Flowers for Kamala

February is when jacarandas bloom in Bangalore, carpeting the edges of streets purple like an extravagance of confetti. The air warms up a touch; days grow mellow and warm. It feels like a reward for the months of shivering under threadbare sweaters, and of icy cold tap water in the morning. A girl might stop to breathe in the still-crisp air and stand a minute to admire, even if she was now seventeen and old enough to know better. Not Kamala, though. Standing was not her thing.

Not when her mother was alive and Kamala was a schoolgirl in uniform hawking her flowers between cars stalled in traffic before school. And certainly not now, with her father remarried to that insufferable woman, and Kamala a runaway from home. There, that bit of information was out in the open, as it was in the first two minutes of any conversation she had nowadays. With prospective landlords, employers, or people who sat next to her on the bus, this was all they ever wanted to know. Not what do you plan to do, Kamala, or how are you going to open that swanky flower shop your mother wouldn’t have been able to set foot in? This was why India didn’t progress, as they said in the English newspaper editorials she read on the sly at homes she worked in. They said it was corruption, but Kamala knew better: it was because all people did was gossip.

Kamala turned from the jacaranda-lined street on to Potters Lane with its sweeping Gulmohars. A short walk would take her to the apartment complex, Spartan Heights. There, just beyond the watchman and towering gates and up the service staircase in the back, was her first charge. She was to gather the Batra children, with their bags and lunch boxes, and walk them to the school bus stop. She would wait there until the school bus arrived and wave goodbye, before going back up to sweep and mop the Batra floors. She would carry wet clothes from their expensive washer, to line-dry them on the terrace upstairs. Then, at the Menons’ penthouse, she would run Mrs. Menon’s vacuum cleaner over carpeted floors. Their regular maid wasn’t up to the new contraption, which was why she’d been hired. And at Mrs. Thomas’s small apartment on the second floor, she’d wash the breakfast dishes and do a quick sweep of the floors, which was all they could afford. She might return to the Batras if there were errands to run. It was easy, mindless work.

But it was also necessary, for now, which was partly why she didn’t stop when the watchman called out to her in an urgent whisper as she passed, “Kamala, stop, I have news!”

“Later,” she tossed over her shoulder, as she did every time she crisscrossed past him during the day – with kids, then without, then with Mrs. Menon’s ironing for the dhobhi at the street corner, and on her way to the store for flour for Mrs. Batra, and back, in the late evening.

That was when he threw himself in her way, arms outstretched. “You have to listen now,” he said. “It might already be too late.”

The watchman reminded Kamala of her father. Gaunt, chain smoking, starting to grey at the temples. This was why she had begun to talk to him, against her better judgment, when she first arrived at Spartan Heights.

“I’ve been thinking about that store of yours,” he said.

“Oh, which one? The one you laughed at, yesterday?” Which was the other reason she hadn’t stopped to talk to him all day, of course. Men were all the same. The government could put up all the billboards it wanted about the girl child, and India Shining. It wouldn’t make two rupees’ worth of difference to people like him.

“I didn’t laugh,” he said, “I was just surprised. I thought you’d want to be a movie star or something. That’s why most girls run away from home. But you’re smart. Very smart.”

Despite herself, Kamala felt herself smile, almost. He sounded like her father used to, when her mother was alive.

He pressed on, “You know, I was thinking about it all day yesterday. It might take you years to get there, unless you find better work.”

She shrugged. “I’m taking correspondence courses. All the call centers need a BA, at least. I can get that in two years. Then I can make all the money I need for the loan in a year. Two, maximum. Four years total to my own shop.”

“Degree, pshaw,” he said. “It takes so long and you may not even need it. Anyway, I was just thinking of you yesterday, when I ran into my friend.” He paused, looking at her carefully, cigarette poised mid-air between them.

“And he has some lottery he wants me to buy?”

He guffawed. “Well, if you act so over-smart, I don’t have to tell you, do I?” He made an elaborate pantomime of looking away.

Kamala considered him for a second. She did not expect his news, or his opportunity, to amount to much. If he had all these contacts, why was he still a watchman at the same place he’d been for twenty years? Just because she was young didn’t mean she was gullible. “OK,” she said, turning away herself. “I’ll be in trouble if I’m late with the flour, anyway.”

