Shadow Work

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What We Do

On Mondays we stitch blouses made of organza, christening dresses edged with edelweiss lace. On Tuesdays we work on quilts colored like birds. On Wednesdays we darn, our stitches tiny as a mouse’s eyelash. On Fridays we all work in the kitchen, even Mother Superior, under the loud, sweaty direction of Mrs. Gonzales, stirring vats of guava jelly for the weekly sale. On Saturday the nuns and older girls handle the gift shop. Saturday is an off-day for teachers, but I come in to help. In the shop it is always crowded. Mother says this is because the goods produced by St. Mary’s Orphanage for Girls (Kolkata Branch) are of superior quality. But we know that some of the men, dawdling and staring, come for other reasons. Sunday is Mass in the morning and choir in the evening, and in the darkness afterwards the orphans whispering secrets as they walk the weedy path. Each day in the orphanage has its own small satisfaction. But Thursday is the day of beauty, the day I teach the girls embroidery.


Wedding Saris

This Thursday I supervise the Class Twelve girls as they work on saris—their final project. This embroidered sari will be the orphanage’s gift to them when they graduate. Everything else they’ve created that’s any good has been sold at the store; the failures have become dishrags and foot-wipes. I am proud of the girls’ saris, how hard they work at them. If they are lucky enough to get married, they will wear these at the wedding.

My favorite this year belongs to mousy Martha: an off-white voile bordered in pastels like spring, decorated with shadow work. I love shadow work, the under-weave of colored stitches glimmering through the sheer fabric, elegant, full of mystery. Martha, bent over her sari with an earnest squint, will never wear it. When I think this, my chest feels like someone’s pressing down on it. I’m no beauty myself, though Mother Superior says that with my trim waist and glossy hair, I could easily find a husband if I wanted to. Only I don’t. I’m glad that Martha is smart enough to go on to nursing school. Mother cajoled one of our donors into paying her fees. She’ll have a way to take care of herself, which is more than most women get.

Mainly our graduates become typists or secretaries. They wear defiantly short dresses and teetery heels. They have a weakness for neon lipsticks, ginger ale shandy, Mills & Boon romances. The lucky ones marry their bosses. The unlucky ones have affairs and get fired. Some become pregnant. Such is the world beyond our walls, glitter and flame, into which our little moths long to dive.

I imagine Martha’s beautiful sari, wrapped in muslin, mothballs slipped into the folds, lying in a suitcase under her bed, to be lifted out wistfully once a year. Under my bed, too, lies such a suitcase.

I’m interrupted in the middle of class by an ayah; Mother wants to talk to me. I’m intrigued but not surprised. In many matters I am her advisor. Entering her office, I notice a pale blue aerogram on her table—from Ireland again, I can tell. She sees me looking and covers it with an accounts book. But I know. For the last few years the mother-house in Ireland has been asking her to turn over the orphanage to Sister Claudia, the nun from Kerala who is her second in command. They remind Mother that she is beyond retirement age. Mother puffs out her lower lip and tells me, “What’ll I do back there among those decrepit biddies!”

Now, in her blunt way, she says, “Leticia has received a marriage offer.”

I sit down, I’m that shocked. Though why should I be? Fair-skinned Leti, who graduated a few months ago, is the prettiest girl in her year—and she knows it. I remember her sari, a midnight-blue nylon, the material see-through flashy, that she decorated with gold sequins. Quite inappropriate for brides. I bit my tongue and kept quiet. The girls had so few opportunities to choose anything. But Leti was always trouble. Saturdays in the store, if we weren’t watching, she’d hike up her skirt beyond the regulation one-inch-above-the-knee length and bat her eyelashes at the men. I tried to scold caution into her, and modesty. She just flicked her long black hair dismissively over her shoulder. Oh, Miss Kalpana! Sometimes I worried about Leti, so ready to fling herself at adventure. Sometimes I was envious.

It’s that envy I feel again now, heartburn. It shames me.

