It was always called a chawl, a cluster of one room tenements in one of the central areas of Chennai, where numerous families eked out a life. To them, day rose without a hope and the night fell without a murmur of protest. After all it was one of those countless days which sunk without a flicker of recognition and they hardly bothered to count them either. To the large, looming world outside they never existed as vehicles tore past the road in a seeming hurry minding its own business. No wonder Charles Dickens cried out in Hard Times in extreme cynicism “Dead, Lords and Ladies, Dead right reverends and wrong reverends of every Order, dead and dying around us every day.”
Bhuvaneswari, nearing 50, had lived here for 50 years, had played around in the galis with her mates and grown up with little change in her life though the scenario around her went through myriads of cosmetic changes of modernity. She didn’t understand it a wee bit, having dropped out of school to do the chores of a domestic servant as her father earned just enough to run the house. “Thank God!” she mused now “it has turned out to be a home, and we own it by default.” Since they had been living there for years the changing governments too did not mind for they had an ace up their sleeve – Vote. And of course numerically strong too. Numbers do matter. Rationed commodities kept their life within the arc of livability and the ration card armed them with legitimacy.
Bhuvaneswari mused on her way back home at noon on what she had told a gentleman in whose home she worked and the keen ear he gave it to. “Sir! We have been asking for a patta for our home for years now. Around elections they came and said they would help us put up a cement roof instead of the tiled one so that we can build on it. Who wants to build? We need a home which is truly ours. All that we need is a patta.” He agreed adding for a good measure. “They will let you build on it and expect you to pay the loan with interest. Patta is a lot better. Let your daughter build on it when she starts earning.”
Bhuvaneswari smiled to herself, the thought of her daughter Tulasi being the cause for it. Tulasi, 20, needed another year to get her degree but will it bring better tidings to come or even out the wrinkles on her brow? She did not know but recalled the morning chat with her daughter. “Amma! I will badger you if you ever talk about marrying me off. I hate the very idea. I have seen your plight which makes me feel I would be better off being single and earning.” Bhuvaneswari was scared to even think of her daughter, the lone one at that, ever remaining single or a spinster (either way it is the same,) having been schooled in the discredited convention of a woman ever needing male protection as an insurance cover. “Tulasi! When I was your age I stuck my neck out for marriage because your grandfather wanted me to. I didn’t even know enough to protest. I thought it was the only security cover I had. I have known only hard days but I don’t want you to have any.”
Tulasi laughed. “Haven’t I known hard days, amma? Why, things were better so long as father had the bank job which brought regular pay and benefits but he squandered it all away with his gambling. Did you ever think such a nasty itch would ever get into his mind? Yet it did. It cost him his job too, with regular absenteeism that even the bank got tired of it. Twenty years of service went with the wind.” There was a visible uprush of anger in her face at the unseemly memory that the few better years they had evaporated in a trice. It was a hard thought to digest and the anger of youth is little amenable to any pretended talk of rationality.
“Don’t be so hard on him, Tulasi,” said her strained mother. “After all he has brought you up this far.”
Tulasi remained unyielding. “Right now he is sitting there, sick and unable to work. I am sorry for him but if only he had not thrown away hard earned money in gambling you wouldn’t be working as a maid servant in these homes to fund my study and keep hearth burning.” Her stinging words did reach the ear of Somaiah, sitting in a rickety chair outside, but had no desired effect. He had his share of ego and entitled to it, perhaps. But he would be hard-pressed to explain away his addiction to gambling, which was perhaps more disastrous than smoking. Both cost money.
Stung, he felt the need to hit back. “I fed this family for 20 years but that does not matter to her. Now that I am sick, she has t the stick to strike me with. See how she runs the family when she gets married. After all where will you get the money for it? You have to sell the land I bought when I was in service.” Bhuvaneswari felt compelled to keep her silence. There was a measure of truth in what Somaiah said. True, she thought. Where will the money come for the marriage? We have to sell the land which he bought.
If it was an ordeal all these years not worth a fig yet they had endured it all along, Bhuvaneswari thought. She recalled her father, a trained mechanic of yore who had found jobs hard to come by but through sheer resilience developed a web of contacts where his skill paid. He always had around three to four assignments a day and ensured that Bhuvaneswari had little or nothing to worry about. Her mother adored her husband for his skill and perseverance. An inexplicable bond which was nourished always by conventional loyalty than love. She would say, “Your father will never let you starve, Bhuvi… every day he returns home with enough on hand.”
Bhuvaneswari reached home with a train of reminiscences when she saw Tulasi watering the plant named after her. She smiled. “It matters to you more than your papa….right?” Tulasi returned the smile. “Amma… it is not just a medicinal plant. Mark it, it will flower soon.” Bhuvaneswari didn’t know what she meant.
It was before the Registrar’s office they had assembled – about 50 of them – and strained their lung power for patta. Bhuvaneswari was in the forefront and remembered a few earlier occasions they had blocked the traffic on the main road with empty vessels protesting that their common taps had gone dry. It was for half an hour or so before the officials came after being badgered by phone calls from affected public and assured the women that it would be taken care of.
“They took care of water because it was only a case of attending to the taps or the lines.” Bhuvaneswari told her friend and fellow resident. “But patta is a different case. May be they expect to be greased.”
