Excerpt from The Mistress of Bhatia House


Sisters will fight.

It is true whether they are raised together or meet as sisters-in-law in a new household. Sisters fight for the better sari, for the chance to do the shopping, for the spot as the parents’ favorite. Such rivalry, followed by reconciliation, is as natural as the way summer’s punishing weather is chased off by monsoon.

Oshadi disliked family fighting as much as she disliked the heat. And it was easier to think about the weather. Even in pastoral Ghatkopar, ten miles north of Bombay, the air felt blisteringly humid. The rain was only a few weeks away—it was a shame the party couldn’t have waited for the first few days of monsoon, when drops danced lightly. Such a change in weather could have brought forward some harmony between Uma and Mangala Bhatia.

As Oshadi slowly proceeded toward Bhatia House, she waved her walking stick at the wild dogs that congregated on the property across the street, waiting for the daily feeding that the rich Jain family provided. Oshadi would not let the dogs wander near Bhatia House; she had worked there longer than anyone and knew what it meant to protect.

When Sir Dwarkanath’s wife had died five years earlier, Uma, the senior daughter-in-law, had promoted Oshadi to housemistress over all six female servants at Bhatia House. For this, Oshadi was grateful; but it meant that Uma-bhabhu asked her to do many things that had nothing to do with ordinary service. Today she’d been sent out to walk to the shops in search of extra candles for the many lanterns set out around the courtyard. She’d gone to three shops before finding what was needed.

As Oshadi limped up the gravel driveway cut between two grassy fields, one of the skinny brown dogs edged close, a female with long teats and a whining voice. Oshadi brandished her walking stick and the dog shied off, returning to the pack.

Oshadi knew the darwan guarding Bhatia House was afraid of dogs; he ignored their occasional incursion onto the property. And tonight, he was busy polishing the booth and decorating it with hibiscus from the garden. All for Uma’s tea party; the guests were already streaming past him in horse-drawn taxis and a few private cars. She could hear the pleased gasps of some women at the sight of the wide, ochre-colored limestone bungalow surrounded by long verandas on the top and ground floors. A series of tiled gables and long shuttered windows made the house appear even more impressive.

Some of the early arrivals, Gujarati ladies from Ghatkopar, who didn’t have far to come, were chattering as they walked behind her.

“My husband wants to donate to the temple only,” one lady murmured to her companion. “Therefore, I’m giving a gold-bangle set.”

“An excellent donation,” her friend opined. “I brought ten rupees.”

“Your husband let you give that much?” The first woman’s voice lowered to a whisper.

“Don’t be silly! I asked my mother.”

As the two women laughed, they came up on either side of Oshadi, as if impatient with her slow pace. Oshadi watched them move on toward the courtyard in their crackling tissue silk saris. On the veranda, she caught a glimpse of two men surveying the scene: Sir Dwarkanath Bhatia and Parvesh, his elder son.

Oshadi paused at the servants’ door to catch some of the men’s conversation. Uma-bhabhu might need to hear about her father-in-law’s mood.

“And what is all the furniture in the courtyard? So many mattresses, it looks like the guests have come to sleep!” Sir Dwarkanath thundered.

“But over fifty ladies will be here. They must be made comfortable.” Parvesh’s voice was anxious.

“You are saying the ladies need something soft for their bony kullas?” Lord Dwarkanath used the vulgar plural for hindquarters.

Parvesh laughed nervously. “Bapuji, remember so many ladies are close by. They might hear you.”

“All this tamasha for ladies’ work,” Sir Dwarkanath grumbled. “Only for your mother’s sake, I’m doing this.”

“Yes. That is why Uma wants the hospital so much.” Parvesh was playing up to his father—just like everyone else.

Oshadi quickly went inside, wanting to steal a few moments’ rest in the servants’ hall just outside the kitchen. The family had four cooks, all Brahmins. Due to Oshadi’s lower caste, she couldn’t enter the kitchen, but she made a sound so Aaker, one of the junior cooks, came out to see her.

“Here are the candles for the cake. The others are for the lanterns. Pratip must put them into the lanterns at dusk,” Oshadi said, remembering Uma’s instructions.