Since Leti’s class graduated, I’ve seen little of them. They are off all day learning various skills, waiting only to get their first jobs before they fly away. Leti, who is taking a secretarial course, met her young man on the bus she took to the institute—the same bus he took to work. Somehow they started talking. When he asked if she could go for a stroll on the Maidan and cold coffee afterward, she told him about the orphanage. She was terrified that it would turn him off. Family is crucial in this city. But he only shrugged. He proposed soon after. Tomorrow he’s coming over to talk to Mother.

Mother says, “I’m not sure if he can be trusted. What questions should we ask? I need you at the meeting, Kalpana. You have a good inbuilt shit-detector.”

“Language, Mother!” But I’m absurdly pleased.


Night Anemones

Leti’s young man is coming early, before he goes to work, so we decide I should stay over tonight. Happily, I push a roll-away bed from the infirmary into the sewing room. I love lying amid the smell of new fabric, the moist dark filled with the buzzing of jhi-jhi bugs. A sweet, sludgy peace pours into me. If Mother hadn’t insisted that I get a room at the North Kolkata Young Women’s Hostel after I graduated, I would never have left the orphanage.

Before I turn in, I must see the sleeping babies—one of my favorite things. In the nursery’s bluish nightlight, they breathe in unison, undulating like sea anemones. I lean over my favorite, Anna, left at our gate three months ago, and touch her discolored cheek. I remember how Ramkishen the gatekeeper brought her to me in the morning, wrapped in newspaper like a fish.

I used to watch Leti like this when she first arrived. I must have been twelve then. Once when I tried to kiss her forehead, like the fairy godmother in a movie I’d seen, Leti grabbed my hair in her little fists and yanked so hard that my eyes watered. I didn’t mind.

When I started teaching, I saved every paisa I could. When I had enough, I showed Mother my bank balance, sufficient to rent a little apartment, to pay for a child’s necessities. I told her I wanted to adopt Leti.

Mother shook her head.

“Why not?” I demanded angrily. “I’d be a good—”

“I know you would. But the board doesn’t allow single women to adopt, not until—"

I knew the unspoken words. Not until they’re so old that they have no chance of marriage. That was what she dreamed for me: a husband, the home he’d give me, my own birth-babies. In spite of the evidence that lay all around her, Mother was a romantic.

Once, cleaning the office closet, I came across some lines written on a scrap of paper:

Again last night as we slept
the babies
were falling from the sky.
So many of them—
eyes wide as darkness,
glowing lineless palms.
The dogs crooned their coming. The owls
flew up to them
on great dusty wings.
And all over the world
from beds hollow as boats,

I couldn’t stop wondering who wrote those lines, their subtle, shadow-work design. I couldn’t stop wondering what those children were about to do.

Why am I drawn to Anna, who is nothing like Leti? Is it her birthmark, that half-circle of dark stamped under her left eye, which will surely keep her from being adopted? She sucks her thumb in sleep. Recently, she has learned to smile. I’m convinced she recognizes me, though the nursery nun scoffs at my naïveté. I want to pick Anna up. I want to lay her in my roll-away bed and curl myself around her. But it isn’t allowed.


Leti, with Roses

Leti’s sweetheart has surprised me. I was expecting a brash hooligan in fake Ray-Bans, out to make a quick conquest. The young man who sits across from Mother Superior’s desk, promising to take care of Leti, is thin and buck-toothed. Nervous sweat darkens his shirt, even though the ceiling fan is on full force. His name is Samuel Bonds, and he’s clearly serious: he’s brought his mother with him to the interview. Perhaps Leti, who clutches the modest bouquet he handed her and glows with love and vindication because finally life is giving her what she deserves, does have a chance at happiness.

The mother, a pinch-faced woman in a bunchy dress that is an unfortunate fashion choice, informs us with a martyr’s sigh that this is not what she was hoping for her Sammy. He’s bound for great things. Why, just last year he got a promotion at Koli’s Fans and Air Conditioners, where he’s a salesman. But his happiness is important to her: he’s her only child, the light of her eyes since her husband passed away fifteen years ago, cholera it was. Mother pats her hand and assures her that Leti will be the daughter she never had. I’m not so sure, but I nod loyally. When they leave, Mother, who prides herself on keeping up with the times, gives me a high five.

