“Happiness is an inside job….” – Mandy Kale
Leela stood at the edge of the sea, the water lapping her bare feet. She stared out at the exceptionally gentle water. She was twelve, old enough to contemplate the reality of life, but too young to face it. She stood waiting like she did everyday.
Finally, something spiked and hard brushed against her left foot. She scooped down, and picked it up. It was a jagged, worn out mirror, with a heart shaped frame. As she looked into the mirror, an exceptionally bright black eye looked back at her. Her lips curved into a huge smile, lighting up her face. She shook the mirror gently, to dispel the wet sand.
She stowed away her prized possession in her ragged skirt, and stood watching the sea for another few minutes, her matted hair flying in the gentle breeze. She would be in trouble if she did not go back home soon. Her mother would be waiting for her. Abruptly, she turned, and ran away lightly, her face glowing silently in the glorious setting sun.
Mira stood at the wash basin sink, her hands clutching at the sink, examining her reflection in the plush mirror in front of her. The sea hummed softly outside. Her expensive skirt, fell exquisitely to her ankles, and her sequined blouse shimmered delicately. Her hair was tied in a loose, elegant bun at the top of her head, her eyes enhanced because of the mascara. She looked outwardly radiant.
All her curves looked perfect, except for the one on her lips, pulled downwards. After having scanned herself in the mirror for any flaws, she had finally found a pimple on her nose, reason enough for her to frown.
“Mira!” her mother called out to her, making her jump. “Mira, make it fast! The guests have started arriving! It is your party after all,” her mother cried again.
Mira rummaged among the countless beauty bottles, finally finding her concealer. Hurriedly, she dabbed it on to her pimple, trying to hide it, failing miserably.
“Mira?” her mother called out again. Mira looked at herself for one last time, eyes only for the seed in the fruit. Angry tears pricked her eyes, as she turned on her heel, and strode out of the room.
Leela walked into her house, slightly out of breath. Her mother sat on the floor, beside the stove , her back hunched. She blew into the lighted sigri , coughing and her eyes watering because of the smoke.
“Leela? Where have you been all this while? At the sea again?” her mother asked, angrily but not unkindly. Leela nodded enthusiastically, and took out her mirror carefully out from the folds of her skirt, and regarded it with reverence. She showed it to her mother, who sighed.
“How many more things will you get like this, Leela…”, she asked, turning back to setting up the sigri. “Now, go. I have a lot of work to do. I hope your father gets rice to cook. Otherwise we will have nothing to eat”, she grumbled to herself.
Leela sped to her own little corner in the two roomed house, and took out her battered box. In it, were a few shells, a plastic cover, a torn slipper, a bead, a small shard of glass and a few other random things, all given to her by the sea. She considered them to be her gifts of the sea. She treasured them dearly, and they were the only possessions she had.
She placed her heart shaped mirror carefully on top of everything. She looked at it fondly for a few seconds and ran her fingers gently along the frame . She loved her gift. She would keep it with her always, and take care of it. She took it out slowly, and closed the box and hid it away. She clasped the mirror to her tiny bosom, a slow, content smile spreading across her face.
“Cheers!” everyone clinked their glasses. A little distance away, the barbecue smoke wafted up into the sky above, strong and powerful.
The open air party for Mira’s seventeenth birthday was a huge success. The weather was pleasant and breezy, and the food, delicious. Mira and her mother walked about stately, greeting and socialising with everyone. Mira had a fake smile plastered to her face, and though she knew almost everyone, she couldn’t care any less.
“Had fun, Sweetie?” Mira’s mother squeezed her hand. The party had ended, and they were entering the house. Mira gave a non-commital smile and nodded. Her mother switched on the lights.
“Do you want to open your gifts?” her mother asked. As they walked into the living room, they were greeted by two cartons full of gift wrapped presents given by the people at the party. Mira’s eyes widened fractionally and she smiled. She loved presents. She knelt down in front of one of the boxes.
Slowly, she picked them up one by one and began unwrapping them. Her mother smiled lovingly at her, bent over her, kissed her forehead and left her to it.
