She jerked back into reality, and hurried to the kitchen to prepare coffee-and-Marie-biscuits for madam and her husband, and Boost-and-Good-Day for their daughter, the bells on her anklets going chan-chan-chan down the spiral staircase.
She frowned as she made the decoction, her forehead wrinkling the way her father’s did. Her father was only in his early thirties, but a combination of his long hours, and his fondness for alcohol made him look old enough to her grandfather. That’s what it does to you; she had told her father the day her school teacher taught the class about the respiratory system. She had received a cuff on the ears for that, and was told she’d be married off if she misbehaved. But on the other hand, her mother told her that nobody would marry a naughty girl like her. Like her friend Swarnalatha. She would miss her funny stories, and company – she being the only girl of her age and “breeding” in the area, as madam put it, once, when she thought she wasn’t listening – but she had. When she had asked Anu, madam’s daughter who was right, Anu had launched into an explanation involving Schrodinger’s cat. She had heard that word once when she had snuck off to watch TV with Anu after school while madam was taking a bath, but had not understood what it meant. She had been entranced all the same, by the people on the screen – white girls wearing potti clothing, and funny boys who kissed girls, and sometimes married them, if lucky – amma had also said nobody would marry a girl who wore potti clothes, once when she tried to go to the market in a skirt that had gotten too short. It was a wonder there were so many married people in the world, she had thought to herself. But she kept that thought to herself, not wishing to receive another cuff on the ear.
Once she was done serving the grown-ups, the bell rang. It was Anu. She took the tiffin from Anu, but dared not say a word about the weight of the container – madam was reading a magazine nearby, waiting for her husband to finish a business call. She went out back behind the kitchen, and disposed of the remnants – Anu had pleaded with her to not tell amma, even offering to give her some old fashion magazines. She declined the offer and did it anyway – she did not wish to get in any trouble – madam seemed to dislike her enough already.
By the time she took the Boost out of the freezer –Anu liked her milk the way she liked her bath water, better than lukewarm, but not enough for it to steam–her parents had left, having locked the bedrooms half an hour ago. Anu was to watch the house while they were gone, much to her chagrin. She had made plans to go to her neighbour’s house, to watch trashy TV shows and pop music videos. She had asked her parents why Lakshmi couldn’t watch the house instead while everyone else was out– she could sit in the hall and do her homework. She had been met with an awkward silence.
Lakshmi frowned. She was much stronger than Anu, and would definitely do a better job. She had been one of the strongest children in her village, and was always in demand whenever she played tug-o-war with her friends. That was before she reached puberty, though. After that, she had been forbidden from doing such unlady-like things – who would marry a girl who pranced around in the streets like a boy? She said nothing though. She had realized by then, it was better to keep silent. Amma had said, after all, that nobody would marry a girl who talked back to her elders.
“Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started wait-
The earth began to cool, the autotrophs began to drool
Big Bang Theory! She forgot the insult to her strength immediately and ran up the stairs to the TV room – er – TV area, chan-chan-chan. Sir and madam, highly educated America-returns, liked wide, open spaces. They had bought this house and broken down most of the walls before moving in. Only the bathrooms and bedrooms were closed off – everything else was just yards and yards of space – a few islands of furniture here and there amidst the marble sea. Such a waste, she thought to herself. At least ten families could fit in the place comfortably- even luxuriously. They could at least fill the place up with paintings and sculptures and rugs, like rich people in the movies did. No, she grumbled to herself, the sea must remain uncluttered , she thought, as she sat on the ground, leaning against the sofa.
The people in The Big Bang Theory were also from America, but were quite different from her employers. They wore short clothes and ate different food and said strange things and boys and girls who weren’t related would sleep in the same bed– Anu would laugh along with the people in the background – a laughter track, Anu had called it. When she asked, Anu would giggle and say “You wouldn’t understand baba, you’re too young.”
She would pout. It wasn’t fair. She was only two years younger – she decided that Anu did not know either, and was – what was the word Anu uses – just overacting. But at least she talked to her in English, unlike Anu’s parents. Lakshmi had picked up a decent amount of English the past few years by watching cartoons. When she was younger, shows only aired in Telugu, but now old episodes re-ran in English, allowing her to match dialogues across languages. Her modest lessons were enough to impress her teachers at school – they wanted her to go to another school – a special one where they didn’t let students play and made sure they got into good colleges – but her parents were skeptical: What was the use in sending her to school for so long? Tenth was enough. She herself was somewhat leery of the idea: – what good was a school that didn’t let you play?
