She comes on time every day, unlike the other one. Her work involves sweeping and cleaning the house, that she takes good one hour to do. In between work she steals time to watch TV, if running, and comments on whatever plays on it.
I am an introvert and do not talk much, beyond the basic minimum. She is vociferous. I am about 30 and she must be 40 or closer to it. I stay alone for most part of the day and she lives in a big family comprising of her kids, her pets, her brother in law and his family, while her husband works outside. He works as an electrician employed by an army contractor. Our worlds don’t merge except in that one hour when she comes to my place. That one hour is common to both of us. She discusses the shows they play on TV, tells me about her goat that recently gave birth to three calves, tells me excitedly about the dresses she got stitched, about the annual fair that we are too “sophisticated” to go to, about a lot of things that are insignificant for my “developed” brain. How silly we educated are! We lose ourselves to so called knowledge and elitism, discuss the fundamentals and philosophy of life, discuss socio-economic factors defining and redefining the world, debate on the global and local political scenarios, we feel our opinions matter as if without it the world would collapse, thinking that we have what it takes. We ignore and overlook that what it takes to live and be happy is the happiness that lies hidden in small things, the everyday musings. That one hour brings that up everyday. I fail to correct my behavior though, despite the fact that the simplistic truth stares straight at my face.
She dresses up the way she is- colorful. She brings those colors to my too-neat-too-clean-museum-like house. Pinks, purples, yellows, blues, oranges, all bright and all happily clashing with each other. I know it’s her when the bell rings a long irritating “trrrrrrrrrr” sharp at 9:15 am. Today she came late. Almost at 10:00. My punctual self wasn’t too pleased. 45 minutes of delay was earth shattering! It didn’t occur to me that once in a while we all get delayed. Once in a while, it’s okay. While the heart was trying to get a say (the above lines), my fussy non-compromising brain was stuck at “She is late.”
She looked unusually dull. “Was that a farce? They are smart these maids.. they know how to put up an act” my brain whirred in an overdrive, having been taught over the years by all aunties and other ladies. I asked her sharply the reason. She said it’s her time of the month. She was in pain. Oh well, that’s plausible. Brain was appeased and heart was shyly guilty. I said that she could have taken a day off and informed me. She said “Nahi madam, Kaam to karna hota hai. Koi Nahi, kar loongi” (No madam, work needs to be done. It’s okay, I will manage). Frankly, I was surprised. I was more guilty, but surprised too. I looked for medicines in my medicine box and got her a painkiller, which she took along with water and a lot of gratitude. That was hardly anything in my corporate-sector elitist world, but to her it was a big generous magnanimous gesture that she would proudly tell her family. Not that they will care, but she will.
The pain subsided after a little while and her subsided effervescence floated back. She asked me about getting hair straightened, “Ma’am parlor girl will do it for 4000 Rs.” I suggested her not to. She told me about her four new dresses that she bought for her son’s impending nuptials. All her last month’s pay was spent on them. While I stood shocked, she grinned toothily. I would have suggested saving and spending practically, but her happy face punctured my logic. I just looked at her, confused. She laughed. She got talking and told me that her husband works in Suratgarh. It was a second jolt. I didn’t know that. She has been working with me for 2 months and I never asked her about her family. What’s wrong with me? When did I become this uncaring, aloof person? I don’t remember being this ways when I was young. I asked her in softer, and a bit shocked tone, about her being all alone with her kids and goats. How do they manage? Isn’t it scary? She said that they all live in a joint family and it’s fine. Her husband keeps visiting monthly and the nature of his job is such that his postings keep him on the move. She told me that earlier she used to tag along, so they have lived together in Chandigarh, Amritsar where he built a girls hostel, Ludhiana where he built army accommodation, and so on, but not anymore. She has bought land here now and built a house on it. They had to settle and make a house, which wouldn’t have been possible if she kept tagging along everywhere he got posted. Me, who thought she was impractical, who thought of lecturing her a while back on saving and planning, who thought much of being well-read, that “me” was taught, then and there. This woman, who spent all her life cleaning houses and moving along every few years, who wasn’t educated, wasn’t even worldly wise, knew good enough. There was no need for me to patronize her. I smiled. I was relieved too.
She continued talking, as usual. She told me that I have hairfall. I just stared, not sure what to say and how to react to that. She repeated herself, thinking that I didn’t hear. She told me about the other “ma’am” whose hair fall is severe and who got her long hair cut short because of it. We jointly complained about the local water. She told me that Amritsar and Ludhiana has good water quality, that her hair quality improved there. She told me that in Chandigarh she grows fairer, the water helps. She told me that in Jaipur the vegetables taste so much better, again because of the water. She told me that in Bikaner one gets tasty snacks. I asked her if she too belonged to Rajasthan like her husband and she let out a “hmmmphh” and said proudly that she is from Chandigarh. I suppose everyone suffers from a bit of superiority. “Her” Chandigarh was better than “their” Suratgarh. She married him when he was posted in Chandigarh. It was a love marriage.