After a while, Mira had all her twenty seven gifts opened before her. She beamed down at them, admiring each one, as she ran her hands along them. But as much time it took for a smile to appear on her face, it was replaced by a frown immediately.
Leela pushed away the bundles, the torn mats, and the battered vessels to make place for herself to walk, from the tiny room. She got up from her corner, and made her way out nimbly to see if her mother had cooked anything. She was feeling very hungry. Her mother still sat near the stove, almost dozing off. There was no food, yet. She looked at her mother, at the smoothed out brows, at the only few moments of peace she would get. She stood watching for another few minutes, contentment filling her up, and she turned and walked away quietly.
About an hour later, a loud bang at the door announced the arrival of her father. Leela shivered involuntarily; she was scared of her violent father. Her father sauntered unsteadily into the house, a liquor bottle in his hand. And of course, he had brought no food. He fell on to the floor, still drinking and rambling.
“Why do you come to the house like this?” Leela’s mother wailed. “Forget about me, do you realise we have a daughter in the house? She will be hungry, the poor one,” she cried at her husband.
Her husband wobbled to her slowly, and smack! smack! he brought down his hands on her. Her father’s continual blows and whacks, and her mother’s pleas, sobs and screams of protest was all Leela could hear. She sat cowering in her corner, shivering uncontrollably, her hands over her ears, as she shook her head vehemently, trying to block out the terrorising screams. Her mother’s shrieks sent a jolt through her spine. They went through her like physical pain. She sat crying, tears falling fast down her face, trying feebly to stifle her unrestrained sobs lest her father heard her and hit her too.
After a while, the smacks stopped, the air punctuated only by her mother’s howling, and Leela’s pitiful whimpers. Slowly, as her mother’s yelps reduced to bearable sniffs, Leela’s tears ran out too. She clutched at her mirror tight for comfort, unmindful of the searing pain cause by its rough ends. With only the mirror and her dry sobs for company, she turned around and fell into a disturbed sleep.
Mira got up to her feet, treading her feet carefully among the extravagant presents, and made her way to her mother’s room, still frowning.
Her mother sat in front of the mirror, removing her jewelry. She looked very tired. Mira barged into the room. “Mom?”
Her mother jumped. She spun around, “Mira! You gave me such a fright! she exclaimed clutching her heart, and then she laughed. “What is it, dear?”
“Where is your gift, mom?” she asked. “Where is the pearl necklace I asked for?” she asked, her hands folded across her chest.
Her mother’s face fell, looking ashen. She bent her head, and looked back at Mira again.
“So, you didn’t get it, then?” Mira hissed, her voice low.
Mira’s mother shook her head. “I was busy, Mira,” she said, in a small voice.
“You promised, ma!” she screeched. “I wanted it so badly!”
“I know, Mira. Darling, I know”, her mother tried to reason. “But I was very busy and I couldn’t make it, dear,” she said, and crossed the room and tried to hug Mira. “I’m sorry, Mira,” she cried, holding on to her.
Mira pushed her away, and gave her a disgusted look. “I don’t want your lame sorry! I hate you! ” she screamed and stormed out of the room. Mira’s mother looked at her retreating daughter, and then fell on to the bed , tears pooling her eyes, very hurt. She held her head in her hands and weeped long and hard.
Leela suddenly woke up in the midnight with a very stiff back, reason her awkward position. But there was no more place to sleep. She slowly stretched herself and cricked her neck. Pangs of hunger hit her painfully in the stomach. She had eaten nothing for a whole day. She would ask her mother for something to eat, she thought.
She slipped out of the room cautiously, in case her father was about, and went to the other room in the house, the only one left. Luckily for her, her father had left the house, probably to drink somewhere else. She saw her mother’s sleeping figure, outlined by the light streaming in through the window. Her breathing was ragged and heavy. As Leela walked closer to her, she could see in the dimness, the pronounced bruises on her mother’s face, where her father had hit her. She stood watching for a few minutes quietly.
She turned around and went to the water pot, and filled a tumbler full of water, and drank it whole. She drank four more tumblers, to satiate the terrible hunger brewing inside her.
