I was listening Tyagaraya lyric and cutting string beans for the curry for the next day. My husband was busy writing something in the living room. On our street there is no end to the hollering of the beggars as soon as it gets dark. Their hollering annoys my husband. He starts sermonizing, “why can’t they work… ”
“Ma’am, ma’am,” I heard a woman’s voice at the front door.
“Go away, just go,” my husband shouted at her.
“A little drinking water, sir,” the female voice said again sounding desperate.
“No water, nothing, out. Go. What a headache. They won’t let me write peacefully for a second,” he yelled again.
I got up and walked to the door. There was a woman, short, thin and small. She was holding a small clay pot for water.
At first I didn’t notice her. While pouring water in her pot the street light helped me to recognize her.
I finishing pouring water and turned around.
My husband said, still annoyed, “I told her to go away and you gave her water. Just watch. Today it is water, tomorrow broth and the next day a full meal.”
“The maid throws away two huge buckets of water in the morning. What have got to lose by giving two small pots of water,” I said.
“Yes. Give her water. You will earn credit in the heaven.”
“I don’t know whether it is a credit or debit. We have plenty of water. They need some to drink. That’s all I gave them,” I said. Before I finished he was lost in his writing.
Four days ago I was standing at the door waiting for my husband. It was then I noticed a small family on the sidewalk across the road. Usually everybody hates these sidewalk dwellers. So do I. I hate the sight. There are three of them–husband, wife and a seven year old boy with two tin cans, two clay pots, a torn mat, a winnow and some other stuff. That is all they have. I did not like the sight. Each time I open the door I will have to see these sickly faces? I asked myself. But how can I ask them to go away? If they were on my side of the street I could have told them to move. But they are on the other side. But then why should I care? I decided to keep quiet.
After that I totally forgot about them for whatever reason. Last night when I was giving her water, I recognized the woman as the same woman across the street. That is all.
It is common knowledge that women in ancient times used to think of the God first thing in the morning every day. Some traditional women would touch their husbands’ feet as a ritual. Do you know what the women of my times look for – not the God, not the husband but the maid servant. If the milkman does not show up, we can use the canned milk for coffee. But if the maid servant does not show up, the world crumbles!
It is getting late. I put out the dirty dishes last night for the maid servant to come and clean. The crows are tumbling them around. I went to the door a couple of times looking for the maid servant. There was no sign of her. The woman across the street saw my glum face and said something to me.
“What’s the matter ma’am? The maid servant did not show up or what? I don’t mind putting the floor designs in the front yard, ma’am,” she said.
For that day she took care of cleaning the front yard and washing the dishes. I gave her some loose change and the left over rice.
I was waiting for my husband to wake up so I could tell him that there are good people among the beggars and the sidewalk dwellers too. But he woke up late and I did not get a chance to convey the happy thought.
The woman again came in the evening, swept the rooms, swept the front yard, put the floor designs, and washed dishes. During that period we two talked a lot.
In out towns usually the houses will have huge backyards. The servants wash dishes in a corner, away from the house. But in cities like Madras, the bathroom is adjacent to the kitchen, and the backyard is immediately next to it. In some houses we won’t even have that much space. The space for washing dishes will be right in front of the bedroom or hallway. The maid serve is constantly in front of you.
When I see a person right in front of me for so long, it is impossible for me not to talk. I keep asking something or other. And they keep responding in their broken Telugu.
“What is your name?”
“Sanamma, ma’am,” she said.
“Are you new to Madras?”
“No, ma’am. We moved here from Ongole in my mother’s time. My uncle lives in Tiruvallur. He works in a factory,” Sanamma replied.
“What about your husband? Does he have a job?”
“He used to work in a tin factory that makes lanterns. Four months back he lost his job. He is unemployed now.”
“Why didn’t look for another job?”
“He is going out every day looking for work. Couldn’t find any, ma’am. I am working in that house, the third from here for 8 rupees.”
