Priya reached up to the top of her mother’s closet and pulled the box down, as she had done so many times in her life. She lifted the lid and couldn’t help but smile at the first glimpse of the bright red silk inside.
Her grandmother’s wedding sari was the most beautiful thing Priya could think of. The long red cloth was embellished with gold thread in the most ornate designs. Even though Priya had no plans to marry, it had always been her dream to wear the traditional sari for her own wedding one day. As often as she could, she would steal away to her mother’s bedroom and sneak a peek at the dress, especially on days like today when she felt so much of her own culture was being taken from her.
Priya gasped when she heard shouts from outside and rushed to put the sari back exactly as she had found it. She then went to the window and watched as her mother did her best to control the four young children who were scrambling about her.
“Please, don’t push me, young sahib,” her mother said to Simon, a boy of twelve. “I don’t want to drop the eggs.”
“Give them to me,” Simon demanded.
“I cannot,” Priya’s mother said. “The cook needs them for your lunch today.”
“I want an egg!” a little girl named Elsa said as she grabbed the woman’s arm and tugged, nearly causing her to lose her balance. Priya felt annoyance rise up in her chest.
“Please, stop,” Priya’s mother said with far more patience than Priya could ever imagine mustering. “We need to get back to the house now for your lessons.”
Simon stood defiantly in front of the woman with his arms crossed, stopping her in her tracks. “I don’t want to go back for lessons. Give me the eggs. I need them to teach that worthless fan-puller a lesson. He fell asleep three times last night! He’s so lazy!”
Priya thought that people who needed to use other humans to fan them through the night were the definition of lazy, but she stayed put, forcing herself to only watch and clench her fists in private. Her mother had warned her before about yelling at the memsahib’s children.
“Simon,” her mother said, doing her best to be firm without raising her voice. “You know I don’t have a choice. I must take the eggs to cook, and you must attend your lessons. On your mother’s orders. Now, come along.” She smiled waved her hand to try and coax Simon to be on his way, but he didn’t budge.
Suddenly, from behind her, a younger son named Luke ran up and grabbed the egg basket, ripping it from the woman’s arm. As she tried to retain hold of the basket, several eggs fell out, shattering on the ground.
Priya’s mother’s hands flew to her mouth. “Luke! Stop at once,” she hissed. “Your mother will be very angry!”
But the children only laughed.
“Angry with you!” Simon howled. He then took the basket of eggs from his younger brother and started to run off.
“Simon!” the woman called after him, finally raising her voice. “Return the eggs to me right now!”
Simon turned slowly toward her and pulled an egg out of the basket. He locked eyes with Priya’s mother.
“Do not even think about it,” she warned. But his choice was already made. Even Priya could see the hatred in the boy’s face for the woman who had nursed him since he was a baby.
Priya could not hold back any longer. She could not sit by and let that cruel, spoiled boy egg her mother. She turned and hitched up her own plain sari and darted out of the house. By the time she reached the door, Simon was rearing his hand back. Priya ran toward him as fast as she could, but she was not fast enough. She watched as he lurched forward, the egg leaving his hand, arching through the air, and then landing, shattering on her mother’s chest, the egg goo splattering her face.
The children all burst out into laughter, but Priya was in a rage. She continued running toward Simon, her face hot with fury. He must have heard her running toward him, because he turned toward her and his face went white. He raised his arms in front of him to ward off the blow.
Priya froze only inches from Simon at the sound of her mother’s voice.
“Go inside, now!” her mother ordered.
“But,” Priya protested, “look what he did.”
“And I will let his mother know,” her mother said. “She will deal with him.”
“You know she won’t,” Priya said. In all of her life, she had never known the children’s mother to so much as raise her voice at her children.
“Yeah, go inside, Priya,” Simon mocked as he turned and walked away, still holding the basket of eggs and tossing one up and down like a ball. “Before I tell my mother what you almost did and she refuses to speak for you this afternoon.” The boys laughed as they wandered away, and Priya fumed. She was so angry over the fact that Simon–and his whole family–held her entire life in their hands. One bad word from the memsahib, and Priya would never hope to find a position with a respectable family–even though she didn’t want the position anyway.
