West Bengal, the state in India where I come from, has a long and unfortunate history of de-industrialization. Of mills and factories closing down, of sole breadwinners suddenly becoming jobless. Of the small dreams and security that a regular salary brings changing suddenly to a bleak-black-uncertain future. Of people trying desperately to cling to ‘respectability’ and not topple over into utter ‘poverty’.
We met such men on local trains, hawking plastic hairclips and handkerchiefs. We met the women behind these men going from door to door, selling small articles of daily use, depending as much on the buyer’s sympathy as on their own selling skills.
They were not the smartly dressed marketing professionals we see today. They were women who had never thought they would have to ‘step out of their house to work’. They had been content to toil within the bounds of domesticity and always blamed their “kapal” (forehead – where the inscrutable lines of destiny are supposedly etched) for pushing them out of doors.
When we were young, I remember three such women who were regulars at our house (and at the houses of all our neighbours, friends and relations – all part of a large network of ‘references’). With the intrinsic callousness of children, we regarded them more with curiosity than with sympathy, wondering why their eyes watered ever-so-often, wondering why our mothers ended up buying more than we needed (or more often than we needed).
I am sorry to confess that I have forgotten the names of two of these brave and gutsy ladies.
One lady sold ghee (‘clarified butter’, as they say), coming to our home once a month to fill up a jar of golden, rich-smelling ghee made from creamy cow milk. She was plump and smiling, with smooth dark skin that looked as if she had polished it with ghee. She would put down her heavy jars and sit in bedroom (all these women would come straight to our bedroom where they would chat with ma and barama over tea and biscuits; the drawing room was for strangers and male visitors), pour out ladlefuls of ghee into the ghee-er-shishi (bottle demarcated for ghee) and deliberately spill a little on the plate beneath so that we could lick the yummy ghee. When she left, the gheewali (as we called her) left behind the warm aroma of pure ghee.
Another lady sold us dhoopkathi (incense sticks) – indispensable in every household and used for the daily morning and evening puja of the household gods and goddesses arranged carefully on the thakurer aashon (altar). Maybe the close association with religious objects made her blame the Gods for her cruel fate. And blame she would, in a loud and continuous lament, pausing only to sip from her tea-cup or to count the change. She was usually disheveled and distraught, with faded sarees and straggly hair, and we (rather cruelly, I feel in retrospect) called her ‘Ghargheri’ (Hoarse-voiced).
In complete contrast was Rashmonidi. Thin, dark, neat as a pin, not a fold of her inexpensive saree out of place, she was more interested in hushed gossip than loud lament. She was an amazing job-hopper – she began by selling cotton chhapa (printed) sarees, then temporarily trespassed into Ghargheri’s territory by selling dhoop-kathis on the side. She could give new-born babies their daily maalish (oil-massage) and bath (a daunting task), she could help out when large numbers of guests came for weddings or pujas in the family. She was dynamic – doing whatever she could to earn enough money to put her son through college. And when this son’s wife and she did not get along, she opted out, willing even to accompany families moving out of Kolkata as their cook/maid/governess. I met her some years ago, still as thin, but with her hair cut short in a ‘boy’s cut’ for convenience, as gossipy and gregarious as ever. Fate has dealt her plenty of blows, but has not managed to blow out her spirit.
DO YOU REMEMBER ANY SUCH BRAVE AND GRITTY PERSON FROM YOUR CHILDHOOD?