If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 5 February 2015

A fairy tale of our time

Mita, who came to meet us this afternoon after a long time, has changed a lot. If I had met her on the street, I wouldn’t have recognized her; I would have taken her as just another smart young girl in her early twenties in a red salwar suit. But actually, Mita is very special, because her story is very special. But before I tell you her story, I must tell you a little about her family.

Mita was born into a caste that used to carry other people’s shit on their head. The “tradition” continued well into the twentieth century India parallel to steel plants, airplanes, and televisions. The practice has been abolished, but it hasn’t improved the lot of Mita’s people much. They continue to be “untouchables”. More often than not, “they” wouldn’t be invited to sit alongside “us” in a community dinner. In the country, they still live in filthy unhygienic ghettos on the outskirts of villages. The so-called upper-caste has no physical contact with them except when the village gentry rape their women.

In cities, they live in equally filthy unhygienic slums. Mita’s family lived in one such not far away from our home when her mother Lilavati joined our condo as a sweeper. They still live there and her mother still cleans bathrooms and drains, besides sweeping. Twenty years ago, Lilavati was a stunningly beautiful young woman. Now, after six children, recurring ailments, relentless overwork and poverty, she is an old woman in her mid-forties. But for the sake of completeness, I must add here that in all these years of trials and vicissitudes, Lilavati has held her head high. She has borrowed regularly and always repaid her debts in time. But she has never ever begged. 

Her husband was a drunkard. He worked occasionally and beat her regularly. Fortunately, his liver couldn’t manage the amount of alcohol he had been consuming and he had to leave a crying Lilavati and a huge debt behind when he was in the prime of his abused youth.

Of Lilavati’s two sons, one makes an honest living as – what else – a sweeper and the other is a professional thief. Neither supports their mother. Mita is the oldest daughter, and the other three, much smaller, are triplets.

Lilavati put her children in school and struggled to pay tuition fees and buy books. She wanted her girls to live a decent life. However, Mita left school and started working as a domestic help with a family in our building. And soon, she became an expert cook. So, early in her life, Mita made a smart career move and broke the shackles that had tied her forefathers for two thousand years!

When her father died, they needed a lot of cash to repay the debt they had run up for his treatment. Needless to say, most of the money had been borrowed at usurious rates and the debtors were on their back. So Mita made the second smart move in her life – around five years ago, she managed to find a domestic’s job in Mumbai, a city that pays working people a lot better.

Now she is a happily married young woman brimming with pride for her prince charming. A housewife now, she even pays for her younger sisters’ education. Presently her husband is away at Bangalore on work for a week. And Mita has flown down to Kolkata to be with her family. I do not know if she ever dreamed of boarding a flight when she was a child, but it is a reality today and no wonder: her husband is a graduate engineer. He is planning to do masters and taking the GATE exam this year.

How did it happen? We didn’t ask her, but Mita was happy to tell her tale.

‘On the train to Mumbai, I was crying continuously. He was in the same coach. When no one was looking at us, he asked me surreptitiously, ‘Why are you crying? Are you being kidnapped? Have you been sold off?’

‘I told my story and told him I was scared to leave my family and home for the first time, that too for a distant city. ‘The family I am going to work for has promised to pick me up from the station. What if they don’t? I don’t know anyone there.’

‘He gave me his phone number and asked me to call him if I was in trouble. I didn’t trust him initially, but I did phone him after a few days. As luck would have it, he lived not far away from where I did. He even dropped in to meet me at my workplace. I was still not too sure about him, but the lady with whom I worked felt he was a good man.

‘From that family I moved to a women’s hostel where I cooked for forty inmates. It was tough. My day began with making tea and ended after everyone had had their supper. But the pay was good (12,000 rupees) and I could send money to ma regularly. Over time, we paid off all our debt.

‘And then we got married. Ma insisted on “legal marriage”. So we went to Alipur Court and got the papers.’

As Mita told us the story, time and again she told my wife, ‘Kakima, I haven’t met anyone else like him. He is wonderful!’

And every time she said this, her face lit up with happiness. My wife asked her if her husband’s family accepted her without any hassle. She said initially her mom-in-law in Begusarai wasn’t too happy, but after some time, things settled down.

As Mita left, I silently bowed to the ordinary small-town Indian who is her husband. If you didn’t know the Indian society intimately, you wouldn’t possibly know how deep-rooted the prejudice against people from Mita’s station in life is. Consequently, it would be difficult appreciate the significance of what this young man has done.

But let’s put sociology aside for the moment. Please join me in wishing Mita and her husband all the happiness in the world. May they live happily ever after.

[This is a true story. Except for changing names and some insignificant details, I haven't cooked the facts. I haven't even garnished the story.]

Kolkata / 4 Feb 2015

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