She died a few days back and I got the news today. She was a nobody in the village. For me she was a symbol of fortitude.
From the time I can remember anything about my life she was an integral part of our household. I remember her carrying things from our house to sell in the market four kilometres away and bringing things back we needed at home. I remember her bathing my little sisters when they were infants. I used to watch her bathing the infant. In the leaf of an arecanut tree. I remember being astounded by her dexterity. The infant would laugh at her touch. Even when she poured cold water on the body, my little sister would laugh. I used to be fascinated by the sight. My mother couldn’t extract that kind of laughter from her children.
My mother cannot be blamed. She had too many children to look after. Too many servants too. Workers of the fields were numerous and I can’t recall the names of any one of them. Mother had to prepare food for them in a kitchen that smelled of smoke and ash. There was my grandmother to issue a lot of orders to the servant who assisted my mother in the kitchen. Orders, mother, maids – they confused me quite a lot in those days. We were ten children in the family adding to the chaos that adults normally make.
“It was a tough time,” my mother told me years later when I got a job 3000 km away and was on a holiday at home. “Life was a balancing act.”
During one of those holidays my mother told me that Maria (Mariappennu, as she was called by all of us including me) was the best maid she ever had. Maria knew all the jobs: from giving bath to infants to cooking to planting saplings in the paddy field.
Maria was our unavoidable maid. She was a constant presence in our family. Her husband, Eipe, was also a similar presence. I remember how he used to put me in his lap and rub his cheeks against mine. I remember how I used to be tickled by the bristles on his unshaven cheek. I used to laugh and he would tickle me further by playing all kinds of childish games with me. I remember how his mouth smelt of betel juice which he would spit outside the wall of the front yard. I remember he always used to wear a cap made of the leaf an arecanut tree.
Eipe died before he could marry off two of his daughters. One of them was a classmate of mine. She was beautiful in those days, I recall. But Eipe’s death had made her mentally ill and the medication in the hospital had her look terrible when I met her after quite a period. Another daughter of theirs had been in chains due to mental illness even when I was a student in the primary school that was just adjacent to their house. Maria continued to labour for the family, especially for her daughters. The sons moved out with their own families.
I met Maria every time I went to Kerala for a vacation. She would come to my ancestral home where I stayed during the holidays. I was happy to meet her and she was happy to meet me. I would always give her a small gift which pleased her beyond my understanding. As years passed I could notice age taking hold of her body. Even to walk on the village roads, that indefatigable woman now required the help of her youngest daughter who was my classmate and who had gone insane for some time in her life.
She didn’t visit me the last time I visited Kerala. I was told she was not well. I made a plan to visit her in her house. I couldn’t. I had gone on a two-day programme with a specific task. Tasks control my life nowadays.
My sister-in-law told my wife today that on Maria’s funeral day it rained heavily in the village. Maria was a rain when she was alive. Her funeral deserved the shower.