The wedding, we have decided, will take place in two weeks. That will give me enough time.



The building, a soot-streaked gray, stands too close to its neighbors. The stairwell is unswept; splotches of spat-out betel juice stain the walls. My heart sinks as I climb. Leti will hate this. The orphanage, though shabby, is always clean—Mother insists on that. But perhaps the potion of love is powerful enough to disguise all deficiencies.

I ring the doorbell to the Bondses’ flat. I don’t expect them to be home—it’s a workday—but I’m hoping there’s a maid. One can find out all kinds of information from the servants.

This visit is part of the background check I do when our girls receive marriage offers. We’ve been burned a few times by men who don’t have the cushy jobs they claim to hold, who share a chawl with four other families they forgot to mention, who think they can play fast and loose with our girls because they have no family.

Not that I expect a problem with the Bonds. Yesterday I phoned Koli’s and spoke to a secretary. If servants are the best informants at home, secretaries are the best at work.

The woman I talked with sounded surprised. “Getting married? Samuel Bonds? Really!”

“Why? Is there a problem?”

“Oh no, not at all!” She went on to assure me that Samuel was a very decent guy. Didn’t miss work except twice when he had the flu. Didn’t mess around with the salesgirls. He was kind of shy. That’s why she’d been taken aback on hearing about a love-marriage. But she was glad he’d found himself a good girl.

After several knocks, a servant opens the door and informs me in rapid Bengali that no one is home. To every question I ask, her answer is a wordless shrug. She’s either stupid or exceedingly well trained. I have to satisfy myself with leaving a note.

Mrs. Bonds calls back at night. If she’s annoyed by my unexpected visit, she doesn’t let on. She invites me to evening tea the following day. It’ll be just the two of us. Sammy is working overtime, trying to make some extra money now that he’s about to become a married man.

The Bondses’ apartment is sparsely furnished: a lumpy sofa, spindly chairs around a table draped with a plastic tablecloth. The walls are depressingly bare. No photos or hangings—just a smallish TV in the corner. I remind myself that their esthetic shortcomings are not my concern. There are two small bedrooms, a decent bathroom. The tiny kitchen is uncluttered. That’s good enough for me.

In any case, Leti is sure to bring along a whirlwind of change. She’s already used the money Mother gave her for her saint’s day to buy a dozen bright red artificial roses in a cut-glass vase. She plans to arrange them on her bedside table. Mrs. Bonds, waving me a prim goodbye from the doorway, is in for some surprises.


First Comes Love

The wedding takes place on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the packed orphanage chapel. Everyone is here: nuns, teachers, servants, the girls sitting on the edge of worn wood pews, hush-quiet as though they’d entered a fairy tale. Even the babies are present, scrubbed and talcum powdered, not a whimper among the lot, though that might be because our babies learn early that crying is of no use. One of the older girls holds Anna. She’s wearing a pink frock I stitched for her, with bunnies. Pink is Anna’s color. It brightens her face and makes her birthmark appear exotic, an orchid. I’m wearing a pink dress, too, though pink makes me look sallow. But I wanted something—even if it was just a color—to tie us together.

Mother wasn’t happy about Anna’s frock. She said it wasn’t fair to the other children.

 I reminded her that as soon as Anna grew a bit more, someone else would inherit it.

“You’re becoming too attached,” she said with a frown.

“So?” I said, frowning right back. “It isn’t as though either of us is going anywhere.”

Mother’s frown deepened. She was always pushing me to get out into the world, make friends. Why don’t you take up the position Lilian’s Boutique offered you as their designer, instead of slogging away here for next-to-nothing pay? Why don’t you say yes to that nice young man from Fantastic Fashions who asked you out when you went to deliver layettes? But I knew she needed me more than anyone else did.

