Life - The Helpless Helper
by Pravin Patkar
In an adivasi ashramshala that I run, I learned many new lessons and had much to laugh, many times even at my myself for a presumptuousness that I knew what was right.
We mostly did not take any donations for the ashramshala. A tribal ashramshala is a huge grazing ground for corrupt politicians and government officials. In the land of corruption I had got my ashramshala sanctioned from the state under the order of the Mumbai high court obviously the petty bureaucrats weren't very happy. There was no place to accommodate the children and I had no freedom to accommodate it anywhere where a good structure was available. I had to locate it within a certain periphery in the forest area where the tribals lived. And finding a vacant houses was almost impossible in that area. We still managed to get an empty house on rent and the children started living there. We had made arrangements to keep the staff as per the state government's rules and policy. Our landlord was a fifty year old patriarch who spent most of his time watching us how we run the ashramshala as 9 out of 12 months of a year he had no work once his farm work of kharif season was over.
One of the posts at the ashramshala was that of a female helper. The post was called 'Stree Madatnees'. Her job was to fill water, wash the kitchen vessels used for cooking, wash the individual dishes of the sick girls if and when necessary, help the girls in dressing their hair. We followed all the procedures and appointed a woman on the post of the 'stree madatnees'. As per the government rule she was to get the 4th pay commission's scale which came to around Rs. 750/- p.m. We had already made an arrangement to open every staff member's account in a nearby bank and have the salary directly deposited in their respective account by the bank in order to avoid any malpractices. It was a permanent post with pension.
The ashramshala is located deep in a forest valley. In those days it was not connected by good roads. We had pressurized the S.T. Corporation to start a bus service. The corporation had conformed by starting a skeletal bus service.
Once when after crossing a steeply high hill range from a neighboring tahsil I directly entered the forest covering almost 9 kilometers I found the old man waiting for me at the entrance of the village. He was polite, "I want to discuss something important with you. Give me some time." He said.
I agreed and tried to accommodate him by fast completing my work for that day's visit. I sat with him for almost 30 minutes and we discussed everything from rainfall, fuel wood crisis, forthcoming festival, and the rising menace of the wild boars getting into the paddy fields but he just wouldn't come to the point. I knew he had not taken my time to discuss weather and agriculture with me. Then I got annoyed and started winding up. This is one thing I realized a little late in my rural career. The people who have ample time do not start with their main topic until you prepare to wind up the meeting.
Noticing my body language he suddenly opened up, "I am not happy with this job"
"Which job are you not happy with?" I asked.
"This one. Filling water in the school and washing vessels. You have employed my daughter in law. I am not happy with that?" He cribbed.
"Why? Is she facing any difficulties? I enquired with concern this time.
"Why would she have any problem? The problems are all for us." He started speaking in riddles. That annoyed me further. I was getting late. I had lost the last bus from the valley which means I had to walk another 7 kilometers before I could come out on the highway and hitch a hike on a truck to return to Mumbai. The old man was sitting in his verandah completely insensitive to my situation.
"Don't act childish. I have to rush. Speak up. What is it?" I almost warned him.
"Hand over her salary to me. . . . What do you mean opening a bank account in her name and depositing all the money in her account directly? I must get her salary in my hands." Old man
The salary of the school employees including the teachers in the rural areas is still a shady affair. As against that what we had started was an excellent arrangement. I was in fact proud of that.
"How is that possible? We have to follow the government rules after all. And isn't that actually a very good arrangement. One should be actually happy that the salary goes directly in the employee's bank account. No corruption" I reacted.
The old man was disappointed. By then two other villagers joined in and the old man decided to discontinue the topic. I was in a hurry too. But I was happy that the issue got over. I left to cover another 7 kilometers on a kutcha road.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I was to appear for an interview for the post of Associate Professor the following day. I have had no time to prepare for the interview. I didn't have time even to go back to see my own application form to check as to how I had filled the form. It was an open post. There was no special consideration for those who were already on the staff. They were required to compete with the insiders, the outside domestic as well as international candidates for the post. My greater disadvantage was that I was the vice president of the non teaching employees union, a great supporter of the SC&ST employees' Association and I had taken the management to task on several occasions including dragging it the external judicial bodies. The post was in research and my rural fieldwork though strong couldn't have helped me much. Obviously, I had to prepare. I wound up the day's work early and took two cups of tea in the late evening to make sure I could work the whole night without a wink. I started preparing.
