"Is this what you plan to wear while you go out to meet your friends, shop or go and do whatever it is that you do? I don't approve of it. But well, I have lived my life on my terms and so who am I to stop you." A rare but loving sermon over, I looked at her, smiled, gave her a hug and was out of the door. Neither was I dressed inappropriately nor was this my grandmother, mother or sister. This was the lady who cooks for the family and her only point was that, as far as she is concerned, I look my best in sarees and so should be wearing only those.
She has always been vocal about her views, protective about us sisters and I adore her. She is my second story, my second reminder of the wonders that self belief can lead to.
Sense and Sensibilities
The Relentless, as I call her, follows Swiss watches and has been doing so ever since she started working. Consequently she is always dot on time. Never has there been a day when she has taken a holiday without giving sufficient prior notice. And even those holidays, annually, can be counted on fingertips. There have been less than a handful of instances in her tenure with us, when she has asked for an advance or a loan against salary. All of this has been consistent for almost quarter of a century and for eighty percent of that, she has been the sole bread winner for her family; a family of four plus a mother and a mother-in-law.
How did she become so self reliant, self sufficient and self confident? As a curious teenager I had asked her this question while still relatively new, she stirred the delicious pav-bhaji (minced vegetables stewed in tomato puree, spices and butter). Her regular stern look refused to deter me that day. I was taking a break from my study schedule and could do with some conversation; I left her no choice and she minced no words.
As is the case in most Maharastrian families, she got married at a young age and did not see her husband till the wedding night. On that night, as an expectant young bride, she waited for her husband to walk in confidently, only to find a drunk man barely managing to sway in through the door. She was not new to the stench, but she was not prepared for this to be the foundation of the rest of her life. Reality had jolted her out of her demure bride's blissful dreamland!
Her husband was a gambler and a drunkard. He was hardly able to keep jobs and what he earned was lost to the addictions. Relentless decided that she would put in the labour needed to buy food for and clothe the family. The first job offer she got was from a Bengali woman who lived several miles away, but she accepted. Every morning she would wake up at 500am finish the domestic chores, leave home at 700am and reach her employer at sharp 900am. After she cooked lunch at that house and helped with the daily tasks, there was still time left. So she took up a few jobs in nearby households. At 600pm she would make her way to the station, reaching home by 800pm to finish the remaining home chores. She did not cook at home. That was her mother-in-law's pet peeve. It was a hard existence which she had almost accepted as her fate until one dark monsoon night when it became her choice, her self esteem and her persona.
Her eldest son was running a fever. It was late at night, pouring heavily and it was becoming critical to take the child to the doctor. The father was nowhere to be found and there were the mother-in-law and two children at home to care for. She wanted some help but none was available. Suppressing all emotions - anger, frustration and fear - she made her way to the emergency room. The child was admitted immediately and the treatment started.
Back home, in the wee hours before dawn, she waited for the man of the house to return. It was still pouring outside and after many cups of hot water she was finally able to feel the dampness go out of her bones when she heard the knock. She opened the door and he stood in all his glory, laced with the scent of alcohol and devoid of any sense that a human being should possess; forget a responsible father of three young ones.
He took one wavering step inside the house, when overcome with self respect, she used all her might and pushed him out, into the heavy downpour. He glared and stared and she silently growled back. The mother-in-law emerged from the shadows and Relentless turned to her, "this is my house. I earn and run it. If you want to be with your son you can go out too. If he wants to come in, he will have to come in sans the alcohol and with some sensibilities of his responsibilities. Otherwise I am capable of taking care of myself and my children. I am done carrying his burdens." The mother-in-law retreated inside and the husband spent the entire night outside. That one surge of strength and confidence ushered in a new her and newfound respect for her amongst the family members, including the husband.
The son in the hospital was in a serious condition. She continued to work and care for him, and the father started being around too. But it was too late for him, soon the son died. He was free from his suffering was her take. The husband saw her immense strength and his core was shaken. What had he done to deserve this selfless, nurturing and principled woman as his life partner? Just that thought forced him to stop drinking. He started keeping small jobs and taking some responsibility at home even if it meant only ferrying the children to and from school. But years of abuse had rendered his liver weak and his strength was limited. In a few years time he succumbed to liver failure but not before letting his wife know that the last few years of his life was when he truly lived. It was now her two children and her mother-in-law who comprised her family.
As she closed her narration, my next question popped out. Why was she still following the same back breaking routine? She had avowed to educate her children and make them into responsible human beings. She liked the houses she contributed to. She knew that her gruel had helped her deal with life's blows and not become a victim of circumstances. So this was going to be it until she could physically find it possible to continue.
The wide eyed, confused and overawed teen me, picked up some pav-bhaji and strolled into my room, back to my books. I could not comprehend her tremendous resolve and decided to stop giving her grief over her occasional tobacco chewing.
Six years ago when I moved back to India she was still around. Her daughter had been married by then and was a mother already. The daughter had a driver and a help as well. Her son was doing well in his career, was married to a nice girl and had a nice house for himself. Backup! Why was her son living separately? Why was she still travelling four hours a day and still exerting beyond her years? Why could she not take it easy? Because she would not be a burden on her son and his family. Because she wanted her self reliance and self sustenance intact till the day she died. Because now after her children were settled the responsibility of her mother-in-law and mother was hers. When did her mother move in with her; I don't know. But I know she was a tremendously proud mother who died recently and that was the first time Relentless took time off without a notice.
I could go on about how Relentless built a new home in the village, and refusing to take help from her son-in-law chose to sell her home and move further away to a place that increased her commute. But if I continue her story I would not know when to stop, and I am sure there is no more evidence needed to see very clearly how this woman made her own choices, gathered confidence when the best of us would sink into the depths of self pity and depression and has moved from strength to strength. Relentless highlights how women are not weak and cannot be oppressed if they so choose. I think women just don't have confidence and self belief that they can overcome any obstacle and have it all.
It is ashtami today, the eighth day of Navratri, the day Hindus prays to Goddess Durga - the symbol of strength, the destroyer of evil and the all benevolent and nurturing mother of all. How apt is it that I am writing about Relentless today, not only because she personifies all of the above but also because her name is another name for Devi Durga herself!