It is Saturday morning. Uma has to take her daughter to work with her, as Preeti’s school is closed on weekends. Her husband leaves for work by six and her mother-in-law, the only other member in their family, leaves right after. Uma’s parents live far away, in the suburbs of Chennai, and there is no one else she can leave Preeti with and leaving her four-year-old child alone at home is not an option. Luckily, none of Uma’s employers, including us, mind her bringing Preeti to work. Even if we did object, there was little she could do besides quitting. Over the week, Uma goes to work only after dropping Preeti off at school. The girl is later brought home by her father, in time for lunch. Her mother-in law is usually back by then too. Uma gets home in time to prepare the midday meal for the entire family. Lunch is usually a simple affair — vegetable curry and dal with some rice, or sometimes sambhar and rice. There is always some curd-rice, which does not take much time to prepare.
Uma just rang the doorbell at her employer’s apartment in central Chennai. It is about 10 am. I open the door drowsy-eyed, having just awoken. Usually an early riser, I take it easy on weekends, sometimes even napping after breakfast as I did today. Now I work as a senior consultant, in the consumer, retail and services division of a multinational executive search firm. I had approached them to find me a suitable profile, no longer finding managing the lifestyle department store in Chennai a challenge, so when they offered me the role I had accepted eagerly. I sometimes work on Saturdays now, to meet time-starved, high-ranking candidates, to make mandatory assessment reports for urgent hires.
But not today. At the door, Uma is standing dressed as usual in a timeworn salwar-kameez. She is tall with a sturdy athletic frame, with a dusky complexion. Her thick long hair is braided, reaching below her waist. With the rigours of a hard life etched on her face, Uma looks much older than her twenty-three years.
Opening the door wider, I spontaneously lower my gaze. A pair of large black eyes, lit up with excitement, stares back up at me from a chubby face, with a small nose and a generous mouth. Preeti’s small head, full of black curly hair – tied in two neat ponytails with red satin ribbons, is tipped far behind her, in order to look at me.
“Aunty, good morning,” she says in her singsong lisp, eyes twinkling and her face twitching in excitement.
“Good morning, Preeti,” I reply cheerily, trying to match her exuberance.
I look back up, smiling at Uma. She smiles in a manner adults do over the antics of a child. Then Preeti rushes past us carrying her sling bag, sprinting through the hall, in the direction of the bedroom. She knows my husband will be there. She has to greet him too. Uma strides towards the kitchen. I shut the door and follow Preeti to the bedroom.
“Goooodmauuurning uncle!” Preeti says, up close to the bed, in the singsong manner children wish teachers with as they step into the classroom.
“Good morning, Preeti” he replies in a drowsy voice, lying on his side propped up on one elbow over the pillow.
He takes a sip of his morning tea, placing it on the tray at hand, before reaching for the newspaper again. The bed is strewn with glossy supplements he will browse through later, at leisure. Preeti looks about her and then back at him. Having slept late at night, and barely awake, he is clearly not in the mood for a conversation. But Preeti undeterred, scampers on to the bed beside him, sitting on her haunches. He is still not paying her any attention, so she opens the cover of the alphabet book she has carried with her, and then flips the pages with her eyes on him.
Uma, meanwhile, has set about her tasks diligently. As our domestic helper, her job entails cleaning the house; sweeping and swabbing the floor, dusting the furniture; washing and drying clothes as well as assisting me with sundry other household chores that popped up. Uma does not cook or wash dishes though. Ramya, the cook, engaged for both purposes is in the kitchen, nearing the end of her tasks, having come much earlier. She is a middle-aged stocky woman, with a pleasant round face and sparkling black eyes. The sound of her ladle against the cooking pan is heard intermittently. The smell of spicy mutton curry permeates the air, drowning the smell of the fresh jasmine flowers she is wearing on her profusely grey streaked hair. The whiff of her flowers had been wafting around the house carried by gusts of wind coming in through the open kitchen window.
My husband and I like our weekend lunches to be elaborate Bengali meals, since on weekdays we make do with simple, mainly vegetarian dishes. I have taught Ramya, who is Tamilian, the intricacies of Bengali cooking. It is only on weekends that I have time to supervise both her and Uma. I go about tidying rooms, changing bed sheets and throwing towels for a wash, calling out to Uma to assist me. The cook makes another round of tea for everyone. She keeps a cup in the kitchen for Uma to have at her convenience. As I take the tea tray for my husband and myself into the bedroom (Uma had cleared the earlier one already), I am surprised to see Preeti sitting upright on the bed beside him, on a makeshift blanket-cushion. My surprise promptly turns to irritation at the mess she is making of the sheets. I tell myself that I am not irritated because Preeti, as the maid’s child, shouldn’t be sitting on the bed. I am not class-biased, I would like to think. But I have a strong aversion to any outsider sitting on my bed, more so a child who plays on the road, as she does sometimes.