When she returned, flour dropped off and on her way home, he was waiting for her by the gate. He had his muffler wound around his neck and wool cap pulled low over his ears.

“You remind me of my sister back in the village,” he said. “So I’ll tell you anyway.”

She waited out of politeness, and he continued. “This friend, his company is interviewing salesgirls. You know, these girls who go from door to door and sell cosmetics. It is good money, almost like a call-center job. You just have to be able to speak a bit of English, and dress well. They’ll train you. It might even help you when you are managing that shop of yours. Think about the experience you’ll get. And you’ll learn to walk and talk like them.” He gestured to the building behind them, with all the well-heeled women who lived there, and employed both of them.

This was unexpected. It was also her secret worry, that she could spend all her money to set up shop and people would see her for the imposter she was. They would call her flowers overpriced, or haggle with her, the way they did with her mother, to within an inch of her cost. Learning to walk and talk like them, being able to hold out her flowers to them as some unattainable luxury, was key. This might be a real opportunity, for more than just the money. And to think that she had almost missed it .Her father’s long-ago admonishment came back across space and time: You think you know everything. Sometime in life, your arrogance will cost you.

Not this time, though.

“So what company is this?” she asked. She could do her homework on it when she got home.

“Some lipstick-vipstick thing, I don’t know the name,” he said. “See, I knew you’d be interested. The interview is tomorrow. I can take you.”

“Give me the address,” she said, “I can go there myself.”

“I have to take you,” he said, “that is the only way you’ll get the job.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Do you know the competition you’ll face?”

“Really? And you’ll give up a day’s pay out of the goodness of your heart?” He really did think she was gullible, and for the first time she wondered if he might be lying about the job as well.

“OK,” he said. “I’ll get a small commission for it. Don’t worry, it’s not any money out of your pocket. Meet me here at nine tomorrow.”

“I’m not coming unless I know where the interview is,” she said. “I don’t care if I don’t get the job. I’m happy where I am.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette, looking exasperated. “If you don’t trust me, I can tell you where it is. It is at the Samrat Hotel two streets away. Respectable place. But you won’t get the job without me, and I can’t get a job to sell cosmetics instead of you. So if you’re sensible this might work for both of us. If not, I’m not going to beg.”

Kamala paused, torn between possibility and peril. She was old enough to know how the world worked. She’d heard enough stories of girls being promised movie-star roles ending up in brothels in Bombay. She wasn’t stupid. But here was the thing: this might not be that. She thought back to the posters in the children’s rooms that she cleaned: Opportunity knocks but once, and Seize the Day. And the one time she encountered a turn of good fortune she would have walked right past it. “Let me think about it,” she said.

“Think all you want,” he said, walking away. “Come back here at nine in the morning.”

Kamala walked past the cushion of jacaranda that had grown more dense on the side of the street, and the evening vendors with their idli and bhel puri carts. Her mind was so wrapped up in the watchman’s proposition that she didn’t have to fight her daily temptation of stopping-just-this-once to sample the bhel puri-wallah’s wares. Not that she ever did, her discipline over her budget would not allow it. But each day she’d slay the demon anew before going to her working women’s hostel to eat the food her landlady had set aside for her. Lentils, vegetables and two barely-there rotis, under-spiced and cooked with a minimum of oil. It was almost enough to make her miss her father’s new wife’s cooking.

For the first time since she left them, she wondered how they were. Were they sitting down to their evening meal as she was, and had her father continued to bring his new wife flowers for her hair? It was the flowers that had been the last straw for Kamala. That, and his much younger wife’s sidelong glances to Kamala when he brought them, a strange mixture of triumph and embarrassment. She was only four or five years older than Kamala. And Kamala was old enough to recognize the sounds in the night that followed, which had filled her with rage, and shame. It was worth it to be here, she decided, worth it to be eating the tasteless food and spending the evening alone. A joy, really, to be free of all of that.

But there was also no one she could talk to about her current dilemma. The girls were packed three to a room in the glorified hostel, which was really two rooms that her landlady’s husband had added on to the top floor of their house. Despite this, there was no one around. Her roommates usually arrived later than she did, after hours of fighting crowds on rush-hour buses across town, and they fell right asleep soon after. Kamala spent her evenings working on correspondence course lessons, so she hadn’t made friends outside either.

