Whenever Vijaya heard songs from the Tamil film, “Panneer Pushpangal”, she was reminded of everything associated with her life in the one-bedroom house that they had lived in on rent, in Luz. The house, Vijaya remembered, was located at the dead-end of a small street lined with huge trees on either side. The place used to give her a feeling that they were living in a little heaven tucked away in an inconspicuous corner of the big and vibrant city of Madras.
“Panneer Pushpangal” songs also grimly reminded Vijaya of Sarasa, the young girl who had worked as a maid in her house for nearly five years till Vijaya and her family moved out of the place. When Sarasa began working at their house, the year was 1981, and Vijaya had been barely thirteen then and Sarasa, a year older than her.
What Vijaya distinctly remembered about Sarasa were her long hair that she would plait earnestly every day, her tall and slender frame and her dark skin. Sarasa never went to school ever. She didn’t know to read or write a word and didn’t understand or speak any language other than Tamil. The pity was, Vijaya thought, the irony that was stamped on her name. Sarasa’s full name was Saraswati – the Goddess of learning and knowledge.
Initially, it was Sarasa’s mother who had been working at their house. She would come twice a day, wearing a torn and tattered sari and a sullen expression that indicated perpetual tiredness about everything to do with her life. She would clean the vessels, wash and mop the floor in the morning and would come in the evening to clean vessels again. Sarasa would tag along occasionally, as the lady went to not just one or two, but five houses doing the same work that she did in Vijaya’s house.
Vijaya could still vividly recount the chilling accounts of torture that Sarasa’s mother was subject to by her drunkard husband. The lady with a battered body and a tortured soul would weep and sniff into the pallu of her sari as she sat and spoke with tear-filled eyes to Vijaya’s mother about how the man had beaten her up the previous night in front of her two daughters. On other days, she would tell about how he threw the meagre gruel that she had cooked for all of them into the gutter because it lacked salt and spice. Sometimes she would say how he had stolen the little money she had saved up for an emergency.
Vijaya’s mother was a kind lady. She would give her maid a freshly-cooked meal and a tumbler of hot coffee and watch with pity as the woman gobbled up the food and drained the coffee to the last drop down her throat. Sarasa, the older of her daughters, would be fed too, and over years, the girl turned out to be the recipient of Vijaya’s hand-me-downs, particularly clothes and slippers.
Yet, Sarasa had her eyes and mind on something she never had access to – the books and notebooks that Vijaya kept in her school bag. She would gaze longingly at Vijaya and her bag, as the lucky girl walked out the door in the mornings, heading for school – a place that Sarasa had no clue how it looked or worked. Fate had decidedly written other plans for Sarasa. When Vijaya was thirteen, Sarasa’s mother took ill, owing to all the torture she had subjected her body to and the torture that her husband had inflicted on her frail frame. She withered and shrunk like a dry leaf overworking herself, eating hardly anything and getting beaten.
So who else but Sarasa could pick things up from where her mother left. At fifteen, five years since her mother started working at Vijaya’s house, Sarasa embarked on the seemingly endless road of drudgery. To begin with, Vijaya had found Sarasa’s presence in her new avatar quite unsettling, embarrassing and strange. For instance, on a weekday, when Vijaya would be packing her school bag, checking her uniform in the mirror or putting her lunch box and water bottle into her lunch basket, Sarasa would come around, broom in hand, meticulously trying to reach corners beyond reach, pulling out balls of dust, while throwing secret glances at Vijaya – a girl almost her age but blessed with a much better life than hers. Sarasa’s glances were not obvious, but Vijaya felt them on her back, like ants slowly crawling up her skin, making her utterly uncomfortable. So much so that Vijaya’s equation with Sarasa had been one of silence and distance. Until “Panneer Pushpangal” happened.