Aaker winced. “Mangala-bhabhi is saying to light everything now. Too many people will be sitting at dusk; it will be more difficult.”

Oshadi did not like the idea of lighting the flames earlier than necessary. They would add to the heat, and the longer they burned, the more chances for something to catch fire. “Did Uma-bhabhu agree?”

“Don’t know.”

Oshadi would soon find out. She asked Aaker to bring her a glass of water. Sinking down on the stool that everyone knew was hers, she drank her fill. Revived, she put the glass near the kitchen door and went out again.

Enough women had arrived that she could not go straight into the courtyard, but had to line up behind others. The woman ahead of her wasn’t anyone she’d seen before; she was a little taller than Uma and wore an airy chiffon sari the same pale yellow as ghee. She was wearing the sari draped from back to front; and she also had a heavy case in her hand.

“Good afternoon. Are you Mrs. Bhatia?” the strange lady asked Mangala-bhabhi, who was sitting behind a small table Pratip had set up at the courtyard entrance.

“I am. If your donation is cash, please count it in front of me.” Mangala-bhabhi’s voice was the same as if she’d been talking to any of the children: stern, and with a hint of suspicion.

The visiting lady lifted the fold covering the opening of the briefcase—a man’s briefcase, Oshadi noted with fascination. Withdrawing an envelope, she laid it in front of Mangala-bhabhi.

The woman rustled the bills. “Fifty-one rupees. It’s from Gulnaz. She wishes you her very best and was thankful for your recent visit to see her in hospital—”

“I never went. You must be talking about my sister-in-law, Uma.” Mangala’s sallow face showed her displeasure at the confusion. “Please, go ahead inside the courtyard.”

“I beg pardon for the mistake. May I ask your name? I’m Perveen. Perveen Mistry.”

“I’m Mangala Bhatia. The hospital committee’s treasurer.”

“Could you kindly point out Uma to me?” Miss Mistry persisted. “I don’t wish to keep making such a fool of myself! As long as it isn’t too much trouble.”

“It is trouble.” Mangala pursed her lips. “I must stay taking donations. You go in, there is a line of people waiting behind you. Uma is wearing a pink sari.”

As Perveen Mistry moved past, Mangala raised her blunt eyebrows at Oshadi. Pressing her thick lips together, she murmured, “And what are you doing in the middle of these fine people? Trying to make friends—or perhaps pick money from someone’s purse?”

“Uma-bhabhu needs me.” Oshadi spoke simply, knowing no amount of bowing or scraping would please Mangala. The comment about stealing hurt—Mangala had to know that Oshadi had served the family forty years and never taken as much as a match for her own use.

“Very well. What Bhabhu says she needs, she must get.”

But not always, Oshadi thought.

 * * *


Perveen felt that getting past Mangala Bhatia had been like running the proverbial gauntlet. No matter what she’d said, it seemed to peeve the woman. But she’d made it into a beautiful stone courtyard half-filled with ladies dressed in pastel-colored summer saris. Many were in shades of pink—quite pretty, but confusing as she started her search for Uma Bhatia.

And soon it would be too late to catch the hostess, as everyone would be sitting down for the presentation. Thin mattresses had been spread across the ground for seating, and in front of them stood short footed wooden trays. Each tray held a banana-leaf platter, a copper tumbler for water, and a shockingly simple clay teacup. Western-style porcelain, silver, and furniture were in high use amongst Bombay society, so Perveen found this departure an unexpected and very charming setup.

Perveen scanned the courtyard. She’d never been in Ghatkopar before, and she guessed that many of the guests were local. The charitable hospital Uma Bhatia was founding would be built inside Bombay, so Perveen had expected to see some familiar faces. Yet the only woman she recognized was Lady Gwendolyn Hobson-Jones, the prickly mother of Perveen’s best friend, Alice.

Lady Hobson-Jones turned from chatting with one friend to the next, and her cool blue gaze swept the crowd. Perveen smiled and began walking toward her, but Lady Hobson-Jones did not return the greeting. Instead, the doyenne of British Bombay took the arm of the full-figured brunette next to her and motioned for a third woman—this one a slender blonde in her thirties—to step closer. Now all three ladies’ backs were toward Perveen.

