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Fiction: The Domestic Help

Menoka-di started working from the beginning of next month. I was very curious to know what ‘a poor grief-stricken wife, abandoned by her husband’ looked
The domestic help short story
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She used to come everyday to clean our dirty clothes, floors and dishes. For a starting monthly wage of 50 Indian rupees, which was the standard in the 60s and 70s, she offered her services to our household for about two decades. Ours was one of the five houses that she had provided her services to.                                                                  

She was our domestic help Menoka. I addressed her as Menoka-di. We were taught to show respect to all our household help– drivers, guards, gardeners, cooks by adding a ‘di’ (meaning elder sister) or ‘da’ (meaning elder brother) to their first names. Menoka-di was a part of the family. 

We previously had another domestic help– Aloka-di; she had some health issues  and decided to quit her laborious job. It was Aloka-di who had recommended Menoka-di to my mother. My mother gladly accepted. We needed a replacement right away and it was safer to hire someone with reference. “Oh! She is completely trustworthy. Poor Menoka…she is grief-stricken…her husband has abandoned her!” were her exact words. My mother agreed to hire Menoka. 

So Menoka-di started working from the beginning of next month. I was very curious to know what ‘a poor grief-stricken wife, abandoned by her husband’ looked like. Menoka-di entered the house on a Sunday morning– tall and straight, with a rough tanned face but no sign of grief in her whole appearance. With my 6-years’ knowledge of the world, I tried my best to reconcile her confidence with the portrayal of a ‘poor abandoned wife’ but I could not. I was in awe of her no-nonsense, no-tears, demeanor.

I saw her almost every morning entering the house at the same time for about 18 years, barring a few vacation days and sick-leaves. I was always amazed by the speed with which she would enter the house, clean all the floors, wash our clothes and then rush out saying she would be back to wash the dishes after doing her rounds at the other houses. 

I grew up observing her. She never shied away from scolding me when I was being mischievous, nor did she ever hold back from telling my mother to back off if she thought my mother was being too strict with me. Although she was never a big talker, she had a habit of talking while cleaning the floor of my room. It was almost like mumbling – as if she was talking to herself. Most of the time it was about the importance of paying attention to my studies and growing up to be a ‘big person’ working in a ‘big office’, or how ‘small work’ and ‘small places’ can keep people closeted. As I grew up, I gathered her life story from those mumblings and began gently prodding her for more– especially when no one was around. Sometimes she would shush me but other times, especially if ours was the last house to clean, she would talk more. I started gathering the pieces till the picture was complete. No, it was not a sob-story. Aloka-di was wrong. Menoka-di was not a ‘grief-stricken poor abandoned wife’ by any means.

Menoka-di was born in a tiny remote village on the eastern side of India. Life there was limited by the paddy fields where men would go 365 days of the year barefoot and bare-headed in the scorching heat or heavy rain, to earn two servings of rice a day for their family members. Seasonal labor jobs of wood-cutting or brick-making would provide some extra liquid cash for the villagers to earn one or two luxuries of life. There was hardly anything in the village that could provide entertainment. As such the men, being the bread-earners of the family, would visit the only liquor store of the area as soon as it opened its doors. The owner of the store started earning good money, while the women started cursing him day and night; booze became more important to the husbands than providing for the family, but the complaints of the wives were falling on deaf ears. 

The village also had one school, that started as an elementary school but eventually became a high school thanks to the hefty donation and political connection of the local businessman who was aspiring to run for public office by defeating the incumbent landlord. The boys of the village had slowly started to join the school, but not the girls–  they were kept in the house to help with the chores till they were married off. So for the women, the only luxury was gossiping at the public pond whilst bathing. And for the younger girls, they all dreamt of being married off and finally escaping this village that had provided nothing special for their lot.

Menoka-di was no exception. She was the eldest of the four siblings, among which three were sisters. Her brother, the youngest one, was about six years younger than her. With two or three more conceptions and miscarriages, her mother was in a perpetual cycle of being pregnant, until the lady doctor of the village health center was able to convince her father to get a vasectomy. Her father finally agreed– partly because his wife was in a poor state of health, and partly because he was finally satisfied after having a son that no more children were needed. 

Menoka-di was born in a tiny remote village on the eastern side of India. Life there was limited by the paddy fields where men would go 365 days of the year barefoot and bare-headed in the scorching heat or heavy rain, to earn two servings of rice a day for their family members.

With a tiny feeble body, Menoka-di’s mother was unable to do much work. As the eldest daughter, Menoka-di had her share of household chores along with tending to her mother. Her sisters helped her as much as they could, while her brother was enrolled in the school by the age of six. Therefore, Menoka-di’s father was the only earning member, and worked very hard to provide for the family while trying to save for the dowry of his three daughters. Her father had never visited the liquor store though, instead he spent all his evenings sitting next to his wife’s bed and chatting in the dim light of the lantern. They seemed to be happy with each other. The villagers used to call her father a hen-pecked husband, but that did not bother him at all. Although money was scarce, the family had a peaceful daily rhythm. Menoka-di’s own household however was not exactly a reflection of her mother’s. 

