Muthamma has worked as our maid for thirty years. She’s around seventy now. She lives in a small apartment put up by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board not too far from my house. She also does for two other households in my street.
Everyday, twice a day, she comes to our house to sweep and mop the floors, wash clothes and take out the trash . She started off in the 1979 at a princely salary of 50 Rupees a month. She would bring her daughter Panchali to give her a hand once in a while. At the time, she was saving up to get her daughter into a garment factory – which she did. The daughter started working there and making more money than Muthamma had made in her life. She and her husband were able to get Panchali married and soon became grandparents of a bright little boy called Venkatesan.
The family admitted Venkatesan to Venkatasubbarao school – a major expense for them, but one that they thought worthwhile, because they all agreed that the corporation schools were not good enough. Muthamma started working at three more houses to make enough money to pay for a portion of the boy’s fees and book costs. She would ask us for notebooks, pens, old textbooks – anything the kid could use. She would bring him home, so that he could study in our backyard undisturbed, while she did her chores.
Venkatesan was a hard worker. He was very systematic and structured and while he did not top his class, his marks were in the high eighties and low nineties. You could see Muthamma’s pride in the boy. He was going to become an engineer and get a good job – maybe even go abroad. He would talk to my mother about school and his classes – and you got the feeling that this was someone to whom education was special – it wasn’t something taken for granted. My mother used to drive my niece crazy by telling her about how good Venkatesan – they were of the same age.
Muthamma venerated MGR. Before she bought a TV, she would watch the Sunday movie at our place. If it was an MGR movie, she would be there an hour early. She would attend every MGR speech and rally, and loved to talk about how good a person MGR was
Things were looking up for her. She upgraded her slum hut for a housing board apartment, courtesy the TNSCB. My mother helped her set up a bank account at Canara Bank, down the street. Muthamma would put away two hundred rupees ever month. She was even able to afford a pilgrimage every year. Catholic in her devotion, she alternated between Melmaruvathur and Vailankanni.
In the late 80s and early nineties, I was away from home. College and postgrad meant that I came home twice a year. Attempts at a Bohemian lifestyle meant that cigarettes and other items would be found in my pockets. And then would be discovered by Muthamma when she came to do the washing. God, I used to hate her snooping.
Late in 2002, I returned to Madras, maybe for good. Muthamma was still around. She was greyer and frailer, but still managed to zoom around the house, doing her chores. My cigarette smoking had ceased being scandalous, but Muthamma found fresh ways to embarrass me – one of them being her occasional harangues on my bachelorhood – made painful when done before younger relatives – and made much worse when they included questions about my “manliness” and how I was failing to behave like an “ambalai”.
Things were not going well for her, I learnt. Her husband had been unemployed a while and had gone down the booze route. The daughter and son in law had become openly abusive, and were treating her like a servant in her own house. Amma told me that Muthamma had broken down one day because her daughter had tried to get her to sign over her housing board flat – saying that it was her duty to provide for her grandson and that turning over half her life’s savings was not enough.
Her grandson had done very well in the 12th public exam and had made around 78% overall. He had been admitted into Anna University. The boy had big plans, Muthamma said, he wanted to go abroad for higher studies – maybe even to the US. But the pride was fading from her voice.
Later the story came out.
It wasn’t as good as it seemed. The boy was running with a bad gang, she wailed to my mother one day. He had fought with his mother until she agreed to buy him a bike – half of which Muthamma paid for – Twenty five thousand rupees was a lot of money. And now he was asking for a computer – an expensive one that he could carry around with him. She was afraid he had started drinking. He seemed to resent his family, especially the fact that they couldn’t afford what seemed to be basic stuff for his peers.
Her husband had not so much fallen off the wagon as leapt of it, and was managing to put away a quart very day. If he didn’t stumble home to collapse into drunken slumber, he would threaten and plead and cajole her for the money to get drunk. Sometimes he would beat her.
One day, a couple of years ago, she came in very late to work. Her eyes were red and there were marks on her face. Amma asked if what had happened. She started weeping uncontrollably then. Her husband had hit her. Then her daughter and her son in law got into a fight. She had tried to intercede on her daughters behalf, and her son in law turned on her and hit her and kept hitting her for interfering. And her daughter wasn’t exactly thrilled with Muthamma’s intervention either, cursing her and calling her the root of all the troubles in the family. She spent the night outside the stairs of her own apartment.
Things slowly limped back to a kind of normal in the next few weeks, but her husband still was a drunk, and she caught hell from her daughter for anything that happened. She wished that she had stayed in her hut in the slum, instead of moving to the apartment which was causing so much grief, an apartment where she was an alien.
Nowadays, she spends most of the day tying flowers, sitting under a makeshift shelter of wooden boards and crates – for a sum of ten rupees per yard.