“Lucille!” Priya’s mother called out to the eldest daughter who had just come outside to see what the commotion was about.
Lucille, with her blue eyes and curly blonde hair, bounded down the stairs and across the green lawn.
“Goodness me, amah,” Lucille said with a chuckle to Priya’s mother. “What happened to you?”
“Your brothers,” Priya grumbled. Lucille only nodded knowingly.
“Can you take your sisters inside so I may go change?” Priya’s mother asked Lucille.
“Of course,” Lucille said, reaching for her sister’s hands. “I’ll see you later, Priya! I can’t wait.”
Priya only wrinkled her nose but didn’t respond as she took her mother’s hand and led her into the house.
“If you are going to be an amah yourself,” her mother said once they were indoors, “you need to learn more patience.”
Priya sighed as she helped her mother undress and place the soiled clothes into a wash bin. “I need to learn patience, and those children need to learn respect.”
“Children are children,” her mother interrupted. “You spit at me more than once when you were little.”
“But I’m your daughter!” Priya said. “I would never treat another woman that way. You raised me better than that.”
“And the Parker children will grow out of it, eventually,” her mother said. “Is not Lucille Parker like a sister to you?”
Priya sighed and shook her head. “When we were younger, perhaps, since you practically raised both of us. But ever since she went to school, she has changed.”
“Lucille is the same girl she ever was,” Priya’s mother said. “Spoiled, high-strung. More worried about boys and dresses than anything else. I think you are the one who changed.”
“Maybe,” Priya said. “It isn’t fair that she got to that fancy academy while I had to endure lectures about how great it has been to be part of the British Empire by a bunch of sour-faced nuns.”
“We are fortunate to be part of such a mighty empire,” her mother said, growing exasperated. “If it were not for the British, we could have been overrun by some other military power that didn’t have our best interests at heart.”
“We could have defended ourselves,” Priya countered.
“And we have advancements in railroads and medicine and–” her mother went on.
“Which we could have developed too,” Priya interrupted.
“To be part of British culture and heritage is a great honor,” her mother said.
“Indian culture is older!” Priya said. “What about our heritage? Our history? I’m not British. I’m Indian!”
“Priya!” her mother finally yelled. “That is enough. We can’t change the past. We are here, now, and we have to make the best life we can. The British rule India. And you need to find your place here. We don’t have enough money for a dowry, so you cannot marry. The Parkers’ children are growing up, so they are cutting down on staff. You need to find a good placement of your own so you can earn money and a place in society. No amount of grumbling will change that.”
“I’m not grumbling,” Priya said. “It is no small thing to be treated like you are less than dirt in your own country.”
“That is enough!” her mother finally yelled. “Go to your room and get dressed. Memsahib Parker is taking us to meet the Evans family in an hour. You will wear the dress that Lucille gave you and you will smile and nod and you will get that position. Do you understand me?”
Priya pressed her lips to keep from being disrespectful to her mother. But she didn’t understand how her parents could be so accepting of the British. Of course, her mother didn’t publically speak against them because she didn’t want to lose her job. But in private, did her mother truly believe that the way things were was the best way to live? Wasn’t she even a tiny bit resentful of the way she–and all Indians–were treated? Priya had spent her entire life watching the Parker family walk all over her mother and father. As a child, she too just accepted it. But as she grew older, she grew to despise how the British treated her parents, and everyone else.
But Priya knew that what her mother said held a grain of truth. What else could Priya do? She couldn’t go to a university. She couldn’t get married. Even if she did marry, her husband would be at the employ of some British man or family. She had to earn money somehow to support herself and contribute to the family, and the only openings for women were as amahs. They were coveted positions, ones that paid well. She should be grateful that Memsahib Parker was making an introduction for Priya. Countless other Indian girls would kill for such an advantage. But Priya hated that her very existence was in the hands of a foreign family. She felt as if her life was not her own. As if she lived simply at the whims of snobbish British women and their rude children.