Another woman, at boiling point, pointed her finger at the counselor of a political party. “There he goes. He promised to get us pattas if he was elected. Now he goes about as if he does not even know where we are from.”
Their faces dripping with beads of sweat showed the lines of despair bordering on resignation. This was the third protest and they wished for no more. Bhuvaneswari remembered the rain induced flood last year when water had entered homes and made them its own. The harrowing experience for a few days could not be weighed in coins or rupees and the mental strain of sheltering in a relative’s home left a deep scar on them.
One of the women protestors told Bhuvaneswari. “Hey… remember the flood relief of Rs.5000 we got which vanished in no time to pay up what we owed. Flood comes every year, part of the bag of painful memories. Only the memory of pain remains, not of relief.”
They became suddenly restive and agitated. Storming inside the premises they shouted in one voice at the brood of officials who pretended to be busy. One of them, a middle aged bureaucrat who had seen it too often, persuaded them to give a petition, (one more to the chain anyway) and assured that it would be expeditiously attended to.
“Chandra! Do you really think that looney would do what he said? Or we better throw his words into the dustbin?” Bhuvaneswari laughed sardonically posing the query to her friend on her way back home. Chandra was too realistic to see any sign of hope in it.
“We got our way all these days because of our lung power. Now there is little of it left.” She pointed to the sky. “Let us leave it to Him.”
Time went past unobtrusively as it always did and days sunk into oblivion. Bhuvaneswari had a sharp memory and caustic tongue too. She had worked in the household of a 75 year old woman for several years and had taken personal care of her too when required because her son and daughter were in the US. She expected no remuneration for the odd jobs she did for the old woman. Strangely that morning the old woman was uncommonly acerbic and needled Bhuvaneswari for coming a trifle late and made a remark that tore into her like a spear. “You are able to earn your food because of me or else you would be out on the streets starving.” Stunned for a moment Bhuvaneswari recovered before venting out her rage and humiliation.
Now recalling the barrage of words that tumbled out she felt that she had gone slightly overboard. The offender realized her mistake and was profusely apologetic. Bhuvaneswari, in a moment of tranquility, was also upset that she could have deferred to her age. But those words stung poisonously and she could see no reason to take them in her stride. ‘After all I am being paid for what I do and it is no charity,’ she thought. ‘We live in the chawl but our existence too has borderlines of dignity. Their wealth or status is no shield for them to poke into our skin. What gives them the unwritten right to throw callow words at me just because I will swallow them? ‘
Alternating between anger and forgiveness she chastened her own mind. She knew that the old woman needed her as much she did. Maid servants are no chicken these days and have their own forum, she told herself with a smile. Only it wouldn’t go that far for relationships do matter. Lost in her own thoughts she had not been prepared for what awaited her at home. Tulasi, watering the plant named after her, smiled. A touch of otherworldliness to her smile. Somaiah was also smiling, uncharacteristically rather.
“Amma! Today was the campus recruitment in our college. I have got the job. I am required to take it up two months from now. I have got the preliminary letter; and the appointment letter from the IT company will come in a few days’ time.”
Bhuvaneswari felt she could not hold her ground and sat on the floor. It was mesmeric, so to say, and the enormity of the news took time to sink. She stuttered, “Tulasi, you mean you have a job now?”
Tulasi put an arm around her shoulder as her mother meant a lot to her. “Yes amma, I never told you about the campus recruitment because you were too cynical about anything. I have done well in the exams but knowing your mind I underplayed it too. I wanted to surprise you, amma.” She smiled. “Give you a pleasant surprise and see how you react to it.”
For all his standoffs with daughter or wife, Somaiah was a first rate family man. “Such news must go to mother first,” he said.
Besieged with happiness, stumbling for words and a tear in the corner of her eye Bhuvaneswari hugged Tulasi and kissed her. “I was coming home lost in meaningless thoughts. I was thinking that I would find your papa sulking as usual in his chair at the door and you would be silently busy with something, angry perhaps. But Tulasi I never thought the door will open for me with news of joy. I have to tell our neighbours about it. I am so thrilled that I don’t even know how to go about it.”
Tulasi looked at her, composed and queer. “Amma! It is just a piece of news but to us it means a world. All these years you have been worried about finding money to fund my studies and prepared to work in five to six homes or offices for it. When you wanted to sell the land to fund my study I stopped you saying that it was the only possible asset we had. We suffered a lot on that count and there were endless quarrels at home. “She took Bhuvaneswari’s hands into hers and pressed it. “Now time has come for you to take it a little easy. Time has come for us to hold our head a little high. It is enough to eat twice a day but we can live with dignity.”
Bhuvaneswari saw the drift of words and found a new chord in Tulasi. Tulasi held her mother’s shoulders. “Amma! I will build on that land however small the outlay is or the home. It will be ours. If need be, I will put up a cement roof on it and build further.” She said it with an upturned chin which brought out a facet of her persona. Then she dragged her mother outside and pointed at the plant.
“Tulasi has flowered, amma, I have watered it for years.” There was an unmistakable glee in her face.
Bhuvaneswari was able to see and glean a new world of meanings to it. Something she could not clasp but feel. She was not quick-witted like her daughter to understand but the threshold of a new world was visible.
PS: ‘Tulasi’ is a medicinal plant popular in homes in India.