We were sitting in a movie hall in Kolkata, waiting for a film to begin. Someone asked me a question and I answered in “…perfect Bengali, too perfect, really. No one would know you aren’t Bengali.” I smiled back at my friend and told him: “It’s because of my Maashi.”
Maa-shi. Mother-like. I remember every Maashi who raised me, by name, by face. I remember what their feet look like. As per the Hindu tradition of touching the feet of elders, I used to touch their feet every Diwali. I remember what their hands felt like. In slow, orange, Cartoon Network evenings, they would massage fragrant jasmine and coconut oil into my hair. Most of all, I remember their stories. In fifth grade, I gained some notoriety as the storyteller who could give R.L. Stine a run for his money. Lunches were spent with the packed roti-sabzi that Meenu Maashi being ignored. Instead, I waxed eloquent, mentally translating the Very Real Ghost Story That Happened in Meenu Maashi’s Village to a group of awe-struck girls. Long after everyone had eaten, Meenu Maashi would eat her dinner and I would sit next to her, looking for the next terrifying story. It was always set in a distant village, which could speak darkness and the possibility of easy death and loss. As I spiritedly recited each story in class the next day, it never occurred to me that this haunted place was Meenu Maashi’s home.
Ghost stories were a staple: whenever a new Maashi came, I would look her up and down, smile quickly and ask her the question that would determine my relationship with her: “Are there ghosts in your village?” Shyamali Maashi, who came after Meenu Maashi, merely smiled and responded in a Bengali that sounded like whistling to my eight-year-old ears. When the strange lilt of her s settled, I found that Shyamali Maashi had no ghost stories for me. “But,” she whispered, she “did have stories of how her parents crossed the Bangladesh border”. I understood none of it. For a life led exclusively in suburban Kolkata, where houses are still lemon yellow and magenta and peppered with coconut trees, borders made no sense to me. I imagined a line, an extension of the narrow pond by my house. Over our mutual incomprehension and the muri shared in a verandah, she had pointed to it one day and said, “It’s haunted.” That is how I see borders, even now.
When Kajal Maashi came, she brought her daughter along. Her daughter was like none of my previous Maashis. She wouldn’t sit on the floor. Instead, she sat next to me on the table. She wouldn’t listen if my mother asked her to do the dusting. She would swipe the remote from my hand and change the channel. I hated her. I asked myself if I was discriminatory. At eleven, it was a new word, a long word, a bad word. She called me clever names I never had responses to. She sat next to me, eyeing the TV remote, as Kajal Maashi ran the kitchen.
My Mum used to say Kajal Maashi didn’t walk, she floated. Her daughter had not inherited her grace. Instead, she had carefully nurtured a sharp tongue, often directed at me. I hated her. There was another word I learnt that summer. Domesticviolence. A new word, a long word, a bad word. Kajal Maashi had bleeding cuts next to her eye. I saw the cut, and did not ask her anything. She nodded a silent thanks and floated into the kitchen, quiet as ever. It was not until years later that I recognised that her floating was not that of a practised dancer, but of someone who sought to minimise the impact of her presence. A ghost. If a ghost is inherently anachronistic, the right person at the wrong time, Kajal Maashi’s daughter’s sharp words were quiet ghosts, filled with haunted stories I would not understand.
And then there was Reena Maashi. I was fourteen when she came. Barely a year later, I left for boarding school. The six years since seem like a passing reality that others know, but which our arrested development—of hair-pulling, name-calling and quiet solidarity—does not. Every summer, back from college, I speak to her of what I have learned: how her daughter going to school is feminism. I do not speak to her of what I have learned: how her living away from home as a domestic help, my family’s exploitation of hers, is not. I tell her I dream of a world where her daughter does not have to labour in someone else’s house to make a living. I tell her to get me a glass of water, to give me lunch, to wash my clothes.
She tells me nothing. She tells me she hates the security guard checking her bags when she returns from the village. She tells me to write a note stopping him from it. She tells me she hates having to take the “service elevator”, reserved exclusively for house helps and mechanics. She keeps her cups separate. Her hatred is not communicated through words, but through a cool, simmering anger of unfairness, the kind that is only contained in the eyes. She sometimes snaps at me, mother-like. This is how I know.
Seven years after I first knew her, I realize I do not know who Reena Maashi was outside my house. She perches on her haunches, wiping the floor. From the vantage point of my bed, I ask Reena Maashi for her full name. “Aami jaani na.” She says. I pause, confused, and repeat, “You don’t know?”. She looks down and continues wiping the floor. “Reena… Shaikh.” I repeat, “Shaikh?”
The memories of past Diwalis flood me. Reena Maashi in a sari, but beyond the threshold of the room. I clamber onto my bed to check the calendar when she goes home next, for “a puja”. 22nd August. Eid.
I talk about social discrimination in class. I listen to my hijab-wearing friends on campus, as they call my college an oppressive space. I nod to myself, sadly, pinning it down to Other Students—those who make jokes, those who look at the hijab with disdain. I am still sitting on my bed. Reena Maashi, if she were here, would still be on her haunches on the floor. The air around me grows colder. It hits me: I am the person who Reena Maashi loves, but I am also the person she is scared of.
By the time Reena Maashi came, I was too old for ghost stories. Almost ritualistically, I asked her if she knew one. She told me she did, but she couldn’t tell me. Seven years hence, I had pieced together her story. Tehreena Bibi, a Muslim widow had to become a ghost, a person lost to the past, in order to serve a Marwari Hindu family.
I asked my mother if she knew, that evening of Eid. I waited with tense shoulders for her reply, knowing that I would fight for my Maashi, if I had to. Mummy told me she knew all along. She never cared. I smiled, my shoulders sagging. It was relieving, even though I knew that it was beyond any of my mother’s “open-mindedness”. Religious identity can become conveniently superfluous to a working woman who needs a household help.
And so even if she did not care, Tehreena Bibi had to become Reena Maashi, a comfortably Hindu name. Tehreena Bibi had to forgo her mutton kababs for sabzi and milky tea served in separate cups. Tehreena Bibi had to keep her life her secret, because the cost of revealing her identity could have meant she lost her minimum-wage job. Worse, she could have beaten up by her employer for who she was. Tehreena Bibi knew only too well: her sister had gotten fired from her job, rendered unemployable to all the houses the area, after she was revealed to be a Muslim.
When I was younger, in a fit of inspiration, I tried teaching Reena Maashi to write. I taught her how to sign her name first. After she had signed a few times, the pen getting firmer in her hands, she looked up to ask me how to write “T”. I laughed and told her that her name has no T. I asked her to take her time, practice “Reena” instead. Six years later, as I stared at “Tehreena Bibi” on a medical prescription, I got off my bed and sat next to her on the floor. I pointed to the “T” and said, “This. This is how you write your name.”