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Three thousand stitches, p.8
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       Three Thousand Stitches, p.8

           Sudha Murty
 
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‘“Yes, I write letters and hand them over to my agent, but I don’t know whether it reaches them. I haven’t received even one reply yet. I only get to hear what the agent tells me about my family. I know that they have tried to call me here on the phone, but there are strict instructions against that according to the rules of this house. Madam doesn’t want her staff to take personal calls on her landlines. Moreover, I know that it isn’t easy for them to call me here, and I don’t want to share my difficulties with them. I hear that a lump sum amount is sent to them every six months. But once I get my ticket, I will go back and never come back here.”

  ‘I was slightly relieved to hear that her family was getting some money. “Aren’t they supposed to send the money every month?” I asked.

  ‘“The agents are much smarter than us. They keep a salary backlog of at least six months. If I go back to my country and don’t return, then they will keep that money. So many people come back for their money and the cycle continues. To someone in our financial position, a six-month salary is a big amount to walk away from.”

  ‘“When are you planning to go home?”

  ‘“It depends on the owners. Sometimes, they send the workers home after fifteen months or sometimes after two years. I don’t know when they will decide to send me back. I can understand their language now but still pretend not to. I have learnt that Madam is going to India to enjoy the monsoon in Kerala. Since I am from the state and know the local language, she wants me to go with her and look after the children. I will ask her then to allow me to visit my family for a few days and if she does, I won’t come back. I have reached a point where I don’t even care about the money,” said Santosh firmly.

  ‘I could not sleep that night. Had I been duped by the agent? How much money will my family really get? With not many options at my disposal, I decided that the best way forward was to keep a low profile and continue working.

  ‘For the first few weeks, things seemed okay. The staff was usually given leftover food, which was good and I didn’t have any complaints related to work. After some time had passed, I started getting extra chores, especially around the time Madam was leaving for a vacation to India. Santosh was going to go with them too and I knew that she wouldn’t come back. So I wrote letters to my family and requested her to mail them from India.

  ‘Once Santosh and the family left the country, the house manager instructed me to take on all of Santosh’s work as well. Since the owner always entertained guests in his big mansion, there was a lot of cooking and cleaning to be done. There were a total of fourteen children in the house and each child would also frequently bring his or her friends over. I felt trapped––like a bird in a cage. Since the work more than doubled, my efficiency reduced and the house manager became upset and refused to listen to my concerns. She would show me a stick and say, “Don’t complain about your work. You are being paid for it. I don’t want to hear another word.”

  ‘When the unending workload became unbearable during the day, I would sit down and rest for a few minutes. If the house manager found me resting, she would beat me with that same stick. That’s when I recalled the marks on Santosh’s hand and realized how she had got them. Nobody ever beat me in my home. Though we were poor, we lived with dignity.

  ‘The loneliness and the excess work soon began affecting my health and my ability to work. I longed for my family, my children and my friends. As the days went by, there was nothing but sadness left in my soul.’

  I interjected, ‘With whom did you share your troubles with, now that Santosh was gone?’

  ‘Nobody,’ said Nazneem. ‘There was a male gardener who would visit and tend to the lawn and plants outside the house, but I could not speak to him according to the country’s rules. I couldn’t go out as I only had three nightdresses that I wore day and night. I was not allowed to wear the clothes that I had brought with me. I was only allowed to go shopping with the family, and even then, I had to wear a burka on top of my clothes. So I had no friends or acquaintances to speak to.

  ‘Soon, Madam came back from India, upset and furious. She said to the house manager, “Start keeping a close eye on these Indian women. Santosh never came back after she went home. She cheated me. So for now, don’t allow this woman to go home any time soon.”

  ‘These words dampened my spirit and I cried in the shadows, wondering when I would see my family again.

  ‘One morning, I overheard a conversation between Madam and the house manager. “Whatever you say, Indian women are the best for household work,” she told the manager. “They do their jobs quietly, don’t answer back or complain too much.”

  ‘The house manager said something unintelligible.

  ‘“Recruit two more,” she instructed.

  ‘While I hated the thought of somebody else going through what I had endured, I was at the end of my rope and hoped that this would reduce my workload in the course of time.

  ‘Weeks later, I was down with high fever.’

  ‘Did you go the doctor?’ I couldn’t contain myself.

  ‘No, the house manager gave me Crocin. We were never taken to the doctor for any reason whatsoever. I had to work despite the fever. A day later, it went up further and I was afraid that my body would give up. Desperate, I approached the manager and asked her to take me to the nearest doctor or hospital.

  ‘She was blunt, “We have multiple house guests today and I really don’t have the time.”

  ‘I almost broke down. “I can’t work today,” I said tearfully. “I am in pain and there’s a constant throbbing in my head.”

  ‘Nonchalantly, she heated up a spoon on the kitchen fire, caught my hand and pressed the hot spoon on my wrist.

  ‘I screamed and she shushed me. “Don’t scream. Nobody will come to help you. You are a servant and must behave like one. Go and start working now,” she said, her volume matching mine.

