‘I cleaned the -’ won the overall 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and the regional prize for Asia.
TB Rita loves the story. I don’t know why. It doesn’t have a happy ending.
She doesn’t actually have tuberculosis. The TB stands for tobacco; she says she became addicted to the stuff while wrapping beedis for a living when she was thirteen years old, and now her lungs are like the kitchen sponge, full of holes and black fungus. She keeps a small tin cup under her bed for the sputum. When it’s full, wobbling at the brim, it reminds me of my old life.
Rita’s condition doesn’t stop her from having what she calls ‘a good bloody laugh’ at my expense. She’s heard the saga so many times she knows it off by heart. When I get to the part about Chooti Baba’s funeral she starts to giggle. As I proceed towards the dreadful climax her giggle turns into a cackle and then into a cough, that terrible broken-lorry-engine cough, until she is laughing and coughing so hard there is spittle and blood on her chin.
I don’t find it funny at all but I indulge her because she’s dying.
Rita and I share a room in the Carmelite Sister’s Sanctuary for the Forsaken. All the nuns here have taken a vow of silence and spend their days caring for women who’ve been dismissed, abandoned, maimed or otherwise left for dead. By night they walk the streets in search of us. That’s how they found me curled against a stone cross in the Catholic quarter of the Borella Cemetery. It took three of them – strong, those ladies – to get me away from there. Twenty years I was with Chooti Baba. I couldn’t bear to leave her side.
‘Twenty years of washing one person’s backside!’ Rita caws. ‘You should be on your knees thanking God for releasing you.’
In a wicked way, she’s right. No one should live as Chooti Baba did. But with her gone I can’t get hold of my life. No weight to heft, no hair to comb; I’ve become a skin with nothing inside.
It’s helped me fit in here. This is a place for people who have no people. The sanctuary’s front garden is full of flowering creepers. The backyard is a private burial ground. Crooked wooden signposts mark each grave, like a bed of vegetables that never grow. I would like to sit quietly on the verandah overlooking this wilting plot of land but Rita won’t let me. She chatters like a trapped squirrel, prodding, probing.
‘Go and bother one of the others, will you?’ I say.
‘Those boring hags? Their stories are nothing compared to yours. This is a cracker, one of the best things I’ve heard in my life.’
Rita could be fifty or seventy. She has one of those ageless faces you wouldn’t expect of a chain smoker. I’ve never known a woman with such an appetite for life. She devours it like a bag of hot roasted peanuts, by the fistful.
‘It’s all thanks to my mother,’ she says. ‘A miserable woman if ever there was one! Always working, always complaining. Her curries tasted like sweat and tears. I used to see her crooked back and say to God, just give me one chance and I promise I won’t become like this.’
‘You tried to bargain with God?’ I ask.
‘Why not? Bugger wasn’t responding to threats or prayers. I said, okay, here is my best offer: get me out and I’ll give you a good bloody laugh.’
‘At least you’re a woman of your word, Rita.’
She looks me over as if seeing me for the first time, dredging my life upwards from my splayed, bare feet to my tightly bound hair. Like all the women in my family I have a curved spine that makes it look like I’m always bowing my head, just a little. I try to straighten my shoulders for her examination.
‘A good Tamil girl like you could have found work in a hundred houses,’ she observes. ‘When you realized what was happening why didn’t you try to escape?’
How do I explain to an old, sick spinster, whose longest standing relationship was with a junior naval seaman during his weeklong shore leave, what it means to love a child?
My early memories of Chooti Baba are like incense smoke, curling and vanishing. For one thing, Lila Missy and Ronnie Mahaththaya didn’t let me get too close to the child. I wasn’t a proper nanny, but I wasn’t one of the other servants either. I lived somewhere in the middle, half inside the big house and half in the backroom quarters, and in each place, people kept their distance from me because of my buckets.
Every day I hauled the buckets of soiled nappies to an outdoor tap set in a square of cement under a clove tree. Squatting on the ground I washed the cloths by hand, carefully coaxing slime off pastel-colored bears and bunnies.
