We were watching the movie, “Boy in the striped Pajamas.” When Bruno meets Shmuel. Bruno is a privileged nine-year-old while Shmuel, the other boy is in striped pajamas. What separates them is the barbed wire fence. Bruno envies Shmuel, as he imagines him playing with other kids his own age behind the fence, in the comfort of his Pajamas while he is all alone in the open world outside the fence. Bruno is unable to comprehend the horrors of living in a camp, as he offers simplistic solutions to Shmuel’s problems. When Shmuel talks about being hungry all the time, Bruno gets him food from home.
The barbed wire fence had a big impact on me. It is a grim reminder of the two worlds that exist in all societies, a demarcation between the privileged and the oppressed. When I was a nine-year-old (just like Bruno) growing up in Bangalore, my world was filled with what happened at school and my friends in the neighborhood. Somewhere that barbed wire fence brought back memories of Parvati, our Mai(maid.) Why did we call her Mai? Mai means mother, surely an honorable title, but it became a synonym for the maid in our house. Mummy would often ask me to check on her, to make sure she was washing the dishes properly or rinsing the clothes in clean water.
I would go to the open porch at the back of our house, where she scrubbed the pots and pans with the coconut fiber (that had been stripped off the coconut shell), dipped in the cleaning powder called patra-puri. She only understood the local language – Kannada, a language my mother didn’t know. I would sit on the rim of the wall surrounding the little water tank and play with the water, while keeping an eye on her. It was of no use, because I never reprimanded her. She was my friend of sorts. A grown woman in her 30s, unkempt hair, long fingernails – filled with dirt beneath them and a tattered sari wrapped around her body. She, however, let me know that her nose ring and ear rings had real diamonds in them. I was impressed because Mummy had some gold jewelry but no diamonds!!!!
Today she had tears in her eyes, when I asked her, “Yean Ayithu?”(what happened) She started telling me her usual story, her Yejmanroo (husband) had pushed her while Lakshma (Yejamanroo’s second wife) had kept her hungry. Listening to her life-story almost every other day had improved my understanding of Kannada. Lakshma had two sons, while Parvati had one son and there was always some kind of a quarrel between the boys or the wives with the Yejmanroo thrown in somewhere. It was a long narration, I did not understand everything she said but understood enough to know that Yejmanroo was somehow involved, as she broke into sobs. It made me sad and angry, and I had a solution right away, it was to find a long kuchi (stick) and beat her Yejmanroo. Atleast that brought a smile on her face.
So, was our relationship, there were things I never understood but I offered solutions all the time. If she complained of hunger, I got her food, that my mother had set aside for her. Sometimes, I found the food thrown in the garbage. I agree the roti( flat bread) was dry but if she was truly hungry then why did she throw the food away? I never asked her. I knew she really liked eating Dosa(crepes), even when her stomach hurt! That did not make sense to me either, because when my stomach hurt, I was only allowed to eat kichdi ( mushy rice cooked with dal). When I mentioned the merits of eating kichdi on an upset stomach, she smiled but continued to favor the Dosa.
There were some nights, when she did not want to go home, I would happily ask her to stay at our house and explain her situation at home, to my mother. She would give Parvati a Chatai ( bamboo mat) to sleep on .”But that won’t be comfortable”, I would protest and my mother would say, “That is what she is used to sleeping on.” One night, I tried sleeping on the Chatai, but it was uncomfortable, I did not last more than an hour or two.
She liked listening to my stories about school. One time, I was talking about the tamarind tree at our school and how all my friends loved plucking the tamarinds from the tree. It would always be a joint operation, some of us would aim at the tamarinds with the stones while others (including me) would gather the precious loot and run before the watchman came to chase us away. Then we would share our loot, while walking back triumphantly to the classroom. It was a privilege of sorts to have risked getting shooed away by the watchman to gather tamarind. When Parvati mentioned she had a tamarind tree outside her house, I begged her to get me some tamarinds. She got me some once in a while, but not quite enough, that I could take to school and pretend that I had risked the watchman to get them.
Anyways, one time, she was mentioning how she could not sleep at home because it was too warm and stuffy inside. I had a simple solution, “why don’t you sleep under the tamarind tree?” I would have loved to sleep under a tamarind tree, with fresh cool breeze blowing on my face. The next day, I learned at school that the tree releases carbon-di-oxide at night, I was worried for Parvati and then I told her to be careful, and avoid sleeping too close to the tree. Again, that made her smile, but I could tell that she hadn’t even tried sleeping under the tree. What could possibly be her objection to that? I didn’t understand.
One night, Parvati was getting ready to sleep in our house, when the door bell rang. I went to the door to find her Yejmanroo, Lakshma and the boys, they had all come to take her home. I asked Parvati not to go, because they had thrown her out of the house the previous night. Lakshma had a smarmy look that reminded me of the snake in the movie Jungle book, especially when he sings that deceitful song “Trust in me!” to Mowgli. Lakshma talked with honeyed sweetness and loved to show her affection towards me. She would talk about how much I had grown. She was our Mai before Parvati had taken her place.
Lakshma could talk in Hindi with Mummy. They loved to talk about Parvati – how filthy she was, how dirty her work was, and how tardy she was. I should have said something but never did! I wanted to ask Lakshma why she treated Parvati poorly, but never did! The Yejmanroo tried to act like a victim by shaking his head and saying that things were getting out of hand. I forgot the whole thing about the Kuchi(stick) and the beating…then. Anyways, Parvati was more than happy to go home with them. I didn’t understand why, when she had told me earlier, that she would never go back to that Maney (house.)
She always asked us for a sari especially around Diwali ( festival of lights). When she got a sari, she never wore it! “Why?”, I asked her, one time. “Oh! I wanted a silk sari”, she replied. It puzzled me! I had never seen her in a silk sari, so what would she do with it? Sometimes, when Parvati did not come for a day or two, it was chaos at home! My mother would wash the dishes and sweep the house, while I swept the stairs outside the house and washed the clothes. Then, when she did show up, it was my job to interrogate her. My mother would stand right there and force me to speak harshly to her in Kannada. How could I be stern with her? Especially when she complained of a stomach pain, headache, fever or hunger which my mother readily dismissed as a lie ( perhaps rightly so), but I could never rebuke her for making us work, to Mummy’s satisfaction.
After working for about seven years, Parvati quit. We had another Mai working for us. Of course, I knew her life story and enjoyed conversing with her too, but I wondered about Parvati! She came by, one evening, when I was playing outside the house. She was wearing a nice clean sari, her hair was combed and her nails were clipped. Parvati was living with a relative and wasn’t working as a Mai anymore. She came up to me, smiling as she asked, “Chennag iddiya?” ( Doing fine?) And, then she went up the stairs to meet Mummy and have a cup of tea with her. Even though she sat on the floor, as always – not on the couch.
It took me a few years to realize that I had learned to speak Kannada from her. At school we were supposed to speak English and in our neighborhood- people spoke an assortment of different languages but no one spoke Kannada ( the state language). When Parvati spoke Kannada, I listened, I understood a little here and there, and when I talked, she listened. We had a Kannada class at school, but we were learning words that were outdated and different from what was spoken by people on the streets. I remember trying to astound Parvati with a newly learned word in my Kannada class on her, it was Andha ( beautiful), when I said “neenu tumba andha” (you are very beautiful). She merely smiled and shook her head, implying, I don’t understand you. I never got to tell her that I had learned to speak Kannada from her, because I never saw her again!
Many Mais’ came and went in our lives, of different ages, personalities – with different stories to tell but, the barbed wire fence remains, intact as ever……