[Pic Credit: Bhavana]
By Bhavana Nissima
Her son had looked at me quietly and said: “Madam, you got through life because you had education. My mother has gone through similar pain but she can’t get out. Because she has no education.”
I was returning that day after organizing the Whole Woman Speaker Series. All the women who spoke came from middle class background, had access to certain minimal structures of privileges including high level of education from within which they articulated their selves.
And this included me. Maniamma had been missed in the narrative.
Mani was born to a poor family. She was not sent to school. No one in her family did. Instead, she spent her early teens waking up at 2 am to collect and distribute milk in the neighbourhood. She has no clue when she was born.
Then she married. Had kids. No, her husband didn’t beat her. He took care of her, at least initially. And drank on the side. Eventually he ceased to work.
Mani began to work in households to provide for her children’s education. She found an employer who shared her passion and helped her in this pursuit.
Today, her son is a M.A. (History) and B.Ed. Her elder daughter completed her tenth boards and the younger one studied till twelfth standard. The younger one is comfortable with use of computers.
The daughters are married. One has a baby and the other is struggling to fit into norms and expectations of marriage. The son, in spite of his qualifications, is yet to find a job.
Education left them as is.
I guess she must wonder how is it that I could ride the education horse to freedom while she is left to work in eight households, including mine.
We each are bound closely by our class and caste structures, holding us tightly in their tentacles. I am her employer; she is dependent on my whims for wages. I am a Savarna, she is not. Her daughter fled from her first marriage back home to Maniamma. She is now remarried. I fled alone and am still fleeing.
Perhaps because I am an optimist, I think of transcending those boundaries. I tell myself: She is the breadwinner of her family and I take care of myself. We both value honesty and human life. We both value peace. We have a bond of caring. So can’t we imagine a sisterhood beyond the structures?
This from my birthday reflections couple of years back:
“Although I can be incredibly warm at a social gathering, I tend to be a recluse for long periods of time. The only constant in my life these days is my house help Maniamma. Unlike the Hyderabadis, Maniamma is extremely punctual and conscientious of her work. She anchors my day. Over the months, she has become comfortable with me and scolds me occasionally: “What is the use of making this upma if you won’t eat it warm?” “Why didn’t you cook yesterday?” Sometimes I try to duck her by telling her I will be out of town but to no avail. She makes a compulsory visit at my door everyday to check if I am in or not. I like this little beam of love that pours in through my door daily. This morning I shyly told her it was my birthday. She dropped what she was doing and looked at me in dismay—“I don’t have anything to give you.” Aghast, I hugged her and told her I didn’t want anything. She hugged back, then looked and said: “I wish you well. If only you are well, we poor people can be well.” It stung. I had somewhere imagined a professional friendship as equal women tinged by a certain sisterly love. For her, the grinding reality of her life didn’t allow her the easy privilege of re-imagining relationships. It finally gnawed into me that liberalism and its tenets is also a kind of privilege that the elite imagine within the easy and safe confines of their class—at some level, it is finally for easing their own souls.”
Our sisterhoods are finally imagined and privileged. Across the river, she dreams of a day when her debts are paid off, her daughters independent of her, her son settled and happy. And that she can take a break from work and rest.
On this side, I have learnt not to dream anymore.