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This is story about a lady who had to leave behind her life in search of money. And with money, came to her two daughters.
Savitramma looked peacefully over the yard, as the gentle forenoon sun warmed her gaunt shoulders. The chickens were pecking away at the scant, short grass, fighting with each other in their self-important way. Her eyes then rested on her cow, Nandini and the little calf Raghu, who looked content as she had just tended to them.
She had been up since cockcrow, and there was no respite for her after this glass of ragi. She watched her son playing football with a few other boy and smiled. Such intense concentration – he would soon finish school, but had hardly changed from the over-active, playful nine-year-old she had left behind to work in the city.
And her mind wandered to the two little girls. They were ten and six now, and learning to be ‘yindependent’. But her mind took her back to when she had first stepped into their lives, all those years ago. Sir had picked her up from the station and brought her home to a household totally out of control. Madam had been in tears, trying to breastfeed the younger one, while the older girl had upturned a bowl of ‘cornflakes’, refusing to eat them. She was howling, the milk was dripping on to the floor, which hadn’t been swept in days, and there were piles of clothes lying unfolded on the sofa.
Savitramma had sighed, left her suitcase in the corner room, tucked in her sari veil, and picked up a mop. You had to begin somewhere. Slowly, the household found its rhythm. The younger girl was as happy to be with Savitramma, as with her own mother, and Madam began to find time for yoga and music. It was not so simple, of course, with the older girl, who said she was a ‘bad lady’ who did not know how to make ‘macaroni’. But Savitramma didn’t let this bother her. The poor child had seen her world change completely. The new baby meant Amma was not hers alone, Daddy’s office kept him away, sometimes for days, and Ajji had gone to America because Amma’s sister, Anuja Aunty was having one more new baby! How could a four-year old even begin to make sense of all this?
Savitramma’s husband had run away at just such a time in her life. She was suckling her infant son, and her daughter had been three, still clinging to her sari. But their father always seemed irritable and overwhelmed, and earned just enough to pay for his daily visits to the toddy shop. By the time he disappeared, Savitramma had already been living with her parents for some time. There had been too much to do to delve into heartbreak, and she had worked through her blinding tears. By the fifth harvest, her boy was in school too. And Savitramma found a new light dawning within her. What had she even been sad about, she wondered. Her parents were with her. She had strong, happy children. And her well-off siblings did not grudge her share of the yield from their parents’ land, which she worked so hard for anyway.
She didn’t envy her married friends either – their kitchen-bound lives to serve their in-laws, their errant husbands, their constant fear that they would be cast aside for the most minor of reasons. She had quietly decided she was better off than this. Of course, she was lonely. Her body longed for another to mould against on dark nights after the long day’s toil, and a hand to hold in laughter would have gladdened her heart – but where were such men to be found? No, Savitramma had concluded, there was nothing she had to pity herself for.
But the rains never came when they had to – and there was never enough money to send the children to school – their bags, their books, their shoes. Savitramma was just beginning to lose courage when Prashanth, a businessman who owned the land near theirs said his cousin in the big city was looking for help with her children.
They knew it was a good family, and Savitramma’s parents told her to go, they would keep the children straight. So she snapped her suitcase shut and went, boarded the train, pretending she hadn’t seen her son’s moist eyes.
And so the two little fairies came into her life. Their pretty frocks, which needed to be washed with special watery soap. Their strange toys and books from far-away places, some of which could be shared, and some which each child clung to, every waking moment. The funny, foreign foods which had to be pulled out of packets and cooked in boiling water. The bottles and bags and lunch boxes which all had to have the same pictures they saw in the books and on TV. How, and this made her smile, the younger one quickly gobbled some of Savitramma’s hot rasam rice everyday at 3 pm when Madam was sleeping. And how the two girls could almost kill each other fighting, like her own children did – but the elder one would punch or snap at any naughty child who troubled her sister.
Five years had passed this way. Not that it had been easy. Sir hardly got time to spend with his wife and children. Madam was also busy trying to do a business from home – and only had time to drop the kids at the bus stop, and help the older one with home work before putting them to bed. For most of the day, Savitramma took care of the children and household on her own, and could have done with some help. But she could see for herself how expensive it was to raise two children in the big city on one salary, and another maid would have meant another person for Sir and Madam to pay.
But Sir and Madam were kind too. Madam understood when there was no salad, and she had to eat what the kids ate on days when Savitramma had her menses or when Savitramma had to lie down some days after she did the cleaning. The few times she had been ill, Sir had refused to wait for even a day for the village medicines to work, and taken her to the doctor immediately. Every year, when they went on their big holiday, they paid for her ticket home and she stayed with her children then for three weeks. And Savitramma hadn’t asked for a day’s leave otherwise. Until last year, when her father had made a sudden phone call one day. In complete panic, he told her, her daughter wanted to marry a boy from her college and come to the city.
Madam had gathered most of what happened from Savitramma’s high-pitched, anxious responses, and told her she could go home for a while to set things right– after all, the girls were not babies anymore. It was after this unplanned trip Savitramma had to make, that both of them realized they had to part ways. Savitramma saw that her own children needed her now – they had been too long without a parent. And Madam realized her babies had to grow up – they wouldn’t even drop their used tumblers in the sink. They had spoken about all this when Savitramma returned from the village and Savitramma had agreed to wait until Madam found a good lady to help cook and clean.
After coming back to stay with her children, Savitramma had had to talk to the younger girl everyday over phone for three months – the child needed to know that Savitriaunty was there, somewhere. And to Savitramma’s and Madam’s happy surprise, the girls had adjusted well. The younger one had begun to take her own bath, and dress herself. They kept their things in place and put their clothes in the cupboard. They found their shoes and socks in the mornings, and cleaned the table at night after their food. Madam had also joined an office now , but said she had to go only on some days. Most evenings, she or Sir arranged to be at home when the school bus came. When this didn’t happen, the older one had even learnt to pick up the keys from the neighbour, and let herself and her sister in. They ate biscuits and drank milk from the cardboard boxes before going to the playground.
Savitramma was so proud of her little princesses, it almost made her cry.
Madam and Sir had also not listened to her protests, and had been sending her money every month. Madam had also made something for her on the computer with her photo on it. Her son said it was a ‘Phazebook’ account. On Sundays, her children took her to the computer centre and showed her the photos Madam had put in this account – of the little one standing on stage wearing a uniform for the first time, the elder one getting a medal like those sports people on TV. For someone who always stayed calm and away from too much emotion, Savitramma began to understand she would always miss the girls. They were her daughters too, now. Just like her own boy and girl. Would she be alive, she wondered, when they got their first job, or had their first baby? Would they remember to tell their Savitriaunty all this big news on the computer account at least?
Almost half her life time had gone by taking care of others, and Savitramma knew this had only made her stronger. But that morning, sitting on the familiar threshold of her parents’ home, caressed by the sun’s tender rays, she realized this had taken something away from her too. Her heart would never be in one place again.
Note: The piece is written is written in simple language as it puts down the thoughts of a person who has very little or no academic learning.
It was partly inspired by conversations with our domestic helper, who left to be with her family after living with us for two-and-a-half years.
Holding hands image via Shutterstock
Freelance writer and editor - avidly interested in food, books and people. Is there anything else
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