Old Father Dominic chokes up as he reads the vows for the young couple to repeat. He doesn’t get a chance to perform many weddings. Our girls don’t come back here to get married. At best we get a letter well after the event. They want to shake off every trace of their history, and who can blame them?

But Leti, scintillating in her blue, sequined sari, casts triumphant glances at her classmates as she enunciates her vows. She gives the groom a long kiss, flashes the flustered Father a grin, and exits in a cloud of dizzy hope and pavement-store perfume, pulling Samuel along. Rain shines like crystals in her hair. The younger girls skip along behind her. They’ve taken up a chant. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Leti with a baby carriage. Earlier, Leti would have lost her temper and smacked someone. Now, she smiles expansively from the height of her stature as a married lady. Mrs. Bonds’s mouth is pursed in a disapproval that I fear is destined to become permanent. She is accompanied by two chunky-looking men in suits, cousins who don’t have much to say. That’s the extent of their wedding party. At least they’ve hired a boxy black Ambassador for the occasion. Ramkishen opens the boot and reverently lifts in Leti’s suitcase—blue to match her sari—which we teachers presented to her. Inside are a few clothes, toiletries, a Bible—and a transistor radio that her classmates pooled their pocket money to buy. The chunky cousins join the driver in front. Leti arranges herself elegantly in the back, between her husband and mother-in-law.

As the car sputters to life, Mother leans into the window. “Be sure to call regularly. I’ll worry otherwise.” Her voice cracks; gravity pulls at her wrinkles.

Samuel gives an abashed nod; Leti inclines her head as though she were Princess Diana. “Of course I’ll call. Bye, Mother! Bye, Miss K!”

We wave until the car disappears around the bend. We’re drenched, but we don’t care. I can hear the radio pouring Leti’s favorite pop songs into that cheerless little apartment, changing things.

The wedding changes other things, too. The older girls wander around moonily, eyes unfocused. In Mother’s office, I discover the letter from Ireland in the wastepaper basket, where she must have thrown it. And the next time I go to Fantastic Fashions with a new consignment of doilies, and Sitesh the manager asks me out, I surprise us both by saying yes. In preparation, I stitch myself a fancy kurti—the kind that hangs in the windows of the New Market boutiques— and practice with makeup. We go to a restaurant for mutton cutlets, then to a Bollywood movie. During a romantic song-sequence, Sitesh puts his hand on my knee. My mouth goes dry, but I put my hand over his. We go out again the next week, and the next. We walk in the Maidan under the stars and eat pista kulfi from the ice cream vendor. Sitesh’s good-natured face is not handsome; this puts me at ease. He has a quick wit that surprises me into laughter. When he kisses me, it is quite pleasant, not the groping spit-exchange I’d feared. A month passes like this. At night, before sleep, I allow myself to imagine us strolling along the river: Sitesh, me in my shadow-work sari, and between us, holding our hands in her chubby fists, a faceless child.


Blue Sky Lightning

Today I’m starting a new set of girls on their wedding saris, picking patterns and materials, passing around photos from previous years. An annoyingly large number want saris just like Leti’s, flashy sequins and all. They hardly glance at the photos of Martha’s lovely shadow work. Even my own sari, which I took the trouble to unwrap from its tissue and bring in, lies neglected on one side. I’m angry with Leti all over again. She hasn’t called once since she left two months ago, hasn’t responded to the letters Mother wrote. Just thinking of it makes me snappish, so when Ramkishen knocks on the door to tell me that Mother needs me, I’m happy to leave the room.

I start walking toward the office, but he says no, she’s at the gate. She wants me to get 500 rupees from Sister Claudia. And a bedsheet.


“Miss Leti has come.”

“Really?” I quicken my steps, forgetting my questions. I’ve forgiven her already, our prodigal child. I want to ask Ramkishen how she looks. But he has gone, loping ahead on his long, thin legs.

