Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Golden Maid

As morning approached, the nooks and corners of our building used to awaken to a cacophony - barking dogs, crying children, screaming moms and clangor of pots and pans. Since our building was surrounded by yet larger buildings we could hardly see the sun unless it was right above our heads. So morning was morning only when the alarm would ring and our surroundings filled with a steadily rising din of noises.

Our building was called Dhananjayshree Cooperative Housing Society, which was a complex (!) of about 12 apartments. Ah well, I know what you are going to say! There are more letters in that name than the number of apartments there. But, mind you, every family there, including ours, was a proud owner of an apartment of 500 sq feet each, except for, well, the Builder, who occupied a flat twice that size on the top floor.

This 'Builder', as she was referred to, was actually the owner of the construction company that had built our building. She had taken over its management after her husband's untimely death. Technically she was the member of our society as she owned one of the apartments, but actually was on the 'other' side since according to our contract she was the one who owned the coveted terrace for which we were in litigation. The contract she had was with us as individual apartment holders, and now that we were a society we felt that we hav to be treated differently and that we have a right to the terrace. For ten long years, in spite of our fighting, demanding, cajoling, coaxing, she had not agreed to our demand. In fact she had built a steel door at the entrance of her flat from where the stairs went up to the terrace and had effectively blocked the way up to the roof creating some sort of a fortress on the top floor. This door, I tell you, was quite an eyesore for all of us!

Before you think otherwise let me tell you this story is not about the litigation or about that fortress. This is the story of Sonabai, our very own golden maid, who's booming voice would reverberate through the corridors of the building, over and above the morning cacophony that had already built up to its peak by the time she arrived to perform her daily chores. Her chores included sweeping the stairs and washing clothes and utensils at the home of her 'clients' - the ladies in whose favor she currently was. (Probably because she was currently out of favor of the ladies with whom they had recently fought!)

Sonabai was a hot favorite amongst the women in our building because she always had a fresh stock of gossip from the entire colony. Besides this, she had another trump card. Sonabai had an access to that fortress as she was a maid in the Builder's house as well. So, she was a great source of tidbits of information like the Builder's new sari or that new fridge she had recently bought.

Sonabai relished her status amongst the women, firstly, because that made her feel important, and secondly, because she simply loved to talk. She could talk to anybody, at any time, without caring to stop and check if they were actually listening to her or not. One of her hapless victims was my brother who would scurry for cover if he heard her coming. If she did catch him, and if she had not had an audience for her gossip yet, she would actually unload it on him. If you were one of her victims, it was impossible for you to stop her or walk away because she would follow you and continue to talk until she was done! So, my brother would just sit there helplessly and pretend to listen, his mind wandering elsewhere, praying that Sonabai would be done soon.

Though she was painfully voluble, Sonabai was scrupulously clean and very good at her work. She would come to work every morning wearing one of the two saris she owned. Her sari would always be clean and she would drape it in the traditional Maharashtrian way, where one takes one end of the sari between her legs and tucks it near the waist at the back creating a sort of a trouser. She would take the other end of the sari over her head like a scarf and tuck it in the front near her waist. She was short and fair and looked much younger for her age. On her forehead she had a tattoo of a bindi. She did not wear a bindi since she had become a widow, but could not do anything about the tattoo so left it alone.

She was always full of almost childlike energy, and rarely would her voice drop below the highest decibel. She hardly missed work or took a sick day and always arrived on time.

Sonabai felt that she was superior to the other maids in the colony and did not like to talk to them of be treated like them. This was because, as she told me once, she had not started as a maid but as a farmer's wife. She came from a well to do family and her husband owned a farm in a small village near Pune. After her husband died, leaving behind Sonabai and her two little daughters, her mother in law took all her jewelry and kicked her out with her daughters and left them to fend for themselves.

Sonabai sat outside with her children all night, hoping her mother in law would take pity and open the door. In spite of a lot of pleading and crying her mother in law did not budge. Finally, Sonabai had to pick up her hungry children and move on. She had no choice but to take her children and go to her sister in Pune. Her sister herself was struggling to feed her own family with the meager salary of her husband who was a factory worker and found it impossible to feed three additional mouths. Sonabai could not stay with them for long and had to stand on her own feet. Slowly, with the help of her sister, she found work as a maid in our area, rented a tin shed to live in and settled down. However, she found that it was impossible to feed, protect and educate her daughters by herself. She had to keep them in an orphanage until they finished their high school.

