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Lights on…

March 10, 2015

The evening before leaving for Doha I had a mini function to attend. Its the coming of age of my maid’s 12 year old daughter. In their community, its a small happy occasion worth celebrating . I have been trying to discourage my girl right from the start emphasizing this is an outdated ritual. In olden days perhaps this custom prevailed because it served as an announcement to interested parties/families who were looking for a (child) bride. There was a necessity to advertise that a girl was ready for marriage. Now we are in the 21st century, so why can’t we do away with this medieval and somewhat humiliating ceremony (the girls are embarrassed visibly). But coming from village, my maid still attaches importance to rural practices. She was in no mood to listen and anyway its not my business how they spend their money or lead their lives. Some of the things I say, she wholly adopts without question and from some areas, I am politely shut out. I take it in good spirit. We don’t own people who work for us.

I was invited the very first day to their humble house (if it can be called that) to give the girl a ritual head shower using the strainer (the atta sieve we use in our kitchens). As a sumangli, she gave me that respect. My MIL was around and she forbade me from going to the girl’s thatched hut that served as their home. I could not overrule her. For the 5th day sunday, she had booked a mini hall in a nearby hotel, very much beyond her means. Even I was weary of the unnecessary expenses. But then I thought what is there otherwise to celebrate in the lives of these poor folks.

Overruling my MIL’s words this time, I attended the function. Normally little girls get gifts like new dresses or bangles or cosmetics for this ceremony. Besides being plied with a variety of eatables/goodies like fruits and nuts. Since my maid has been with me for over 10 years now and since she is like a younger sister to me really, I got her daughter a pair of gold studs for the occasion – the designer kind that the girl can wear to college or work. Sylish and branded.

Reason is I have no daughter. My maid has a daughter but no money. How ironic our situation is. I referred to the ‘panchangam’ and verified that the date and time of the coming of age (in the school wherefrom she was sent back home by her teacher) was a good muhurat. Even the sunday ‘nalangu’ time was fixed by me besides the ‘punyajanam’ hour in the morning. I noted down the thidhi, nakshatram (star) of the days and handed her over the slip. It might come useful when arranging for the little girl’s wedding in future. Because along the birth time of the girl in our horoscope/kundali, I have seen this first menstrual date & muhurat mentioned in bold letters and a little calculation done on that as well (!) So somewhat understand the significance our society places on womanhood.

The hotel was close to my place but going there was the difficult part. I took my regular auto man and told him to park somewhere nearer. When I gave missed call, he had to come and pick me up. I did not intend staying over 30  minutes maximum.

Poorest people have the largest hearts really. I was surprised to see over 200 guests from my maid’s native village and their entire street turn up at the rundown hotel. My first time there. I hesitated frankly at the entrance. Within a minute I was surrounded by her mother and her husband (who works as a casual labourer – mostly house painter).They took me to the little girl in the open terrace up  the stairs. A big colourful ‘shamiana’ was pitched from one parapet to another and kids were running around playing and dashing on anyone and everyone seated in plastic folded chairs. Such an air of gaiety and festivity! Food in banana leaves was served at the restaurant in ground level.

I was clearly out of place. I had under-dressed for the occasion still I stood out among the women. But I knew I had to show that much respect to my girl who is working for me for over 11 years now; – to her I trust my home, my son and my old MIL; with her I feel safe; to her I owe a lot I cannot put in words. From taking care of me if I am sick (I get severe stomach cramps on monthly basis that sometimes renders me to bed for 2-3 days), from cooking for me, for caring for my home/house as if its her own.

Money cannot equal everything. But money is a good mediator, agreed. I could see how my presence silenced everyone for a minute (for which I felt like an intruder) and at the same time how proud it made my girl. She wanted to show me off to one and all I think. She paraded me through her folks introducing names left and right. Some I could recall from our conversations over years, some I could not. It felt so strange. I felt all the love but found that I could not reciprocate in same measure – OMG what a prissy I am!

