Let me tell you a story today... a real story... a story that hit me so hard that it took me months to put it down on paper. A story that changed the way I looked at life. A story that showed me the different shades of courage, self-respect, sacrifice and dignity.
The story of a person - unseen, unknown, always present among us but never acknowledged.
I am one of the early birds at my workplace. The earliest bird in-fact. I love the calm, quiet and silence of the mornings before it all becomes a busy mayhem. So, the morning hours are usually just me, and the cleaning staff.
They are there, mopping the floors, filling water, getting milk, placing the dustbins, cleaning the toilets...moving all around, visible - yet not present in my world. Most of the time, I am not even conscious of their presence. Just people in a world far different from my own...at least that's what I would have thought, if at all I would have ever given it a thought, which honestly, I didn't.
One morning, as I walked towards the water-cooler, one of these blue uniformed apparitions walked right into my vision. And I heard the name of my hometown. Now, the name of my hometown always gets my attention. Regardless of how many years I have spent in this city, there’s no place that I love more than my hometown.
And I focused, on this person standing in front of me. A small, dark lady, large sunken eyes, and a face lined with the trials of life. Must be in her 40s. She was asking me if I came from my home town. "Yes" I replied. "I come from there too. Have been seeing you for long now. I heard you talk and guessed from your accent that you come from my place", she said.
I nodded. Not really interested in carrying on a conversation, but at the same time not wanting to sound rude, I mumbled something... polite and indifferent...something about thinking she came from another part of the country.
She shook her head. "Have been in this city from the past 25yrs.", she said. "Came when I got married at the age of 18. Husband broke his back in an accident 7 months later. I was 3 months pregnant with my daughter at that time. I have been working in this city all these years".
I looked at her appalled. There was neither self-pity nor emotion in what she said. She was just stating a fact, completely calm. Life must have rubbed her so often and so hard over the years, she must have numbed her senses.
"What about your daughter?" I asked.
"She is a doctor. Doing her final year internship in KMC Manipal" (she named one of the most reputed medical colleges in our state).
I am ashamed to say this, but for a second, I did not believe her. I feel embarrassed to think how I must have looked, staring at her goggle eyed, wondering if I had heard right.
"What!!? Where!!?" I asked.
She repeated her sentence, again in the calm, deadpan way which seemed to be ingrained in her. I had heard right.
I looked at her anew. This was not just another woman born into poverty, living in poverty, sacrificed and forgotten in the grind of an uncaring world. There was more to her, much more, and I wanted to know.
Over the days, we spoke often. Every time Sarojini shared bits and pieces of her story, I was amazed, amazed by her will, courage and maturity.
By the age of fourteen, she had lost both her mother and father. The day her Aunt (mother’s sister), dumped a plate of rice, that was 4 days old with maggots, in front of her to eat, she decided that she would never, ever be beholden or dependent on anyone. She went to work as a maid and nanny, till the age of eighteen, when she got married and came to Bangalore.
Her husband was a bus driver, and they lived a happy 7 months together. Sarojini was 3 months pregnant, when her husband’s bus met with a horrific accident. He broke his back and was in coma for six months. She sold all the gold that her mother had given her for his treatment. By the time she delivered her baby girl in her home town, she was penniless.
She stayed on, for another six months thinking what to do next. Her husband was still in the hospital, and she had nothing to live on. Her husband’s brother and family were asking her to stay back. She did not know what to do.
Through all the turmoil and confusion, she was always clear about two things – that her baby should not suffer due to this tragedy and that she would not live on somebody’s charity. And so, she took that one heart-wrenching decision that changed her daughter’s life. She left her baby with her husband’s brother and family, to be brought up in her hometown, while she came to Bangalore.
Over the years, she worked in the city, taking care of her invalid husband, saving and scrimping, and slogging years and years living her life cleaning after others, in a city without a heart or soul.
That her daughter got a fair chance in life seemed to compensate for everything else in her life.
"She is a brilliant girl. Always was. First in class.”, Sarojini told me. She then shook her head and gave a wry smile, “She sometimes gets angry with me. Says – you gave me away when I was a baby, you did not want me. It’s okay. Someday she will know, I wanted her more than anything in life, that I loved her more than anything I ever had, and that’s why I left her there”. I had a painful lump in my throat as I looked at her. There was so much pain and so much love in her voice that I wished her daughter could have heard it, felt it. She would never doubt her mother’s love again.
One morning, Sarojini came to me saying she had some news.
“My daughter is coming. Next week. She is getting married next month. The boy is also a doctor. Everything is ready. We are going to buy dresses" she sounded…contended.
I felt happy, very happy. This little lady deserved a world of happiness and I was glad to share this moment of joy with her. I also felt happy for the girl who did her mom so proud and who had found a mate after her own heart.
I did not see her for nearly a month after that, and I automatically assumed that she was busy with the wedding. When I met her again, after a month, I asked her "How was the wedding?"
She looked at me for a minute, silent, her expression resigned.
"He died", she said. I felt my heart skipping beats. "What??" I asked. "The boy… the groom", she said. "He died. Two days before the wedding. He collapsed after dinner. Was taken to hospital. Was dead in 12 hours. Doctors said brain hemorrhage". I felt my throat tighten, and it took all of me to control the tears that seemed to have welled up inside me. "How is she?" I asked.
"She is here. With me. She came down with me. She said she wants to be with me."
And then, this little lady who had stood stoically calm and indifferent in front of me stating the tragedies of her life, choked and tears streamed from her eyes.
"I stay in a small shanty. I want her to stay in comfort, so I ask her to go to these relatives' house. She says no. She says she wants to be with me - her mom. She cooks, washes the clothes, cleans up, she has got her computer with her and her books. And she reads… her big books… in English. She tells me not to talk about what happened, not to talk about marriage. She tells she just wants to be a good doctor."
And she wept... wiping her hands over her eyes...again and again, trying to staunch the tears that refused to stop.
And this woman, an unseen and unknown member of this world, blended into my life, visible and clear.
As I looked at her, trying to control my tears, all I saw was a mother. A mother - hurting, hurting bad for her little girl. Hurting for the pain her daughter was going through but also proud of having given birth to a girl who loved her mother exactly for what she was.
I felt humbled, I felt small, I felt privileged - for I stood in front of a person who was braver, stronger, kinder and worth more than almost everyone I knew.
Today, Sarojini’s daughter is practicing. She is also studying for her post-graduate exam in medicine. Sarojini continues to clean the floors and toilets. She has no plans to stop working, she has no intention of being beholden to anyone.
Sarojini was transferred from my office to another in February. I miss her quiet, efficient presence around the office, in the silent mornings. For me, she is not a housekeeping staff. She is a lady with tremendous courage, dignity and self-respect.
And through her story, I saw a glimpse of the life of the Unseen People, lost and ignored. I feel ashamed, of the multitude of us, for whom these people are just wraiths, meant to be felt with only what they did- not to be heard, not to be noticed, and not to be seen; whereas they were braver, stronger and worth so much more...so much more than you or me could ever become.
"Shiny Kesavan" loves to weave thoughts into words. She describes herself as a quiet person with a quirky soul.
An introvert, she loves to observe and experience the world around her. While she is the typical software engineer in Bangaloreto the outward eye, it is the writer in her that brings her alive. Shiny is her pseudonym, and she loves to pen down her thoughts in her blog https://thewavesofmymindblog.wordpress.com