Sonabai had precisely two dreams in life. One was to get her daughters married to men who had jobs, so that they would not have to work as maids like their mother and other was to own a house, no matter how small, which, she could call her own and would be able to die in peace with a roof over her head.

She had put aside tiny amounts from her meager earnings and made little jewelry for her daughters' weddings. Once they were out of the orphanage, Sonabai was tensed up about whether or not they will get suitable grooms and in those days that was the only thing she talked about all the time. She would ask everyone who crossed her path to look for grooms for her girls and list out her requirements until the whole building got tired of the story. Finally, one of our neighbors brought a proposal of a family with two brothers looking for a match. Both the girls liked the grooms and the grooms liked the girls and, finally, to the relief of the society, Sonabai's daughters were married. One of Sonabai's dreams was fulfilled!

Well, as you might have guessed, the matter was not over there. For quite a while after that, we had to hear stories about her daughter's weddings and their new life. Though we would get bored to death, it was nice to see her happy.

But, her other dream was hard to come by. The real estate prices were shooting and it was quite beyond reach for someone like her to own a house. So, she seemed to have resigned herself to her tin shed home.

Then one Monsoon it was raining really hard and we saw Sonabai walking down the road an oversized jute bag on her head and another in her hand. She was drenched to the bone and shivering. She went straight up to the Builder's house, ignoring the women in our society who all came out to see what was up with her (as they always did when something even slightly unusual happened) . This event was quite sensational and for long time after that there was a lot of discussion on what exactly Sonabai was up to.

We later learned that the rain had caused a flash flood in which her tin shed had swept away. She had nowhere else to go so she gathered whatever little belongings she could find in the mess and went to meet the Builder to request shelter. The Builder was a kind woman. She took Sonabai in and let her build a makeshift hut using one of the walls on the terrace where she could stay until she found another place.

Now this was quite a shocker for the society. Sonabai had not only become a denizen of our building but was actually staying on the precious terrace, 'our' precious terrace! This shocking news was conveyed to the men by the women as soon as they returned from work. The men talked to other men and decided that they needed to be furious about this episode and that night itself a meeting was convened to protest against Sonabai's encroachment.

After an hour or so of discussions they realized that they were just talking amongst themselves and the builder was happily sitting in her own fortress oblivious of this clamor. So, they wrote up a formal protest letter and the entire troupe went up to the Builder's home.

The Builder was in no mood for discussion about this. She listened to what the men had to say and announced that she is not going to kick Sonabai out. The terrace was her property and she would do what she pleases with it, she declared. Hearing this there was uproar and everyone got into heated arguments about the issue.

Sonabai was standing outside listening to 11 men and a woman fighting to decide her fate. And, to her surprise, a miracle happened. After the argument reached its peak, quite unexpectedly, the Builder declared that she was going to build another floor on the terrace. And, not only this, she was going to build a one room apartment there for Sonabai. This room was going to be right under the stairway that would go up to the terrace above that floor, she informed.

The whole conglomeration fell into a shocked silence. This new development was beyond comprehension of the men and none of them quite knew how to react. Shocked and seething, they got up one by one and left the Builder's house in silence. As the Builder beamed triumphantly, Sonabai could not believe her ears. She had never thought that her only remaining dream would be fulfilled, and that too so unexpectedly.

From that day Sonabai became the exclusively loyal to the Builder. No longer were we treated with gossips from the Builder's house. In fact, she left jobs from the houses staunchly against the Builder and found work at those either neutral or for the Builder. She was completely possessed by the thought of having her own house and refused talk about anything else.

Sonabai started going extra lengths to make the Builder happy - bought groceries and vegetables for her, cleaned her house and even watered the plants. She was dying to know the details about the Builder's plan for construction and asked her about it as many times as she could. Sometimes she would get an answer sometimes she would get rebuked for being nosy, but she would soak in as much information as she could obtain. At night by the little light bulb in her makeshift hut, she would pore over the greasy copy of the floor plan that she had obtained turning it this way and that again and again.

