Shanta Bai half heartedly dips the grey rag in the bucket of water, rinses it, and runs it across the floor. The ceiling fan whirls loudly above her; it’s only when she stands directly below it does she find a spot of cool air. From the bedroom a strong, husky voice asks if she has added a drop of Dettol to the water.
Shanta Bai walks to the kitchen, opens the little cupboard under the sink, and pulls out a half-empty bottle of Dettol. She hates the strong smell, it reminds her of the government hospital where her husband died. She measures one cap full and adds it to the orange bucket. The antiseptic solution hits the water in a white hissing cloud; the smell unfortunately, isn’t dissolved.
The voice comes back, reminding her to swab under the couch and in the corners. Shanta Bai is on the wrong side of fifty, but that’s not nearly old enough to slack off. She runs the cloth under the couch and over the corners.
She has worked long enough to know the answer is always, “Ho, Tai.” Tai, she calls them even though most of them are younger than her daughter. But what else is she going to call them?As she drags the wash-cloth across the marble floor and under the teak table, she admits this was a better job when she was younger.
The women were docile; many were even naive, unexposed as they were to the outside. And the men, well, they were men, and she was young. Many of those men have died, some she still sees on her way to work – fat and old, and partly useless. When they see her, they turn away, away from the secrets of their youth.
Shanta Bai, stands up slowly. With one hand supporting her lower back, she reaches for the bucket with the other. She has to clean the windows and then dry the laundry. Then she’ll water the plants and leave for the day. She reaches for the rag, rinses the dirty water out and gets to the window.
“Shanta Bai, make sure to change out the water before cleaning the windows! I don’t want you to use the same dirty water and rag.”
Shanta Bai returns the rag to the bucket and heads to the sink. In a low, controlled voice, she calls back, “Ho, Tai.”
Tai – title for elder sister