It was Sunday. Sabita was in the kitchen, cleaning up fish which Rana, the master of the house where she worked as cook, had just brought in. It was a Sunday ritual. Rana would drive across to the bustling Gariahat market, often with his eight-year-old son Shubho in tow, to stock up on fish for the week. He usually returned with plastic bags groaning with prawns, bhetki, katla, pabda and, in season, hilsa. Ila Boudi would look at Sabita and roll her eyes, only for Rana to bellow, ‘What? A man can’t even enjoy his fish? What else is left in this dead city, save a good meal of fish curry and rice?’ Or some variation of this.

It was left to Shubho to decide the Sunday meal. Sometimes, if he picked out too many dishes, Ila would quietly prune the list. Not that he ever noticed, once the table was laid out. He was too little.

It was getting on to a year since Sabita and her ten-year-old son Dinu entered the Banerjee household at Lake Range, technically Sarat Chatterjee Avenue, in South Kolkata.

They had settled in nicely. It was one of the last sprawling, old-fashioned houses in the area. Rana Banerjee had inherited not just the house from his father, the late Surojit Banerjee, but also a thriving business of TMT bars, which he had consolidated on by adding new product lines to cater to the housing construction boom along the city’s Eastern Bypass. By Kolkata standards the Banerjees were wealthy, and it showed in the way they lived, easily resisting overtures from developers to demolish and erect another ghastly multi-storeyed cement box.

It was a two-storeyed house built in the forties by Rana’s grandfather. Circular balconies framed by round pillars formed the front facade. A spiked metal gate opened onto a patch of lawn, ringed by low flowering shrubs. On the wall by the gate, a small marble plaque had the words ‘Jol Pori’ – Bengali for mermaid – etched ornately in English. The tall windows had slatted wooden shutters, lending the house a European – or even Oriental – air. It looked on to a fenced park across the street. The park had a lake, visible through gaps between the trees. There were small islands in the lake around which the water swirled, presumably the inspiration for the house’s name.

It was a nice view from the rooms upstairs, if somewhat tarnished by the hideous coat of blue and white municipal paint that the metal railing had received recently. Even as late as the nineties, this entire stretch had been lined with similar houses and was, in fact, a most sought-after residential area during Rana’s growing-up years. The locality looked different now, the only constant being the stodgy Menoka cinema, but their house retained its art-deco splendour. Jol Pori stood as a symbol of old money, class, according its owners a certain status in the eyes of local residents.

Sabita and Dinu lived in a room on the terrace reserved for resident staff. It was a modest room with no windows and an Indian toilet, but they had the open terrace to themselves. They had never lived anywhere higher than the street level and constantly marvelled at how different everything – people, animals, trees – looked from two storeys up; the height changed everything. For both mother and son, this was a revelation, how the perch one saw things from mattered so much.

Sabita swept and swabbed the tiny room twice every day, morning and evening. They had very few things, but each of them had to be in its place; if by mistake Dinu kept his steel glass a few feet away from the earthen pitcher containing their drinking water, he got an earful from his mother. All articles of clothing were to be neatly folded and kept away or hung from the iron nails stuck in a row on the inside of the bathroom door. Footwear was not allowed inside. Only Shubho was allowed in with shoes on. Dinu could see the disapproval on Sabita’s face when Shubho sauntered in with his shoes on, but she didn’t say anything.

Right now, Sabita was the only live-in help the Banerjees employed. It was a matter of trust, not affordability. Of course, there was a retinue of other domestic staff who came and went during the day – cleaner, gardener and the drivers. Ila, the lady of the house, hardly ever entered the kitchen. That was Sabita’s lair and it was her duty to produce Bengali meals of the highest quality, every day of the week. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. On workdays, a peon would arrive at noon from Rana’s office in Chowringhee to fetch his voluminous lunch box – a pile of neatly packed hot-cases containing bitters, steamed rice, dal, fried vegetable fritters, fish curry and mango chutney.

Dinner was more elaborate. Sabita spent most of her day in the kitchen, with just an hour or two to herself after lunch, for a quick siesta. She didn’t complain. They had a roof over their heads, there was enough to eat and she even managed to save some money every month after spending on necessities. Rana – Dada Babu to her – had got Dinu into the fifth standard at the local Kalighat High School.

Ila Boudi was a kind person, though somewhat scatty; affectionate to Dinu. She had even tried, unsuccessfully, to get him admitted to an English-medium school. Sabita had overheard the conversation.

‘Are you out of your mind? A convent? Is it their place? Even if I managed to get him in, somehow, do you think he would be comfortable? To say to his classmates whose fathers are bankers, lawyers, executives and businessmen that his mother is a cook? Which world are you living in, Ila?’ Rana had shouted.

‘But he seems so bright. A proper education . . .’

‘Listen to me. I know you mean well, but please don’t get these silly ideas into their heads. Let him study till class twelve at the local school, and I will get him a job in my office as a peon. He will be set for life. Okay? And trust me, these people know their limits.’

Sabita was in the kitchen, grinding mustard with a pestle. On looking down, she noticed it had become a runny paste, finer than she needed it to be.

Excerpted with permission from No Way In, Udayan Mukherjee, Bloomsbury.