“Is that enough for you?”
“How can it be enough, ma’am? We used to live in Puliyamthopu. We couldn’t pay rent for three months. The landlord took away our pots and pans and threw us out. So we came here with the few remaining pots and tin cans.”
“Did you ever live like this before, I mean on the streets?”
“No, ma’am. He used to earn 40 rupees per month. I used to bring another 8 rupees. We used live okay with that money. He lost his job. That is the start of our problems ma’am,” said Sanamma.
I was lost for words. Sanamma is a proud woman, I thought. It seems she is not used to begging and being yelled at. I must say, it is the fate.
Nowadays even the educated are having a hard time to get a job. It sure is not going to be easy for an unskilled laborer like Sanamma’s husband to find a work if lost the one he has.
I did not ask how Sanamma’s husband lost his job. There could be a million reasons. Our servant was back next day. She was talking about several things as usual and during the conversation she mentioned how Sanamma’s husband lost his job.
In Madras there are lots of places where people make small measuring cups and such items with the old tin cans. Some make lanterns and the burners for lanterns with the same old tin cans. It seems some of them are even exported. They buy the glass shades from other stores and complete the rest of the lantern in their shops. Sanamma’s husband was working in one such shop and they were living comfortably.
They rented a small room in Puliyamthopu and all the three –husband, wife and the child were living comfortably. He did not lose his job for going on a strike or asking for higher pay.
A small piece of tin pricked his hand and it became big sore. He could not do the job and so his kindly employer found another worker in his place. Is Sanamma’s husband so clever as to fight for workers’ rights. Possibly he does not even know of such things. Sanamma called it their “karma” and let go of it.
We went to see the first show and returned. As I was unlocking the door, I heard somebody groaning from across the street. My husband opened the door and went in.
I turned toward Sanamma’s husband and asked him what happened.
He said Sanamma was three months pregnant and having pains in the stomach since evening.
“Take her to the hospital,” I said.
“They don’t take her in until morning. Even then how can I make her walk, ma’am?” he said.
“Take her on a rickshaw,” I was about to say and bit my tongue. I have a small change in my hand, the balance after spending our money on the busfare, jasmine flowers and a magazine. I put the change in his hand.
We watched Rita Hayworth dance in Technicolor and enjoyed. My husband was taking bath in the bathroom. The smell of sandalwood soap filled the room. We will eat a sumptuous meal and go to bed. Across the street, those poor fellows! Sanamma, her husband and the child! Did the child have food to eat at least? What kind of lives these people have? Here we are behind these closed doors and they on the street!
“We can worry about one person, may be two. When there are countless people like that in the world, what can we do? Don’t think about them,” he says. That’s true. But then why my heart is so agitated?
The following evening Sanamma’s husband came and told me that she lost the baby and the doctors suggested she stay in the hospital for about four days. That’s good, I thought. She will have some food at least there.
The mother is in the hospital. The father went around and brought a little food to eat. Poor thing! The little boy was sitting there nervously all day keeping an eye on their pots, the cans and the worn out mat.
Usually I don’t come out unless there is a need. It was about 12:30 in the afternoon. The mailman has not come yet. I was waiting for a letter from my sister. I came out to looking for the mailman. Sanamma’s son with drawn in stomach put forth his hand for some small change, I believe. I threw a coin at him.
After about a half hour or so, I heard noises in the street and went out to see what happened. Just looking at the sight itself was disturbing to me. What about the people who are living such a hell? Sanamma’s son was crying his heart out. Some ten children and a few women surrounded him and his pots.
The boy pointed to me and said, “That ma’am gave me the money.”
The mother of a twelve year old said that money belonged to her son and the kid stole it. They were not in a mood to listen even if I had said that I gave him the money. They won’e let my word in. At the end our neighbor intervened and sent them away.
But the twelve year old boy is deadset on avenging on Sanamma’s son. He told his father after the father came back. After listening to the entire story, Sanamma’s husband beat up his own son.
