Saturday, April 27, 2019

Gobi Chronicles - 4

Gobi Chronicles - 4

I had decided to dedicate a separate post to Moopachi – the house help who worked for more than 40 years in Vembathy House. As a child I could not imagine the cleaning of Vembathy House being taken up by anyone else. Loud mouthed but efficient is the way I would describe her. She exercised an authority over us as much as over her grandchildren who could not get away with shoddy work. She considered the house as her own. They had to clean the cowshed, sweep and swab, empty leftover food into vessels of their own and soak them in water to be washed by their grandmother. She would supervise their work and would let them leave for school only after they finished their assigned chores to her satisfaction.

As a teenager I would be asked to help her with washing clothes. Those were days when detergents were unheard of and one had to apply sunlight soap on the clothes.  Washing clothes by beating them on a stone fixed near the well and scrubbing extra dirty parts with her hands she’d wash and rinse them clean and dry them out on the clothesline without a crease. One could not find fault with her work. It was her constant chattering (read grumbling) that one had to ignore. No one actually paid attention to her.

Moopachi had 4 children. Two boys and two girls. Her husband worked as a farm hand who climbed up palm trees and plucked coconuts. I don’t remember ever seeing him. The story goes that Moopachi’s daughter Kanni was widowed at the age of sixteen and my maternal grandmother cried for days together thinking of the kind of life destiny had dished out to her. She had a four month old son to look after. I wouldn’t know if Moopachi helped her with money but I was amused at her patriarchal mindset when her granddaughter (son’s daughter)  Dhana married her grandson (daughter’s son).

Once Dhana got married she was forbidden to work for us the reason being that she was now married and the privilege of working for our family belonged to her son’s family.

“She is not our responsibility anymore”. She would say when I asked about Dhana.

The leftover food, cow dung to be dried and used as fuel or as manure and the dry palm leaves that she took home would be given to her son’s family. So also were given tamarind, lentils and pickle from the previous year’s stock once a fresh consignment arrived. So what if she was not on talking terms with her daughter in law, all the hand me down saris and children’s clothes would be duly handed over to her !

“But Kanni is your widowed daughter! How can you grudge her the benefit of stuff like used clothes, cow dung or dry palm leaves?” I’d ask.

Her reply set me thinking.

“I had to let her find her way. If I had helped her out she would never have learnt to fend for herself and her son. My sons would have resented her presence in our house. Today she has her self respect intact and shares a good bond with her brothers and their wives. They will there for her at the time of need even when I am long gone.”

“But you don’t even talk to your daughter in law and yet you keep track of their requirements.” I found it difficult to understand the equation in their family.

“Oh, yes. We do quarrel but she is still my son’s wife. If I fall sick she is the one who’d look after me. So why should I not think of her welfare?”

I admit that I still do not understand the logic behind letting a widowed daughter fend for herself and helping a son who was earning enough to support his family. But society was perhaps different sixty years ago. She was perhaps investing in her own future by being helpful to her son’s family.

Soon after my marriage Moopachi stopped working for us. But her granddaughters continued to work for us till they got married.

I had left my daughter in Gobi with my mother for a year when she was just six months old. Moopachi’s granddaughters would pester their mother to hurry up with milking their cow and bring fresh cow’s milk for her to drink early in the morning. They would play with her for a while after finishing their work. When I brought her back to Jamshedpur, I was surprised to receive a letter from Kannamma (Moopachi’s granddaughter) who was perhaps in class 8 or 9.

“Don’t let her play in water” she had written. “She easily catches a cold. “

She went on to describe how much everyone in our joint family missed her. All our neighbors were upset that the child was sent back.

She ended the letter with the following line-

“She was such a good kid. Looking after her was no trouble at all. We all miss her a lot. The house seems empty without her. Please bring her over as soon as possible. We would love to have her in our midst”.

I was in tears on reading her letter. The grandmother worked for us and watched my mother and her siblings grow and settle down in life. We were like family to her. The same spirit prevailed in her grandchildren too.  After Moopachi’s granddaughters got married some others worked for Vembathy house. But the bond was missing. My own visits became less frequent. I miss the days when house helps were like family. They welcomed us on our arrival. They were there to see us off.

“Take care, Come again”.

