In the matter of fashion, you could call it the International Year of the Aged. The year of harsh menopausal chignons, of eyebrows plucked up and away, and round granny glasses with gold rims. The clothes too were staggering in their variety.
Unmatching, printed blouses worn with dark, coarse handloom saris, silver trinkets inlaid with dirt and oily grime, and raggedy pillowcase-like kurtas, worn with tight-fitting churidars. Surma or kohl rimmed eyes were in fashion once again, and those blue and mauve lipsticks and green and gold eye shadows of yesteryears had been sucked mysteriously into some black hole along with false eyelashes overlaid with glitter.
This field of high fashion is a strange one. First, you find it hard to believe your eyes. 'Is this any fashion, Sala?' you ask. But gradually you begin to feel that you had just been swatting flies as they say, while, what's its name, the real things in fashion were evolving! Isn't it so? In our sleepy little town where things moved with the soporific gait of undersea vegetation, high fashion made its startling appearance all of a sudden!
First, the luggage arrived. Several truckloads of it, piled high. Then came the flowerpots, all aglow with exotic flowers and leafy greens, then the dog, then the cockatoo in a gilded cage, then came those two - the husband and the wife. Last of all came Bibbo.
The husband was a tall and genial fellow, friendly, youthful and easy-going. His beautifully spun woollen kurta and Aligarhi pyjamas sat on his athletic frame with a feudal carelessness. Yes, these two did not 'wear' their clothes as the fat and paunchy offspring of the nouveau riche lalas in our small town did. Their priceless robes 'sat' on their graceful forms, as they do upon those priceless statues in ancient temples. The husband might not have a princely angavastram upon his shoulders, yet such was his presence, that as he stretched out his long aristocratic arms in a telling gesture, you could almost see the folds of the fabric rippling behind him rhythmically.
The pretty wife was diminutive, fragile and doll-like. And in spite of her severe bun, her gold-rimmed granny glasses and brows plucked into thin supercilious arches, she had a girlish air about her. Her jaw was square and had a set to it, which bespoke of centuries of feudal authority. Her voice was soft and polite though and flavoured with gentle English sibilants, with ever such cute flecks of a darling ethnic Punjabi accent. She spoke in short crisp sentences that curled at the edges with a musical lilt, and her hands, those little doll's hands, fluttered around in attractive ethnic mudras as she spoke. Her fingers were short, plump and square-tipped.
Bibbo was different. She had come, or been brought along as a personal maid for the little doll-wife. Her physique matched her name. Her well-rounded body had the typical Punjabi fullness of a very satisfying sort. Dressed usually in her mistress's cast-offs from yesteryears of fashion, she nevertheless lent a personal touch to each garment. She had slashed the necks of all the kurtas into deep V-shapes, wherein her well-moulded cleavage could be seen trembling like two soft and fragrant shapes of jell-O. Her waist was broad, her hips full, firm, and somewhat protruding. Her eyes were like two large vacant holes in an expressionless face. But her gait was another matter. Strangely hypnotic, it was the unbalanced gait of a young wheat-eating peasant, drunk with the nectar of a short-lived youth. She teetered from side to side when she walked, and made each viewer feel that she would perhaps not be able to walk without his support. Faces turned her way automatically as she passed, holding wonder like a cup, and arms ached with a desire to touch her, to support those thighs.
Since all the bathrooms in the house had marble floors, Bibbo did her laundry outside, at the little tap at the corner of the lawn. She first hung her dupatta upon the shrubs, hitched her shalwar up, pushed her sleeves up to her elbows, and set about battering the clothes with the wooden mallet, slowly, but with a careless regularity. As soon as the sound began, all the servants from the surrounding houses would abandon the pots and pans upon the gas fire, and huddle around the hedges drooling and whining gleefully. She never exchanged either a look or a word with any of them. After she had finished the laundry, she would extend a muscular arm and pick up the dupatta from the shrub, lift the bucket with its load of well-wrung clothes and walk back into the house, teetering drunkenly. Thereafter the colony felt those pendulous buttocks undulating all afternoon long.
Every day the husband would leave for work in his car, and the wife would see him to the door. They kissed like the English people do when they bid good-byes, and then the wife would go in, calling out to Bibbo in her soft lisp. At exactly half past eleven, Bibbo would come out with an attractive plastic shopping bag, and go waddling towards the market place. As soon as Ramanaresh, the launderer, raised the volume of his Vividh Bharati songs, one knew she was descending the slope around the corner. Then the laughter at Chaurasia Pan House would grow suddenly loud, little plastic combs emerged out of oily hip pockets, and hair was puffed upon foreheads like cock's combs.
