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|by Priya Subramanyan|
I used to have a doll that grew with me from the time I was 12-days old - a large, curly-haired, red and gold-frocked, fair, black-eyed, brunette. When my daughter was born, she inherited this doll. For a long time, she was smaller than this doll. When she turned a year old, we got transferred to Sydney. This doll then seemed too old to cart to the other end of the world. There were far more important things to take to our new home. Wishing to find this doll a good home, with children who would cherish her, I decided on my servant, Menaka. She had two small girls, who I could see were thrilled to own her. This doll was something that might otherwise only belong in their dreams.
I arrived in Sydney, and a few months later, passed by a doll-hospital. There were all kinds of old dolls in there, dolls that had come in for treatment and surgery. I thought of my old doll, and wondered how she was faring with Menaka and the girls. I visited a friend's house and saw in her showcase, an old walkie-talkie doll that she had played with as a child. No one, least of all her child, was allowed to touch it - the doll was hers alone. I wondered if I had been hasty in giving mine away. But I quickly repressed that thought as selfish. Although I had taken extremely good care of it, it was an old doll and two young girls were enjoying it. I shouldn't grieve, I scolded myself!
We went back to India for a holiday, and I didn't see Menaka greeting me cheerfully, "Akka.." She slipped from my mind, and after the initial euphoria of home-coming had died down, I thought of her again and asked my mother about her. My mother looked at me shocked, with a how-could-I-not-know expression, and told me that Menaka had passed away. It was my turn to be shocked now. How could a young, 35-year old woman just pass away?
I knew she had had a difficult life. Her husband initially took up another woman, Rajamma, in their village -- a married woman with a pre-teen daughter and three sons. The lovers possibly found life in the village too constraining, for they eloped to Mumbai. Menaka, with her children, took up residence with her parents and soon gave up hopes of seeing her husband return. But surprise, one day she received summons from her husband in Mumbai to join him and Rajamma, and get with her, all her kitchen utensils too. Happy to be called, (for what is a woman's life without her husband in India?) knowing fully well she will be part of a threesome, she set off to Mumbai with her two daughters. Once there, she learnt that her husband having found real estate so dear, that even getting a 'jhopdi' in a 'jhopad-patti' outside Mumbai would be difficult, had decided to put all his women to work. Menaka, Rajamma and of course himself had to all work, so they could rent space, with a thatch of roof above.
There were daily territorial fights between the two women. He in turn, would beat them both indiscriminately. Rajamma worked for my mother and aunt, while Menaka worked for me. Daily, one or the other would come with a swollen face or aching body. On unfortunate days, they were both in a similar state. We would urge them to report to the police. We learnt that the police don't enter the 'jhopad-pattis'. The attitude being, "Saab, yeh log to aise hi hain. Kuch hone walla nai inka!" We tried talking to the husband, and soon realized that they were only getting beaten even more for our trouble. So, we contained ourselves to feeding the children well, and giving Menaka and Rajamma painkillers on particularly unbearable days.
The husband soon demanded that Rajamma call for her daughter from the village, so she could be put to work too. The daughter arrived. I have never understood how the father let her go. But maybe he thought a motherless daughter was a burden; And she was better off with her mother. As for Rajamma, having burnt her bridges behind her in the village, and faced with insecurity here, she probably thought it best to do as her lover wished. This was around the time we left for Sydney.
We went back home for a holiday after a year, and Menaka was dead. Apparently, Menaka finding the situation untenable any more, went back with her children, to her parent's house in the village. Her husband finding the golden goose had disappeared, set off in hot pursuit. Rajamma, unable to keep up with the payments, followed them. The husband could not entice Menaka back, and in one of their more violent encounters, killed her. So say the other servants from the same village.
"So, is he in jail?" my mother asked them. They smiled and told her, "Amma, it is not like the city!" Their village doesn't have a police station. The nearest police station is many miles away, and the police have never visited their village! One death, in a population of over a billion... One police station, for a vast area...
A few months later, Rajamma visited my mother - wanting to know if her daughter had come there in the last ten days. "No!"
This time her lover had eloped with her pre-teen daughter.
I think about my doll. Each time, I hope it is bringing Menaka's daughters some joy, some escape, if it is still with them. I might have liked my daughter to play with the doll I played with, but Menaka's face and the children's faces when they received it, will always stay with me. Particularly given that Menaka's was such a tragically short life!
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