Toofani wiped her forehead with the edge of her grimy sari. She was dog tired and ravenous after working in her sixth house starting from six am till two in the afternoon.
In every house she was offered a cup of tea and biscuits. No one remembered to offer her a spot of breakfast or lunch. At the most she was handed over two stale slices of bread, which she chewed on hungrily. After she reached home she put rice on the oven and went for a dip in the common pond behind the row of dingy one and two room shanties, where she lived with others like her. The domestics, the labourers the ragpickers.
She washed away the dirt from her sari in the pond and donned her only other workaday sari, all standing ankle deep in a secluded bank of the pond protected from public view by a few scanty bushes. Artfully she draped the wrap-around garment around her spare suntanned frame. Her body gleaming matte gold in the harsh sunlight. The hem of her sari got wet but it would dry on the walk back to her room, and the rice would be ready too. She could add a few leftover vegetables, even a dry tiny triangle of fried fish to the hot rice, add a green chili, some salt, and eat with gusto, literally scraping her plate clean and licking each finger with relish.
Washing the plate would take no time at all, as it would have been wiped clean of every grain of rice by the famished woman.
After lunch Toofani took a much needed siesta. Mouth open with flies buzzing around her, she was dead to both this hard world and the dream one, for an hour and half each day. But today under the corrugated tin roof of her single room hut, she dreamt of her mother who used to sweep the roads outside some of the posh schools and colleges of the city.
Many times affluent ladies, mothers of school kids, would pay heed to her pleas and hand over ten or even twenty rupees. With which Toofani's dusky sunburnt mother, called Gauri, (meaning, the fair one), bought some food for Toofani and Toofan, her little brother.
Toofan died, accidentally strangling himself with a rope he was playing with at the age of 7 when Toofani was just 11. She was a school dropout since the preceding summer, as she had repeatedly failed to pass. Her mother made her do a lion's share of the housework, but repeatedly complained about keeping her at home, an extra mouth to feed. Soon she found Toofani a home to work in. Because she was so young, the elderly lady of the house employed her to watch over her youngest child, an eight years old boy. Toofani's duties were to take him to the park, bring him back safely, and wipe his hands and mouth with fresh tissues when required. It was understood she would graduate to more work when she got older.
But the day Toofan died, Toofani cursed and screamed at her heartbroken mother. "If I had been at home this wouldn't have happened. I cook, clean, and run the house for you but that wasn't enough? You had to send me to work outside? To look after a stranger's child?"
Toofan meant a storm, Toofani was its feminine version. After her little brother died, Toofani felt as if a raging storm was gathering in her horizon. It clouded her eyes with a black demonic rage. But brought up strictly to be servile she remained mute, silent, defiant yet submissive and resigned.
Today, as she slept, all this played on Toofani's slumbering mind like a rerun. The horror of holding a blue faced, inert little boy, wetting his damp black curls with hot tears, spitting fury at a mother, who had then sharply slapped her to stop the hysterical outburst.
Five days later, Gauri had disappeared and eleven year old Toofani was left to fend alone. Luckily the rich lady she worked for agreed to let her stay and she grew up in her two storeyed brick house looking after the youngest boy, then as the boy grew up, she took over the reins of the household, finally nursing the old lady when her offspring settled on foreign shores.
Twenty-four years had passed when Gauri had suddenly returned. Married again and widowed, with a son in his early twenties and a shy daughter-in-law in tow. Toofani had taken on the tasks of both her mother's household chores, (Gauri was old and sick, her daughter in law heavily pregnant) as well as looking after the now very old lady, her benefactress and employer, who had given her a roof over her head, if not a home, a guardian even if not a mother, and a not too meagre income.
Toofani was now 35 and unmarried, with no one to call her own.
Perhaps that is why she forgave the mother who had forgotten her the moment her son died?
Perhaps because this beautiful new step-brother of hers, barely twenty-three years old, was an almost exact photocopy of Toofan.
Toofani couldn't get enough of gazing her love at him, couldn't get enough of him. Something which had amused him and he had used mercilessly, making her run errands and buy him gifts with her earnings. Pocketing her earnings too whenever possible.
Then the baby had arrived.
It was a little girl. Gauri had named her Teesta, after the tempestuous river, and to match with Tarun and Toofani's name. Shyamoli had not been consulted. Toofani's step-brother was unhappy. He had hoped for a first born son and neglected his tiny daughter.
Once or twice he had even kicked his own wife Shyamali in helpless rage. She was very dark, hence the name Shyamoli. Her face darkened further with misery and her sloe black eyes glistened with tears. But she too was mute, though not resilient. She was not Toofani.
The rich old lady had passed away when Toofani was thirty-six, a year after Gauri had returned, a prodigal mother albeit with her new brood.