The Builder, however, had her own problems to deal with. Irate members of the society who left the meeting in silence earlier had gone back and regrouped their forces. They had intensified their attack against her by filing multiple suits for the access to the terrace, the construction she had threatened them about and also about the encroachment she had allowed. She was harried, running from courtroom to courtroom, juggling between the hearing dates. Angry, hurt, humiliated and alone the Builder fought on.

After many a courtroom battles the verdict came. The Builder won the case for construction. But, there was a clause that the ownership of the roof on top of the new construction would go to the society. Society members were happy and finally the construction began.

However, the case was closed on paper but not in the minds. The Builder could not forget what she had gone through all these years after her husband died and she was left alone to deal with vituperative neighbors. She resolved to get back at the society members and beat them at their own game.

She sat down with her architect and redrew the floor plan. Walls were pushed around a little and the rooms were reorganized. The roof was made slanting and, practically, useless as a recreation area. A tiny little hole was left for a little ladder to get on top. The court's decision was followed in principle so there was no chance of getting sued, but in practice, it was a slap in the face of the demanding society members. The Builder had her last laugh, finally!

But, since there was no stairway, the room beneath it was scrapped; erased even from the memory. The new floor plan boasted posh spacious apartments with no room for Sonabai's little home. As the new floor got built, little by little, Sonabai's dream was destroyed. Somewhere between the fight of the mighty ones, the tiny dream of little golden maid was forgotten as if it never existed.

Then one day, Sonabai gathered the few posessions she had, tore down her makeshift hut and just walked away, silently. She left her work at all the apartments of our building as if she had renounced us. After that, she never came back to our building.

She kept working in the colony as that was the only place she knew and often crossed our path. When I saw her I would feel guilty for no particular fault of my own. I wished there was a way to make it up to her. But if she saw any of us, she would turn her head and walk away.

Sonabai, when I think about you and tell your story, the pang of guilt returns. There is no way these words will ever reach you, but let me make them blow with the air, hoping they will - I am sorry for what happened to you, I really truly am!

Monday, January 24, 2005


Liberation does not come easy

The price you have to pay

Is the thought of it itself

The craving, the waiting, the trying, the strife

Bondage to get away from bondage

We run, we cry, we hurt, we pray

Shake our limbs in frenzy

Only to be tangled all over again

In a new web of yearning

How long? How much? How Far?

Where do we go from here?

The baselessness of tangled desires

The sufferings of past and future

Tears and words lost forever

How far do we have to carry this baggage?

Our shoulders stoop, our back arches

Our skin looses its shine

The heart tires and the mind looses

The fountain of love divine

Yet we lust and seek and seek

The fortunes that run farther

And over and over we play

The foolish game of desire

What is it that we really seek

In the hearts of the heart?

The freedom, the joy, the love, sunshine

Just a little happiness in life

A gesture of love, a twinkle in the eyes

A sweet word from the beloved

Fragile, precious, beautiful things that

Make this life worth living

If you only see the night

You will miss the spangled stars

If you only look at the road

The distance would seem so far

Rise my dear, rise and see

What really lies beyond

Breathe in deep and taste the freedom

That throbs within your heart

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Secondhand Journey

You set sail to go to the land beyond

And I stand here on the shore

Watching your brave little ship

Struggle to anchor in the wind

Your young mind is full of vigor

And the treacherous dreams of the far far lands

Have entranced your mind

With promises of treasure – limitless

I don’t have the heart to break yours

So I stand here, stoic and composed

Waiting for you to begin your journey

To whatever you think is out there in the sea

The tears are all spent now and appeals to stay are almost over

The reasoning, the analysis, the scoffing, the mocking

Those desperate words to hold your hands

Are wafting in the wind like your thoughts about me

You look beyond the horizon and see a dream

And all I see is the emptiness

That you would be left with

Once your blind journey has come to its end

I am not against adventure, I have never been

Yes you should set sail and seek what is beyond

But the dreams of those lands must be your own

The cravings of the heart must be yours

The discovery, the adventure, the promise, the dream

Must origin from the root of your soul

Only then this quest that you have

Can lead you to what you seek – the bounty, limitless

You have to go through the tumult my dear

You have to go through the pangs

Before the truth dawns in lustrous clarity

And holds before you the promise of dawn

I am afraid as I stand here and wonder

What is the fate you will face

Once the trance goes away

And the storm takes you over

Will your little ship hold?

