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October 15th, 2016
She stared at the email message on her computer, her mind racing so fast that the words blurred together and no longer made any sense. Just three lines, but enough to make her life â the life sheâd worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build â begin to crumble around her.
She looked over at George snoring gently and wondered desperately whether sheâd ever be able to sleep that peacefully again.
No. No, no, no! I canât think about this now. This has got to wait! Geetaâs incredibly strong instinct for self-preservation had kicked into action without her even realising it. She snapped her laptop shut, stood up and tied her hair into a tight bun. As she got under the duvet, George murmured in his sleep. She was overcome with an uncontrollable urge to clasp that moment to her bosom. She loved his warmth. She could fight anything â anyone â right to her last breath; all she needed was that warmth to hold close to her heart.
Sleep didnât come immediately, of course. She lay awake for a long time, with long-forgotten demons screaming in her mind. She watched them curiously, as if from a distance. That face was clearer than day. It seemed like it had always been there, behind a screen, waiting for a chance to step out into the light. Her hatred seemed to have gone, but its place had been taken by an acrid mixture of contempt and disgust that she didnât seem to recognize. She finally dozed off but slept fitfully.
The next morning, it was raining cats and dogs – just as the weather forecast had predicted. Geeta trudged to work and got to her salon counter in a dripping mess. Her small team of assistants were just starting to come in. Her business had taken some time to take off but she was doing reasonably well, given the tough circumstances she had started in.
August 5th, 2002
âCome out here! Right now!â Geeta cowered inside her tiny windowless room, unsure of what to do. She hadnât slept properly for several nights and the events of the past couple of days seemed to have drained her last ounce of strength. She opened her door slowly to find Mr. and Mrs. Kulkarni facing her. The kids were in their rooms, doing their homework, having grown immune to these scenes long ago. Mrs. Kulkarni yanked her forward roughly and raised her voice again. âGeeta! Did you take it? Did you take the money?â Geeta shook her head mutely. Mr. Kulkarni stepped forward with a raised hand, poised to slap her across her face âSheâs lying! Sheâs a lying scoundrel!â Geeta cringed and burst into tears, blubbering about not being a thief. She kept crying while she was shouted at and shoved back into her room. Her door was locked from the outside. As she sank down on the floor, still sobbing audibly, she was secretly grateful that her fatigue had made it easy for the tears to come. This time though, they were bound to find out – but hopefully, she would be gone by then. After crying for a reasonable amount of time, Geeta grew quiet and got up to get her biscuit tin out from under her bed. She knew full well that she wouldnât be getting any dinner that night.
The TV went back on in the living room. Sitting on the floor wiping her face, Geetaâs mind wandered back to Bareilly and to happier, more carefree times. She was still a student at a local beauticianâs course, when she had spotted the ad in the newspaper for a governess. She had jumped at the opportunity because it had said the job was based in London. The charming young agent, Dinesh, had explained that the Kulkarni family were originally from Bareilly and Mr. Kulkarni had landed a job as a senior diplomat in the Indian High Commission in London. Since the family was moving soon, they wanted to hire a governess from their own hometown â someone who would be able to keep the children in touch with their roots. It had all made complete sense. They were even willing to bear the expense of getting her passport made. So naturally, when she was told that she had been selected, Geeta and her family were absolutely over the moon. Soon, Geeta was walking into London Heathrowâs Arrivals with the Kulkarnis. It seemed like a dream come true.
Geeta peered inside her biscuit tin. There werenât too many left in there. She wondered whether she should still ration them or eat them all up. She definitely wouldnât need to save them for much longer.
The job, as it turned out, had indeed been too good to be true. Geetaâs household chores had started to double and triple within days. Far from being a governess for the children, she was cooking, cleaning and scrubbing from morning to night, with barely enough time for meals and rest. When she tried protesting, Mr. and Mrs. Kulkarni sat her down for a very friendly chat. âThis is a foreign country and we are your only family here. Donât you trust us? We are from Bareilly too, arenât we? This is for your own good. Would you have ever had the chance of living in England otherwise?â Slowly, Geetaâs phone calls to her home became restricted and she became confined to the house. The TV in the living room became her only window to the external world.
Months turned into years â five years to be precise. Geeta had taken to pilfering small amounts of cash from the dresser, the coffee table or bookshelves, to buy biscuits for herself from the corner shop â the only luxury she was allowed with the pittance she received. She took care to ensure the amount was always small enough to go unnoticed and not warrant a beating. She didnât want to be beaten again. The first beating, when ten pounds had been discovered under her pillow, had been terrifying. The next day Geeta had tried to escape, without success. And that had made matters even worse.
Dinesh had been summoned the next day while the children were out and he had dragged her to the basement. After the first few lashes with his belt, he had bent down and hissed into her ears, âI could get a lot more for you from other customers, you know.â When she was brought back upstairs, the tirade had continued. One particular question had stuck in her mind: âIt will be the word of a senior diplomat at the Indian High Commission against yours. Who do you think they will believe?â And that was that. Geeta had toed the line ever since and never considered escape again, bearing her punishing daily routine in silence.
Then finally, the previous night, the unthinkable had happened. Geeta had been serving drinks at a party at the house. She was just leaving the living room with an empty tray when someone had drunkenly slurred to Mr Kulkarni, âTasty looking friend you have here!âÂ – to which Mr. Kulkarni had replied, âYou can have her!â Geeta had fled to the kitchen in horror and then gone straight to her room and locked herself in, in tears. She had refused to come out even when Mrs. Kulkarni knocked on her door. While Mrs. Kulkarni berated her from the other side of the door, Geeta had simply sat on her bed and looked at the door handle silently.
Later, while the party was still on, Geeta had slipped out of her room and crept into the Kulkarnisâ bedroom. For a long time, she had known where the precious jewellery was kept but had never considered touching it as the consequences would have been too great. Her fingers trembled as she pulled out a small box from the wardrobeâs bottom shelf and opened it â sparkling diamond earrings. Her eyes fell on a large wad of notes too. She knew she would get a beating, but she needed the cash â more now than ever before.
The next night, after having finished off her biscuits and packed her things, it was well past 2 am when Geeta unlocked the front door silently. With a bundle of her clothes tucked tightly under her arm, she tiptoed out into the warm summer night. As she took a few steps off the front porch, a wave of exhilaration hit her at first, immediately followed by an inexplicable urge to run back into the house while she still had the chance.
You have no other choice. No other choice. She chanted to herself while forcing herself to walk ahead. Entrusting her fate to the universe and ruing the sketchiness of her plan, she turned around the street corner. Soon, her steps turned into long strides as she sprinted past the long and silent shadows of Mayfair. The summer breeze swishing through the grand front gardens and the ochre pools of streetlight were the only witnesses to Geetaâs flight that night.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
âAddicted to lifeâ is how friends describe 37 year old Antara. Living in London with her husband and the cutest three year old in the world, she is a senior Talent and Change management consultant in a global multinational. She is also a keen DIY-er, improvised-toy-maker, Netflix watcher, kitchen dancer, outdoors singer, book lover, foodie and a serious plant addict (read gardener). She uses her degree in Architecture to justify her frequent weekend DIY projects. Juggling home, child and a full-time job, Antara is now taking time out to reconnect with her one true passion â writing.
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