I did a double take. A love-marriage?! Why I felt it’s impossible, I don’t know. Maybe because it was unheard of back in her heydays, but mostly because I never thought people in that strata married for love. How wretched is a well-read brain. How arrogant!
It was so new to me that I couldn’t help but enquire. My taciturn self finally decided to take a break. She smiled coyly and said it was a love marriage and then told me.
“I was young and worked with an army couple who had built a three story bungalow in Chandigarh. I helped clean the house. I was young, lean and very naughty (she said that twice, as if to reassure herself). When they would go out I would cover my face with powder or cream. After returning they would look at me and instead of scolding me they would say that I looked like a cat. I loved eating dirt and broke their earthen pots and ate them. Madam asked me who broke the pots and I said that a cat broke them.
Sahib then laughingly told her that I am the cat and all pots were in my tummy (she let out a hearty laugh at this). Madam then took me to doctor for medicine on pretext of getting a chocolate. She told me to eat whatever was in the house but dirt. Sometimes, I would eat whatever was in the refrigerator and tell them about it later. The sahib would say that as far as you eat and not throw the food, that’s fine. I frolicked around all day long, running between the three floors. They laughed at me and said that I brought in sunshine. Madam would laugh and shake her head and say “who would marry you, you silly girl.” Now I am grown up madam but back then I was very immature. Their children were growns ups and one of them worked abroad. He would come to stay sometimes with his firangi* wife, who was so fair and had cat eyes. The daughter-in-law would call me to her room and give me things. Once she gave me a nightgown and explained to me that I were to wear it only at night. I didn’t understand anything and asked my madam if she was cursing me. My madam laughed and explained. The couple liked my presence because they didn’t have anyone else and I kept the house alive.
They kept tenants on the upper floors, who were either very fair foreigners or very dark. I didn’t understand their chattar-pattar**. They spoke in English. Someone told me once that the dark ones would kill and eat me. On learning that I ran away and refused to go to their house. My madam laughed at it and explained that it isn’t so. That they are as nice as any other. I was so stupid.
I told my madam one day that the boy, who worked in the house being built next to theirs, smiled at me. She laughed and said “You are too innocent.” I told her that I wasn’t lying, he really did smile every time he saw me. Then one day when he was working on the terrace of the neighbouring house under construction, I took my madam’s hand to our terrace and “showed” her. She smiled, he laughed and I stood looking with wonder. She knew him as he belonged to a place they had been posted prior to settling in Chandigarh. They were from army too. He had worked there for good time and belonged to that place. She told me that he was a good boy and that I shouldn’t be alarmed. Her saying this made me think. He approached me after a few days and asked for marriage. Straight and direct. In our times love meant marriage, madam. Boy and girl didn’t roam around holding hands. If you loved someone, then marry. I don’t understand why people waste all those years and then say that they won’t marry because they are not compatible. He was not very good looking, but he was a good man. He had a smiling face, I realized later. He had seen me working and jumping around in the house and liked me despite my silly immaturity. I liked him because he was kind and nice to me. What other reason does one need?
My madam and sahib spoke to him and to my parents and arranged our wedding. I got married to him, the man I loved. I think my sister-in-law is jealous of this. She always refers to our love-marriage in derogatory tones. These days it’s fashionable. Yours must be love marriage too (she asked imploringly). You both look like you married for love. But in our time it wasn’t like that. Sometimes my in-laws taunt, but it’s okay.”
I smiled at her words and asked her how long has she been married? She told me that they have been married for 20 years and never did she feel that she acted too quickly or it was a hasty decision.
Unlike the city bred people who are forever riddled with self doubt and find it difficult to coexist, even in love marriages, there stood this lady who was so comfortably married despite living separately from her husband. There were no doubts, no problems, no confusions, no finger-pointings, no self pity, no air of sacrifice, nothing. This simple woman was simply happy. She chose that. Her life was her family, her house and her goats; to her, place didn’t matter, the separation didn’t matter, money issues didn’t matter.
Why does it matter so much to the rest of us? This was a way to live too. She didn’t need fancy phones and big screen TVs and bigger problems creatively created by the big people from big cities.
I think I will try her way. The weightlessness of leaving behind the heavy modernities and going back to the easy, albeit “rural”, light-weightless life is worth a try.
* firangi : A foreigner, especially a British or a caucasian.
** chattar-pattar : chit-chat