But her mother was right. What could she do about it?
So Priya bit her tongue and nodded her head. “Yes, Amma.” But she didn’t head straight to her room. She went to the garden instead, hoping that a walk might clear her head and cool her temper. After all, it wasn’t Amma she was angry at.
She was angry at everyone and everything else. She crossed her arms as she walked through the lush garden of the Parker estate where Priya and her family lived. Since both of Priya’s parents worked for the Parkers, they were allowed to live in a small house on the estate. Many other servants lived on the estate as well, but most of them shared another small house while some lived in the attic of the main house. The Parkers had at least fifteen servants at any given time, and they did everything for the Parkers, from raising their children to fanning them while they slept. To most Indians, the Parkers were of the highest class and ridiculously wealthy. But she had heard once that by British standards, the Parkers were not very well-off. Back in England, they could barely afford a cook and a maid, much less an entire staff. Priya wondered what it was about living in India that allowed such mediocre people like the Parkers to live like kings, but that was an aspect of life she didn’t understand, and probably never would. She was Indian with a very basic British education. She could read and write English, do basic math, and could name all the British monarchs from the last one hundred years. She could also speak Hindi, but that was about the extent of her knowledge about the world. She knew the world had more to offer, but she didn’t know how to reach it. She didn’t want to be just a servant, and eventually just a wife. In truth, she only knew what she didn’t want. She had no idea what she wanted instead because she didn’t know what opportunities existed. It was as though she was going through life in a fog. She knew something was out there, something just beyond her field of vision, but she didn’t know what it was. She only had a feeling that whatever it was, it was better than what she had now.
“Priya!” she heard a voice yell as a hand grabbed her arm. Priya gasped and looked over. “Are you sleepwalking?” Lucille asked.
“Sorry,” Priya said. “I was just thinking.”
Lucille nodded. “Today is a big day for you!” she said, a huge grin on her face. “If you get that position with the Evans family, I’ll be able to visit you all the time! It will be as if you never left.”
Priya wrinkled her nose. “Do you really think Memsahib Evans will let you fraternize with her servant?”
“Oh, come now,” Lucille said, her blue eyes sparkling. “It won’t be as bad as all that. Amahs are like family. You know I adore your mother.”
Priya cocked her head. “What family members do you throw eggs at?”
Lucille gasped. “W-w-what?”
“What family members have you torn their clothes and then laughed about it?” Priya went on.
Lucille crossed her arms. “That was Simon, not me.”
“You laughed,” Priya reminded her.
“We were just kids,” Lucille said. “We all do naughty things when we are little.”
“I never disrespected your mother,” Priya said.
“So, you think you’re better than me?” Lucille asked sharply.
“I didn’t say that,” Priya said. “I’m just saying that we aren’t family.”
“How can you be so mean?” Lucille said. “You know, I knew that you were pulling away from me. I’ve barely seen you or spoken to you in weeks. I thought you were just busy. I had no idea it was because you were such a jerk!”
“I’m just stating the facts,” Priya said. “You are the one calling names.”
“Here is a fact,” Lucille said. “I thought you were like a sister to me! I gave you the dress for your presentation today.”
“Ugh, that corseted monstrosity that I can’t breathe in?” Priya asked, rolling her eyes. “I’d rather wear a sari!”
“And my mother loves you,” Lucille went on. “That is why she is going out of her way to introduce you to Mrs. Evans!”
“Oh yes,” Priya said. “It is such a hassle to cross the street and talk over tea and crumpets!”
Lucille’s mouth gaped, but Priya didn’t care. She raised her chin and dared Lucille to keep arguing with her. It was true that Priya had once considered Lucille her best friend. But their lives had taken dramatically different courses lately, and Priya resented it greatly. She had tried to keep her feelings to herself instead of lashing out at Lucille. But with the real threat of her having to follow her mother’s footsteps now only moments away, she couldn’t keep it contained any longer.
