Friday, May 8, 2015

Another Woman

Written on May 8, 2013

She sat across from me in the doctor's waiting room and fished out her phone. Bright yellow sari, pink blouse, a big red dot on a dark forehead, and the open face and manner that is typical of those who've never been burdened with too much money.

At first, I thought she was talking to a friend. Then I understood things were much juicier than that.
"Sollu da, enakku panam vennum. Nee ippo anju mannikkulla anupiriya, na train eri varattuma? Enakku passikudhu, kaasu vennum."
(Talk to me... I want money. Are you gonna send it to me by 5 o clock or shall I get on the train that comes there?)
"Inga ellarum ketkaraanga, nee edhukku inga irukke, onnoda veetukaarar anga irukaar. Ennakku ore shame-a irukku. Unakku tin kattina dhaan seriya irukkum.")
(People ask me- why are you here and your husband there? I feel ashamed. You need to be kept in check.)
She finished off with endearments that made me laugh out loud.
"Seri da pattu, pannam anipchiru. Seriya, kanna? Oru umma kuduthuttu phone-a cut pannu."
(Ok, my love, send the money. Ok, dear? Give me a kiss and hang up.)
It sensed an unusual story and asked her outright what was happening. She told me.
"I was born amongst four girls. I was 19 when I came to this area to visit my grandma; there had just been a fire that spread through the buildings here. My husband's mother had married a Nepali guy. She was a huge woman- tall and well filled out while her husband was a tiny chap. Their kids were all fair. Anyway, the lady saw me during my visit and asked for my hand in marriage to her son. I had just failed 9th standard and was working, so they married me off. He sat in the bathroom and cried, it seems, because he didn't want 'a black girl'. (She laughs loudly.)
We got married, had a son, then a daughter. She was six months old when he said he was going out for a job. There were 40 Rupees on the TV. He never came back. I thought that he'd finish the job and come back in a week, then 15 days, then a month, then 6 months. He didn't.
I went to a holy woman and asked her is he was even alive. She smeared me with turmeric powder and kum kum, indicating that he was. Then he started sending money- his mom learnt that he was in Tiripur, so she would go there, get 2000 or 3000 and give it to me when she got back.
One and a half years of this. I never saw him, didn't know exactly where he was or what he was doing. No cell phone during those times. I managed. I tied flowers into garlands for a living. I could do one whole sack a day. I'd get a 100 rupees. 50 rupees I'd set aside for buying the next day's flowers. The other 50 would be spent on food- I'd get one Rs.12 milk packet everyday . I'd make a tumbler of coffee or tea and leave it on the floor of the hall. Whoever wanted to would drink their share. The priest in the temple would always save a half a coconut for me. I'd get some moringa leaves, shave the coconut into pieces, add some rock salt, mix it all into a bit of batter- that's what my kids and I would eat often. I'd also buy fish- the fish sellers would save the last ones for me and give me a few extra too.
One day, I remember, I made fish kolambu (curry). I fried some fish too. I'd just put some rice on a plate, mixed it up with curry and raised one handful to my mouth-  when the news came that he'd been in an accident. Something always happens to that man during Pongal (festival). The other 365 days he'll strut about. (She laughed heartily).
Anyway, I couldn't let all that fish go to waste... it's fish! so I packed everything, got my kids, caught a bus and went to Central railway station. My son had somehow managed to get a phone number through my husband's friend and we knew he lived somewhere near the railway station in Tiripur. That's all I knew but I thought I'd ask and find my way when I got there, so I got the tickets for about 200 Rupees and got on the train.
We landed up in Tiripur at midnight. I asked around and somehow, found my way to his relatives' house, but no one was there. I didn't know which hospital he was in, so I waited. I saw a ghost, a white form that opened the door and walked through the house. (She slipped this in matter of fact and just as easily kept going grin emoticon )
Then they all came back from the hospital. He had a few bruises that were dressed up. I looked at him and said, "Ippovaavuthu adanganiya? Aatam potathellam adangudhu illa?"
(Have you stopped playing games atleast now?)
So, I stayed there for three days, with his sister cooking for us. She even gave me a sari. That's when the neighbors told me he had some woman set up. A female with three kids from another guy. So I took my kids, found the house they were living in and walked in to find a woman's clothing and some such stuff. He tried to deny it, but then she turned up. I told her that I'm the wife and these are his kids, then I left. (I doubt that the showdown was quite that quiet, but I didn't interrupt)
I went straight to the the commissioner's office and wrote a letter of complaint, against his sister and her husband- because they hid him from me. (I think the logic behind that is that an Indian woman would balk at putting her own hubby in jail, but his near and dear ones are ripe for the picking) So, the police put my brother-in-law's ass in jail and his wife went around saying that I did this horrid thing, even after she gave me a sari. I told her to take her sari back. I was going on one and a half years of anger.
Anyway, after all that, my husband was made to apologize to me and he had to agree to send me money every month. I told him if he didn't, I would be after him. I gathered my kids and left him there because he refused to leave. That's how I've been living all these years- it's been more than 11 years.
Me: But how do you talk to him so nicely? Aren't you mad at him?
(A short laugh.) What else can be done? If I didn't call him, he'd think I don't need him, that I'm sleeping around. I don't. I call him at least twice a day, sometimes just a missed call, as I go about my work as a caretaker in a creche.....Bitterness won't really help anyone. When life throws this stuff at you, you should be able to manipulate it, to change things so that they work for you.
(She continues laughing and joking with the people who come in. I thank her and she responds with a smiling 'welcome' in English as she leaves.)
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  
Though she left me smiling and feeling vaguely honored, I was also a bit unsettled. This woman did not have the air of a martyr. She was not a victim. There was a slightly dangerous tone to her voice- one that let you know there are limits. She was no saint. You could sense she'd cut a few corners if it meant money. She was a survivor. She did what she felt she had to do.
If you talked to women who work as maids in India, you'd hear similar stories from almost all of them. So many such women, so many stories- some worse, some better, each unique in their ability to inspire horror at the amount of suffering and hope at the almost staggering determination to survive. In stately homes, in apartments, in hovels, in brothels. If one could zoom out and watch these numerous experiences unfold, I guess one would be amazed at the choices we women make, and keep making.  

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