It had been a long day at the office and Sonali was looking forward to putting up her feet with a cup of tea.
Raja, her 12-year-old-son, opened the door. “Mom, my scholarship money which was in the drawer has been stolen.”
Sonali suppressed a groan.
There went her hopes of relaxing. “Are you sure? Did you check properly?”
“Let me see.” She hunted high and low with Raja prowling about like a bear that had misplaced her cubs.
“Perhaps you spent it and forgot?” Sonali asked hoping against hope.
“No! I didn’t. I had Rs 7122. Now there is only Rs 122.”
“Why would a thief take only part of the money?” Sonali wondered.
“Probably because she was in a hurry?”
“She?” Sonali turned to her husband.
He shrugged. “It’s obviously one of the girls.”
Sonali looked at him in dismay. Who else indeed? Nobody else entered Raja’s room.
“Mom, are you going to call the police? Will they go to jail?” The bear wanted blood.
“I am not going to do any such thing.”
“Why not? They are thieves and they should be in jail.”
“There are three of them and I don’t know who has taken the money. I can’t just call the police.” Sonali was aghast. “This is a domestic matter and not a very big issue. I will sort it out.”
“Not a big issue? It was my scholarship money!”
“How will you sort it out? You do realize this is a tricky situation, which could blow up in our faces? What if they bring counter allegations of harassment?”
Mama and Papa bears pulled her in two different directions.
“Let me think! I haven’t even been to the washroom.” Sonali snarled. “And you,” Sonali turned to Raja, “It’s all your fault. How many times did I tell you to take care of it?”
“So it’s my fault? Not the thieves? You want to put me in jail and let them go scot free?” He followed his mother to the washroom.
Sonali slammed the door for some peace and quiet.
Her husband was right. This was indeed a tricky situation. She couldn’t –shouldn’t talk to the girls. Who knew how they would react? They would of course deny culpability. It would be better to talk to their mother, Sheila.
In the privacy of the loo, Sonali allowed herself the luxury of a groan. If only Raj was still around. None of this would have happened.
“I can’t come to work from tomorrow.” Raj, Sonali’s longtime and trusted house help, had said not so long ago.
Raj was Sonali’s right and left hand. A delicate health, a full time job, a hungry teenager, breakfast, tiffin, lunch, high tea, and dinner – the heat! How would she manage?
“I am sorry but the family is shifting far from here. You know I can’t read bus numbers. Besides I have never traveled alone. So.” She raised her hands in a helpless gesture.
“Can you suggest someone as a replacement? Someone trustworthy?” Seeing no other option Sonali asked.
“I will see. But I won’t be able to vouch for trustworthiness.”
“I suppose not. But at least send someone who is regular and doesn’t take too many offs. You know how things are at home.”
After a frenetic week, a middle-aged woman turned up. “Memsahib, you are looking for a maid? Raj sent me.”
“Oh.” Sonali wiped the soapsuds off her hands. “What’s your name?”
“Are you new? I haven’t seen you around.”
“No Memsahib. I have been here for longer than Raj has. I was the one who arranged for her accommodation near my house when she first came to town.”
“Okay Sheila,” Sonali interrupted her self-righteous affronted speech, “I do need someone to help me with the housework. But you have to come early morning before I leave for work and after I come back from work.”
“But Raj used to…”
“Yes Raj had a key. But she’s been with me for more than a decade now. I can’t just…” Sonali trailed off for fear of offending her.
“Don’t think like that of us Memsahib. We are of good family Memsahib. It’s just that we have fallen upon bad times.”
“I am sure! I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t trustworthy. But you do agree trust takes time? Even with Raj…”
“Okay Memsahib. As you think best.”
“And I don’t want you to take any leave without information. At least give me a call, if you can’t come.”
Relieved, Sonali agreed to Sheila’s demands of a salary hike and handed over the reins of the cleaning to her. She could go back to having a cup of tea in peace.
After a bit of tussle with the men of the house who didn’t like the idea of a strange woman roaming the house and encroaching upon their activities.
“Why do I have to go out? My room is clean.”
“Who is she? What are her credentials? What if she steals something?”
“Whoever has objections can take her place. I will even pay for it.” Sonali smartly turned the tables. They backed off mumbling and grumbling.
Sheila turned out to be a God sent – she was regular, clean and a reliable worker. Sonali relaxed and bonded with her new ‘friend’ and life savior. Saturday was Sonali’s day off and Sheila would share a cup of tea her life’s woes and joys while the bears were away.
“Memsahib, this morning breakfast that you are kind enough to give me everyday? I really appreciate it. I come for work without having breakfast. It saves me time. And money.”
“My husband is a good man, Memsahib. No smoking no drinking, no bad habits. I feel sorry for him that he got me as a wife. I couldn’t give him a son.”
