The leather bag


Translated from Tamil by Jayanthi Sankar

She pressed the doorbell. One of the duplicate keys to the front door had been left with her. However, she would use the key only if the door did not open from within. She always waited for a while.

The screeching noise of the elevator and its bell continued to be heard. She went near the ‘lift’ and slammed close its collapsible grill gate by pulling hard. The sounds stopped. It’s okay to wait for a minute more, she thought. The window adjacent to the front door of the apartment was closed but the dim light from within was visible.

It had rained heavily the previous night. Her sari had traces of mud. She shook her pleated sari once but the wet soil wouldn’t fall off. That’s when a pair of lady’s black leather shoes caught her attention. It looked expensive and did not belong to the household.

She couldn’t manage to come at dawn as is the norm to wash the utensils that day. Due to power cut caused by the splattering rains, she had not slept properly just as her children hadn’t.

She opened the door, kept the key safely in her purse and put the purse into the plastic wire basket that she always brought along. The nasty stench of the smoke that usually slapped her nose was somewhat subdued.

After soaking the utensils that were waiting to be washed first, she would sweep and mop the floors. Then she would soak the clothes in detergent and start washing the utensils. The laundry would be done in the end. Unlike other households where that sequence is normally disturbed thereby wasting her time, here, irrespective of anyone’s presence or absence she had all the liberties to follow her own favorite sequence.

Beyond the living room along the corridor on the right was a toilet cum bathroom. A similar one was attached to the bedroom. Two years ago, when she had joined work, she was taught sternly to always wash her feet before entering the kitchen. While washing her feet the tear in her skirt caught her attention. I should ask for an old skirt, she thought.

The coir door mat in the balcony aggravated the pain that existed between her toes because of the mud sore. She had no time even to apply the ointment.

The kitchen sink was full. An aluminum utensil with a long handle used for making tea stood weirdly right on top of the mound in a dancing pose. The strainer with tea leaves inside was still warm. She threw it in the bin below. It contained onion peels, okra stem caps, aubergine stems, bread loaf wrap and a milk cover. A Tiffin box with the left over rice and a bottle of aubergine lentil gravy was kept on the floor near the litter bin. They were meant for her.

“Shall we elope after getting married?

Shall we get married after eloping?”

Suddenly the Tamil cine song from the radio racketed. She felt the song came from inside the room.

She took out the big pressure cooker from the sink and poured water to fill and soak the cups, lunch boxes and the accessory smaller boxes, spoons and ladles. The big vessel full of boiled drinking water on the switched off burner was slight hot. The stainless steel cooker hob cleaned and polished reflected on the granite table top. Lighted wick in front of the flower adorned Lord Murugan’s[1] picture on the shelf was still burning steadily.

When she had married and migrated to Chennai, households used coconut husks to scrub and clean utensils. But in high rise apartments the sewage often got chocked and therefore fine nylon meshes like brush came in the market.

The blue rexin bag with decorative red rose was near the hob. It’s never seen at home during the day. Isn’t that the bag meant for carrying the lunch? She opened the zip to look inside. The stainless steel Tiffin box and filled water bottle were there. The box contained triangular pieces of bread spread with jam. There was no cooking in the morning, she guessed. The bag must have been left in a hurry.

She peeped into the living room for a minute. The day would just pass off with a simple or no cooking if the leather bag was absent but the bag was right there. It sat stoutly filling the entire bottom shelf of the show case.

“You can make juice of ninety fruits in a minute.”

“How’s that possible sir?”

“Put three oranges[2] in a mixer.”

“Ha ha ha, you really can play well with words. Okay, now, tell us, to whom are you going to dedicate the song?” FM din blared.

“Kaadhal pisaase Kaadhal pisaase.”

She took the fine bristled broom from behind the kitchen door and after reaching the living room put it in a corner on the floor.

English newspaper was scattered a few pages on the floor and a few on the dining table. Even that much of a minimal indiscipline wouldn’t be there on other days. Only on the days the leather bag was at home, things were misplaced or thrown away carelessly.

The first page of the newspaper had the image of an actress arrested for prostitution. The inner pages of the magazine contained many colorful and sketched illustrations. Many pages had mostly English words. Only one particular image attracted her. It was a picture of a woman whose long hair was twined and twisted to look like a snake. On her breasts were placed the two ends of a handcuff. The chain that hung between her thighs bound her legs. On top of her head was a Shiva Linga.

She placed the magazine and the lady’s purse on the newspaper as paper weights. Not only the purse but also the magazine did not belong to the household.

When she first joined that job the balcony had a wooden stand that looked so much like the one used in schools to hold black boards. She had seen such images before on the big white canvas on the stretcher. On rainy days, the easel that occupied the whole balcony would be moved to the living room.