Just around that the doorbell rang.
I opened the door.
It was the landlord with a bag in his hand and a 24 years young man beside him. That young frail man looked quite undernourished and worn out.
I welcomed them and fast completed the essential hospitality so as to get back to my preparation. Initially the old man told me that he had come to Mumbai for some personal work and since he was just passing by my house decided to just drop in to say hello to me.
"Hello at ten in the night?" I murmured softly so that he couldn't hear.
Then he raised two fingers and asked me how he could go out. By that I knew he was seeking the toilet and not the exit. I promptly showed him the toilet hoping with that small procedure his exit would be ensured. He went to the toilet.
He took quite long to finish. As soon as he came out he declared, "We couldn't finish the topic the other day in the village. So I thought the best thing is to go to Saheb's residence and continue"
I lost my heartbeat. It was already 10.45 in the night and he was planning to open the topic.
I explained to him my predicament and pleaded to let me have my last chance to get ready for the interview. Nothing changed his mind. He dismissed my worry saying, "How much more will you study? There is nothing left for you to study. No need. I bet you will pass the exam."
"Damn you" I cursed the old man and my stars together.
Then reconciling to the situation I wound up my preparations. I made up my mind.
My 30 tribal children were living in his house and I could hardly afford to have them thrown out by an insulted landlord. I decided to face the interview without any preparation. Then I pulled up a chair in front of him and said, "Speak up"
The old man introduced me to the young man whom he had brought along.
"This is my son. The woman you have appointed in your school is his wife. His name is Sada". Sada must have been a short form of Sadanand, I guessed.
Sada prostrated to do a namaskar. He seemed thoroughly depressed rather condemned.
"He lives with the jevanyas at Masjid bunder. He doesn't cook. Just delivers tea" Old man quipped.
Jevanyas are the men from the coastal villages of the Raigad and other coastal district of Maharashtra who have migrated to Mumbai mostly to the suburbs close to the port and specialize in making meals for the truckers and others. In Marathi language Jevan means meal. As they make meals they are called jevanyas. They can't afford individual tenements and hence live together in bachelor dormitories in groups of 8 or 10, all men. Once a week or month they can manage to visit their village mostly on a weekend. I have sometimes traveled with many such migrants who visit their wives on weekends. The special ferries that carry them from the wharf are called the honeymoon specials. But the jevanyas can hardly afford a weekly trip back home. Sada wasn't even a full fledged jevanya. Even after ten years he wasn't elevated to the grade of a jevanya. He was just a delivery boy. He didn't have access to a room and hence kept his trunk of limited belongings under the staircase of a chawl and slept under the overhead tank in the terrace of that chawl. Besides two meals he could get Rs. 300 per month and with that he could only afford a single trip back home every month.
"Appoint him in your ashramshala" Old man requested as if he was ordering me.
Before I could react he revealed his next plan," Otherwise remove his wife and appoint him instead on that post"
"I don't want to discuss the other things such as the rules and regulations at this point but the simple thing is. . . the post is that of a female helper how can I appoint a man on that post? What are you demanding" I reacted.
"Then keep him just like that in your ashramshala but draw her salary in his name" Old man.
I didn't know exactly how to react to that. I was getting angry and annoyed but had no freedom to express that.
"How is that possible? There are rules and regulations" I "Then appoint both of them in your ashramshala" Old man persisted.
This continued for some time. I was past 12 in the midnight.
Finally I asked him," Don't be foolish. Tell me, what is your problem?"
He kept silent and opened up only after some time.
"Aren't you strange? You are paying seven hundred fifty rupees just for filling water and dish washing? Does anyone ever do that? You can get 50 women in this very village who would do all that work just for 60 rupees per month. I will get you as many as you need." Old man seemed annoyed when he said this.
