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  • Originally Published in The Hindu, 2013.
    My first short story about a very dear woman in my life. Radha

    She always lay down on the coir mat on the floor right beside our bed. First, she would unravel the sari pallu from her shoulder, loosen up the buttons of her sari blouse, remove the thick gold chain from her neck and then untie that little bun of frizzled hair. This nightly ritual that Radhamma indulged in, I would watch, right into early adulthood, from under my sheets, pretending to be asleep.

    The dynamics of Radhamma’s relationship to my family was both of an insider and an outsider. ‘Domestic Help’ was the politically correct thing to call her realm of existence. But to me she was always the ‘other’ mother. Nowadays domestic help has become a lot more professionalised in India, from what I’ve heard. There are agencies from where upper middle class Indian families can hire help to cook, clean, do the laundry and take care of their kids. Some of them are hired on a temporary basis while others are “live-in maids”. My father would always say, “In America you could be a waitress and you still got respect.” And so everyone from the driver to the maid in our home was treated with ‘respect’ in a country where class distinctions and the ensuing stigmas and social structures are still deeply implicit. It was something that I was reminded of when I stumbled across the face of a young child on my Facebook newsfeed. She was a domestic help’s daughter, found bruised and murdered in a politician’s vehicle, and for whom justice hadn’t been served. Last, I heard the matter was being investigated. Usually incidents that involve politicians and those who hardly have a voice in society fall to the wayside sooner than you can finish reading the first report of it in the media. I thought of the many Radhamma’s out there who nobody cared for, beyond, perhaps passive sympathy. I looked at the picture of that young child. She reminded me of the little girl who would run around my aunt’s house where I attended Math tuitions. She was the daughter of the domestic help, hanging around, while her mother worked. The girl, I remember her name being Raveena, loved chewing on erasers. My failed attempts at trying to wean her away from this habit resulted in the loss of about a dozen, while I tried to decipher a theorem or two. Last I heard she grew up to look like her namesake in Bollywood and ran away with a boy from her village when she turned 15.

    Radhamma didn’t have children but I remember every summer she went to Kerala to see her sister Omana. Radhamma would pack up bundles of clothes that neither my sister nor I fit into anymore, for Omana’s daughter Shebha. Sheba and her brother Shibu’s name drifted only in conversation at home. I would try to imagine, what Sheba looked like in my lavender lace knee length dress as she went about her day in a coastal town somewhere in Kerala.

    Everything about Radhamma’s existence, as I recollect it, was about nurturing the institution of family and the Thirukode family’s two girls were her focus. Radhamma never married. She wore that thick gold necklace in its symbolic gesture of a thali. She brought up two kids, not of her own, but with every sense of motherly instinct and responsibility, that got a reciprocal reaction as we grew up — from an infant’s fond dependence to teenage rebellion to downright resentment for exerting authority when she wasn’t the “real” parent. I remember how she strongly disapproved my having a boyfriend at 14. Standing outside the gate to my school where she had just spotted me hand in hand, giggling and talking to a boy, her baritone voice had this to say to me, “No one will marry a girl who has gone wild.”

    And so she treated us like we were her own flesh and blood, with all the conservative strictness of a small town matriarch while showering us with the kind of love no city-bred parent could understand. The middle class parent needed the support of this other woman, all those Radhamma’s, who by virtue of a lower economic status, were employed to nurture alongside their “employer”, the offspring. And so the traditional family structure I had, clashed or connected with the one I had with Radhamma. It had a profound impact on me, growing up. What did it mean to have someone, who was attached, yet removed in your life? What did it mean to Radhamma, I often wondered, who at a certain point in my life was absolved from all responsibility, having given that torch right back to the ones who conceived me as if it was the end of a lease? I suppose it was a termination of employment. Radhamma’s existence was a collection of ethical, moral and societal norms packaged for the convenience of parents to raise the product of their consummation for a certain price.

    When time flies by, snapping up with its claws whatever memory might float its head up from the waters of your conscience, you try to recollect things that still remain in the shadows of the deep — the memories of that special relationship defined mostly by routine. Some would call it nostalgia. I just see them as traces of meaningful nothings. And I find myself remembering every detail. I realise that all of it is moulded into my sub-conscious as signifiers of comfort. Something I can go back to when I’m in search of perspective.