Feeling a little at ease, she tiptoed back to her corner softly, taking care not to wake her mother up. She laid herself on the dusty floor as her fingers searched for her precious mirror. She finally found it fallen beside her leg, and picked it up and smiled, as the mirror glinted faintly.
She clutched her stomach and rubbed it gently to ease the continual grumbling. With her hands on her belly, and her mirror clasped between her fingers, she drifted again.
“Mira?! Mira?” Mira’s mother rushed into her room, switching on the light. Mira lay on the bed, twitching and screaming in agony. It was roughly three o’clock , early in the morning. Mira’s mother had been awake in bed, thinking about Mira, too exhausted to cry anymore, when she had been surprised by Mira’s sudden shouts.
“Mira? What happened?” her mother asked, panicked, shaking her, as she sat beside her on the bed.
“My stomach!” Mira cried, rolling on the bed, holding her abdomen. “It’s paining! Oh, it’s paining!” she cried, as involuntary tears slipped out of her eyes.
“Where exactly does it pain, Mira? Show me,” her mother asked her.
“Here,” Mira said, pointing to her stomach.
“Have you had too much to eat, Mira?” her mother asked. “It MUST be all that food you ate today. Now you probably have indigestion,” she said, her hands on either side of her daughter’s body.
“Fine, now do something!” Mira cried loudly, still clutching her stomach. “I’m dying!”
“No, dear, you won’t. Mira, relax, please relax. Your mother is right here and she’ll take care of you. Okay? Now wait here until I get some medicine,” her mother hurried out, her own misery forgotten.
She tended to her daughter, murmuring softly to her to ease her pain. She sat beside Mira, until her pain subsided, and until Mira drifted off into an uneasy sleep. By that time, it was six in the morning, and the maid would be there anytime soon . She sighed, and absent mindedly stroked Mira’s hair. She was completely drained. She badly wanted to sleep but she had no choice but to stay awake.
By the afternoon that day, Mira felt much better and by the evening she was up and about. She flopped onto the easy chair in front of the plasma T.V and began surfing the channels lazily, chatting with her friends over the phone as she did so.
Leela’s mother straightened out the folds of her frayed sari. She secured her hair in a tight bun, and put on her slippers. “Come Leela,” she cried out to Leela.
Her mother was going to her work. “Come with me, Leela,” her mother had said, her eyes threatening to betray her with the outburst of tears. “They will give you food, small one. You did not have anything to eat all day,” her mother had looked at Leela, who had been playing outside. Leela did not care much about going, but the mention of food was enough for her to accompany her mother. She was completely famished.
Leela ran up to her mother, and held her hand. Her mother looked at her, fondled her cheeks, and smiled down at her sadly. Why does my little on have to suffer because of my fate? she thought to herself. I cannot even give her two square meals a day. Some mother I am, she thought, as she walked with Leela. Beside her, Leela walked, rather glided, a lilting smile on her face, as she watched the birds flying to their homes in the early sunset, her precious mirror tucked in her skirt.
Leela had never been inside such a huge house before. The garden itself could have accommodated thrice the size of their house. She looked on in amazement at everything, the grandeur, the sophistication and yet the simplicity of the huge bungalow, overlooking the beach.
This was where her mother worked as a maid? She looked at her mother, her eyes alight with excitement. She would come here everyday just to see this beautiful house.
Leela’s mother left her slippers behind a tree, and walked to the house , holding Leela’s hand. “Don’t take anything from there, Leela”, she said, stroking Leela’s hair. “Madam is a very nice person. She has helped us a lot. She will feed us also,” she told herself more than to Leela.
They entered through the front door, Leela’s rumbling hunger replaced by a burning curiosity, as she looked around hungrily, afraid that she would miss out something. A gentle chandelier hung gracefully from the ceiling, as pictures adorned the walls, and vases and statues, the shelves.
As they walked to the living room, a woman came walking out. Though she looked lovely, the bags under her eyes made her look older than her age. She smiled at Leela’s mother, and looked at Leela.
“And this must be little Leela!” she said, smiling warmly at Leela. Leela hid behind her mother, her brilliant eyes peeking warily from behind her mother’s shoulder.
