This story was told by Rejini. Chaya is one of the four women whom Rejini tried to help out. There is much in common in the tales of all four women. The resilience and the sense of responsibility of the women are the most common factors. Rejini has come to the conclusion that Indian men from the economically backward class are usually worthless creatures. A sweeping generalisation? Or is it true?
She lives in Mumbai, the youngest daughter of a mill worker who owned a room in a chawl in downtown Mumbai. She had a younger brother who was a kid when their parents died. The house (the room) was bequeathed to her, ‘cos she looked after her parents. She and her brother lived in that house after the death of their parents.
Chaya was not literate. She worked in the nearby apartment complex, in two or three flats, and earned enough to eke out a rather decent living.
Then her troubles began. She met a young man who had a decent job in a central government concern and they got married – in a temple. He hailed from some remote area in Maharashtra, and moved into her house. Soon they had a son.
When the son was two years old, her husband went to his village to see his parents who had refused to accept Chaya as their daughter in law, as she brought no dowry. He returned after two weeks and informed Chaya that his family had forced him to get married. That marriage was properly registered. He was apologetic. He couldn’t resist the family pressure, he told her. With his public sector job, he was an eligible bachelor in his community, and when the proposal came from a girl who would bring a fat dowry, the family fell for it. Chaya’s husband buckled under the pressure from his community. It did not matter to the bride and her family that he had another wife – no wife as far as they were concerned.
Soon he started shuttling between the two wives. Chaya proved to be a convenient arrangement for him ‘cos she provided the accommodation. In Mumbai free accommodation is a bonanza.
In the meanwhile, Chaya found a new employer who was genuinely interested in her welfare. So she gave up her other jobs and was happy working for Rejini, her new employer. The main attraction was the fact that Rejini did not mind chaya bringing her little son when she came to make rotis in the evening. The other memsahib’s used to make a fuss. She came to work for Rejini in the morning after her son went to school. In the evenings the mother and son came together. The son sat watching the TV which Rejini’s children switched on for him.
Now, Rejini was a South Indian. She was a person genuinely interested in human beings and loved listening to their stories. It didn’t take her long to realise that Chaya’s life would soon run into rough weather. She tried to warn Chaya, to tell her the present arrangement did not portend well for her. Chaya was not receptive to the warning.
“You don’t know amma(she called her amma ‘cos she thought all south Indians are ammas). My husband is a very good man”, she asserted.
“Then why did he marry again?” Rejini asked.
“What could he do when the parents, relatives and other prominent members of his community insisted. He needs them too in his life, no?’
Rejini could not believe her ears. Chaya seemed to be so happy and content. It did not seem to matter to her that she was sharing her husband with another woman.
“He takes care of us”, Chaya continued. “He is putting our son through a private school and he goes by the school bus. He buys the expensive uniforms and books for him’.
“Then why do you have to work?”, Rejini asked.
“Some extra money is always welcome. After all i have to look after my brother. He does not have a job yet.”
At the beginning of the school year, Rejini asked her if she needed some help.
“No amma, my husband will take care of everything”.
Then one day, Chaya brought her son when she came to work in the morning.
“ It’s a holiday today”, she said by way of explanation.
“But i saw others from the same school going to school in the morning”, countered Rejini. Many children from the apartment went to the same private school and Rejini knew them from their uniforms.
“Only his class has a holiday today. The class teacher is not well”, explained Chaya, looking away.
Rejini said nothing though she knew that Chaya was not speaking the truth. The boy accompanied her the next day and the next and the next.
“Why isn’t he going to school?”, asked Rejini.
“I told you, his teacher is not well’, Chaya said.
“I know that’s not true”, said Rejini sternly. ‘don’t lie to me. Why isn’t Sanjay going to school”
Chaya was silent and continued chopping vegetables. Rejini snatched the knife from her hand threw it into the kitchen sink and snapped, ”Chaya, look at me. Why isn’t Sanjay going to school? I want an answer”
“My husband did not have money to pay the bus fees”, blurted out Chaya.
Rejini was distressed. “Listen Chaya, this is going to be the shape of things to come. Get his TC from the school and put him in this school”, said Rejini pointing to the government school adjacent to the apartment.
Chaya was indignant. “My husband won’t let me do that. He doesn’t want his son to go to government school. The company is bad. Teaching is not proper”
Rejini tried to persuade her.
“Don’t worry amma. He’ll get some arrears today and we’ll pay the bus fee.
The next day, Chaya came alone. She looked triumphantly at Rejini with that i –told- you- so look.
A month later, Sanjay came with his mother in the morning.
“Bus fees?”, Rejini asked.
