Moving effortlessly on her haunches she would sweep the floor with a jharoo, a broom made of long-stemmed grass loosely gathered together and bound at the bottom where it would be grasped. Keeping a sharp eye out for the dust she was corralling, she would wait until it was just the two of us in the bedroom, out of sight and earshot of the others, as I rushed to dress and head to work.
“I saw you again in my dreams last night” she would always begin and I would unfailingly respond, “How much do you want today?”! By now that certain smile would start playing around her mouth. “Well, I want to take my daughter to see this new movie. You know, Lata rarely gets to do things like other girls her age. I cannot ask my brother for these luxuries as he has done a lot already by sheltering me and my daughter since my husband left. I cannot ask for more than that.”
Most of the time it was I who initiated the weekly slipping of money to her, keeping in mind how much cash I needed myself until the next payday. However, when Kondi needed the extra cash for a special purpose it was she who roped me, a willing participant, into a little game she played.
“How much do you need?” I ask again and then decide to hand her twenty- rupee bill for two movie tickets and some change left over. She takes the money, promptly rolls the note and gets ready to tuck it into the cleavage of her sari choli but looks at me hesitatingly before she completes the action. “Only twenty?!” Lata has to have popcorn and a Coke during the intermission like all the others children!” I put out another ten rupees. By now I don’t want to let Lata feel left out! I might as well make the movie experience complete for her. “God will grant you many blessings” she murmurs taking the extra money. Sometimes it was for other things that she needed the money and both my anger and guilt for being part of a society that did not pay her fairly, made me a soft-target for her pleas.
Kondi was slender, of medium height, dark complexioned with intense black eyes set above hollow cheekbones, and her oiled, black hair was combed back and wound into a bun at the nape of her neck. There was no vermillion dot or tilak in the center of her broad forehead. The most popular tilaks are the smaller, red dot (teeka) and the sindoora, red powder smeared along the parting of the hair on the head of a married, Hindu woman thus making a continuous red line from the forehead going back. Kondi’s husband was absent in her life since she had been pregnant with Lata and so her status was not considered worthy of the red teeka.
On most mornings, she arrived at our Mumbai flat at 7 am to begin the day’s work. If she was even fifteen minutes late, my mother would launch into a predictable monologue of how we could not rely on help these days, and how ungrateful they were, etc. etc. She also had a theory that if you needed Kondi to come early on a special day, like a birthday or New Year it was best not to alert her as this would definitely ensure either her late arrival or total absence, thus throwing a wrench into our daily lives.
On regular days, Kondi, like most of the daily maids, swept and mopped the tiled floors, cleaned the bathroom, washed our clothes, ground spices for our meals and washed dishes every day for years. Greasy dishes were first cleaned with sawdust which soaked up the grease. This was followed by a good scrubbing with ashes and rinsed. No washing machines for her…clothes were washed in buckets with soap and then rinsed and hung on clotheslines. She was paid “a fair sum of money”, or so they said, for all this drudgery. It was seventeen rupees per month to be exact. I found this extremely unfair, despite all and sundry justifying it as being the norm. I would vow that when I earned my first pay I would make it up to her. So I did. I would slip her an extra few rupees every week when I started working.
Unlike the other maids we had in the past, she never wore a single piece of jewelry. The absence of it always made me wonder. Even the poorest of the poor among her class wore a silver anklet, armlet or an earring, jewelry given to them by their parents as part of their marriage dowry but she wore nothing. Once she asked me for a large sum of money – seven hundred rupees. It was a large sum, considering that I was only earning five hundred rupees as my starting, monthly salary. I could not even imagine how I would produce this kind of money for her except that I was expecting my yearly bonus. She revealed that she had pawned her wedding jewelry and now wanted to claim it back.
Later, seven hundred rupees richer, courtesy my first bonus salary, she appeared the following day for work, bedecked like a young, happy bride replete with ornaments at her neck, wrists and ankles. While sweeping the bedroom, minutes later, she rose up with a jangle of silver bracelets and then touched my feet with gratitude.
I avoided looking at my mother’s puzzled face. “Why do you think she came all decked out today? How could she have afforded to pay the pawnbroker?” For the next two days Kondi flaunted her stuff and then just as quickly, she was bare again. All of it gone. Not even one piece adorned her. “I had to put it all away” she said. “It is dangerous to wear jewelry these days because one never knows if someone will rip it off of you.” I try hard not to believe my father who says he has seen her betting money, lately, at the local center for matka, the poor man’s lottery and thought of all the twenty rupee bills I had slipped her. His theory was that if she did not show up for work for a few days because of a fever, that she really had “ matka fever” and had made a little money at the lottery.
Once she had not come to work for about ten days and my mother, concerned that Kondi might be sick, sent me to her home to find out. The chawl where she lived was a collection of old, grey, peeling tenements with little windows displaying brightly colored clothing hung out to dry. Ragged, partly-naked brown children played happily in the squalor. Old people, toothless and contented, sat outside in the sunshine, looking at me with curiousity. “Where does Kondi live?” I ask. “Oh, Kondi, she lives on the third floor.” I start to climb the stairs and find that three little children are tailing me. “We will show you the way” they say happily, welcoming this diversion in their daily lives.
I found her sitting in a hallway, outside her dark, small room. She looked thinner. She has had a high fever and will come to work in a day or two. This was clearly not “matka fever” as my father usually thought.
When I left India, she came to my parents’ house with coconuts, Indian sweets, flower garlands and touched my feet to bless me for my journey to the U.S.A. Embarrassed, because she was my elder, I quickly bent down and raised her up. “Take me with you to America” she would often say to me. “I predict you will have two boys and a girl and I will look after them and do your housework, when you are married.”
I always saw her on the few trips I made back to Mumbai and on one trip, Lata, now thirteen would help with my children, sometimes taking my younger son for a walk in his stroller.
A couple of years later I received a letter from my mother that Lata had died at the age of fifteen from typhoid fever. Kondi had asked if I could please send her a copy of the photograph I had taken of Lata with my baby son? My good intentions of enlarging the photograph and framing it before mailing never got off the ground. I was guilty of “being busy” and every now and then when the photograph would surface in my mind, I would say “Tomorrow, definitely tomorrow.”
Kondi died, shortly thereafter. She never got the photograph and I have never forgiven myself.