Menoka-di was happy when her parents had decided to marry her off at the age of 19. The amount of dowry was acceptable to her parents so the marriage was fixed in a week. They had two other daughters to marry off and fund the education of the son, so ‘sooner the better’ was the thought. Menoka-di had no objection to that. She was excited about the possibility of a new home, as well as a newfound love life that until this point was completely unknown to her.

Menoka-di’s new home was fifteen miles away from her parents’ home in another tiny remote village, not very different from her own. Men were working either at the paddy fields or at the labor jobs, and finding their relaxation at the liquor store. The women were taking care of the household, fighting with their husbands for money and spending the afternoon gossiping at the public pond.  

Their family was small– Menoka-di, her husband Ramu and her mother-in-law Gita. Menoka-di, with her strong physique, was the perfect one to take care of all the chores of the household. Gita was lazy and between the occasional jobs and the gambling at the liquor store, Ramu had no time for anything else. The little land they had was long gone to repay the debt Ramu had incurred from gambling. Unlike Ramu’s father, who used to work hard on the land to provide for his family through whatever he harvested, Ramu had no interest in farming. Apparently, reaching the secondary level of education had given him a false sense of pride. He first started working for a local businessman, but his bad temper caused some issues there and he was soon fired. Since then, he started taking up odd jobs, but nothing stable. He was a man of more ego than substance, and was always irritable. Gita herself was not of a sweet temper either; she could not control her son after her husband had passed. She thought the marriage would provide a solution, both through financial means as well as by making her son more responsible, but that did not happen. For Ramu, a wife was needed for cooking, cleaning and giving birth to his son. Ramu had no interest in romancing his newly-wed wife, and had no reason to change his lifestyle for her. Between Ramu and his mother, Menoka-di had no place to nurture her own dream or think about a future brighter than her past. 

Most men worked in paddy fields. Illustration Helen Whitney Kelley.

Life was going by in that monotony and by the rule of nature, Menoka-di got pregnant within a year. She was happy with the news and thought to spend some time with her maiden family whom she had not visited since her marriage, before the baby arrived. That was the custom in India at that time– to bring home the pregnant daughter so that she can be well-rested and nourished. Menoka-di’s parents however were unable to do so. They were preparing for the marriage of their second daughter at that time and could not afford the extra expenditure of a childbirth. Menoka-di was disappointed but complaining was not in her nature. She carried on with her daily chores. Around the end of the first trimester, Menoka-di lost her balance while carrying the bucket of dirty clothes to the pond for washing. She had a miscarriage. The lady doctor at the village health center had advised her to take bed rest for a month – she had lost a lot of blood and was feeling very weak.

Her mother-in-law, who then had to pick up the household chore by default, got very upset with the ‘fuss’. She announced her ‘bad luck’ to all the neighbors and kept on telling her son to remarry – this time a strong and ‘lucky’ woman who would bring more money to the house and give birth to a boy without any issues. Ramu had no emotional attachment with his wife, but he was not convinced that he could get rid of her so easily. As a result of all these complicated dynamics, on top of Ramu’s inability to earn a lot of money by some magic, he started becoming more rude to Menoka-di and started hitting her on the slightest pretext. He would come home late every night, drunk, and abuse his wife for not having enough money to run the household. According to Ramu, if the husband could not find a lucrative job after his marriage that means the wife had brought in the ‘bad luck’ to the house. A very convenient logic indeed!  Needless to say, Gita was in full agreement with her son.

Life was becoming unbearable for Menoka-di, and this only increased when she had conceived for a second time and gave birth to a girl. With that, the proof of Menoka-di being an ‘unlucky and inauspicious wife’ was complete. It was decided that she had a faulty womb which gave birth to a girl, instead of a boy, after so many trials. Ramu and Gita would not even look at the baby girl, let alone touch her. Menoka-di was happy that she had a normal healthy baby; she named the girl Dipa. Menoka-di had tried her best to protect Dipa from the fury and abuse of Ramu and Gita, which had become a part of the daily routine by then. It was however not always possible. 

One morning Menoka-di was cooking while carrying one-year old Dipa on her lap. It was a Sunday so Ramu did not go out. Gita had been provoking her son for a while, sitting outside in the courtyard. Suddenly Ramu, feeling that he needed to ‘discipline’ his wife on account of her failing to fulfill her basic duty of giving birth to a male heir, rushed to the kitchen, pulled his wife up by her long hair and started hitting her. Menoka-di, fully caught-off-guard, fell down on the floor and Dipa dropped out of her lap. As Ramu started hitting and pushing her mother, Dipa started screaming at the loudest volume. It took Menoka-di a few minutes to gather herself. Then, with all her strength and pent up anger, she pushed away her husband and hit him hard on the forehead with the metal spatula she was cooking with. Blood started flowing out of Ramu’s forehead and he sat down on the floor calling  Menoka-di names that are not suitable for any wife. Gita rushed to the scene and held a soaked cloth to Ramu’s head. Menoka-di couldn’t care less. She quickly picked up Dipa from the floor, went to her bedroom to pack a few clothes for herself and her daughter, took out the little money she had saved from here and there, and rushed out of the house with Dipa before Gita or Ramu could stop her. 

