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The Amma Who Took French Leave by Rumjhum Biswas

Amma had never done anything like this before. She was a good sort. She was honest and did her job with sincerity. Aditi had never had any trouble from her before. No sloppy work. No tardiness. No stealing that odd handful of rice or a potato. No complaints of drunken husbands or sons.  Amma’s work was clean, and she arrived on time everyday. On top of all that she never took a Sunday off. Not one. Aditi considered her a Godsend in a place where it was impossible to survive without maids. One had no choice but to depend on them here, the way one depended on the very water of life. Aditi had learned that soon enough, after her return.

Aditi had learned a lot of other things too, since then; and relearned a few old housekeeping lessons as well that were taught by her mother during her girlhood. Vital housekeeping lessons, like how homes here needed to be cleaned everyday, even twice a day, with the good old dust cloth, rice stalk broom, a rag and pail of water. Here, steel vessels had to be shined with steel wool and coarse grainy soap. Vegetables had to be pre-soaked and then washed in running water again and again. Rice needed to be picked clean of grit and then washed and washed until the water ran clear. Drinking water had to be bought for seventy rupees for a 25 liter can. Aditi had to unlearn her habit of drinking straight from the tap. She also had to unlearn a few more things she had picked up in the US. Like walking around her home with outdoor shoes on instead of changing into rubber flip flops, and leaving the bread in the bread bin. The roads were so dirty that it was a sacrilege to walk around the house in shoes; as for the bread, it quickly turned moldy outside the refrigerator.

Aditi, nonetheless, soon began to appreciate that here, a harried home maker could get someone to wash and rinse her cup of mid morning coffee long after the morning’s cooking vessels were cleaned. Here there was someone to rub soothing oil into one’s aching scalp. Here a woman could have that other woman in her life to share the burden of house keeping with. Perhaps that was why these women were called “Amma” or mother. Naturally Aditi could hardly be blamed for feeling angry and betrayed when her Amma disappeared, just like that, for one whole week!

As maids go, she was rare. Aditi knew that. Her neighbors knew that. May be one of them had wooed her away with a bigger salary? Neighbors were known to do worse in these parts. Maybe Amma had taken it into her head to leave all of a sudden. Maids were known to do that. It was the quality of their lives. It made them a little crazy in the head. Heaven knew what went on in that wizened old head of hers! So far she’d been quite reliable. Aditi had gotten used to her unassuming ways. She had actually begun to believe that at least her Amma was loyal; definitely better than the rest. 

Amma didn’t give any warning, not even a hint. Aditi wasted the first day waiting for her to turn up. Then, for the next two days she did Amma’s job, tiring herself out and looking like a frump in the process. It was hard work, now that she had grown used to a maid’s services all over again. In the US she’d had little choice. But the housework was done faster there, with all the machines and convenience foods. Her husband used to help too. But here, he was back to his pampered old self, and even had employed a man to clean his car everyday for a salary of two hundred rupees a month! He complained of the lack of disciplined traffic and poor quality of service – “they’ll work for peanuts and work like monkeys!” was his favorite complaint. He fumed about the general tardiness every where. So he went late to office, because no one came on time and returned late, sometimes at eleven in the night, because everyone worked “lazily”. Of course he never had time to even talk to Aditi let alone help her with the housework. He gave her a chauffeured car, so she could do the grocery shopping on her own, or go out where she liked. But where could one go? One couldn’t eat at a restaurant nor go to the beach for a jaunt or to the movies alone. That left only the shopping malls, which left Aditi feeling nostalgic and outraged, because Indian prices seemed steeper than what she was accustomed to for the same things back in the States.

Aditi felt like screaming. She didn’t of course. What would the neighbor’s say? Instead, she stoically went about cooking and cleaning. As if she had a choice! Nobody would come at such a short notice. Nobody would want to do a temporary job, unless it was one of Amma’s friends. But Aditi’s Amma sent neither word nor substitute. She did nothing. Nobody knew where she’d gone. And, the days passed, Aditi felt more and more depressed and unloved, like a martyr ignored. So what did Amma expect? Aditi had to find another Amma. And, she did.

The new one seemed alright so far. She cost more because she could speak a little English. Aditi didn’t mind shelling out the extra money. The new Amma’s knowledge of English, however smattering, had made it so much easier to give her orders. The old Amma and Aditi used to communicate mostly in sign language. She used to find it frustrating when she wanted Amma to clean a spot that she’d missed or tell her to handle the crystal with care when she dusted the tables and shelves. Now all that was comfortably past. Or so, Aditi thought until she answered the door in the morning, at the exact time her old Amma used to ring the bell.

Yes, it really was Amma back, like the prodigal returned. Possibly to reclaim her job. Blinking behind her spectacles owlishly, she stood before Aditi with her withered hands rising in supplication. Aditi spoke no Tamil, so the watchman had to translate. She listened to the old Amma’s plea. Amma wanted Aditi to excuse her absence, the French leave that she took. It was a stampede, she explained via the watchman, a stampede of impatient humans at a school. There were at least a hundred people, rushing forward to claim the food and clothes that ended up claiming the lives of her boys. The youngest, her grandson, was just twelve.

What stampede and what school was she talking about?  Aditi asked her through the watchman. The watchman, a hoary old fellow, with a disapproving face and servile posture, said that family members of Tsunami victims were being given compensation of rice and clothes by a charity organization. But the Tsunami occurred more than three years ago, Aditi exclaimed. What kind of a cock and bull story was this?

