From Ma, With Love is a campaign celebrating recollections of feminist tales and lessons, passed down to us by our mothers, this Mother’s Day. The first edition of this compilation has 16 heartwarming stories. ‘Ratna’ by Abhishek Veeraraghavan is the tenth story in this series. You can download the entire publication here.
Her name is Ratna. It’s hard to pick a word to describe the relationship between us but “family friend” is what I would now use. She was my part-time nanny for a while, as I was growing up. Kids need somebody to engage with and she was up to the task. There were many novel games she used to play with me. Lifting me up on her shoulders and carrying me back and forth, placing all my toy cars on my body as I lay down, trying to spot animals on the neighbouring wall from the shadowy patterns created by the lights of the incoming vehicles, are some I can remember from the top of my head now. This was in conjunction with the myriad odd jobs she did to help out my mom – chopping vegetables, cleaning the floor, wiping the table. She had started out as a housemaid at our home.
Having lost her mother at a young age, her father was all she had ever had. Her father’s wobbly health had instilled in her a great sense of responsibility right from a wee age. She cleaned the house, cooked food on a kerosene stove and foraged whatever other resources needed from the odd well-wisher. Financial considerations drove her to work, and later, away from her education. She told me that she was a good student who was often asked by her teachers to teach the other children. Efforts to pursue evening college didn’t ultimately materialize for reasons I don’t remember.
As I grew up, she became somebody who I looked up to with fondness. It’s only recently that I have started looking up to her with admiration. It has come about because of spending more time with her as we go watch theatre, and because of a lengthy conversation I had with her in her tiny home.
Ratna continued to work at different places – work is second nature to her – but her father’s health condition continued to worsen. He ended up being completely bedridden. She had to take a complete break from going out to work for over 760 days. She had to clean, cook, wash the clothes and dry them in the neighbour’s house, bathe her father, feed him, tend to his bed sores, talk to him, buy medicines, and so on.
For over two years, she did it all by herself with only occasional help from a colleague’s wife who was a nurse. She was alone — morally, emotionally, financially — but she did not feel alone because she had been alone all her life. She did not turn to us or my neighbor for any kind of help. She was able to manage because she had diligently saved every single paise whenever she could, for a rainy day. There were no loans or money she had ever owed anybody.
When people talk about being “strong”, it’s always in a vague sense of a person needing to put effort to lead life in a certain manner; but a lot of the time, circumstances leave one with no choice. Being strong is simply a case of being alive and letting your loved ones be alive.
Ratna currently spends her time working in the mornings, and acting as a nanny to another exuberant, energetic kid in the evenings. She walks long distances, always takes the bus, saves every penny and lives life fiercely as she has always done. Her roots, having weathered many a storm, have descended very deep.
What’s surprising to me is how free and open she is. Many people from my mother’s generation (Ratna is younger) are conservative when it comes to issues like religion, feminism and the ilk. My feminism and liberalism arise from my reading of books, newspapers, watching television shows and interactions. Hers comes despite, or rather, because of her background and upbringing. On asking her views on the Sabarimala issue, she remarked that they should allow the women to enter and see if anything happens. In reply to another question, she said that a person born as a woman can never be considered free — a powerful, seemingly theatrical, yet true statement from a woman who can’t be brushed away by the critics of feminism.
I have more questions to ask her — does she regret missing out on having a companion, family, kids. I’m sure I’ll be met with a typically wise response which would ring true. Here’s to Ratna!
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