Mhajem Ghar

By Nayana Adarkar
Translated from the Konkani by Ramesh Laad

Outside the house, there was a relentless downpour. Inside, Mariamma waited for Hasina impatiently. It was just a small hut really, which she called ‘her house’. It could accommodate a cot with a little space left over for cooking. But for Mariamma it was the dearest place in which one could live. Her dream of owning a house was made possible by that hut.

Mariamma got up and waited by the door.

‘Any moment, Hasina will arrive with a customer and then I will have to bundle out the door,’ she thought.

Just outside the hut, she’d drawn a polythene curtain and within that, she’d placed a stool. If the weather was pleasant, she could sit there comfortably for a few hours, but if it rained, sitting there was uncomfortable. The water flowing down the eaves and the breeze blowing in from below, thick with moisture, made it cold. Shivering, Mariamma would curl up on that stool.

What else could she do to feed herself? She was no spring chicken; physically, she was no longer in a position to earn a living by entertaining customers. Since her youth, she had been a prostitute and now past her prime, what other job could she engage in? So now she depended on someone else. God had rescued her in the guise of Hasina.

Over the years, Mariamma's eyesight had dwindled. The heavy rain meant seeing only blurred images; she could vaguely discern someone approaching the house with an umbrella in hand. It must be Hasina. She shivered: it was time to occupy the stool by the curtain.

Hasina was not to blame. How could she possibly entertain customers with an old lady sitting inside? The poor thing was forced into this trade for the sake of her ailing husband and four little children. Previously, she’d earned some money doing menial chores for some forty households. But that money was drained by her husband’s illness.

‘What the hell Aunty, this terrible rain,’ Hasina announced, folding her umbrella as she walked in with a customer.

Mariamma patiently took her seat on the stool outside. The door closed behind her. Mariamma was used to the moaning coming from inside the house. It made no difference to her. Those moans had been a part of her life since her youth. The only difference was, Hasina now filled the place which she had once occupied.

Hasina was not an unkind woman. But she was stingy with her payments.

‘He wasn’t a good customer, Aunty,’ she would lie, handing over a meagre sum.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Mariamma thought, ‘something was better than nothing. God knows if my own daughter would have taken as much care.’

The night had reached its peak; Hasina had taken in five customers. Usually, she didn’t accept more than that.

‘It’s difficult to work the next day,’ she would complain to Mariamma.

Mariamma often thought: In my day, I kept awake the whole night without a break. My only ambition was to build my own house. I wanted a house, my own rightful house.

Mariamma had grown up at the Ramling Orphanage. When she was old enough to recognise the people around her, she had mistakenly believed the orphanage to be her home. There were other girls there just like her. Each year, an array of activities took place there and the children would be given treats, clothes and books. The matron would feign dedication to the cause of children’s education, while the guests were present, but once they left, the old adage, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ was used faithfully for the slightest infraction. Mariamma grew tired of life in that house.

Sometimes, Mariamma would spot a tempo coming to the orphanage to pick up the older girls. They would return late at night. She was curious to know where they were being taken. Her friend didn’t know either. But when she came of age, Rajamma whispered in her ears, the truth.

‘It’s your turn now,’ she said.

‘For what?’ Mariamma had asked, not quite understanding.

‘You will know soon, you will know! Just wait a while!’ so saying, she left laughing.

A few days later, stick in hand, the caretaker lady, had threatened them at night, and herded two girls into the tempo. The pain she had felt in the stomach when she became a woman had not been as severe as the pain she underwent while men bore down on her. Mariamma had tried to bear the pain by closing her eyes. Later, she got used to the ritual.

Payment was always received directly by the caretakers but the girls got a few tips from customers. Mariamma saved her money carefully, while the other girls frittered away theirs. All she wanted was to own a house from her savings. It would be her own house; and no harsh, thrasher lady would have a place in it. No one would send her out at night, threatening her with a stick, no one would keep reminding her that she was an orphan at their mercy.

But an orphan's dreams are but orphans themselves, having no shelter.

Once at night, the hotel where they were taken to entertain customers was raided by the police. The police took them away in their van. The press reporters got their news coverage; and the police satiated their own sexual urges with the girls in custody. After that, began a new kind of hell – a stay in a reformatory, where they were made to do things quite contrary to any reformation.

One thing is true – orphans have no saviours.

Anyone could scold them, maul them, expel them, fabricate stories about them, accuse them of trying to escape. Then the cycle would repeat itself – the police, the search, the arrest, the confinement and the inevitable suffering that went with it.

Mariamma had grown fed up with the wretchedness of that life.

That’s why she’d run away to Goa with a young stranger. She didn’t know anything about him. He had come to her as a customer that night. He told her that he worked in Goa and described how beautiful a place it was.  And that, one could work there and earn enough money and save; to own a house. Mariamma listened intently, just like a child listening to a story. She would be able to own a house if she went to Goa. Her dream of owning a house began to seem real. Without a second thought, she had accompanied the strange young man to Goa.

His name was Hanmant. He worked in a bar on the beachfront at Baina in Vasco da Gama. Chalvadi, a lady in the slums of Baina let a small hut to Mariamma. Chalvadi was shrewd and miserly. She sweet-talked the girls and convinced them to take on more customers. She promised them extra money but never paid more than Rs 50.