They offered me a hot cup of coffee. Couldn’t refuse but atleast it gave me a reason to forego food. Moreover my MIL had strictly warned me against eating in their place. I felt bad. I thought how disrespectful that could be –  wanted to atleast eat the sweets and have the icecream if nothing more. Now even when my heart wanted to, my mind said ‘no’ looking at the crowd. It was such a mass of lower-middle class. The gaudy silks and the blaring cine songs playing in the stereos revolted me. The men had their hair oiled and combed, the women wearing cheap scent and flowers. I felt ashamed of myself. For all the social justice we talk about, how many of us can really mix with simple folks in the lowest strata of our society or partake in their homely celebrations. I couldn’t believe my reactions myself. There was suddenly the urge to run away from the scene.

Easy to preach the world. Difficult to practice in life. Our noble f*****g principles. Such a shame. I hang my head in total disgust for my mental block and apathy towards the lesser fortunate, the poor wretched rural/urban folks of India.

There was the ‘nalangu’ ceremony. First one ever for a girl in her life. Nalangu is essentially the haldi-kumkum ritual. We sumangali women have to annoint the girl with haldi-kumkum one by one that’s all. Then we have to sprinkle some ákshata’ (rice mixed with kumkum and haldi marking fertility) on the girl’s head and finally there will be áarthi.’

I couldn’t stay long until the aarthi so I was allowed graciously to finish my turn of nalangu first and leave with the ;thamboolam.’  Many pictures were clicked in those few seconds.

In some 15-20 minutes I was there, I noticed that my maid’s mother from her native village had got some 21 ‘seer’ plates (gift plates) for her granddaughter  – one tray of bananas, one of jack fruits, one of dates, one of almonds, one of sugar, one of apples, one of biscuits, one of chocolates, one of bangles, one of silk clothes, one of little silverware (anklets), one of gold (in her capacity she had got the girl a gold chain) etc.

Such a poor woman you know. A farmhand turned dishwasher in a local highway restaurant as the crops dried out and the lands grew infertile.

My eyes were beginning to water. With a great effort, I controlled myself. She took me by hands and showed me the ‘seer’ beaming with such a pride. A hardworking woman’s life savings lay in front of me – with such a love for her daughter’s daughter.

There were other gifts arranged in corner of the terrace. Coconuts, trays of fruits and fresh flowers.

Over 200 people ate at the feast that night I believe. I left quick handing over my gift and 3 plates of fruits and flowers I had gotten the girl. I did send for her each of the 5 days something I cooked in my kitchen.

Next day after the function, I had very little time to talk to my maid. I had a flight to catch that night. I learned she had spent some 29,000/- bucks on the event. I was a bit angered. Given her economic condition, I was not happy to learn about the expenses. She said, her brother who worked as mechanic gave her daughter 1 sovereign of gold. One more brother also gave the girl the same gift. Her parents and in-laws too gave precious gifts and also the neighbours and relative circle. In all, the little girl had received over 12 sets of salwar kameez, lots of health drinks, fruits, cash gifts etc.

Not a single well-to-do member from my kind of society was spotted (naturally). We move in 2 different societies that did not overlap. I was the only one who ever dared from mine to attend my maid’s house function. When my maid said she paid off the entire expenses for food and hotel with the gift money, I got stumped. So I needn’t have worried. The poor took care of each other.

What an affectionate circle of friends and relatives. The 5 days her rural parents stayed with her in her cramped house lavishing the young matured girl with such a love and a variety of eatables. The generosity of the poor people is something that we cannot see in the miserly upper middle-class.

Aren’t we all busy looking for where others live, what cars they drive, how they shop.

My mind went back to my granny – I never had such a ceremony because my mom was a teacher and was against this kind of needless publicity of a girl’s attaining puberty. But my grandmother did lavish a lot of care and affection on me. I have forgotten so much of my younger days. In our families this is a hushed up affair. I went back to school in fact in 3 days.

My maid made her girl take 10 days leave from school. I was moved when she asked me how to use a sanitary napkin for the first time. I volunteered to get it for her but she said, ‘Akka, I am very poor but there are a few things I want to do for my children by myself. Like getting my daughter her first napkin packet. You are doing so much for us already, but please allow me to buy the basics for my daughter as a mother.’ 