It was from this corner of the world that I watched a parade of visitors come to pay homage to Chooti Baba. I knew they were important persons because none of them did anything – they did not drive their own cars, or open their own umbrellas. Some of the women reminded me of actresses I’d seen on TV. Once, a man cruised up in an armored jeep with lion flags fluttering from the windows. He might have been the prime minister; such was the company my employers kept.
‘No point,’ Rita grumbles through toothless gums. It is dawn. The wiry rambutan tree outside our window is still a specter in the darkness, and she hasn’t yet put in her dentures.
‘Posh, powerful, political, but scared of their own . . . to smell their own . . . to clean their own . . .’
She has a hundred different uncouth expressions for it but I can’t bring myself to repeat them.
Sister Wilfred brings our morning tea in stained mugs. This puts Rita in a foul mood because she misses her morning cigarette.
‘I want to live,’ she tells the mute nun. ‘At least until I die, don’t I deserve that?’
I’m glad the nuns are strict. I can’t stand the sharp, sour bite of cigarette smoke.
Lila Missy was a secret smoker, even while she was breastfeeding. She managed to hide it from everyone except me, because whenever she indulged in her forbidden pleasures Chooti Baba’s stools turned the color of sundried cow dung, greenish black. When Lila Missy drank alcohol, the nappies became reservoirs of curdled milk.
‘What a skill!’ Rita knocks back the last of her tea. ‘Did they know there was a kakka detective on the loose?’
She is belittling me as usual but I stand by my declaration: you can learn everything about a person based entirely on their discards. Mood, temperament, health, it’s all there. I could predict when a tantrum was approaching. I prescribed the proper herbs to soothe the child’s upsets. And it was I who sounded the alarm one morning when I discovered traces of blood on a floral nappy, streaks of angry red mucus clinging to baby pink roses.
At first there was a flurry. Hasty trips to the hospital in Ronnie Mahaththaya’s silver bullet of a car.
Pack a bag, I was told – Lila Missy’s nightgown, Chooti Baba’s nappies. Another. No, a suitcase this time. They might have to stay a while. When I tried to gather a few soft toys, a fat elephant, a furry fish, Ronnie Mahaththaya shook his head. Nothing of the sort was permitted in the NICU.
‘What’s that?’ Rita asks.
‘Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.’
Rita and I are the only ones here who converse in English. She picked it up as a teenager while selling batik beach wraps to tourists on the coast, but these days she’s rusty. Often, I’ll have to repeat myself, or explain a word. I don’t mind; this is the one thing I have to show for those hours spent watching English films and news programs on a widescreen TV with a motionless girl as my only companion.
Rita chews on the expression. ‘What did it look like . . . this Neonatal Intensive Care Unit?’
But I never visited it. All I was told was that Chooti Baba had developed a rare disease of the blood that caused clots to erupt throughout her little body: inside the veins, on her lungs. And then one night, in her brain.
I expected Lila Missy and Ronnie Mahaththaya to pull in the skies. In the days following their return from the hospital, with suitcases full of soiled clothes, I prepared for a river of distinguished visitors: top doctors, the most powerful priests, ancient Ayurvedic healers, but nobody came. Mother, father and child retired to their bedroom and locked the door.
I left breakfast and lunch trays outside. At dinnertime I cleared away the uneaten food and collected the buckets, my only indication that there was still life inside this house.
Four days passed before Ronnie Mahaththaya emerged, unshaved and unwashed.
‘Lila Missy is not well,’ he said.
‘She must eat something,’ I told him.
He licked his dry lips. Dark crescents hung under his eyes.
‘Let me bring sandwiches,’ I said, turning towards the kitchen. ‘And tea.’
‘No.’ He seized my wrist, pressing his thick gold wedding ring into my vein. He dragged me into the bedroom. It was midday but the curtains were drawn, draping everything in shadows. On the unmade bed Lila Missy lay like a heap, wearing nothing but her underclothes. Beside her the hooded bassinet looked huge, a woven cane cobra uncoiling from the ground.
‘Just look at her,’ Ronnie Mahaththaya said. ‘What am I supposed to do? It’s hopeless.’