  ‘My body started trembling with fear. Was this going to be my fate till I die?

  ‘I don’t remember the days ahead with clarity, but the fever came down and my body, at least, felt a little better. But I was dead inside. I had no incentive to wake up in the mornings, but I had no choice. I lived like a robot. When I had time to think, I only thought about returning home to my family.

  ‘One rare day, when there was nobody at home but me, the gardener, Maruti, requested me for a cup of tea. I wore the burka and went to the backyard to give it to him.

  ‘“Please help me get home,” I told him as soon as he started sipping the tea. “I don’t know anyone here and you know how they treat the helps in this house. My family wouldn’t even get to know if something happened to me here. You are like my brother. Please, can you lend me a hand?”

  ‘“Don’t even think of running away,” he said. I could see that he was afraid. “If the authorities trace you and bring you back, you will suffer unspeakable cruelty. Still, I will try and speak to a few people I know. I will get back to you.”

  ‘I touched his feet. It was as if Allah had come to help me through this kind man.

  ‘A month passed before Maruti approached me at a time when we were alone again. It was Eid, a religious holiday, and the family had gone out for the evening. “I met two kind women at an Indian function. I think they may be able to help you,” he said.

  ‘“I am so grateful to you. How did you meet them?”

  ‘“The owner once asked me to deliver some flowers to a government official who was attending an Indian wedding ceremony. At the wedding, I was told to wait and that’s when I heard about these two women from others. I somehow managed to see them. Since I am a man and free to move about in this country, I was able to meet them a few more times. I told them about your difficulties here. They have told me to inform you that it is risky to leave your work here, but if you decide to do so and go to them, then they will also share the risk with you and try their best to send you back home. I can take you to them. But do it when you go shopping as it will be easier to escape from there.”

&
nbsp; ‘I nodded. We decided to wait for the right moment.

  ‘Meanwhile, Maruti gave me a map and the directions to the place I would have to locate when the time came. I memorized everything well so that I could reach there without any confusion. Maruti had already done more than I could have ever imagined and I decided not to involve him further. The punishment for such actions is severe in this country.

  ‘Weeks later, Madam asked me to run an errand. This was my chance.

  ‘I wore a burka, went to the marketplace, bought groceries and handed them to the driver. I told him that I needed to go to the restroom and that I would be back soon. The moment I was out of sight of the driver, I ran! The driver would have taken some time to realize that I was missing. As many women wore the burka, I knew that it would be tough for him to find me. I kept going with my heart beating fast––sometimes I ran and sometimes I walked. Within half an hour, I reached my destination with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. Finally, I was here.’

  Nazneem’s story ended and she collapsed on the chair, tired from reliving the dark past.

  The two women turned to me. ‘She came two days ago,’ one of them said.

  A silence fell in the room. ‘No one should have to go through this,’ I thought.

  Gracy, the woman from Kerala, broke the stillness in the room by sharing her story. She was beautiful and well-spoken. She had also been duped by an agent who had promised her a job to tutor children. And yet, her story was vastly different.

  Gracy was an orphan who grew up in a government home for such children. She became a teacher in a convent school and though the salary was enough to get by, it was not enough to achieve her dream of owning a small home. In time, Gracy found a boy she liked but he did not have a steady job or income. Since they didn’t have any assets, they made a mutual decision––Gracy would go abroad for tutoring. This would give the couple a chance to earn enough money to purchase a home later and settle down.

  When she reached the home she was going to live in, she was quite shocked to find that her employer had four wives and sixteen children––all of whom lived in the huge residence. However, only ten of the boys and girls were old enough to go to pre-school, primary or middle school. Gracy taught the children subjects such as English, mathematics, history, art and craft and manners. For a few years, things seemed all right and she was treated fairly well. She was paid once in six months in bulk and her employer even allowed her a paid vacation to India once a year. The children had also become very fond of her, and she was not mistreated like Nazneem.

  As the years passed and the boys reached their mid-teens, their classmates and cousins began frequenting the home. Soon, she became the target of their lecherous stares and she realized for the first time that she was an easy target should they wish to approach her. She became extremely uncomfortable living there. When she tried to share her concerns with one of the employer’s wives, she scoffed at her, ‘Yes, Gracy, you are so beautiful that many men will desire you. In fact, I won’t be surprised if my husband does too!’

  From that day on, Gracy became afraid for herself. She began to avoid teaching the older boys and even told the employer that they did not need her help any more, but nobody listened.

  ‘You are paid to teach the children and you must fulfil your responsibility. There’s nothing more to say,’ said the employer and dismissed her with a wave of his hand.

  One day, a friend of the boys came to her room and tried to forcefully kiss her. Due to her presence of mind, she managed to push him out of the room with all her might and didn’t mention it to anyone.

  The next day, however, she found that one of the boys named Abdul was very upset.

  Upon further inquiry, Abdul said, ‘My friend is upset for some reason. When I asked him to come home today, he refused and said that it was because of you. Tell me, what have you done?’