“Yes, amma”, Leela’s mother smiled back. “Leela, say hello to madam,” she said, trying to pull Leela to the front, as Leela refused to be budged, and held on to her mother’s sari.
‘Madam’ laughed. “Wait here,” she said and came back with a foil wrapped chocolate. “Here, take this,” she said, kindly, stretching out her hand.
Leela looked at the shiny, glossy paper, her curiosity piqued. She slowly came to the front, cautiously , and snatched the chocolate from her hand, and quickly hid behind her mother, poking her head out.
Madam laughed again, and smiled. “Thanks, amma,” Leela’s mother said. “Both of you eat before you go,” she told them. Leela’s mother folded her hands.
“Leela, come with me,” madam said. Leela’s heart started beating fast, as she shook her hand, still clutching her mother. “Go, Leela,” her mother pushed her gently. Leela shook her head more, holding her mother tighter.
“I will give you another of that,” madam declared,”But only if you come with me.”
Slowly, Leela peeked from behind her mother, and came out lightly and stood in front of madam. Looking through her eyelashes, she stretched out her hand.
Madam smiled down at her, and caught hold of her outstretched hand, and took her inside. “Radha, go and do your work,” she called out to Leela’s mother.
Inside there was a young girl on a huge fluffy chair, her legs folded lazily, as she watched the television. Leela watched her fascinated. She looked very beautiful.
“Sit here,” madam gestured to the floor, and slipped another chocolate into her hand. Leela looked up at her, flushed and smiled a pure smile.
As she left, Leela quietly slipped the two chocolates into her skirt, and began looking around. A huge bookshelf with rows and rows of books stood to the right of Leela. Spread out to the left, was a huge balcony, looking out to the magnificent sea. And in front of her, sat the elegant creature, dainty and petite.
Mira looked at the scruffy girl on the floor beside her, and raised an eyebrow, and laughed to herself. Trust her mother to get people like these to the house. And give her chocolates! Her own chocolates. Pathetic lives, she rolled her eyes to herself.
Slowly, she got up to her feet, and stretched herself. The shabby thing was looking at her, enchantment written on every line of her face. Deliberately, she yawned and ruffled her hair. She walked out of the room, and came back a couple of minutes later, with an orange drink in her hand, and sipped delicately.
She chanced another look at the girl, and to her disappointment, she was not loooking at her any longer. She was bending down, holding something in her lap. After a few minutes, she took it out of her lap, and placed it on the floor beside her, gazing at it with adoration.
The thing was a mirror, with a heart shaped frame. Though it was worn out and jagged, it looked oddly familiar.
Suddeny, realisation hit her as she jumped to her feet, her blood boiling. It was her mirror, that had fallen into the sea! How did this creep get her mirror? How dare she even touch her precious mirror?
“Hey, you!” Mira cried. “Give me back my mirror!” she screamed, seething.
Leela looked at her, terrified at being spoken to. Her eyes were wide in fear, her mouth open, her mirror in her lap, as she tried to back off.
“Give my mirror to ME!” Mira screamed louder, pointing to her mirror.
Leela stared on, her face pale, tears pricking her eyes, her heart pounding, as she cowered in fright.
The mirror was the one thing she loved the most. It was a gift the sea god had given her.
Leela looked at the ferocity of the creature in front of her. The mirror was hers . But the creature wanted the mirror too.
She loved her mirror. But it would make the creature happy.
She looked at her precious mirror, tears flowing down her eyes. She hugged it to herself tight, and kissed its head gently, cupping it to her cheeks.
With shaking hands, she held out her only possession to the creature.
Mira lunged forward, and tugged the mirror out of her hands, taking care not to brush her fingers against the waif’s hands, and dashed out of the room.
Leela looked at her, her eyes convulsing in tears, and yet, a gentle smile on her face.
The creature did not come back any more. When her mother had completed her work and came to Leela, Leela dried her tears and smiled a dazzling smile. She patted the chocolates in her skirt and followed her mother out.
And as Leela left the embellished walls, the imposing furniture, the majestic building and the grandiose garden behind her, to her worn down hut, she smiled to herself.
She felt she was the richer one.