I have always been intrigued by my childhood and the role it has played in making me, me. In this sense I keep visiting the memories of my days in Sangamwadi, Pune. It is a very unassuming place where houses with a bedroom and hall and a small kitchen was the norm. There was a bathroom attached but toilet was a Public one. Being a Child I had the luxury of the fields and gutters, which ever I preferred. Honestly the moments of ablutions were time for a retreat into another world where animals spoke, mice had a train of their own, cats had buses and there were pygmies who had an army that was at my disposal. Going to shit (sorry for using such a crass word, but what else to use) was my ticket to Neverland. And I used to be at this maidan (field) for hours to the dismay and disgust of my parents. Where was I getting these stories from? Who led me to this fascinating world that I refused to come to reality? How did I entertain myself to believe in a parallel world where children taught and the elders went to school? When I saw the crows flying by in the evening, why did I tell myself that their school is over, they are all going home?
Vimala Bai, as we called her, was our maid as a working mother needed someone to look after her only son. Vimala Bai lived in a slum nearby. Her husband had abandoned her. She lived with her mother and two daughters. Our previous maid was Nanda who was a very benevolent soul, but after her wedding she went to Baramati. It was in such a context that Vimala Bai filled the void of a caretaker and help. I was 5 years old when she took over. She was a short lady of dark complexion and weak constitution. Her energy level was high. She did her work incredibly well and got along with my mother. As my school got over by 1.30, I spent a lot of time with her. Initially I kept comparing her with Nanda who was way more beautiful than Vimala Bai. It took me some time to get close to her. Vimala Bai had a very animated way of speaking and expressing. She knew I was keeping a distance but she knew how to break the ice. She started telling me stories every afternoon. The first story that she told me was about a sparrow and crow. The impact was so good that I started believing that birds could speak. I tried talking to them and kept wondering why they never spoke to me. Somehow cats were always negative characters in her story. Dogs were given the best treatment. Elephants had interesting textures. She had unusually great stories of elephants that sacrificed, fought against cunning tigers and in trying to save a rabbit, the elephant fought against a lion and a snake, eventually bravely rescuing the rabbit but himself dying in the end. Listening to that story I remember crying so much that she changed the tragic end to suit my taste. Then she started telling stories of small human beings who were far away and lived a fascinating life in the jungle along with lions and elephants. I later guessed this would be the pygmies. This story remained with me and became an alter ego. It was always the subject of my day dreaming where pygmies travelled on the trunk of an elephant, had ants and flies as pets and used cats and dogs as horses.
As told earlier she lived in a slum nearby. One day I went there. I really loved the place and the swing that was outside. She asked me if I wanted food and as a child I had never learned to say no. The dal and rice I had was of a different league. To this day the dal she made has had no parallel. I loved the way she cooked. My mother used to make food for me but after eating Vimala Bai’s food, I knew where my preference lied. When my mother came home, she was happy that I had eaten the food she (my mother) made and had wasted none. She never realized that the food she made was exchanged with the daughters of Vimala Bai, Rekha and Radhika, and their food I had. Radhika was just a year elder to me and we played together. She was the one who taught me to fly a kite and I must say I was a very poor student. She taught me all the childhood games like Blindfold, Chor Police, Dhapandi Stop and what not. I started becoming very popular in their house and I loved being there. I loved the attention and respect that I got. Every holiday I used to be at their place living life with abandon. During Raksha Bandhan , Vimala Bai asked permission of my mother, if Rekha and Radhika could tie rakhi on my hand. My mother agreed and there I was beaming with joy with 2 rakhis.
Paradise could not go on for long. I, as a child fell ill quite often and the diagnosis of a very worthy neighbor was my frequent trips to the slum. My mother could not agree to this but my health was important for her. So indirectly she informed Vimala bai not to take me to her home. This was a big setback for me. Everything that I associated with joy and fun was in that slum, in the small house of Vimala Bai. But disobeying and rebelling is how childhood is explored and I broke the sanction imposed upon me, time and again. Vimala Bai tried to dissuade me but I dint relent. But a day came when we left Sanghamwadi for good. Now we had a flat of our own. Vimala Bai continued coming to our new place but her health took a back seat. She informed my mother that she could not continue for long and the last day dawned upon us. I still remember that I refused to come out when she left for good. I was inconsolable. When she walked out, I rushed to the balcony to say good bye. But Radhika and Vimala Bai came on every Rakshabandhan dayi so that Radhika could tie me rakhi. This went on till I was in my 6th standard. When they came I felt embarrassed and I kind of indicated that ‘I was not liking this’. I don’t know why I did that. From next year they stopped coming. I know my attitude might have really hurt them and I recently told my mom “I wish I had not done that, I want to see her again.”
When I look back Vimala Bai has been a very integral and formative part of my childhood. She was a mother to me when my mother was away at work. She, through her stories helped me to see a world that is beautiful and wonderful. A world where birds and animals spoke, truth got rewarded, love was always the winner. But was I fair to her? I have thanked many of my teachers for making me who I am. But I have never thanked Vimala Bai or any of my maids. Nobody is going to commemorate a Maid’s day where we appreciate them. We will keep having sick Ads like Tata Docomo where a maid is the one who always steals. I wish to meet her real soon to say “Thank you and I am very sorry”.
P.S. I wrote this experience after seeing the very disgusting ad of Tata Docomo where a maid is the one who steals. Maids are integral in an urban house system and yet they have the roughest deal with no holiday to claim, with Provident Fund being a fantasy. If they have anything in abundance it is prejudices of the so called middle class who will always view them with suspicion laced with theories of conspiracy.
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church