“You know, I was going to go with you today,” Lucille said. “So I could tell Mrs. Evans how wonderful you are. But I think I’ll just stay home.”
“Fine. I’d hate for you to go ‘out of your way’ to do something for a family member,” Priya mocked.
“You are so frustrating!” Lucille said as she growled and stomped her foot before turning and walking away.
Priya sighed and headed back home. The walk had done little to clear her head, and probably made her feel more upset. But what could she do? Her mother would never forgive her if she didn’t at least try to get the amah position with the Evans family. Time for her to get dressed and face her future, no matter how miserable it would make her.
Priya held her breath as her mother stood behind her and pulled the strings of her corset tight. The British women actually didn’t like it when the Indian women adopted British styles. As though their clothing was sacred and belonged only to them. But for a new family just arrived from England like the Evans, having a possible nanny who was somewhat Anglicized was usually seen in a positive light. They would want to make sure that the woman tasked with raising their children would instill in them British morals and standards. So, for now, Priya was expected to attend the introduction in British dress. If she got the position, she could then return to dressing in her sari.
The dress was not the most hideous one Priya had ever seen. It was a simple blue dress with an even darker blue pattern. With Priya’s black hair and dark skin, she thought she might be able to blend into the shadows and go unseen for most of the afternoon. Even though she was the reason for the entire afternoon event, she knew from experience that after the initial introductions, the British people would probably forget she and her mother were even there.
The dress only required one crinoline underneath to fill out the skirt, and it blessedly had short sleeves. Most of the time, Priya wondered how British women didn’t fall over dead in their layers of clothes and tight corsets in the oppressive Indian summers. She donned a simple woven bonnet with a matching blue ribbon and grabbed a lace parasol as she followed her mother out the door.
“Oh, Priya!” Memsahib Parker gasped when she saw her. “Aren’t you just pretty as a picture.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Priya said.
“Lucille,” Memsahib Parker said, nudging her daughter out from behind her. “That dress just compliments Priya’s coloring so well!”
Priya paused and looked at Lucille with surprise. Lucille sighed and looked at her nails and then up at the sun, anywhere but at Priya.
“I guess,” Lucille said.
Priya’s anger softened. She was touched at Lucille had changed her mind and decided to join their little expedition across the road. Priya offered her a little smile, which Lucille finally saw, and she smiled back. They didn’t need to use words to reassure each other that they were friends again.
“It’s…nice,” Priya said. “Thank you.”
“Are we ready?” Memsahib Parker asked, and the rest of the women nodded. “Good,” she said and led them like ducks in a row out a side gate and down the road toward the Evans’ home.
As Priya looked up and down the street of elegant British-style houses, she wondered for a moment if she wasn’t in the center of Bombay at all, but had been transported to London. Even though she had been raised in the British neighborhood, she had never felt at home here. She preferred visiting her aunts and uncles and cousins only a few blocks away where the sights and smells of the city were still distinctly Indian.
“I hear that little Simon was being quite a scamp this morning,” Memsahib Parker said to Priya’s mother.
“Yes, ma’am,” she replied. “Ruined the whole basket of eggs.”
“Well, I did let him know that he shouldn’t have done that,” Memsahib Parker replied. “You’ll just have to go to the market later and get more.”
“Of course, ma’am,” Priya’s mother said, and Priya cursed to herself. Going to the market was no small feat, as Memsahib Parker made it sound. The eggs that Simon had destroyed were from the Parkers’ own coop. But the market was nearly an hour’s walk away. And at the end of the day, nearly all the best eggs would be gone, if there were any left at all.
“Perhaps Cook could make something else,” Priya offered. “Something that didn’t require eggs.”
“Oh, but it is Thursday!” Memsahib Parker cried, as if that made a difference. “She needs to prepare the cakes for this weekend or we won’t have time to have the sweets prepared for luncheon on Saturday.”
“Then perhaps Simon could go to the market since Simon was the one who destroyed the eggs,” Priya offered.
“Send a child into the dangerous streets of Bombay?” Memsahib Parker asked, her hand flying to her chest in horror. “I do hope you are joking, Priya! You are applying to be an amah! Have you no care?”