Slowly the master and the mistress began to make friends locally. This was the poshest colony in the town, and all the inhabitants of the area were sons or grandsons, or great grandsons of big shots. Going to work was a sort of hobby for them. They had so much that they had no need to say how much they had. These bungalows had their own world, their own parties and picnics, their special sly and subtle 'in' jokes. People here were allergic to anything new or glittering. Inside the long cool living rooms within these bungalows, old priceless antiques, slightly faded velvet upholstered furniture, and gee-gaws had lain around undisturbed for generations. The refrigerators in these houses were in the kitchens or pantries, and the music systems were hidden in dens within. Men and women who lived here ate, walked and talked with a somnolent lassitude, that takes everything for granted. A simplicity of soul that comes straight out of fairy-tales, and belongs to princes and princesses alone.
The wife often told her friends in her simple girlish tones how Bibbo was a beautiful experiment in democratic relationships for them. If you treat servants like humans, there is no reason why they would not work beautifully for you like humans. After all, they too have their vibes, their ambiences, don't they?
Bibbo ate what they ate. Butter, eggs, fruits, milk, cheese, everything. Each month she was given a new set of cast-offs, each fortnight she was given a good brand-name soap, and occasionally half a bottle of shampoo and a can of talcum powder were also made available to her. "What she does with them, is her own headache. We want to treat her on a beautiful human level. We communicate, not as master to servant, but as one human to another." The mistress would soften her already soft tones some more, and call out musically, "Bibbo, may we have two nimbu panis, please!" At this, Bibbo Rani would emerge with her expressionless mien, waddling her favourite waddle, like a sexy robot, holding a heavy family silver salver, "Nimbu pani with salt or sugar?" Her brassy voice like her body, was gutter bred, but also strangely inviting in its total lack of a cultivated grace. The mistress would immediately apologise, and ask the guests what they would like to have. She herself had salt, but sugar was no problem! The order would be duly given and Bibbo Rani would waddle back leaving the little tribal bells jangling upon the pelmets.
At that point, once the husband and wife told their friends that they had had Bibbo trained at a beautician's so that she may master an art... She did not want to learn typing or go in for those nice adult-education courses - but now she gave such excellent facials that your face just glowed. "See, how well she defuzzes my arms?" So saying the doll-wife would extend her smooth fair arms towards the audience.
"Does she give facials only to women?"
"Do women have the sole right to a glowing face?"
"Well, if you like, you too..."
Ha, ha, ha - jokes become leery - you first, no, no you! Then a man delightfully pierced through with jokes with double meaning followed Bibbo into her little room, giggling self-consciously. After half an hour he emerged with his face all flushed and glowing, "Well, what do you know, the fatso does have magic hands!"
"This is what really amazes me," the doll-wife would chirp. "When she is working in the house, she is all thumbs. Honestly, if we didn't have the cook, we'd probably never sit down for a proper meal in this house. I can't even count how many cups and glasses she smashes in a week, but yes, she's perfect in the art of giving facials."
"Well, each to her kind of art, ha, ha, ha."
Then suddenly the numbers of people dropping by casually at their house began to grow. As it is, the men in this area were not the nine-to-five types. The offices they worked in belonged to them as also the buildings which housed half the offices in town. Often now when the husband came home for lunch, the wife would be muttering grumpily that lunch was half-cooked and Bibbo was again giving a facial to someone.
Well, things were rather delicate at this point, since it was a neighbourhood matter. After all, the beautiful speeches they had made about democratising the lumpen, how could they retract their words and begin yelling at Bibbo and her clients like those desi cheapies who live in janta colonies? Goodness is its own whip!
On the other hand, Bibbo seemed to be thriving on her talents. Her hunger knew no bounds. In the morning she downed six toasted slices of bread with two double fried eggs followed with a large glass of frothy milk, while the husband and wife nibbled at their thin slices of whole-wheat bread with a touch of poly-unsaturated margarine and sipped black coffee. They were stiff with polite disapproval. To make matters worse, while they were seated thus at the cheerless table, Bibbo would come and pushing her hips out to one side declare that she was helping herself to the keema left over from dinner. She ate and drank all day long; there was never enough milk now for the mistress's lopchu tea.
Fruits were also vanishing within hours, bottles of jam were being polished off in no time, pickles simply didn't last. The wife's mother would send her daughter bags of dry fruits, but by the time she got to them, the contents would be reduced to half. They say when melon changes its colour, the other melon follows. The cook's hunger too sharpened now. While the little wife lay around on those ethnic cushions in her den listening to classical music, the cook and Bibbo would turn her imported transistor on full-blast, and giggle together in the kitchen over plates of snacks.
"These are primitive vibes, darling," the husband would console the wife among friends. "These people can't help their animal urges, you see. Let them frolic around like birds and bees, the dinner will be the better for it, ha, ha, ha."
"Better, my eye," the wife would flare up, "they will now smash some more of my crystal." Her patience was wearing thin around the edges by now.
"She knows that I like my first cup of coffee in bed at eight everyday, but she didn't turn up till nine this morning. When I went to investigate, the cook tells me that she is sleeping. The cook! Of all the people! To me! About her!" She choked back a sob.
