Today she had tears in her eyes. I gave her a new blue purse and thrust a Rs 100 note with a rupee ‘shagun’ coin in her hands. She broke down and gave me a tight hug. As she was leaving, I called out to her – “Mausi, aapka naam to bata do“. She smiled, a wide grin- “Sulochna”. For two years Sulochna had worked at my rented apartment and now as I was packing up from the place I realised that I had never asked her name. I always called her Mausi.
Six feet tall, Sulochna had a baritone of a voice. She had hard hands – something I realised everytime she put her hands around my face. This was always out of affection- she mothered me often. Her hands were of the worker class. They had known little fragrances. Her morning ritual was to sift through the unbearably ill smelling utensils covered with half eaten food – bits of pizzas, half cooked pasta, chicken legs, tea leaves and sometimes even alcohol and cigarette buds. This while the whole house slept. There would be ‘tch tch’ from some rooms asking her to not make noise while she cleaned, mopped and wiped the kitchen. When she did enter the room, she was faced with angry sleepy noises of protest. But Sulochna always smiled. Smiled and put it aside. These would often make me think of my workplace. How many times did my boss or subordinates talk to me like that? And if they did, did I not take offence, immediately?
We were a bunch of girls – most of them MBA students, I – a journalist, very careless. We often forgot the basics – a broom, dustbin bags, mops even floor cleaners. She would remind us gently for days. Until , one of us would relent. Yet, when we found the room not cleaned well, we would create a big fuss. No one saw the almost broken broom lying in the corner. I wondered how often did I put up with bad tools at my office? Or how much we hated slow computers? Still, none of us understood Sulochna couldn’t have used that hell of a broom and done a sparkling job.
Pay slips came on the first of every month. But Sulochna didn’t get her deserved salary till atleast one week into the month. And even then, she never demanded her right. She just asked, smiling in embarrassment.
I can clearly see inequality here. And I have felt it all my life. At home we were asked to not give them the same utensils in which we eat. They were often shouted at. When caught stealing the entire class was blamed. It depressed me.
I remember making the trip to Munni’s house. She worked at my home in Nagpur.She was allowed to get her kids to work. My mom fed her children and tried to teach them Hindi and Math while Munni cleaned the house. These trips always left me with an empty feeling. The lane where she lived was a part of a basti overlooking the Futala Lake. She lived out of a small area covered by a thatched roof. No defined structures, no closed, personal spaces. Her children shared the place with buffaloes and there was a lingering uncomfortable smell around. I would take my bicycle through other lanes and see better houses, worse houses and even tinier houses, but that smell persisted. And magically when I entered our area, I could smell freshness. As I grew up I realised that uncomfortable smell was that of sweat and alcohol mixed together. I still often go to Munni’s place to enquire why she hasn’t turned up for work. Now I try to see the positivity. The little girls running around, the kites in the sky, the bits of colours thrown here and there. But I can’t escape that smell.
Sulochna and Munni – both had the same smell.
I know that there is inequality in the world. I practice it everyday.