Perveen stood still, wondering if Lady Hobson-Jones had snubbed her. Was this what the British called “cutting someone dead”?

Perveen could never admit to being fond of Alice’s mother, but they had always chatted and smiled their way through encounters. Irritation rising, Perveen walked in the opposite direction, resolved that she would complete the mission of locating Uma Bhatia.

Amid the numerous women wearing pinks that ranged from the palest blush to brilliant fuchsia, Perveen finally settled on someone who seemed likely to be the chair of the women’s hospital committee. She appeared to be in her midtwenties and wore an expensive-looking rose silk crepe floral sari. Hanging from her neck was a black and gold beaded wedding necklace with a floral pendant made up of many small diamonds.

Striving to appear casual, Perveen approached the woman and her social group, who were gathered around a tall woman in a blue-and-white flowered silk sari. This lady, who had a striking, strong-boned face, wore her hair tightly coiled in a bun. Instead of carrying a cloth purse, she’d nestled a large leather bag under her left arm.

“We must make our hospital welcoming to all,” the tall woman was saying in fluent Marathi, the language spoken by most people born and raised in Bombay and the surrounding countryside. “Even the hospital sentries could be women. Of course, we will have female nurses, but we need more women physicians. I’ll do my best to recruit, but I hope that you’ll encourage your daughters to enroll in medical college.”

The woman in pink glanced at the others, then spoke in a decorous tone. “Dr. Penkar, we admire you for receiving your advanced and useful education. But medical college is too expensive for most of us.”

Hearing the surname, Perveen realized the tall woman had to be Dr. Miriam Penkar, the city’s only Indian female obste- trician-gynecologist. It seemed quite a coup for the fledgling hospital to have her on board.

“The girls can study in India!” The doctor gave her a wide smile. “We are fortunate that the Lady Hardinge Medical College has opened in Delhi. One of our committee members at this gathering, Mrs. Serena Prescott, was even involved in their fundraising. She can help your daughters.”

Skeptical glances flickered between a few women, as if they didn’t believe that an Englishwoman would assist them—or that they could send a daughter as far away as Delhi.

“It’s a grand idea. But first, let’s get the hospital built. By the time the roof goes on, lady doctors may be plentiful.” Uma spoke pleasantly, turning from the crowd to take notice of Perveen. Switching to English, she said, “Good afternoon! Are you a new supporter?” She looked Perveen over, clearly noting the legal briefcase, a cousin to her own medical kit.

It was a relief to be invited into a group. Smiling warmly, Perveen answered, “My sister-in-law, Gulnaz Mistry, asked me to bring her best wishes. My name is Perveen Mistry.”

“The solicitor?” blurted Dr. Penkar. “I’ve heard tales of you.”

Perveen was pleased by the recognition. “Really? I believe we both were in Oxford—unfortunately, not at the same time.”

“I had to sit my medical boards in Madras because Oxford wouldn’t give me a medical degree.” Dr. Penkar raised her eyebrows heavenward. “Therefore, the question sometimes comes to me, was my overseas education worthwhile? But I believe it’s served you—Gulnaz is always boasting about your brains and accomplishments. You must join the core committee and handle the legal contracts for us.”

“Thank you very much, but I don’t know if I can join the committee at present,” Perveen said hastily. “Truly I am here to bring Gulnaz’s donation.”

“Of course, we understand that your career makes you very busy,” Uma cut in. “But sit next to Dr. Penkar during the tea.”

Perveen guessed the suggestion was meant to encourage her to reconsider. Normally, she would have ignored such a power play. But Miriam Penkar was intriguing, and she wanted to get to know her.

A tall, thin servant lady had appeared at the outskirts of the group, standing with a slightly bent posture. Uma exited the circle and lowered her ear to the woman, who murmured to her in a stream of low, fast Gujarati.

“It’s all right,” Uma said soothingly, and then turned to the ladies. “Oshadi, my chief housekeeper, reminded me that everyone should be settling in their places. Do spread the word to the other ladies, please. I will fetch the pandit to offer the blessing before we begin.”

