‘Empathy’ by Prerna Kalbag14 min read

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Image by Karthik Chandran

“Vimla, quick! Bring the tray here!” Ashi madam screeched from across the dining room as Vimla ran helter-skelter all over the unvarnished kitchen floor trying to fix breakfast. It was a lush, hectic morning as usual in the Talwar household. The sun’s rays were bursting through the rusted bars of the windows, illuminating the girl’s little swarthy face from beyond the platform. Just two years ago Vimla had been in school, trying to solve arithmetic problems and dreaming of college. Sometimes, she still couldn’t believe that she now had to fix suppers and scrub floors.

What’s taking this girl so long? Has she started slacking off again? Vimla-aaaa!!!!’ Ashi was ready to burst through the darkened threshold and catch hold of the maid again. It was already nine o’clock. There were papers to be read, she still had to get dressed for her meeting at noon, and Coochie had to be taken to the vet. She still couldn’t get through to Naina, who sat there dazed-eyed as ever, in no way ready to be sent to college. But certain things had to be done.

Finally, after ten full minutes had lapsed, Vimla brought two trays over with toast and bowls of cereal neatly stacked against each other. There was fresh fruit and coffee for Naina, and whey protein and ham slices for Amit.

Vimla walked back to the kitchen and wiped away the platform. How could this family of three could eat such garbage for breakfast every day? Her own home, now grey and desolate after her father’s death last year, often smelled of steamed rice and fish. It had cream-yellowed walls and creepers that crawled all over the fence. The floors were sooty and cemented, and the shuttered windows overlooked a patchy grassland and cluster of huts.

When she was about five, Vimla had overheard her parents reminiscing about their old home in Goa, the sight of the sea and the bucket loads of fish. Vimla couldn’t understand exactly what they missed. She could understand the yearning for the sea (she had seen pictures and thought it looked breathtaking), but not the fish. Didn’t they eat fish almost every day right here in Delhi? Sometimes it made her sick to the stomach, how her family consumed fish the way those Hindi speakers consumed paneer.

It was the year her brother, Vimal, had been born. Her parents doted on him with a kind of fanatical tenderness. Their world, concerns and empathies began revolving around him. He was to be sent to a play school (Vimla had never even seen the insides of a play school) before starting kindergarten. Their father spoke of a son with a surprising, swishing twinkle in the corners of his eyes. It made Vimla retch.

When her brother turned five, she once found him playing on the high walls of their community children’s park. She proceeded to push him down the other side and stared at him for a full four minutes before walking away. The skin of his knees had peeled off, and his eyes were brimming under a sea of red, but she couldn’t explain why the sight of him weeping, with bits of skin torn off his leg made her feel so blithesome and joyous.

Vimal never spoke a word of it to anyone, but Vimla had found a new way to vent. Every time her mother made her do extra household chores or her father brought her brother a new box of crayons or a bicycle (and none for her), Vimal would come home after school with a bleeding knee or little spiked marks on his chin. Their parents often took it to be the consequences of a lad fight. My son, her father would often boast to his buddies from work, is such a boy’s boy. It amused Vimla to no end.

When she turned 15, her father died in a roadside accident. She had been walking home from school, humming to herself down the dingy kachcha park by the side of the public tank, when she spotted her mother from a mile away, slumped on the steps of their house. It was a strange sight. When her mother slowly raised her face from the folds of her salwar to look up at her approaching, Vimla froze. She was certain, so certain, that day that something had happened.

And something had. Her father had been blown away, hacked through by the wheels of the bus that ran over his motorcycle and cut his body to pieces. When Vimla saw his corpse at the government hospital (her mother never found the courage to visit such places all by herself), she didn’t know whether to weep for her father or admire the delirious sensations the sight of the blood—raw, smoked, brilliantly red—created in her.

Sometimes, when she found herself alone in the glorious apartment of the Talwars while they went off to work, Vimla would recall the morning of her father’s death. The road outside had seemed feverishly blue while she was dressing herself for school. The clouds had turned a morose grey while she made her hair. She remembered being dazed by the sun, its light glinting at her through the mirror.

By evening, of course, they had lost everything. There were the debts and the loan interests that had to be paid off. Vimla watched her mother sell each household item and write the amount she received for it into the clammy pages of her school notebook.