I didn’t know who he was talking about. I allowed him to lead me deeper into the room. My insides felt loose as though every organ was swimming in soup. As we neared the baby’s basket I thought I might bring up my last meal.
‘Look at it,’ Ronnie Mahaththaya said again, so I did.
Chooti Baba’s eyes were open. As I hovered over her they locked onto my face. Her eyes danced over my features, darting this way and that, as if they were making up for the parts of her that wouldn’t move. I dipped my arms into the basket and lifted her gently out, so light, so limp. I smiled. I had never been this close to her before. Her lips parted slightly, then closed, expelling a soft ‘umm’ sound.
‘But you said she was paralyzed,’ Rita interjects.
‘Only from the neck down. She could see everything, hear everything – ‘
‘But couldn’t move, no? My God! Not even one finger? Like a vegetable.’
I pour a cup of icy cold water on her head and she gasps.
I’m helping Rita with her morning wash. She sits on a rotting wooden stool lathering her body with a diminishing sliver of soap. She is comfortable in the nude, even boastful.
‘How my skin? So smooth. Why, no children, no? And no man also. So, no scars! Once upon a time I was very sexy. Everybody wanted but I didn’t give. Only for my lovely young sailor. And now – ‘
I rub her with a threadbare towel that feels like sandpaper. Then I bend, spreading open cotton panties. She steadies herself against my shoulders as she steps into them.
‘Terrible no, for you? From Chooti Baba to TB Rita. Shall we ask Sister Wilfred to put you in another room?’
She drops her forehead against mine, cups my cheek and kisses my temple. Her lips are warm and supple, the only part of her that isn’t fading away. She whispers, ‘Ishwari’ over and over again. I never liked my name until it was formed by those lips.
It’s a new sensation for me, being close to a person with an active body. Parts that move, fingers that curl, muscles that tighten. I would like to spend hours exploring all the ways it can happen but we don’t have a lot of time. If we take too long, Sister Wilfred comes knocking.
Later, when no one is watching, I put my fingers to my face, trying to catch a whiff of the encounter. Nothing, only the scent of Rita’s baby soap.
Perhaps they drove down to the beach, or up to Ronnie Mahaththaya’s bungalow in the hills, close to the tea estate where I was born and where my family labored; I don’t know. All Ronnie Mahaththaya said was that Lila Missy needed a ‘break’. He didn’t ask. It was just understood that they were leaving and we were staying. I wasn’t to worry about anything, okay? He had instructed the other servants to obey my every command. Whatever I desired, I would have it.
‘Ah! Now the truth comes out. You went from being a nobody to a Nona-Mahaththaya.’
‘I wasn’t a Nona-anything, Rita. I was still cleaning the –’
‘But you were in the big house, no? Sleeping in the big room with the baby? Going about like a peacock and whole time eating scraps from their table.’
But it didn’t feel like scraps. It was more like a gift.
A child learns very quickly who its people are. It has nothing to do with blood and everything to do with waste. Who feeds you, who wipes away the spills? Who takes damp and discomfort and turns it into sleep? Those who haven’t done it think that your love for a child is what fuels the labour. Mothers know – it’s the labour that generates the love.
Chooti Baba’s parents stayed away for three weeks, long enough for the child and I to learn a new life together.
They returned ripe with rest and bursting with generosity. What would they have done without me, they wondered. My old salary was a pittance, from now on it would be doubled. After all, my job had changed.
‘Rich people are bloody useless.’ Rita lays a heavy emphasis on the last word. ‘Always the easy way, open the purse and solve the problem. What did you need so much money for anyway? Gold bangles?’
She has a wonderfully flexible face. When provoked she can pull her top lip almost to the tip of her nose in a perfect impression of a snarling dog.
‘Do you know what happens to estate workers, Rita? They become crippled. Day after day carrying that cursed basket of tea makes women into hunchbacks. When my mother was sixty she couldn’t even lift a handful of rice to her mouth. We had to hire someone to look after her. To wash her, feed her – ‘
Rita makes a sound like a hiss of gas escaping a cylinder. ‘Rich and poor all the same. Pay someone else to do your dirty work.’