I notice that Preeti is bending over her Hindi alphabet book. I recall asking her to bring her English and Hindi books, so that I can teach her when I can. As I set the tea tray down on the bedside table, I brace myself to ask Preeti to get off. In doing so, I irritably face my husband first.
“How could you…” I begin in Bengali, in an exasperated tone, giving him a disparaging glance. Then in spite of my anger, I remind myself, it is Preeti’s innocence which lets her treat this house and the bed like her own, as much hers as ours. So, I evenly say, “Preeti, come down here. Your mother is calling you.”
In order not to hurt the child’s feelings I also smile, signaling her by hand to get off, and follow me out of the room. I am sensitive to her feelings, but I am not sure it is merely the hygiene issue that prods me to get Preeti off my bed. If Preeti had belonged to a family like ours, would I still have minded her sitting on my bed, I ask myself? She would not then be playing on the road, would she, I think justifying my response to the situation. Preeti continues to sit on the bed, in spite of my repeated cajoling, and my voice turns sharp from impatience. My tea is getting cold. Uma hearing my cajoling Preeti to get off the bed, perhaps also reading into my controlled annoyance, promptly walks up to us. In a strict voice, she commands Preeti to get off the bed. Preeti quietly collects her books and pencils strewn on the bed, and then, hopping off the bed, runs out of the room. At first relieved, my guilt makes me follow Preeti in an attempt to mollify her. I don’t want her to get the wrong signal. We are very fond of her, even though at times I do get impatient when she runs all over the house, distracting Uma from her work.
Preeti looks forward to these visits and I am careful not to detract from the experience. Unlike her home, which she can cover with just a few steps of her tiny feet, our house gives her ample space to run around. Also the colorful and fancy things here fascinate her. Preeti has not seen a house like ours, though our home is far from luxurious. Her father is an auto–rickshaw driver and her mother and grandmother work as domestic helps. Their friends, relatives and even neighbors live in humble, mostly single-room homes. But Preeti does not care for these distinction – all she cares about is that Uncle and Aunty have no children, they love her and she has their undivided attention when she spends time with them.
On an earlier visit, Preeti had rushed into our house, excited as usual, along with her mother. That morning, we had a friend visiting us along with her daughter. Preeti ran into the bedroom looking for her Uncle, and then, not finding him, rushed to the adjacent room; his study. Our friend’s daughter of less than two years was sitting on my husband’s lap atop the sofa. Preeti looked visibly surprised at the scene, and then to my astonishment, she did not wish him as she always did. Her face fell and with a hurt and shy look, she retreated with backward steps, out of the room. I promptly called to her to come back, but she looked at me desolately, then from outside, hiding behind the curtain with her face downward. I walked up to her and I led her back inside by hand.
“Take this, Preeti” I said, offering her a piece of sweetmeat from the tray served to the guests, hoping to distract her from the other child.
But she did not accept the sweet, her face still bent downwards as she shook her head in refusal. I broke a piece of the sweet and fed her. With the sweet in her mouth, sulking, she abruptly turned, ran out of the room to the balcony. I followed her, cajoling her to finish the sweet in my hand, and then come back and play with the little girl. But she would not take the sweet from me, the piece in her mouth lumped to one side of her cheek. She squatted stubbornly on the balcony floor. From her expression I realised she would not heed my words, so I went back inside. I handed Uma a small box of sweets to take home. Preeti remained in the balcony till she left with her mother.
When I returned to the room, the little girl oblivious to being the cause of Preeti’s jealous sulking, gurgled on my husband’s lap.
“If this is how Preeti reacts on seeing another child with us,” I said turning to my husband, “how will she handle having a sibling, when she does?”
“Actually I was quite taken aback by her behaviour,” he replied over the child’s head. “The initial reaction was expected, but I had thought she would come around and want to play with her.”
“Children are very sensitive, you know,” my friend joined, “Since this little one was born, we have had to be very delicate with the elder child. He is four now and he throws tantrums to grab our attention. But rather than dealing with him severely, my husband and I pay him the attention he seeks, involving him in caring for his sister and making him feel responsible for her. ”
As I follow Preeti out of our bedroom now, after she has got off the bed at her mother’s behest, I say in a coaxing tone, “Come now Preeti, show me your Hindi alphabet book… let’s see what you have learnt.”
But Preeti ignores me, pulls out a chair at the dining table, and climbs on to its seat. She places the Hindi alphabet book in front, on the table, and opens it. She puts a finger to an alphabet, reads it aloud, and then moves to the next one. Since she’s apparently normal, I return to the bedroom, sit on the bed with my cup of tea. From where I am sitting, the dining table and Preeti are directly in my line of vision. Uma, I notice, has a contented look on her face, as she goes around the table, sweeping the floor. Preeti’s education costs her dearly and she worries how she will fare in life. Uma knows she cannot teach Preeti on her own or monitor her studies much longer, having dropped out of school herself after the sixth standard. But our presence in Preeti’s life, my overlooking her studies, assures Uma.