“Che. This is a repeat telecast. Doesn’t matter, though; the show’s jumped the shark since everyone got hitched.”
Lakshmi had two questions. She wondered which one to ask first, and in the process matched, no, mapped – that’s what sir said while explaining the idea to Anu one day- the meaning to recent events on the show, and said “Akka, what is jumping a shark?”
Anu stifled a smile.
“Ante, it is a phrase baba. They use it when, when…”
Unsure of what it actually was, Anu looked it up on the laptop nearby. It was her father’s. It was locked, but she had cajoled him into giving up the password.
“Ah. You use it when you want to describe how show writers are using all sorts of silly scenarios to extend the show. Remember how in Saathiya – ah, Telugu lo it is Kodala Kodala Koduku Pellamaa. Don’t look so confused. That lady steals a baby from the orphanage to give to that other lady. As if they’ve never heard of adoption. Che. ”
She smiled to herself. Anu now had a new group of friends, and had stopped saying chee, and had started saying eww, instead. Sometimes she would also say
Fuck-This-Shit, but only when madam was not around. Lakshmi had been forbidden from ever repeating the word. It is a very-very-bad-word kathe.
“Akka, the first lady is Urmi and second lady is Rashi. So, jumping the shark happens in Pavithra Rishtha also na? Bha, there the grandmother is looking younger than the granddaughter!”
Anu tilted her head, considering the proposition. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” She went back to staring at the laptop.
Lakshmi frowned, cross legged, hunch backed on the floor, cheek on fist. When they were younger, if nothing was good on TV, they would turn on the radio; sometimes even play Hot-and-Cold in the garden. Now Anu would simply stare at her laptop, looking at pictures of pretty people in pretty clothes, less clothes and sometimes play silly games, where one would feed a cartoon toy and take care of it. Ruby, she called it. She wished Ruby could die, but that does not happen to imaginary things. If not that, she would talk on the phone for hours, telling her friends what this
bitch did and what that bitch wore. Lakshmi was forbidden from saying that word, too.
“All the single ladies
All the single ladies
Put your hands up!”
Anu was dancing, dutifully counting each step, brow scrunched up in concentration, doing her best to imitate the women on screen. Lakshmi peered into the laptop. The dancers in the video were wearing nothing but a black leotard. Their apparent lack of knowledge of the very concept of pants no longer surprised her. Such people are like that only. She had seen white people on TV wear less than that. The beat of the song picked up. She got up and started dancing. She was no graceful dancer, choosing to the bhangra to Beyoncé.
That made Anu laugh, and drop her pretence of elegance, joining the other girl in her ‘wild’ dance, for lack of a better word. The magic of YouTube autoplay ended that song with another, equally upbeat. The little dance party of two continued, till Anu decided she had had enough, and plopped down to the floor. So did Lakshmi – they sat floating on the marble sea, laughing and joking. She almost didn’t miss Latha anymore.
“We’ll play bluff?” Lakshmi consented to this, and had barely brought out the cards, shuffling carefully, when the bell rang. Sir and madam were back. She deftly put the real cards inside, and brought out the Uno cards before they could come upstairs. They were found in the middle of a game.
“Mom, are those the hoops with pearls dangling from them? I thought you lost them last week,” she asked her mother, who stood near the staircase with a frown on her face.
“Ah, yes. It was in my purse, of all places. Sanka lo pillani pettukoni oorantha vethikinattu.”
Lakshmi giggled, amused at such a traditional proverb coming from the mouth of her sophisticated America-returned employer, who was a vision in blue that afternoon. Anu, on the other hand was confused. “Amma, what’s a sanka?”
Everyone guffawed, while Anu sat there, slightly embarrassed by her inability to pick up her official mother tongue in the four years she had been here.
“Well, let’s just say that in this case, it’s a quite the literal statement,” she said, her frown replaced by a rare grin, gesturing to the large handbag slung over her shoulder.
“I guess it is nice to see you not staring at a screen for a change. Would you like to go to Naina’s house now?” madam asked, carefully.
Anu leapt up to hug her mother, somewhat bewildered by her uncharacteristic acquiescence. “Damn- I mean, thank you, mom! You rock. I’ll be back by sunset, sare na?” then skipped down the stairs, retouching her lip gloss all the way – this time no chan-chan-chan. Her mother followed.
What pity, Lakshmi grumbled to herself, putting the child-friendly cards back in their place. She had picked a winning hand.