She had the face that would have graced the pages of fashion magazines at various times, in the past and future. Depending, of course, on the whims of fashion czars and others who dictate the criteria of beauty at any given time.
Rather too dark, I’m afraid dear, but we could touch up a shade fairer with the right lighting and some makeup. And her body. No, that would never do. Bonily thin, yes, but those muscles, dear, and the feet and hands dear. No, no, they would never ever do. Too bony by far, veins protruding, hands disproportionately large on such tiny wrists, and feet too flat to grace any catwalk.
I am just playing with words though, for Kaveri never had the slightest inclination to grace the glossy pages of magazines. Probably no concept of such a frivolous concept, even here in Tamil Nadu where movies are a religion. She is a heroine, and not alone in her country, by a long shot.
When I met her, her life was dedicated to providing the best life she was able to her for her tiny son. That was the focus of her existence, since her husband died when Senthil was just only months old. To describe that time as ‘difficult’, or ‘ a struggle’, would be a gross understatement. By any measure, it was horrendous.
Unfortunately, such circumstances are not rare in this culture, where a single mother is discriminated as the norm, and often grossly abused as well. I could cite a string of examples, but will confine myself to Kaveri, since I know her story best. Anyway, at this time the treatment of Indian women is a headline theme; I have no need to repeat the disgusting reasons.
She worked for me six days a week, for a touch over US$25 per month, a wage that considered to be above average. I gleaned bits and pieces of her life from her in conversations we had, but those communications were severely limited by my rudimentary understanding of the Tamil language. She spoke no English, having had no formal education. She was absolutely determined that Senthil would study to his maximum capacity, and according to her ability to pay for his education.
In that I could help, and she accepted my wish to take care of that expense. Charity was not what she sought. On the contrary, to the extent that when I offered to raise her wage by $3 a month, she refused, telling me that her current rate was very good.
Most of her story I learnt from other people in this South Indian town, where everybody seems to know everybody else, and their life history, past, present, and often future. I am constantly amazed by the extraordinary scope of the local grapevine, which seems to miss not a fact nor innuendo, though both are apt to be amplified and exaggerated. From the consistencies or lack of them, one can probably gauge reasonable accuracy.
Her husband was a charmer – intelligent, gifted with words and women, loveable – and a rogue. In the brief time I knew him, I like the man, in spite of himself. His charm and eloquence were not sufficient qualifications to sustain his needs or desires, and he turned to petty crime. Theft and small-time bullying became his trademarks. He was apparently not clever enough at those risky pursuits, and was caught several times, beaten up, and thrown in jail.
His life took a slide, and it was eventually too much for him. He took a concoction of powdered seeds to end it all. He did not eat sufficient for a quick solution, and his demise was slow and unpleasant. But eventually effective.
Kaveri, aged twenty at that time, was left widowed, with her tiny child and her grief to carry. Her husbands family accused her of driving him to suicide, and one brother tried to kill her by drowning. She was a tough village woman though, and was strong and determined enough to escape his brutality.
Though she survived that horror, she was unable to withstand the brothers’ next response, which was to destroy her small house, completely, brick by brick until it was nothing but rubble. She was out in the street, with neither home nor income. She gathered cow dung in the streets to sell as fuel, took labouring work where possible with her tiny infant, and presented herself at a local ashram with other beggars for a mid-day meal. That was the limit of charity which she accepted, and then only very briefly, when she was at her most desparately poor.
Her toughness was not confined to the physical, and her love for her son was not expressed in molly-coddling, kid-gloved affection. It was tough, hard. Brutal almost, by current standards of gentle, non-violent guidance. Kaveri had learnt by absolutely first-hand experience that to survive in this world, you must be strong, uncompromising, unyielding. She taught young Senthil with the full force of her leathery hands wielded like truncheons, by her wiry fingers pinching and prodding his young flesh. He would survive, thrive, succeed. He would be what his father was not: educated, polite, clean and clear.
When I met her, Senthil was well on his way to meeting her stringent criteria. He was consistently first in his class, polite and as clear as the purest water. He was progressing fast towards being fluent in three languages, unlike his mother who was unschooled, illiterate. Much more than that though, he was full of joy and grace, and a temperament that was strong but modest, honest and fearless; all attributes one might well attribute to his mother’s devoted guidance.
She worked like a trojan. Apart from holding down a full-time job in the nursery of the project I was co-ordinating, she earned extra cleaning houses. Along the way, Kaveri learnt other skills that opened up markets not yet locally tapped, such as making tofu and selling it to the growing number of foreigners taking up residence locally. Kaveri had acquired other mercantile skills too, and had borrowed money to buy land cheaply and constructed a modest house. Not for herself and son, for they knew how to live very simply in a one room rented accommodation. These same foreigners who purchased her tofu also needed places to live, and were prepared to pay well for a house in the right location, near the ashram. She had born this in mind when buying her land, and the house was always occupied, earning her good rent.