The women began moving toward the two rows of cushions facing the decorated platform in the center of the courtyard. The three British women in their knee-length frocks had considerable difficulty setting themselves on the cushions while not exposing their legs.

“I don’t think they feel pleased about not having chairs,” Miriam said in a low voice to Perveen.

“Are they core committee members?” Perveen asked as a waiter came with a silver tray containing a stack of dhokla squares topped with grated coconut, coriander and roasted mustard seeds. Perveen was fond of the steamed savory made from fermented chickpea batter, so she asked for two.

“Actually, I’ve only met Serena Prescott: she’s the tall blonde,” Miriam said. “This tea was planned to recruit new donors. We thought there might be eighty women today, but it doesn’t look so. The Bhatias set a rule that the party was for donors bringing at least ten rupees or donated items of higher value.”

Perveen thought ten rupees was a very high amount, and even more difficult to donate because most women couldn’t take money from their own household for anything other than groceries. Mohandas Gandhi, the freedom-activist lawyer, was frank about inviting women to donate their personal ornaments to support the freedom movement. And so it was here.

“This dhokla is excellent,” Dr. Penkar said. “And I see waiters carrying trays full of aloo tikki and gulab jamun. But where is the tea?”

High-pitched shouting distracted Perveen from answering. A herd of well-dressed but rambunctious children had streamed into the courtyard with three ayahs chasing behind them, herding them like goats. A boy of about four veered away, as if drawn to the sight of Uma lighting incense at the central platform. As he tugged on her sari, she swatted at him. He shouted something that must have been impertinent, because she raised a hand, and he dashed back to the group of children.

In the next moment, Mangala arrived at the platform, holding a tray of flowers and fruit. Just behind her, Oshadi was placing small candles atop a splendid multilayer cake.

Did these ostensibly devout Hindus eat eggs?

“Have you met Sir Dwarkanath and Parvesh Bhatia?” Miriam interrupted Perveen’s musing as she gestured toward a pair of men wearing achkan jackets who had come into the courtyard. Both had strong chins and deep-set eyes. However, the older man’s eyes seemed narrow with suspicion, while the younger man’s gaze was open and friendly.

“Sir Dwarkanath might be overwhelmed by so many ladies, but his son looks as if he’s excited. He must like parties,” she guessed.

After studying the two, Miriam said, “I think that Parvesh is also feeling proud of his wife. He supports the project fully.”

Perveen wondered whether Miriam felt the same about Sir Dwarkanath, one of the most admired Gujarati businessmen in the city. The gentleman’s eyes seemed to soften as he turned his attention toward the little boy who’d been pestering Uma. Now the boy was back with the other children, tugging at their clothes and running back and forth. “What a lively little boy. Who is he?”

“Ishan is Uma and Parvesh’s only son,” Miriam said, beckoning to a waiter carrying a teapot. “And due to Parvesh’s status as Sir Dwarkanath’s elder son, Ishan will inherit Bhatia House and the stone business.”

“A crown prince of sorts?” Perveen wondered if the other children in the joint family already understood.

“Yes. Uma and Parvesh have two daughters who are older than him, and one about six months old.”

“I still think it’s a lot to manage, as well as a household like this, and a big charity project!”

“Four children from his eldest son is paltry, as far as Sir Dwarkanath is concerned,” Miriam said with a grimace. “Mangala has six children, three of them sons, as she likes to remind everyone on the committee.”

“She sounds competitive.” Perveen had been close with Gulnaz since primary school. Since they’d become sisters-in-law, their friendship wasn’t as silly and full of confidences, probably because Gulnaz’s most important relationship was now with Rustom Mistry. “What do you consider the ideal number of children for a family?”

Miriam took a sip of tea before answering. “There’s no perfect number. My larger worry is that when girls begin childbearing during puberty, they damage their bodies irreparably. Lady Bhatia—Uma’s deceased mother-in-law—suffered pain and infection over the course of many childbirths and ultimately succumbed to her internal injuries,” she added. “And there is far too much death for infants in this city—more than half of them die within the first year of life. The outcomes are not good at all.”

“What are the causes of death?”