If they questioned her, she’d reply, ‘you are like my daughters. I have saved the money in the bank for your future. You might need that money for an emergency. Are you going to do this work for the rest of your life?’

Chalvadi was remorseless too: once, Fatima, one of the girls was forced by her customers to perform unnatural acts. Later that night, she was found in the hotel bed, drenched in blood. The customer fled from the scene. Chalvadi paid bribes and ensured the case never reached the police. As soon as Fatima recovered somewhat, Chalvadi dragged her out to work. Fatima couldn’t run away either because Chalvadi’s agent Irfan was always on the look-out. Hanmanta had told her that Irfan had drowned Simontee, a girl from Nepal, when she’d tried to run away.

Often, in the mornings, when she was at the beach relieving herself, Mariamma would watch the ‘C’ building. Standing there, she’d greedily observe those homes through their open windows.

The women in them looked pleased and content; their husbands and children had their own rightful shelter. While she observed them her deep desire to possess a house would well up.

Mariamma had made it a point to save the Rs 50, Chalvadi gave her. All she wanted was her own house. Nothing else held any significance to her. She’d skip meals and forego whatever little luxuries she could afford.

The years passed quickly as Mariamma pursued her dream of ‘My House.’ Hanmanta passed away. Chalvadi’s agent Irfan was now an elected councilor representing Baina. He knew influential politicians. Chalvadi owned a flat in the city. Irfan would, at times, stay at her flat. Chalvadi’s daughter was well educated, married to an engineer and living in America. Mariamma was now forty. But she looked closer to fifty. The life from her body had dissipated.

Mariamma had always maintained an amicable relationship with Irfan. Using his contacts and the money she’d saved, she had managed to buy a small hut from amongst the cluster of huts on the beachfront at Baina. At the Vasco Saptah, the annual seven day fair, she’d managed to buy, after much haggling, a cot, a stove and some utensils. She had a house of her own; and to feed herself, she could subsist on one customer a day.

But the body; the body had lost its charm. It looked like a dry tree-trunk after so many years of pleasuring men. Now she couldn’t attract customers. And she wasn’t keeping well. Her limbs were frail and she’d often run a mild fever. Fortunately, she’d met Hasina on the beach one morning. She told Mriamma her miserable family condition and started to cry. Mariamma felt pity for her.  The thought occurred to her, that she could serve both their purposes by letting out the hut for a few hours to Hasina. They arranged the stool and the curtain outside.

One night Hasina said to Mariamma, "Aunty, do you know? It seems they are going to demolish all these huts tomorrow!"

‘Why?’ Mariamma was shocked.

‘Government is going to vacate this place they say!’

‘And what about us? What are we to do? Where should we go?’

‘They will give you houses elsewhere. People say that you have been paid for it.’

‘Who are those people?’ Mariamma wanted to know, and hurled a few swear word at those unknown people.

Even if government paid them money it would be Irfan who would grab it. It would never reach those it was meant to help.

Hasina had lit a tiny spark in Mariamma. But it was violent enough to spread right through Mariamma. All sorts of thoughts intruded on her mind, and she voiced them aloud.

‘Will they pull down my house? Let them try! You see how I crack each one's head. I have toiled so hard to acquire this house. I have gone hungry for its sake. Are you going to take away my shelter? To hell with you all.’

Mariamma cursed all day. Eventually, she got tired and lay in her cot, unmindful of the dirty bedsheets. Delirious, she fell asleep.

She did not know how long she slept. A loud noise awakened her. Startled, she went up to the door. It was raining heavily. Unperturbed, she ran in the direction of the noise. The police were there with a bulldozer to demolish the houses. Irfan was there too with a number of prominent politicians. Joseph, Irappa and others were desperately arguing with them. Weak and tired, Mariamma managed to reach them and uttered a few choice words as loudly as possible.

But all of it was in vain. There was no one to listen to them. A fat, fair-faced official gave orders, and the machine began their work. The residents scattered, shouting and screaming and started to collect whatever they could get hold of from their huts.

Mariamma staggered to her hut and got inside. At once, she closed the door and fell upon her cot. She panted and her heart beat faster than usual. The rain-drenched body was shivering hard. Her screaming had parched her throat. She did not bother to drink even a sip of water. She held a pillow tightly to her chest and started muttering to herself.

‘It is my house. My own rightful house. I have exerted diligently for its sake and you people will pull it down? I’ll see, how you do it?’

People stood in the distance, and watched as the bulldozer tore down the huts. All of a sudden one of the residents saw Mariamma's hut collapsing. He shouted, seeing Mariamma’s body under the broken cot with a pillow held tightly to her chest. The driver of the bulldozer scooted away. People hurried to the spot. They carried Mariamma’s limb body away from there.  She had breathed her last. But her face was illumined with the joy of having embraced her own house.

Nayana Adarkar is the author of fourteen books of children's literature, three poetry collections, one book of short stories, and two books of literary essays. She has won nine awards for literature including the Yashodamini Award. In 2016, she won the Alban Couto Memorial first prize for the short story competition organised by Fundacao Oriente.