‘As if you haven’t done someone’s dirty work for a living.’
‘You don’t know what I’ve done and not done,’ Rita says. ‘I worked for a halal butcher. I pumped petrol. I even cleaned the cages in the Dehiwela Zoo! Then I caught the night watchman doing filthy things with a python and got the sack. Can you imagine? This fool was tangling with a snake but I was the one who got penalized.’
‘Your fault. Why did you open your mouth?’
‘I’m like that. If I see something rotten I can’t keep quiet about it.’
We are sitting on the back porch that overlooks our graveyard. It’s quiet, only dragonflies patrol the plots. Rita reclines in an old planters’ armchair, stretching out her once-sexy legs, now a canvas for varicose veins. In the afternoon, when the sun is at its most savage, she sleeps here, to the sound of my voice.
There’s something comforting about an unconscious audience. Words come bubbling up out of me and drift away with Rita’s rake-on-gravel snoring, about how I spent my life inside a room with a person who did only two things with any regularity: ate, and expelled waste. With an infant that’s one story. But what comes out of a grown woman is an entirely different matter. A child can be laid on their back and the whole affair settled in a few minutes. An adult has a sense of dignity and shame. Those are heavy things, dead weights.
But there was lightness, too. Chooti Baba had a strange sense of humor. I discovered it one morning while washing her soiled sheets in the outhouse. I had parked her wheelchair under a tree close by – she grew agitated if I disappeared from view for too long – and had the door ajar so she could hear me talking while I worked.
‘Who made this mess here? Was it the crow? No, the crow does his business on the roof. Was it the poosa? No, the poosa covers his dirt with sand. Was it Chooti Baba? Oh yes.’
She was at that age where nothing was more fascinating than the creatures who shared our abode.
‘The crow says kaak-kaak-kaak,’ I said. ‘And the poosa? Mreeeow! And what noise does Chooti Baba make when she’s doing number two?’ I flicked my tongue against my lips while blowing bubbles of spit and air. I’d never done anything like that before and I think it shocked her because the gurgling stopped abruptly.
Then she laughed.
Anyone else might have been alarmed by the sound, as though she was trying to expel something lodged deep in her throat. The muscles in her face didn’t work well enough for her to smile – but I knew.
It became a big joke between us. Every time we had to go through the motions, I produced the sound that made her hysterical. Suddenly there were endless possibilities to entertain: What sound does an elephant make when it goes to the toilet? A fish? A snake? Elaborate stories about every animal in the kingdom relieving itself in the jungle. I called up tales from my childhood, those brief years spent in a crumbling school for the children of tea pluckers. The animals in my stories were intercepted by demons I’d read about in old history books, and gods from my family’s vast pantheon.
It didn’t change the basic facts of my life. But it helped, a little.
What sound does a crocodile make?
‘Thrrrsssspppp,’ I say out loud, and Rita giggles in her sleep.
Visiting hours are from four to six so the nuns can retire to their chapel for evening mass. It’s a sinking time of day. Crushed hope sags like a plastic sheet over the whole place.
Neither Rita nor I have reason to watch the front gate. We sit together on a wrought-iron bench beside the fish pond. She says the plants help her breathe easier. I rub her back while she passes judgement on the visitors.
Today it’s some distant relations of a resident named Hyacinth, a father and son. The boy balks at the gate, pulling back like a puppy. His father cajoles, then slaps him.
‘What’s the matter with you, ah? Don’t you want to see Aunty Hyacinth?’
‘Of course not,’ Rita growls. ‘Aunty Hyacinth is a miserable person. She has dementia, and she smells like a toilet. It’s the stuff of nightmares.’
Father hauls son up a walkway made of granite chips and river stones. The boy purposely trips over his own sandals to delay the meeting. Another slap, on the other cheek this time.
‘Very good,’ I say. ‘Children have to learn.’
‘Learn what? That old age is a hideous thing?’
‘No, that you can’t put people away and forget about them.’