Floral China Set                                                 400.00
Yellow Bedspread and Counterpane               290.00
Double Bed with Pillow cases                          1,090.00
Steel Cutlery (6 items)                                      390.00

Her brother howled, weeping as they watched their house being emptied of its belongings. First the kabadiwalas took the furniture and the TV set, and then the drapery and crockery. By night the family sat in the dust of their former things. On the floor, they stared at the dusty mist, at the dark, at the uncertainty of the things to come. All that in a span of a day.

Her mother had begun to work the very next day. She hadn’t earned a college degree – of course she hadn’t – and so she had to make her way from house to house to scrub floors and clean sinks.


The first house that Vimla was sent to work at was about a mile away from her own. It had been nearly six months since her father’s death, and her mother had sunken into her new work much like she buried herself in the grief of her husband’s absence.

Her brother now lived at their aunt’s in Goa. With him gone, Vimla had spent months lying on the damp, naked floors of their empty house scribbling away in the single-ruled notebook that she had been able to hold on to. A few months later, her mother had been able to find her work at a kothi nearby.

This kothi housed a family of four. It had high walls and large drawing rooms, beautiful mosaic ceilings, and an artificial waterfall in the backyard that perhaps reminded her mother of her home in Goa. During the first few weeks, Vimla worked hard. She scrubbed the tiles, dusted the bookshelves diligently, and made tea for the family.

Her new employers were quite impressed by her. Vimla spoke little and worked often. She cut out a nice little sorry figure as a formerly middle-class young girl who had fallen on hard times.

Within days, however, the old instincts began to kick in. She crashed the china deliberately to hurt the pet dog. She pushed the child down the stairs when he poked fun at her lisp. When the aging mother-in-law wanted a massage, Vimla almost ground her back with her fist.

She was shown the way out with a little check. You should be thankful I’m showing you the door and not the entrance to a cop station,” her employer had seethed.

Vimla had walked that dreary morning to her home the same way she had walked the day her father had died. Her mother had been sitting on the steps of their empty house in much the same way also: she was wearing a drab, dirty old salwar kameez and her hair was the colour of asphalt, except this time there was no surprise, no devastation.

“I’ve been sacked,” Vimla almost whispered to her mother as she stood at the bottom of the stairs, clutching the strings of her own salwar. Her mother looked at her blankly and grabbed the check from her hands.


After that, there weren’t very many houses that were willing to take her on because word had spread that Vimla was a psycho. She often kept to herself and hardly made friends with the other members of the Maids Society. Most began to believe that there was something definitely wrong about her.

After about three months, however, her mother began to ask around in circles other than her own. It wasn’t difficult to find work as an overworked, underpaid 16-year-old girl. Her mother, however, did not mind, because she believed that something was always better than nothing.

The Talwars lived in a society distant from their neighbourhood. They weren’t as wealthy as her former employers, but they did rather well. They had a spacious DDA apartment tucked away a little towards Noida, and a red-glazed Maruti car. Vimla was struck by their 17-year-old college-going daughter, Naina, who also kept to herself and liked to scribble away in fat, blank notebooks. Naina had depressions all over her left jawline and large brown eyes that almost seemed drawn into the side of her head.

When her instincts began to kick in, Vimla made do with sprinkling their tea with bits of mud and fiddling with their electricity supply. When she heard from the maid next door that Naina had just returned from a month at a psychiatric facility overseas, it piqued her curiosity. She desperately wished to see Naina’s scribbles. She tried talking to her, but Naina ignored her much like she did everyone else.

Still, Vimla was convinced she felt for her something almost akin to empathy. She cleaned Naina’s bedroom when the family left for the day, wiped her cabinet clean and rearranged the flowers that stuck out flaccidly from her vase. She knew her efforts hardly went noticed, but there was always something to occupy her thoughts.

What was it about Naina that gnawed at her so much? Up until then, Vimla had never wondered about bodies, or been curious about someone outside of herself. It was true that Naina was a stranger, but something about her presence made Vimla conscious of her own self. Her own body—Vimla’s body—stood out stark and felt nearly naked whenever Naina was around. Vimla suddenly felt alive, as if she wasn’t just a curious onlooker of her own life’s events.

