Pandu is jittery on the broken seat of the bus stop outside his basti. Hugging himself, he is trying to hide the stiff, newspaper-wrapped package cradled inside his shirt. It is a gift for Shevanta. But he cannot yet take it home, a blue dot in a blue maze. If he brings home a gift in broad daylight, people will speak about it, and for long.
So, he waits for the evening light to fade further when the basti falls under shadow and a lull breaks the hustle between men returning from work and the unemployed heading out for the night. Then, Pandu will navigate the narrow lanes leading inside the sprawling slum to the corrugated iron he calls home.
He built his home with materials borrowed from his boss, Contractor saheb, who takes up house renovation projects for middle class families in the suburbs. After Shevanta came into his life, Pandu added small things here and there to make home resemble something more domestic. A piece of saree curtained the entrance; cups, plates, utensils, a mug and a bucket next to the stove occupied one corner, huddled together like refugees on a raft. He is glad of the things he has acquired. But he is proudest of the package hiding inside his shirt. Finally, something for Shevanta, something that is only meant for her, and not for the home.
As he makes his way to his dwelling, Pandu’s heart beats in anticipation. He coughs outside the curtain, a customary sound to let Shevanta know he is back. Usually she is at the stove, fixing an honest dinner. Today, he is late and she jumps at his cough. But before she can say a word, he whips out the package with the flourish of an amateur magician.
‘Look! Look what I got for you!’
‘What is it?’ Shevanta asks amusedly.
‘A mirror! Shevanta, I got you a mirror!’
Shevanta’s face fell but she quickly hid her frown behind a smile. Pandu was too happy to notice her disappointment. He was animated like a young boy and she did not want to ruin his excitement. But, inwardly, she was pensive and melancholic.
Pandu did not notice her drawn face even when they ate together, cleared the space for the night, and lay beside each other. He was so proud of his acquisition, a mirror set in a crystal frame, discarded by the lady at his work site, because it did not match her new house décor. His pride and satisfaction ensured a restful night for him. He did not notice that Shevanta could not sleep.
She needed to sleep. She had to wake up early to pack Pandu’s lunch before rushing to the apartment society bordering their basti. First, she rolled chappatis in two flats and then scrubbed clothes, washed utensils and wiped floors in three houses till four in the evening. Tired by the end of it all, she would spend the rest of the day waiting for Pandu. Sometimes, she would be coaxed into joining the other ladies from their side of the basti for a round of gossip and shared stories of want and woe.
They all knew Shevanta’s story. How she had been married at 16 in Tandulwadi, a forest district outside Mumbai, and how, after four years of marriage, her in-laws had turned for the worse when informed that she could not bear children, and how her husband had, one sudden day, scalded her face with a hot rod picked from his potter’s oven. The thick welt of melted skin still glistened on her left cheek, the rod missing her eye by just a few inches. She caressed the deep burn on her face, sliding her finger back and forth on the melted skin, trying to rub it back to its original texture. She knew it would not.
After Pandu left for work the next morning, Shevanta cleaned the top of the trunk that held all their possessions, and rested the mirror on it, slant against the tin wall of her home. As it slid into the crevice, it clicked into place like a long missing piece that finally finds its right spot in a jigsaw puzzle. For a brief moment, Shevanta’s burned face flashed as light filtered through the saree curtain was caught in the mirror’s silvery trap, and suddenly, her head reeled from the memory of antiseptic smells in a rural hospital.
She had fled her marital home the night her husband attacked her. But the pain from the burn was too much and she fainted before reaching the highway. Some farmers from the neighbouring village found her, brought her to the nearest clinic and informed her parents. They came but refused to take her back. Later, that night, she ran away once more, this time from the hospital, clambering onto the first bus that stopped for her on the highway. But without money and a plan, she had to beg for her meals at the bus stop, which is where Pandu found her and brought her to his slum. In time, they were married because the folks at the basti did not want any notoriety to their neighbourhood.
The bustle outside brought her back to her senses and Shevanta rushed to work. Her old mother-in-law’s words of abuse —chetkin! vanjhoti! – echoed in her ears as she went about her chores. The ladies of the houses she worked in liked her quiet demeanour; Shevanta never answered back, never spoke too much, never complained, they said. They did not even doubt her when things started going wrong.
Initially, Shevanta would miss a spot of dust somewhere, forget to rub off all the soap from utensils, or linger in the bedrooms longer than usual, but none of the ladies complained. Even if they did notice, no one held it against poor little Shevanta, scarred for life. They knew too that it is tough to find good maids these days. They left Shevanta alone but the malaise, slowly but surely, set in like a snake’s vice-like hold. She stopped attending the gossip circles in the evening. But her estrangement now made her smile. The burn would curl and change colour when she smiled. She liked that now.
Now, Shevanta would rush home from work and she would sit for hours in front of the mirror and check her face. She tried imitating popular Bollywood heroines, their pouts, the way they rolled their eyes, the way they would raise their eyebrows when their boyfriends were late or the way their lips made a perfect o when they were in danger. Time would fly by with the mirror.
