Secrecy and silence: welcome to the sex lives of Indian girls. In Ginu Kamani’s, Maria, a nanny, and her precocious charge, learn and unlearn the pleasures and perils of the human body – together.
Maria watched me sitting on the toilet, my seven-year-old body half-sunken into the porcelain bowl. She left the bathroom door open and went about her chores. She knew it would be a while before I was done. She had to wash my behind with a tumbler of water, as I couldn’t reach around to rinse myself without tipping into the commode.
I sat on the toilet for hours, playing teacher to a classroom of imaginary children. I taught them how to silently explore the bodies of sleeping servants, how to lift up hems and unbutton blouses. I supervised their awkward attempts, making them repeat the actions till they got them right. Finally Maria would show up to wash me, and I squealed as she hurriedly jabbed her fingers into my bum and splashed me with water halfway up my back.
The servants had their own squat toilet in the back of the house, but Maria preferred our “western-style” commodes. When she had to go, she pulled me into the bathroom with her and I loudly announced to anyone listening that I was going to do Number Two and slammed the door shut. Maria sat on the toilet, giggling and grunting. I swung back and forth on the sagging curtain rod, my legs dangling in Maria’s face. We sat with the door unlocked, excited by the idea of being discovered, but nobody ever found us out.
Maria slept on the floor next to my bed every night. She slept on a thin mattress without a sheet to cover her body. By morning, the buttons on the front of her dress were often undone, and the hem was hiked up around her hips.
Many nights I cautiously reached into her dress, folding the material back, exposing her cheap nylon bra. The bra covered her loosely, so I could reach under the cup to stroke her breast. But before taking her whole breast into my palm, my movements invariably jostled her and she pushed my hand away.
“Let me,” I commanded her, “I’m not going to do anything.”
“It tickles,” she mumbled, rolling over. I returned to my bed, frustrated by my clumsiness. I shut my eyes and relived the exact sensation of exploring Maria’s body, mentally steadying my nervous hands and gracefully covering both her breasts with my adoring fingers.
I heard the front door slam and the key turn in the lock, and knew that my mother had left. Saturdays were my mother’s shopping days. I knew Maria would sneak into the shower.
Normally she bathed out of a bucket in the servants’ quarters, squatting down fully clothed, sloshing water over her head with a tumbler, just as she had always done in her village. But slowly she was getting used to the pleasures of our home.
Maria slipped into the bathroom and locked the door. She knew I was aware of her showering every week, but she also knew that I wouldn’t tell my mother. Maria was afraid of me, even though she was a grown woman and I was a child. There was never any doubt in my mind about who was in charge.
I heard the shower come on, and the water beating against the tile. I had removed two panes of glass from the bathroom vent which let out onto the balcony. Standing on my chair I could see exactly what I wanted without being seen myself. I stepped up to the gap between the slats of glass and looked down.
Maria was washing her hair, sudsing vigorously. Her eyes were closed. She was humming, and her long nipples were tipped up as she reached around to soap her back.
She rinsed the soap out of her hair, lathered her armpits, and then bent at. the knees to rub between her legs. With every motion backwards, her hand disappeared from view.
I was stunned to be looking at her. My legs shook and my head swam so I had to lean forward and rest against the frosted glass. Maria spread her buttocks to let the water in, arching her back, then bending forward. I felt her fingers moving as though they were my own and I suddenly wanted to share with Maria how excited I was.
I giggled, and Maria looked up. She saw my face and screamed. She covered her body with her hands and crouched down until she was bent over on the tiled floor and her breasts and thighs and belly were hidden within the tight embrace of her arms.
She cried and begged, but the water ran into her mouth so her pleas came out as gurgles. One breast swung free as she reached up to turn off the shower tap. She moaned to me to leave her alone, she hadn’t done anything, it wasn’t fair, she just wanted to finish bathing.
She slipped and lost her balance. She fell back onto her elbows, legs spread wide and breasts bouncing. She scrambled to cover herself back up. I told her she could stay in the shower as long as she wanted, I wasn’t going to do anything to her. Maria whimpered and cradled her head on her drawn-up knees. She just sat there. It was over. I stepped down and dragged the chair back into the room. I sank down onto the bed, exhausted.
My mother didn’t like Maria very much, because Maria answered back. My mother was irritated by Maria’s playfulness, and grumbled that she and I were always up to something. Servants were meant to do work.
