Continued from here
I enjoyed spending the occasional afternoon with Suji when
all the chores were completed, and some sweet tea and a gossip session seemed
in order. Suji’s fund of information about
the building’s residents seemed to be inexhaustible. She had a real knack for
extracting life details from people. She
was a caring and careful listener, inserting a pertinent question or two to
keep the narrative going, her expression of perfectly blended concern and
interest in only what was being told to her, of nothing else mattering,
spurring her audience to confessions they would not have made to others.
I liked Suji and was grateful to her for all she had done for me, but I was very aware of her fondness for gossip and was careful to divulge only the bare minimum about my own life. Not that that there was anything juicy going on in my life, certainly nothing along the lines of Flat 3A Mr. Chinniappan’s secret lover and the one-bedroom flat he had set up for her in a posh locality in Delhi, or Flat 2C Mrs. Ranga’s mental issues and the medications she had to take to keep them under control. Suji also had a habit of taking the most mundane problems and highlighting them with psychedelic colors until they pulsated and glowed like a Bollywood star’s lifestyle. So Mr. Srinivasan coming home one day looking a bit off-color was not merely a result of a bad day in the office. Good heavens, by no means was it that simple! Did I not know that there was a running battle between Mr. Srinivasan’s wife and his mother, who lived with them? There were actually blows administered to the wife one day when, in a fit of rebellion, she ignored her mother-in-law’s strictures and made the pulisaadam her way, as a result of which the entire batch had to be thrown out. Mrs. Srinivasan had to be rushed to the hospital after that as blood gushed furiously out of the wound, and she required no fewer than eight stitches to close it up. Now she was threatening to run away to her mother’s house even though somehow or the other she had managed to become pregnant (the rumor was that Mr. Srinivasan was impotent, another reason for his looking harried, so…….)….a whole tale was left untold in that very meaningful pause.
Of all Suji’s stories, the ones I found most fascinating were those about Ponnammal. Ponnammal was the youngest of eleven children, born to a mother who had studied until the fifth grade of school, and a father who had completed his degree from the local university. They lived in a proper house in a lower-middle class, but clean, neighborhood. All the children were sent to a nearby Tamil medium school, where English was also taught. Ponnammal could read and write Tamil at an elementary school level, something she was very proud of. Her English, taught by teachers who could barely speak, read or write it themselves, was practically non-existent. The mother stayed at home and cooked and cleaned for the family. The father had a clerical job with the municipal government, and there, one day, he met a beautiful and very fair-skinned “foreign” lady.
Now, Ponnammal’s definition of “foreign” could mean
anything. The foreign lady could be truly foreign, as in English or Italian, or
she could be from the North of India, or even from a neighboring state. All were equally foreign in Ponnammal’s view. Ponnammal liked to believe that the lady was
Life for Ponnammal and her family slid steadily downwards. They had to move out of the proper house in the clean neighborhood into a thatched hut in a nearby slum by a fetid, garbage-clogged, mosquito-infested canal. Her mother, whose health was battered by the brutal workload, died when Ponnammal was still a little girl, and her oldest brother, a heartless and tyrannical sort, took charge of the household. He got his sisters married off to an assortment of losers, all jobless, wife-beating drunkards. Ponnammal probably got the worst deal of the lot. Not only was her husband without a steady job (he was a house-painter who claimed he was allergic to paint, and was therefore unable to work) and a mind-bogglingly cruel alcoholic, but he was also more than twice Ponnammal’s age and blind in one eye.
Because she grew up in a milieu where unquestioning acceptance of one’s destiny was the norm, because there was no real alternative, and most of all because she did not want any stigma on the heads of her two daughters, Ponnammal bore her lot with stoic resignation. Most of the time, she was the sole breadwinner for the family. Her husband controlled her earnings, setting aside a tiny sum for household expenses, and squandering away the rest on his alcoholic binges. A few times a year, he roused himself, declaring himself free of his paint allergy, and managed to find a painting job, which never lasted more than a couple of days. In a city where drunkard painters were quite commonplace, and their behavior tolerated (up to a point), he exceeded all bounds of acceptable drunkenness. Each time he was fired, his cruelty to Ponnammal reached new depths, and it was a real miracle that she emerged alive from what he meted out to her.
Ponnammal now lived in a slum colony about one kilometer from my building. Despite all her domestic woes, she was the undisputed leader of her community. She was the arbitrator of disputes, dispensing justice with a far fairer hand than had been dealt to her. She maintained (in her head) accounts of all money owed and received among the slum’s residents, never once erring by even a single paisa. She was the one that anxious new mothers went to when their babies would not feed properly or cried all the time. Errant schoolchildren were sent to her for a tongue-lashing they would never forget. Perhaps this was why Ponnammal always held her head up high. She had status, and a position to maintain.
Every single morning, Ponnammal woke up at 4 o’clock. Her day began at the water pump situated at one end of the slum colony. The city corporation supplied water to this colony every morning from 4 o’clock until 5 o’clock, after which nothing came out of the pump but a hollow gurgling sound. Ponnammal, by virtue of her position in the colony was always allowed to go straight to the head of the line, a kodam on each hip and a leaky bucket in each hand. She staggered home bent almost double under the weight of the water. After a quick bath, she cooked the family’s morning and afternoon meals, cleaned the house, careful all the while not to wake up her husband and risk facing his wrath. She then woke up her two daughters, fed them their morning tiffin and sent them off to school with a packed lunch.
At 8 o’clock she arrived at our building where, all morning and afternoon, she spun like a top, cleaning and cooking in about half a dozen homes. In silence she endured Mrs. Ranga’s tantrums and Mr. Srinivasan’s mother’s ceaseless complaints that she had not cleaned the house properly and Mrs. Chinniappan’s shrill insistence that Ponnammal was a shameless thief who stole her sugar and oil. When she returned home in the evening, Ponnammal had to cook the night’s meal, and then hold court as solver of the slum’s myriad problems. On her very lucky days, her husband would be too wasted to have more energy than to swat weakly at her when she passed his mattress. On a normal day he propped himself up on his mattress on one elbow and screamed at her and taunted her that she was an ugly, good-for-nothing slut. And on his bad days she had to mop up his stinking vomit after which, in a savage rage, he beat her until he fell back senseless, done for the day.
To be continued.