Lisa Radhika Kaul
Seema is perched at the end of the couch. Her hands push down ready to springboard her into flight. But her feet that peep out beneath her billowing shalwar are firmly planted in ballet flats. Her clutch lies like an opiated child in the yellow of the lap of her kameez that the tailor masterjee knew better than to make a millimeter too loose.
It is twilight and I can hear the anxiety of the stop-and-go traffic in the distance and the reluctance of kids who are being summoned home from the park. I ignore the doorbell. Why do these people stop by? Don’t they have anything better to do? I hear my mother answer the door, and make polite noises. But, I’m determined to break with protocol. My mother calls me. I leave my room, treakling like molasses that’s been sitting out on a cold kitchen counter. I’ve never met Seema but she rushes to embrace me. And then when I walk over to sit down, her bright eyes follow me with restless precision.
So how are you everything o.k. Everything o.k. Bus I am fine You tell me how are you I told your bhaiyya that I had to come and see you bus I told him you take me now only I have to meet didi You must come to our house So how are you Arre you are looking so much like a foreigner.
The words swarm out of her mouth. I am reminded of the time when I was walking my dog and some boys threw a stone at a hornet’s nest. It came crashing down on my hapless dog and it took me a second to comprehend the storm that was brewing at my feet because I had been looking at the boys. But then I had dived in and scooped up my dog and fled for our lives chased by a legion of manic hornets. That was perhaps the bravest thing I had done in my life.
So what’s the weather like these days, and how about the schools. What class is your son in? Which is better – India or Amrica? Are the studies good there? What? You have free schools there? Government schools are good? You tell me how can I go to America?
She is beginning to lose momentum.
Seema’s husband is my parent’s driver. In the hierarchy of semi-skilled jobs in New Delhi, “drivery,” is considered to be pretty respectable. The dhobi’s 16-year-old son doesn’t want to follow his father to Dubai. His dream is to drive, and he’s already bartered his way into the driver’s seat of every car parked in the lot of my parent’s apartment complex. “Just looking at all the gears, I’ve learnt how to drive. There’s nothing to it,” he tells me. “I’ve even driven a BMW. Bus, now I need to drive a Lamborgini.” Alas, my parent’s neighborhood doesn’t have any. There is a pecking order to the drivers in the parking lot that correlates roughly with the pedigree of car they drive. But Seema’s husband’s status transcends these rules. All the other drivers are also responsible for cleaning the car. They arrive half an hour earlier than the scheduled departure time of the sahib or memsahib, or whatever kinship term (papaji, mummyji, aunty, uncle, didi, bhaiya) they are allowed to invoke in modern, egalitarian India. Every one of them hauls a bucket and rag and washes their car. Not Seema’s husband. He has informed me that he employs a safaiwallah – a cleaner- to do the job for him. These are, at least in my parent’s neighborhood, a crew of paan-chewing, Bengali-speaking refugees who wear cast off boxers and wrung out t-shirts and clean cars at the break of dawn. By 6.30 a.m. their only trace is a patch of quickly evaporating damp around the tires.
It’s very hard. I have to wake up at 4.30 in the morning. Do the cooking, get the children ready for school. Get myself ready for school. I’ve got a washing machine, but then I have to hang out the clothes. Haan, the lady comes to do the bartans and the jhadoo-poncha. She drives her own Scooty. These days they have become so smart. You have to watch them, otherwise they just clean from above-above. So smart. What to do? And how is your job?
I commiserate with her, and tell her that I do my own housekeeping. As she listens, she clamps down her teeth and makes an abbreviated slurping sound out of the side of her mouth. I can’t help but feel a little inadequate when I say that I don’t have a job. I can tell from the change in the slurping sounds that she finds my words unpalatable. “But In America everyone has a job. They even let all the ladies work there. How can that be? Haven’t you done a B.A.?” After a second’s silence, she tells me that if I try hard enough, and work hard enough, I, too, could find a job.
Seema is a jatni from Haryana. In her village the men attribute supernatural powers to things like jeans and cell phones. If a girl wears a pair, she becomes a prostitute. If she uses a cell phone, she gets pregnant. And if she falls in love, they kill her. Perhaps Seema’s family had given her a name that means “border” or “limit” lest she forget the rules. They had let her go to school, but the moment she showed signs of blossoming, they married her off. She acquiesced to the match because her future husband had lots of land, and was the only son. When she got to her marital home she discovered a snake-pit of sisters-in-law, and a husband who had been spoilt rotten by them.
