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An Amicable Barter!

by Sudha Chandrasekaran

Here are two different mothers, probably set apart by decades, but yet at the core, they want the best of things for their children.

Reetu, my daughter, must have been around twenty two years of age when Sarayu first started visiting us at regular intervals. She was probably four years younger to Reetu but looked much older in her married attire of meagre yet customary jewellery of gold-plated thin bangles and nose ring; and a saree. Reetu always wondered, “Well this Sarayu has a schedule of some sort and I am unable to understand how Mom is in know of those unannounced appointments.”

On a couple of random days during summer vacations, I would take my nap in the living room on the couch instead of the bedroom so that I didn’t miss Sarayu’s familiar ‘tok-tok’, for she always knocked and never was in the habit of ringing the bell. And if you are attentive, you could not miss the sound of her heavy footsteps climbing up the stairs to our apartment in the third floor (mind you, no lifts in our flats!) even before she knocked at our door. The first thing which she did on reaching the flat landing was taking off of the load which she carried on her head and placing it on the floor. Subsequently she would sit next to it and breathe a sigh of relief that came naturally with the unloading of the burden. On looking at how much she carried, you will tend to get the feeling that she could barely cover even 500 metres; but she was a young and able-bodied woman and alleged that she had at times walked even two kilometers with that load of hers. I was amazed when I saw her chatting away happily even after working so hard for a living. I would go inside and get her a glass of buttermilk and it was only after this that I would start my negotiations with her. Subsequently, I would get up and go inside to fetch the pile of used clothes which were kept ready for her assessment. Sarayu would then diligently segregate them and arrange them meticulously into three different piles- rags (unusable); old but usable; and finally scarcely used ones which were almost like new. The ‘no longer usable’ pile was considered as donation for which she need not give me any utensil in return. And bigger that pile, the happier she was. For the clothes that could still be used she would offer a couple of small or medium sized utensils in bargain. Usually this part of the barter went off without much of a haggle. It was serious bargaining when it came to the exchange of the ‘just like new’ ones. It definitely required an utensil much bigger than what was offered, according to my mother, who always sat by my side when Sarayu visited us. Sarayu, a soft spoken girl, would in turn find ways to convince me and my mom otherwise in her sweet voice. My mother would scan through all the utensils, serving spoons- big and small, pans and pots arranged skillfully in a space-saving pattern in a huge concave steel container and make a counter offer. Soon an amicable agreement would be arrived at and with both sides happy and content the bargained goods would be taken inside, lest either of them changed their mind! Sarayu would then hang on for some more time and soon a little chat would follow. Occasionally I would ask Reetu to make a cup of good coffee for Sarayu and me as well and we would discuss various topics (of not much consequence!). A longer than usual conversation would follow.

Time flew quickly and Sarayu continued to visit us for the
next ten long years. She came home mostly thrice or four times a year and the changes that overcame her during that period was noticeable during each of her visits. The contagious smile and laughter that she spread around gradually weakened and her swift gait became slower. She gave birth to two girls and a boy in succession during those 10 years. It was rather a pathetic sight to see her pregnant body ascending the stair case balancing the huge container on her head supported by her right hand; a bag of clothes hung from one side of her shoulder and a tiny hand clutching the free hand; while yet another pair of feet tagged along, holding on to Sarayu’s saree pallu. I thought it was indeed terrible that she would expose her children and her unborn child to such danger and put her own body through serious risk with every step that she took to climb to our apartment.
My mom, a mother of four kids, knew better than to judge. If anything, she was sympathetic, warmer and kinder. She would allow Sarayu’s kids to sit on our chairs or sofa (on which of course they did not jump!) or anywhere else they wanted to and always give them a glass of juice or milk or some biscuits to eat. It was not until so many years later when I happened to see those unused utensils gathering dust in the loft that it hit me that my Mom never should have bartered old clothes for utensils, pots and pans…….. In her own small way she was indeed trying to make a difference in Sarayu’s life. My daughter Reetu, then in early thirties, was somewhat annoyed by the way Sarayu had managed life and several times had said loudly “Why does this Sarayu keep on having one baby after the other, when she is unable to feed them properly.”

“Well, let me tell you something Beta - she lacks the freedom of choice. Reetu, you are lucky that you have understanding parents who have given you full freedom to make your own decisions. You are still searching for your Mr. Right and we are not applying any pressure on you, but her case is totally different. Married early in life, she has no say in her begetting of children. Her husband’s wish is her wish too. ”

Sarayu’s visit to our place helped her on a different plane too. She traded for used clothes but what she got in return was much more. Especially the visits she made with her children gave her lot of hope. Her children being treated kindly on par with other children in somebody else’s house meant a lot to her. She glimmered with pride when she saw that her kids got to sit higher up on the chair or a stool. But Sarayu herself would always sit on the floor. The bright image of this proud mother’s happy face, sitting cross legged on the floor at the entrance door of our house, tired, but full of love and pride for her children; sharing a chair in our living room is a memory that has not faded from my memory. Maybe she sat on the floor dreaming of a better and different life for her children in future, or maybe she just lived in the moment. It was hard to guess!

Woman empowerment is accessible in one side of the world, but there is this other side as well where a woman is totally unaware of her right to pick and choose; or else it may be that she does not possess the means to do it. There is no denying the fact that the other side does exist in our society even today.

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