Monday, May 11, 2009
In praise of constructive sinning
Sheela must have been in her late thirties then. Hailing from a very traditional Gujarati family, she was the eldest of 3 sisters. She had just lost her mother, having lost her father years ago. As it happens when one is suddenly made aware of being the eldest of the remaining family, Sheela was particular about making an effort to be a tolerant, wise, cooperative guide for the remaining famly, in the highest tradition of her parents.
We used to meet her at the school in Mumbai, where Open Schooling contact lectures were held everyday. Her son was a junior there.
She had an older daughter, who was in college, and doing fine for herself. The son was a slow learner, and they had been advised Open Schooling so as to be able to study at the child's pace, in subjects that the child enjoyed. He was an artist, like his sister. He often behaved as if he was younger than his chronological age, and was an extremely friendly person.
For various reasons , many of us parents would wait at the school in the afternoons and return with the children after school. We'd sit under a tree on the grounds, or sometimes, when it rained, in a covered area meant for playing. Occasionally , we helped the school in their library and so were allowed to sit there.
Over the 2-3 years , we came to know everyone in each others families without ever meeting them.
Sheela lived a strictly traditional life. A daily temple visit was mandatory. She had a small house, where the children shared rooms, and every room doubled as another room most of the time. A single bathroom , hot Mumbai weather, and the technicalities of worship timings, and baths, meant that the place was used like clockwork, while everyone strived to meet their daily appointments, at the temple and at work, school etc.
Greatly involved in religious activities,fasts and seasonal observances prescribed for them, she was a very thrifty lady who managed to save by making so many things at home, which she could have bought outside. She would make different traditional delicacies from even leftovers, and bring them for her son to eat at recess. She always bought extra for a few of us who were her friends, and definitely not so expert at stuff. The stuff was delicious and wonderful, and had a little extra something, that had to do with her great sense of hospitality and freindship. And it was amazing to see the patience with which she managed her son, without sounding like a disciplinarian, and yet tended to him throughout the time we were there.
One of the things traditional , all over India, is the hospitality that is offered to visiting relatives from the in-laws side. This is true regardless of religion, community etc.
To Sheela, this came naturally. She was always correct , and firm about things , but went out of her way being hospitable to anyone with a tenuous connection on her husband's side.
That particular week, she had been looking particularly tired everyday. We knew a nephew of sorts was visiting. But then, relatives were always coming and going, that we knew of.
Then we happened to see her hands. Roughened in parts with skin peeling in places. That couldn't be due to her cooking.
A lot of prodding and cajoling , and what she told us was shocking.
The particular nephew was doing badly in business. He was currently trying to avoid the creditors, and moving around. Arriving at Sheela's was part of the hoodwinking of creditors. This guy spent his days seeing movies and visiting other friends and relatives. He also chewed tobacco and smoked. Knowing Sheela's attitude about smoking, he was constantly going in and out whenever he felt like a smoke. However, he kept chewing tobacco, and as per the typical habit, kept spitting it in the bathroom, generating huge trickles and blobs of red juice.
Every time he remained at home, she had to ensure that her college going daughter wasn't alone there. Both were at a difficult age. The guy kept watching TV when he was home. In the small house , the children found it difficult to do their school assignments and studies. The daughter finally took to going to the neighbor's flat to study
The first time Sheela saw the red stuff, she was alarmed. Then she realised what it was. Her attitude that guests were God, didnt allow her to give the nephew an earful, or request him to indulge in his vices elsewhere. So everyday, twice or thrice, she was given to heavily scrubbing the floor, using all kinds of harsh abrasive stuff. The shameless fellow continued his spitting. Sheela's daughter was upset, but kept quiet on her mother's insistence. Sheela's husband came home late, after braving the crowds in Mumbai's trains, and she didn't want to bother him about his nephew's exploits.
We were absolutely incensed. We had slightly easier lives, and we did not follow many limiting customs. Here someone was simply taking advantage of the in-law-centric social set up. The nephew appeared to be totally shameless. We even offered to come and tell the fellow that he better clean his own spitting, or simply, spit elsewhere, far way. Sheela was under the pressure, of this nephew being the son of her husband's elder sister, and so telling him off was not an option, and would lead to loss of peace in her own household. That the fellow was hiding from creditors was additional pressure, in case they actually landed up.
There comes a time in every one's life , when one has to do something uncharacteristic, in the interests of general social good. Like sin.
We hatched a plan.
We wrote a letter in Marathi, which was the language of the creditors. It helped that it was the mother tongue of two of us. We simply indicated in the letter that we had been following him, and knew where he was and where he had been till now; we were urging him to make his loan payments promptly, to avoid unpleasant meetings; and we also wrote that the matter would now go to the police, something we really didn't want to do. This letter was posted for us by someone who lived in a different suburb of Mumbai than any of us.
Sheela , looked on open mouthed. A part of her , approved that we were doing something that someone should have done long time ago. The entire obedient-daughter-in-law-in-the -in-law's-house syndrome didn't allow her to undertake tricks like this.
Two days later, Sheela arrived bursting with information, but waited till the school bell rang, and her son went to class. Just before she left home to catch the suburban bus train combination that brought her to school, the letter had arrived in the mailbox. Sheela had not seen the envelope, so she innocently brought it up, saying the nephew has a letter.
The minute her husband saw the nephew's name and his own address , he saw red. The envelope was torn open, and they read the unsigned message.
Sheela was getting late for school, so she left. Traditionally too, this wasn't what women of the house handled. She knew her husband, a god fearing man. When she bid goodbye, there was talk of the nephew shifting elsewhere, now that his current refuge was known to his creditors. As she appraised us of the events, there was a lightness in her voice and a twinkle in he eye. She was sure the nephew would have left by the time she reached back.
An hour later, her daughter called to say that the chap had left with his bag and baggage, now to some other aunt's place.
He appeared upset, bothered and a bit alarmed, but thought moving was best.
We thought so too. Had been thinking so for the last several days, ever since we heard about our friend scrubbing her hands away, to keep her bathroom clean from vice laden shameless chaps.
She smiled at us. Told us how grateful she was . And also told us, never ever to mention his to anyone that she and us knew in common. She was at peace. Her daughter would now be able to study in peace, and remain at home by herself. Safely. Bathing was once again a pleasurable activity. And the bathroom was clean as a whistle.
A bunch of us rushed to he store opposite the school.
Bought a bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion, and presented it to her.
She would go home, prepare a great meal for her family in a peaceful frame of mind. Everyone would say how terrible it was that the nephew had to shift elsewhere. Her son would be sprawled on the floor completing his homework. Her daughter would be on the phone, simultaneously filing her nails. Her husband would be sitting, his feet up, after a hard day at work, vaguely watching the news.
And Sheela would finish clearing the kitchen, shut of the light there, wipe her hands on her saree palloo, and come take her favourite seat in the living room , cum familyroom, cum bedroom, cum studyroom.
She'd put her feet up.
She would lean back in her chair, shaking her head at the audacity of her friends. She must remember to pray for them at the temple tomorrow. Maybe her God would understand.
Then she'd take a little bit of that Vaseline Lotion, and rub it on her palms, fingers and wrists.
Cooling down. Smoothing down a life . That had erupted so suddenly.
And tomorrow was another day.......