Saying that, she started to cry.

What has poverty got to do with a mother’s love and affection for her daughter. Poor people also have pride and honour and priorities. How can we take them for granted about anything.

She got the packet from the corner shop and I took out one pad and demonstrated to her how to go about it. She herself never uses one. Saves every penny for her family.

‘Your daughter would have been taught in school anyway’ I told her and she said yes. Because even in our days we had visits from Johnson & Johnson and that was decades back.

How the illiterate village girl willingly learned from me and went on to help her daughter to use the sanitary napkin touched my heart. I told her about the importance of hygiene and disposal of used pads and every single word of mine she listened to with rapt attention. Every evening she came back and told me their trials and triumphs. Mother and daughter were having a different kind of experience. Daughter is smart and is a quick learner.

And what a pride in my maid’s face. She felt like she had passed on to the next stage of her life. Her darling daughter was no more a little girl – but a budding young woman. 

But I kept warning her, ‘don’t pamper your daughter too much. we are all women and in this monthly menstrual condition we girls go to school, college, write exams, play in school grounds, catch bus, go to work and do everything; your daughter has to soon return to her routine normal school life.’

And I added, ‘don’t let the girl think she is a heroine either. this isn’t a picture we are watching. she is a princess to you, but let her get it this is nothing unusual; if you are born a woman, this is your life; let her not be distracted but return to books the quickest.’

And my maid said something she had told me a 1000 times earlier: how her mother made her walk 7 km to their ‘kazhani’ (agri holding) to work as farm hand the 2nd day she matured as a girl. She was barely 13 and had been a child labourer since the age of 7. She was not spared from taxing manual labour of 5-8 hours per day even during her periods as a little girl. ‘My legs would hurt and stomach would groan and thighs shiver but my mother wouldn’t spare me; and then there wouldn’t be enough food to eat’ she would recount her sorry tale. The moment she came home from farms, she had to pitch in with her share of kitchen duties and domestic chores like fetching water, doing the dishes, washing clothes etc. Whereas her 3 brothers who rested all day went to school or learned trades like a/c repair, car mechanical work etc.

Yes there are daughters of India who suffer a lot. Whose entire lives end up as tragedy.

‘Marriage was a relief’ said the girl, ‘because at last I could be at home when I had my periods. It was a luxury. Akka, which is why I want my daughter to get all the rest on earth minimum this first time.’

I had no words to that. I wished I could go back in time and extricate my girl from all her hardship and punishing childhood. She did not send her daughter to school for 9 days I guess (i left before the girl returned to school).

My mother never allowed me more than 3 days of rest either. She was teaching 8th class herself where many a day a hearing & speech impaired girl attained puberty – sometimes right in the class hours. ‘When those helpless girls can manage, why can’t you?’ was what she told me casually, ”don’t be a sissy.’ My mother suffered from a serious health issue as well – so it was not something that we gave much attention to. Part & parcel of growing up. I think this is what education can do to us.

Rural, poor India has to change a lot. I don’t see a reform in the short run.

Soon I left for Doha but I am talking to my maid everyday almost. She is cooking for my son (against my MIL’s wishes). I have forbidden my MIL from going near the gas stove (she is 78). I feel better if she is around my house.

 

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My part-time maid lives off my street. Hers is a dead-end. No hutment is seen within the city limits these days (except in north Madras extension areas which is a fishing colony) but since this is a fag end of the street with no traffic, the civic authorities have spared it. Coming from a dirt poor family, it is also true that my girl’s home stands out like a sore thumb in the otherwise cement and concrete lower middle-class neighbourhood of hers.  Most constructions there are unauthorized. But regularized as our corporation routinely ratifies illegal tenements/housing. Is there any other way to provide shelter to the poorest of poor in our city. Displacing them is unthinkable.