Hyacinth holds the stiff boy to her side. A current of revulsion ripples visibly through his body. The old lady doesn’t notice or perhaps she is just used to ignoring indignities. She pulls him closer for a kiss.
‘I wouldn’t expect a woman like you to understand,’ I tell Rita. ‘You turned your back on your own people. For what? To go off and have a good time.’
We are holding hands under the bench. I can feel her pulse in my palm and she can feel my sweat on hers. She draws in her fingers, sinking her nails into my skin. I snatch away my hand to examine the damage: she’s drawn blood across my fate line.
‘I went away to live with a little dignity. It’s very easy to pretend you’re helpless. Then you can go around like a beggar saying, Aiyo, no money, no nothing. Much harder to make a choice. To say, This is what I want. I will do it.’
I feel dizzy. Someone has taken my arm and pulled me to my feet. It’s Sister Wilfred. She likes to surprise me and Rita like this, approaching softly, appearing without warning. Her religious vows will not permit her to believe her unsavory suspicions about us but still, she makes up excuses for separation – time for Rita to take a walk. Time for Ishwari to help in the kitchens.
I allow myself to be led away.
‘My conscience is clear,’ Rita shouts after me. ‘My hands are clean!’
Hyacinth’s young nephew turns his saucer eyes on us: someone else making a scene for a change.
As for me, I’m glad for the interruption because it allows me to keep my secret, the part of the story I will never tell Rita.
The last time Lila Missy came to the annex she was big with her second child.
I had not seen her in many months – her weekly visits had dwindled, stalled and finally ceased – so I thought for moment it must be a trick of the moonlight, a distended shadow bulging against the wall.
I sat all the way up in my little bed which lay at the foot of Chooti Baba’s. Lila Missy ventured further into our nest, both hands resting on her globe. She stepped out of her slippers and lined them up neatly beside the mat. I braced myself for that awful sound Chooti Baba made whenever her mother drew near, halfway between a bark of protest and a cry of yearning, but she slept peacefully.
Lila Missy did not look at me. She climbed into bed beside the girl – beside the woman – and began to cry.
All night I sat in a chair in the hall. I watched the sun come up through the large windows that overlooked our boundary wall, ten feet of solid red brick. Ronnie Mahaththaya had personally supervised its construction.
Dawn seeped into the annex and draped itself over all the comforts that soothe a guilty conscience: beautiful furniture, soft carpets. A flashing phone system that connected me to Ronnie Mahaththaya’s office, Lila Missy’s servants, pharmacies and supermarkets.
I stood in the front doorway with my back to the sun so that Lila Missy would have to negotiate me on her way out. Her eyes were red, encrusted with sleep. Nothing between us but her belly. How dare she come here parading her hopes for the future? I held my hands in fists at my sides. I thought, God, just give me a reason. Let her say the words, sorry, thank you, and I will do it. But all she did was bow her head like a devotee. Like a servant.
Sometimes, I’ll wake up in the night imagining I am still in the annex, in that great big cage surrounded by a brick wall. I jump out of bed thinking I must check on the child. When I can’t find her in the darkened room I start to panic.
‘Baba! Chooti Baba!’
A familiar terror takes hold of me: perhaps she has choked on her food, or suffocated in her pillow. I spent most of my time worrying how to keep her alive and the rest of it plotting to kill her.
I moan and rock back and forth until Rita whispers, ‘Come here, darling. Come my love.’
I go to her. Climb into the bed and lay down with my back to her. She puts her dry, warm arms around me in such a way that her hands meet over my heart. I beat wildly into her, so fast I can’t breathe. She keeps me there. Slowly my pulse falls into step with hers. She doesn’t worry me or pet me. She allows me to grieve against her until I come to terms with it all.
Everyone who never visited the annex turned up at the funeral, hundreds of people looking ashamed and relieved. Ronnie Mahaththaya and Lila Missy stood beside the closed casket. The priest said, ‘Every child is a child of God, created in His Own Image.’ I thought about Chooti Baba, how food would trickle down her chin while I fed her, or the way her legs sometimes slipped off the bed and dangled like two dead snakes. A funny kind of god.
