She rang my doorbell when I was in panic mode. Kamal, my house help of 15 years had informed me a day earlier that she was going to take a year-long sabbatical to keep an eye on her wayward daughter and, subsequently, get her married. I understood. That meant that I would have to fend for myself from then on and roll up my sleeves to wash a sink full of utensils, go down on all fours and mop the floor and wash a tub full of clothes and cook and clean and…. I’m a hands-on homemaker and pride myself on scrubbing utensils till they sparkle. I’m not too fond of mopping the floor but I manage a decent job. But, at that point of time, I was overwhelmed and my sanity was about to give way. So, the sight of a prospective helper made my spirits soar. When I opened the door, I saw a rotund woman standing outside, beaming. She looked like a barrel on which a sari had been draped. Her stomach bulged out, making her back arch. Her circumference saw to it that she could manage to fold her sari into only three small pleats in the front. I wondered how she managed to walk. Her teeth looked like they had been carelessly grouted with tobacco. Her wavy hair was twisted into a bun and on either side of her eyes, a bunch of curls stood out stood out like sprigs of black coriander leaves. Her forehead had a smudged red tikka, the size of a one-rupee coin. She didn’t mince words. “You need a bai, don’t you? Kamal sent me here.” I didn’t know whether to hug her or to kiss Kamal but she was just the guest I needed to shower my hospitality on. I ushered her in but before I could say another word, she declared, “I don’t do khaadas (take leave) but I need two holidays per month and I will come only once a day at 7.30.” I wasn’t worried about the holidays but 7.30 wasn’t really the hour I was comfortable with. What Sumanmaushi, as I later started calling her, had declared with an air of finality, sounded more like a threat. I agreed meekly. Work started. Sumanmaushi was efficient but worked at a very relaxed pace. You couldn’t hurry her up. Not even if you had to leave the house in the next 10 minutes and she was planning to continue with her work for the next hour. As is the case with most house help, her husband was an unemployed alcoholic. “I feed him and give him money for a beedi or two. You see, having a husband keeps a woman safe; so what if he’s good for nothing?” she philosophised one day. I smiled, as I always did, at her amazing pieces of domestic wisdom. One day, she confided in me. “I have to apply mehendi to his hair. We have to attend a wedding. If I don’t ensure that he’s well turned out, who’ll respect him?” So saying, she left me to deal with the mess in the kitchen and asked to leave early to begin the grooming session. I was amused. One day, she came home looking triumphant. She was chuckling and seemed pleased with herself. I asked her what the matter was. “Today, I chastised my husband,” she confessed. Apparently, henna-head had been battering her for years. The previous evening, as they returned from a visit to her sister-in-law’s place, where the husband had had one too many, he roughed her up on the railway footbridge in full view of the commuters, among them, a couple of her neighbours. What touched her to the quick was not being beaten as much as it was being seen in a vulnerable state by those she knew. “That incensed me, tai,” she narrated. “Something inside me was set ablaze. I removed my slipper and gave him a sound thrashing. It took five people to stop me. If they hadn’t pulled me back, I don’t know what would have happened. Now, he’s scared of me. My son too gave him a piece of his mind after we reached home. I know he won’t touch me from now on.” After a pause, she looked up at me and with sadness creeping into her eyes, asked me, “Do you think I did right? After all, he’s my husband.” I had wanted to applaud her, to tell her that her tormentor deserved it. He’d badgered her for years, squandered away her earnings on alcohol and beedis, given her three children and periodic black eyes in return. But, she was clearly doubtful about her outrage. I put an arm around her, pacified her and assured her that years of abuse had made her lose control and it was all for the best. She deserved a violence-free life and that she should stop feeling guilty. She didn’t look completely convinced but a load seemed to have been lifted off her chest. A few months down the line she asked me out of the blue, “You’ve seen my daughter, haven’t you?” I nodded. “I’m getting her married to my sister-in-law’ son,” she informed. “But you can’t do that,” I objected and went on to lecture her on the dangers of consanguineous marriages. She dismissed me with a wave of her hand and said, “She’s so dark, nobody is ready to marry her. I don’t want a jawaan daughter sitting in the house and predators waiting to prey upon her. My husband’s nephew is a nice guy. My sister-in-law is fond of my daughter. There couldn’t be a better match.” I couldn’t argue in the face of such native logic and smiled my assent. Not that she required it. Have