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!


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  2. A touching story, nicely told. I cant beleive the people's desire to evict a poor lonely woman, who lost her little home to rain. How cruel...

  3. Reads like an excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri's book. Very touching story with attention to detail.