I stood at the back of the room throughout the brief service. Only when the priest called for the pallbearers did I push through the crowd to take my place.
The brass rings on the coffin were so cold. I held on tight.
A tall man in a suit asked me what I thought I was doing. I kept my eyes fixed on the ground. I was the only one in rubber slippers. The other women wore elegant sandals, the men wore polished shoes.
A spark of life flared in the stifling hot parlor – people whispering, pushing to get a closer look.
‘Who is this person?’ the priest asked.
Ronnie Mahaththaya said, ‘She was our daughter’s attendant, Father. I’m sorry, she hasn’t been herself since it happened.’
Lila Missy put both hands protectively over her stomach.
‘Kindly move aside,’ the priest said. ‘Only relations are allowed to carry a casket.’
‘I am a very close relation.’
‘Male relations,’ the suited man clarified.
‘This is my Chooti Baba,’ I explained. ‘How many times have I lifted her on my own? I have a right, I have every right.’
‘Now look here.’ The priest tucked his crucifix into his cassock. ‘You’re upsetting these people. Can’t you see they’re grieving for their child? You, and you – take her place.’
‘This is my Chooti Baba,’ I told him. ‘I have – ‘
But Lila Missy stepped forward. ‘Stop saying my.’
‘Don’t get worked up darling, please,’ Ronnie Mahaththaya said. ‘It’s not good for the baby.’
‘No. I must set her straight before she goes on her way. She wasn’t yours, you understand? You were paid to do a job. You did it well – very well, I’ll give you that. But you forgot yourself. I understand. If I was in your position I might have done the same, but there’s a limit. I don’t want to part on bad terms. On a day like today we must be like Jesus. Am I right, Father? We must practice forgiveness.’
A firm hand peeled my fingers off the coffin. I stared at that hand. A thick, gold wedding ring. Ronnie Mahaththaya, so strong when he wanted to be. I felt as though a huge weight were pressing down on my hunched spine, baskets of tea and buckets of waste. Too much to bear. Like a cobra uncoiling from the ground, I straightened my back and elongated my neck.
‘But I cleaned the shit.’
Rita claps her hands in delight. ‘That’s my girl. Told it straight to his face? In front of the priest!’
‘Do you know how it’s done?’ I asked Ronnie Mahaththaya. ‘Changing a nappy on a paralyzed person? First you have to lift her legs with all your strength. Then you have to pull it off, wrap it up, clean her, dry her, change her clothes, wash the sheets. Every single time, thousands of times. While she was sleeping, while she was menstruating! How many times have I had blood and shit on my hands? Not mine? Whose is she if not mine?’
‘My God!’ Ronnie Mahaththaya said. Lila Missy had crumpled to the floor.
‘Someone bring some water. Hurry up!’
‘Stand back, give her some room – and get this mad woman out of here.’
‘I did it,’ I said. ‘For twenty years. All alone. Where were you? Where were you while I was cleaning the shit?’
Rita heaves with mirth and sickness. She works my arm like a water pump, as if to say, faster, faster. It’s always like this at the end. Even when she can barely talk she demands more. The Best Part is what she calls this. You wouldn’t even know she was in pain to look at her, every crevice on her face shining with devilish joy.
But not today. There’s something different, something desperate in her touch. Her wheeze doesn’t come in gusts like it usually does – in fact, wait, it looks like she can’t breathe at all.
She becomes a puppet, twitching and jerking. I pound her back and press my lips to hers, trying to deliver my own breath down deep into her lungs.
It’s quick. It’s over. Only stillness now, warm and stiff and dry.
There was a saying among the women on the estate that when a person dies, two things leave the body, their soul and their waste. Both must be dispelled quickly; the last thing you want in your home are ghosts and shit.
I stroke Rita’s eyes shut, and gather my belongings. There’s a bus stop at the top of the road where I can catch a ride to somewhere. On my way out I draw back the curtains, unfasten the latches, and push the windows open into the morning so Rita’s soul can fly away.
I leave the mess. My hands smell fragrant and clean, like a baby’s.
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