Her tongue was as tough as her determination too, and as sharp as a razor blade. She also had a fierce sense of justice. It was discovered that the foreman of the nursery was pocketting the tea-money intended for the benefit of the workers. I heard afterwards that, on learning of his pilferage, she declared loudly to all her fellow workers and in the presence of the foreman, “If this is how he treats his workers, I can imagine how his poor family must suffer!” For the humiliation he had suffered, and for her insubordination, she was dismissed from the nursery immediately, while he remained, presumably to continue his light-fingered antics.
A small sub-nursery was opened in another site, needing a hard-working person not needing supervision. A perfect situation for Kaveri, and she filled the role exceptionally well for several years, until prolonged drought forced the closure of the little nursery. Meanwhile, her reputation of unwillingness to compromise, and the force of her tongue, had travelled far, and no foreman on any other site of the project was willing to have her on his workforce. Kaveri was out of a job.
I learnt of her plight, and did my best to tell her that I would ask around the foreign population to see if anyone needed a worker. Kaveri had thought I was offering to give her some money and emphatically refused to consider such charity. Senthil had understood my intention and immediately translated for his mother. She condescended to accepting my effort, but unfortunately I had no success.
My house was being built at the time, and although I enjoyed just planting and tending the garden I was creating alone, when I learnt after a couple of weeks that Kaveri was still struggling without finding any new work, I decided to offer her some work myself. After all, my garden could grow twice as fast, and in the baking heat of the approaching south Indian summer, every leaf of shade represented a defence against that sufferance.
She worked as hard for me as she had for the project, was utterly scrupulous, and employed her fierce character utterly for my benefit. Not a papaya nor probably a bean could go missing from my garden without Kaveri knowing it. She insisted on accounting for every gram of anything associated with my land. I have no doubt that all soon knew of Kaveri’s reputation, and if there was anybody with thoughts of trying to thieve or plunder, they would surely have reckoned on their chances of success by measuring her tenacity and loyalty. Nobody tried as far as I know.
There is a tradition that employment carries a great responsibility, that cuts both ways. Along the lines of ‘you scratch your back and I must scratch yours’ or something similar. Meaning that the loyal service of an employee should be honoured by the respect and good treatment by the employer. It is a bond for life essentially, or was. In our case she had no need of lifelong employment, being more than capable of taking care of her needs in other resourceful ways. And for my part, since I left my regular residence in Tamil Nadu after 8 years, nor was mine a need for life, although the two subsequent residents of my house lasted another 10 years in the same spirit on all sides. But by that time, Kaveri’s situation had changed greatly anyway.
Still, in spite of her comparitive wealth, when I return to Tiruvannamalai – all too rarely these days – invariably I am only home for an hour or two, when Kaveri appears. My house is well outside the town in the countryside, so she must walk for half an hour to reach me, and the temperature is often extraordinarily hot. Nothing would stop her. She comes to greet me, and to take care of any needs I may have. Generally I have none, but nevertheless, she asserts herself as the perpetual ‘other woman of the house’ and insists on preparing a small feast for my wife and I, and daughters if they are with us. She is not my worker, much less a servant; we are friends for life doing what we can to honour that friendship. Seeing each other again is enough.
Apart from the success of her tofu business and the lucrative income from renting her house (enough that she purchased another, I am told), there was Senthil; his mother’s pride and joy. Dear Senthil, having completed his school education with flying colours, used his multilingual education to search for work way beyond his country town of Tiruvannamalai, He applied for a cadetship with the largest freight shipping company in the world. And succeeded, of course. Not immediately though, and he missed out on the first exam he sat. The competition must have been strong indeed. But, with the tenacity he inherited from his mother, he did not accept his failure and followed it up by contacting the company to request a second consideration. He received it; they must be wise employers. Now he is a third class officer, and no doubt will continue in his dilligent way, and naturally will be rewarded appropriately. Already he earns more than his mother would have dreamed of earning; he telephones her regularly from Yokohama and Hamburg and New York and such places as she could not imagine. He spends his time with her whenever his ship docks in Chennai or Mumbai. I have not the slightest doubt that, in time, it will be Captain Senthil who will be calling her from wherever in the world his command takes him.
As for Kaveri, well, she is no longer a young woman nor, quite frankly, has any need to slave her fingers to the bone for anybody at all. But she still loves to work with plants, though nothing too strenuous. So the last time I visited her in Tiruvannamalai, she asked if I could bring her a lot of herb seeds, because she has noticed how much those foreigners love herbs and the sauces one can make with them. And she does love to cook still. My mouth is watering. I can almost smell the pesto already.