After a few minutes of reading aloud, trying to articulate the words slowly and with much difficulty, Preeti starts getting restless. By now I have finished my tea and am seated beside her on an adjacent chair at the dining table. I make her repeat after me, making her note my exaggerated mouth movements, so as to help her shed her strong Tamil accent while pronouncing the Hindi alphabets and words. The cook Ramya signals to me from afar to suggest she is done with her cooking. When I nod back, she brings the dishes out from the kitchen, one at a time and places them on the table. She leaves soon after, pulling the gate shut behind her. I continue to read the alphabets along with Preeti till she abruptly stops. I look at her questioningly. She sticks out her tongue grimacing, indicating she is tired, and then jumps off the chair.
I look at Preeti, and smile indulgently. She is wearing a long mauve dress with frills. She always wears her best clothes to our house, as though she was coming to a party. At times it is a narrow-strap short dress, at other times it is a long-pleated skirt with a lace blouse. Her favourite outfit is a pair of jeans worn with a tank top. Her short curly hair is tied in one or two ponytails on her head, with -matching ribbons. She also carries a handbag, like a grownup.
“Who bought you this dress?” I ask Preeti, who is facing me.
“Papa!” she replies with an air of pride, and then shyly looks down as though assessing the lace dress. She has also worn eye-liner, pink lipstick and blusher, as she does on most days. Uma always dresses her up, though she herself dresses plainly. They look far from being mother and daughter, when they are dressed. Preeti looks like she belongs to an affluent family, while Uma presents a rustic working-class face to the world.
Uma has dreams and lofty ambitions for her daughter, far outside their means. This makes Uma strive hard at the cost of neglecting herself. Preeti attends an English-medium school, unlike their friends and neighbours’ children who attend a Tamil one.
“I want to be a doctor,” Preeti always quips, in response to anyone who asks her what she wants to be when she grows up.
This ambition is her mother’s, implanted in Preeti ever since she started going to school. Uma is making every effort to ingrain this goal into her daughter’s psyche, as she strives to enhance her earnings through hard work, in order to support the ambition. Preeti is only in Upper KG now, but expenses will mount. Uma works in a number of houses, but is trying to secure a government job, to enhance her pay and ensure job security. Uma is determined her daughter will not live her life.
“Akka [elder-sister], can I keep a hundi [piggy-bank] in your house,” Uma had asked me last month, when she got her salary. “I will put some money into it every month for Preeti. If I take the entire money home, it will get spent. My husband takes it away.”
I had looked at the makeshift piggy bank in Uma’s hand curiously. It was a simple cardboard box, with a lid. Uma shoved in five hundred rupees through a slit cut on the top. She proceeded to keep the box in the guest room cupboard, as I instructed her to. Her grit and determination in the face of her poverty overwhelmed me. I mentally made a note to put some money into Uma’s makeshift piggy-bank regularly, to support her cause. The money I got from selling old newspapers, which collected in abundance every month due to our subscribing to five papers, would go into this box. However, I decided not to tell Uma about it.
Uma has finished her work and is washing up. I choose some sweetmeats from a box in the fridge, arranging them on a plate.
“Take this, Preeti” I say, bending to her level, handing her the plate. On seeing the two large conch-shell shaped sandesh on it, Preeti turns to Uma and squeals in delight.
“Amma… see this.” Then turning towards me, her eyes twinkling, while accepting the plate she says “Thank you, Aunty.” She then promptly, hands extended, offers the plate to her mother. As always, she will not have anything without sharing with her.
“That is for you, Preeti. I have another plate for your mother,” I say, smiling at daughter and then her mother, as I hand over a plate of sweets to Uma too.
I usually keep sweets for Preeti’s weekend visits. It’s an added incentive for her to bring her books and come study with me. After Uma accepts her plate, Preeti takes a bite of a sweet from her plate. Then they sit outside the kitchen, on the floor, eating their respective portions.
“I sincerely hope Preeti becomes a doctor,” I say to my husband. “So she can take care of her mother, who gives her the best of everything, works so hard only to ensure a good future for her.
“I hope so too,” my husband replies, answering from behind a magazine. “More so, I hope she recalls her mother’s struggles and respects her.”
“You’re right” I say, pensively.
If and when Preeti becomes a doctor, I think, the naivety of her childhood lost; will she remain unbiased by status, and regard her mother as she does now? I hoped she would always remember that it was her mother who had shaped her rise in society and she would not be ashamed of Uma then. Having finished eating, both mother and daughter stand up. They throw the paper plates into the kitchen dustbin, and share a glass of water.
“Bye Uncle, bye Aunty,” Preeti says chirpily, walking hand in hand with Uma who smiles gratefully, nods at me saying softly, “Bye akka.”
“Bye Doctor Preeti!” I reply chuckling. Then smile as I add, “Bye Uma.”
~ Shuvashree Chowdhury is a poet and writer who spent two decades in the corporate sector in managerial capacities. Her first novel, Across Borders, was published in 2013. She divides her time between Chennai and Kolkata.