Strictly Ceremonial

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Pushpa put her face an inch away from the wall and spread her hand slowly against it. Her skin was terribly wrinkled, her short fingers moving with the ridges, puddles, and cracks of her age. The whole place was damp, she decided, from days of sobbing her mistress had engaged in. The vapor of grief had completely soaked the palace. First, the majestically carved wooden doors had flung open, and then, the high heels of her mistress had hurried up the stairs before Pushpa could even turn around from polishing the golden frame of an enormous painting.

A man of extraordinary stature stood in the painting, with head tilted upwards, one hand on his waist, one foot on a skull of some beastly animal, eyes fiercely facing the viewer, lips slightly curved downwards, and a long slender sword that hung naked from his other hand. Of all the relics that had once been in the house, this was one of the few that survived. By polishing its frame dutifully every evening, Pushpa intended to preserve the legacy of the family, the unquestionable heritage she’d learned to honor very early in her life. Presently Pushpa was 84 years old, squatting by her silent mistress, her open hand absorbing the tears off the wall.

“Eat something please,” she urged, retreating her fingers and turning her head towards the large bed. The mistress remained curled up in it, her stubborn back facing the loyal maid. Loud wails and cries had descended into quiet whimpering over the days, and all that remained now was complete silence. This, Pushpa was certain, was even more insufferable. “Do you remember the joyful day when you walked into this house?” Pushpa said recklessly, memories lighting up her eyes, “You were one stunning bride”. Her granddaughter lunged at this, pulling Pushpa’s shoulder from behind and signaling an urgent “Hush!” A pointed forefinger over her pointed lips, under the wrath of her outraged eyes. “How beautiful you are,” Pushpa hesitated, and turned towards the young one apologetically. The damage was done, the girl thought, as she walked away shaking her head. Over-sensitive royalties from an era long gone, and over-nostalgic maids with deteriorating heads, she thought heading back to the kitchen.

Prabina was the daughter of Pushpa’s first son. She would be the first in her family, in generations, to hold a job outside the palace if things went as planned. She attended a culinary school during the day and, on the evenings the mistress planned to be home, prepared elaborate dinners at the palace. Here she was given the luxury of rolling up salmon in lettuce, which no one ate delicately except the mistress, or of painstakingly sprinkling crushed peanuts and hand-picked basil leaves over a mound of steamed rice, the mutilation of which took only seconds at the hands of her grandmother.

Leaning on the table where unused slices of prosciutto remained, Prabina ate some of the salmon wraps, her eyes rolled up to savor the taste and critique it. Perfect amount of lemon juice, she thought, irritated at how the mistress had refused to even glance at the much-improved color of the grilled salmon. Torn pieces of a photograph currently sat next to the plate. Prabina had picked them up from underneath the mistress’ pillow while she laid as-good-as-dead from days of distress. This single photo was responsible for the dampening of the walls.

When Pushpa was well into her sixties, and the mistress well into her thirties, the country had decided to do away with royalty. Most of their inherited wealth was diverted to development funds, though enough was spared to last them a generation if used economically. The master had taken a chance with his share, using part of it to send his two sons to London, and the remaining to invest in a chain of hotels. The business was successful, though it required him to be away most of the time. The mistress and her royal relatives had taken to accepting invitations to extravagant weddings. It had become common for young brides and grooms to invite celebrities to their ceremonies, to out-do the weddings of others by including glamorous names on the guest list. The parents, on the other hand, out of nostalgia for older times, had began including former royalties on this list. The mistress, noticeably beautiful at the age of 38, had been the star of weddings for years, posing here and there with guests who admired her for her royal beauty and imported saris.

Copies of the wedding photographs were delivered to the palace afterwards. The number of photographs with the mistress in it had declined over the years. “Don’t be silly,” Pushpa had asserted, “You’re just being paranoid, my goddess. There’s no royalty left as beautiful as you.” Confirming her suspicion, there was only one photograph of her in the latest stack, with the top of her head cropped off, her eyes peeking from behind the shoulders of a tall Indian model who was pulling a short Nepali man against her chest. The wailing that descended into whimpering that descended into silence had begun thus.

Prabina threw the torn pieces of the photograph into the trash, and took the tray of salmon wraps back up to the room. She would give it one more try. Pushpa signaled her in. “You should eat some too,” Prabina whispered to her grandmother. “Only when the mistress eats,” she replied audibly. “You hear that?” she repeated more loudly, “The loyal maid will eat only when the mistress eats.” She pressed her palm against the wall, checking to see if it was any drier.

Originally published on Samudaya.org (May 2006)

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