If only her mother was alive, she thought, and before the tears could arrive she had squared her shoulders and reminded herself that if her mother were alive she’d be walking her to the fortune teller with the parrot at the street corner, or a passing palmist hawking his predictions. That was the way her mother had lived, allowing unknowable forces and superstitions control over her decisions. It was not what Kamala wanted for herself. Perhaps she should have waited, and asked the young Mrs. Thomas for advice, or braved Mrs. Menon’s supercilious stare. But she hadn’t gone back, and now it was too late. What would they say, anyway? That she was better off working for them, of course. It would be too much trouble for them to find and train someone new.

Kamala left her lessons for the day unopened while she tried to find a quantifiable way to assess her options, calculate her risk. That was the way to do it, of course, if you were a good student at math and science, as she had been in the English medium school her mother had scraped and saved to send her to. She drew columns. Under “For” she wrote: not a lecher. The watchman had never paid her a compliment, or looked at her funny. And under “Con”: he lied a bit in the beginning. Back under For: respectable hotel. Con: why do I only have to go with him? And so on. The columns filled, and it seemed to her the twin possibilities of great success and devastating loss were evenly balanced, given the information she had.

Hours into the sleepless night, she knew it would be more than the concrete facts at her disposal that would do the trick. She’d have to rely on something bigger, a guiding belief to come to a decision. It could not be the kind of mumbo-jumbo her mother had believed in either. It had to be her own view of the world, a guiding principle, her very own north star that would not lead her astray. The kind of untaught understanding of the world that had allowed her to recognize that she sold more flowers when she was in school uniform. That all those middle-aged men and women in the backseats of cars headed to the airport bought flowers they did not need in guilt over their wealth, or hope for the underclasses. Because she was not an urchin sent to beg; she was a girl in school and obviously working her way up.

Kamala prided herself on being a product of that new India, of industry and intelligence. The kind of girl they should put up in the posters beside paeans to the girl child. She had worked as far back as she could remember, and been a good student besides. There was the minor and completely explainable issue of being a runaway, but even in that she had shown independence and self-reliance. She had ambitions. Her mother had sold painstakingly woven strands of jasmine and marigold for temple deities and women’s hair, when she saw, easily, that the newer, easier way was long-stemmed flowers, roses and zinnias, arranged with a minimum of effort into expensive bunches that people carried in cars to airports. It was like the Prime Minister said, she was an example of progress and forward thinking, of India Shining. Of leaving all that old stuff behind. The old was the kind of fear that set you back from opportunity. Because to give in to that fear was to accept that this was the same old India, where girls couldn’t be more than wives or prostitutes. Put that way, her decision almost made itself. How could she be true to her vision of the future, and yet be afraid that some man like her father would do her harm? Kamala dozed off well before dawn arrived yellow and majestic, easy in her mind about going to the interview with the watchman.

Kamala set out her best clothes to wear before she walked to the bathroom at the end of the hallway to brush her teeth and slap near-frigid water on her face. In the cold light of morning some of the luminous certainty of night began to fade. Then she saw the faded portrait her landlady had tacked on the wall outside her door. It was of Gandhi, smiling toothlessly at her, an image as inexplicably comforting as that of a favorite grandfather. She racked her brains for something of use that he might have said, beyond ahimsa and fighting the British and all that. Something contemporary, possibly useful today. All she could remember was that he always told the truth. And suddenly, she realized, that was useful. A kind of insurance.

She used her landlady’s phone to let all her employers know that she wouldn’t be coming in to work until the afternoon. Instead of the standard-issue excuse of sickness, she chose a Gandhi-inspired truth. The watchman is taking me to an interview, she said to each and every one. It’s at the Samrat Hotel at just past nine this morning. Then she walked back alongside fallen gulmohar and jacaranda as she did every morning to meet the watchman outside the gate.

He looked relieved to see her. “Good, good,” he said, either about the way she was dressed, or the fact that she was on time. And yet he hurried until they were almost at a trot, to the hotel that was two streets away. He had her wait outside while he checked in with the clerk at the desk. Then he was at her side, saying, “Hurry, hurry, it is Room 202. You’re the last one, they might already be gone.” Perhaps that explained why there was no one else who looked like her waiting in the lobby, or outside the room. It was a fleeting unease, and he had hurried on before she could stop and think.