Priya nearly opened her mouth to declare that she wasn’t joking and that is wasn’t fair for her mother to be punished for Simon’s actions, but her mother grabbed her arm to stop her.
“Of course she is kidding, aren’t you, Priya?” she said as she squeezed Priya’s arm in such a way that brooked no argument.
“Of course, Amma,” Priya said, dropping her head to her chest.
“When it comes to children, we must always be flexible, patient, and forgiving,” her mother said. “And I have taught Priya this too.”
Memsahib smiled with a sigh and nodded. “That is why you are the best amah we could have asked for,” she said. “And why I am so honored to help Priya get this position with Mrs. Evans. Won’t it be nice having Priya so close?”
“It is indeed a blessing,” Priya’s mother said, and Priya only nodded. She was grateful that she would be so near to her mother, even if she would hardly have a chance to see her again. The only time an amah had time for herself to visit friends or family or even do a bit of shopping was just one half-day a month. She knew that if she did get the position with the Evans family, she was going to miss her parents terribly, even if they were living only down the street.
They turned down a side path next to one of the largest houses on the street and went through a gate into the back garden. There, several British men and women were sitting and standing around talking and laughing. Over to one side near a well were several children playing with some kittens. Priya was horrified to see that one of the boys was holding a kitten precariously at the well’s edge, looking deep into the dark cavern.
“Please! Be careful!” Priya admonished the child, jutting away from her mother toward the boy.
“Priya!” her mother hissed, and Priya stopped in her tracks.
Priya looked around and noticed that everyone was watching her, as though waiting to see what she would do. She forced a smile to her face and calmed her voice.
“Sweet little one,” Priya said. “Please, be careful. We don’t want anyone to fall in.”
“I know what I’m doing!” the little boy barked back as he returned to looking over the edge.
Priya’s heart was beating so hard she could feel it in her nose as she heard the kitten whimpering. The mother cat was also pacing nervously nearby as she watched all her kittens in the hands of the children.
“There,” Memsahib Parker said. “Isn’t Priya so good with children, and animals?” She chuckled and the rest of the garden party guests did too.
Priya grimace and forced herself to turn away from the children. She knew that if she wanted to make a good impression, she needed to ignore any of their bad behavior today. But once she was their amah, treating animals with kindness was going to be a top lesson for her to impart to her young charges.
She was surprised at how many people were there. She had thought the tea would only be with Sahib and Memsahib Evans and their children. But they seemed to have invited all of their friends as well. Two of the British people walked over and greeted Memsahib Parker while the others all took their seats.
“Priya,” Memsahib Parker said, “this is Mr. and Mrs. Evans.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Priya said with a small curtsey.
“Excellent manners,” Memsahib Evans said to Memsahib Parker, as though Priya couldn’t hear her. “I was so worried about what it would be like having foreign staff. Would they have any manners at all? How would we communicate? I’m so glad to have a friend like you here to help us get settled.”
“The Company instituted British education years ago,” Priya said. “We all speak English.” She could almost feel her mother groan at her words.
The Evans looked at Priya as if she had insulted them, but Lucille spoke up.
“Priya’s mother had worked for my mother since before she was born,” she explained. “If you need someone in your household who knows how things are done and can help you with any aspect of life here in India, no one would be better for you than Priya.”
“So true!” Memsahib Parker said, patting her daughter on the arm and rushing in to diffuse the situation. “Any family who hires Priya will be getting so much more than an Amah. Shall we sit down and discuss the placement further?”
“Oh, how rude of me!” Memsahib Evans said as she led them to some seats around a small table that was already laid out with tea and various small sweets and sandwiches. “Please, have a seat and some tea.”
Sahib Evans then went around and introduced the other couples to Memsahib Parker. They were all relatively new to Bombay and in need of an amah. If the Evans did not take a liking to Priya, one of the other families was sure to. This was indeed an enviable position to be in. There was very little chance of Priya leaving this tea without a position. A notion that made Priya nervous, but she knew it made her mother glad. Priya did her best to bite her tongue and be on her best behavior so she could make her mother proud.