I was confused. I had only and always come across people cribbing about being paid less. But complaining about paying more??? This was the first time.
"Do you mean to say that I should cut down the payment to sixty per month?" I asked.
"No one is suggesting that. But just think of it. An ordinary unqualified village woman living in a village. One day out of the blue you appoint her on a job. It is not that she is a stranger to filling water from the well and washing clothes and vessels everyday. . . but if you pay rupees seven hundred fifty for the same work what do you think will happen to such a woman. She thinks no end of herself. The salary has got into her head. . . "
He kept quiet for some time.
I had just started understanding the issue.
Pointing at Sada, his son he resumed, "Look at him. It is when he works in Mumbai like a donkey from the daybreak to the dead of the night everyday; he gets three hundred rupees at the end of the month. Don't forget that he had been to school and can read and write. And his wife who can't read and write gets seven hundred fifty rupees for the work that she is supposed to do even otherwise like a daily household chore. That too just in the same house where she stays. . . . Just imagine what is left of my reputation in the village. I tried to tell the villagers that the payment is for the rent of the house. . but the people get to know the truth after all. " The old man was annoyed and hurt to the maximum.
It was then Sada's turn to plead," The salary has got into her head. Nobody, . . . . .I say nobody in the village gets such a fat salary. That to on a permanent job with pension! The village girls who have passed their 10th standard are fighting among themselves to get the job on the anganwadis (ICDS schemes). And what do they get as the anganwadi workers? Two hundred fifty rupees! And an illiterate village woman for filling water and washing vessels and dishes gets a permanent job with seven hundred fifty rupees? Does that make any sense?
By then the picture was adequately clear to me.
"Alright then henceforth we will start paying her sixty rupees per month." I said in a conclusive tone.
That instantly perturbed them. They sprang up to stop me from doing that.
"Now what" I asked looking at their instant reaction.
"We aren't suggesting that you pay less. After all the money comes to our house only why should we oppose that? We are only requesting you not to show as if she is earning all that money. That's all! That is like chopping our nose. Isn't it? So, continue to pay the same but show it divided among the three of us. Alternatively just remove her and appoint Sada on that post. He will do everything that she is supposed to do." Without looking at him he grabbed Sada by his elbow and pushed him in front of me to prove his consent. Sada also nodded instantly backing his father.
I hit my forehead in utter frustration.
Then I refused to take any decision on the matter or discuss the issue further. I also did not close the chapter. There was something in the old man and Sada that still made me to think about the whole issue. Social complexities always fascinated me.
Both of them slept in my house and till I left for my interview the next day enjoyed my hospitality. I managed the interview well. I got selected and became the Associate Professor.
I knew that the matter with the appointment of the lady helper would not be over so easily.
In my next visit to the ashramshala I received a message that the villagers wanted to urgently discuss something important with me. When I went for the meeting there were just a handful of village leaders present a school teacher, a shopkeeper, a small time contractor and a farmer. All of them were after me ever since the ashramshala had been sanctioned. The shopkeeper wanted me to purchase all the grocery and provision requirements of the ashramshala from his shop only. Against that he said he was ready to provide any kind of bills and receipts. The contractor had come down to my house to orient me on the unwritten rule of the tender business – one who passes the tender is entitled to 20% cash dropped at his house. That is the rule and he was very strict in following the rule and I should remember him when I would think of constructing the ashramshala building.'- HE had told me. The teacher was sure that I would appoint him as the head master and there had assured me that he would 'handle' all the government officer from top to bottom and keep all the books and registers perfect for inspection.
To everybody's disappointment I had obliged no one. The grocery and provision contract was given to a cooperative society at Alibaug, the district head quarters. The school and hostel buildings were not on the immediate agenda. The teachers' posts were filled through an elaborate procedure and their salaries were deposited directly in their bank accounts by the bank without any of us interfering. That had made the salary business quite transparent.
The teacher took the lead, "The villagers are quite unhappy with you" He said.
I was worried as there was no end to the difficulties in the way of running the ashramshala.," What happened? Why are they unhappy?" I asked.
