My hour with Saraswati, the maid

By Ancie Wilfred

Nagpur, Nov. 9, 2019: One morning I was wondering what to fill into the extra hour that I had acquired in my day because of a planned activity being postponed. Then I heard a woman’s voice near my door asking if I was home.

It was Saraswati, one of the two women who sweep the streets of our colony. She asked for a glass of water and a cup of tea. While I was preparing the tea for her, I could hear her partly singing, partly humming an old Lata Mangeshkar song. She stopped as soon as I approached her with the tray of tea and biscuits for her, and a mug of tea for me.

I sat with her sipping my tea while she munched on the biscuits – a little too hungrily – dipped in the hot, slightly-extra-sweet tea. After the first biscuit, she began talking.

First she explained why she was hungry in the morning. She had awoken too late to cook anything before reporting for work. She lives the nearest but is late the most often. She expressed her admiration for those who travel from really far places and yet reach before her.

Then she felt the need to tell me how she usually wakes up around 4 and prepares tiffin for her son and herself (son also because her daughter in law has gone to her house for her delivery), cleans the house and starts the water motor for both her daughters in law, before starting out for work.

This led to the topic of her children. She has six – two boys and four girls – all of whom are now married and well settled in life. When I giggled and expressed my surprise at the half dozen she had mothered, she explained that her uncle (that’s how she referred to her husband) was a driver and that he had ensured that every two years she would conceive a baby. I had trouble holding back my laughter at the matter-of-fact way she explained her situation.

She is now a happy grandmother of 16 young ones, she said, each of her children having 3 kids each. Yes, I know the math is wrong. I told her she must be expecting 2 more to get the total correct, but apparently no more are coming. The 16th is the last one of her grandchildren. (So now it’s up to us to do the math.)

Then she went on to tell me – by now the tea was over but her story wasn’t – that, by God’s grace – all her children were doing well. She feels a little sorry for her eldest whom she could support in finishing his graduation but couldn’t procure a secure job for him in the Railways. They had asked for 100,000 rupees and she just couldn’t manage it with the 15 rupees she got per month as a daily wage laborer. So he now manages a wine shop nearby but no one would believe he is not a ‘Saahab’, to quote her, thanks to ‘his good looks, spectacles and smart personality’, again quoting her.

Then she felt the need to explain why she hadn’t factored in the husband’s contribution to her eldest son’s education. I hadn’t asked her, but she told me anyway. Apparently the husband had found a younger woman and had ‘gotten stuck there’. (As if he got stuck against his own wishes!)

When he did visit her, after some time of staying away, she asked him how he could have fathered six children from her and then left her alone to fend for them. She asked him what would happen to his children if she too chose to go away with some guy. She told him not to worry as she would die before she gave up on her children. Then she turned him out of the house.

She also assured me that she was quite pretty – if I see a photograph of her in her hey days, I’d say it was a Marathi heroine – and had a voice that could make any man turn for another look at her. I believe her.

Thus it was that she set out to work and brought up all the six children single-handedly. She said she gave them just wheat gruel sometimes and other times roti with green chillies and salt to eat but made sure all of them studied. Then she found good matches for all her daughters, people who had acres of land and lived off agriculture. Then she got her sons married.

Saraswati is just one year lesser than 60 – her words. She never sits idle, whether at home or at work. (I can vouch for her work in our colony.) She says she doesn’t depend on anybody but herself because as a popular song goes ‘Sukh ke sab saathi, dukh me na koi’ which means ‘one may have a lot of friends in good times, but in bad times, one is all alone.’

She is as fit as a fiddle. Moreover she is more contented than most women I see around me.

If this is not a success story, I wonder what is.

And I found the best use for my extra unplanned hour too. About 20 minutes of listening and 40 minutes to compose this write up.

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