Mother has a saying, something she picked up during her early days in India. Blue sky lightning: a calamity that strikes without premonition. That’s what comes to me when I see Leti, crouched on the ground inside the gate, a dingy shawl wrapped around her like a bath towel. That’s all she’s wearing. Mother covers her with the sheet and hands the shawl to the auto-rickshaw driver waiting nervously to the side. I realize that Leti must have been naked when she got into the auto. It was someplace far away, because Mother hands him the 500 rupees as well. She entreats him to stay until the police come, but he takes off fast.

Leti doesn’t appear injured, but something has changed. Maybe it’s the way she flinches when I try to get her to her feet. Maybe it’s the way her eyes skitter around, like those of the crazy street-women who congregate outside the bus depot.

“Don’t let anyone see me,” she says over and over.

We take her the back way into the nuns’ infirmary, fortunately empty today. We give her a sponge bath and put a clean nightgown on her and bring warm broth. Leti tells us her story—in bits and pieces, because she must pause a couple of times to throw up. She looks so ill, I’m afraid she’ll die on us. Mother begs her to rest, but she can’t seem to stop.

A little while after leaving the orphanage—Leti had been too busy chattering to note which way they went—the Ambassador stopped in an empty alley. Before she could ask what was going on, mother and son (if indeed they were that) slid out of their seats, and the two “cousins” took their place. One taped Leti’s hands behind her back; the other taped her mouth. They told her not to struggle, or they’d have to hurt her. They covered her head with the edge of her sari so that if anyone looked in, they’d only see a shy bride. The veil covered her eyes. She couldn’t see which way they traveled. After an hour, maybe more, the car stopped. They pulled her out. She was at the end of a wooded driveway so long that she couldn’t see the road. She knew they were no longer in the city. Ahead of them was a mansion, the kind you see in old movies, walls scabbed with yellow stucco, tall windows shuttered and barred.

They dragged her to a room with a large bed. Men came into that room every day, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. There was a camera in the wall for those willing to pay more. Leti could hear, through the walls, other women crying out in other rooms. At first she struggled, but that only led to punishments: belts, chains, cigarette lighters. The female guards, trained to hurt in ways that would not show, were the worst. Once, when she refused to do what a customer asked, he pulled out a knife and threatened to cut out her nipples. Leti threw herself on him, clawing at his face, hoping he’d ram the knife into her chest. But the guards came in and separated them.

Her captors changed tactics after that, drugging her food so that everything blurred. She knew what was happening but was unable to resist. That was when she lost hope. In the brief spaces when the drugs wore off, she prayed she would die. But she knew her captors wouldn’t allow that.

After a month, the guards figured her spirit was broken. They stopped watching her all the time. They took her to a back balcony for an hour in the morning to get air and exercise so she wouldn’t lose her looks. But first they’d take away her clothes. Last night, they’d been shorthanded. An attendant had dropped off Leti’s dinner and gone to take care of other chores. Leti flushed the food down the toilet but pretended that she was drugged. In the morning, when she was left on the balcony, she jumped into the bushes below. She was terrified that she’d break a leg. But for once, she was lucky. Naked, she ran all the way to the road, climbed over the padlocked gate—desperation gave her strength—and hailed the first auto-rickshaw she saw. Again, she was lucky. Most drivers would have sped away from a naked woman or taken advantage of her. But this man gave her his shawl, and when she said he’d be paid 500 rupees, he believed her enough to bring her to us.

Mother goes to phone the doctor and the police; I remain with Leti, who turns her face to the wall. When she finally falls into a fitful sleep, under her papery lids her eyes dart from side to side. She moans. I make soothing sounds as though she were a baby again. My insides feel scraped out. My fault, I whisper to her hair, spread over the pillow like dead seaweed. I should have checked more carefully. My fault.

Over the next two days, the police bring us scraps of news. The Bondses didn’t actually live in the flat where I went for tea. They rented it only for the day of my visit, paying cash—they had an arrangement with the landlord. As for Koli’s, there was indeed a Samuel Bonds who worked there, a balding bachelor in his forties who was horrified when informed of the scam. The police have failed to locate the villa where Leti was kept. The officer in charge tells us that there are many such abandoned houses on the outskirts of Kolkata. There’s no point searching further; it would certainly be empty by the time they found it.