"What did you do then?" This sharp query came from the one whose husband was getting a facial too many these days.
"I blew him up then and there, ji. I said, Is this how you talk to your mistress? But then what do I see? The great queen herself comes in, rubbing her eyes and asks ever so innocently - 'Biji? What time do you have?' I tell you, I was too angry to speak, I just stormed back."
"Listen to me, child. You better send this bundle of mischief back."
"I think so too, but ji, how do you find a servant to replace her? Maids are impossible to find."
Summers passed thus and winters arrived, but Bibbo's deadly form needed no shawls. Her mistress would sit draped in a priceless Pashmina right next to a heater and still be shivering with cold but not Bibbo. She would sit next to her mistress with her expressionless boiled-egg face, and rub her China-doll limbs with fragrant unguents, defuzz her arms, remove black heads, massage her temples, and thread her eyebrows and upper lip. Seasons did not affect Bibbo. Her body with its generous curves still followed its own limpid rhythms and her long braid with its colourful Patiala parandis moved slowly to and fro upon that impregnable behind.
"I'm trying hard to convince her now to take lessons in sewing and knitting, forget about reading." The wife puffed at her Rothman's cigarette. She was dressed in a priceless Kashmiri kaftan made of an antique jamevar shawl.
"Who will teach her?" someone asked. They themselves didn't know the last thing about crafts like embroidery, knitting and cooking. Well, why should they? Didn't all these shops that trained professionals cater to these people? What would they do if the rich began to cook, stitch and embroider their own things? Heaven forbid such a day should come. What would become of all those nice old tailoring shops then?
The wife named a place where the lower middle class families of the city sent their unmarried daughters along with bored daughters-in-law. The driver would drop her at the classes on his way home, and she could take the bus to come back. This is all that it needed! "After all, her psyche also needs an occasional boost," the doll-hands of the wife moved like butterflies. "Otherwise, the average Indian's libido gets so totally smothered in our small towns that they can think of nothing but sex." Then they chatted for a while in chaste English about the average Indian and his attitude towards sex. They were so used to significant debates and frank and meaningful discussions that they would not dream of ever tying down Bibbo's psyche the way an average maidservant's is. But when Bibbo was appraised of the decision, she refused in her toneless, expressionless way, "No, ji."
"But then you'll be able to stitch your own clothes," they persisted.
"I have plenty anyway, I get them readymade from you, ji."
"You can darn and stitch a bit when need be."
"What are the tailors for, ji?" She gave a ghost of a smile. We'll buy you a sewing machine, what's the name, darling, of the Indian model that we are exporting to the Gulf? Then you'll enjoy stitching.">
"What's the use, ji?" Bibbo cut the arguments short by turning her broad back on their goodness, and began washing radishes under the tap. The master plan had fallen through.
"But you have so little to do otherwise, what will you do in the afternoons?"
"I'll sleep, ji." She said, looking at the cook and burst out laughing.
Bibbo was fast turning into a headache. She'd sleep till late, eat enormous meals and keep nibbling things in between. Once or twice the wife caught her stealing her shampoo and talcum powder, but she was utterly shameless. Her cheekiness was growing all the time. If a friend of theirs asked her for a facial, she'd first stare at him from head to toe and then motion towards her room with her chin. She led the way with her sexy wiggle without looking back to see if the client was following her or not. In most cases he did. But that was besides the point.
One day they received a letter from Bibbo's father, written on his behalf by some literate member of their family. It said that they had looked up a boy for Bibbo. He was in the Army and that he was all right to look at. It added that Bibbo's younger sister Kukku was dying to replace her older sister, and if given the chance to serve the sahib and the memsahib, would arrive by the next train upon receipt of their letter.
"Neither Kukku, nor Pukku, just send this one back. It's a damned good excuse to remove her," the wife said sucking an orange. Bibbo was outside, washing clothes and dozens of local servants were flitting around like moths near the hedge.
"But then who'll serve you?" The husband cast a caring and tender glance at the wife's delicate form.
"I'll find an old woman locally. Even if I've to pay her double I'd be happier then. Just pack her off, or else the cook will elope with her one of these days, and that will be some problem."
"That's true," the husband said thoughtfully.
So one day Bibbo's luggage was packed up, two tin trunks, and a bedding rolled up in a dhurrie. The wife lectured her for over an hour on life, idealism, marriage and the need to be liberated though married. All this, while Bibbo stood suppressing yawns or nodding, hunji, hunji. How did it concern her or her fauji? She neither thanked them, nor did she display anything akin to joy or sorrow. Some people say, as she left, she waved to the entire neighbourhood with a strange grin as the car drove her away. But it may just have been their imagination playing a trick.
For a few days they laughed and joked when they talked of Bibbo, but soon they forgot her.
Translated from the Hindi by the author
A prominent television personality, Mrinal Pande writes in Hindi and English. She lives in Delhi