“One is not born a woman; one is made into one.”
I kept aside the book, The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir, with a heavy heart and deep sense of discomfort. Indeed, what Simone had written was true. We all are products of our environment, but for women it is perhaps far more truthful. Our everyday cultural practices make it so.
The bell rang, I got up thinking it must be my daily help, Zubeida. It was a daily ritual… something we had both started looking forward to. She would come in punctually at 10, start doing the dishes and then mop the floor. Quietly and serenely, Zubeida would declutter my house, and my mind too. Her peaceful presence had a mesmerizing quality about it – it would settle my disquiet, fear and anxieties. I wondered how this “unempowered woman”, illiterate, marginalized and impoverished had the empowerment to spread cheer.
We would sometimes talk, and at another level, communicate through our silence. She would softly smile at my son whose nonsensical antics would make her nostalgic about her child, Jahanara, she had left back in the village. She worked in several homes – the experiences did not embitter her. The callouses of her hand were only superficial, her psyche was untouched.
Neighbors would complain how Zubeida had taken leave for three-and-a-half days, whereas, she was only entitled to three days in a month; what audacity, sense of entitlement these days maids possess; blah blah blah … I would look at them in surprise. These were educated, entitled and refined people talking of not a robot programmed to work but a human being, a mother, a wife, with an ailing body and financial stress … for them she was just a MAID, to be exploited and taken for granted. I would think of this but out of my desire to be in accord with everyone would not speak out my mind. How diabolical we are at times, comfortable in our own self consuming ego’s.
I had just started writing a paper on gender issues and sensitization for a conference that I had to attend the next month, and I was reading a lot of books on feminism. My work with the several NGO’s too made me conscious of the need to empower women, not an easy task given the attitudes of people. In fact, millions of ways in which women are decapacitated, silenced and marginalized often made me feel uncomfortable. It also made me think of how I was an “object”, where often my most loved ones would be insensitive. But then, I had words and a voice, as I came from the intellectual class who could, if not win, at least fight her own battles. However, for the likes of Zubeida, there was exploitation at home and work place with no release, recourse and unfortunately, not even empathy.
I was sipping tea and tending to my plants while Zubeida was doing the dishes. The clank of the dishes used to speak aloud her state of mind. There were days when something, which had hurt her, would find a language in the way she did the chores… a little-absent minded, hyper and with noise. That noise I knew was her linguistically inarticulate way of expressing her angst against the world. She said of my husband, that all men were not like him – someone who would respect female “selves”. Her own, treated her with irreverence. Today, it seemed she was more than disturbed in the ordinary way of things it seemed. Well, what could one do? Class barriers and social norms would refrain me from asking her to share her pain as I would have done with a friend of mine. Strange are the ways of the world.
In ten minutes, my son, Kiki, would come back from school and we would go to the market to buy things for his birthday party the next day. He was so excited, a joy that only children can experience. I smiled imagining his face lighting up with excitement. As predicted, he came in running, scared Zubeida aunty with a piercing BOOOO! and then grinned. I got engrossed in him as he related incoherently all the things that had happened at school. By that time Zubeida too was leaving. I asked her to come in early the next day. The rest of the day passed in a whirl as Kiki’s papa and I made preparations for the party.
The next day, after the super-duper excited child and a father had left, I sipped my tea and waited for Zubeida. My paper was far from ready but then “I” was lost in the chaos of “managing” lives of my family members. I wondered when would they ask me – is your paper done?
Engrossed, I didn’t notice as Zubeida came in. She had such beautiful, yet painful eyes. Today, she had a smile and was carrying a small packet. She handed it over to me shyly. Perplexed, I took it. It was wrapped in brown paper and felt soft. “Gauri didi, kholke dekho na,” she said. I opened it and to my surprise there was a red sweater for a child – my son, and a tiffin which had sweet sawaiiyan. I was stunned for a moment. Zubeida uneasily said, “Kiki ke liye layi hun, uskabirthdayhaina.”
I looked at her. I was at a loss for words. Before I could say something, she dropped the bomb. She said, in a broken voice, that she was leaving the same day for her village for good – forever. Her ten-year-old daughter had been ill for a long time and needed her… had needed her for a long time in a lonely and vulnerable childhood. What toll it must have been to leave her child and work, here instead in the city, for pampered children. I had been impervious to all. A woman to woman, mother to mother, I had been immune to her pain. Whereas, she had thoughtfully brought my child a gift. This hurt my self-esteem and also brought in a coconsciousness that while I did work for creating awareness about women’s rights through my work with NGO’s I also was guilty of not reaching out to a woman in distress – Zubeida.
I bid her adieu, thinking of giving her whatever I could in such circumstances. As she went, I felt that she had been like a Sudama to me, and I, with my privileges, been oblivious to her needs. I knew then what I had to do – give her a return gift. I decided to sponsor the treatment and education of her child. This would not be easy for me too, but then I could cut some of my expenses and the expensive things we thoughtlessly brought out for Kiki could fund someone’s future. The thought was a comforting one and ennobling one.
Zubeida never came back. Nobody took her place in my life but I had learnt an essential lesson in humaneness. My return gift to Zubeida started bearing results, Jahanara recovered, completed her matriculation and learnt how to stitch clothes. She would call me sometimes; share how she has become financially independent and takes care of Zubeida. This was like a salve to my soul, I had been instrumental in empowering a woman, a family.
Gauri’s work towards betterment of life of her maid and her daughter are commendable. Her decision to support, even if, marginally the education of her maid’s daughter set in motion a change in the schema of things in the life of so many individuals.
We as team of Naishtika Audio Visuals are proud of Gauri and the message she has sent out to the world – how as an ordinary individual we too can work towards molding the lives of lesser empowered women. It is an inspiration and teaches us that we don’t need to be philanthropists with a lot of funds to change the society, a little push in the right direction sets in motion a cycle of change and makes our world a better place to live in.
Naishtika AVs salutes to the strong women like Gauri, Zubeida and Jahanara – Happy International Women’s Day.
About the writer
Kamayani Kumar is currently Assistant Professor, Department of English, Aryabhatta College, University of Delhi. Her PhD was on the representation of child in Partition Literature, from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Her thesis focuses on transgenerational transmission of Partition trauma and how cartographic anxiety of the truncated subcontinent was etched on the body of millions of victims.
Her co-edited volume Childhood and Traumas: Narratives and Representations has been recently published by Routledge.
She has published chapters in several books, journals and presented papers in National and International Conferences. She also writes short stories and is working on a novel on Partition of India.
Her area of interest includes Partition Studies, Childhood Studies, Film Studies, Trauma Studies, Visual narratives of Partition.