The next morning at about ten, I was haggling with the vegetable vendor. Sanamma’s son was watching their possessions as usual. The children from the day before were passing by. They threw a couple of stones at him. One stone hit him. I heard the child crying and shouted at the boys. The boys ran away.
I hated those boys. One of the two pots Sanamma had is broken. Why do they have to throw stones at Sanamma’s son? Did I do something wrong by giving him a coin? It is that little money that started all these problems?
Some children like to take care of animals. And then there are others who enjoy pestering them just as much. If they see a limping dog pass by, they throw a stone at her. Same thing with a beggar and a sick person – whack them in stead of pitying them. Probably those are the children who grow up to become tyrants.
Sanamma’s husband returned in the evening after going around all day. He caught the boy who threw the stone at the pot. He did not hit him, not even call names. But the boy started screaming. A few people gathered around and looked at Sanamma’s husband. He was looking terrible, with his eyes drawn in, bushy long beard, and dirty worn out clothes.
The people who gathered there hearing the child’s cries chided him. “What is your status? And what is the boy’s status? He is the son of the man who owns that building. If his father hears about this, he will tear you up in to pieces. What a stupid thing to do,” they said.
It was Sunday. My husband was home. He had his second coffee and was reading the newspaper. I heard children’s laughs and shouts and went out to see. Sanamma’s husband was feeding the child. One of the boys from last evening’s fight, came from behind, snatched the towel on Sanamma’s husband’s shoulder and ran away.
He stopped feeding the child and ran after the boy, shouting aloud. The children were running, laughing and shouting, and Sanamma’s husband was running after them swearing. After running a few yards, the children dropped his towel. He picked it up and returned to the boy.
That day I saw an ordinary person can go crazy within a few hours right in front of my eyes. I can never forget that. I watched an ordinary man become insane like.
Ten children and some adults together managed to cause Sanamma’s husband lose his sanity. Don’t ask me how? They did it just for about an hour – coming from behind and pulling his clothes, throwing stones, making fun of him from a distance, they did it for an hour.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I went in and asked my husband to talk to the children. He laughed and said, “You know nothing about the world. Of course, a human will go crazy without money. Poverty is the start for insanity. Who are we to reprimand the children? Will they listen to us? We are much better off ignoring it rather than see and worry about it.”
I am only a woman, what can I do? I kept quiet.
That evening we went to the beach and returned home late. I noticed that there were not boxes, nor the worn out mat on the sidewalk. There were a few stones scattered around.
Three days passed by. One afternoon Sanamma knocked on our door. She was looking very thin.
“If I were by him, he would not have gone crazy. All these people made him lose his mind,” she said.
“What do you mean, crazy?”
“The hospital staff did not listen to her when she said he was not insane. What can I say? It is not a good time for us. It seems they would not release him for another 3 months. Even then they’d let him go only if he is cured. Otherwise they just keep him,” she said with tears.
“Sorry,” I said.
“If I come out, they throw stones at me. I like it here,” he said, it seems.
Sanamma’s son walked out from the house across, wiping his lips. Probably they gave him some food. he hid behind his mother.
I was lost for words.
“I did not know that his father was taken in by the police until he came to the hospital and told me, crying. I have decided to go to my uncle’s home. I can walk half the distance this afternoon and the rest tomorrow,” Sanamma said.
“Where to? Tiruvallur? How do go?”
“I will give you money. Take the train,” I said.
“I don’t want money, ma’am. I don’t have a saree to change. I had one rag which I was washing at nights and wearing in the day. That was also lost along with the pots. Can you give me some old saree?” she begged sounding dismal.
I gave her an old saree.
She refused vehemently to take any money.
“The kind gentleman in the house across gave me a half rupee. You gave me a saree. That is millions for me,” she said with folded hands. Sanamma, who does not have even a saree to wear, went away.
(Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, September 2001.)