An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao

Book: An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao Read Free Book Online
Authors: Shobha Rao
dinner.” Bandra took the morsel of roti, hardly bigger than her fingertip, and left the room.
    She enlisted Gulshan. “Find out who she’s talking to,” she said. “Early in the morning, and in this heat. Maybe only to herself, but find out.”
    It took her hardly a day. That evening she told Bandra, “A mouse.”
    â€œA mouse?”
    â€œIt lives with her. In her bed. In the straw.”
    Bandra was baffled. She said, “What could she possibly have to say to a mouse?”
    â€œShe says it’s her only friend.”
    Bandra shook her head. It was disgusting, and besides, she should be sleeping, not staying up all night talking to a mouse. And what was that she was feeling? Envy? Over a mouse? It was ridiculous. She brushed the thought aside. It took her a few days but one evening she found the neighborhood cat, lured it into Layla’s room when she went to bathe, and closed the door. She asked Layla for help in the kitchen when she returned. She kept her busy: cleaning the main hut, sweeping the courtyard, mending clothes. Then she suggested all the girls sleep in the sitting room. They stared at each other in disbelief. Bandra made it known that she preferred sleeping alone, and she always padlocked both doors leading from her quarters—the door opening onto the street and the one to the courtyard—keeping the keys to the padlocks tied to the pull string of her kurta bottom. But this evening she said, “It’s cooler in here,” and invited them to stay. She set out bowls of water at the open windows and courtyard door to cool the room further. When they woke in the morning the girls plodded back to their rooms, evenly, in a straight line. Bandra waited inside. She heard laughter, something Siddiqah had said, and then there was quiet. A cat darted past her. And then came the scream: the one she knew would come.
    *   *   *
    Bandra took a strange, disproportionate pleasure in imagining the mouse’s shredded body. Its slippery entrails, shining like the insides of fruit. Tiny tufts of white hair, strewn around the room like miniature clumps of mountain grass. She expected anger, rage, weeping, or perhaps even a greater stoicism from Layla, but instead, later in the morning, before the customers began to arrive, she emerged from her room and stood at the door.
    â€œBandra-ma,” she said.
    Bandra looked up, astonished. “What is it?”
    â€œI need a pail and a rag, Bandra-ma.”
    â€œOh? What happened?”
    â€œNothing. I just want to clean the floor and the walls.”
    â€œWhy?”
    â€œA cat got in last night. And you know how cats are.”
    What was she playing at, Bandra wondered. And why was she being so sweet? She had never once, in the two years she’d been here, called her Bandra-ma. And now ? She was suspicious, but she lent her the pail and rags and kept a close watch on her for the next few days. Nothing happened. She only grew sweeter. Day by day, week by week, until, one day, Bandra stopped watching her.
    *   *   *
    The months passed. Layla no longer confided in Gulshan. That, of course, was to be expected. Bandra realized that their friendship had been a source of information, and that she’d lost a link that had been instrumental, but it had been worth it, she decided. Layla was tame. Still, other things, peculiar things, began to happen. Nothing alarming but just things that gave Bandra pause. The wooden hook, for example, the one in Layla’s room meant to hold the men’s caftans, broke off.
    â€œIt broke off?” Bandra asked. “How?”
    â€œI don’t know, Bandra-ma,” Layla said. “It just did.”
    â€œThen where is it?” Bandra said, looking at the jagged stump that remained stuck in the wall.
    â€œThe man took it.”
    â€œHe took it? Why? ”
    Layla shrugged. “How should I know,” she said.
    Bandra looked

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