“Tuberculosis, dysentery, cholera and malnutrition. And they arrive into our world with a physical weakness that stems from growing inside the belly of a child-mother.”

“What about death from infanticide? Do you believe that’s also part of high infant mortality?” Perveen asked, thinking about some cases in the police court.

“Oh, yes. A female baby is born, and a relative or midwife carries her off. Hours later, the mother is told that her daughter didn’t survive. But the truth is, she’s a baby nobody can afford.”

Miriam’s words made Perveen feel ashamed of how much better-off her family was than most people in Bombay. But she reminded herself that the forthcoming hospital would save women’s lives. “I suppose you advise women patients about all of the risks of having pregnancies starting at an early age?”

“Advise them?” Dr. Penkar echoed her words with amazement. “I can relay facts to my patients about how pregnancy occurs, but a physician has no authority over a husband. And the fortunate wives who enjoy being with their husbands might not wish to change anything.”

Perveen caught her breath quickly. Dr. Penkar had spoken as if it were all right for women to want to touch, and to be touched.

“Miss Mistry? I hope I didn’t shock you,” Miriam said.

“No!” Perveen blurted. “I was just surprised. Please tell me more.”

“The Kalbadevi Ladies’ Hospital will provide pre- and post- natal care, and safe, modern methods of delivery,” Miriam Penkar answered, dashing Perveen’s hopes of another provocative comment. “And that will lead to much better outcomes for both mother and child. You Parsis have a maternity hospital like this. Isn’t your sister-in-law there now?”

“Yes. Gulnaz gave birth at Dr. Temulji’s Lying-In Hospital. She’ll be staying there for forty days following birth. It’s actually mandatory because of religious traditions.”

“As it happens, that’s the proper amount of time to protect a woman’s uterus—” Miriam paused. “I’m sorry, I didn’t ask if you know the meaning of uterus?”

“It’s where the baby grows?”

“Correct.” Miriam sounded like a teacher satisfied with a precocious pupil. “The uterus and vagina, too, should be protected for some time after the trauma of birth. So maternity hospitals are a safeguard during a crucial time.”

“Do you find Hindu and Muslim mothers typically stay with their parents after delivery?” Perveen asked. “That would achieve the same purpose.”

“If there is room in the parents’ home, and if it’s clean. We Jews have the same tradition.”

“You are Jewish, then!” Perveen exclaimed. She had been wondering about the background of this unusual woman.

Miriam smiled. “Surprised, aren’t you? I don’t resemble the Sassoons.”

Perveen guessed that Miriam was insinuating that Bene Israel Jews were more Indian-looking than the Baghdadi Jews, a later-emigrating group that included the highly elite family she’d mentioned. Perveen was attempting a muddled reply when they were interrupted by Mangala Bhatia.

“Sssh! The speeches are beginning! ”Mangala settled herself next to Perveen, as if determined to monitor her behavior.

Uma mounted the stage. She folded her hands in a graceful namaste, inclining her head. In a ringing voice, she said in Gujarati, “Welcome. We are all being blessed by Panditji before the ceremonies begin.”

The pandit swirled the aromatic, smoky incense holder and began a slow chant in Sanskrit. Then he held the silver tray of fruit and flowers for Uma and three other women to take. Belatedly, Mangala arose from her place next to them and hurried around the cushions to take the blessed offerings herself.

Perveen was glad that Mangala was gone, seemingly because she couldn’t bear to miss the spotlight. She whispered to Miriam, “Why aren’t you also going up?”

“It’s a religious observance,” Miriam said. “Hindus only. The English ladies on the committee aren’t going up either.”

As the pandit stepped down, Uma seated herself in a chair near a small table holding the brass box of donations in front of her. Mangala stood nearby; as if to protect the money, Perveen thought with amusement.