Or will it capsize in the sea?

Without you ever knowing the secret

Without ever giving you a chance

But despite my wish for you to stay

And think again before you leave forever

I still hope my dear that you find what you are looking for

In this secondhand journey of yours

Thursday, January 13, 2005


I see her sitting by the window staring out into eternity. She is holding a string of beads in her hands, her mind focused on the mantra she is chanting. The rays of the morning sun fall on her face making her skin glow. The gold ornaments, which, she still wears with a relish, sparkle as the sun rays play hide and seek with them. Her once unruly mane of dark, curly hair is now tied into a little snow white bun. Her skin is wrinkled and soft like muslin and her hands are a little shaky. Her legs have turned to form a big 'O' and she has to walk taking horizontal steps. But her eyes belie her visage of a tired, old woman. They still sparkle with the sharpness of wit and perceptiveness of her mind and, most of all, a sense of humor.

My beautiful grandmother, Malati, has turned 80 this December and looks happy. She is a little tired for the journey has been long and at a times difficult. But all the struggle has been worth it. Her strife is now behind her and she can now lay back and watch the lives of her children flourish.

Yes, she is old now and my younger cousins probably know her only as the wrinkled, snowy haired grandma. But when my older brother Abhijit and I were little, she was still in her prime and at her dynamic best. Her curly hair was jet black and tangled as ever and her skin was still smooth. She looked so young that Abhijit refused to call her Ajji, which is grandma in my language, Marathi, and started calling her Ammi instead.

Last month, my mother, aunt and uncles got together and held a party for Ammi's 80th birthday. At that time they published her book that included all the stories and memoirs she had written over the years. I could not go there to witness her day but I hear that the belle of the ball was as enthusiastic as ever and having a whale of a time.

I cannot imagine her as being anything but enthusiastic, energetic and with a temper of a tempest. Ammi has never been and will never be that dour, depressed, lost person fumbling through life. She has always been sure, always been resourceful and never, ever given up. Through every challenge, every ordeal, she has held herself upright and fought back. And during her struggle she has carefully preserved the sensitivity of a writer, a love for beauty of a woman, optimism of a child and a unique ability to laugh at herself. I have never seen another woman with so much passion for life.

Ammi was born in a small village in Konkan on the coastal Maharashtra, India. When she was 3 years old, she lost her mother. Her father remarried a few years later. Her new mother was young enough to be her older sister and although they shared a special relation throughout their lives, Ammi never accepted her as her mother. She always called her new mother Kaku, meaning aunt. However, Ammi remained deprived of the tender touch, support and guidance of a mother all her life.

When she was 16, her father died too. Perhaps, that is when a bond between the two women, Ammi and her Kaku, was formed. Here were two young women bound by a common thread of grief, although it affected them in such different ways. Being orphaned at such early age, tragic as it was, may have actually contributed to the development of Ammi's inner strength and emotional self reliance that sustained her throughout her life.

After the death of her father, Ammi came to live with her Uncle and Aunt. She spent a few years with them but, soon, she got frustrated with her listless life. They neither allowed her to study further nor really thought about her future or her marriage. Ammi did not take this lying down. She actually confronted her uncle and demanded to know his plans for her future. Her uncle was furious with his firebrand niece and put her down. This was the 1930s and it was quite shocking for a girl to be assertive and to actually stand up for herself. Enraged with her uncle's apathy, Ammi left his house and came to live in Pune with her maternal relatives. She took up a job in Pune and savored her independence.

That is when a proposal for marriage with Anna came to her. My Grandfather, Damodar, was the eldest son of an affluent Doctor in Chiplun. I have always wondered how she was chosen as a bride for Anna. Anna was quite good looking and came from a rich, reputed family and was a good ten years older than her. Though Ammi was beautiful herself, she did not really have a family to call her own and those were the times when a girl was actually detested for her intelligence. But whether it was because Anna's enterprising father saw and appreciated the spark in her or whether it was the God's wish for the two of them to come together, the alliance was made. They were destined to spend more than fifty, long, bittersweet years together before God chose to tear them apart.