Maria came to live in our house when I was born. She was a dark thin woman with a few gray hairs, a wraith who moved around like she was invisible. She was sometimes in the room for many minutes before I noticed her, at which point she stiffened, dodged, cleared her face of any expression, then surrendered herself to being visible.
Maria had children of her own in a village far from Bombay, but since the children were grown up, she claimed that they didn’t need to see her anymore.
In the evenings she and I went for a walk along the sea wall across from our apartment building. There we met other women named Anna and Sylvia and Rosie who worked as maids and who also wore dresses. They spoke to each other in Konkani for hours, tightly holding down their dresses which ballooned in the strong sea breeze.
We also had two men working in the house, a cook and a housecleaner. The cook was a dark puffy-faced, moustachioed man who resembled a bandit. He prepared exquisite food, and was the envy of all my mother’s friends. He had never tasted most of what he cooked for us because he was a strict vegetarian. His face revealed only boredom. We didn’t know what his real name was. My mother had always christened our cooks “Babu,” so that’s what we called him.
Ram, the housecleaner, had worked in my father’s office for forty years before being transferred to “houseduty.” He was a fixture in our house and everyone ignored him but me. He was an older man with long legs that were tight with ropy muscles. He wore very baggy shorts, and I could lie down on the floor while he was cleaning the house and look up his legs. It was all darkness in there, except for his rounded buttocks. The two men slept in the servants’ quarters attached to the kitchen.
Every night my mother locked the door of the servants’ quarters, so that Babu and Ram couldn’t enter the house at night. Every morning at dawn my mother unlocked the door to let them out. She never entered their room.
The cook fixed the lock so it wasn’t really locking. Every few nights, Maria went into the servants’ room. She would return before dawn and quickly fall asleep on her mattress. I always heard her come in. She knew that I knew, but also that I wouldn’t tell. When I asked her what she did there, she said she helped the servants to fall sleep. I imagined that like little children, Babu and Ram lay down on her outstretched legs and she dandled them on her knees until they drifted into slumber.
Maria didn’t say anything about the shower incident. But on Monday morning when it was time to braid my hair for school, she sank the comb into my scalp and jerked it through my knotted hair until I screamed. She shushed me, smiling maliciously. “Sit still,” she whispered, “or I’ll pull your bloody hair right out.”
Every night that week I dreamt of a woman running down the street, tearing off one article of clothing after another-shoes, socks, coat, skirt, blouse, scarf-until she was down to her panties. She could not remove that last bit of cloth. She started again, fully clothed, tears streaming down her face in anger. She ran toward me, removing the clothing bit by bit, looking straight at me with pleading eyes. She came closer and closer, until she finally ran over me. It was terrifying.
I woke up one night with my heart hammering in my chest and I cried out in fear. There was no response, only the whirring of the ceiling fan. I was sick to my stomach. I had to find Maria.
The cockroaches scurried out of sight as I turned on the kitchen light. I walked to the back and pushed on the door to the servants’ room. It was unlocked and swung back silently. Behind the door was a small passage that zigzagged around into the dank still chamber where the men slept.
I stood a moment in fear, forgetting why I was there. The air was thick with a pungent odor, an odd mixture of hair oil and urine and sweat. It was the smell of Maria. It was the smell of the cook.
There were two string cots in the room, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw the forms of Babu and Ram on the two beds. Maria was nowhere to be seen.
The room was stifling. The men were snoring, deep in sleep. I checked under the beds, then checked behind the door of the squat toilet. Where was she? I would have to wake up the cook to ask him and then he would know that I knew and he would get scared and run away from the job. And then Ram would be suspected as an accomplice, and my mother would have to let him go as well.
Suddenly I heard Maria’s long sigh and the cook rolled over onto his back and there was Maria, her thin body coming up for air. Her dress was unbuttoned, the hem dragged up to her waist. Between her legs I saw a dark patch, and the nightmare came rushing back into my head, about the hole between Maria’s legs where the men’s heads disappeared when she lay them out on her legs right up against her crotch and dandled them. Inside her hips the heads nestled, and when I poked at her bum the way she poked at mine on the toilet, out came the eyelashes, tongues, ears of Ram and Babu.
The next day I decided. I told Maria I would have her fired unless she did what I wanted. “Baby, don’t tell okay, don’t tell, baby, okay?'” she begged and pleaded. She let me push aside her blouse, unsnap the bra, and push the nylon fabric out of the way, up against her neck, framing her breasts with the twisted, absurdly pointing cups. She bit on her lips and sucked in her breath as I pushed and pulled on her nipples. She tried not to giggle, but no matter how rough I was, she felt ticklish.