    Like remembering that Radhamma would get up by 5 a.m. and shower in our bathroom. She was family with certain boundaries of course, but the children’s bathroom was within that unsaid but implicit line. Where those boundaries were, I could never quite figure. I didn’t want to and to be honest I never thought of it. Radhamma would come out with a towel wrapped around her head, fully dressed in her sari, the gold chain shining a suggestion of her belonging to a man, who didn’t exist. She would walk through the living room and the kitchen to her little room just outside the house. I remember following her every move. She didn’t seem to mind. The room she had was not generous to a medium-sized thick woman as herself. Infact I don’t think it was built to house a human being, let alone have one move around in it. Rice sacks or luggage could rest in their inanimate existence perhaps but not a living breathing being. Not even the landlord’s dog, a chubby lazy white lab could breathe in that windowless, high ceiling, muddy blue cave, if you managed to coax him to partake in an experiment to prove just that. Radhamma however gave it some semblance of a private parlour. Her little suitcases bursting with colourful saris and knickknacks stood in the leftmost corner of the ‘cave’. Beside it, stood a bunch of our own empty suitcases, the contents of which sat happily in Odonil-protected wooden cupboards inside the house.

    Right opposite the cave’s entrance door was Radhamma’s little vanity enclave. An oval mirror with a cheap green plastic back rested precariously against the wall. Next to it a plastic tiffin box with the usual set of cosmetics — a cacophony of creams and powders screaming fairer skin, pouty lips and rosier cheeks all sourced from the spring of eternal youth, they promised, and packaged into tubes and shaped into pencils for Radhamma’s convenience. But make no mistake. Radhamma hardly cared about enhancing her features with the darkest of khol or making her lips shine like freshly drenched strawberries that you could only buy in ‘Singapore Plaza’ — the one stop shop for all things ‘foreign’. All she cared about was transforming her dark brown smooth skin into the whitest of whites, which was a national past time of sorts. While we were all conditioned to think of the superiority of light skin over dark, I didn’t need to worry. I was fed gold leaves as a new born during one of many rituals, in order to give that ‘glow’ to my skin as I grew into an adult. And of course genetically I was bred to be beige that was inclined towards a shade of white. But even beige wasn’t enough.

    So I watched intently, when I had a chance to, sitting on a thin cement slab that enclosed the washing area for clothes and dishes, as Radhamma would squeeze little dollops of cream and proceed to apply it to her face. I read the package and it said “marked change is visible within 14 days”. Radhamma had been using it since I was born. I’m certain because she was there from the time I was given birth to and this moment I was recollecting was from when I was about 10. I wasn’t thinking about the politics of light skin at that moment. I was watching Radhamma’s face intently, the cream turning her skin a shade lighter that very instant. Only it looked like a watered down version of white face paint. She rubbed it in as hard and as deep as it could penetrate into her pores. Yet, that thin white film masked her face. As a finishing touch she would dab a handful of Ponds beauty talc with so much gusto, that puffs of smoke would emanate from her face carrying with it the scent of lavender. I didn’t know what lavender was but I approved its titillation of my nostrils. When she was satisfied, she was ready to face the day’s task, with the assurance that she was protesting the very laws of nature that chose to oppress her sense of self. Radhamma’s soul was in her cooking. She put every fibre of her being into making every possible dish known to man, it seemed to me, and it wasn’t merely about going through the motions of preparing three meals a day. We didn’t have fancy gadgets that are almost a mandatory feature in most houses these days. No microwaves or ovens. All we had was a gas stove, a mixie (blender) and the refrigerator. But she was masterfully resourceful and one of the best things that came out of her ingeniousness was her classic chocolate cake.

    We lived in a community that housed two flats, one with about 10 floors and another about five. Alongside these flats were townhouses, which were a chain of 26 independent generic single family homes sitting side by side, forming a lose ‘L’ shaped periphery for the community. Ours was one of these homes, which was simply called House “G” (all the townhouses were assigned an alphabet). They came with a small walled-in backyard about 10 x 18 feet. Here, Radhamma would construct her ‘oven’. Using red bricks she would make an enclosure with an opening on one side. She would then put bunches of hay and paper, and I assume anything inflammable into the opening to start a fire. Over this she would construct a platform, upon which a steel vessel with the cake mix would be placed. It took a couple of hours for the cake to bake. As I often did, I sat at the door to the backyard, looking at this edifice, waiting for wafts of chocolate-filled air to enter my nostrils (as you might have noticed, I loved smelling things growing up!). Ours wasn’t the only house making chocolate cake. Our neighbour Jyothi Aunty was the official cake baker for all the neighbourhood kids’ birthdays. But she had fancier equipment. Personally I quite enjoyed the long wait in anticipation of Radhamma’s baking feats. It was special because it was the only time she let me help her in the kitchen. She would let me mix all the ingredients up, although my 10-year-old arms would start to ache three minutes into the task. But my 10-year-old tongue was tough enough and happy to assist in cleaning up the mixing bowl.

