Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Undervalued gem

Her name was Ratnamma.

Dark and plump, with a perpetual smile that revealed paan stained teeth, she came to my house almost two years back, in response to my SOS for someone to take care of Sonny boy (and do housework) while I was away at work. The apartment housekeeping lady who brought her assured me that she would do nicely for me. Ratnamma’s answering wide smile was meant to reassure, but fell far short of its mark. The paan stains made me wonder about the cleanliness of someone who had to give my son his food. Plus she only knew Telugu and Kannada, while I knew zilch Telugu and my Kannada was only passable. But beggars cannot be choosers.

The only condition she had was that she shouldn’t be made to cook. Which was fine with me. She started work at my house. While she was ok in the housework department ( I am no great housekeeper myself) she was far from Sonny boy’s expectations of a companion.
Amma, Ratnamma SMELLS.. I don’t want her to come near me!
True, she had bad breath and body odour. But how was one to make her understand this in a non-hurtful manner? We had told her that she had to change her clothes every day.. and she dutifully did that. But God only knows when she ever had a bath. To cut a long story short, after a month, I sent her away, saying language was posing a problem. Which it was, but I explained the tru nature of the problem to the housekeeping lady who’d referred her.

Two months later, I was back to begging on my knees for a maid. And then the housekeeping lady materialized again and told me that Ratnamma was a good woman and that she was heartbroken that I’d sent her off.. that she’d explained matters to her and if she could be given a second chance… I relented and a delighted Ratnamma came back.. The paan stains were there, but the BO and bad breath were not too much in evidence. Sonny boy was far from pleased, but all of us strived and gradually, she came to be accepted.

There were the odd dissatisfactions, but by and large, she was ok. And she was a responsible motherly woman, who took Sonny boy ‘Chinnu’s’ well being much to heart and even took it on herself to berate me when I gave Sonny boy the dressing down that was a pretty regular feature at our house. For her placing Sonny boy’s well being above everything else, I forgave her most else. She told me that she hadn’t told her family that she also did housework, that as far as they knew, she was babysitting… She reported to work by 7.30 and stayed on till about 7pm by which time either the Acha or I came back from work. When I asked her who’d do the housework at her house, she said that her sister and daughter would… I enquired who all were at home, and she said- husband, sister, 2 sons and a daughter. I thanked my stars that she had a sister who stayed with them and who took care of their house so Ratnamma could take care of mine.

The months passed and we became more at ease with each other. Once during a phase of spring cleaning, when we’d been closeted for a whole morning together and were taking a welcome break from the chores, she confided in me…

The ‘sister’ was not her sister. She was her husband’s second wife.

Ratnamma had had a job in Infosys in the housekeeping section. She and her husband had been married for some years but when no offspring was forthcoming, people started talking.. She was under severe stress….and developed some psychological problems. Relatives labeled her as mentally disturbed and took her to a temple for some treatment. And in the meantime, the husband married again.

Shortly after, Ratnamma gave birth to a son. And then a daughter. And the ‘sister ‘ gave birth to a son too! The ‘mental problems’ lost her her job with Infosys. Her husband would not do any work. Apparently the man ‘could not’ as he was a diabetic. (I’ve attended her daughter’s wedding and he appeared to me to be a perfectly healthy man, preening under the attentions of his two wives!)

And so Ratnamma who was bothered about getting her daughter married off, started looking for work, and that was how she came to me. The second wife would do all the housework, while Ratnamma was expected to bring home the money. All her hard earned money went to her lazy good-for-nothing-husband. All she got for her pains, was money to buy paan, which was a habit she developed during her ‘mental problems’.

The fortitude with which she bore having the second wife under the same roof amazed and touched me. I asked her how she could bear it. And she said – what else can I do, madam? Namma yajamanaru nimma yajamanaru thara alla.. and her eyes watered and she gave a shaky smile. I came close to giving her a hug then, bad breath and paan stained teeth and all…
I patted her on her arm and said, Parvaakila Ratnamma. God grant that your daughter gets married into a nice family.

About a year back, her daughter got engaged. After the engagement was formalized, the second wife kicked up a fuss. She wanted her son - a wastrel- to marry the daughter. The wastrel threatened that he’d not allow the marriage to take place. The daughter said that she’d rather die than marry him. That was the only time I saw Ratnamma in tears. She wrung her hands to me in distress….. the second wife only wanted this with an eye to all the dowry that would be given apparently... They were selling off some land on her mother's side to arrange for the dowry. I told Ratnamma to go ahead with the marriage and give a police complaint. But they were afraid of going to the police. Luckily, the father had a soft corner for his daughter and said that she could marry whomever she liked. And Ratnamma's own son too, who was a carpenter, arranged some friends to keep order during the wedding.

We went for the wedding, where we met the second wife. She clearly lorded it over Ratnamma and bossed over the husband. She was the important lady of the house, even though it was Ratnamma’s daughter’s wedding. We came away after passing our good wishes to the newly married couple and saying goodbye to Ratnamma.

Everytime the Acha and I have our fights over silly issues, and if its while Ratnamma is within hearing, I always feel ashamed later. My marital disagreements and dislikes seem so petty compared with what she has been through. She’s lost her well paying job, lost her husband to another woman, and even more galling, her hard-earned money goes for the upkeep of the second wife and stepson too.. She has to put up with unkind behaviour at home ( I only realized later why she seemed so unwilling to go home, even if she finished her work early on weekends)

She seemed to me the epitome of the undying spirit of a woman. Who carries on with her life, with head held high and a big heart. Inspite of everything, so her family can thrive.

This is my submission towards Women's Web's initiative for International Women's Day.


Seena said...

Its a so touchy story. Glad that you told us..Yes it makes so silly for us to fight with husband with all these luxury we have in the life.


Gayatri said...

- Very well written :)
- More than 75% of domestic helpers have a similar story to tell :(
- We need to count our blessings....

noon said...

So incredibly sad...I don't know how they take it. I am glad at least she has you in her life.