Life's biggest lessons from my domestic help
A Short Story.
Avanti was lost in her thoughts when the whistle of the cooker jolted her back to reality. It was 7.30 in the evening, her Mother in law and husband would be back in around half an hour, she still had to prepare rotis, chop vegetables for the salad, make curd rice and soak rice for dosas for next morning's breakfast. Work never seemed to end.
She fondly remembered those days prior to her marriage when she was the apple of her parent’s eye. She had never entered the kitchen except to drink a glass of water or to chat with her mother while she cooked. Most girls know at least how to prepare a cup of tea and some basic stuff like rice dal, but she had never tried even those.
Things changed as she got married, it was an arranged marriage but arranged by her. She had flatly refused to marry the guy chosen by her parents and had registered herself on a matrimony site, scouted profiles, spoke to guys and finally got her parents involved when she felt that things were moving in the right direction. The boy Pavan was from the same community as hers, well educated, running his business, well settled and his mother who was a widow seemed very down to earth and sweet. She missed having a daughter and was eagerly waiting to welcome the new daughter in law. The only thing that dint seem right was that Pavan was way richer than her family, due to the land he had inherited from his forefathers. They lived in a palatial house. In sharp contrast she belonged to a middle class family, her father worked as an accountant drawing a meager salary, only when she qualified as an engineer and got a job in a leading IT company, things started looking brighter. They still lived in a modest 2 bedroom rented house. She worried these differences in social status might cause issues but he assured her that wealth was the last thing on his mind, he wanted a well qualified, caring and understanding spouse who would love him and accept his mother without any grudges. And they got married.
One year down the line, life had taken a sharp turn. No she was not harassed for dowry or beaten up. But expectations were huge, she was supposed to be the super woman who rose at the crack of dawn, cooked breakfast and lunch, cleaned the utensils for they believed maids were unclean, went to office for they did not want an educated daughter in law whiling away her time at home, come back in time like all good girls do, cook dinner, wind up all the work in the kitchen. It was too much of strain for her as this was something she was not used to in her maternal home. When her hubby tried to chip in with odd jobs, he was firmly told off by his mother, “this is not a man's work” and he meekly walked off. The weekdays went by in a blur. Weekends when she looked forward to spending some time with her hubby, just the two of them, she was in for a rude shock. MIL was not happy at being left out, she sat with a forlorn look, red eyes and told her son "before she came into your life I was the one who would accompany you for shopping, dinner and movies too at times, and now that your wife has come, you have forgotten your mother, how can you forget all the sacrifices I made. I dint remarry because I dint want a Step Dad for you, I single handedly brought you up and now, that you have a wife, you have no need for your mother”. Pavan was silent; Avanti could not fathom what this was about. As a couple they desired to spend time together just the two of them but here what her MIL spoke was just emotional blackmail and the reason was so trivial. Thereafter they seldom went out together.
She was in for a second shocker when she told her husband that she wanted to go stay at her parents place for a week, they missed her terribly and she too needed some respite. He asked her to first check with his Mom. When she informed her MIL about her plans she was told that as per their customs a married woman no longer belongs to her parents, just 2 days was ok but beyond that there was no necessity to stay beck, she was ordered to cut short her visit. She protested but this time Pavan stopped her. He told her that she would have to abide by the rules of this house.
A few days later Pavan asked her for her debit card, she was dumbstruck. The money she earned had always been in her control, she gave a certain portion to her parents but giving away her card to her husband and asking him money for her needs, the same money that was earned by her, made no sense. She was informed that men took care of finances in their family and she was living in their house, one that was built by their money and she had no contribution to it, she had to pay for other expenses. They also believed giving lot of liberty to women in money matters was not desirable as they are tempted to overspend on shopping and indulge in other wasteful expenditure. Every month a fixed sum was doled out too her and if she needed anything more she would have to give an explanation. Buying a pair of sandals on an impulse was no longer possible. She felt as if her wings were cut. She was never a person who wasted money. She spent every penny thoughtfully. She loved to but small trinkets and kurtis for herself from local shops which don’t cost much but now with the paltry sum she got, this was a luxury she couldn't afford.