"I have myself completed Dip Ed. I am not saying I am the only one in the district. There are many like me. Well qualified to teach. But what salary do you think they get? Three hundred! At the most five hundred!! In many school the headmaster signs on a receipt of fifteen hundred but actually gets five hundred rupees. Teachers like us sign for eleven hundred and receive a cash of two or three hundred. The remaining amount goes to the members of the management. We didn't mind that. We were willing to have the same transaction with you too. We would sign for whatever you say and take only five hundred and still work. After all who doesn't like to work in one's own village? But you did not consider our request. Then you employ an illiterate village woman to wash dishes and fill water from a water tap and a village well the work that every household woman does everyday and then decide to give her a cheque payment of seven hundred and fifty rupees per month? Did you ever think what would happen to our status in the village?
Normally these four persons would never been seen without the old man that is the landlord. But today, the old man had deserted them. I knew that he was present in the village. My mind started working fast.
By then the shopkeeper complained, "I had agreed to give you your commission that too on the very day you issue a cheque to me without waiting for the cheque to realize. I was prepared to supply everything to your school, that too on credit. But you decided to give the contract to a cooperative society in the district place. Why? The society doesn't give you credit. It doesn't deliver goods before the cheque is realized. Unlike us a Society would never give you your commission. And still you preferred a Society to us! We don't see any fairness in your working. You say you want to work for village development but you don't seem to like any of us the villagers."
Part of this wasn't unexpected. I knew how to handle that. "Sheth, I have already explained to you the reasons behind our decisions. What is the point in repeating the same?" I gave a brief reaction.
"No. We are not reopening all those points. Our objection is to your giving such a fat salary to that uneducated woman. That woman and her father in law the old man. .. See the way they walk in the village as if we all are nobody. . . . " The teacher and the shopkeeper said jointly. They seemed extremely hurt.
"Should I reduce her salary?" I asked.
"Look. All that we are saying is, we the villagers did not mind making our village house available for accommodating a school that was actually meant for the tribal children. The tribal children don't belong to our village, if you see. Still we did it. So, our suggestion is - pay rupees one hundred to that woman and give the rest to the gramasthas (the villagers)." The contractor placed an option before me.
"Sheth, I am bound by law to pay to her what she is supposed to get." I tried to explain.
"There is no such compulsion on you. You just agree to what we are proposing and leave the rest to us. We shall get the woman to agree to work on one hundred rupees. Give her hundred and give the balance six hundred fifty to the gramasthas." The contractor.
"My hands are tied" I
They all seemed annoyed.
"Judge by your inner sense of justice and then take a decision." The shopkeeper started appealing to my conscience. "A qualified teacher gets four hundred and this uneducated woman gets seven hundred and fifty. There are hundreds of women in the village who do the same work but they get paid nothing.. absolutely nothing. But for the same kind of work this woman gets paid seven hundred and fifty rupees. That too a permanent job with pension. How can the villagers tolerate such a gross injustice? That old man, her father in law has become insane. The salary has gone into his head. The house rent and the woman's salary together the house gets a solid thousand rupees in the house every month. Now why would he care about the villagers? Do you think all this is fair?
Finally, the farmer opened his mouth," Let us not quarrel. Let us come to some settlement. Do one thing. You give the work of filling the water and washing the vessels and dishes at the ashramshala to all the women in the village turn by turn so that all the desirous women get an opportunity to work and earn money. No body will have any complaint. What do you say?"
The proposal was surely perfect. But who would convince the bureaucracy? After all the ashramshala is government aided. The government is still run on the principles set by the British administration. The country has become independent and the freedom is shrouded with fresh threats but the bureaucratic rules continue the same way.
I kept thinking.
I appreciated their ideas, concerns, and proposals. Agreed to think over the points and left the meeting. The appointment of a woman helper has taught me so much about a village society.
As usual I had missed my last bus in the valley. Obviously I had to walk back to get to the highway. I started walking. I looked to my left. Several village women were returning from the well with a series of vessels filled with water on their head. One among them was the woman helper of the ashramshala.
The helpless helper!
She was one among them but still quite different from them. I wasn't sure if she was even aware of the hornet's nest that she had unknowingly disturbed.
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