Sanju wiped the sweat on his brow and thought about Leelabai’s words carefully. Hesitating to look up – for he knew if he looked up he would see the magnificent woman staring straight in his eyes and eyes are poor companions to a man who wishes to maintain his mind beyond the reach of the mortal world – he shook his head in some amount of disbelief.
Sanjeev Satpute, yes that was his name for all official purposes sat under a poorly built concrete roof on a hot Thursday afternoon. Right in front of him, leaning against a pillow in a manner that aimed at showing off a certain amount of carelessness than seeking comfort, rested Leelabai a woman of 60, or any age that people attain when their faces begin to flaunt wrinkles and their voices grow louder under a notion that everyone else can hear not a decibel more than themselves. And yet to say that Leelabai’s voice had grown louder only in the recent years would be a complete lie for she had been known for her loud voice amongst other things since the prime of her age.
When Sanju had knocked Leelabai’s door two hours ago, he had done so in a hope that she would provide him with some sort of job since he had been recommended to her by Sada, a dear friend of his and also a close companion of Leelabai who had a very few close connections in the first place, but after the preliminary questions of his whereabouts and his purpose of coming, she had turned the conversation awfully bitter with her words that seemed to insult him – or for that matter they would have insulted any person who would have made the mistake of walking across her doorstep while looking for a job, and then she had sent a wave of shock through him, leaving him astounded by disclosing the kind of job she had in her mind for him and now, he was still trying to recover himself from the temerity of her thought, his mind firmly believing that she was making some unusual sort of joke, looking for the sardonic air about her tone.
“You came to me because you needed work. I never called you and yet, because there is a generous heart within me, I’m offering you the best I can. Take it or leave it”, she said with a faint aura of impatience in her voice.
As a reply, Sanju only shifted his gaze from the dirty floor beneath his feet to the doorstep and rested it on a cheap pair of sandals. He adored the quietness of the room at that moment because even if it didn’t soothe his heart, it gave him a few moments to revive himself from having to hear Leelabai’s continuous, almost lingering voice. Such moments were rare when one had to communicate with a woman like Leelabai and Sanju, realizing it only at that instant, hurriedly ceased to soak himself in the quietness and had just begun asking his mind if he was in the right place when Leelabai said in a rather stern tone, “Sanjeev, stop thinking like a fool. Tell me your decision, quick.”
This was a little startling for Sanju who had immersed half of his mind in a stream of thoughts. However, he quickly collected himself on hearing Leelabai’s words.
“Sada said you had a job for me… so… I..thought..” he stammered.
“What were you expecting? You thought I would give you a job to sweep and wipe my floors? How silly an expectation from me! I’m generous and I pity you but that doesn’t mean I am not the Leelabai you have heard of. If you want to work here, you have to obey my orders like a dog!!” she roared.
Sanju, just a little vexed now, looked about her in a miserable fashion for he was scared that exhibiting the anger on his face might make this woman a tad more stone-hearted. The heat of the afternoon, now seeping in through the walls of the room, now unbearable, had dabbed him in sweat, making him uncomfortable like all trifles leave a man when he finds himself in the midst of an undesirable conversation. He tried to impede the uneasiness by leaning back on the chair carelessly, without success. But barring this, he did not make a movement more. He sat quietly, not uttering a word, to confront Leelabai’s torrent, waiting in patience to let her understand that he had accepted her supremacy.
A man’s silence is always mysterious for a woman – it makes her restless and in one instance, transforms her heart from one extreme to the other, and that is why Leelabai, in-spite of all the unreasonable fury in her heart, continued in a softer tone, “Sada has told me that the mill where you used to work has been shut down since a couple of months and that you have been at places for getting a job but you had no luck. And now you need money, right?
“Yes”, he muttered.
“Then listen to me carefully”, she said as she produced a paan from a small, round-steel box and placed it in her mouth, “I can help you. I can help you to earn a lot of money unlike other jobs where they only give you a definite salary. I can give you exactly the kind of job you require at this moment. It will benefit both you and me. You only have to follow my instructions and I don’t think that can be a problem right?”
