Every creaking joint, every aching limb and tired muscle and sinew in my body sings with gratitude and says a daily prayer of thanks to my little army of helpers. I owe a huge debt to the ladies who come home to help me with my household chores, sometimes neglecting their own. They are the ones who very often make my life that much more pleasant and who don’t balk at giving my feet a quick rub if they are aching, or my head a gentle massage occasionally.
They are a group of three – two who are officially on the rolls of my household and the other who comes in to help her sister. Self-assured women, they can teach me a lesson or two in grooming. They troop in to work every morning, wearing impeccably tailored cholis and sarees draped and pinned to perfection, every hair on their head combed and neatly in place, fresh flowers woven into their braids. They are adept at using, and avoiding use (when they don’t want to be reached) of their mobile phones, which are carried safely stored in small purses bearing names of local stores called Sharada Jewellery Mart or Venkateshwara Gold Palace or something similar. When I need to use a new feature on my phone, I seek their help. I also get their advice when I want lower phone bills because they are adept at using mobile phones at virtually zero cost. They all belong to micro-credit groups, are the main breadwinners of their families and own bank accounts, passbook and all. Sharp as pins when it comes to managing money, they can put professional bankers to shame. These women – Ratna, Ganga and Shivamma are formidable women- empowered and strong. They possess every card required to make life easy – Aadhaar, BPL, APL etc, etc etc. One of them even has an Uber App on her phone!
And yet, despite the obvious progress they have made on external fronts, nothing much has changed for them on the home front. This was brought home to me with force in the strangest ways. On one of my travels, I wanted to bring back some gifts for them. So I picked up inexpensive, but very grand looking Chinese wrist watches. Even as I was choosing them, I imagined the joy on their faces. They could wear the watches to weddings, or other community functions I thought. They were happy to receive them too, but the joy I had imagined was somehow missing. They looked apprehensive, scared almost. The reason soon became evident.
The next day two of them came to work looking sad, even crestfallen. Ganga’s husband had given her a severe dressing down when he saw the watch and demanded to know the name of her secret boyfriend who had given her it to her! He had also attempted to hit her. 25-year-old Ratna’s husband had roundly reprimanded her and wanted to know why a mother of two needed to wear such fancy things and attract attention! Shivamma is a widow and her neighbours cautioned her against wearing anything that would attract unwanted attention.
Today Ratna’s husband wears the watch I gave to her, Ganga has given away her watch to her teen-aged daughter and Shivamma’s watch is waiting safely in her cupboard for the son of the house to get married so the new daughter-in-law (a suhagan) can wear it.
I was more careful the next time I travelled. From the bustling markets of Chembur, I bought them little coin purses, which they could tuck away into their blouses, where no one could see them and pass judgment on their character, sexual habits or other grave matters. This time they were happier to receive their gifts, but didn’t use the purses, because their younger relatives took them away.
Not one to give up, I bought them bags with names of the places I had visited on them. These were rejected for fear of people questioning their character or suspecting them of being show-offs. Exasperated, but still determined to buy them something that could be of use to them, the next time around I bought them an umbrella each. This time I had struck gold!!
Now, rain or shine, they flaunt their umbrellas fearlessly because these innocent objects neither cause a further dent in their already tottering marriages, nor result in their character being questioned. They are also able to hide their faces below their open umbrellas, thereby being able to protect their image even further because it’s difficult to say who’s below the umbrella!