“But why such an elaborate ruse?” Mother cries. “The marriage and all? Why not just kidnap her on her way to class?”

“You would have alerted the police right away,” the officer says. “There would have been a search, her photo in the papers, on TV. Someone might have recognized it. This way, no one suspected anything. If she hadn’t managed to escape, they could have kept her there for a long while. Happens all too often.”

He advises us not to waste time trying to bring the kidnappers to justice. “Put your efforts into taking care of the girl,” he says, casting a pitying look at the infirmary, which Leti has refused to leave.

I’ve been spending all my free time with Leti, days and nights. I try to talk to her. She keeps her face turned away. But today, after the policeman has gone, when I squeeze her hand and say she can’t give up, that would mean she let those bastards win, she finally nods.


What We Believe

Dr. Basu, who has been Leti’s physician since she was a baby, stops by the infirmary each day to see her. Tonight he asks Mother and me to wait in the corridor, and when he comes out, he tells us. The good news: Leti hasn’t contracted any sexual diseases. The bad: she’s pregnant.

Mother sits down heavily on the bench.

“Did you—?”

Dr. Basu rubs tiredly at his eyes. “I did. She has the right to know. Since you’re still her legal guardian, you’ll need to give permission for the abortion.”


“It’s the best—the only solution,” he says, looking into Mother’s eyes. “Maybe then she’ll be able to put this trauma behind her and lead a partway normal life.” He frowns at her silence. “Surely even your Catholic laws would admit that this case is an exception!”

Mother remains on the bench after he leaves, although she has a deskful of urgent matters waiting. I sit next to her.

Finally she says, “I can’t allow it.”

“You must!” I say in distress. “She’d go crazy, carrying that baby, seeing its face—”

“She wouldn’t need to. We’ll take it and bring it up. She would be free to live her life—”

“She can’t just forget a baby she gave birth to—”

“Kalpana, she’d be excommunicated if she had an abortion. That girl needs God in her life more than ever now—”

Images of Leti, pinned down, rush through my head. Where was God then?

“You’re concerned about what the Bishop—and the head of your order—would say if you allowed it, aren’t you?” I ask angrily. But it’s really myself I’m furious with. If I’d taken the trouble to visit Koli’s in person, none of this would have happened. “Maybe you’ll be excommunicated—”

“That wouldn’t stop me if I believed it was right. You know that.”

It’s true. Mother hasn’t been afraid to fight with the Church authorities in the past; that’s one of the reasons for those letters from Ireland.

 “This baby is a soul,” she says with force. “Yes, it came into being in a most unfortunate way. But does it deserve to be flushed down the toilet? To live out eternity in limbo, unbaptized?”

Mother and I have had our arguments over the years; I’ve even won some of them. But today the reverent certainty in her voice stumps me. What can I say to cut through such deep belief?

She touches my knee. “Go home, Kalpana. It’s late. You’re exhausted. Sleep in tomorrow. I’ll ask Mrs. Gonzales to take care of your morning classes.”

Dizziness overtakes me for a moment when I stand up. I have to hold on to the wall. She’s right. I am exhausted. But I’m not giving up. After a good sleep I’ll be able to argue my case more persuasively.

“You should go to bed, too,” I say. She nods. But when I look back, she’s still on the bench, head bowed in prayer.


Leti’s Choice

When I get to the orphanage next day, a police van is parked outside the front entrance. An ambulance, too, lights flashing, back doors ajar. I run to the infirmary, my heart swollen to bursting. They’ve already cut Leti down from the fan where she hanged herself last night. She went into the sewing room and rummaged in the dark until she found what she wanted: my wedding sari. She must have been very quiet. The night-nun, sleeping in a cubicle next door, did not awaken.

