Last Days and First Days

Our last day in Calcutta coincided with the Vivekananda Road Flyover disaster. The bridge collapsed and crushed over 20 people, injuring many more. Two days after the event, people are still trapped under rubble. Friends are marking each other and themselves as safe on Facebook and politicians in power are blaming one another.

On a more personal note, we were packed up and ready to go. Earlier that day, we said goodbye to Misty. And then we said goodbye to Kajol and Sudha, our staff.

Kajol came to us three years ago, to look after my son and quickly made herself indispensable in every way. She cooked for us and managed packed lunches, laundry and everything in between. Sudha, we had only known for a very short time, an elderly lady with gappy gums and a warm smile, who cleaned.

Kajol cried and cried. I hugged her and told her to look after herself. Sudha asked whether she could take the vegetable rack. I said no, it belonged to the landlord.

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Eventually we took our 17 pieces of luggage 3 years worth of essentials? (not including the tennis racquets) and headed towards the airport and completed all airport security formalities. Tired and impatient, we finally arrived in Hyderabad and fell into a fitful dreamless sleep.

The next morning, foggy headed and unsure of what we had actually done, I went through the motions. I let my sister-in-law and mother-in-law take over with the children. Ambiguous to the emotions of gladness or relief or something else. I found clothes and toothbrushes and surrendered to the situation.

Limbo is what you make of it, though. And after a cup of coffee, I was determined to make it count. I started researching and planning and forging an imaginary future and then, somehow, just after breakfast, I collapsed. I shutdown mentally and found it difficult to swallow anything much. By the evening, I was lost.

With the setting sun, and the KVR Park closed, we headed to the Jagannath Temple in Banjara Hills. The dark marble floors were hot and gingerly we made our way to various shrines. A mini pilgrimage.

The temple priests were conducting their evening ritual of banging their brass gongs in the hope of frightening away any unwanted energies and creating holy vibrations only for the most ardent and faithful. For the rest of us, the temple steps were close enough to feel the benefits of piety and prayer.

There is something comforting in the space created for the gods. Calm and clean, unrushed in prayer, people emit only light. Priests were unbothered, going about their daily duties and the gods waited patiently to be noticed. The rest of the world continued to spin while inside the temple we sat and moved only as if in slow motion. It was as if we were cocooned and cushioned from what we perceived to be our realities.

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I can see why faith is so powerful. Right now, I wish I could borrow some. I wish I could sit with folded palms and ask the gods to provide us with the best fit solutions for our forthcoming journey. But I can’t. Not quite. I can only look up to the skies beyond the temple roof and hope that in our insignificant microcosm, the answers will reveal themselves in time; that we possess enough strength and stamina and ‘chutzpah’ to carry ourselves through the coming weeks. A different type of faith.

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Domestic Help!

I’ve mentioned before, I’m relatively new to Kolkata, Calcutta. Before coming here, I’ve never had domestic help. Today, I have a cook, a cleaner and someone to look after the little ones. I’m a little spoilt, if truth be told. I’m living an easy life, free to do as I choose.

But having this freedom has opened my eyes to the suffrage and oppression in this age of emancipation and enlightenment. I’ve been hearing things, seeing things that I have not bothered noticing before. But as it’s happening right under my nose, I’m bound to talk about it.

My maid is being beaten by her husband. He beats her on a daily basis, for the slightest of things. She needs only to make a mistake, look at him the wrong way, say the wrong thing, cook the wrong dish and he loses the desire or ability to be calm.

I was, I still am, looking to do an article on domestic violence. My husband and I both suspected that our maid, who flinches with terror in her eyes, every time she makes a mistake, is being abused at home. I asked her directly, explaining that I write, sometimes for magazines.

She began to tell me, calm at first.

“Boudi, I was married at 12 years old…has it ever happened to me?” she smiles, “It still is happening to me!’

And then she broke down. She clutched the end of her top, hands wringing the fabric in desperation, tears in her eyes.

“I’m just waiting for my daughter to be married and then I can leave him.”

“Why can’t you leave him before?” I ask that stupid, naïve question, that only the untethered ask. I know the answer, I know the system and the fear. I’ve watched enough episodes of whatever, on television, or read enough books to know that it’s not easy, never easy to leave something familiar. Familiar is safer than the ‘what’s out there’.

“Because, who will marry a girl with no father?” she replied. ‘Samaj’, Society, that looming being with a thousand eyes and countless tongues, will ask me directly why I left my husband. They’ll point the finger at me, blame me.”

“Tell them, to their face!” I blurt out, in denial. “Can Society be so cruel?”

She must feel it can. She told me that day that she’s thought about it several times. I asked her what her son is learning from what he sees. She paused then, thought about it and just shook her head. No answers. What can she say? What can she do?

