The night slowly slipped behind the back stage making way for the dawn that glowed with joy from behind the cloud curtains. The rays of the morning sun started to spread the cheers across the marbled floor of the sky.
Savitri rubbed her eyes and yawned as the sun light brushed on her face. She rose, picked up the broom and cleaned the area near her home. Then she went to the hand pump, drew some water and went about her daily chores like many of us.
She quickly revised all that she had to do before the rush hour. There was drinking water to be filled from the municipal tap before the line went to the other end of the earth. There was a specific time period and if she missed that they would have to drink the dirty hand pump water. Then there was cooking to be done, lunch packed for her little children and husband. She would wakeup the kids in a while and dress them for their school. Savitri made it a point that no matter what the kids will not miss even a day at the school.
I guess most of us did have a similar kind of routine but our daily chores and private moments with family were not for public eye whereas Savitri’s were free for all. She lived on the pavement near our apartment. The posh residential complex meant for the who’s who of the capital. Where people hid their family skeletons into the cupboard, and shoved their dirty linen under beautiful Persian rugs. Savitri’s world was open for scrutiny all the time; she did not have one single private moment of her own.
Savitri’s husband had moved to the capital as a laborer when our apartment foundation was being laid. He was the right hand of the contractor and good in his mason work. Like any other average person who wanted to make good money in the big city, he too nurturing a dream of a “private” home and other luxuries of decent living.
Her village in the interiors of Bihar had no electricity, water or even a road. Shyam lal wandered here and there for one year before a contractor hired him. There was no way he could keep his family with him. Time passed and loneliness of the big city started to take its toll on him. He got his pregnant wife just after a year’s stay in unfriendly city.
Savitri and her husband wandered for many days until they found the construction site of our apartment and made it their home. They now had an envious address in town.
Shyamlal was a mason and spent many days in some or the other construction site but it was not getting him good income to support the growing family. He did odd jobs like cleaning cars or cleaning dishes at parties with the tent house guys he had befriended. Somehow they managed to meet the both ends. Savitri worked as house maid and earned a bit to pitch in, but with an infant in her lap and three more to take care of, it was becoming a bit rough for her to do her bit..
I would often see Savitri’s little family and her open life from my balcony on the fifth floor. Many a times I tried to get the whiff of what was cooking for lunch at her home. She would bathe her children one by one under the broken municipal tap and try to make the new baby sleep amidst traffic fumes, noise and filth.
I would pass her humble dwelling en route to the market and often think about the rigid rules we had at home about cleanliness. I would always be uncomfortable of my clothing when I would glance at the rags hanging on a thin dirty wire near the side wall of our apartment building.
I never stopped at Savitri’s home but smiled once in a while at her or handed some fruits to the children while passing that side. We had developed some silent unheard of bond between us.
One day as I returned home from the market, laden with bags of all shapes and sizes, I heard her shout from behind.
“Madam ji your purse fell off when you crossed my house.” She handed me my wallet with a smile.
I was touched by the honesty and sincerity of this woman. She was poor but not greedy. I mumbled my thanks with a smile and handed her a fifty rupee note. Suddenly the color of her face changed.
“We are poor madam ji but we are not beggars. My husband earns well to feed and keep us. You give eatables to my children that I don’t mind because food is sacred but money…. You are insulting me.” The proud woman said with a hurt in her voice.
I never felt more ashamed in my life than at that moment. A humanitarian lesson came to me from the most unexpected source.
I patted her back and walked silently towards my home. Days passed and I got busy with my new found work. My maid usually went for the local household purchases so my interaction with Savitri became less.
One day the bell rang at the crack of dawn. Half asleep and tired I dragged myself to the door to find Savitri with all her children.
She muttered that she was sorry for disturbing me so early but it was urgent. I became defensive and asked what the urgency was all about. I was sure she wanted money or some other help by telling some sob story.
“We are leaving for the village for good. Me and children” she said.
“Why? Is something wrong and what about Shyamlal?” I asked, curious to know what had hit them to move from the city after such a long time.
She was a woman of few words and in short she explained how her husband had got into bad company and came drunk most of the nights, hit her and created a scene by demanding physical contact when he pleased.
“I have two growing sons and three daughters and if we stay with him it would have a bad influence on them. I want to make my children civilized respectable citizens. I have some savings and I am sure we will be better off without that creep.”
“I don’t want my children to think that a woman is a ball of dung to be kicked around.” she said with pride glowing in her kohl dark eyes. I was dumbstruck. She was not willing to sacrifice her self-pride at any cost. I fell from my own eyes that very moment.
Here was I struggling to keep a dying relationship with a married man and here was a woman who had never set foot even in a local school teaching me what woman’s liberation was all about.
My respect for her grew from that day and I wished her success with her liberated new life. I went ahead and hugged her to her utter surprise. We parted with moist eyes.
I watched her walk away majestically with honor followed by her proud children.
The locality suddenly lost one of her most élite residents. Shyamlal wandered aimlessly for many days in half drunk condition. Maybe he lost his job too. After a few days the locality was cleared of the growing slum near it. The space on the pavement constantly reminded me of humble Savitri and the lesson she taught me before leaving. A lesson, all the years of my élite education could not teach.