On this significant day, the hundredth International Women’s day, I must write an ode to one woman in Chennai, Pachaiyamma, who has made a difference in the life of my family in the last decade. She is one among the faceless, nameless women in India whose daily happiness depends on the essentials of life–needs that so many of us have graduated beyond–such as food, shelter and clothing.
My father lives in Chennai. At eighty-six, dad works a seven-hour day on weekdays and manages to work half a day even on Saturday. He would not be able to do this without the help he has at home. He lost my mother, his wife of sixty-two years, to cancer six years ago and since then dad has continued to work, read, debate and joke exactly the way he did when she lived. Dad has different kinds of household help.
Geeta comes home in the morning to cook. While dad cannot award her an “A” grade for her culinary skills, dad also realizes that a man in the waning years of his life cannot expect “to have a long tongue”. So he makes do with what is served on the table. Vinayagam, dad’s valet, is a barista, a chauffeur, a pill dispenser, a memory bank and an all around helper. He and my father are mildly annoyed with each other almost all the time. The rest of the family is insensitive to their civil wars even though we are secretly batting for Dad. Pachaiyamma visits home both in the morning and in the evening to clean and buff the house so it may sparkle the way it used to when her boss, our mother, ruled the roost.
Pachaiyamma has eyes like almonds. I don’t know if she uses Colgate but her teeth glow white against her dark skin. When I visit she loves to hear me talk about foreign lands. “Women have to drive? Why must you work? Why can’t the big man (my husband) drop you at work? Who takes your son to school? The small man drives too? Are there bicycles on the road? What about animals? Who drops off milk in the morning?” Her eyes grow until I can hear them groan against their sockets.
Although Dad grumbles that Pachaiyamma is never on time, there is never a day when she does not show up within an hour of the appointed time to take care of his house and his sanity. That, I tell my father, is more important than punctuality. But Dad, who paces about looking dapper in his crisp pant and his starched shirt is itching to get to work on time (even though he is his own boss). His glare warns me that he doesn’t need to be preached to by a daughter who is, after all, an occasional drop-in into his life.
During her two hours of work, Pachaiyamma washes the dishes, dries them, sweeps and mops the floor, launders my dad’s clothes if he hasn’t already washed them himself and even manages to snatch a bit of television between her chores. She makes herself a cup of coffee and packs up boxes of leftovers and dishes from the day’s meal to take home to her son and husband.
On some days, Pachaiyamma spars with Vinayagam who, every fewweeks, likes to show who is boss around the house just in case she and the cook get any ideas. On those days, she bursts into tears and then reminds herself why she works at our home. “Your father is my god. He helps me feed my family and educate my son,” Pachaiyamma says, dabbing her eyes with the end of her sari. “When I enter your home, I feel I’m entering a temple.” Then she looks at Vinayagam, darts of defiance stockpiling in her eyes. Even though Pachaiyamma was not fortunate enough even to have received an elementary education, she will not be talked down to by any man. Even though Pachaiyamma had no idea what children learned at school she was very keen that her son should attend school and college so he could have a better life than she did. Her son went on to get a Bachelor’s degree in Math and he is now a math teacher in a school for underprivileged children in Chennai.
On every trip I make to Chennai to visit my dad, Pachaiyamma is always around, waiting for gossip, laughter and the gift of a few saris. “Don’t give me anything new, Kalpana-ma. Just give me something of yours that you don’t need anymore,” she says when she sees the material I hold in my hands. And, without fail, she buries her face into the saris, inhaling their scented threads because somewhere in the fabric lies her dream for a brighter day.