It’s common in India to have servants and yes, we still refer to them as such.
Socially correct labels – those are reserved for company when the room’s abuzz with guests.
Staff, help, housekeeper we choose our words with care, lest anyone overhears how we dare speak to those who sweep our fallen hair.
They’re human too, our servants, but we act as if nothing’s beneath them, as if their feet never tire nor their hands ever hurt.
We give them money when a relative dies, and pay at times for medicines or schools, a conscience clear now we’re ready to step out and play the fool.
We spend in a night what they earn in year, on our child’s delight we splurge and smile, knowing the toys will be discarded at the morning light.
When I was young, we had a maid. She fed and clothed, bathed and told me stories so I could sleep. She spoke no English, but I understood her lonely broken language.
Her own family, she’d long left behind in the nasty village where she’d bled, tears of sorrow saved for a widow who could barely earn her bread.
To the big city she came, lost and forlorn, and to my parents she begged, to give a roof above her head.
Swiftly they employed her, kind people that they were, now they could leave their baby, and travel wide and far.
And so time passed, and attachment grew, I felt we all loved our servant too. Slowly she grayed, back bent low and painful. Not much use to the house anymore, I wondered what they’d do.
A plan was hatched and off she went, a purse with some money, a bus ticket and a month’s rent. I asked and asked where she’d gone but answers weren’t forthcoming.
A teenage girl I’d turned to be, memories faded with much that was new, interesting and wild, where was the space to think of the past and what was left behind.
One day I sat staring out of the window, and spotted a half naked woman, her sari wrapped just beneath her waist, and her face a bewildered jungle.
Somehow she’d found her way, back to where she belonged, though cast away, and plagued by madness, her eyes looked up at me.
I screamed and yelled – mum, dad there’s our maid she’s gone crazy, hungry, unfed, please bring her up and let’s tuck her into bed.
But my cries landed on deaf ears, no one seemed to hear. Quickly they dragged me from the kitchen and explained to me their fears.
Nothing registered and nothing seemed right, and all I did was fight and fight. But my tears they were in vain, for I did not have the courage to go against their grain.
It’s decades later that I’ve remembered, her short little frame, fat and round she used to be, and I’d call out her name – Shevanti, Shevanti. Sweet fragrant flower it means, but oh the stench that reeks just now of how we treated her then!
Left to die with dogs and fleas, I know not when she met her end. All I pray is that I never become the meanest coward as my family beheld.
Her name was Shevanti and yes, she was my servant. She slaved and loved and cooked and cared in a world forgone, I hope I meet her someday in my hell.
Forgiveness I ask, and even that’s too much to expect, but the kindness that she was, maybe she’ll shower me with heaven’s spell.
Though my childhood was difficult and complex, these challenges forced me to look for happiness in things beyond the conventional givens of material possessions, career and marriage. Decades of philosophical reading, exploring meditation techniques and alternative therapies, culminated in meeting my Guru, Ramesh Balsekar. It was during the six years I spent attending his daily discourses that my innate love for language developed into editing books and doing some writing of my own. Learning from hard-earned personal experience I was finally able to overcome my unresolved issues. Today, this journey has allowed for me to be an emotionally present mother, a caring partner and a dependable friend. Indeed, suffering can be a gateway into becoming a more complete human being.
This series of blogs has been reviewed by Drishya Warrier, Aditi Iyer, and Pratishtha Bagai, of Symbiosis Centre of media and Mass Communication, Pune. We are students that have completed our first year. Through this NGO Internship Project at MHAT, we explored the field of mental health while pursuing our interest in creative writing.