The watchman was quiet for a minute. The Amma stood still, incomprehension writ large on her face.  The watchman, a note of weary patience slowing down his words, spoke again, swallowing back a tobacco flavored spittle of bitterness.

The Tsunami victims still needed help, he told Aditi. Many of them were yet to receive compensation. Many of them hadn’t been able to move into new homes. The houses hadn’t been built yet. Many more waited to be allotted new houses. They were living in makeshift dwellings, patched together from discarded tarpaulin, plastic sheets and thatch; they were trying to make ends meet with the remnants of their families and friends.

The watchman did not bother to ask why Aditi was not aware. They were living in the same country after all; same city in fact. He said nothing that came even close to impertinence. But the questions stood there before Aditi, beating a tattoo of accusation on her door.

Aditi had nothing to say. Of course she had read it all in the newspapers, but hadn’t given it much thought. Their world and hers were so much apart. She had her own set of problems, just as they had theirs. Life here was no cake walk, despite the glitter of global cuisine restaurants and shimmering malls. Besides, it hadn’t occurred to Aditi that her Amma could be involved. That she was a part of them.

Now that she’d heard, Aditi felt genuinely sorry for her. And, genuinely helpless too. She could feel as guilty as she wanted, but she couldn’t throw out the other Amma for no reason. Could she? That would be unfair too. Would her old Amma understand the predicament?

The watchman looked at the Amma without speaking. Amma sighed before nodding her head in that strange neither-yes-nor-no-way to show that she did understand. Aditi’s predicament transcended language barriers. Her old Amma and her new. They were after all sisters from the same tribe. They would not grudge each other’s bread. Their stories could be different, but their sorrows were the same. Their separate lives stitched together like a patchwork quilt with the same thread of hard truth running between the cloth pieces. They shared and shared alike when times were scarce.

Aditi’s old Amma seemed to know instinctively that one job lost was only one meal lost in a day. She told Aditi so, through the watchman’s surly lips. It was alright. Her old limbs would have that extra time to rest. An old woman needed more rest than food. She fell silent again. A wobbly parenthesis hovering outside Aditi’s door. She stood there lost in her thoughts and memories. Aditi observed her searching for something in the sunlight. There was no anger or reproach in her eyes. But Aditi’s awkwardness returned nevertheless. She didn’t know how long she could stand this.

The Amma looked up at Aditi and the watchman translated again. Now that Amma had no one, now that she no longer had to save for her grandson’s education, her life felt like an empty gourd.

Aditi looked away. It was near impossible to fill her heart up with this truth. She could not bear Amma to speak about her present life. Aditi thrust some five hundred rupee notes into her hands. They were crisp and new; more than Amma’s monthly salary. Aditi released the notes into the Amma’s bent and damp hands, and the rustle of the paper dissolved away into silence.

Aditi knew that this was small compensation for the three lives that were snuffed out. She still could not bear to look at her. But Amma accepted the notes. Aditi felt relieved. She didn’t have to elaborate anymore on why she had taken in the substitute Amma.

The old Amma apologized again for not sending word. It had happened so fast, she said. She had to identify her losses through the slippers they had lost. She had to get the bodies out of the sun as fast as she could. She had to arrange the triple funeral quickly, very quickly, for the sun pours his wrath on all, without exception. Just like the sea. She murmured to herself without rancor. The watchman interpreted her without pity. Aditi flinched at every word she was made to hear. And then, Amma fell silent again. Her grief cutting a deep trench across which the words could not overflow. Aditi could see how sharply it had etched into her bones, till it no longer showed up in her eyes.

Abruptly the old Amma left, leaving a breath heaving in mid air.

The watchman about turned too, and marched back to his post by the main gate, his shadow crouching like an angry Quasimodo beneath his corny feet. Aditi returned indoors to confront her new Amma’s eyes.

They searched hers. It didn’t take the new Amma long to find what she was looking for. There was a look of relief in them that worked on Aditi’s scalp like thin work calloused fingers, propelling her head the other way.

Aditi looked at other things. She watched a fly settle on the ceiling. She sat with the newspaper opened, spread out on the dining table. She scanned the news, but saw Amma in the newsprint instead. She saw the old Amma’s wrinkles. She imagined them bearing the weight of bodies. She saw her old Amma collecting faggots beneath trees; faggots for her three pyres.

Aditi saw the edge of Amma’s blue sari flying above her head like a kite, fluttering to free itself from the clutches of twiggy branches. Amma wore recycled tire slippers, clutched tight below her toes, clawing the soil hard beneath her feet. She had a liter bottle of Kerosene in her hands. She had bought the fuel from the black market, because there was no time to queue up before the ration shop for the government’s fair price Kerosene. Aditi could smell the flames crackling over the dry skin of lives that a giant wave of water killed three years after it had receded back into the ocean’s belly. Aditi sat at her dining table, tasting the sticky ash of burnt flesh in her coffee.

Aditi drew the curtains and shut her doors to the dust and itinerant vendors outside. Aditi settled into her chair again. She returned to the fragrance of her coffee. She returned to the crossword in the newspaper. The day started to become ordinary again. Her mind settled down among the running sands of her orderly days, pecking about its small details like a busy hen. A frown gathered upon her forehead. Practical things began to probe and question, trying to make sense of her impulsive generosity. And Aditi picked up the pen again, poised over a scrap of paper. She sipped her coffee and turned to work out the week’s housekeeping accounts again, now that she was a few five hundred rupee notes short.








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