The door opened to his knock. They stepped inside. Almost immediately, Kamala knew that they had never left the old India behind. On the bed was a garishly made up woman with far too much jasmine in her hair, chewing tobacco besides. And two burly men who could only be her underlings. It was so clichéd that it took Kamala a second to be afraid.

She stepped back in a hurry, reaching for the door. But the watchman was right behind her, and his body between her and the latch. He was sweating, and smiling widely at the woman, careful to avoid Kamala’s eyes.

“No one will miss her; you won’t have any trouble for this one,” he said. “How much?”

“Might not be enough to settle your debts,” the Madam said, coming around to look at Kamala better. “A bit more meat on the bones, though, next time.”

Kamala said, “I told everyone, they know I’m here with you. You’ll be caught.”

They all looked at her, amused. “You think anyone will go to the police over some servant girl like you? I’ll just tell them you lied.”

Kamala began to scream but one of the underlings was soon on her, twisting her arms behind her with one arm, covering her mouth with the other. The woman and the watchman conferred over signed papers and currency that exchanged hands, and then the watchman opened the door to leave.

Kamala sagged in defeat.

Then he was gone.

The woman motioned for the oaf to tie her up, and the other left the room behind the watchman, to fetch a rug from the van parked outside. She understood she was to be trussed up, then rolled up into the rug out of sight, and carried out. Openly, and with the assurance that no one would question them. Perhaps it was the arrogance of that. Or that contemptuous way the woman turned away from her, as if she were indeed only an easy piece of meat. It might have been the injustice of it all. All the work, her own and her mother’s, the years of making do, of saving, of studying into the night, of bhel puri denied, the belief she had in herself and the world, all to naught, to this. There was her father bringing home a woman weeks after her mother died, after the least perfunctory of mournings. The perfidy of another man who looked just like him, defeating her as easily as the lies they peddled on billboards and television commercials, of the bloody-fool Girl Child and Opportunity that knocked like bloody never, not for her. When all that mattered was the men, bloody hell, and that boneless thing between their bloody legs.

It was the slow burn of rage, of ambition thwarted and a dream destroyed, and all that she ever wanted from life, lost. She twisted and kicked. Backwards between his legs where it counted. She contorted, able to slip out of the grasp of a man who weighed twice as much as her only because he was in pain, and because of her superhuman rage. Hands free, she grabbed again between his legs and twisted, then clawed his eyes and elbowed his throat. First him, then the woman who lumbered over in surprise. Screaming, overturning furniture, throwing herself at every wall and at the door while they attempted to recover and give chase, loud enough for a crowd to gather outside the door of the room in the respectable hotel they had hired just for her, and just for the day, at the watchman’s insistence that there might be no other way to land this particular fish. And when the second underling returned with the rug, there was the crowd peering over his shoulder at the scene within: a crazed girl cursing, whirling, and attacking a man and woman in turns. A certain type of woman she was too, they would say later, dressed like some madam in a Kannada movie brothel.

Things fell apart rapidly for the trio after that, and for the watchman, who would be picked up by mid-afternoon. In the ever widening circle of salaciousness and scandal that spread from this and related incidents would come the fall of a television personality, an industrialist, and a couple of members of the State Legislature. Only proving what Kamala had known all along – the country worked best, and mostly, on gossip.

Kamala did not make it to the news. Not then, anyway. She managed to slip away in the melee before the reporters arrived. The police were bound to protect her identity, as the victim in a possible sex-trafficking case. Still, it would take her years to reclaim the innocence of the morning, and be able to trust another human being, newspaper editorial, or public service announcement, again. And when she finally did, she’d be thirty-four and sought after, in part for her surprising irreverence at cocktail parties. She’d own a shop for exquisite flower arrangements on Brigade Road, where new employee orientation included a note on psychology, into what really drove the world, and flower sales. But just at this minute, she was only just beginning to run, out of the hotel and into Bangalore’s streets that greeted her with freedom and flowers – jacaranda, flame of the forest, bottlebrush and Gulmohar – abundant alongside her pounding feet.

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Priya Balasubramanian is an Indian-American physician and writer. Her first novel, The Alchemy of Secrets, is set in Bangalore India and was chosen for an honorable mention in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Her non-fiction has appeared on NPR, Scoundrel Time and ROAR.

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