The tiny roses blossomed to life on the white fabric. Their delicate folds were being weaved in when Alekhya was interrupted. “It’s late, I have to go home and cook dinner” her friend Faiza whined. “It’s almost done, if I don’t finish it now, the crazy woman will arrive ahead of schedule and demand to see the saree,” Alekhya told her while finishing the last of the roses on the chanderi cotton white saree.
They were colleagues and friends in a shop in Hyderabad in south India, in a narrow lane amidst hundreds of other stores that specialised in hand embroidery. ‘Karigar’ is what artisans like them were called. For six days a week, on ten-hour shifts and for minimum wage, Alekhya, Faiza and a few other women toiled away to ensure the fabrics were etched with the most intricate embroidery they could create. They made breakfast and lunch for their families in the morning before arriving at the shop and went back home after work and continued their daily chores. It was a difficult life but a purposeful one.
A crispy street side snack, visiting the temple, waiting in long lines to watch a movie, talking to her mother on the phone after her children had gone to sleep and being able to pay the school fees with what she earned made her happy on most days. The days the customers raised their voices, demanded more than what they paid for, asked her to work late and made her rework the designs she had put hours into were the days she wished she had a different life.
Her favourite customer was Mrs Naidu. She was so beautiful with her flawless skin, signature bright pink lipstick, dark hair with pecks of grey, silk salwar suits and expensive bags. She owned a fancy boutique in a posh locality in the city. Whenever her clients wanted hand embroidery on their fabric, she visited their store. Mrs Naidu was gentle yet firm with Alekhya and always gave her a generous tip without anyone noticing when she was pleased with her work.
“She had a different bag this time,” Faiza told her as they were sipping their evening Irani chai. It was not a very busy day and they could afford the free time to catch up. “I wonder what her life must be like at home. Maids, cooks, driver, her husband is also really handsome. I saw him dropping her here sometime back” Alekhya responded dreaming in broad daylight about the luxurious life Mrs Naidu had.
It was Diwali in India and they were knee-deep in work when Alekhya’s boss asked her to deliver Mrs Naidu’s fabrics to her house. They had no staff that had even a minute to spare. Still, Mrs Naidu needed the fabrics immediately and was willing to pay an exorbitant sum if they prioritised her work and delivered it to her residence directly. Her house was on the way to Alekhya’s house, making her the right candidate for the job.
“What a chance! Now you can finally see the luxurious life in person that you have been dreaming of” Faiza told her with a cheeky smile. Alekhya did not like the fact that she had to take 2 buses to get home now in a city where the crowds were more chaotic than usual, she had to cook dinner and check on her children’s school work. But, Mrs Naidu’s generous tip was a good enough incentive.
She arrived at the house located in Jubilee Hills, an area where some of the richest individuals in the city resided at. The house was beautifully lit up in preparation for the festival with lamps at every corner of the mansion. The security guard let her in and walked a full minute through the garden to reach the main door. She rang the doorbell and nobody answered for a few minutes. She rang it again and it finally opened.
Mrs Naidu opened the door, her face looking ashy and her speech slightly slurred. “Finally you’re here, come inside,” she told Alekhya. The living room was immaculately designed with a huge chandelier, large sofas and a TV that looked more like a movie screen. Mrs Naidu took the packages from her and sat on the couch and laid them on the coffee table.
Her hands were trembling and she found it difficult to focus. “Are you okay madam? Can I get you something?” Alekhya asked her. “No, I’m just a little drunk. I fought with my husband, he’s gone back to his old ways again. A little whisky won’t hurt me” Mrs Naidu told Alekhya. Several minutes passed and Mrs Naidu couldn’t decide if she found the designs satisfactory. “Can you make me an omelette? I need some carbs to help me think” she ordered Alekhya. While Alekhya stumbled around the large kitchen looking for the ingredients and trying to figure out how the complicated stove worked, Mrs Naidu rambled “I have to have the party tomorrow, it’s important for me as well to talk about my work. Why should it always be about my husband’s work?”. “Yes madam, I have seen your store from the outside, the sarees that we stitched were displayed, they look beautiful in that lighting” Alekhya responded. “He promised me it was a mistake but I saw his messages, he knows what he is doing,” Mrs Naidu said angrily. A few moments later, the exhausted woman fell asleep on the couch.
She awoke to Alekhya gently nudging her. Mrs Naidu now looked sober and wolfed down the omelette while Alekhya watched. “Where are your children madam?” she asked her since the house was expansive. “They study abroad, it’s just my husband and me here” she responded as she was finally able to analyse the design. “These parrots aren’t stitched perfectly, just change this. Otherwise, everything else is lovely” Mrs Naidu declared. They agreed that it would be done first thing in the morning. “No need to come here, I will come to the store. Here, take this, Diwali bonus” Mrs Naidu handed over a wad of notes and ushered her out of the house.
It was a busy morning for the embroidery store, Alekhya had been denied leave so she promised her children that they would go out that evening. The rework on the parrots was almost done when Mrs Naidu arrived. She looked radiant in silk and had a freshly done facial. Alekhya handed over the last of the fabrics when Mrs Naidu turned to her boss and said “Nice work but please don’t send Alekhya for deliveries next time. Send the other girl” and walked out of the store while her husband waited in the car for her.