She entered the house as a temporary domestic help, wordlessly captured everyone’s hearts, and then disappeared. I shared nothing more than a few silent smiles, and tears, with this woman, but found it held more meaning than words could ever do.
She entered the house as a temporary domestic help, wordlessly captured everyone’s hearts, and disappeared.
Bharoti and I are about the same age. We are both small—call us short or petite depending on how your mother brought you up. We are not fat—well, I try real hard and she’s effortlessly skinny. We are both working women. We speak Bangla. And both of us live in the Delhi suburb Gurgaon.
Bharoti first entered my home about five months ago. Putul, the part-timer who’s been doing our laundry for years now, was going on a month’s leave to her village in Midnapore. A veteran in Gurgaon’s competitive domestic help universe, Putul had brought along with her just the right kind of substitute. Someone who would never be a rival.
A fresh arrival from the boondocks somewhere, who had two hands and nothing else. Who would work with us till—and only till—Putul returned. And someone incapable of jeopardising the allegiances Putul enjoyed with my live-in help, a network crucial for any part-timer’s survival. Putul knew that, unlike her, Bharoti neither had the language nor whatever else it took to bond with them. To chat them up, to bring them gossip from the other homes she worked in. Forget gossip, my live-in help could barely make sense of the rare utterances Bharoti made. But more irritatingly for them, Bharoti didn’t understand them, their demands.
They complained that Bharoti (Bharati to them) simply couldn’t understand that with the washing of clothes done, bathroom floors are to be mopped dry, dry, dry. And bottles aren’t to be bunched together by size alone: Ezee is different from L’Oreal shampoo, they tried teaching her. But Bharoti didn’t learn. And what gumption, they cribbed. On occasion, she’d even started using a mix of hand motions and noises to counter them. Baths are wet, surely bathrooms are supposed to be wet too. And madam wouldn’t wash her hair with liquid detergent just because it had been kept next to a shampoo bottle, na?
So, unable to tutor her into sensibilities more refined, they decided to smirk at Bharoti’s rustic ways instead. That is, whenever she made it impossible for them to ignore her altogether.
Till the unexpected happened. Bharoti’s unexpected smile. A dazzler, so bright, so warm, the household began to melt.
No one quite knew when it first entered the house with Bharoti. The smile that was independent of life’s circumstances. The smile that seemed to make the upturned tips of her lips touch her ears, reach her eyes, and stay there.
I first bumped into that smile maybe three or four weekends after she’d joined (on weekdays she came to work when I was in office). Her job done for the day, she had walked up to my Saturday couch-potato state and smiled that heartfelt smile, head tilting right. As if connected, I found my heart and head do just the same, only for some reason, my head chose to tilt left as if to mirror her right. Whoever knows the ways of the head…
But the heart, it seemed to grow from then on. Each weekend, I noticed new gestures and signs being invented to make spoken words redundant around Bharoti. Also, enough kindness had been discovered to help make Bharoti’s work easier. The geyser would now be switched on before she came in so that ready hot water made her washing quick and comfortable. She’d also been told that heavier laundry, like towels and bed linen, need not be hand-washed; they could be dumped into a machine that she hadn’t been told about earlier. Cups of tea were being shared in comfortable silence. Namkeen, biscuits and machcher jhol were packed as takeaways for her.
Bharoti was now called—and in absence, referred to as—Bharati didi.
Putul rang the doorbell. Like always, she’d returned darker and gaunter from her leave. Her children had fallen sick one by one in Midnapore and had come back weaker than when they’d left. Her in-laws had sponged off all the savings she’d taken with her to perform rituals and ceremonies around some village deity. She was tired. It happened every time she returned from her village; she had to make yet another weary beginning with her life in Gurgaon.
And something about her sullen silence screamed disapproval of any curiosity we might show regarding Bharoti’s whereabouts.
Putul was back. That was that.
It was a cold, groggy six something in the morning and a very disturbed voice yanked me out of sleep. Wake up, Bharoti’s at the doorstep, hurry. It had been over two months since Putul’s return, and she’d made it clear that any effort we made to trace Bharoti would hurt her deeply. And so, Bharoti had become an unspoken memory for us.
And now what?
My heart sinking, I walked up to Bharoti, her five-year-old son and a younger woman squatting by her side. She walked into the house with me as if in a trance. We sat in a huddle. And as she whined and whimpered in inutterable pain, Bharoti’s younger companion narrated a patchy story that the little child with them had perhaps heard many times over and could’ve told better.
Bharoti’s husband had been mauled to death by dogs.
The family had come to Gurgaon about six months ago with two children, leaving their eldest daughter back home. The initial month had spelt penury, but soon Bharoti had found temporary jobs to support her family. Then, about a month back, her husband had found a job as a sweeper with a contractor who’d been sublet work by the state government.
Two weeks ago, while he was taking a nap break between sweeping clean Gurgaon’s roads, two dogs attacked Bharoti’s husband. One bit his lips off. The other tore off parts of his upper arms and punctured his stomach. No one had come to his rescue. And after about 12 days of being unconscious with festering wounds in the one room they shared with another family unknown to them, Bharoti’s husband died. So did the dogs, they’d heard.
Just as well that Bharoti and I had never really spoken. There really was nothing to say. We’d shared smiles and now there was nothing but tears, dry and wet, to be shared.
I gave her some money. We both knew it was a substantial sum and we also knew it was a pittance, given the many demands life would make on her.
As I escorted her to the lift, she asked: “Tomar naam? (Your name?)”
“Shoma (Soma),” I replied.
“Aami Jubeda (I am Zubeida),” said Bharoti.
Soma Wadhwa is a journalist. She has spent many years of her professional life reporting on people and stories that inhabit the Other India. Sometimes, these people and stories visit the India she lives in. And enrich it with their presence.