When I tried to reach beyond her stomach, Maria writhed and twisted and crossed her thighs tightly. I asked her what she was hiding in there and she gasped, “Same as you, baby, only same as you.”
I was unhappy. Maria’s nipples told me nothing. The woman in my dreams wouldn’t leave me alone. I tried to block her out of my dreams by not sleeping. But she entered my daydreams and leapt around, running down the street helplessly, losing her clothes endlessly. I threatened Maria again. I said I had to see what she was doing with the cook. Maria stuck out her jaw and dared me to tell my mother. She said matter-of-factly that now I was caught; that if I told my mother anything, she could tell my mother something too. Maria would only lose her job, but I had to live with my mother for-ever.
The sleepless nights exhausted me. I cried and cried at night, but the woman ran down my mind, her footsteps louder and heavier, her clothes clinging to her, suffocating her. She tore them off herself in a hopping-skipping rage, eyes wild with fear.
I had to get into the servants’ quarters.
I lay down on Babu’s sagging cot, clutching my stomach and groaning. Maria and my mother came running. “Oooohhhh… ” I moaned. “My stomach, I can’t get up!” I drew my knees into my chest and clung to the edges of the cot.
“What, baba, what is it?” My mother knelt on the floor and tried to feel my stomach. “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me!” I screamed. “I can’t move. Please just let me sleep here.”
My mother stiffened with disgust and stood up. “You can’t sleep on this filthy mattress. You have your own bed. We’ll carry you there and you can sleep till morning. Maria, grab her knees and I’ll take her arms.”
“Why can’t I just sleep here!” I screamed as they picked me up. I thrashed and twisted but couldn’t get free. Maria murmured “left, right, left, right” in time to my scissor-kicks, all the way to the room.
“Where do you get these ideas,” my mother fumed. “We give you a nice clean house to live in and you want to sleep in the pigsty!”
Three flying cockroaches on the wall, all waiting for Maria. She entered the room and’ I slammed my fist against the wall. One cockroach flew down and then right up Maria’s dress. Maria screamed, threw down the clean laundry and danced around the room in terror. She pulled off her dress and squirmed out of her bra and panties. Out jumped the brown wooly-top, fluttering like a butterfly around Maria’s bouncing breasts. She picked up a shoe and swung at the cockroaches, one-twa-three, missed them and watched them fly up to the ceiling. She stood with her legs apart, following the cockroaches with her eyes, shoe raised to strike.
There she was, naked and shaking. I walked behind her. The cockroaches paused on the ceiling. Maria concentrated on them with her neck craned back. I lay down on the floor right behind her, and looked up the crack of her legs. The cockroaches didn’t move. Maria wasn’t aware of me underneath her. Between her legs there was a lot of hair…could have been moustaches or long nose hairs or even somebody’s head.
I sat on the floor of the bathroom, my back against the door. Maria sat on the toilet, her dress pulled down around her knees, eyes shut in concentration. “Oh baba,” she grunted. “Save me, Mother Mary!” she gasped. I could see it was tough for her, what with all the heads inside. Would she take my help…
“Can I poke you a little bit?” I offered eagerly. Maria swayed back and forth on the toilet. She opened one eye and stared at me. “If you can’t clean yourself, how can you clean me?” she asked slowly. “You’ll put your finger in the wrong place and my bum will stay shitty.”
“What wrong place?” I asked.
Maria squealed with delight. “You think children are born all shitty or what, baba. You think I would touch your bum if that’s where babies came from?” Maria hawked up a gob of mucous and spat contemptuously into the basin. “You people grow up in these big-big houses and you don’t know which hole is what!”
“Don’t shout at me,” I cried, utterly confused. “I don’t have any other hole. It’s not my fault,” I said stubbornly. “Only married girls have that other hole.”
“You bloody basket,” Maria said bitterly, “you can’t fool me with your tricks. One is not enough for you, and that’s why you’re after my hole! You go take your mother’s if she doesn’t want it. You just leave my thing alone.”
I sat naked against the long mirror in my room and looked at what was between my legs. Thin purple skin, folding this way and that. What hole? I touched my navel. I dug into the opening and winced at the pain. The hole was closed. Bloody woman telling me lies, I fumed. I’ll fix her once and for all.