As a teenager, watching “Panneer Pushpangal” in a theatre threw Vijaya off her balance. She pestered her father to get her the gramophone record and when he did, she would tirelessly listen to the songs every day. One day as Sarasa went about her usual chore of sweeping and mopping, Vijaya had sat on a chair, humming, “Ananda Ragam”. “You sing so well,” Sarasa had remarked. Vijaya stopped, struck by the sudden comment, an honest one at that. “Thank you,” she had mumbled and for the first time, smiled back. That had been the ice-breaker moment.
The equation had changed from then on. Vijaya realised the ambition that lay nestled within the confines of the young girl’s heart. She came to know of her dreams, her fears, her likes and dislikes and realised how unconsciously condescending she had been about Sarasa’s life, her beliefs and aspirations. Vijaya began to enjoy the bonding they shared over ten-minute conversations that featured a whole variety of topics and interests that girls of their age were interested in. Vijaya would sometimes show her books and notebooks to Sarasa who would look at them with wide-eyed wonder.
When Vijaya turned eighteen, Sarasa announced that her parents had decided to get her married off to a distant relative who worked as a construction coolie in another part of the city. “Amma, I don’t think I can come for work anymore,” she told Vijaya’s mother, matter-of-factly. Vijaya couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Here was a girl, a year older than her, and she was getting married! That day, Sarasa wept bitterly to Vijaya and said just this: “I am done. For good.”
On her last day of work at Vijaya’s place, Sarasa told Vijaya, “I am going to miss you.” Vijaya had just smiled sadly in response. Later during the day, Vijaya’s mother wondered how she was going to find a replacement for a good maid like Sarasa. Someone who was trustworthy and was good at her job as well. Vijaya remembered thinking about the equation that an Indian household shared with a maid. How indispensable she was to the running of the house!
Over the years, through her time at her mother’s house as well as in hers, after she got married, maids walked in and out of her life – Selvi, Ratna, Geeta, Kaveri, Rani…. the list was long. Each came with her own foibles and goodness – each came with her own personal history. And each one of them just reinforced their indisputable presence in the functioning of the South-Indian middle-class family.
Thirty-five years later, the equation still persisted. Now, she had Lakshmi, her maid, who somewhere in between, also ended up doubling as a cook in the 16 years that she had been working in Vijaya’s house in Bangalore. “You are a blessing in disguise for me,” Vijaya often told Lakshmi gratefully. She couldn’t have achieved all that she had professionally achieved without Lakshmi’s tireless support filled with gratitude. Theirs had been a mutually supportive and beneficial relationship with Vijaya offering her maid-cum-cook of 16 years, financial assistance and moral support whenever Lakshmi had needed it.
The dynamics of her equation with Lakshmi was a lot different from what, say her mother or her aunt, had shared with their maids. Vijaya, over the years, had understood the need to give a trustworthy maid a free rein rather than bossing around on every aspect of work assigned to them. She decidedly did away with the “don’t enter the kitchen and rest of the house during those three days” belief that her mother had firmly followed with her maids. Lakshmi and Vijaya, given the fact that they were almost of the same age, chatted away comfortably about the people around them, the ones that they met as they went about their work and their relatives and friends. They discussed films, societal perceptions of women, parenting and shared moments of personal exhilaration and remained quiet when they discovered as to how certain things – rights and roles – had not changed much for the poor in India, particularly women, in spite of the many advancements that the country had made.
Today, Vijaya was in a particularly nostalgic mood and the fact that it was a Sunday lent her the space and time to dwell on people from her past. Looking at Lakshmi who was putting out the mopping stick to dry, Vijaya was suddenly reminded of Sarasa after many years. Where would she be now? How would she be now? She wondered. Would she have become a grandmother now? And the most chilling thought…would she even be alive now? She sighed at the mere futility of these questions that would never find their answers.
“What happened, Akka?” Lakshmi asked as she made her way to the door, preparing to leave.
“Oh, it’s nothing, Lakshmi,” Vijaya sighed and shook her head distractedly, and as the gentle morning light fell on Lakshmi’s face, Vijaya thought she saw Sarasa’s face transpose over Lakshmi’s for a split second. And then it was gone.
Painting by S.Ilayaraja, courtesy fineartandyou.com