If I had enough space in my little flat, I’d bring them here, they could all stay! But what then? Would she seek out her freedom?

She told me also, during the conversation that her husband does not lay a finger on their daughter. He tried once and she stood up to him. He hasn’t done it since. Her daughter doesn’t want to get married. She chooses freedom. But how long can she run from Society? She’s studying for a Bachelor’s degree at some college that requires minimal education. She has no spoken English and she wants to work with computers and get out of the whole mess she sees around her. Let’s see. I have hope for her, but only if Society can keep its claws off her.

The funny thing, or maybe the sad thing is, there are women I’ve spoken to about writing my article on domestic violence and they ask me, ‘what will you write?’, ‘give me an angle!’ ‘it’s nothing new’. I’m lost. How can I make this story exciting and groundbreaking and newsworthy? Women are beaten, abused, tortured everyday, what’s one more article going to say? For my friends, the story is so familiar, they’ve tried to help before, it just leads to disappointment.

Does that mean that we don’t say it? Should be quiet then until I find my maid hasn’t come to work because her husband picked up a knife, instead of just his shoe? Now that would be newsworthy!

Check out these articles:

For a little more about my maids …..

For some pictures that portray the irony…

For my humble short story …

For a wonderful organisation…

I’ll be taking my maid to Swayam on Wednesday. She’s agreed to come with me. Let’s see. The choice is hers, I suppose. But let’s be honest, who cares, right?

Maid to serve?

My life in the UK, like many, consisted of a minutely planned routine, only broken by special occasions, a long weekend or in extreme cases, death! Even weddings are held on the weekend, to avoid disruption to the working week! We did everything ourselves. My husband and I were a successful tag team; we raised the children, did the housework, worked and even managed a movie or a restaurant once in a while. The decision to move to India was made in part, with the knowledge that life would be easier, more relaxed. I was promised a maid! How could I not be excited? What would I do with all my spare time? Did I really need a maid if I wasn’t working?

Well, today, I have two maids and a driver! Bitika cooks and cleans and Kajol handles my 2 year old and sometimes my 6 year old, when she lets her. Both of these women work extremely hard and, so far, have proved very loyal. Bitika travels 1 ½  hours everyday on a CTC bus, to and from work (3 hours in total). Kajol is relatively new and is still a little unsure of her place in our small household.

Kolkata, to many of my relatives who live outside it, is the big bad city with people out to cheat you at every opportunity. I haven’t found that yet, ‘touch wood’. I was told to be extremely wary of the women who come in and work in our household. The general attitude held, even by my maids is, “someone, one day, will steal all your cash and run off with it” or “these people are not trustworthy and will do anything to get out of work.” As I have never, in my life had to manage a maid, I kept these suspicions in the back of my mind as Bitika came for her first day at work.

My first impressions of her were mixed. She was very quietly spoken, which I liked, as another maid we interviewed seemed to think that everything we asked her would be an inconvenience. Her face was wide and pleasant and she was tastefully clad in muted browns and beige but she had narrow green eyes that seemed a little perturbing. She would work from 7am until 6pm and her duties would be to cook and clean and occasionally she would be asked to pop to the shops, but generally cooking and cleaning was her main role. Initially, Bitika would ask to leave at 5pm, instead of 6pm, as she didn’t like crossing the field that was sometimes littered with alcoholics and men of bad repute. I agreed as she assured me that after a few days she would get used to the area and be able to leave at 6pm. That never happened but I didn’t actually mind as she always got the job done.

We didn’t speak much in the way of conversation in the beginning but eventually we opened up to each other. She was the only other person in my life I saw on a daily basis. The other residents of the block of flats we were staying in kept their distance and I kept mine, knowing that I wouldn’t actually be there very long. However, I still needed to unload occasionally. Our conversations were never of a very deep nature; the scandalous price I was paying for vegetables, in her opinion or how cold it was in the morning. To my amusement, she used to turn up to work in a shawl, while I was cursing the Kolkata heat.

Eventually she told me about her family. She has two sons. Both live in a village in the Sundarbans region of Bengal. The eldest is married, with a 5 year old son and does not work, much to the ire of his parents. Her youngest son is the apple of his mother’s eye, works extremely hard and had the potential to study after the 10th standard if they could have afforded it. She told me how a few years ago a great flood destroyed their crops, their home and washed away all of their belongings. This forced her husband to seek work as a labourer in the Andamans, and her sons to seek full time employment anywhere they could. Bitika would also have to leave the familiarity of the village and find work as a maid in someone else’s household in Kolkata. They had to start from scratch. What makes things worse is that Bitika’s eldest son is an ardent gambler and has been known to pawn their possessions for the sake of a card game or two.

I marvelled at this woman, as she hitched the end of her sari tightly around her waist and proceeded to sweep the floor. She wasn’t complaining; she was just making conversation.