Toofani had been touched to discover that there was some money set aside for her, by her late employer, in a bank account in her name. A respectable amount. The old lady's children had returned home from abroad, settled the dues, and performed their mother's last rites. Then they sold the spacious mint green stucco house Toofani had spent her adolescence and her early womanhood in, and left.
Toofani had then joined her mother in the shanties, taking up residence in a single room, next to her mother and step-brother's two-roomed tenement. It was a crowded house, but Toofani had wanted to be near her tiny niece Teesta and Tarun, her half-brother.
Gauri too passed away the following year. At 37, Toofani had lost both mother figures in her life. She had never known a father's care, didn't even know what he looked like. Her mother Gauri had always said he died of snake bite when Toofani was four and she was expecting Toofan . Being around Tarun, Teesta, and Shyamoli made her feel like she had a family.
Toofani clung to them, and cherished and enjoyed her little niece. Teesta gurgled and cooed and occupied every minute of Toofani's free time. She loved Toofani as much if not more than her birth mother Shyamoli, who had become progressively withdrawn and detached from her family, even her little baby. Shyamoli's redundancy was most apparent when baby chuckled and scampered over to Toofani, ignoring her real mother. She clutched Toofani's sari pallu and cried loudly when Shyamoli tried to take her daughter in her arms.
One day Shyamoli took her own life by hanging herself from the ancient peepul tree by the common pond. She was unable to bear her husband's repeated thrashings for 'her inability' to conceive a baby after bearing a daughter. Love for her daughter could have been a reason to hold on, but Toofani had unintentionally supplanted her in Teesta's affections.
Toofani couldn't remain blind to her step-brother's character any longer, but Tarun enthralled her with his likeness to a long lost kid brother, her once upon a time adored and innocent charge. Tarun was not shy. He asked her for money constantly, but didn't shout at her or raise his hand on her like he had with poor Shyamoli. The shanty folks had dealt him impromptu local justice after Shyamoli's suicide, roughing him up till poor Toofani fell at their feet and fainted.
They allowed him to live but ordered that he must leave the little girl with Toofani and go.
That was her last glimpse in this life of Tarun, who to her had been Toofan reborn.
Toofani tossed now in her disturbed sleep, fraught with these sad dreams. She dreamt all this, in a comatose trance state, and didn't wake up at all that evening.
Nor did she go for work.
The sun set and in its faint glow little Toofan one again appeared in her dreams, playing with a red nylon rope which he looped around his neck, forgetting it was knotted high up on a curtain hook of a window. The stool he stood upon slipped and collapsed, and as he fell from it, his neck twisted abruptly, and he turned into an inert rag doll.
Toofani gasped in her sleep as she felt her breath constrict in her throat.
Unable to move, she felt a rope slide around her neck! It was not young Toofan but Tarun who stood before her!
His eyes glittering with maniacal rage, he muttered about being deprived of the roof over his head. Now a thin ragged skeletal tramp of a man, unshaven and unkempt, but filled with insane strength and hateful venom
The rope was slung overhead to the same window's curtain hook and yanked.
In the very moment she felt her life slip away, her eyes fluttered open wet with tears, and her voice feebly croaked "Help!"
"Arrey ma? You didn't go to work today? I went straight to coaching class after school or I would have come home and woken you!"
Toofani took a thin shuddering breath and to her relief found that she could. She was alive, lying on her worn floor mattress, while looking at her with loving eyes was pretty curly-haired Teesta, Shyamoli and Tarun's little girl, who she was bringing up as her own. Now seven years old and attending a small English medium school with the help of the money left to her by her late benefactress.
Toofani had found her second Toofan at last and rescued the little girl she herself had been.
This little girl wouldn't drop out of school. Toofani would make sure of that.
"Teesta, let's put a strong padlock on the door tomorrow, daughter, and file a report with the police station in case your father comes back. I had a very bad dream."
"Ma, don't worry, I too had a dream last night, in which my mother said he will never return to bother us anymore. She showed me the peepul tree from which she was hanging." Teesta whispered softly, brokenly. She continued in a slow wondering voice, "Then, she pointed a finger downwards, lying at the foot of the tree drunk was my father, with a bottle in his hands, I watched him wade into the pond and saw him drown in it. It was my father, Ma. On the way back from tuition today, I heard the villagers gathered near the police station discussing this. They didn't see me.
"In my dream, mother had said to tell you, Bari-ma(Elder mother)."
Hugging the weeping but resolute little girl to her breast, Toofani cried and cried breathlessly, till she had squeezed out the very last of her pent up tears.
Then smiling and kissing her daughter, she got up to light the clay oven and make dinner.
The skies glowed with the last fading rays of a summer sun.