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Despite all her personal problems, my domestic help Sunita bai has proven herself to be an indomitable woman who is a feminist in action.
She does not know what feminism is. The thing is, if you try to improve the conditions of existence of women because you too are a woman and want a new normal in which you can live like a human being, you automatically become a feminist. Her name is Sunita bai and without knowing it, she is a feminist. She does not know that terms like feminism, misandry, misogyny, patriarchy etc. exist. She just lives fielding whatever life deals to her.
She is in her late forties, always neatly turned out, has a smile on her face, is punctual, strong – you can perceive her strength when you deal with her. I must mention that Sunita bai has a great sense of humor.
She joined my household some ten years back. Off and on she talked about her gourmet husband Mangal Singh and his lordly expectations of a daily royal feast from her. Mangal Singh and his mother had a theme song – Sunita bashing. Both of them fought with each other on every count but when it came to Sunita bai, they joined their voices in a chorus to point out how useless, worthless, helpless Sunita and her children were – children because they had been brought up by Sunita, obviously, a bad mother and had Sunita’s qualities.
A few years back, when she needed some help with a court document, I discovered her husband’s real name. I asked her about it. “Arrey bhabhi, don’t you know Mangal Singh was a famous dacoit. This fellow too has robbed me of the decent life that I and my children deserve, so I call him daaku Mangal Singh,” she said laughingly.
So we too will call him Mangal Singh. He repairs watches. He has a small shop. He is his own boss. He is not concerned whether he earns money or not in his shop but he knows this for sure that he is too great to work under anyone else. His mother owns the house. His father was a retired government employee. The mother gets the family pension and wife too brings in money – so life runs smoothly for him. He earns enough to buy his bottle and that’s all he is bothered about – his daily quota.
Once I bought a bug zapper shaped like a racquet to kill mosquitoes. Ever inquisitive Sunita bai asked me whether I was going to learn to play badminton. I was surprised why she had asked such a question. “Bhabhi, you have bought a new racquet, so I thought you were going to play.”
“No, no. This racquet is for playing with the mosquitoes. It finishes them with a little crackling noise.”
“Bhabhi, find out have they made such a racquet for husbands too!” she said and laughed, “My problems would be over.”
Amused I asked her why then she keeps all the fasts like Vat Savitri etc. for her husbands’ long life. Her explanation was very original. “If I don’t keep the fasts he and his Aai make my life hell. Staying hungry is far easier than listening to their blah-blah. And the conversation between me and God is private. When I fold my hands and pray I request God not to ever give me this husband again in any birth and if he can take him away, I will be grateful. They see me praying and they are happy. I too am happy hoping that my request will register in God’s account and someday soon will be granted. So both the parties are happy. A peaceful solution, isn’t it?”
“And I want peace. Bhabhi, that’s why I come to work, to escape those two. I wasn’t trained for anything. Money was always short. I tried to do many things in the beginning. I tried to run a tiffin service but Mangal Singh never let me go to the wholesale market to buy groceries and vegetables etc. Now if I were to buy groceries and veggies from around the corner – my whole profit was sucked away! So naturally, I stopped. Then I picked up the job of wrapping candies in butter paper. That I could do sitting at home. Khoob bakheda kiya – that the room looks untidy with all the colored papers and boxes. Payment is low. You don’t make tasty dishes because you are busy wrapping the candies. One day he threw a big box of my candies on the floor- some of them got soiled. So naturally, I stopped.”
Her children had started school. She decided she was done with being a doormat. She requested an old Kakoo for help as nothing was hidden from this Kakoo. She advised her to pick up washing and cleaning jobs. Sunita bai felt upset at the thought of doing these menial jobs. Her sisters, who are married into well-to-do families, advised her against stooping so low socially. They helped her at times with money but money was needed on a 24×7 basis and not occasionally. She had to solve her own problems.
She listened to that Kakoo and with her help picked up three houses to work in. She was a smart financial planner. She never told her husband the exact amount she earned. She gave him a smaller number and opened a recurring account in a bank. He was happy that he was taking her earnings and she was happy that she was saving for her children’s future. And she could get rid of the abusive mother-son duo for a few hours per day. She trained her six-year-old daughter Priyanka to take care of her four-year-old brother Vicky. Life was tough but she escaped from her home, forgot about home troubles while working for different Bhabhis, saw the problems the Bhabhis faced and her view about life became balanced. She understood that money or no money, problems are going to be there.