Pandu too was glad to see her happy. He realised, with a start, that she had stopped cooking but he did not want to upset her. They would eat newspaper-wrapped vada pav, or he would bring parcels of leftover biryani. Money was trickling out with all this outside food, but he was fine with it so long as Shevanta looked happy. He was finally experiencing a feeling of accomplishment; not many husbands in the basti could claim to have gifted such a precious thing to their wife. If he had done it, it was right for both of them to bask in the mirror’s glory.
But then, one day, Shevanta lost a job, then another, and their finances began to deteriorate. One memsahib accused her of stealing a lipstick. Shevanta denied it hotly. The other memsahibs in the building took Shevanta’s side because of her consistent work record. But then, the girls from the paying guest accommodation also fired her. They did not say why, but some of them were getting uncomfortable with having her in their rooms. Shevanta did not inform Pandu of this latter blow. There would be more work soon enough anyway, she reasoned. Also, it meant more time at home, and that was all that mattered.
It had been a month now and Pandu had begun waiting for Shevanta to go back to her usual self. ‘Even a baby gets tired with a toy after sometime. Aren’t you bored already?’ Pandu asked, one evening.
‘This is not a toy, and I am not a baby.’
‘It’s just that I would like to eat home-cooked food sometime.’ He murmured.
‘If you cannot afford a wife, why did you get married?’ Shevanta lashed back cruelly.
Pandu was dumbstruck. He felt crushed and slunk out of the hut. Shevanta turned towards the mirror and stared at her face, the shadows it cast under the dim yellow light that came in from a streetlamp outside. That night, Pandu brought some cold idlis from his friend working at the Udupi canteen outside the basti, and ate them alone. He kept two aside for Shevanta and pretended to sleep.
To him, she had always seemed so shy and frail. They did not speak a lot to each other since they got married, but now they did not speak at all. After Shevanta’s outburst, he did not know how to speak to her. Hurting her was the last thing he wanted to do, but now a wall of shame separated him from her. Shevanta too was unrelenting and silent.
The next evening, the basti was celebrating the birth of a son, and the joyous couple had thrown a feast with chicken biryani for all. Pandu thought it was a good day to try and make things right with Shevanta. He brought a plate heaped with the colourful rice and choice bits of luscious chicken for her. Shevanta was sitting, as was becoming the norm now, in front of the mirror. Beside her was an open cloth bundle, with different shades of lipstick, nail colours, and other items of what looked like cosmetics to Pandu’s unschooled eye.
She sensed his arrival, and quickly wrapped up the cloth bundle. It was too late.
‘What is this?’
‘Nothing to concern you. Achha, tell me how do I look?’
‘First, tell me what is all this?’ Pandu asked gently, as he moved towards the parcel hidden in the folds of Shevanta’s sari.
‘I told you, it is nothing.’
Shevanta scurried up. A lipstick fell out from her saree, rolling towards the dark of the hut’s corner. Pandu picked it up and as he stared at it, he realised that it was not he who had gifted Shevanta this expensive-looking thing. He snatched the cloth bundle from her hand, and threw it open on the mud floor. All the cosmetics spilled out. He stared at Shevanta and began to note the make-up she had on: something pink, a purple gash of powder on her eyelids, lips glistening, strange splotches of red on her cheeks.
‘You stole these?’ Pandu asked Shevanta in a low voice.
‘I am telling you again. This does not concern you.’
‘It does, Shevanta! I am ready to give you whatever you want. I got the mirror, right? Why lie to me?’
‘As if you can ever get these things. You are poor. I am poor. We never get what we want. Don’t be stupid, at least not with me.’ Shevanta was screaming at him now.
Pandu kept the cloth bundle on the trunk, near the mirror, and walked out of the hut. His friends found him sitting at the bus stop, tears streaming down his face. They tried to cheer him up, patted his back, and cajoled him to join them for a night’s revelry. They went to the basti’s most popular bar, which was running full-house. By daybreak, when most of his friends were too drunk to get up, and some were snoring on the pavement outside the bar, Pandu tottered towards his home, ashamed more than ever and full of regret for Shevanta.
She was sleeping, head resting on the trunk. He walked in, and called out to her, unable to see her in the semi-darkness. Shevanta stirred and one could see that her arms were hugging the mirror lying on top of the trunk. Pandu staggered towards her, his eye drawn now to the dimly moving images in the mirror. He stepped on something plastic; it cracked under his weight and pierced his toe. He screamed in pain.
As Shevanta got up to help him, he saw clearly her painted face and struck hard. She lost her balance and made to grab him for support. Even before he could register anything, Pandu caught her open hair and smashed her face into the mirror. The glass shattered right away and Shevanta slumped against the trunk. Her skin burst open near her hairline and eye, and blood rushed all over her left cheek, meandering through the folds of her burn and dripping into her blouse. Raising her hand to the broken mirror, she picked it up in the low light and brought it closer. She could see her fragmented face reflected in the blood-spattered shards of the mirror. Suddenly, Shevanta smiled as blood stained her lips and teeth where she could taste its grim salt. Oh, she had been right. She was the most beautiful woman on earth.