Lets call my girl ‘S.’ She  lives in a single room thatched hut – the walls are exposed brick work (and not actually muddy). She shares the meager living space with her husband and 2 grown-up children. Her In-laws occupy the adjoining room. She says there is a 4 feet verandah running in the sides where she has built a rudimentary toilet. Now that the government has installed for her a free hand pump, her water woes are solved. Earlier she used to run after the water tanker to fetch water. That went on for years. She suffered greatly with pained hips and excess bleeding in those times. The handpump is a blessing to her.

Similarly she was using wood/coal for cooking. I booked an LPG connection for her and got her the first cylinder. I did not know then how much it saved her money and energy.

A day in my maid’s life dawns at about 4 am. She cooks and cleans for her family, packs lunch, leaves food for in-laws (rich or poor it is a must in most families in India to take care of husband’s elderly parents; and parents prefer staying over at their son’s over their daughter’s). Later she comes to work for me. Returns to her home to do the dishes and wash clothes. Goes to sleep with the lights on by 10 pm. Her husband is the chief earning member. Daily he brings home 200 bucks which is big amount for them.

During monsoons, her husband who works as a house painter mostly and labourer of any kind in lean season, is out of job for over a month or perhaps longer. That is when the family suffers the most.

Husband and wife are hard and sincere workers. Whether standing in queue for hours to get their rations supply from the govt PDS shops or taking care of their children and aged parents, they discharge their familiar duties without a murmur. Beach and cinema happen once an year during vacations. Holiday means a 2-day bus trip to Tirupathi Balaji temple, a bi-annual pilgrimage.

Even if poor they celebrate all our festivals and are very religious. My maid fasts many more times than me, and her kind of unadulterated piety always impresses me. When I chant the Lalitha Sahasranama, she would adjust her work near my pooja so she hears me. She comes to work after showering, so makes fresh flowers into garlands for my Mother Goddess. She is always my temple companion. I tell her, Shakthi will be more delighted with her than me – because it is her devotion that is matchless. Mother sees what we the mortals cannot see. Mother notes what we the earthlings miss.

Even as she is steeped in such an abject poverty, my girl’s cheer and zest for life always bowls me over. There is so much to complain if she has to. But she never does that. And no gossip either. Virtues you find nowhere these days.

The family though suffers from a strange but severe stress: 

They sleep with their single tubelight on during the nights  – as otherwise they have to deal with rodent menace. Once their boy’s toe was bitten by a furry rat and he had to get a shot to overrule any viral/bacterial infection. Ever since the family does not dare switching off the light when its bedtime.

‘How do you manage to even get a wink of sleep’ I ask my girl and she says as a matter of fact, ‘now I can’t go to sleep with lights off!’

Sleeping with the lights on…

I have no tears left in my eyes to shed for my girl. The single factor that she and family sleep with the lights on was on my conscience for days when I learned of it the first time.

Monsoon times leave her place with damp walls, wet floors, drains overflowing. I try to help by giving out blankets, food etc. Whatever we do is simply not enough I know.

My heart goes out to millions in this country who jostle up in dungeon-like quarters for shelter that they call ‘home.’ My girl is a lot luckier – she has someplace to call ‘home’ and she owns her small plot of 600 sq ft which is still a good bet in a city like Chennai. Think about the homeless.

‘Kettaalum maen makkal maen makkale, 

Sangu suttaalum venmai tharum’

 

So said the ancient Sangam Tamil Poetess Avvaiyar who lived in the BC. Avvaiyar is stated to have lived over 1000-2000 years before the birth of Christ and her Tamil compositions are still well read. There is no Thamizh literature without Avvai.

The couplet translates as,

‘Even if the well-bred (people with character) are doing poor, they won’t stoop to lower levels.

Even if you heat/burn the conch, it will retain its original white colour.’

I am always reminded of the Avvaiyar verses when it comes to ‘S.’ Even in dismal conditions the girl conducts herself with such a dignity …. refusing overtly help from others (including me), managing with what they (she and her husband) make … What a decent people compared to some other shameless creatures we encounter in public life.