I lay in bed listening to the first screams from the servants’ quarters. It was still dark outside. The woman running down the center of my mind was slowing down. She could rest for a while, now that Maria would be leaving. I got up, made my bed, put on my school uniform and went into the kitchen.
The cook squatted dejectedly outside the kitchen door, head in his hands. Inside, my mother was at the door to the servants’ room, dragging Maria forward with all her strength. My mother’s hair was still uncombed from sleeping, falling to her waist. Maria’s hair was stiff and matted around her head. They were screaming at each other.
“You get out now, you get out of my house!” my mother shouted, over and over.
“Don’t touch me!” Maria screamed, trying to free herself. She saw me and called to me helplessly. “Save me, baba,” she cried, “or your mother will kill me.”
“Get out, get out, get out,” my mother shouted. “You shameless woman, I have a young daughter in the house!” Maria slammed my mother against the refrigerator and freed her arms. My mother stumbled, holding the back of her head in pain. I ran up to her. Maria fixed me with eyes of hate.
“Mummy, Mummy,” I said, holding onto my mother’s waist.
“It’s okay, I’m okay,” she groaned. “Your father’s still asleep; we mustn’t disturb him. Call the watchman at the gate. Tell him to come up with the janitor right now. This woman has lost her mind.”
“But Mummy, what’s happening?” I asked innocently.
“Don’t ask questions!” she snapped. “You want this woman to kill us all?” I ran to the intercom, called the watchman and ran back to the kitchen. Maria and my mother stood facing each other, breathing hard.
“All these years, I knew there was something wrong with you.How stupid I was to let you stay!” My mother’s voice trembled with anger. ”I’m sending you back to your village. You have spoilt my household. Ungrateful woman. You pack your things and get out. And take that son-of-a-bitch cook with you!”
“I don’t want him,” Maria spat. “He’s nothing to me. You keep him to make your mutton fry, cheese toast and what all. He stinks of your food.”
My mother covered her face. “You people just won’t learn,” she cried helplessly. “Such shameless behavior when there’s a simple child in the house. Thank god she told me that something was wrong or you would have really twisted her mind.”
Maria raised an eyebrow and looked at me sardonically. My heart jumped into my mouth. For a minute she was back to being naughty old Maria, and I smiled hesitantly. But then her lip curled and she snorted in contempt.
“Simple my foot,” she sneered, looking me up and down.
“Bloody basket, this girl is more shameless than dogs.”
“Just listen to her,” my mother murmured in disbelief, “who could tell she is a mother of children herself!”
The doorbell rang. My mother motioned for me to watch Maria and ran to answer the door. “It won’t be the same after you’re gone,” I whispered to Maria. “We always had so much fun.” Maria stared at the wall, ignoring me.
The watchman and the janitor, two bent old men in khaki shirts and shorts, entered the kitchen, saluted me limply and walked hesitantly toward Maria. She stepped back, curled her fists and growled. The men looked around helplessly at my mother.
My mother firmly took Maria by the hair, and the two men twisted Maria’s arms behind her back and marched her out of the front door. Maria grimaced with the pain of being pushed and pulled, but said nothing. At the lift, the men pushed Maria in and my mother let go her hair. My mother pulled out some money from inside her sari blouse and told the watchman to go with Maria in a taxi to the train station, buy her a one-way ticket to her village and make sure that she was on the train when it pulled out of the station.
“Don’t worry,” my mother said firmly to Maria, ”I’ll send every last thing of yours by parcel post.” My mother pulled shut the lift door and Maria started crying. ‘’I don’t want anything, memsahib,” she whimpered, “I just want to stay here with you and baby.”
The lift descended, and my mother pulled me to her. She shivered involuntarily. “You just can’t trust servants anymore. Just can’t trust any of them to take proper care of children.”
“But I’m so small,” I cried. “Who will take care of me?”
“I know, I know,” my mother soothed, stroking my hair. “I’ll check in the building and see if anyone knows of another ayah.”
“But Mummy, I need somebody today, another Christian girl!” I pleaded.
“Of course, sweetie, I’ll find a girl today itself, and this time younger, okay? So you have someone closer to your age to play with.”
I smiled at her and jumped up in excitement. “Can I call her Maria?” I asked happily.
“Of course, my darling,” said my mother, hugging me and leading me into the house.”You can call her anything you want.”