The positiveness in her voice had built a confidence on his face, for he was a man in distress and men in distress are quickly affected by anything that looks affirmative, anything that promises to wipe the misery off their faces – and his heart pounded a beat faster. But in moment the sanity within him brought him to terms with the kind of job he was required to do in return of the money and he shrugged. Clearing his mind and his face of all the evidence that he had been on the verge of agreeing to the offer, he looked at Leelabai hoping that she hadn’t noticed anything on his face. Leelabai, on the other hand, had not just read his face but had also understood that it was time to locate and touch sensitive part of his heart. For she had acquired the art of understanding and manipulating men through the many years she had spent knowing them. She smiled wide, exhibiting her paan-stained teeth, and in a voice as sweet as she could produce, went on, “Even if I’m in this business, I’m also woman and all women have one dream in common – to marry a good man, to settle with him and be a mother. I don’t think anyone has any rights to thwart these dreams from coming to reality. My conditions, absence of my family and therefore an obligation to survive on my own forced me to do this business. It took away my dreams from me – of having a family, of living peacefully and no, I don’t regret a thing but I won’t see some other woman’s dreams being shattered like mine. Certainly not if the reason that keeps them from getting married is something as insignificant as money. Look, Sada has told me everything about you. I know that you have two young, unmarried sisters and that you’re the only breadwinner in your family. I know why you need money. I can understand your desperation to get a job and I want to help you. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Sanju nodded under the spell of the her words, his face inquisitive to understand her more as a person, as a woman with a heart but his mind still hesitating, still reluctant to accept the job she was offering him.
“Your sisters are not just your responsibility now, I am equally responsible for seeing that they get married in a respectable manner. I will help you earn the money you require to marry them off and ensure that they live comfortably. Think of the joy they would seek in their weddings, think of how proud your mother would feel about you to see that you performed your duty well. If you take this job, it will all come to reality”, Leelabai said, her eyes fixed on Sanju’s and her voice assuring in all manners possible.
He was still quiet, still soaked in his own sweat but now, it didn’t make him uneasy and on the contrary, only seemed to relieve him of the hotness in the atmosphere. ‘Leelabai is certainly right. It is my responsibility to look after my sisters and my mother. They are my family’, he thought.
Another part of his mind however, kept telling him of how he would destroy himself and everything around him in a quest to seek happiness for his family if he followed Leelabai’s instructions. And thus, divided in two, his mind began a debate within itself about whether or not, should he accept Leelabai’s offer. But in events as such, the conscience of a man cannot soothe his misery as much as the facts can worsen it and fact was that his sisters would soon surpass the right age to get married, which is why he was bound to see that they got married soon and in quick succession.
By now, it had dawned up on him that the job would bring down his manhood, it would leave him at the mercy of the cunning woman who sat in front of him and to whom he was still not bound in any manner, that once he accepted her offer, she would immediately make him work like a dog. It dawned upon him that he was heading towards a mistake which would destroy everything and everyone around him and in the process, eventually destroy him. By now, he could clearly see all the things that could go wrong. Only, it was too late.
The misery within him which he had long borne sprang up in a ferocious manner and his heart refused to bear it for another moment, he wanted to shed off all the anxiety which came along with it and the only way he could do that was grasp the first hand of help that he was offered.
“I won’t get such an easy opportunity again”, decided Sanju and at another moment, said out loud, “I am ready.”
A delighted Leelabai stood up quickly and said, “Good. You can begin today. Go to the inner room. I’ll see if I can send someone.”
Sanju did as he was ordered.He sat in that room, hopeless and frightened, his face sunk in his palms. He could hear Leelabai’s voice coming from a distance. She was talking to someone over the phone
“No, no… No girl. Your type person. He is new. You come and see”, she was saying.
Hearing those words, the horror of his job suddenly struck Sanju like a lightning. But then, it was too late. Tears trickled down his cheeks. It was his first day at the brothel.