Archana is a maid servant in Calcutta who works in a three story building, with two apartments on each floor. All total six apartments and all six apartments are occupied by well-earning, well-off people. Archana is not a well-trained maid-servant. Only the maidservants who can cook are considered to be well-trained. Archana does the general work, like washing clothes, dusting furniture, wiping floors with a wet cloth, sweeping floors, scrubbing cooking utensils, washing dirty plates, glasses bowls, cups and saucers.
She knew nothing about cooking. The only thing she could make was tea. She knew a trick, she always put a little bit of extra milk, and a bit of extra sugar, people like that. That's how she brought out the delicious taste and flavor of the tea.
She worked in three of the apartments. Kamini, the other maid servant who also did Archana's kind of general work worked in the other three apartments. Archana was the older one, she looked way older than her real age, because she had no front teeth in her upper gum and never showed any interest to replace them. She never took care of her sari either. She never bought new saris, rather lived off by begging saris from the well off women she worked for. That was the reason why Archana always wore dirty gray old saris peppered with holes.
Archana didn't care about her looks. She wore a steel band and a shell bangle around her right wrist and as a sign of being married she also put a vermilion spot on her forehead and a vermilion line along the parting of her hair. Everybody told her that her husband was a scoundrel because he didn't work and lived off his wife. Still she loved him with all her heart because he had given her a beautiful son. She was determined to make somebody out of her son Pintu. She made him go to school and when he couldn't be promoted from one grade to the next, she hired a private tutor for him and made him pass to the next grade. That's how all of Archana's wages were spent, after her son.
Kamini on the other hand was way younger and extremely conscious about her looks and never begged saris off others. Every month she bought a new sari. In her trunk she had a collection of saris in rainbow colors. Red, yellow blue, green, ocher, orange, white, she had saris in every possible color. She also put cream and powder on her face which made her skin look fresh and young. That was why all the servants of the neighborhood clustered around her and clung to her as bees cling to a hive. Archana called her a whore and Kamini protested vociferously. This is a free country and she couldn't prohibit anybody from coming close to her, but that didn't mean that she slept with anybody. She claimed she was as pure as a freshly bloomed flower. She promised to keep herself that way till the right man came along.
Everybody was aware that Kamini's parents were determined to find a son-in-law who works at an office and doesn't do any kind of hard-labor work that makes a person sweat. That excluded most of the jobs in Calcutta. Because there, even the office workers sweat profusely. Unless of course somebody works in an air-conditioned office. This kind of unachievable hope made Kamini the laughing stock of the neighborhood. But Kamini's parents just couldn't give up this hope. Either way Kamini didn't care.
Besides having colorful saris and wearing matching blouses, Kamini loved to wear jewelry. Not just any kind of fake jewelry, but only gold jewelry that shone like molten sun. She had already bought a pair of earrings and one nose-ring one thin bangle around her right wrist. Now she was planning to buy a necklace. She had calculated that it would take her one whole year to save up the necessary amount of money. Kamini was good at planning and saving and she knew the pain was worth having a necklace. Nothing makes a face shine more than a necklace. A necklace frames the whole face, she believed. She never bought a betel leaf packed with spices, never bought a snack, now she had even stopped buying any sari. For a large goal like a necklace she was agreeable to give up everything else. She drank tea at a tea-shop only when a neighborhood servant paid for it. There was no lack of interest among the servants to take her out for a cup of tea. Kamini was a pretty satisfied woman and didn't have any complaint about life. Only when it came to Archana, Kamini couldn't understand how could a woman work all day long and not take care of herself? Not even a new sari in years. Not even a drop of gold on her body? Rather spending all her wages for a son, who is nothing better than a loafer? All day he wanders around the streets pick pocketing here and there. Rest of the time he climbs trees sitting on high branches of trees pondering whom to pick pocket next.
Archana never paid any attention to what other people said against her son. She believed, the others were jealous of her. The reason being their children would be absolutely nothing, but my son who is now in grade eight would finish schooling and then he would become a conductor in the underground train. All day he would be sitting on a stool, collecting tickets from others. The underground station is even air-conditioned. He would be just the kind of man Kamni's parents were looking for their daughter. No, Archana never wished a selfish daughter-in-law like Kamini, who only knew me, me, and me. No, Archana would look for a daughter-in-law who would be broad minded. Who wouldn't let any beggar go away from the door without alms, no matter how small that is, even if it is a handful, or half a handful of rice even two or three paisa Archana herself is broad minded, so is her son, she tells herself.