“School fees too”, said Chaya. She kept her eyes hooded. “He is finding it difficult to run two households. How can i blame him?’ she asked, a little defiantly.
“Will you advance salary for bus fees?”. It was the first time that she asked for an advance.
“No”, said Rejini. “But I’ll take care of his needs if you transfer him to this school”.
“Ok”, she said meekly.
Sanjay, thus started going to the state run school.
Soon, Rejini noticed that a change had come over Chaya. She was subdued, preoccupied.
“What’s wrong?” Rejini asked her one day.
“Last week his other wife came home and started fighting with me. She said i was fleecing him.”
‘He doesn’t give her money? Doesn’t he support her?” He had a child by her too.
“No. He can’t handle the situation and so he has taken to gambling. He doesn’t give either of us anything.”
“Then don’t let him into your house”, Rejini suggested.
“It’s not easy for a woman like me to live in that locality without a husband”. She was still young and it was not the safest of places for a pretty young woman like her.
AS days passed, Rejini noticed that Chaya was growing quieter and quieter, and was also getting absent minded. One day, Chaya’s neighbour Sunenda ,who worked in the opposite flat, asked to meet Rejini.
“Chaya is having problems at home. Her brother wants the house to be transferred to his name. Madam, you please tell her not to do that.”
Rejini was horrified. She confronted Chaya with the issue.
‘What do you propose to do?’
“I don’t know”, she said. “My sisters are forcing me to give the house to my brother. They say that it is not a done thing for the woman to inherit family property,” she said.
“But your parents gifted it to you. There is no law against it”, Rejini told her.
“ My siblings come home every day and quarrel with me over this”.
Rejini told her she’ll get in touch with activists and sort it out.
“I know legally the house is mine. And if i involve activists, or go to the court, nobody can take it away from me, but madam, you will go away soon and who will be there for me if i antagonise all my relatives?”
Chaya transferred the house to her never -do -well brother and in two months time she was thrown out. Sunenda, the good soul who informed me about the problem persuaded her parents to give Chaya and her son a small space in one of the rooms they had in a chawl.
“A tiny room amma”, said Chaya, “ half the size of this kitchen. We cook and sleep and keep all our belongings in that room. I have to pay Rs 500/ as rent”
Next month Chaya told Rejini she was pregnant.
Two months later she had bleeding and went to a local “doctor’ who told her the child got aborted.
“Didn’t you go to the hospital?”, Rejini asked.
“i went to her clinic. She said the foetus is gone completely, and nothing more needs to be done,’
Two months later, Rejini’s college going daughter pointed out to the mother that Chaya is losing weight but has developed a paunch. Chaya noticed that her daughter was right and a terrible suspicion took root in her mind.
“Chaya, why don’t you see a gynaecologist?’ Rejini asked.
“i was planning to go to our doctor. I haven’t got my periods after the abortion”.
Rejini hauled her to a proper gynec who, after examining Chaya, confirmed that she was still pregnant. “Four months if i go by the dates she gave me.’
“What was that bleeding about”, Rejini asked.
‘i don’t know. Anyway, the child is still intact.”
“Will it be ok?. After all she had bleeding when she was 2 months pregnant”, asked Rejini anxiously.
“Let’s hope all’ll be fine”, the doctor said.
Meanwhile, Rejini’s husband’s transfer orders came and they had to leave on the 5th of July for Kerala. Rejini was upset about Chaya.
Chaya was shattered.
“There’s a hospital in Bandra run by nuns”, Rejini told her.” I met them last week and asked them if they will take you in. They have a convent in Telegaon where they have quarters for helpers. There is a school also in the compound. I have asked them to give you a job in that convent. If they take you, you can stay in the quarters and your son can go to the school. They want to see you before they take a decision. We’ll go there this Monday itself. We have to leave for Kerala on Thursday.”
Chaya was happy, and brightened up at the thought of the security this arrangement would give her.
On Monday morning Rejini got ready and waited for Chaya. She didn’t come at the appointed time. Those were the days when maids did not have cell phones; so there was no way of contacting Chaya.
An hour later, the door bell rang. Rejini opened the door. Sunenda stood there with a hesitant smile on her face.
“Madam, Chaya has delivered. A baby girl”
“But that’s premature”, exclaimed Rejini. “Is the baby ok?”
“It’s not premature”, explained Sunenda.”Chaya got her dates all wrong. The delivery was normal and the baby is fine”.
As Rejini closed the door, she found herself thinking of the ignorance and helpless of that class of women in Mumbai. In Kerala, her state, women – even the poorest of the poor - were much more enlightened and empowered.
(to be continued in Chaya 2)