21 August 2012

Driving to success - Part I

Rukmini watched as Suhasini completed mopping the bar floor. They had a routine: just as Suhasini would start with the last stretch of mopping, Rukmini would prepare their coffee. They would sit together after the cleaning, sometimes quietly, sometimes talking. Rukmini believed they were friends, but it was hard for her to tell if Suhasini felt the same. There was always some tension in the relationship; Suhasini was her employee, but more fundamentally, their priorities and ways of thinking of choices in life were very different. They were both single, self-made women, yet their social environment had resulted in different belief systems. Suhasini could not understand why Rukmini would not remarry and Rukmini could not understand how despite being financially independent, Suhasini still considered a male presence paramount in a woman's life.

The biggest disagreement had come when Suhasini decided to get her daughter married at 14. Rukmini had protested to the mother, tried to talk to the girl to rebel, and when her imploring went no where, in a final outburst reminded Suhasini that it was illegal. They spent days not speaking to each other. But with the same quiet determination that Suhasini completed her cleaning tasks, she completed the marriage for her daughter. Rukmini could feel the happiness and liberation that Suhasini radiated afterwards; that she, a single mother, survivor of abandonment, civic apathy and social taunts was able to marry her daughter to a salaried man and in style, was a big achievement.

Five years had passed since. They did not talk about their disagreement. If the daughter came up at all, it was in context of her children or visits home during the festival season. At today's coffee session, many minutes had passed in silence and Rukmini sensed that there was something amiss with Suhasini. When the words finally tumbled out, Rukmini was left speechless.

"Amma, last night Manjula came home with her two children. She came with all their belongings and says she will not go back to that man. How can I take care of her? A woman's place is with her husband." Suhasini exhaled loudly and then continued, "I tried talking to her last night and this morning. That girl is acting very strange. All she does is cry and keep begging me to let her stay. So her husband beat her. It happens, you know. For such small things that girl can't leave him. What sort of respect will she get from society? It is the man's job to take care of her and the children. How does she expect to take care of them alone, without their father? All this I tried to explain to her Amma, but she is acting very stubborn."

Rukmini could not understand how as a mother Suhasini's emotions were confined to astonishment and dismay, not rage at the husband and sympathy for her daughter. But she had to remind herself that Suhasini herself had gone through similar abuse and was prepared to put up with it; in her case it just so happened that the husband had fallen drunk on a busy road and was run over. Rukmini tried to set her opinions aside and be a friend.

"Suhasini-akka, why don't you let her stay with you for few days? May be a change of scene will be good for her. After being apart for some time, may be both husband and wife will feel more accommodating? Let his anger subside and her pain become lesser?"

"Ayyo Amma. It has already become more complicated than that. Today morning the husband called me and told me that he won't take her back. He abused me and accused me of not telling his family about the mental state of my daughter. He also threatened that if I were to bring my daughter to his house, he will beat us both."

Rukmini watched helplessly as Suhasini wept.

Over the next few weeks it became clear that the ties between Manjula and her husband were beyond repair. Many harsh words were exchanged, emissaries sent from each family were abused and rumors began that Manjula's husband had taken up with another woman. Soon Suhasini tired of feeding 3 extra mouths on her salary and tried to get Manjula to work as a maid. Manjula though had not inherited her mother's stoicism or tolerance towards physical labour. But without an education, there was little choice for her. It was a defeated Suhasini that brought Manjula to Shantam Pappum and pleaded Rukmini for employment. From all that she had heard and the little that she had interacted with Manjula, Rukmini first decide to send Suhasini away.

She then asked the girl, "What would make you happy?".

"Money" came the reply; it rolled off her tongue, toneless and matter-of-fact.

"You know that money has to be earned?" Manjula nodded.

"Do you know how you want to earn it?". No, the nod replied. Manjula played absentmindedly with the end of her saree pallu while Rukmini probed.

"What kind of work do you want to do?" Manjula, whose eyes were downcast till this point, a forced participant in the conversation, suddenly looked up, stopped playing with her pallu and replied, "I want to be my own boss, like you. I don't want people telling me what to do, like they tell my mother."

It had surprised Rukmini, for though she knew the girl had gumption, she had not imagined her to possess such an independent spirit. "What sort of business do you want to do?" Silence.

Rukmini did not think that a lecture on the economics of running a business would have made much sense. But to be helpful to Suhasini she told the girl to come that evening to the bar. While Manjula figured out her calling, she could at least earn a living by being the odd-job person in the bar.

That evening Rukmini was surprised to see Manjula, because the expression on her face when Rukmini had suggested this assignment looked indifferent. Whatever the motivation, thought Rukmini, she is here so I must get something for her to do. It was a Saturday night and the bar was crowded. Girls, women and music, all competed for shrillness. That evening Manjula became a waitress. She ferried hot bondas and vadas to and fro; she was quick on her feet and adept at remembering all the little customizations the girls demanded: baked, not fried; less salt; extra spicy; extra chutney; four by three etc. As usual, late into the night, a few guests loitered around drunk. While Rukmini tried hard to make sure she withdrew alcohol service from those who looked too tipsy or who didn't have a ride home, on the busy nights it was hard to keep track. She sought Manjula's help and together they loaded the girls into taxis. She ruefully looked on as the last taxi sped away. That's when she an idea for Manjula...

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