It was a busy day.
I had a Book Launch at a Women’s Day Celebration event planned for the evening and was also to give a speech. Our domestic help sensed my preoccupations the moment she entered through the door that morning, and so tried her best to stay out of my way, except for the occasional ‘what to cook’ kind of interruptions. That was until a mug full of adrak chai, my much needed elixir, but one I hadn’t even asked her for, was wordlessly slid closer to my laptop. I smiled in response and she got the opening she was seeking.
‘Bhabhi. Aaj kouno tauhaar hoii ka?’
I wondered why she was inquiring if there was any festival that day. Then I realized that she had heard me speaking to a few people on the phone, about the evening’s celebration at the Ladies Club.
‘Oh! Haan… Aaj Women’s Day hai… Umm… Naari Diwas.’
“Ou kaa hoii?’
I tried explaining to her to the best of my abilities what the day was about. Equal rights. Respect. Celebrating all that women do for the society. Applauding them for all that they have achieved, despite the odds the society, knowingly or unknowingly, stacks against them. She listened to me; first with a childlike curiosity, then with incredulity and then finally with a face of someone being told that I had seen unicorns dancing on rainbows.
She soon lost interest and declared abruptly that she should get back to work. Her dismissive behavior and that sly snicker broke my heart. It was like she didn’t just display disbelief in the concept of what I was telling her about, but at the very possibility of that ever existing. It felt like she has irreparably wedged a crack in my faith too. I needed to talk to her. Make her believe. Perhaps, so that I would get that missing part of my conviction back.
I did get her stand, though. I knew where she was coming from and how far I was asking her to go, in just one five minute conversation. On one of her arms is tattooed the name of her father and on the other, the name of her husband. Like branded cattle, the insignia was changed and she was passed on from one owner to another. She had never even stepped out of her village all by herself, until very recently, at the age of forty five.
I told her to forget about all the chores. Lunch could be ordered in and the house could do without cleaning too. Instead, we could chat for a while and then if she wishes, she could take the rest of the day off.
We had never gotten around the subject of why she started working for us, so that served as the perfect opening. Her son is now married and has children of his own and his contribution to running the house is drying up fast, she responded. Her husband had always been very good at matching up his drinking with his day’s earnings. Besides now with all three of her kids having fled the nest, she didn’t have much to do all day. So she tried to draw up a simple equation for me – money problems plus free time equals her taking up a job. I told her that the equation doesn’t quite balance, according to me at least. She had these reasons even before, at least the money part. Then why now? What was she missing out now?
She looked at me vacuously for a moment and then gave out a sigh which had the timbre of gearing up for a no-holds-barred discussion. What followed was the usual narrative. A son who doesn’t care for her anymore. A husband who never had. Tired of doing everything possible to adjust with her good-for-nothing husband and still being beaten black and blue every other day. Tired of crying. Tired of waiting for someone to rescue her.
Then, one day, her only pair of slippers broke and she couldn’t find the money to buy another one. Because of that she missed going to the neighbor’s daughter’s wedding. Something, she had been looking forward to, for months; a tiny oasis of mirth in the Sahara of the rut she lives in, everyday. That night she cried her eyes out, snuck out before dawn and came to her aunt’s house; the aunt who brought her to us the next day.
Then why did she go back to her husband after she got a job? She said, now he doesn’t dare to misbehave with her for the fear of loosing his ‘pocket-money’. Besides, she never wanted to separate from him. She just wanted to matter to him more than a cook and a cleaner; needed to be respected as his wife. Now that he knows she left him once, he tries not to give her a reason again. Sometimes, she gleamed, he even comes by to pick her up on his cycle, after work. She may not be acquainted with the fancy nomenclature, I realized, but in spirit she did know a thing or two about Women’s Day. She understood emancipation, taking charge of one’s own life, and fighting for the respect one deserves. The unease with which this conversation has started, was already melting away fast.
Did she do this now, after all these years, because she was waiting and hoping for her son to bail her out when he grows up? She sheepishly nodded. I don’t judge her for that. Women all over the world have made the same mistake for years, decades even; waiting for someone else to take pity on their plight. What is important is that after gazing at the mouth of the pit and waiting, in vain, for someone to extend their hands and pull them up, they have now learned to climb their way out. She surely has.
I gave her some money to buy herself something nice. She said she couldn’t think of anything right off the bat; but she sure planned to go eat to her heart’s content at a sweetmeat shop near her house.
Just as she was about to walk out, I noticed she wasn’t wearing the shoes I gave her last week. She walks a great distance to come to work and I gave her one of my old but comfortable sneakers to ease that walk. She nonchalantly informed me that her son had come to visit her the previous day. He liked those shoes for his wife so she gave them to him. The bright note on which our conversation had ended took a nasty punch in the gut. I wanted to lecture her about what was wrong in her doing that. But she seemed in a hurry to get to her date with Jalebi and Barfi.
Some other day, some other conversation, I figured.
Besides, no one climbs out of pits that deep, without slipping a few times.