Chandra paused from her work and listened with the practiced care of a mother who had children of her own. Baby Hilda was stirring and making muffled whimpering sounds from her cradle in the main bedroom. Memsahib had entrusted the little one to Chandra while she made a quick trip to the Darji on Main Street to find out why he hadn’t delivered dresses ordered for the forthcoming celebrations.
Chandra shuffled to the bedroom while the Tibetan kutta Baloo followed with nose glued to the toe ring that tapped on the stone floor with each move. This made Chandra laugh and she delighted in discarding chappals at the door and watching Baloo the kutta race to greet her as her bare feet met the floor. No other dog had that habit on the compound and servants from other bungalows would often come to watch the performance in amusement as Chandra moved around the house.
Hilda Jane’s eyes moved slowly to study her as she entered, then a big broad smile of welcome tugged at Chandra’s heart. She loved this little foreign girl as dearly as her own and referred to her as Chotibai. She hummed a village tune handed down from antiquity as she picked Chotibai up and rocked her to be rewarded by the child’s gurgle of pleasure. Chandra emerged from the room with kutta still attached to her toe ring and headed for an enclosed veranda where Chotibai’s playpen and baby chair were. She paused then decided to enlist Mali Ladka to look after the baby while she completed her work in the kitchen. She was anxious to have dinner set by the time Sahib came back from the office and Memsahib returned from her Cantonment trip.
Holding the baby expertly while she scooped up the baby chair with her free arm she headed to the front porch. Chotibai Hilda loved being out on the porch watching the Mali’s at work. The head Mali grunted as Chandra called to him and asked him to release Mali Ladka for a while to watch the baby. Mali Ladka looked to his mentor for approval and Mali waved him on irritably. It was the time of the year to be potting dahlia bulbs and he was not in favour of diversions.
There was a strict rule of order among servants and they disliked being asked to do something outside their trade. A Driver would only drive, a Cook would only cook, and a Mali would only work the gardens. However, Memsahib was very liberal with them all, so they did what they were asked to do by Memsahib even if it were out of their strict rules of order. But out of earshot they’d complain bitterly to the other servants who they suspected of putting Memsahib up to the request. And very often their suspicions were justified.
Chandra slipped Chotibai Hilda into her chair on the porch and the baby immediately reacted pushing with her feet on the floor, so the chair bounced up and down on its springs. Even the stern head Mali laughed and came over to watch the performance then returned to his work in shade by the mali tank. Mali Ladka watched entranced for a while then settled down on the porch and nodded off to sleep in the warmth.
He was awakened by an angry urgent shout from the head Mali and opened his eyes in fear looking toward his mentor. The Mali was pointing urgently toward Chotibai and Mali Ladka turned quickly then backed away instinctively. There swaying with the baby swing chair was Nag the King Cobra. It was rumoured Nag lived in the roots of a banyan tree near the playing field and while the one in charge of the estate Niyantrak had strictly forbidden it, there was evidence some of the estate workers had left milk by the banyan tree as an act of worship.
Mali was there in a flash pushing Mali Ladka off the porch and commanding him to run and get the estate Malis. He took off as if possessed while Mali advanced toward the cobra talking softly in his village tongue. He made namaste as he approached and began to sing. The cobra reared up as Mali approached while man and beast locked eye contact. The cobra swayed, and Mali crooned.
The commotion on the porch had bought Chandra to the front door to see what the tamasha was all about. She gasped in horror. Chotibai was loved by the community and if anything happened to her she’d not only lose her job but the respect of the community. Mali sensed her presence and uttered a sharp rebuke for her to get out of the way. The cobra hissed, and Mali resumed his song and eye contact, the cobra relaxed and began to move toward him slowly. Chandra went inside, locked the door and ran to the window to watch proceedings. Mali backed off the porch slowly singing softly and maintaining eye contact. The cobra swayed and followed. Off the porch, down the path to the front gate they went slowly as if in lock step. Then with shouts the estate Malis arrived carrying lakdis to protect themselves.
The cobra spun around to challenge them, then seeing the size of the crowd and lakdis rose to meet the perceived danger taking its eyes of Mali who quietly returned to the porch and knocked on the door. Chandra opened the door shaking and Mali indicated toward Chotibai Hilda, then casually returned to his work at the mali tank.
The cobra thinking better of the odds turned and majestically slid back down the road toward the playing field followed by a dozen shouting people. They shouted a warning to anyone who may be travelling the road in the direction of Nag’s retreat, then returned to review this thrilling event in excited voices with bungalow head Mali who swelled with pride at all the attention. When they’d left to return to work on the estate Mali shouted for Mali Ladka to present himself. He gave him several blows across the head and shouted abuse for endangering the child’s life not watching for danger as he’d been entrusted to do. Mali Ladka returned to his work sore and sobbing.
Chandra was tortured with guilt for not looking after her precious charge. She moved the swinging chair within sight of the kitchen and tried to resume her work while her body shook with the enormity of what had transpired. With her shaking hands she worked her way between pots sizzling on the stove and ran around setting table glancing frequently at Chotibai Hilda. Hopefully Memsahib wouldn’t find out? But this was India, there were no secrets in this country. All would eventually be revealed, and she feared for her job.
But when memsahib returned after a successful visit with Darji in the Cantonment she greeted Chandra pleasantly and headed for her daughter jumping up and down in the chair with excitement. Baloo kutta danced around her feet in welcome. Soon after Sahib arrived from the office and they took their place at the table after settling Hilda Jane in her high chair by the table with her baby formula.
Sahib surveyed the food with appreciation and watched as it was served out, then both he and his wife gratefully began to eat. Sahib looked at his wife in surprise and noticed she was pausing to thoughtfully process the taste herself. Memsahib called to Chandra who came expecting the story had reached their ears and she was going to be in big trouble.
“What’s in this food Chandra, it has an unpleasant taste.
Chandra looked relieved, the story had not come out yet. So, she listed the ingredients while Memsahib checked them all off in her mind for appropriate taste blend. Why did it taste so unpleasant, and why was Baloo kutta jumping up trying to get at what was on their table? She sniffed the food and something in the back of her head led her to the origin of that familiar smell. She rose from the table and headed for the stove.
“Chandra, tell me again what you put in our meal?”
Chandra looked at the pots on the stove and did an instant replay of the hasty preparation for this meal. Then she burst into tears and wiping her eyes with the edge of her sari she darted to the table to retrieve the plates of food.
Memsahib stared at the pots incredulously and turned to her husband.
“I think I know what the unpleasant smell was. The smell gave it away. Chandra, I think Baloo kutta would like to have what was on our plate. We’ll give lunch a pass today.”
Sahib headed for the bathroom and loud retching could be heard as he sought to dislodge any of the first mouthful that may have wandered down his throat.
Later as the story of the morning activities filtered back through the compound grapevine Sahib and Memsahib realized the pressure their favourite servant must have gone through, and now as no dread disease had eventuated from their luncheon experience they could see the humour of it all. Chandra was forgiven, and head Mali was given an appropriate cash reward for his bravery.
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