I’d call her ‘She’ the one whom I got to know for a few years. But for some years now, I haven’t set my eyes on her. Yet her unusual persona had got planted in my head and stayed there all along. I guess she must be much more worldly wise now than when she allowed me an aperture into her facade. The revelations about the stark factuality of her existence were disturbing. Hers is the character study of a person who is intriguing and thus attracts an ambivalent reaction from the observer. Her ammunition for survival had its roots in the uncanny influences of her past.
A deprived child of a poor family, she had bitter memories of her childhood. She’d tell of her shoeless feet with furrowed and stone hard heels which were constantly aching in winter. And when she and her siblings were hungry they would munch raw wheat grains because their alcoholic father‘d not go to the flour mill to get the wheat grain ground. She narrated how her unscrupulous father promised hers and her sister’s hand in marriage to many prospective grooms after being feted by them and would back out later, till he met his match in two brothers much older but slightly better financially and her father could not hoodwink them. Finally the two were married to them.
One day out of the blue she came out cursorily with the exploits of her and her sister’s husband before being married to them. Without feeling any qualms as if that was the normal thing to expect, she revealed the way her older brother-in law’s wife was made to cater to three brothers. The cuckolded husband’s protests were quietened with beatings and threats till he resigned to the arrangement.
After doing many odd jobs, her husband joined labour force in a trucking company. When I met her she had all three children. She started working as domestic help in many houses to augment her income. It’s then that I noticed a pronounced change in her bearing. She became very ambitious and longed to possess things which her mistresses’ had. Her dress code changed. She wore tight fitting dresses. She had a curvy body with ample bosom which jutted out over her body. Even when reminded of the need for a loose fit for her because she had to mop the floor,she dismissed it by saying, “Loose shirts don’t look good on me.” To the query how she puts on and takes off her shirt, she unabashedly replied that her daughters help her to do that. I sensed some thing amiss in her attitude and also was surprised by her new dress every day. She herself gave the hint one day with this disclosure. “Yesterday when I was coming for work, a scooterist stopped by me and pulled my shawl and asked me to go with him.” I uttered an exclamation and did not comment further. Perhaps she was testing my response. It however, was an allusion to her other self and the answer to her peculiar dress sense.
Her husband, it seemed suspected her all along and wanted her to be home early but she was busy ostensibly in preparing food in this house or that and would reach late. There used to be beatings and quarrels in the house but she kept on doing what she thought desirable.
Many times she’d curse her man by lamenting, “Other men die after they consume too much liquor. But this man does not even die.” She considered him just an impediment in her mad race for material possessions. Sometimes she’d say, “He earns less than me and out of that he doesn’t give any thing and eats so much. What is the use of such a man” She’d ignore him and even grudged preparing food for him. Ultimately he was so spurned by her and the children that his booze intake increased and she’d encourage her nephew to beat him up when he was too tipsy to defend himself.
Anyway, there was humane side to her as well. She narrated how she tried to give him de- addiction pills stealthily but when he came to know about it, he resisted her attempts and continued to be a guzzler. She wrote him off completely and her total indifference infuriated him further and more violence ensued. The children were so afraid of him that they avoided him which’d enrage him.
Her desire to acquire goods got the better of her and she got a piece of furniture made. On inquiry how she would pay so much money, she first evaded, and then blurted out a safe reply, “The carpenter belongs to my village.” It was clear that she paid him in her own characteristic way and that subject I never ever dared to touch. But the fall out of her aberrant forays resulted in her contracting infection and subsequent sickness.
It goes to her credit that she was accomplished in household skills and was quick with her fingers. But her greedy calculations went awry as she was exploited by those who loaned her money. Though I paid her more than the worth of the services rendered she’d indulge in furloughs. I could not throw her out for old time’s sake. But she always maintained decorum while in our house.
At my persevered insistence she stopped asking for loans and made do with what she and her children were earning.
Her children present another subtext. The poor things suffered deeply at the hands of a boorish father and a cruel and greedy mother. Her eldest daughter was made to skip school and hired by some one to take care of a baby. With time the second one was similarly employed. The son also dropped out of school and suffered the same fate. Strangely she resented even feeding her own children and wished to make them work where the employer’d keep them permanently so that she may save money on feeding them. And also she’d be free to pursue her misadventures.
Because of neglect and privation her children were into minor thievery. Once, for a few days her elder daughter came to work and she would go upstairs supposedly to clean the room but actually ate oranges kept there and sometimes from the dining table she’d pick dates without raising any suspicion. With a full time job I had no time to supervise. I came to know about it the day I decided to move the sofa and to my surprise there were many date pits pressed into the crevice at the back. Likewise I found substantial dry orange peel tucked under the big tin trunk. . But she herself was honest. However she alarmed me one day when she triumphantly remarked that her children used to pick fruit slyly from hand carts while passing by them.
Over time my sympathy for her plight was punctured and hence deflated. Yet a doubt always lingered in my mind that I may be wrong. In spite of her questionable duplicity, she always evoked empathy and forgiveness. Her compulsions to be what she was were beyond me, though I observed her keenly.
One day, nevertheless, the truth came out plainly from the horse’s mouth. As she entered I was reading the newspaper. She appeared to be very cheerful and asked me abruptly, “Did you read the news about a high class married woman having an extra marital affair.” Obviously some house lady must have gossiped with her. In the same breath she remarked with a barely audible but disapproving tone, “A person like me may do such a thing for money, but what about this woman?” Apparently she felt as if the news had exonerated her of her misdeeds.
Later when we went traveling I dispensed with her services and she faded from my life. But the news of the elopement of her daughter with an acquaintance brought her into focus again. (I think she knew it and ignored it to save money and effort.) It must have put the family under tremendous social pressure as it led to her drunkard husband taking his own life.
I felt bad for her and reflected over her misguided inclinations.