This was what our maternal uncle, aunt and cousins said. But it was also what Moopachi, Pavayee and the entire neighborhood said. It is the affection showered on us by these simple folks that draws me to Gobi even after 46 years of life in Jamshedpur. I am lucky to have hired domestic helps who have bonded with me like family. It was mainly due to the respect my mother and aunts accorded to those who worked for us that I was able to extend it to people who worked for me. I am glad to say that I have passed it on to my children too. They are our lifeline. They neither complain about the monotony that sets in when they sweep, swab and clean nor do we think of it as worth a mention. Only when they take a day off do we realize their worth and value.

Moopachi must be smiling from up above to see me, now a grandmother of 4 adorable grandkids, fondly remembering the days gone by when she’d buzz in and out of Vembathy House.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Gobi Chronicles -3

Gobi Chronicles -3

I begin the third episode of Gobi Chronicles with two people who worked for us when I was a teenager. The cook Narayana Mama and the domestic help Moopacchi. I have mentioned them in an earlier post.

I have already said that Gobi and Vembathy House has a kind of inclusive air that welcomes each newcomer into its fold and in no time the new entrants become part of the family. Narayana mama was no exception. Before he took up his service as the cook in Vembathy House the kitchen and cooking was taken care of by Ganapathy Mama but I don’t remember much about him.

Narayana Mama was a native of Madurai. He lived alone in a small outhouse adjoining the well. His entire salary of Rs. 40/- per month was sent by money order to his wife in Madurai. I wouldn’t know if Thatha gave him any ‘petty cash’ or pocket money but he seemed to be quite happy and content with all his needs being taken care of except perhaps his addiction to snuff!

Narayana mama was appointed as cook but soon proved himself as ‘Jack of all trades’. He loved Kamakshi mami like a daughter. He was very fond of my cousin Balaji and took it upon himself to keep him engaged while mami took a nap and rested in the afternoon. He attended to practically any and everything from trimming the wicks of the kerosene stove or standing in a line to get sugar and kerosene oil that was distributed at the ration shop. During summer vacations Vembathy House would be teeming with grandchildren apart from those who lived there because their fathers had transferable jobs and thatha offered to school them in Gobi. Narayana mama would cook for the family without a frown on his face and one quite forgot that he was a paid help. I have fond memories of the sweets and savories he would prepare for me to take back to my hostel.

Narayana mama was a staunch supporter of Rajaji and voted for Swatantra party during elections. Our domestic help Moopachi belonged to the Nadar community and Kamaraj Nadar was a respected politician from the Congress party. Narayana mama could indulge in heated discussions about the merits of Swatantra Party and the demerits of Congress. Ladle in hand he could rush into my grandfather’s office to offer his opinion on political issues and blame Moopachi’s anna(older brother) Kamaraj Nadar for anything that went wrong. I was never into politics but I would find it amusing to see him discuss politics with Moopachi! The poor woman hardly understood government policies and political issues but was not the one to back off and let her ‘anna’ be blamed. She’d respond in the only way she could by claiming that the coffee he gave her tasted like gutter water!

“So you know how gutter water tastes” Mama would gloat. “The entire family feeds on our leftover food and she has the gumption to find fault with my coffee”.

For all their outward show of animosity Moopachi and Narayana Mama also had a mutual concern for each other. After helping their grandmother Moopachi’s grandchildren would eat the food left over from the previous night’s dinner before leaving for school. So mama would prepare a little extra to ensure that they had enough to eat.

My dad was ill and was to be operated at the military hospital in New Delhi. My mother who was in Jalandhar was in a fix as to where my younger brothers aged 5 and 3 could be left for her to be able to be by my father’s side. Narayana Mama relieved her, offering to look after the children. He had to change trains at Madras and Delhi to reach Jalandhar. It was winter time, he knew no Hindi and with his smattering knowledge of English and no one to receive him at Delhi he reached Jalandhar around midnight to take charge of two pre-school kids. This proved that he could not only rise to the occasion but also that he considered all of us to be his kith and kin. Unfortunately he took ill soon after and  after 10 years of selfless service, thatha had to send him back to his family in Madurai.   

Domestic help is hard to find these days and I happen to be one of the lucky ones. All those who ever worked for me have been dry honest and wouldn’t pick up and pocket a safety pin lying around. I meant to write about Moopachi in this post but the woman who worked for our family for over forty years deserves a separate post. So more in a later post.