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Before leaving for Doha I asked ‘S’ whether her daughter was alright and back to normal. She looked tired the monday morning after the celebrations of sunday night.

‘She is still bed wetting!’ said she.

Her 12 year daughter, was in the habit of wetting the bed during sleep. I keep asking ‘S’ to refer to a doc but she says, she had had such an anxiety problem herself. Now combined with her menarche, the problem has worsened for the little girl. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I asked her totally perplexed. The girl’s bed-wetting had totally slipped my mind. I could see the agitation in my maid’s face. I gave her a bunch of blankets. ‘Throw away the soiled ones. Use fresh ones, how much ever you want, ask me’ I said.

‘Akka my hands are aching washing the sheets day in and day out!’ she said, ‘our little house stinks and everytime my daughter has to change her napkin, we all have to troop out of the hut. Even if its midnight.’

How many ever bedrooms and bathrooms and wardrobes we have, we want more. How much ever clothes and jewels we own, we want new. Is ours the latest car? Cell? Well now, welcome to poor and miserable India. Come meet my girl ‘S.

We all come across so many, many stories in daily life, media and internet, but nothing moves me like this girl’s. I would get her a washing machine but its not advisable given the nature of their muddy damp walls. Besides there is not a square inch to spare. As such they live like cattle in cattle shed. The single room-hut serves as my maid’s family’s bedroom, kitchen and living. There is a tv, a steel bureau and a cooking counter. There is barely any moving space and they sleep in the floor in a row. Any guests means, they have to squeeze them in that cramped hole they call home. They don’t even use a ceiling fan – only a pedestal is possible in the low-roof.

My heart goes out to the little girl who has just blossomed into a young woman. Where is the privacy she desperately needs in this hour. The girl is upset and crying because she knows her condition and she is ashamed about it. She has no control over her bladder having slept with the lights on since the day she was born. And now onset of the menstrual cycle complicated matters for her. She is still a child – of a mere 12 years. 

Surrounded by alcoholic grandfather and quarrelsome grandmother and an impoverished neighbourhood, the little girl seems to suffer from some suppressed emotions.

I remember my doc’s warnings to me when my son was an infant and I was a working mom. That was a long, long time back. His first advice was to strictly keep the lights switched off after 9 pm so the baby learns the difference between day and night. My son stopped bedwetting in night hours by 6-7 months. He started sleeping the whole night around the same time, not keeping awake, giving me complete rest and full night’s sleep that I badly needed in those days.

I said the girl would be alright with time. My maid who endured the same problem got okay only with her marriage. She was bed-wetting until her 18th year that is. Sudden thrust into married life must have done something to her psychologically. She says with her wedding night, she lost the bothersome habit unaware. I did not tell her, the reason was perhaps marriage freed her from her miserable existence easing her anxieties and giving her a sense of security. She needed no more to toil for hours in hot sun in farm lands and walk back the long distance home to slog the rest of the waking hours until she went to sleep. Urban life was easy neither but comparably less daunting.

On my advice and on doctor’s the mother tried many remedial measures with the little girl. Like not giving her liquid food from the evening hours. From rousing her from sleep to take her to toilet every 1-2 hours. Still nothing works.

I said may be her daughter’s problem is heredity. ‘Did you tell the doctor about sleeping with the lights on?’ I asked her. She said no, she never thought that could be a reason. I said perhaps that is the main reason. My maid is too scared and shy to approach any doctor or psychologist any longer on the issue. She feels her daughter has grown too old for that. She is concerned about what her neighbours might think,. whether it would later on affect her daughter’s married life. Howmuchever I try to convince her to come with me to a specialist, she refuses. She believes her daughter will be fine some day as she herself grew out of the habit over time  …

I shall be the happiest if that happens… Or may be she is right, we must try to ignore the problem. And the girl who is self-conscious up until now about the bedwetting would get alright on her own…

The mother and the girl – and their dreams and trials and tribulations… Its a moving story. I am ashamed of my nation, my society, of the class divide, of the insecurity of the masses, of the injustice they suffer from and more than all by the way they meekly surrender without a fight. They know they have lost it. What it is to be really poor and at receiving end in India – I am seeing before my eyes every single day.

