I am watching Bunty, my maid’s grandson, through the window. He is sitting quietly – or at least, quietly for a twelve-year-old. The browning plastic lawn chair upon which he is perched, one knee drawn to his chest, intermittently pitches back and forth; one of its legs was broken in the last pre-monsoon storm.
Bunty has been waiting, meditating, for the last hour or so. I have only a limited knowledge of Hindi, consisting of words and phrases commonly found in Lonely Planet guides. I would like to find out what he is doing, or why he is doing it, but the best I can muster is a half-hearted “Kya?”. When I ask this, his rapid patter will go over my head. I can extract a few words – bhaiyya, amma – but the greater meaning is lost. I am unable to communicate on even the most basic level. The help I want to give Bunty is irrelevant at best, inappropriate or even offensive at worst.
I am sick and my fiancé is out of town. I prefer to let the floors gather dust, local newspapers spread around me; letting Bunty clean means embarrassedly shifting around the tokens of my comparative wealth, a lamp, a telephone, so he can drop to his hands and knees with a filthy rag and scrub at the dust that will only resettle when he leaves. When I throw something away, and put the garbage bag outside for collection, I know that it contains something – an empty water bottle, a broken comb – that might be useful to Bunty and his grandma. I feel too uncomfortable to hand it to them straight out, and don’t know the words to insist that they take it. So I let them rummage through the sack before they leave, pretending I don’t see, while they chatter and exclaim over the treasures of which I so thoughtlessly dispose.
I suspect that his grandmother has told Bunty to clean and not come back until the gora is happy. When we’re happy with nothing, Bunty also has to be happy with nothing. I tried to shut myself into the bathroom so I didn’t have to see, but vision is a curse. Sometimes, you can’t look away.
We used to have a soccer ball, and Bunty would kick it around the terrace to pass the time. The rains have not yet come and the heat is oppressive. And the ball is in tatters, soft and sad and deflated. I heard it thud against a wall once this morning; Bunty must have given up when it didn’t return to him. I think about all the times that I’ve expended effort only to be stymied by an impenetrable force. I wonder how a life only characterized by blocks and walls would feel.
Bunty sees me, my head cocked, staring. He makes a fist and raises it near his mouth, throwing back his head. I unbolt the door and point to the cups, then to our water dispenser. I don’t know how much he wants and I’d rather let him make his own decisions. Shyly, he picks up a mug my fiancé bought when he was at the Indo-China border; it is green and has pink and yellow dragons carved and painted upon it. I give him a crooked smile, nod. He turns on the sink’s tap and fills the glass, drinks it in one pull, and repeats the process. I don’t know how to tell him that that water isn’t clean, that he should drink our Bisleri. But then I remember that he probably lives in a tarp tent, probably pumps his water from a ground well, probably waits in line several hours for a bucket of grimy brown. The government’s mildly chlorinated brew must look like a heavenly spring from the
We offered to send him to school, but he said he didn’t like it. We offered to buy him books or a uniform, or if he didn’t like school, to try and help him find maybe a mechanic to apprentice with. I can’t stand the thought that this is only the beginning of a decades-long career of dusting and bending, smiling and laughing and scrubbing and dusting. Still, we didn’t protest. Twelve-year-olds know so much about what benefits them.
He rinses the cup and upends it by the other drying dishes. Then he goes back to the plastic throne, smiling in the shade as he surveys our terrace. Later I’ll wash the cup with Vim; it’s all the same, it won’t be any cleaner, but it will give me peace of mind. I know I shouldn’t perform such rituals, but I do.
I’m boiling water for my coffee and glancing again at Bunty. I should offer him food but I’m afraid he won’t like it, or won’t accept it, or think I’m only being charitable. I want him to eat, and I have food, but I’m thinking too much. Because I have the luxury.
I am watching Bunty.