The Dhobi’s Daughter

dhobi
pic courtesy: iStockphoto

The little girl comes around every morning to collect my laundry.

I always know it’s her at the door from the sound the bell makes. A short, quick ring. She can’t reach the buzzer till she tip toes. One press and she’s back on her feet again.

The grave face watches me silently as I count the clothes carefully before handing them to her. She then piles them up on the old bed sheet I’ve given her and folds the corners of the sheet back across the clothes, making a knot in the middle neatly. Once the bundle is ready, she picks it up and flings it over her shoulders deftly, flicking her brown matted hair back in the process. A nod and then she’s gone. I can hear her the sound of her rubber slippers echoing off the walls as she tears down the stairwell.

She would be eleven or twelve years old. Almost the same age as my daughter Riya. She’s much shorter and thinner, wearing hand me downs that are a size too big. I’ve been seeing her doing the laundry run in our building for nearly a year now. I don’t think there’s been a single day when she hasn’t come around.

I always refer to her as the dhobi’s daughter. I don’t even know what her name is. I’ve never asked her. Come to think of it, we’ve never had a real conversation. All our communication, so far, has been through hand gestures and head movements. A nod, a wave, a pat on the back.

Her father has a tiny makeshift stall outside our condominium. All day long, I see him and his wife busy at work, straightening and ironing clothes with the heavy metal iron they own. Their children, I think there are three of them, help the parents, by collecting and delivering clothes from door to door in the neighbourhood. Apart from our condominium, there are plenty of other buildings in the area, a few smaller houses and bungalows. The two older boys share a cycle between them but the little girl always comes on foot.

Sometimes I offer her biscuits, a chocolate, a glass of milk. She shakes her head when I show her the milk cartonbut her eyes shine at the sight of the Bourbon biscuits. There’s a hint of a smile on the grave face as she extends her grubby fingers. She eats quickly, noiselessly as I count the clothes. Watching me all the while.

On Sundays, she always lingers at the doorway, craning the little head towards the corridor at the end of which is our bedroom. I know she hangs around for a glimpse of Riya. When the bedroom door swings open and Riya stumbles into the living room sleepily, I can hear her catch her breath and stare at the pre-teen in wonderment, taking in the Star Wars tee shirt and shorts. Riya ignores her and wiggles into the sofa with the iPad in hand. I pat her on the shoulder lightly and she wolfs down the last of her biscuit and runs off with the bundle.

“You should smile at her, Riya, maybe even talk to her. It doesn’t hurt to be nice” I reprimand my daughter after I’ve shut the door. “Poor thing, she waits every Sunday to catch a glimpse of you. As though you were a film star or something.”

Riya mumbles, not looking upfrom her iPad. “Hmmmmm, okay, whatever.”

I sigh and head back into the kitchen. “Let’s give her some of your old toys when she comes around next Sunday. I wonder if she even has any toys,” I shout out from the kitchen. There’s no reply.

The next weekend, I get all the old toys out in the living room, piling them up in the corner. As soon as the bell rings, I run to the door and pull the little girl in excitedly. She steps inside the apartment, looking around furtively. I point towards the toys in the corner and her face lights up. She drops the bed sheet on the floor and runs across to the corner.

She’s running her fingers over the toys that I’ve assembled for her. Gently as though she doesn’t want to hurt them. Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear and sundry other fluffy creatures that Riya usedto play with when she was younger. I’m not sure what she would like so I’ve brought out the entire collection. Ever since the iPad came into the picture, Riya hasn’t looked at any of her old toys and I’d been thinking of donating them to an orphanage.

I can hear her scuffle through the toys to get to the corner where the green bucket containing the Lego is stashed. She opens the bucket and the Lego pieces spill out onto the floor. She shrinks back, looking at me apologetically. I shake my head and smile and she plops down on thefloor, relieved. Daily taskof collecting clothes forgotten, red, green and blue blocks in hand. Smiling, I lay down a plate full of Bourbon biscuits on the floor next to her. A little distance away, Riya looks up from the iPad and smiles. “Looks like someone has found her favourite toy.”

 ******

The little girl hasn’t come to our door for more than a week now and a stack of clothes have piled up high on the bed. I’m concerned. She’s never missed a day in all these months. Was she ill? Or perhaps her parents have found out that she was playing in my house and punished her for it? Wouldn’t they have sent one of the brothers then? Surely, they can’t be all that angry for something as minor as this?

I call my neighbour, Mrs Sharma, and ask her whether the little girl has come around collecting clothes at their place. “No,” Mrs Sharma looks confused. “It’s been over a week and no one has come to collect the clothes for ironing. I was planning to go and ask the guard today.”

“I’ll go with you,” I say and we head downstairs. The security guard at our building is a new recruit. He scratches his head doubtfully. He’s been hired two days back and he’s never seen the little girl. “Perhaps, you should try atthe main gate?” he volunteers. Exasperated we walk down to the main gate.

I peer out of the main gate towards the makeshift stall. It looks abandoned. No signs of anyone having inhabited it ever. The iron is missing and the clothes have disappeared. The security guards look at us quizzically. “Do you know where the dhobi has disappeared? It’s been days and he hasn’t sent his daughter to collect clothes,” Mrs Sharma asks one of the guards.

“There’s been an incident Madam,” he replies hesitantly. “Something to do with the dhobi’s daughter. Something terrible. I don’t know for sure.”

“What incident?” I could feel the anger in my voice “The dhobi works right there in front of you and you don’t know for sure? How is that possible?”

Leela, the female guard, looks apologetic “Madam, something bad happened to the little girl. That’s what everyone in our slum is saying. They are saying it’s come out in the English papers. Maybe you can find the report in the newspaper?”

I run back to the flat.

After desperately rummaging through the week’s papers, I find the report in yesterday’s Gurgaon Times. A tiny paragraph, tucked away in an obscure corner of the newspaper.

On Sunday evening, the same evening that she had played with the blocks in our house, while Riya was tucking into her dinner in front of the television, she was out delivering freshly ironed clothes to the houses nearby. The brothers usually did the evening rounds but they were at a friends’ house playing football  A couple of hours later, my daughter was in bed, sleeping peacefully but the dhobi’s daughter was dead. She had been raped, strangled and her lifeless body dumped in the bushes. Like trash.

The police had reached a dead end in their investigations. All in the course of a few days. The dhobi and his family had gone back to their village. People had forgotten and moved on. And I didn’t even know. All week, waiting for the next Sunday to come so that the little child could come and play with the Lego.

What if it was someone like us? A monster living in a fancy house or a kothi nearby? Someone known to the girl, a regular client who lured her into the house? With something as innocuous as candy. I had done it myself. I had offered her food, toys. I had made it easy for the culprit to attack. A friendly face, a welcoming house. How would that poor child have known any better.

I had killed her with my kindness.

 ******

 I have packed and put away the Lego set. I couldn’t bear to see the blocks lying around. Maybe one of these days, I’ll give it away to a local orphanage.

The bell rings. Several impatient rings. I get up and go to the door. An unpleasant looking chap is skulking in the corridor. It’s dark outside and I can’t see his face clearly. “Do you have any clothes to give for ironing?” he barks at me.

I shake my head and close the door.

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