One day her husband lost his temper and delivered a fatal blow to someone. His family bought his freedom, but he was forced to flee to the city. He hadn’t done a day’s work in his life, and longed to dissolve into the turpentine of the city. Seema vowed to avenge this ignominy and insisted that she be allowed to study further. Stunned into submission by his circumstances and taken aback by the force of her ambition, he agreed. She decided that she would get a Ph.d, and would not rest until she got a job as a lecturer in a government college. She wanted to show those nagins of her sisters-in-law that a girl could do whatever she wanted to. It took her fifteen years, but she wheedled, worked, and bought her way into getting a Ph.d in Hindi. That’s when she discovered that just having a degree wasn’t enough. It might give her the confidence to ignore social mores and accept my parents’ invitation to sit in their living room, but to get a job, she needed “connections.” So in the interim she’s paid a large donation to a school run by a religious organization and secured a job teaching English in elementary school. But it pays a pittance, and doesn’t have the prestige of a government college lecturer. She still needs to show them.
Accha, how is gold these days?
I stare at her in incomprehension. What?
My friend’s brother’s cousin’s nephew he came from abroad, maybe Amrica – and his wife – she was wearing so much gold. And they built a big house. Full two lac rupees. And she was saying that the gold there is very cheap. You must have bought a lot by now? Your bhaiyya he mortgaged my jewelry. I told him he had to get it back because I had to go to a wedding. How can you go just with a little bit on?
As she says that she feels the weight of the gold on her wrists, and calculates the worth of the measly metal that encircles my wrists and ears. She lets out a deflated noise that sounds oddly triumphant.
I asked your mother to get me a lecturer job, but she didn’t. Now you tell me how to go to Amrica. Vaise we have everything in our village. We have so much land, but the schools aren’t good. Now for the children we have to stay in the city. I would never go to Amrica. But for the children, I’ll go. My husband he is prepared to do any kind of majdoori. Bus you tell me how to go.
I’m beginning to feel like a person who replaced all the caramel in the bon-bons with hot sauce, and then sees a child eagerly reach for one.
How is jeejaji? What does he do? And your bhabi, how is she, and saas-sasur? Very lucky you don’t live near your sister-in-law. What you don’t have any in-laws? In Amrica people don’t live with their parents? Your husband is a foreigner? But he is from India? No! Accha, I didn’t know that. How did that happen? How can such things happen? What do you eat in your house? They let you cook our food? They eat it? Has your son learnt hindi? Does your husband speak hindi? No? Then how do you manage? What? All the time only English-English talking?
She giggles as she says the last sentence. It is the first time she speaks an entire sentence in English. Her eyes are initially foggy with incomprehension and dismay, but as she savors my words, they begin to sparkle. She shakes her head, and her glossy hennaed hair threatens to come undone. She leaves and I feel like I’ve just lit a fire in space.
The next time her husband drives me he says,
I don’t know what’s wrong with that Seema. Her mind has gone all bad. She’s never satisfied. Tell me, aren’t I fine just the way I am? Now she’s telling me to learn English. How will I do such a thing? Tell me, didi, is there anything wrong with my clothes? Now, she’s insisting that I wear jeans.
Arre: an expression that denotes surprise, consternation, and several other emotions.
bartans: lit. dishes; refers here to washing dishes.
bhabi – sister in law
bhaiyya: brother. Although she is referring to her husband, she frames him as “my brother”
dhobi: washerman; in urban India, most people have washing machines, so the dhobis do the ironing.
didi: older sister
jatni: female belonging to the “Jat” community. Her sub-group is known for their brawn and chauvinism.
jeejaji – brother in law
jhado-poncha – sweeping and mopping
majdooori – refers to manual labor
Masterjee: “jee” is a honorific suffix; tailors are often referred to as “masterjee”
nagin: female cobra
saas-sasur: mother in law – father in law.
Shalwar: loose draw-string pants, worn with a tunic
All text and photographs © Lisa Radhika Kaul and humble puddle.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lisa Radhika Kaul and humble puddle.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.