Life was becoming unbearable for Menoka-di, and this only increased when she had conceived for a second time and gave birth to a girl. With that, the proof of Menoka-di being an ‘unlucky and inauspicious wife’ was complete. It was decided that she had a faulty womb which gave birth to a girl, instead of a boy, after so many trials. Ramu and Gita would not even look at the baby girl, let alone touch her.

This was the first time in her twenty plus years of life that Menoka-di was traveling out of the village without an escort, but she knew that she could not lose her way. She did not want to be confronted by the neighbors, so took the shortcut through the paddy fields to get out of her village and reached the next bus stop on the highway after thirty minutes of walking. Hiding her face and her daughter’s face under the long veil of her sari, and asking for directions to unknown pedestrians, Menoka-di finally had reached her parents’ house in the afternoon by taking first a rickshaw and then a crowded bus that ran twice a day on the route. She took a deep breath as she entered the house. 

Her parents were not quite ready for the surprise. Neither were they prepared to face the backlash of this social scandal– they still had one more daughter to marry off. But Menoka-di was adamant. She would not hear a word of compromise or the advice that staying at her in-laws place was what was ‘destined for her in this life’. She announced her wish to go to the nearby city and earn her own living in order to provide Dipa with a better life. Her cool-headed mother had tried to caution her that nobody would marry Dipa without a father to do the ‘giving away’ ritual, and that earning a living in the city would not be easy. 

By that time Menoka-di had lost faith in ‘being happy through matrimony’, and therefore she did not budge. Her brother, who was in high school by then, supported his sister and opposed the idea of sending her back to her abusive husband. He took Menoka-di to the nearby police station and lodged a domestic violence complaint against Ramu. While this remedy has been available under the Indian constitution for some time, there were very few women at that time who had the courage to stand up against their husbands, usually because they knew they would have no support.

Dipa bagged a government job. Illustration Shubhraneel Ghosh.

The officer on duty stared at Menoka-di, likely in shock over her complaint, but he could not ignore it – her bruises were proof enough. Menoka-di did not care what happened to Ramu at this point; all she cared about was that with this complaint against him, Ramu would never come after Menoka-di or force her to go back to the shackles of her marriage. So on the third day after leaving her husband’s house, Menoka-di borrowed some money from her father and boarded the train to the city with Dipa, leaving behind her baggage forever. Menoka-di’s only hope was her widowed aunt Khemi, who was living in the same city and was working as a domestic help. 

Khemi’s house acted as a temporary shelter for her and her daughter for the first month. Very soon after, Menoka-di found the job of domestic help in two houses and rented a small room of her own in the same ghetto next to her aunt. Carrying Dipa with her, Menoka-di continued her work for five years until Dipa was admitted to a free elementary school in the city. By that time, Menoka-di had added more houses to her service. The workload was manageable for someone who had been handling household chores for years. The only difference, this time she was earning money for her labor and was in charge of planning her own future. 

Menoka-di’s dream was not closeted in a ‘small place’ any more. The path however was tough; but she was tougher. Taking educational guidance from the houses she worked at, applying for free tuition at every institution, and occasionally borrowing money that she would repay the following month, she did what she had to do to ensure that Dipa graduated from a college with a degree in accounting. Within two months of her graduation, Dipa bagged a central government job after appearing for a special examination. It was not a mean feat for someone who never had any of the privileges that most of the other applicants had. At the age of 24, Dipa was ready to travel to the capital of the country and settle in a government housing with her mother. Menoka-di, by this time, was only in her mid-40s but she looked much older. The struggle over the years had left a permanent mark on her already rough appearance. 

I remember seeing her for the last time when she came with Dipa to bid us all farewell. She had finally achieved what was practically unheard of in the village she came from. Something was shining on the wrinkles of her face and I realized they were tears rolling down her cheeks. Those were tears of joy and triumph. And that was the only time I had ever seen Menoka-di cry.

Illustrations by Shubhraneel Ghosh & Helen Whitney Kelley.

Dr. Sakuntala Chowdhury was born in Kolkata, India. She did her undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Jadavpur University. Post marriage she moved to North America where she did her PhD in Data Science. She is currently settled in Michigan, with her family. She has contributed poems, essays, short stories and novels for publications in various English and Bengali magazines of USA, India and Bangladesh.

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