Her days at home were busy meeting her MIL’s demands of food to be cooked, entertaining guests and visiting people's homes decked up in silk sarees and jewellery which her MIL insisted she wear. She hated this artificial look, it was so not her. She was a simple salwar clad girl with a thin chain and no makeup. Pavan and she hardly spoke to each other; any attempt by her to speak about these issues they were facing was met by defiance. “She is my Mom I cannot just desert her, what do I tell her? My wife cannot get along with you; go find some other place to stay. I am all she has, I cannot and will not do this to her ever. You have to learn to adjust and compromise, throw away your ego and learn to accept her and love her. She doesn't expect much from you, she only needs respect and love. Is it so hard?” Avanti did not reply him, she realized it was futile. Somewhere he was stuck between mother and wife. No she did not want him to desert his mother but he needed to stand up and speak for his wife when his mother imposed unreasonable rules. He was too meek to do that and when he tried to reason out, she conveniently started the emotional blackmail of single handedly bringing her son up and he would then have no words to say.
She was reminded of her house help Nagamma, a feisty 30 something mother of 2 girls who was super efficient at her work and the two women shared a camaraderie. Every other day there were bruises on Nagamma's hands or her eyes were puffy. Her alcoholic husband used to hit her when she refused to give him money. She was ridiculed for failing to produce a heir to the family and her husband used to force himself on her every other night in the hope of getting her pregnant and hoping it would be a boy this time. She had got used to the blows and bruises; Avanti could not fathom why she put up with this inhumanly treatment and never left him. After all she was a strong and independent woman.
Why couldn’t women who were not financially dependent on men nor emotionally, unable to take a decision of leaving them? Did they fear ostracisation from society? Somewhere it is the fault of women who do not want to take a step to end this oppression; they chose to suffer in silence. Today as she thought of Nagamma and looked at herself in the mirror she could see a replica of Nagamma. How different was her life from that of her domestic help? She was not beaten physically yes but the invisible beatings she took in the form of restrictions imposed on her, basic things like wanting to spend time with her parents, choosing what she wants to wear for a wedding, ordering in instead of cooking on a weekend, going out with her hubby for a movie - she had no freedom at all . Someone else decided for her. Her husband did not force himself on her but she had lost interest in sex and he still felt the urge, some nights she gave in though her mind was elsewhere and she felt no pleasure, was this consensual love making then? No. So how different was it from Nagamma's drunken husband forcing himself on her. And for her money being taken away, her husband owned her debit card and she had no say. The mirror showed her a meek woman who was too afraid to take a step, one who feared society and had silently resigned to her fate. Was this the real Avanti, the one who kept trying to convince Nagamma to leave her husband and start life afresh? She felt a sense of shame as she looked at herself in the mirror. No she couldn't do this to herself. She opened her Gmail, and after great thought replied the mail which had been in her mailbox for the past 38 hours awaiting her reply.
A year later as she proudly posed for a photograph in her graduation robes and clutched her gold medal, her parents beamed at her from the crowd. She had completed her Management course and topped the class, The London School of Economics banner shone above her head. It was a big step, leaving everything and moving to London for this degree. She had always aspired to take up this course and study at LSE but her job and wedding din’t let it happen earlier. She had applied a year back and had had given some interviews, she did not expect it but she was offered a seat. She had mentally given it up knowing very well that her MIL would create uproar. But the soul searching that she did that day brought about a transformation in her thought process and she decided this was the only way out. She accepted the seat and informed her family that she would move to London. They tried all sort of things to hold her back from pleading to threatening but she had a firm resolve. As she looked into the mirror today she felt a sense of pride at the woman she saw, the Avanti who was lost for a while but had found her way beck.
The phone beeped - there were 2 messages - one was about a bank transfer to
Nagamma which she continued to send every month for the education of her daughters and the other was from Pavan-“proud of you my wife, hoping to see you back soon. I miss you”. She smiled at herself , she knew what she had to do, this time there was no fear, no doubts, the path was crystal clear.