The little girl’s menstruation coupled with the bedwetting habit totally funks me. Sleeping with the lights on…

Once I get back to Chennai, I have to take it up with my maid again. We cannot let it wait any longer. The girl is attending an English school. The silver lining in the cloud is that hopefully one day in the future she will become a graduate – the first woman to earn a degree in her entire clan. So its high time her medical or psychological disorder is dealt with with the seriousness it deserves. More than anything, hygiene is important. If a qualified expert says all will be well without treatment, I am willing to consider that. Or whether the girl should wait until she marries as her mother says… Is it alright to meddle in others’ life. These are the questions I ask myself now.

What are the long term effects on health of individuals who are deprived for years, fitful night sleep. Is it normal to be in light all 24 hours a day – in sunlight during the day and electric light by the night hours. What are the psychological side effects. Very disturbing thoughts.

I keep calling my maid from here. Looks like the little girl has adjusted back nicely to the school routine. She has gotten her 2nd month’s periods. But the bed-wetting continues… The young mother sounded tired and hopelessly sad. The men in the family – her husband and son are suffering in a way too. The little girl’s habit has now multiplied many times over. And then there are the grandparents to consider … ‘We all are keeping awake the whole nights for 5 days now’ said ‘S.’ Never have i felt more sick.

How many of us even bother to spare a moment to think of the lives of our house helps or drivers or cooks. Many times I think about helping the family with their housing needs but I decide, helping with the children’s education is more important. The family as I said, is very proud even if poor. Any extra help you may want to give them, they shy away with shame cursing their own helplessness. They are the kind of rural folks who can be easily wounded. They don’t want help – beyond a certain point. I am actually happy with that. How much they value self-respect, honour and dignity even in their desolate living conditions unwilling to compromise. What a difference from our politicians. ‘Akka when my son starts working, he will raise a loan and build us a proper home’ says my maid.

There are things money can never buy.

I have tried to sleep with the lights on – never succeeded.

The only times I had the lights on during the entire night were when my parents passed away and my FIL died. Unless it is exam times for my son, lights on in the night always brings back tragic memories to me.

India’s issues are very complex, complicated. Poverty and gender discrimination and illiteracy compound to our woes. Those of us who are lucky are so very insensitive to care for those on who we tread over. Our greed snatches away the poors’ just share. Every 2nd or 3rd flat or house we buy, we are pushing the unfortunate into a further cramped dark corner.  Their petty world is bleak and hopeless. The day my maid told me she washed as many soiled sheets and mats of her daughter in their dirty bathroom after the night bed-wetting by her daughter on her getting her 1st periods, I could not sleep in my comfortably bed. I tossed and turned for hours thinking of the girl, the family sitting or lying with the lights on, and mother and daughter making numerous trips to their dingy bathroom… the whole night… If I don’t feel guilty after this, I am not human.

Modi government, please think twice before land acquisition. This is my hearty, earnest request to you. We can beat the mute and the invisible black and blue and they can take it, but it breaks my heart to see this happen to them. Industrialization, urbanization is necessary, but please do it without trampling upon our poor and squashing them into pathetic pieces. There is nobody to take their sides, nobody to argue their cases, they will give up easy – but think of the spirit we crush, the hopes we dash, the lives we crumple… I am certain my government will have some humanitarian considerations… If you have to uproot anyone at all, relocate them favourably.  Ambanis can have 27 storied palatial houses. The poor of India are not clamouring after big bungalows. All they want is to be left alone and not disturbed.

Quote Unquote :

 

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Life gives the poor very few concessions – and one among them is their ability to celebrate the smaller joys. Something most of us are incapable of.

If I ever get to go on date with Shri Narendra Modiji (!), for even 5-10 minutes, this is the real and only life story I want to tell him. I think I will cover everything I may want to tell him with that.

My heart feels so heavy you know… ? I thought I must share this story.

 

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From → Bharatiya Naari

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