I told you that Sumanmaushi had astute business sense? Some days, she didn’t turn up at all. On one such day, as always, there was no communication at all. The following day she told me that her mother-in-law had taken ill suddenly with 104 degrees temperature and had to be put on a drip. I noticed that almost all her other family members seemed to take ill suddenly with similar symptoms. All of them had to be administered saline. When the list of her close family members got exhausted, other people in her family—mostly, old uncles and aunts—started dying one after the other, especially during festivals. One day, I saw her enter a neighbouring building the day she didn’t turn up at my place for work. I was furious. I confronted her the next day and told her point-blank that I knew she had been lying to me every time she sent someone to the hospital or to the death-bed. Considering I had never denied her leave, wouldn’t it have been simpler to just tell me the truth rather than bunk work arbitrarily? She guffawed so loudly that I gaped at her aghast. “You are right. I was just making extra money on those days to fund my daughter’s wedding. Someone asks me to make puran polis, clean up the house, cook at a party…I earn far more in a day than I would lose even if you cut my pay. Please understand, tai.” What could I say? I was all admiration for her enterprising ways. My respect for her increased manifold the day she told me that she was encouraging her daughter-in-law to be a working woman. “I have got her a job, where she gets a few pairs of jeans home from the manufacturer and all she has to do is pull out the threads to make a fringe. That is the current trend. Also, I take saris from all the places of work to get a fall attached to them. You don’t wear saris; otherwise I would have asked for your saris too. My daughter-in-law also does alteration work. I have told her to charge more, as tailors refuse to alter clothes. My daughter-in-law has a monopoly in this business. So, she has a right to charge more.” ‘Wow! I thought! This is how one seizes an opportunity!’ I tried to push down the urge to buy a sari but ended up buying two. Needless to say, Saumanmaushi‘s daughter-in-law was the beneficiary of my impulse buys. We had long conversations down the years and Sumanmaushi confided in me about how she was tired of all the domestic work and how she was keen on starting a business. I was curious to know what she would do. I didn’t have to wait too long. One day, as we chatted over cups of ginger tea, she announced, “I won’t be coming to work from next month. I’m starting my bijiness.” Just like that! No business plan, no contingency fund, no research, nothing…and Sumanmaushi was already talking like a successful businesswoman. She started walking with an air about her. Honest, I wasn’t imagining it. Though I tried to unearth what she was up to, she was reluctant to reveal her plans. She was very secretive. One day, she whispered, “There are others who want to compete with me, which is why I was silent about my bijiness. Everything is settled now. I’ve struck the deal.” I was flabbergasted! I had more to learn from this dashing woman. “What is the nature of your business?” I ventured. I was dying of curiosity. “I’m in the ‘cow’ bijiness,” she divulged. “What’s that?!!” I asked, flummoxed. “It is a divine family bijiness. My mother-in-law used to do it. It’s only natural that I follow in her footsteps. I will be setting up my bijiness outside a temple in Navi Mumbai. I have an agreement with a doodhwala, whose cow I shall be renting. My husband and I will go by train to Navi Mumbai from our house in Mulund, take the cow from the tabela, walk to the temple and sit there with a bundle of grass. Devotees will give me money for feeding the cow. During festivals and festive months, I shall make a lot of money. Now, I don’t have to work for anybody. I will be my own boss.” So saying, she looked at me with the pride of a woman who had just cracked the code of living life on her own terms. I sat down. I had gotten so used to being regaled by Sumanmaushi‘s anecdotes that the very thought that I may no longer be an amused, admiring witness to her life saddened me. She read my thoughts. “Don’t worry, tai. I’ll keep coming to meet you,” she pacified me. I met her on my trips to the market and she seemed very happy with her life as a businesswoman. A few years later, she moved to Thane. By then, she had bought a cow and wasn’t renting one.
She had located a temple in Thane, where hundreds of devotees thronged almost every day. And, you guessed it, there was no cow there. People needed one to wash away their sins. Sumanmaushi shifted her business to this far more lucrative location. I moved house too. I haven’t seen or heard from her for years now. But, not a day goes by, when I pass a temple or see a cow on the streets and don’t think of her. After all, with her homespun pragmatism, Sumanmaushi had taught me about business what books and business magnates couldn’t.
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