I have always wanted to write about her. Now seems as good a time as any. Some people enter your life as a matter of course but leave an indelible mark when they depart. She is one such.
A gaunt nondescript woman in her mid-fifties in an unremarkable polyester sari and unkempt hair, and yet there was something that immediately warmed your heart when you set eyes on her. That is how I felt when I first saw her at the door of the shabby building that housed the agency which supplied domestic helps.
My previous maid had had to leave suddenly. She was a woman of such sweet temperament, ever ready to help, that helping herself to what belonged to others must have seemed just a logical next step to her. I don’t know who was more shocked to find her with her hands in the till or rather my handbag. Probably it was I, because I stood silent and rooted to the spot disbelieving my own eyes while she quickly withdrew her hand and pretended she was closing the slightly ajar wardrobe door and continued sweeping. I even made a stupid remark that went, “Ahh! Was the door open?” Imagine, I was so distressed at the discovery that I was positively babbling. What a question to ask someone who was caught stealing red-handed! None of the, “What the hell do you think you are doing?” that anyone who knows would associate with me if caught in such predicament. Instead it had only been an almost Lord Emsworth like bleat I could come up with. I guess it just goes to show how much my brain wanted to defer accepting the fact that I had indeed caught the good lady in the wrong.
Anyways, once the brain reluctantly accepted what the eyes insisted they had seen, I sent her packing, and for the next few days stuck to the ‘self-help is the best help’ policy. But since following this policy involved filling in as understudy for other characters as well, I decided that I absolutely needed outside help. If not I was never going to get around to writing those blogs. Yes, I was already into blogging those days. Burnt lunches and take away dinners were slowly swimming into the horizon and becoming part and parcel of my life. I promptly registered with an agency and the next day they called to say that a domestic help was available and waiting. Accordingly, I hurried over.
She was standing at the door of the agency building and smiled in a friendly fashion on seeing me. I smiled back. Yeah, unlike those seemingly afflicted with constipation, my smile channels are always unclogged and free, so the distribution rarely suffers. Beyond her, I saw another woman in a shiny blue sari seated on a bench inside the room. Which one of the two, I wondered idly as I stepped in. I took an instinctive dislike to the one in blue-sari. Her appearance told me that she was likely to boss me and make life difficult. Luck favored me. Saraswati, for that was her name, was assigned to work at our house and the Lady Shiny Blue-Sari to a house close to mine. Since the Lady Shiny Blue-Sari had to travel in the same direction, the boss of the agency asked me if she could tag along. Sure thing, I said and learnt soon enough that my instinct had been working on all six cylinders after all. She turned out to be a cribber par excellence. In the short time it took to reach my house, she cribbed about how far the place was from civilization. At the gate to my abode, while I parked the car, she even tried dissuading Saraswati from working for me. Why do you want to come this far to work? She is supposed to have asked.
The gem that Saraswati was, she had decided she wanted to work for me. Once she had seen the location of the house and had her working hours fixed, she left, promising to come early the next morning. Before leaving she told me that she had noticed me the first time I had been to the agency with the L & M to register. I was surprised. I hadn’t noticed her that time. Oh yes, I saw you and I wanted to work for you, she added. There was genuine delight on her face when she said that. Then she added shyly, ‘I thought you were newlyweds.’ I laughed out loud at that and took delight in repeating it to the L & M. Well, when a couple about to step into their silver year of married life (now it is 29th okay??) is mistaken for newlyweds it does reveal that the person who made the mistake has very poor eyesight, nevertheless, it makes the said couple grin in obvious glee, which is what we did in addition to repeating it to near and dear ones.
Saraswati stayed in the outskirts of the city. She had to change buses to reach where I stayed. However, she made it to my house at the right time always. But before that comes her introduction to the dog. Yes, I had dear darling Goofy those days. Some maids wanted her tied up; others were okay with her after a few days. I asked Saraswati if I should lock up Goofy till she felt comfortable. No, no, she said, please let her be. She can’t always be tied up because of me. So I let Goofy inspect the new arrival. Inspection over, Goofy wandered off contentedly and Saraswati smiled with happiness that the dog had accepted her.
Over the days I found her to be a diligent worker. So had been the previous maid of mine. I am not the sort to swoop down on maids suddenly while they work or follow them around supervising whatever they are doing in a hawk-like manner. Once I tell them what their duties are, I move along and concentrate on my own work. Of course that involves more than just blogging. Anyways I have been chided by all and sundry for this habit of mine. I have had older and younger women looking askance at me, going tsk tsk tsk in the most criticizing manner. You can tsk all you want, people. I personally don’t like people breathing down my back when I work and I don’t breathe down people’s back when they work. Period. Besides, why the hell have I employed a maid if the time I so gain has to be spent keeping an eye on her and “making” her do things? My modus operandi is to tell them what is expected of them, the rest is of course up to them. If they don’t live up to my expectations, out they go. Simple.
Anyways, after outlining her work (wash dishes, cut veggies, sweep and mop the floor), I also related to her very frankly, the events that led to the dismissal of the previous maid. That is another of my ways. I convey what I want to in a direct manner. No behind the scenes manipulation which is what the world at large is good at and even proud of. Saraswati on her part was aghast at the breach of trust and assured me of her honesty. She has been working in homes since the age of seven, she told me. Seven??!!!