“I simply don’t know how you do it, Susan,” Memsahib Evans said to Memsahib Parker. “I have only been here a few days and am so out of my element I feel on the edge of tears at every moment. But to be here for years on end! To raise your children here! How do you do it?”
“One must simply grow where they are planted,” Memsahib Parker said sagely. “We are here in this strange and foreign land and must simply adapt.”
It is not strange or foreign to me, Priya thought but did not say.
“And we are so lucky to have the Company here,” Memsahib Parker went on. “They really can import anything you need. It just takes a bit of planning. You’ll see. After a few weeks, you’ll get used to the way things are here.”
“Oh, I don’t think I ever could get used to it,” Memsahib Evans said. “This heat is just unbearable. The smells are offensive! The way we were hostled and jostled about at the port, it was so crowded! It was terrifying. I almost got back on the ship and sailed for home right then!”
“She nearly did,” Sahib Evans said with a laugh, and the other men joined in.
“Women simply aren’t as well-suited for adventure,” one of the other men said.
If only they would just leave their dreadful wives at home then, Priya thought as she let her eyes wander back over the yard toward the children she would have to mind if she were given the position of amah.
She gasped as she saw the boy from earlier push a little girl. The little girl shoved him back, into the edge of the stone wall of the well. His hand flew back, knocking the kitten he had been playing with earlier down the shaft.
“Stop!” Priya yelled as she jumped up and ran across the yard.
“What is it?” Memsahib Evans cried out jumping up. “The children!”
The other parents all began fussing as they followed behind Priya.
“Please, please, please,” Priya prayed as she shoved the boy aside. She hoped the kitten had landed in a bucket or on a stone sticking out of the side the well. Maybe the well was dry and the kitten landed safely. Anything.
“What’s wrong?” Sahib Evans asked, picking up his son who was now crying from being shoved.
“Priya!” her mother called. “What’s happening?”
“Be quiet!” Priya yelled over the noise. Her heart froze as she heard pitiful mewling and splashing from deep in the well. “Oh no! Hurry! Someone! Bring a bucket!”
“I’m sure there was nothing we can do,” one of the men said. “If you drop a bucket, it will only push the poor thing under the water.”
“Might be the merciful thing to do,” someone else said.
“Then bring a rope, a branch!” Priya said as she moved around the well, trying to get a better look down to see if there was any hope of rescuing the kitten. “A small log it can grab onto. Anything!”
“Priya,” her mother said, pulling her away from the well. “There’s nothing we can do.”
They all stood around helplessly as the mewling eventually stopped. The mother cat jumped up on the edge of the well and began pacing, meowing for her kitten.
“Well, that was a rather dreadful thing to happen,” said one of the men as he led his wife back to the seats.
The boy was still crying in Sahib Evans’s arms.
“Don’t worry, son,” Sahib Evans said. “We’ll get you another kitten. A better one.”
“Are you kidding?” Priya spat. “You would reward that hideous behavior with another animal for your little monster to kill?”
“Priya!” her mother hissed, but Priya did not back down. She simply stared at Sahib Evans, his eyes wide in shock.
“The only monster here is you,” Memsahib Evans said as she took her son from her husband’s arms. “How dare you speak to your betters, your prospective employer, in such a manner!”
“You might be prospective employers,” Priya said. “But you are not my betters. I would never treat animals, or humans–” She shot Memsahib Parker a look. “–as badly as your children do.”
“Well!” Memsahib Evans said. “I think this interview is at an end.” With that, she turned on her heels and stomped out of the garden.
“Priya,” her mother said, shaking her arm. “Go home.”
Priya looked around at all the angry faces, especially that of Memsahib Parker. Even Lucille was shaking her head in disgust.
“I…I’m sorry, Amma–” she started to say, but her mother interrupted her.
Priya hated leaving her mother there to clean up the mess she had made, but she knew that she could not make things right. She turned and ran for home.
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