Blood and urine were drizzled over the toilet seat yet again.
The woman sighed, reaching for the plastic bottles kept underneath the sink. Fumes from the cheap acid used to clean the pots had long left her eyes bloodshot and her vision blurry. But ten long years of cleaning other people’s shit hadn’t manage to rob her of the charming smile she would break into when she ran into a student she liked. Not many of them spoke her language, but gestures often managed to convey the gist of what she wanted to say.
One of them entered the long communal washrooms right then – classes must have ended a few minutes ago. She bowed back out when she noticed the soap suds on the floor, overly apologetic – both for messing up the older woman’s work, and for being of a higher station than she was.
“Amma, wait!” she said in her language.
The student paused. “What is the matter, Amma?” It was strange that both women addressed each other as ‘mother’ but meant entirely different things: while the older woman used it in place of ‘ma’am’, the younger meant it as a kinder substitute for servant.
The worker hesitated, wondering if she should reveal something so intimate. The administration might turn her out if they found out, and her third daughter had just had a baby. “Nothing, ” she smiled, revealing gaps in her yellowing teeth. The student looked on curiously, but was far from fluent enough to pursue it further.
Swiftly, she unscrewed the bottle of acid and spread it around the rim of the toilet.
She wrapped the now-dry saree around herself tightly. She usually took a bath at three in the afternoon to rid herself of the grime that accumulated over the course of the day, hanging her wet saree out on the roof. The blue had faded after years of use, but she preferred the softened fabric of an older garment.
It was a little early for her to be leaving, but she was anxious to get back to her niece. She shuddered involuntarily as she thought of how bruised she had been when she arrived in their shanty, three days ago. She wasn’t crying, but was sullen, and refused to go back to her husband.
“I want to study,” she had declared. “Beyond school. I want to be an engineer.”
Her father had turned her out, of course – he had married her off for her own good. But the aunt – the aunt had had too many children to believe that she knew better than them. So she had sheltered the girl for the past few days in spite of her own sons’ protestations. At work, today, in a moment of near-madness, she had almost asked the girl for help – help in procuring the fees. Forty-thousand in seven days.
Her niece was hunched over the food she was preparing, her eyes watery with smoke. She smiled at the older woman when she walked in. And there was something about the smile – the quiet reserve, the hope – that made the older woman want to wrap her arms around the child and reassure her that everything would soon be okay. Even though she knew that the husband couldn’t be kept out forever; that the fees would require her to seek out one of the girls who spoke her language, because mopping up people’s shit amounted to nothing; the girl was young and full of promise.
She looked down at her hands callused from years of infections. She would rather see her niece’s hands put pen to paper and design something.
She reached for the large spoon with which the meat was being stirred.
“Let me help you, child.”
She had made up her mind.