“Without a son, there is no respect in society, Memsahib. I gave birth to five daughters but no son.”
“My husband can’t sleep nights for worry. The other day he fainted because of high blood pressure. Running around the hospital is no woman’s job. I cannot even read and write. If only we had a son.”
“My husband is taking a life insurance policy. He has been advised to make his nephew as the beneficiary not me or my daughters.”
“My youngest says she is my son. She said she would never leave me and go.”
“Daughters’ weddings are expensive business. We are still dealing with the burden of loan for our two elder daughters’ marriage.“
“I don’t know how to control my daughters Memsahib. They are driving us crazy with their demands for an early marriage. The middle one especially is running out of control and is straying. She has a boyfriend. She has no shame in flaunting him. She carries on publicly with him. She cares more for him than us. She gave us an ultimatum, either we get her married or she will run away with him. Think of the shame Memsahib, we will lose face in society.”
“We can’t put off their wedding much longer. But where will we get the money to marry them off?”
“Sweets for you Memsahib. I am very happy today. My daughter’s second child is a boy. Now nobody can taunt her or me. Our ‘sonless’ curse is broken.”
“Memsahib, I need leave to take care of my husband. He’s had a heart attack.”
Sonali looked at her in dismay. “Oh no!”
“Don’t worry Memsahib. Your work won’t suffer. I know you also don’t keep a good health and I will make sure that at least one of my three daughters comes to do your house work.”
Seeing no other option, Sonali agreed. Besides, it was considerate of Sheila to keep her comfort in mind in this situation. But her neat orderly house running like clockwork was thrown into disarray. It’s not that the girls didn’t come, but each had a different way of working and special area of slipshoddiness. But Sonali had little choice but to bear it as well as she could.
And now money was missing. And who knows what else was missing.
“Mom, you are still letting thieves walk about the house?”
“I don’t know which of the three took the money. Besides, I don’t want to say anything to them. Sheila will have to deal with them.” Sonali said. “Until she comes to work, things will carry on as usual, except that we will have to keep a closer watch on their activities.”
A long drawn out altercation followed but Sonali was adamant.
Much to everyone’s disgust.
Sheila reported for work four days later.
“Sheila,” Sonali was uncomfortable and apprehensive, “I wanted to tell you that some money is missing from my son’s room.”
She turned off the tap.
“My youngest would never do it.” She said at last.
Relieved not to have Sheila take offence or fly off the handle, Sonali said carefully measuring each word, “You know your daughters best. I didn’t say anything to any of them because I thought you were best suited to deal with the situation. And there is no doubt I am afraid that one of them must have taken it.”
Sheila didn’t say anything and went about her work as usual.
Sonali escaped to office but she was bombarded with dire warnings and advice from all quarters.
“Be careful of these people. They are very cunning. They will land up in hordes and create a ruckus. Worse they can also file a harassment complaint at the police station.”
“So what should I do?” Sonali was getting more and more apprehensive.
“Forget about the money.”
“And continue to let her work?”
“That’s a bit tricky. Best you deal with it diplomatically.”
“Oh look at the time! And I have tons of work…”
That’s it work – work was the only distraction and Sonali pushed the domestic crisis for later.
When Sonali returned from office, she found Sheila and her husband waiting for them.
Sonali looked at her husband. He set his lips and walked inside.
Sonali steeled herself for the worst.
“Yes Sheila.” Sonali hated the defensiveness in her own tone.
“Memsahib, we came to apologise and offer compensation. I know my middle daughter has taken the money. Please don’t call the police.”
Sonali stared at Sheila unable to believe her ears. “How do you know?”
“Like you said Memsahib, I know my children best. I knew my youngest couldn’t have done it. And my middle one has been getting desperate about her lover. I confronted all three of them. They all denied. So I accused her outright. She denied vociferously. Then I told her ‘Memsahib has a CCTV camera and she saw you take it.’ She broke down and confessed.”
Sheila wrung her hands waiting for the axe to fall.
The wind taken completely out of her sails, Sonali was dumbstruck.
In all the scenarios that they had painstakingly constructed, they had never ever considered that Sheila would accept culpability or identify the culprit.
“Memsahib, we have brought some money. Please take how much ever she stole from you. She confessed that she stole for her boyfriend and has already given it to him. We would have thrown her out Memsahib, but her wedding cards have distributed. Think of the bad name our family will get. How will I get my other two daughters married? Please don’t call the police. We just have Rs 5000 with us right now. We will give back the rest to you as soon as we can.”
Sonali felt humbled yet victorious, small yet exhilarated.
A/N Based on a true incident.
In response to the Daily post’s one-word prompt – Outlier