The early years after their marriage must have been blissful because Ammi looks back at that time fondly. Anna was working as a store keeper in the British military and they were posted to Calcutta for a while. Although those were the tempestuous times of partition of India and Indian independence and Calcutta was a testy place to be in, Ammi actually has fond memories of the place.

After a couple of years in Calcutta, they came back to Chiplun so that Anna could help his father in running his businesses and managing all the estate they owned. Ammi lost her first child that time due to a premature delivery, but was soon pregnant with my mother.

During her early childhood, my mother has had a chance to witness her family's affluence. But the idyll did not last long and soon after disaster struck. That is when Ammi's trial began.

Anna was duped by his partner in business and he had to liquidate all their family assets including their ancestral home to pay back the enormous loan his partner had incurred. In a matter of days, their family went from a state of affluence to a state of privation. Anna could not take this blow. He not only lost his money, but also his self worth.

Anna could never really get over that disaster but Ammi refused to be let down. She accepted what had happened to them and tried to look beyond that. After all, she had a family to feed. First she tried to goad Anna into finding work again, but he was not prepared. She tried to make him train himself for some occupation but he refused. Frustrated, she decided to get out of the house herself.

She soon realized that she had only completed high school education and did not have a proper vocational training for a decent occupation. Ammi took admission in a kindergarten teacher's training course for which she was required to go to another city but by that time she was already a mother of four children. She had to tear her family apart and take her two younger sons with her and leaving her older daughters with their father in Karad. That one year must have been a trial for her patience and perseverance. It was also a difficult time for her children, especially my mother who was given the responsibility of the household as she was the oldest daughter.

After she was done with the course, Ammi opened a kindergarten in Karad and the family was reunited. But she did not stop there. She continued to pursue further education and completed her Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education degrees and became a high school teacher.

There are several sides to Ammi's character. She has been a well loved teacher, an efficient mother and also a resourceful entrepreneur. To generate an extra income for her large family and growing needs of her children, Ammi started and ran several tiny businesses. In summer she would go to Konkan and bring back a load of mangoes and ran a small shop selling mangoes and mango products. She ran the mango business for forty years until my oldest uncle took it over from her. She started little workshops manufacturing Ganesha idols for the Ganesha festival and, with the same material, chalks for the blackboards which she sold to the schools in Karad. She invested little money she could put aside in a plot and bit by bit built a little building over there. She rented out rooms in that complex to students.

She started out with nothing, but Ammi could gather enough money to give her children a good life and a decent education. She managed to have decent weddings for both her daughters. Both her sons turned out to be successful financially and professionally. Neither my mother nor her siblings ever felt they were deprived of anything in their childhood.

She could stand by her children's financial difficulties even during their adult life. Ammi has always been there to help when anyone needed money to buy a house or needed a little helping hand in their business.

Her relation with Anna was a curious one. For more than fifty years they were practically inseparable. Though Anna was so much older than her and had fathered her children, he was always more like her fifth child. I sometimes wonder if it must have been at a times difficult for him to fathom this headstrong woman. He took a back seat in life, but was never bitter about it and never came in the way of what she was doing. He may not have said that in so many words, but I know he greatly admired her. From her side, she always made sure he was respected in the house and was well taken care of.

A few years ago when Anna died, Ammi became lonely. Although she held herself up as she always did in any crisis, and filled her time with her books, her prayers and her grandchildren, I know, somewhere deep down she misses him.

Ammi has a fascination for people and simply loves to talk. She has always has a huge friend circle and has been very well loved amongst her friends and family. In dealing with people she has always been straightforward - never hesitated to call a spade, 'a spade'. But she loves being with people and wherever she went, she gathered people around her and bound them together. Even now, she has organized a little group of women in the nearby temple. They meet every week and sing devotional songs, Ammi tells them mythological stories and reads them stories and anecdotes from different books. They all absolutely love her.

She dearly loves gold jewelry. So much so that her ear hole had to be stitched up and re-pierced three times. Every time the piercing sagged down because of the heavy earrings she wore. She refuses to listen to anyone and still wears all kinds of heavy gold tops. Gold has not only been ornamental for her but always helped her in difficult times when she would pawn it or sell it to raise money. She would always make it a point get back her lost jewelry by raising money for it somehow.