Was it because Naina seemed like a stranger in her own house, much like Vimla was in hers? Then again, maybe it was all just an illusion, maybe there wasn’t so much common between them after all. There was so much Vimla could never know about Naina, and it made her want to assign something to Naina’s person in the way that she had never wanted to before. Everyone else she knew just fit. For some reason, Naina didn’t.

Weeks passed into months. Every day she saw the daughter of the household as cold and unconcerned as the drapes or scenery, but Vimla began to construct an image of her in the depths of her imagination. She decided Naina was an artist, and that she liked to scribble verses away into her journal in the dead of the night.

Naina was funky when her mother wasn’t looking. Naina secretly liked to cook. Naina loved to read, but she was firm she’d never follow in her father’s footsteps.

As her explanations began to expand, Vimla almost wished she had kept back at least a few more of her notebooks that fateful day her mother had been sitting on the steps of their house, selling her stationary to the Kabadiwala.


Aashi madam had left for the day. She had again boomed at Vimla from across the kitchen to pack the lunches, and while Amit had been honking his car at them, she had managed to powder Naina’s face and lead her down the drawing room staircase.

“Remember to dust the reading room and polish the bannisters today. And go to the grocers and buy some gobi,” she had instructed Vimla while giving her the stink eye. Vimla had nodded drowsily.

Then, while the family made their way out amid the noise of the car honks and toward the large swathes of receding traffic that lingered outside the compound gateway, Vimla stood at the threshold, leaning against the door as usual, glaring at Naina.

Naina had been wearing an unusual amount of Kohl today. ‘Was she attending an event at her college?’ Vimla would never know.

As the car made its way out in a slow, monotonous fashion, Vimla sluggishly traced her steps back into the flat.

“Let me check if there is any extra liquor in the cabinet,” she murmured to herself as she dawdled her way through the sitting room.

A ripe, almost bursting envelope caught her eye in the darkened folds of the house. It was positioned rather carefully against a jar of water on the dining table. Vimla proceeded to read the words that had been hurriedly scribbled on it:

Winter Semester.

As she tore open the packet, her hands were filled with the smell of freshly minted notes. Vimla proceeded to count the cash. Five hundred, One thousand, One thousand five hundred, two thousand, two thousand five hundred….

Vimla couldn’t believe her eyes! This was more money than she had been able to touch in almost a year and a half! She took in the smell of money like the scent of freshly-minted Memories. She inhaled the scent that clung to her fingers. For the first time in almost six months, she began to picture her father, hopping off his bike in the leafy compound of their Janakpuri flat and walking up to them while sliding the helmet off his face.

This money could pay for so much! Her mother could pay off the grocers, the rent, the milkman…and perhaps she might then also be able to afford a month’s worth of school fees.

Vimla knew that from there, they could manage to arrange for fees every month if she worked really hard. Perhaps she could even work two houses, like her mother.

Yes, the money could really help them. And what would it matter to the Talwars anyway? They made so much money they wouldn’t even notice the loss of a few thousands. Vimla had seen them spend on car rentals and flight tickets.

As she slumped on to the carpet of the Talwar’s living room, she remembered Naina’s slow, overly-kohled eyes and the way they had latched on to something in the distance while the car sped away. Her left jaw had deep depressions imprinted on to them like a kind of decided permanence. Her pale fingers that often quivered while she wrote almost buckled under the seat belt.

Vimla reluctantly placed the envelope back on the dining table, half-torn with the notes spilling out of it. Meh, it’s only a few thousands. She stretched out her arms as she stood up. They aren’t as rich as the previous memsaab. And maybe,’ she skipped over the steps that led the way to the reading room, duster in hand, ‘Maybe they really need it.’

Prerna Kalbag has just completed a Master’s degree in Literary Arts from Ambedkar University Delhi. She is interested in art history, sociology, sociology of law and critical theory. Power relations and the politics of social exclusion deeply influence her creative work. She feels that writing, far from being a spontaneous activity, is a responsibility and a conscious act.

1 comment

1 comment

Mala Chinnappa 15 October, 2020 - 10:23 am



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