When Saraswati Left Lock, Stock, And Barrel, Damaged By The Lockdown
The author looks at her 12-year bond with her domestic help who is all set to leave for her hometown in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic
I first met Saraswati in 2008. My regular help was going on leave and Saraswati, her niece, was to cover for her. Saraswati was trustworthy and reliable, my help had said, and would do everything I needed to be done. What she hadn’t told me was that Saraswati had landed in Delhi just a week before and had never worked with anyone earlier. I was furious at the revelation, but with a newborn baby, a demanding job, and a large house to look after, I had no choice.
And so, Saraswati walked into my home—and life—on a hot May morning draped in a bright-red sari. Her wrists were adorned with green bangles and forehead with a large bindi, and the neat parting of her jet-black hair overflowing with vermillion. She was almost a decade older than me, had striking eyes and a shining complexion. Despite the awkwardness of a new city, she seemed self-assured and confident.
I forget when but somewhere in those two weeks I decided I would employ her permanently. It could’ve been her discipline, the quality of her work, or her straightforwardness and honesty, but something in her had struck me as my own. She learnt quickly and took charge of the home in no time. As a new mother, there was nothing else I could ask for.
“Your family is like my own, didi,” she would often tell me, smiling genuinely. She, meanwhile, had become family too and the only person in the whole wide world I could trust my children and my home with.
Saraswati was the reason I could get back to work and writing. “You should get back, didi,” she chided me every day until I, having gotten used to the leisure of being a stay-at-home mother, relented. Fully aware of how protective and fussy I am about my children, Saraswati took up the responsibility, happily. She took care of them and loved them as her own, the children were only too glad. All was well.
Two days ago Saraswati called, worried. Her husband and son had no income for over two months and surviving on just hers was getting harder; there were rents to pay, rations to buy, and debt was mounting everyday. She hadn’t left yet because I had told her to stay put.
As she told me all this, the prospect of her going away left me numb. How would I run my house? Could I trust anyone else with my children? How would I work? Would I ever see her again? Thoughts that I had dismissed in the past two months started hounding me. I wanted to tell her to stay, try a bit harder but couldn’t. My own interests were not greater than her emotional and physical well-being. I requested her to come over one last time.
This morning, Saraswati came home. My kids hugged her and jumped with joy at the promise of her special aloo-parathas. I asked for paneer. We spoke of the trouble she had been going through with her landlord and the unemployment of her family. We tried working out a solution but she wanted to return, lock, stock, and barrel. “There is nothing left for us here, didi,” she said teary-eyed.
She did make us parathas, with aloo and with paneer. We ate one too many and then some more. She cleaned the kitchen after two long months and swept and mopped until we could see our faces on the floor. We knew this was her way of lingering on as long as she could. But she had to go.
I packed her some ration and some food, handed her the identity cards and her paperwork she had kept with me along with some cash, hoping that would help her for some time at least. I had thought of this day many times but now it felt surreal.
As I saw her off at the gate, I noticed how Saraswati’s once black hair had turned grey. Her bright sari had been replaced by a faded salwar kameez, and the vermillion that once shone from a mile away, was a dull stain. Under the mask, I saw her smile faintly but her eyes were sad. The confidence I had always seen in them had gone—there was only anxiety about the future. For so many years, I had believed that we had helped Saraswati build a better life, but now looking at the woman I saw today and the one I had hired 12 years ago, I was no longer sure.