At times, bits and pieces of tooth paste ad or some other parts of an unimaginable image would evolve palpably over a few days. Once, when she’d seen the pieces drawn in the balcony were put together and displayed as a giant movie poster, she’d felt proud.

The pair of shoes near the shoe rack looked ugly with the socks jutting out of them. She pushed them in properly. After dusting the show case, when she shifted the leather bag, she realized its heaviness.

The easel, paints and brushes had vanished after the leather bag had arrived. She knew what the bag contained.

Medicines, cough syrups and the like were there. Not only those but also the ointment for her mud sore, which she hoped to find time to apply, also was given from that bag.

The women who worked in the neighboring houses reminded her often asking for medicines and tablets.

After cleaning the living room, she placed her hand habitually on the room door. It was locked from inside. She swept all the other places and collected and tied the trash bag and placed it near the front door to ensure that she wouldn’t forget while leaving.

She took a half filled small bucket from the bathroom and poured a few drops of phenol in it. While she started wetting the mop, she heard the bathroom door close inside the room. The sound from the radio was also reduced.

While mopping the living room floor, apart from a cigarette packet she saw an empty condom packet in the trash bag. The night lamp glowing in the room could be seen from beneath the room door.

Door bell rang. It was the ironman. “No one is at home. Please come later for your money,” she said. She placed the stack of pressed clothes on the table.

She let the laundry drip in the bathroom and went to the balcony and sat on the floor stretching her legs. The setting sun was bright and warm falling over half of the balcony. She spread her toes and showed them in the sunlight and applied the ointment.

From the clothes drying in the balcony of the next apartment, she sensed that the tenant of the house had changed.

Vehicles and people on the streets could be seen between the buildings in the nearby premises. There was a huge bill board that had a mustache less face of a movie star with a cell phone. Another was a car advertisement.

She has seen many such humungous bill boards in various parts of the city. They sometimes reach until the top of the flyover.

How do they enlarge a photo so big? Do they shoot in fragments similar to the drawn pieces found in the balcony in the past? Or are there such big photo studios?

When her father died, she did not have a single photo of his. During her wedding, they had arranged to take a photo of them both with garlands on in a studio. Father was in a group photo taken during her elder sister’s marriage. A studio guy asked for hundred and fifty rupees just to separate and enlarge his face. So, that idea was dropped right there.

She woke up hearing the bang of the closing front door. The sun had dipped further down.

The room door was open but no one was inside. She took the two dried up tea cups and washed them in the kitchen sink.

When she swept the room floor, she found a floral handkerchief under the bed. The household did not have separate lady’s handkerchiefs. The fragrance of the handkerchief seemed to be spread all over the bed. She placed the handkerchief on the bed and went on to mop the floor.

She took the dried clothes from the balcony and folded them. Later, she brought out the newly washed clothes from the bathroom and hung them one by one.

The purse, magazine, the black shoes on the shoe rack and the leather bag along with the men’s clothes from the pressed lot had vanished.

She took the food kept away for her in the kitchen and placed them in her plastic basket. When she bent down to lift the refuse bag the condom packet caught her attention. She locked the front door.

She stood pondering. The elevator door came up one minute after she pressed the button.

She didn’t board the lift. Instead she reopened the front door of the house and hurriedly entered the room. Then, she threw the floral handkerchief into the trash bag and removed the pillow cases and bed spread and dumped them all in the plastic laundry tub. There were washed pillow cases and bed spreads in the rack under the dressing table. She made the bed neatly crease free.

Then, suddenly sitting down on the room floor, she bent down hugging her knees, trembled and wept.

 

***

 

[1] Murugan is known as Karthik in north India – Mythologically son of god Siva

[2] Orange is pronounced same way in Tamil also but linguistically it also means six fives. That is the crux of that joke.

About the translator:  Jayanthi Sankar has been creatively active for the past twenty two years. She has been published in several magazines and ezines including indianruminations, museindia, The Wagon, inOpinion. ‘My mother is a feminist’ has been included in the ‘The other’ anthology. Her English short story ‘Read Singapore’, published in the quarterly magazine Ceriph – ISSUE TWO – 2010, has been mentioned in the anthology ‘The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One’. The same short story has been translated and included in the Russian  anthology: To Go to S’pore, contemporary writing from Singapore, edited by Kirill Cherbitski. After ‘Loss and Laws’, ‘Horizon afar’ is the second collection of her Tamil short stories into English. ​ Several of her books have been awarded by renowned organisations. After having written primarily in Tamil, authoring more than 33 books, she writes more in English in the recent years apart from her exploration with pigments in canvas. Her short story collections have been short listed thrice for Singapore Literature Prize. Born and brought up in India, she lives in Singapore since 1990.