One morning as Archana was scrubbing the brass jug in the second floor apartment, one of her neighbors rushed in. 'You better come home right away and see where your son is.' From the pitch of tone of that woman and her bustling around, Archana immediately knew it was something very serious. Instantly she gave up scrubbing and rushed home. On reaching home as she looked up she saw her son sitting on the highest branch of the Arjun tree, a huge tree that grew right beside her hut and provided shade in summer protection from the cold north wind in winter. She had to tilt her head way back to be able to see her son. It seemed to her Pintu sat so high up as if he was close to heaven. Such a horribly unbelievable thought, even if it was a fleeting one, made a shudder pass through Archana's body. No way did she wish to think her son to be in heaven. It was a totally inappropriate thought that came only because she was in a shock to see her son sitting so high up. As if he didn't climb up by himself rather a plane or a helicopter had dropped him there. This kind of thought pleased Archana because this is what the hero does in a Hindi movie, being dropped on a tree top from a plane or a helicopter. Who knows, Pintu is good looking and with a good education some day he might be the hero in a Hindi movie. There are other examples of unknown Bengali men turning into famous Hindi actors. Archana told herself. I'm not a fool, I'm not going to waste my money in meaningless saris and gold. I shall invest my money where it really matters, in my son. Now she screamed out at her son and said, 'Pintu, you better come down'. Immediately, he proceeded to descent.
'Look how obedient he is', Archana thought to herself. 'He does everything as I tell him to do, that's what I call a good upbringing and this comes only with good education', Archana reminded herself and nodded. Pintu doesn't smoke, doesn't even go to the movies by himself. In every way a jewel of a son. The fact that he can't pass the tests is not his fault. It is all because Archana and her husband couldn't give their son too much of intelligence. Both of them can barely read.
Right at that moment the accident happened, so fast that later on Archana couldn't even recall it clearly. Pintu lost his grip on the scrawny branch and fell on the cement sidewalk, right in front of his mother, to be exact, right in front of her feet. Later on Archana thought if she had been not so absorbed in her own thoughts she might have been able to catch Pintu, at least break his fall.
What caught her more by surprise was, following his fall Pintu's body immediately drowned in a pool of blood. 'From where can so much blood come out of a scrawny body like Pintu's?', Archana wondered aloud. The neighbors carried him to the nearest hospital, Lake View Hospital. The doctor took one look at the boy and pronounced him dead. 'DOA', he said, 'dead on arrival'. Still, he ordered a head X-ray. Later on he told the neighbors with a grim face, 'His skull fracture is the largest one I have ever seen.'
Somehow that news comforted Archana, her son had fallen from the highest branch anybody had ever seen and had the biggest fracture the doctor had ever seen. Now she could give him two notable greatness. What he didn't have in life, at last he had it in his death. Archana decided not to go to the hospital. What if the doctor decided to change his mind? What if he said some other doctor had seen a bigger fracture? No, Archana decided not to take such a chance and not go to the hospital. Instead it would be much better if she returned to the second story apartment and finished scrubbing the brass cooking utensils. Making them shine like gold as bright as Kamini's necklace. She proceeded towards the three story house.
Just when she was climbing up the stairs she came face to face with Kamini. Right in the first moment she could detect how Kamini's face glowed. How her eyes shone brighter than usual. In the following moment she took notice of the gleaming orange-yellow necklace around Kamini's neck. She decided to look at it more carefully, more intensely and lifted it up on two fingers. Tips of the index and middle fingers of her right hand. It wasn't as papery thin as she thought it would be. It was rather thick and heavy. Archana wasn't surprised. Last one year Kamini hadn't bought a single sari, hadn't bought a single sweet-meat for herself. Every paisa she had earned had gone for this necklace. Kamini couldn't let this last chance of telling Archana the right words, go to waste, such a chance might never come again.
'Both of us have worked hard. I have got a trunk full of beautiful saris and a body full of gold jewelry to show for but look at you, no teeth, no sari, no jewelry, only a dead son to show for.'
Archana jerked her face, jerked her right hand, scrunched up her lips in a button-shape and cried in a shrill tone, 'But my life always had a meaning, your life never meant anything to anybody but you. Of course except the servants who cling to you like bees to a bee-hive. Whom perhaps you give your body free of charge!'
There both of them decided to let go of the battle. Kamini was aware of her bad reputation and fighting with Archana on the day her only child had passed away, would only add to her rotten reputation. They went their different ways. Somehow the thought of making the jug shine as bright as gold tickled Archana. She had another goal to look forward to, she told herself. Perhaps this month she would buy a sari, as bright as the flames of fire. The thought of fire once again made her think about her son. Soon his body would be engulfed by tall, dancing flames. His scrawny body with all blood drained might not need a whole lot of wood. She's not going to be thrifty about logs. No more tuition to pay this month, and no sari either, she changed her mind. Rather she would buy the maximum logs with her savings. Let all her neighbors see, let Kamini find out, she would not shy away from her motherly duty just because her son is dead. She would show everybody what a beautiful funeral pyre is all about. Lots of logs and plenty of clarified butter. That was all that Pintu needed. The flame colored sari can be bought next month. There is plenty of time for that. But there would never be a second chance for Pintu's funeral pyre. As majestic a pyre as people have never seen before. Archana's final chance to show what a dedicated motherly heart she has.