I am a simple person.
My needs are few, my demands uncomplicated, my pleasures humble and
plain. I am happy to eat bland thayir
saadam day after day if I need to, I remain unruffled by the frequent power
cuts that plague our neighborhood, and I frankly don’t care if it is the DMK or
Congress which is in power, it’s all the same to me. There is, however, one
thing, or rather, one person, that I absolutely cannot do without. That is my maidservant, Ponnammal.
I inherited Ponnammal along with the apartment I moved into when I got married 10 years ago. She worked in several of the homes in that building, and my future mother-in-law, appalled at the messy pigsty her son lived in, had employed Ponnammal to clean his apartment every day and cook a meal for him as well. When I moved in as a new bride, it was as if I was invading Ponnammal’s territory. The reception I got from her was cold and hostile. When I pointed out the large dust balls that had resided undisturbed for many years under the bed, she stared at me defiantly with unconcealed dislike. My attempts to expand her culinary repertoire were met with frosty disdain. I was seriously tempted to fire her and find someone more agreeable, but I soon found out that she had a stranglehold over our building, and nobody was willing to deal with Ponnammal’s wrath if they took her job. So I was forced to continue with Ponnammal. I think she had scorn for me and I sometimes loathed myself for wanting so badly to please her and win her over.
This state of affairs continued for about two years. In all fairness to her, I must say that Ponnammal was unfailingly regular, and other than her studied refusal to sweep under the bed, was hardworking and diligent. With stubborn and persistent monotony she cooked the same fare day in and day out, but luckily my husband is not adventuresome when it comes to his food, and I am, as I have said earlier, not fussy either, so this did not bother us too much.
On my first Diwali as a married woman, in my eagerness to show how good and generous I was (and yes, I will admit it, there was a degree of one-upmanship with the next-door neighbor), I went overboard and bought Ponnammal a fairly expensive silk sari, along with a large box of pure ghee sweets. I thought the sari was beautiful, of an unusual shade of deep purple, with a generous sprinkling of woven gold designs. Early on Diwali morning I gave her the sari and waited eagerly for her reaction. Surely this would be the turning point, I thought, and our relationship would be smooth and harmonious from now onwards.
Ponnammal snatched the sari box from me. How ungracious, I thought, and then checked myself. She was completely unschooled in any social niceties, unclothed in the “pleases” and “thank yous” with which we mask our real feelings and sentiments. She took the sari out of the box and shook it open. Looking at the shimmering cascade of silk, she gave a haughty sniff. “Too dark,” she snapped, “it will make me look even blacker, what’s the point in getting me something like this. I’ll never wear it.” I stared at her, shock, anger and disappointment churning through me, and she stared back, cool and flinty-eyed. My eyes dropped first, foolishly filling with tears. Mumbling that I would get her another color, I took the purple sari from her. The box of sweets remained untouched on my dining table. Ponnammal ignored it and when she left for the day, I saw her cast a glance at it, then straighten up and leave with a curt goodbye.
By the time the second Diwali came around, I had learned my lesson. Ponnammal could not and would not be bought with expensive saris and sweets. I stopped trying to please her and show her that I was a good wife, worthy of my husband, her beloved Ayya. So this time I bought her a cheaper polyester sari in what I thought was a hideous shade of pink, and a box of gaudily-colored sweets. “Thanks, Amma,” she muttered, which from her was ecstatic praise. And that evening for dinner she cooked an exceptional pulao, something she had never made before. Some remote corner of her frost-bitten heart was beginning to thaw.
For all the hostility she showed towards me, I could not but help a feeling of grudging admiration towards her. Hers was a tough, hardscrabble life. On several occasions, she came to work with angry scarlet welts across her cheeks, and her eyes burned a bitter red on those days. Clearly she was being beaten by her husband, who was known to be a no-good drunkard, but other than maybe a more rigorous mopping of the floor or a more severe scrubbing of the dishes, she displayed nothing that hinted at the trauma she must have suffered. Once when she came in to work with her left eye practically sealed closed with a spectacularly gruesome black-and-blue bruise, I approached her timidly and asked her if everything was alright. A stupid question, of course, and her response was to fix me with her stony stare and then continue working in silence.
By this time I had become very friendly with Suji, the lady who lived directly across the corridor from me. She was about fifteen or twenty years older than me, her only son was married with a child of his own, and she was one of the earliest residents of this building. She took me under her wing, introduced me to all the building’s residents, steered me towards the better (so she claimed) of the building’s two milkmen and negotiated a heavy discount (again, I only have her word for it) with the ironing man down the road.
Ponnammal had been working for Suji from the time they were both newly-weds, and the two of them enjoyed an easy familiarity which I envied. The first time I visited Suji, I was shocked to see a completely different side of Ponnammal. She was laughing and joking with Suji, and with the hard lines of her face softened by her smile, she actually looked quite pretty. I have not given you any idea of what Ponnammal looks like, have I? She is quite short, well shy of five feet, and extremely skinny. Really, really skinny. Sparse hair, jet black in color, tightly pulled back into a scrawny bun. In age she could be anything from thirty to sixty. It is impossible to tell. She has large, blue-gray tattoos on her neck, and on both arms. They are smudged and it is hard to tell what they might be. Her arms, ears and neck are bare of any jewelry. Suji told me that they have all been pawned, to support her husband’s liquor addiction. She is always dressed in one of three faded, frayed saris. What on earth was I thinking when I bought her that lustrous purple sari?
To be continued.