And gradually she lost her timidness and became street smart. Her financial empowerment led her not to be afraid of raised voices at home or outside. She challenges the Bhabhis to not point a finger at her “ungli nahi karna” or “ankhey gole gole karke mat dikhana” because she too now can raise her voice. She is quick to walk out if they do not talk to her with due respect or try to exploit her. “I work at their places, I’m not their slave. I’m a human being,” she firmly maintains because she believes in civil equality.
Today Priyanka is happily married and has a son. Priyanka had chosen the boy herself. He is from a different caste but is a suitable boy. Sunita bai had supported her choice. Her MIL and SILs and husband had objected when Priyanka said “I love you” to Praveen. Sunita bai had brought out such incidents from the family archives that the opposition party was stunned into silence.
She reminded her MIL, “Your other son had got this girl pregnant. Her family was after his life because they had run away. You had sent me with that girl to get an abortion done. Then you had got your son and the girl married. Your family’s izzat was not lost in killing that innocent life? My daughter has requested permission to marry. She hasn’t run away or got pregnant.” Sunita bai had the money to support her daughter’s decision. Her sisters helped in arranging the marriage. Praveen has turned out to be a good man.
Vicky too has picked up a job after completing B.Com. He is of the opinion that no woman should have to live the kind of life that his mother had to live. Mangal Singh does not dare to beat Sunita because he is afraid of Vicky. Of course, the main instigator, goader, Aai – Mangal Singh’s mother too is gone. “Bhabhi, I cannot forget how Aai never stopped Mangal Singh from hitting me. She would turn her face away and sit quietly. But Mangal Singh while hitting me would shout why he was hitting me, making it obvious – Aai ne kaan bhare hai. I always told my son real men don’t hit women. Good mothers don’t teach their sons to hit their wives. My Vicky won’t be like Mangal Singh.”
Nowadays Sunita bai is having a love-hate relationship with her Mishra Bhabhi. She is full of Mishra Bhabhi stories. She has been working at Mishra Bhabhi’s place for nearly fifteen years, has seen her sons get married over the years. The dictatorial way in which Mishra Bhabhi deals with her DILs fills Sunita bai with anger, “She keeps a tight command. No bahu can do anything without her permission. She keeps on telling them to clean this or that. Sons are so stupid, they feel their mother is always right.” Then one day she came and told me, “Bhabhi mere mann ki ho gayi. I always thought why don’t Mishra Bhabhi’s bahus pick up jobs! The choti bahu has started working.” Sunita bai is happy for the younger DIL.
Yesterday Sunita bai came and stood before one of the four framed pictures that I have in my drawing room. She folded her hands and mimed as if she was mumbling and sobbing. Concerned I looked at her questioningly. She laughed aloud, “Bhabhi this is what Mangal Singh does standing before Aai’s photograph. While she was alive he never cared for her. Koi seva nahi kee. Now he misses her. Kya drama hai!” She had nursed her MIL well during her last days. When her MIL died she had asked Vicky to perform all the rituals. Mangal Singh obviously had no money. She gave him money and took seventeen days leave from all the homes where she worked. She believes she has to set an example before Vicky as to how the elders of the family are to be treated, good traditions to be followed.
She is not in the habit of taking leaves as her unpleasant family atmosphere made her workplaces picnic-y for her. So, all the Bhabhis were surprised. Sunita bai declared that they could treat this period as LWP “No work so no money.” I admire her self-respecting attitude but I am sorry to say that some of the Bhabhis took Sunita bai at her word.
Mangal Singh wants to start viewing girls for Vicky. He wants to enjoy the attention he would get as the prospective groom’s father. Sunita bai pricks his balloon, “Nakh hai nai, chale kammur khujaane. Do you have money of your own to welcome a bahu? Stop dreaming of dowry and gifts that you will get.” She is against dowry. Priyanka’s marriage has shown that caste is no bar for her. She is waiting for Vicky to fall in love – it’s a must, and is happily planning how she would be a good MIL to her DIL.
We need women at all levels to change the dynamics. ‘There are as many different kinds of feminism as there are women in the world.’ Actually, feminists have been existing from times immemorial; the tag is a recent development.
Image source: flickr, for representational purposes only.