The paramedics have laid her out on the stretcher and covered her with a sheet. I try to pull it off. I must see her face. But Mother and Mrs. Gonzales hold me tight. Outside the infirmary, the girls line the corridor, even though the teachers order them back into their classrooms. Their eyes are blown-out candles. Leti’s right arm hangs from the edge of the stretcher. I can’t stop looking at it.

Later, I sit in Mother’s office while she phones various Church authorities and argues angrily. They’re very sorry about what happened. They will pray for Leti’s soul. But she can’t have a Church funeral. No, it doesn’t matter what people do elsewhere. In this diocese, such things aren’t acceptable. Nor can the girl be buried in hallowed ground. That would indicate that the Church condones her behavior. There’s a plot outside the churchyard for people like her.

Finally, Mother hangs up, her face splotched with defeat.

I’ve been waiting with my question. “But why would Leti kill herself? She was doing better when I left.”

Mother doesn’t reply, but something shifts in her face.

“You went in there. What did you tell her? That it would be a mortal sin to abort the baby?”

She shakes her head, but her eyes are stricken.

The phone rings. It’s the morgue, ready to release the body. Someone needs to pick it up.

“Come with me?” I hear the pleading in Mother’s voice. I think about her standing in the icy morgue, looking down at Leti’s body, and I almost give in.

Instead, I force myself to walk to the window. I grip the sill so hard that weeks later I’ll find broken chips of paint under my fingernails. “Take Sister Claudia,” I say. “She needs to learn to handle things when you go back to Ireland.”


What We Desire

I sit in the ladies’ compartment, waiting for the train to start, my eyes fixed on the feet of the woman on the bench facing me. If I don’t look at anyone, they can’t see me. I tuck my sari in more firmly at the waist. I’m not used to wearing one; it feels as though it’s coming loose.

“How old is your baby?” the woman asks, making me jump. I force myself to smile.

“Six months.”

“She’s cute.”

And she is, because I’ve covered up the birthmark with foundation so she won’t attract attention. Only the faintest hint shows through, as in the best shadow work. She babbles at me, squirming with excitement. Her smile is a drink of cool water.

The woman eyes my white sari, widow’s wear. She’s debating whether to ask me when my husband passed away. I have an answer for that, plus other answers I’ve rehearsed. But she decides to save it. We’ll be together for a long time, until I get down at Kanpur.

I’ve never been to Kanpur, but it seemed like a good choice—a city big enough where a widow and her child wouldn’t attract attention, but small enough where an accomplished needlewoman could find a job.

When Mother left for the morgue, I went to the bank and withdrew all my money. At the train station, I paid in cash and gave a fake name. It didn’t take me long to pack—little of what I had would be useful in my new life. The hardest part was when I thought of Sitesh, the heft of his arm around my shoulders, the press of his lips in my hair, the perplexity in his eyes when he discovered what I’d done. I longed to call him, to explain why some things are more important even than what we desire.

Instead, I called a cab, timing it so that Ramkishen would be on tea-break when I reached the orphanage. The gates were pulled shut, but I knew they wouldn’t be padlocked. We drove to the side door. In the sewing room I grabbed three white saris from the pile that Leti’s hands had rummaged through a few hours ago. From Mother’s office, I took Anna’s papers, which I would later destroy. I smiled hello at the teachers I met on the way to the nursery. The babies watched me with solemn, knowing faces. I stuffed a satchel with necessities. The blood hammered in my temples as I picked up Anna. She didn’t make a sound. If I felt regret, it was distant already. I laid Anna on the seat of the taxi, ready to cover her with the saris in case Ramkishen was back. But he wasn’t.

Not that I think they’ll come after me. Mother would recognize the justice in it. One life for another.

The woman clears her throat. She does have a question, after all.

“What’s your baby’s name?”

“Latika,” I say. “Leti, for short.”

“It’s pretty.”

I kiss the top of Leti’s head. Astringent smell of orphanage shampoo. It’ll soon be gone.

“Thank you,” I say.




Wednesday, January 15, 2014