Heerabai has provided domestic help in my home for seventeen years. When she first came to my house and rang my door bell, I was washing clothes and came out half wet.
On opening the door I saw an older man and a young woman with four children, aged between two and seven. Looking at my wet clothes, the older man said ‘Madam la bolwa’ (call the owner of the house). I replied, ‘Meech madam aahe’ (I am the owner). There was a guffaw of laughter between us and, somehow, there was a connection. The woman said “Sourie, sourie” (sorry, sorry). The older man was the uncle of the woman Heerabai, and the four children were hers. She had just lost her husband to alcoholism, and since there was no work in her village, she was looking for work in Mumbai. I wondered how she would manage to work with four children, but I needed help very badly. I agreed to employ her.
She started working enthusiastically from the next day. She brought the oldest child, about seven years, with her and the other three she kept in the house which she had rented in the shanties. Slowly, she started talking about herself and her life. She was uneducated as her parents were too poor to send her to school. They married her at the age of fifteen to a man with a ‘good’ government job. But the husband was a drunkard and lost his job and, later on, his life to his addiction. So, around the age of nineteen or twenty, she was left to fend for herself, her four children and a blind mother-in-law. There was not much work in her village. Therefore she came to the big city, Mumbai, where many people come in search of jobs.
Slowly, she got more jobs in the same building where I lived and in neighbouring buildings too. She was ready to face life eagerly and with a smiling face. But she was well aware of the rates of domestic work in the locality. She couldn’t read or write but she could maintain records of her income and expenditure without any difficulty in her memory. She never felt threatened by the big city. I tried to get her children into a school, but they did not continue beyond a year. So she decided to send the two younger ones to her village to live with the blind mother-in-law. I wondered how a disabled woman would take care of the kids? But Heerabai had taught her two- and three-year-olds how to deal with the blind lady. The other two, a girl and a boy, helped her with her work.
There was not a single year when Heerabai did not experience difficulties. One year, her son in the village fell into a well. Though he did not drown, he broke his arm. She ran to the village to nurse him. After a week, she was back again, with a few tears, but the same enthusiasm to survive and be happy. Another year, her other son in Mumbai too broke his arm after being hit by a rickshaw. Again she took leave to nurse him and promptly came back to work. She shed a few tears but made no complaint against the world or God. The third year, her mother-in-law was attacked by robbers who took away whatever belongings she had. Heerabai took care of her but never cursed her fate. When the mother-in-law passed away, she had to take care of all four children.
Heerabai’s whole life was full of such incidents. She became stronger and stronger every time, and got more and more respect from her fellow workers and the houses where she worked, as being the most honest and hard working woman. The difficulties she faced on her way were like a whiff of wind, which just touched her but did not sweep her off her feet.
Eventually, she got her three kids married, taking loans from her employers. Her girls turned out to be hardworking and started stable families, though they were not educated. But her sons were lazy and too simple to face the ups and downs of life. She still sends money to the village where they run a farm. She lives all by herself now. The last incident that affected her, a major one, happened during the 27th July floods, when her house in the village was swept away in the strong currents. After two years, she fought and took her land back and then started construction on it with the help of a five lakh loan. She has promoted herself from being a domestic help to a cook. She cooks different types of food at different houses, and gets paid well. Heerabai is a single, uneducated woman from the village, but the way in which she faced her challenges and overcame them, one by one, shows that no matter where you come from, no matter what disadvantages you struggle with, you can still be the master of your own destiny.
-Rashida Jiwani, Mumbai
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