“So many donations from this assembled party. The hospital committee wishes to recognize the goodness of each one of you.” Uma continued her pattern of speaking confidently in Gujarati, followed by painstaking English. “Sixty rupees from Lady Gwendolyn Hobson-Jones. Please rise, Lady Hobson-Jones.” Polite applause rippled through the room. “We also received with appreciation fifteen rupees from Mrs. Serena Prescott, who is very new to Bombay. Sitting beside her is Mrs. Madeline Stowe, who’s donated one hundred rupees on behalf of Stowe Ironworks.” Perveen watched Gwendolyn Stowe’s companions rise together, holding hands and smiling at the group. “And we are also receiving a magnificent treasure from a royal vault: a pearl and diamond necklace, gift of the Begum of Varanpur. My gratitude, Begum Cora. I should like to note that the begum has also donated the Black Forest cake for this party. It is an authentic European cake.”

Perveen guessed the last was said as a warning to those who avoided eggs. She turned her head, looking for a veiled Muslim royal, and nearly gasped to see a young white woman with flowing red hair left uncovered by her silver-on-blue brocaded blue sari.

“It’s my pleasure to help a good cause!” the begum declared in cheerful, rough-sounding English, all the while fluttering her hand and smiling like a queen with an adoring public.

A great murmuring in Gujarati followed; Perveen had to strain to hear the words. But the general questions women were asking each other were, What is she? Muslim or Christian? British—no, Australian!

“Fifty-one rupees from Mrs. Gulnaz Mistry!” Uma called out, and the begum finally reseated herself. “Because of her new baby, Gulnaz-ben could not attend. Yet the donation was brought in good spirits by Miss Perveen Mistry. Please rise!”

It took two tries for Perveen to stand up, because she had witnessed the begum’s easy grace and was desperate not to use her hands to get up from the ground. She managed, though, and became instantly aware she’d set the crowd gossiping.

Gulnaz’s sister-in-law. A lawyeress—yes, a solicitor. She is divorced. No, she is not. How much money does she earn? Can she keep it, or does she give it to her father?

As if to quiet the audience, Uma proceeded rapidly with another name. “Next donation is a fine set of six gold bangles from Srimati Radha Shah!” After a brief round of applause, Uma continued. “From Dr. Miriam Penkar . . .” Uma looked up from the envelope and spoke with a trembling voice. “Dear Dr. Penkar, by agreeing to become our hospital’s medical director, you have given so much already. And this . . . ten rupees. It is wonderful. Please, will you give us a few words?”

“This is a surprise,” Miriam Penkar murmured to Perveen. “You’ll do well,” Perveen said, patting her arm.

The doctor rose, and as she walked toward the stage, two other women left their places: Lady Hobson-Jones and Serena Prescott. Perveen expected that they planned to join the doctor on stage, but instead they furtively hurried to the courtyard exit.

Once onstage, Miriam faced the audience with a genial smile. “It is my honor to be the chief of staff for this hospital meant to serve all women, regardless of religion and income. I am grateful because every donation is another brick in the building, another bed in a ward. I know that many of you have given to maximum capacity of your personal finances. And we need more than cash. We need hands.”

The doctor opened her palms, and as she stretched her arms forward, Perveen noticed she wasn’t wearing bangles. “Sisters, we speak so many languages. Let’s use them to ask our neighbors and relatives and the city’s wealthiest to lend a hand. And after the hospital is built, how about using your voice to welcome patients to the building? Or your hands to roll ban- dages, or type medical information? Do you have furniture you no longer need, especially beds, tables, and chairs? All will be greatly needed. And that is all I have to say.”

“I shall summarize your words in Gujarati,” Uma began, but halfway through the translation, she halted, her gaze fixed on the side of the courtyard.

Lord Dwarkanath was frowning at her, and Parvesh was waving his hands.

Taking the doctor’s arm, Uma quickly said, “Thank you, Dr. Penkar. Now, I have the honor of presenting Lord Dwarkanath Bhatia, my father-in-law.”

“Dear daughters, are you inviting me to my own home?” Sir Dwarkanath joked as he allowed Mangala to help him ascend the stage.

Dr. Penkar retreated through the courtyard to resume her place next to Perveen, while Uma and Mangala now both stood behind the patriarch. Perveen glanced at Miriam, trying to get a reaction to Uma’s interrupted translation, but the doctor stared ahead, her expression studiously neutral.

