There is a lady in Udupi who happened to be my maid there. We also happened to become friends. We used to go around together – she, her daughter and son (if he was in town) and I, sometimes to the beach, or Venugopal temple, or Manipal Lake, or Domino’s Pizza. Piggybacking on my friendship with her I got to eat sumptuous meals in temples at a lady’s god bharaai (baby shower), or when a respected man of the locality passed away – events that otherwise I would have had no inkling of.
When I was packing up from Udupi-Manipal, Bharti (my friend) asked for my fridge, so I gave it to her. We are still in touch over phone, for which the credit goes largely to Bharti. We were talking on New Year’s eve and she related – her son had been saying, ‘If Vani Aunty was here we could have gone out somewhere.’ (my car being the advantage) and her daughter pitched in, ‘We wouldn’t have the fridge then!’
I burst out in laughter when I heard this. Bharti’s daughter is such a straight-speaking darling and Bharti is a lady of such gumption! Her husband committed suicide so now she is a single mother, who lives by working as a maid in several homes and by cooking the mid-day meal at a school.
“I cannot bear physical pain”, she says “but finances don’t trouble me. I know I will manage somehow.” This I have seen first-hand – her fantastic ability to manage her finances. She was building a pakka bricks and cement home for herself to replace her mud house and for this she took sundry loans from the various households she works for, in addition to some loan from the bank. As construction progressed, she had complete clarity of things without the aid of any pen or paper – expenses incurred, expenses to be incurred, loan amounts repaid, still to be repaid – everything – with no mistakes, no confusions at all! As I used to watch her loud think her calculations I used to marvel, ‘wow! Pa would love to see this’. “You should always have a decent ballpark idea about your finances without having to look at records”, my Dad says. Dad asks only for a ballpark idea, Bharti had it down to the rupee, all in her head.
“I need to build my house, I need some money please” (or its my daughter’s wedding, or someone needs medical treatment, or whatever) – when domestic help asks for financial support there is invariably a beseeching in their voice and expression, a deen bhaav. Not so with Bharti. She just stated to me, “You give me three thousand rupees.”
To save on transportation costs she asked me for help to get cement and floor tiles in my car. Some cement powder fell and soiled the back seat. Had it been someone else, with remorse painted on the person’s face the person would have ardently apologized, “Oh! I am so sorry!” Friends had helped me with their car when I was in US and I would have had that same remorseful pitiful demeanor and self-consciousness if I had spilt something in their car. Not so with Bharti. What a wonderful literal demonstration of ‘don’t cry over spilt milk’ – she laughed out and said, “aap bhee kyaa yaad rakheinge – Bharti kaa cement meree gaadee mein giraa thaa” (One more sweet quirky memory for you to have – Bharti’s spilt cement in my car). That was so refreshing! The very natural self-worth and total absence of being pitiful.
When her husband passed away her in-laws made every effort to push her out of the house (that is her side of the story) but she stuck her ground and even got the police to intervene for her rights. Now she lives independently in a small house adjacent to her in-laws’ house and continues to maintain complete relationship with her in-laws and their extended family – be it daily interactions or festive occasions. All this when she does not even belong to that region natively. She is a Maharashtrian whom her Kannadiga Tulu speaking husband had wooed to come to Udupi. She taught herself Kannada and Tulu from scratch and made herself blend seamlessly in the local culture and customs. The pleasure of having someone to converse with in Hindi is one of the basis of our friendship.
She talks wistfully of her childhood in her village near Bombay and speaks of visiting Bombay and her village someday. Ever since her marriage, she has not gone back even once and it seems to me that maybe she never will.