Yes, at seven, her mother took her off school and into the city to this huge household. Keeping the old grandma company was little Saraswati’s job. Assisting old Grandma to the toilet, pouring water for her to clean herself, breaking areca nuts to small bits for chewing with betel leaves, getting her food or water from the kitchen and running other like errands were the jobs entrusted to the little girl of seven. She could rest when the old woman was sleeping. In return, Saraswati was fed and clothed by the family and her mother was paid handsomely. She told me that the Grandma would read out stories to her from magazines and books. In all, though she missed school, Saraswati was happy in her work. She spent the next fifteen years there.
Over the years, after the old woman passed away, Saraswati graduated from minor duties to major ones, sweeping, mopping, doing the dishes, clothes. It was a huge household. She remembers the huge vessels of coffee being brewed and the tons of puttu and kadala that they had to make. She became a part of the family, rejoicing in its little joys and sorrows. She recalls the inmates with fondness. They were good to her and treated her with affection. Then, when she was around twenty-two, her mother decided it was time to get her married. The Indian society thinks marriage is the be all and end all as far as women are concerned. Saraswati’s mother was no exception. She found someone she thought was suitable for her daughter and fixed the marriage. The family that Saraswati worked for was sad to see her go. But they knew she had to, so blessed her, showered her with enough gifts in their gratitude and let her go.
You see, like many of the ‘good’ men out there, her husband, a carpenter by trade, was also one who thought his wife should not ‘work’ outside the home. Oh no, it was not that they did not need the money. They did, very badly too. But he was what we call a durabhimani, too much pride, but of the wrong kind. Besides, again typical to the male of the species, he was suspicious. The males say it is the females who are. But let us look back in years and ask ourselves exactly how many men have sat at home and for how long while the wives were out on work on a daily basis, without a clue as to whether they actually are where they tell you they are. Do you think the majority of men can take that sort of pressure even for a day? I am not even touching on the on-site inspections and meetings out of stations and such. Personally my opinion is that if the roles were reversed as of today, the men would all have died of a bad case of too-much-suspicion by the end of the day if not earlier. Anyways…
Saraswati’s husband was suspicious of the male family members of the household she had spent so much of her growing up years in. He probably imagined scenarios where the young red-blooded men went after the nubile servant girl ….and had she reciprocated their feelings? He would never know the answer and that probably ate his insides silently. But his displeasure was not silent and was expressed unreservedly. She was not to go back to the house, not even on visits. Sarsawati yearned to go meet her old employers who had lavished so much affection on her that even her own mother had not. It was not as if she wanted to go by herself. Like most wives, she wanted to go back and show-off her husband as well. Men! But the man’s durabhimanam stopped him from accompanying her. He forbade her to go back there for any reason at all.
She told me that she wangled permission out of him on the occasion of the marriage of her daughters, to invite the family, that was all. Her husband was none too pleased if they met the male members of the household by chance while out in the market. Those men grew up with Saraswati and stopped to have a word with her out of politeness to the former employee of theirs. They were also married men, some middle aged, with children of their own. Her husband’s displeasure made Saraswati duck and hide herself if she saw them on her visits to the market.
Do you think Saraswati was dumb? That she took pride in such sort of possessiveness as proof that her husband loved her, like many of the dumb heroines in films and literature and god forbid real life too? ‘I love you, that is why I cannot bear to have you talk to others’ No sir, not at all. She saw it for what it was. Of course she did not know names like ego, insecurity etc. But did that matter? She knew. Unlike the average female who is contented to be a puppet, doing the bidding of parents and after that of in-laws, she used her grey cells to think. The activity gave her answers. She was no revolutionary, to run away and incite revolution, not even enough to raise one in her own life. But she knew in her head, what was what. I am sorry to say, the so-called educated women that I come across lack even that awareness and knowledge that this school dropout seems to have had.
Going to the extremes of the typical male behavior, her husband stopped her from grooming herself. If she so much as combed her hair, applied kajal in her eyes or stuck a bindi on her forehead, his caustic response would be, “Who the hell do you want to show yourself to? There is no need to deck up. I am satisfied with you as you are.” Oh my, my. A woman grooms to please only her husband, or should, is what this implies. Saraswati was quite unlike some women who fall all over themselves to please the husband and dress only as he pleases (My husband likes simplicity, that’s why I wear no ornaments. My husband likes me only in a sari, that is why I wear ONLY sari -yeah even Sobha De said that about sari – go many of lower, middle-class and not so middle class women. Ugh). Heartbroken, she chose to protest, in the process playing into his hands. She stopped wearing even a bindi or adorning herself in any manner whatsoever. Her husband must have been a happy man. Now no one would give his wife a second glance. But sigh, she had her pride, my Saraswati. She did not want to hear any more of his nonsense. That, she told me, is the reason you see me like this. I look like a widow, don’t I? She was right. I had assumed she was one till she told me about her husband. No, no, my husband is very much alive, she laughed. I simply stopped grooming myself in any manner whatsoever. I don’t even comb my hair, she said touching her rough curly hair tied up in an unruly knot. I felt anger swell inside me. But I kept those feelings for the blogs I might write later on the topic and did not let it spill at that moment.
To be continued….
Read the next part here