Paaro was in the tin shed bathroom just behind the dhaba. She had just finished giving Jassi a thorough cleaning. It was only when Jassi had started crying, she made her wear a fresh set of clothes asked her to go out.
She now took off her clothes and put them in the bucket as well. She sprinkled a liberal dose of detergent and dipping both her hands into the bucket spun around the clothes so that each fibre would get soaked with the detergent.
She let the clothes soak and focused on the smell that seemed to emanate from her body. She picked up the scrub and rotated it around her palm. It felt hard. It looked like something a dhaba owner would use for cleaning utensils, the kind of coarse material that could wipe away the most stubborn grime.
She rubbed soap vigorously all over her body. Her hands moved in large circular motion as she covered her entire body with a thick layer of lather. She now started with the scrub, rubbing her entire body with it. The scrub made her body itch and she noticed scratches. She ignored the pain and after washing herself once she started applying the soap once again.
She found the smell obnoxious. The smell that was so overpowering that it permeated through her clothes and on to her body.
She kept checking the clothes in the bucket as well. Every now and then she would dip her hands in and take the clothes up to her nostrils. Dissatisfied, she would whirl the clothes around in anger and then get back to paying attention to her body.
Jassi was at the door banging it with her fists and asking Paaro to come out.
â€˜Ma, she shouted, get rid of this obsession, there is no smell.â€™
Paaro did not listen to her. She squeezed the water out of the clothes. She used all her strength but was still not satisfied. She filled up the bucket again and the followed the same routine all over again. This same routine had been going on for a few days now. Everyday after the work at the dhaba was finished Paaro would get her fifteen year old daughter come inside the bathroom with her and follow the complex cleansing procedure.
Paaroâ€™s dhaba was located on the Jullandhar – Amritsar road.
Six years ago, when her husband passed away, she was just thirty five. She was just nineteen when she eloped with her husband and although she had tried her best to rebuild ties with her parents they never forgave her and cut off all ties. Unfortunately her in-laws also never accepted her to be their own and therefore, when her husband died, they made it so uncomfortable that she had no option but to leave.
She had nowhere to go but when pushed against the wall her fighting instincts took over. She worked as a housemaid, cooked food, cleaned utensils and did all sorts of sundry jobs. She saved and scrimped every penny to finally, at the end of five years, buy a small plot of land in the wilderness and set up her dhaba. After setting up the dhaba she built a small tin shed behind it and started living there.
The fact that her daughter, Jassi, was mentally challenged never deterred her. It had been tough looking after her and working but Paaro had managed. The dhaba allowed her the luxury of staying with Jassi all the time and it was a big relief.
Paaro employed two small kids, orphans, who helped her with the service and cleaning of the utensils.
Paaro was a good cook and very soon her dhaba became a favoured stop for the truck drivers plying on this road. Her Dal fry, tandoori rotis, tandoori chicken and green chilly chutni were so finger licking good that any customer who walked into the dhaba was bound to come back for more.
But the desolate location and the fact that she was almost alone, except for the company of her mad daughter and two small orphan boys, also attracted the wolves, the men who thought she could be coerced into providing favours beyond the ambit of the dhaba.
Harjeet was almost forty and had no family of his own. He too had grown up the tough way and could empathize with Paaro. The more time they spend together, the more liking they developed for each other.
Soon he was closer than a brother, helping Paaro with the purchases and transport of essentials and later, as time went by and the business grew, he was also extending a helping hand with the cooking and the services. It was no surprise when Paaro thought of expanding the dhaba, Harjeet chipped in. He helped Paaro build a reasonable accommodation behind the Dhaba and also built a small room for himself. Slowly Paaro found herself trusting him with everything, from their safety to her finances and Harjeet, her brother, never disappointed her.
Then, suddenly on one busy afternoon, Paaro fell sick. Harjeet rushed her to the hospital and had insisted on making her take the tests. Paaro did protest as the doctors insisted on admission for a couple of days, but Harjeet was persistent and convinced her that he would not let anything affect the dhaba during her absence. Paaro had no reason not to believe him and finally relented.
When Paaro returned after two days everything appeared in perfect condition. Harjeet had indeed run the dhaba well. The regular customers turned up in huge numbers to make her return memorable and the night witnessed lot of rejoicing. Although the dhaba would generally shut down at midnight during regular days Harjeet insisted that they run it longer that night and it was almost morning when they finally closed down.
People were surprised when the dhaba was found closed the next day. Most of the regulars concluded that Paaro’s illness must have recurred. Then a day after Paaro returned from the hospital she visited the police station and lodged a missing personâ€™s complaint for Harjeet. It was only then that it became known that it was his absence that resulted in the shut down of the dhaba.
It was only a week later that the dhaba reopened and it would have been business as usual if Paaro had not suddenly developed this obsession about his presence around her. She would complain about his presence and keep washing her hands every time she touched the tandoor. She would wash the tandoor thoroughly every time she used it and then they would close down the dhaba till it was dry and fit for use again.
Every evening she would spend hours in the bath, washing Jassi. She would keep rubbing oil on Jassiâ€™s body and sniff her clothes till she was satisfied that the smell had gone.
The smell was making her go insane.
She would complain of Harjeet peeping out of the tandoor.
People thought she missed his presence. But this was not true. It was his presence that bothered her. The smell reminded her of him and his betrayal.
How could he, her brother, fail her so miserably? How could he betray their trust?