  Gracy found it hard to share her troubles with a sixteen-year-old, but thought it wise to tell the truth to her ward.

  To her astonishment, he laughed. ‘You are very attractive,’ said Abdul. ‘I can’t blame my friend for not being able to control himself. If you were ugly like the cook, Fatima, then nobody would want you.’

  ‘Abdul, I am your teacher,’ said Gracy very firmly, despite the tremors she was beginning to feel in her body. ‘How dare you speak to me like this?’

  ‘I am no longer a child. I am a man now and look at women from a different perspective,’ he responded and walked away casually.

  ‘It was then that I realized that the home was a ticking time bomb for me. I was better off living in a rented house in my country than staying under such duress in that residence. Nobody––neither the employer nor his wives––was going to protect me if something were to happen. I was fortunate enough that my passport was with me. And yet, I had no money. But I knew these two kind women here who helped women in such distress.’

  ‘How did you get to know about them?’ I asked.

  ‘It was a stroke of luck. Last December, I had attended a Christmas party. It was there that I met them and learnt about their work. Once the time was right, I walked to the shelter, leaving all of my belongings at my employer’s home,’ she said, staring at the floor.

  There was nothing for me to say. I felt ashamed and disgusted at the world today where half of the population does not feel safe.

  The two other women––Roja from Tamil Nadu and Neena from Andhra Pradesh––shared their stories with bouts of tears. Their experiences were worse. Each had travelled a different path but both had been raped by their employers.

  I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer. What a wretched life these women have had! How does one even begin to get over such trauma? It took me a few minutes to compose myself.

  I glanced at the two women sitting near me. How did they send these women back?

  One of them said, ‘Once these women come to the shelter, we go to the Indian embassy and get new passports made for them. It is difficult and at times, we run into problems that cause delays. But the real problem is their departure from here. Legally, we can’t keep them in the shelter beyond a certain period of time and we have to buy a one-way ticket for them as soon as we can. And if we have to book it at short notice, we have to almost always pay a high price for it.’

  ‘Who pays for the tickets?’

  ‘We ask around and reach out to everyone we can. The folks in small-paying jobs are high in number but they usually have their own financial problems and other issues. People who do have the money don’t really want to support us for a long time. Some would rather buy gold in the souk or hold a party for their friends and families. The rich folks consider this a perennial problem. They are willing to help us for one or two cases but our shelter gets around five women every month. Sooner or later, the donor stops funding the tickets. Sometimes, store owners anonymously buy flight tickets, but everybody is afraid of getting caught some day. Others shrug it off and say that it isn’t their problem. They accuse the women of following the path of money. They feel it was their responsibility to verify the agency before coming here. When we began the shelter a few years ago, we pumped in our personal funds. But we aren’t rich either and I fear that we won’t be able to keep up for long.’

  It was a depressing thought. The shelter was a ray of hope for the women caught in difficult circumstances. Where would they go without such a place to run to?

  I looked at the clock. It was time to leave for my meeting with a friend. So I said my goodbyes and left the shelter with a heavy heart.

  We drove past beautiful homes, wide roads and fancy cars. I felt nothing. All I could think of were the four women and their haunting pasts. Suddenly, I changed my mind.

  ‘Take a U-turn,’ I told the driver.

  I went back to the shelter and met the two women. I said, ‘Infosys Foundation is happy to sponsor one-way tickets for the women in need––be it to their city, village or town. We will take care of the travel cost as long as the shelter
has verified them. But you must help them obtain a passport in time and ensure that they are able to board the flight without any hassles.’

  The women smiled and agreed.

  I smiled back. Finally, I felt like I had lessened some of my burden.

  ‘Tell these women that India is changing,’ I told them. ‘Gone are the days when people worked for a minuscule salary. In cities, when both the husband and the wife have to go to work, they need a reliable and good housekeeper at home, without which many women choose to quit their jobs. Honesty carries a high price in India now and more and more people are choosing to stay back in the country of their own volition due to the demand in urban areas.’

  ‘The women will be ecstatic to learn of this development,’ said one of them. She couldn’t stop smiling. ‘May God bless the foundation and you for such an invaluable gesture.’

  The next day, on my flight back, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate we are to live in India. We may not be the richest or the best country in the world, but we have so much freedom. We can switch jobs easily or relocate to a different town or city. If nothing else, most of us have a family that will at least give us a place to stay in times of trouble. We really don’t know how lucky we are until we are out of the country.

  Out of habit, I began calculating the approximate travel expenses for the women. They had mentioned an average of twenty to twenty-five cases per year. ‘This extra annual grant would evaporate my savings for the office building in five years,’ I thought, a tad disappointed.

  I had to make a choice––build the office or give shelter to these women. I knew, of course, that there really was no choice at all. There was no second-guessing my decision. My conscience and I could still live in a rented three-room space for a few more years.

  This happened fifteen years ago.

  Last year, we finally moved into our own office and home after twenty years. I named the building ‘Neralu’––the shelter.

  8

  A Powerful Ambassador

 
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