Subha Manoj

While I Was Away

A nobody

Amrita shut her eyes for a while. She asked her driver to play Robert Miles. Her heart was racing and she could feel a tremor in her hands. She felt emptiness crawling through her stomach, almost gagging her throat. The car stopped at the signal and she looked out of the window. A woman whose age Amrita couldn’t place, sat beside a lamp post. She looked morose and sick. Anita’s head spiralled as she felt slightly envious of this woman. That woman’s emptiness seemed genuine and reasonable, while hers was almost close to sickness.  A husband, two kids, three house-helps and a beautiful home, yet no one to talk to. Mohit’s globetrotting had become too often and when he was home, silence sat between them with defiance. Priya and Mohini had left their homes the day they completed their high school, happily cornered off to a distant university in another continent. Touchwood, they were doing well, Amrita crossed her fingers and kissed it. The house-helps in their uniforms, and carrying straight faces did not even look human at times.

She felt a throbbing pain in her heels. She pressed her heels and felt good. ‘Peter, take me to the parlour.’ Amrita told her driver. He took a swift right turn from the signal and after driving a few blocks, stopped in front of the parlour where she had been a regular now. A high valued customer, who didn’t like to talk or talked to. As soon as she entered, the lady at the reception stood up with urgency.

‘Good morning Mrs. Singh, what would you like today?’

‘A foot massage.’ Amrita said with an air of complete no-nonsense.

The lady moved in discomfort, shuffled her hands and finally said, ‘Maam, I know you don’t like anyone other than Ruby doing your service, but she is not available. She ha…’

‘Give me someone else.’ Amrita had half a mind to leave but the nagging pain in her heels made her succumb.

The lady scuttered away and came back in a jiffy. ‘Maam, this way, your usual room. We have a new therapist called Julie.’ Amrita didn’t care whether her name was Julie or Jelly, as long as she could take away this damn pain. She just wanted to sit on the recliner and sleep while she was served.

As soon as she rested on the recliner, she closed her eyes. She heard the door shut, but didn’t bother to open her eyes. She felt a pair of warm, soft hands touch her feet. She remembered how her mother would massage her feet during her pregnancies, eons away.

The warm oil soothed her foot and she felt herself loosening up. She adjusted her neck to find a comfortable position, eyes closed all the while.

‘Madam, aap yahaan se ho?’

Amrita opened her eyes, slightly irritated. She saw a young girl, clearly from North East. She was was engrossed in the service and didn’t look up.

‘Huh?’ Amrita muttered.

The girl looked up. ‘You from here Madam or other place?’

‘Yes, I am from here.’ She closed her eyes again.

‘From always?’ She asked again.

Amrita sighed, ‘No, I am from Punjab. But I live here now.’

‘Ohhh, aap shaadi ke baad aaye?’ She looked up with a huge smile. She had bright red lipstick on and hair tied in a high pony. Her hands were neat with red nail polish. The one thing that caught Amrita’s attention was she looked extremely young, not beyond nineteen. Younger than Priya.

‘Haan.’ Amrita wished she would stop talking.

‘Which language in Punjab?’

This girl, what was her name again? Hmmm, Julie, yeah. Doesn’t she know I don’t like being talked to?  

‘Punjabi.’ Maybe single word answers would shut her up.

‘Yes yes, every country has different language.

Amrita wanted to say it’s state, not country. But something about Julie stopped. Her innocence perhaps.

‘Bangalore…big city Madam. My place name Chandapur. Shillong ke paas. No job there. No money. So I came here. Pressure on feet ok madam?’

‘Yes ok. Do you like Bangalore?’ Amrita was surprised at herself for initiating casual talk.

Julie didn’t answer for a while. Her momentary silence spoke a lot. That’s the thing. Talkative people give away too soon.

‘My village, very beautiful! Mountains and a small lake. Only one school. No college. No horn, no traffic. No smoke. Here I can’t sleep. Achha nahi hain. But I get money. Kids, madam?’

Amrita felt all her pain melt away as her slender hands massaged the balls of her feet. She felt something else also melt away, but couldn’t place it.

‘Two girls. College mein hain.’

‘I also have sister. Choti hain. Papa bahut achha gaate hain. Ma cooks best fish. Your feet very fair madam. Nail polish?’

Amrita felt a tug at her heart. She decided to call Priya and Mohini today. It had been a while. The distance, both physical and emotional, had been stretched too far like a rubber band. It could break anytime.

‘Yes, pink colour…’

‘Madam, put red. Mera favourite.’

Amrita looked at her fondly and smiled, ‘Achha theek hain. Laga do.’

Was it the imaginary wall she had built around her that had melted away? The wall that she had carefully built in order to protect herself from all the emptiness? Did she have to build it anyway?

This young girl through her innocent ways had broken a few bricks of that wall, thought Amrita. But how? She was just a stranger, a nobody. Maybe that’s the thing. We don’t always need the closest people to give us solace. Sometimes a nobody can do it through their unintentional ways.   

‘Ma says I talk a lot. Ruby didi also told me not to speak to customers. Aapko disturb huan? Arrey wah! Feet beautiful!’

‘Yes, feet beautiful. Yes, you talk too much. Nahi, disturb nahi huan.’ Amrita giggled despite herself, listening to herself giving multiple answers in one breath.

‘Done Madam.’ Julie rubbed her hands and stood up.

‘Thank you Julie for… the massage. Bahut achha tha.’ Amrita felt a tug at her heart. A tug she was unfamiliar with.

Amrita walked up to the counter to make the payment. ‘I hope Julie didn’t speak much to you. I had specifically told her not to disturb you.’

‘She was absolutely fine.’ Amrita walked out of the parlour and sat in her car. As her driver drove her home, she felt an envelope of peace and sleep around her. She closed her eyes.

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