Ammi has always been very strong emotionally. When my father died at the age of 43, she was a pillar of strength for my mother, my brother and myself. I have seen her stand by my mother's side during her difficulties and give her help and support. During my growing up years, she was my ally and also my guide. She has always been someone we all could count on.

There is so much I could write about this woman and so much I am yet to understand. Her allure has lasted for 80 years and I am sure it will last for a long time to come. I am so proud to hold a drop of her blood, a little of her genes in my body.

Ammi, I could never quite encase your charm in words, but here is a little attempt from my side for the world to know what you have been all about!

Monday, January 10, 2005

I woke up

Have been away for a while. So all ye readers out there (If there are any! But looking at your mails I hope some of you are still hanging in there.) let me apologize!

Actually, I haven't been idle so that is some consolation. I have been hammering out a perfectly mediocre story for past three weeks. To be fair to myself, the idea is not mediocre. If the story ever sees the light of the day, I am sure you would agree with me too. But it makes me curl my toes in embarrassment to say that the treatment is! (Having read Milan Kundera only recently only intensifies the feeling of how awful it has turned out to be.)

All these years that I have been writing, I have seen that I can either write reasonably good stuff or some really horrible trash. There is no middle way for me. To write the good stuff I have to be really tuned to myself. It comes, but oh so infrequently! It is such a beautiful feeling, I could never really describe. I feel like my whole being has become poetry and my thoughts and my words are both in a perfect symphony(Since it is my blog after all, I can afford to be conceited!)

It starts with a little germ - a tiny flower, a feeling of intense love, a brief smile, a terrible heartbreak - all those knock down the dam of my laziness and makes my passion flow. I write like one possessed and when it is written, it is done. Then it does not belong to me anymore. When I read it again, I see a different me - not the shy, at a times timid and unsure person but a pure, passionate, perceptive woman with strong convictions. Could we really be hiding so many personalities within ourselves? If I listened close enough, would I hear more voices seeking expression?

Then what makes me write dull, drab, mediocre work that I do write at a times? I attribute this to two factors - compulsion and expectations. I cannot write when I am compelled to write and that is why, perhaps, I could never be a deadline writer. I am just incapable of churning up readable prose by this date or by that time.

Another form of compulsion is the one that comes out of expectations - expectation to be published, expectation to prove oneself, expectation to be appreciated by people. The worst thing an artist can do to her art is to encage it in expectations. I read a poem recently by a noted marathi poet Madgulkar. In the poem he laments the need for an artist to sell his art to make a living out of it. But the artist of his caliber can create art that is, both, salable and exotic at the same time, for the rest of us, there is a need for constant reminder to preserve the purity of our endowment.

I saw Little Women yesterday. I greatly identify with Jo's character and woke up with the advice given to her in the film. When Jo proudly shows her first novel to the German professor who is her mentor, lover, friend and guide, he tells her only this, write about what you know, write about what comes from your heart! Although she is greatly disappointed she takes the advice to the heart and writes the story of Little Women, which, later becomes her greatest achievement. Not that I am poised to write something as wonderful, but the advice holds true for any tiny contribution I hope to make to art. To to be able to do that I have to follow what is the path of truth.

The path of truth, the one that goes through one's heart, is a treacherous one. There are twists and turns that make you wander away from what you really are. You don't even realize how far off you have gone until something like the mediocre story I wrote brings you down to reality. It is so difficult to have faith, conviction and clarity of vision which are all necessary to abide by the truth, whatever it may be.

I remember a prayer from the film Seema, titled Tu pyar ka saagar hai (You are the ocean of love) The whole prayer is beautiful but these lines touch my heart.

Ghayal man ka paagal panchi udne ko bekaraar

Pankh hai komal ankh hai dhundali jaana hai saagar paar

Ab tuhi ise samajha raah bhoole the kahanse hum

I am really incapable of translating these, but, still, let me attempt...

Like a wounded bird my crazy mind

Yearns to fly with the wind

My wings are soft and my eyes are weak

But I want to fly beyond the sea

Tell me oh lord, tell me

When it is that I wandered away...

Heres hoping that all you waywards find the correct path!