Today the woman who has worked for 40 years in our house, the woman in front of whom i was born, the woman on whose shoulder my mother died, the woman who took care of a 2 year old and a 4 year old in that difficult time, the woman who made sure that me and my sister had meals on time everyday in school, in college, when we were working, who, never, for even once, asked for a pay raise, threw a tantrum, who treated us like family, who, in our nuclear family was the only person guaranteed to be there in the house anytime you came over, anytime your kids came from school and you had to work, or most importantly, anytime you needed food, retired. It was inevitable ever since she had a heart attack a year ago, and it became a certainty once my mother retired this summer because of the expected power struggles. Our house is weird in a way that no one can show affection to another without it being a direct affront to someone else – like when you have two kids and you say you are succhhh a good girl to one, the other instantly comes and asks am i not a good girl? Something exactly similar, only with adults. Showing gratitude or affection to a maid, a bai, would be a direct challenge to the mother – am i not worthy of affection, do i not mean anything to them? Affection to the mother would mean the same to the father and so on. Like wives are jealous of lovers, and demand attention, in our house, you have to EARN your parents everyday by duty and by behaviour. Years and years and decades and decades of fights and parleys and peacekeeping missions have jaded all of us to such an extent that now, when finally there’s a lining of lasting peace and happiness, no one wants to rock the boat by the slightest splashing of hands in the water, least the mud rises up and the cycle resumes again. So the wary, the weary, the jaded – take the easy way out, they pretend it’s a normal day and everyone who knows anything knows that pretending normalcy is the first step to re establishing normalcy. In our house everyone talks about everyone else in hushed tones when there’s anything nice to be said and shouts whenever there’s something ugly to be said. So i take her to my room, hand her an envelope full of cash, that being the only pitiable way i know to thank someone for a lifetime of unconditional carting and tell her that every month, her salary will reach her house as pension, regardless of whether she needs it or not. She doesn’t actually, her son is a branch manager in a bank and even he has retired with the benefits of the 7th pay commission, but i feel very strongly about this – the unorganized labour in this country, the maids, the drivers, the cooks – their lives once they cannot work shouldn’t be miserable, they are generally left uninsured, alone, denied of comfort and healthcare after serving families all their lives while being paid a pittance when they work. I am not going to be a part of that feudal system whatever i have to do. She has no clue how old she is, and any guesswork is futile, she has more black hair at this age than i do and used to walk 6 kilometers one way everyday to work all her life till my wife secretly got her a pickup and drop autowallah. I quietly call my kids and we take pictures with her and the thought flits my mind that i am taking the picture which will be framed and will hang in our house and her funeral when she dies. I feel a lump rising in my throat, then shrug it off – when someone has given everything they could for you, asking for more is just being parasitic. My wife is really worried whether she will be able to continue her long working hours in her absence or will have to start cooking and cleaning and babysitting because our house is unique – asking for anyone to do anything FOR you is almost like asking for a debt which has to be paid back – right from bringing the kids home from the school bus or asking for a cup of tea – and it was this person whom we could ask without it feeling like an obligation. But the obvious fact is that no one is ever irreplacable, no one is ever missed for more than a week and even a week is too much if you consider the actual meaning of the word – as someone who always sleeps into my thoughts wrote – in a way that your stomach gets tied up in irretrievable knots and you pace up and down the room and you are reduced to a being with useless appendages – beyond an intimate circle of one or maybe two.
But. While nostalgia is important, while gratitude is necessary – this house – this wonderful place where finally there’s guaranteed to be more laughter than tears, more shouts of joy than cries of anger, where now a silence doesn’t necessarily have to be eerie like my childhood, but peaceful, calm, relaxed – has been fixed brick by brick stone by stone gesture by gesture. Finally, after all these years, it’s fixed, it’s normal – everyone talks to everyone else, there’s no hidden agenda, you can spread your legs and sit on the couch without worrying about being judged. And we’ll keep it that way, whether we have to work a tiny bit harder for it, give up some of our leisures and afternoon sleep, or work a bit less. For after all, if there’s no place to go from or look forward to come back to, does anything else matter? Her contribution will not be forgotten, i think that’s all someone can hope for these days.