“Fifty years ago, I came with my father to Bombay. It was a long journey—ten days’ walk from Bharuch, where our native village lies.” Looking down from his elevated position, Sir Dwarkanath addressed the seated crowd, speaking in a voice that was as relaxed as a storyteller’s. “My father found a free school for me and took every job he could find, carrying and selling goods for the merchants who paid him just two paise a day. I helped when I wasn’t in school, and it’s only through God’s grace that we were able to set up our first shop and then save enough to start our stone business. Now I am grateful for all that has come from our work, including the chance to build many fine structures for the use of Bombay’s government. Many of you know that my wife, Premlata, died ten years ago.” He paused, the light in his eyes seeming to dim. “She was sacrificing, modest, and community-minded. She would have liked this hospital project very much. Perhaps the doctors and nurses of a proper women’s hospital could have saved her life. I believe—”

His subsequent words were masked by a child’s shriek.

Perveen’s eyes shot to the area where the children were congregated. Two of the ayahs were already standing, looking in every direction. Who had cried out?

Then Perveen saw.

At the far edge of the courtyard, Ishan Bhatia was hopping up and down. The sleeve of his kurta was aflame, and as he shook his arm, the fire expanded.

“Hai Ram!” bellowed Sir Dwarkanath, and Uma held a hand over her mouth, as if stifling her own cry. All along the rows, women screamed, some clutching at each other, and others tumbling against each other as they tried to rise—as if their presence around the jumping, screaming child might put out the fire.

Dr. Penkar was already on the move, but she’d forgotten her kit. Perveen grabbed it and hurried after her as best she could in the confusion. As she got close, she saw one of the ayahs throw herself atop the burning, screaming boy. In the next moment, Parvesh was there, dousing the two of them with a pitcher of water.

“Sunanda. Ishan!” the Bhatias’ housekeeper called, moving quickly with a twisted gait. She also had a pitcher of water which she streamed over the two of them.

Dr. Penkar’s voice was calm as she spoke to Parvesh and Oshadi in Marathi. “The flames are out, but we still need more water. Get more water, please.”

“I’ve brought your bag,” Perveen said, dropping it at her side.

“Open it for me, will you? I need scissors first.”

As Miriam Penkar bent to touch Sunanda’s shoulders, the ayah moaned in pain.

“Sunanda, the fire is finished. Now let me get you apart from Ishan,” Dr. Penkar beseeched.

The ayah quieted and, although her shoulders moved, her body didn’t follow.

“Get off me, Sunanda!” wailed Ishan.

“How is my son?” asked Parvesh anxiously.

“It’s good that you brought more water. Please pour it gently here,” Dr. Penkar said, motioning toward the ayah’s side. As Parvesh doused the area she indicated, the doctor’s strong arms reached forward and swiftly turned Sunanda’s body.

“Is the boy alive?” demanded Begum Cora, who was looking wide-eyed at the bodies collapsed on the stone courtyard.

“If he was dead, he wouldn’t be crying,” Dr. Penkar snapped in English. “Please let me do my work!” She spoke in soft Marathi as she put her hand on the ayah’s shoulder. “Sunanda, you were very brave.”

Along with charred white cotton pieces of Sunanda’s sari, Perveen saw raw pink flesh and blood on her stomach. All that remained of Ishan’s silk kurta sleeve was completely black, giving the impression that terrible damage lay underneath. Perveen didn’t want to see; yet she could not tear herself away.

“This is your fault, Sunanda! Why weren’t you watching him?” Mangala Bhatia was standing over the ayah with her arms crossed.

“Everyone here must be quiet. This is no time for blaming!” Dr. Penkar said, taking a second to glare into Mangala’s furious face before returning her attention to Sunanda and Ishan. Taking scissors from Perveen, she cut away the cloth from Ishan’s arm. “We need many cloths soaked with cold water.”

Sunanda whimpered something, and Dr. Penkar took the stethoscope out of her medical bag and pressed it to the ayah’s chest.

“Why weren’t you sitting at the table with the children?” Mangala scolded Sunanda. “You should have stopped him from wandering.”

