t bother to take down the sign.
~Farrukh Dhondy is a writer, playwright, screenwriter and columnist. His latest book Words: From here, there and everywhere was published by HarperCollins India in 2001. Born in Pune, India, he lives in London.