    As much as Radhamma protected me, there were times when I felt like I failed to protect her. It’s not unusual to look back at moments and think about it playing out differently. One such time I often think of, with a sense of guilt, was when I saw her cry. I felt like I had a hand in it because of my inaction. One could justify by saying I was just about 12 years old and what could a child do in situations that involve adults, especially adults in fury? But then don’t we read of brave, uninhibited children ever so often? Radhamma and I had taken a rickshaw from school back home one afternoon. I remember my mind was on getting to my cup of tea and dunking Milk Bikis biscuits into it and gobbling up all that soaked goodness. The rickshaw halted at the corner of the road, about a few 100 ft from home. Radhamma took out a note and handed it to the rickshaw driver. I don’t know the precise motions of what happened but the next thing I knew, the driver flew into a rage. He wanted to be paid more than what the meter showed, demanding it in what looked like the antics of a drunkard. I didn’t wait to look at Radhamma. A crowd started to gather and I just slipped away, walking really quickly towards home, running up the stairs, and ringing the bell. I ran past my mother and went to the balcony, peeping out to see what was going on. Radhamma was walking back. I ducked. I ran into my room under the pretext of wanting to take a shower. When I came out, no one was around. I walked around looking for Radhamma and then I heard the sobbing. She was folding some clothes in my parents room. Guilt seeped through every pore in my body. I couldn’t believe I made her cry. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t the one who shouted at her like a lunatic but how could I have walked away? Radhamma finished her task and walked past me, patting my head. I remember not being able to look at her. I watched her feet, as they walked towards our room. She put out her coir mat and went to sleep. Everything went back to the mechanics of regular routine the next day, but from time to time, even now, I think back of that moment. I think of how anytime something went wrong in my life and seemed like a colossal mess, I would run into Radhamma’s arms bawling. She would squeeze me tight and not say a word. I wonder what stopped me from giving her a squeeze that day. I felt bad that at moments like that, when she felt alone, abused, threatened, she was somehow that outsider who needed to resort to her own inner strength to console, be strong and be heard.

    At 12 I felt some sense of guilt for not doing something more for a woman who put her everything into bringing me up. By the time I was about 18, I was as adamant and insecure as a teenager could get. I had girl friends that were stunningly pretty while I was the quintessential awkward looking one that needed to complete the picture of a typical teenage troupe. And all the boys lined up to get to know me better so they could get with my pretty pals. Something I didn’t catch on to soon enough and when I did, it unleashed floods of tears that slowly wore on my self worth. I was ostracised in school for talking about sex and breaking the news to everyone that you didn’t get pregnant kissing. I should have stopped there, but I found it my duty to explain how you get pregnant and that you didn’t really have to be married to do it. One time I happened to express the hypocrisy in assuming only men have the urge to watch porn. I reiterated that I would watch porn if I had the chance and didn’t see what the big deal was. All this confidence and knowledge on subjects that were taboo, at least in the highly conservative environment of the school I went to, came from hanging around with a lot of older cousins whose antics I was privy too. It also meant that I ended up being the kind of teenager who sat on the open rooftop of her house, writing existential poetry, countless diaries and pointing out to Radhamma that I didn’t have to listen to her insights into life given that I had two parents doing that already. Those years were the beginning of a transitional phase for Radhamma. My sister and I were too old for her kind of fostering. My parents and Radhamma had discussed and come to an agreement sometime during those years. She would work with a close family-friend who happened to have two young daughters, one about five and the other a newborn. It was like my sister and I were reborn in the same lifetime looking to be loved all over again, because we couldn’t afford that as the Thirukode girls anymore.

    I moved on to live in America and my sister in London. Every time we visit India, one phone call was always on the list, no matter who else, family or friend, we called to say our hellos to and reconnect. I always assumed that her love was meant for the years when a child was devoid of any conditioning. Not two young adults, who kept reminding her of her place and those boundaries we inched towards as we grew older and which we thought we crossed, beyond her imperative.

    And then I’d recall one of the conversations I had with her over the phone. Radhamma, cried out in Malayalam, “Ahhhhhh meenakshi kutty, engeney onnddu? Endhekey aana visheysham?” (Meenakshi love, how are you? What is news on your side?) I started to talk to her about my home in NYC and my work before being interrupted by that familiar baritone voice. “When I ask what is news, I want to know when you are planning on having kids. A woman is complete only after giving birth to a couple of children. Otherwise, there is no standing for her in society. You understand?”
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