Perveen felt her temper rise. The ayah had behaved heroically and was badly injured. “Mangala-ben,” Perveen said, then waited until she had the angry woman’s attention. She whispered, “Dr. Penkar gave us orders to be quiet.”

Mangala’s gaze moved past Perveen. Loudly, she said, “Oh, here you are at last, Uma. Don’t worry, he’s able to cry to the heavens!”

“I had to help Bapuji from the platform. And then it was hard to get through the crowds!” Uma knelt and put a hand on her son’s head. Softly, he moaned, turning his small, ash-smudged face toward her.

“Oh, Ishan! Please don’t die,” Uma whispered. “You can’t!”

“He will most certainly live,” Miriam said gently. “Sunanda will be fine as well. Tell me, can ice be found anywhere? We will need to use it for several hours’ time.”

Parvesh wiped his hand across his brow. “A shop in town sells it. I’ll send two bearers to get as many as can be bought.”

“Also—we need an ointment from the pharmacy. A thin layer of American petroleum jelly will protect their burns from germs.”

“For Ishan?” Uma’s voice was shaky.

Both need this treatment.” Dr. Penkar’s voice was firm.

As if chastised, Uma nodded. Then she touched the sleeve of her husband’s jacket and spoke to him in low Gujarati. Perveen caught the word “father.”

Perveen had forgotten about Sir Dwarkanath. He was coming slowly through the crowd, the priest at his side.

Seeing them, Uma began to cry. “I’ve ruined everything. I am so very sorry—”

“It was just an accident,” Parvesh said, but his voice was shaky, and he went to meet his father and the priest.

Now that there was more space, Begum Cora moved in closer and stared at Sunanda.

“You poor girl!” she said in her strange English. She pulled a note from her handbag and tried to press it into Sunanda’s hand. “I will reward you, even if nobody else will! Remember that Begum Cora herself commends your bravery. This is ten rupees, do you hear? It’s for you.”

Sunanda’s eyes were closed, as if she didn’t know that the begum was addressing her.

“Please, no,” Uma said in English. “She’s not understanding your words. Very kind, but not needed.”

The begum acted as if she hadn’t heard. She rose, the money still in her hand, and proffered it to Oshadi. “Give it to her later, my dear.”

“No, no, I must not take it,” Oshadi said in English.

Mangala put her hand on the begum’s arm. “Please, Begum. We already take care of their pay.”

“Of course. But this is a token of gratitude. A royal recognition from the princely state of Varanpur.”

Still, Oshadi would not open her hand.

Perveen tapped Uma on her shoulder. Speaking in Gujarati, she said, “The begum dearly wishes to offer gratitude for your ayah’s heroism toward your son. Don’t you think Sunanda deserves it?”

Uma’s eyes flickered from her toward Sunanda. “Very well. Oshadi, keep the money for Sunanda until she can take it from you.”

“I have saved lives, too,” Oshadi mumbled in Marathi.

Perveen shot a look at Oshadi, wishing she would say more, but the woman simply tucked the bill into her sari’s waist.

“Doctor, what happened to my grandson?” Sir Dwarkanath’s English was both precise and angry.

“Ishan has second-degree burns on his right arm, serious but quite treatable. Right now, cooling the burn stops damage from increasing. We will do this for several hours this evening. After that, the burns will slowly heal if the raw flesh is kept quite clean and protected with the petroleum jelly I’ve requested.”

“I thank you for being here.” Lord Dwarkanath regarded Miriam Penkar with a favorable gaze. “You saved the life of my grandson.”

Perveen thought, No mention of Sunanda.

Uma looked up at her father-in-law with a weak smile. “I’m terribly sorry, Bapuji, for all that has happened tonight. It was to be a happy party.”

“Yes, there are many ladies here who must be worried,” Mangala said. “I’ll tell them everything’s fine.”

“And the cake must be served!” the begum interjected. “Soon, or the cream will become puddles!”

“Nobody will serve that egg-filled cake!” Sir Dwarkanath pronounced angrily. “Ishan must be washed and settled inside the house, and the servant must be cared for as well. Oshadi will tell the staff to take everything down. When I rise tomorrow, this courtyard should be washed clean. Any food left can be given to the poor. But the party has ended.”