Jewels for the Lady
by Padmaja Menon
When I first met Kumari I was 10 years old. I liked her as soon as I saw her. Her bubbling laughter, her sparkling eyes, her quick remarks. She was my grandmother’s hired help. My grandmother’s house in Kerala was a large rambling house with innumerable rooms and attics. The kitchen was always a hub of activity. My grand mother was well over eighty four ( I may die before that) and in all my 10 years I have never seen her unwell. Why, my forty year old father also has not! She was a robust old lady who still managed to get up at the uncanny hour of four in the morning and milk the cows. I shudder to think of what she could have done when she was younger.
Anyway, quite recently she had at last begun to show signs of old age. She had even been hospitalised and I had not been surprised to know that she had gone round poking all the other patients awake at 4 O’clock! My father, her son had flown to meet her from Delhi and firmly forbidden her to undertake any strenuous work and to take complete rest. He had ordered Kumari, a harijan to be her nursemaid and look after all her needs. He had promised to buy Kumari a gold chain when he came home for the summer holidays in return for her service to his mother.
And so it happened that during our vacations, I met Kumari. Of course in due course of time she had become the kitchen maid cum nurse. Grandmother, recovered and hale and hearty had made Kumari a girl Friday. In farmhouses in Kerala, workload is mind boggling. There were cattle to be fed, their cow sheds to be cleaned, their mangers to be filled with clean hay, milk to be milked and sent in time to local tea shops.( not drunk by inmates)!
Cooking also was not easy. Members were many. Dad’s brothers and sisters and their families came over to meet grandmother and spend some time with her during holidays. So masalas were ground in large grinding stones, vegetables were chopped and cooked in large vessels. And in this mad rush it was always Kumari, Kumari.
In the afternoons, when she got a little time, she would come running to me, wiping her work ridden hands on her long skirt. “saumya kutti” (little saumya) she would call me and sit down to learn the alphabets. She loved to study. When I asked her why she had not finished school, she would look sad. She had to leave school after class five.
“How could I continue? Who will earn for my family?,” she would say but she would forget her worries immediately and finger my ear –rings and gold chain longingly.
“Your mother has beautiful jewellery,” she would say.
She was extremely fond of my mother and admired her a lot. She also loved gold. But then, I have noticed that in Kerala the women were greedy for gold, whether it were my Aunts or cousins, or the farm hands. They all had one thing in common. Greed for gold. She would remind me every day of the gold chain my Father had promised to give her. And when she got that gold chain and matching ear-rings she was on top of the world. She finished all her work in time that day and danced happily over the farm. In the afternoon as usual she came over to me for her daily lessons. Her small ears shone and her neck was adorned with the chain. She had even worn a new dress for the occasion. Her long hair was combed neatly and plaited. Her eyes were lined with kajal and she looked radiant.
As she chanted her alphabets, I realized that she had a very sharp memory and learnt fast. If only she would go to school. But no,her parents, drunken Kombi and farm labourer Chata wanted only money. They had three elder girls to be married off. Kombi was a dark, wiry man with a handlebar moustache. He would always be drunk. At night drunken brawls could be heard from his hut nearby. In the morning he would be sober…. Till night.
Kumari was petrified of her Father and one morning when she came to work her ears and neck were bare. My Achema (Aunt) asked her,"What happened" ? She sobbed heart brokenly.To my shame I found myself howling along with her. Her sobs broke by heart. What had happened did
not shock either my Aunts and cousins or even my parents. But I could not believe it. Her father in one of his drunken fits, had ordered her to hand over the jewellery to him. And she had. He had said it would be given to her sister on her wedding. But I knew it was untrue. Kombi would pawn it off for his liquor. Horrible, horrible Kombi.
For two days Kumari did not come for work. My father had scolded Kombi for his disgusting behavior but the miserable fellow just smiled in a stupor. I felt like bashing him up. Useless,worthless creature. If he could not earn money to look after his children why had he become a father? My father wasn’t like that. I suddenly hugged my father. He was great.
On the third day poor Kumari came. Gone was her carefree, childish laughter and dancing feet. Her sparkling eyes no longer glowed. She missed her gold. I called her over to our study and tried to cheer up.
I asked her for the umpteenth time to rejoin school. “My mother says a girl’s real Jewellery is her education. If you study well you get a good job later. Then you can make as much jewellery as you please”. I cried. Kumari looked up from the alphabet book.
“Your life is different from ours” she mumbled. “My father…..” she sobbed again. I was quiet. I knew that fifteen year old Kumari rushed from Grandmother’s house to the fields so that apart from her salary at our place she could collect the daily wages allotted to the farm hands too. And after all the sweat and toil what happened? Her well deserved reward was snatched away by her drunken father.
I decided to speak to my father about it. He was surprised when I blamed everybody for Kumari’s plight. “You are not helpless. You call that Kombi and force him to allow her to continue school. It is not necessary that the children earn money for a father to squander on drinks. I will call the police to arrest him!”
My mother also supported me and surprisingly so did grandmother.
The end result was.... Kumari started going to school. Of course she came at the break of dawn to Grandmother’s house, finished all her chores and was at the school gates exactly at 8’O’ clock when the first bell rang. When we left for Delhi the laughter was back in Kumari’s eyes and though she wept as I waved good bye, I glimpsed courage in her eyes.
Now, seven years later, returning to Kerala ,I suddenly wondered what had happened to Kumari. My early letters and replies from Aunt had carried lengthy details about Kumari. Then life and its problems had taken over. Kumari had become but a memory.
Grandmother, a ripe 90 years was reclining in her regular armchair. The large rambling house welcomed us as usual. I noticed that an old lady was at the kitchen with her daughter. Another Kumari?
Suddenly I asked “Achema where is Kumari?” “Oh Kumari, is working at the bank as a typist. Didn’t I write to you? She is a great girl now.”
Kumari, a typist at the bank? I felt a thrill of anticipation shoot through me.
“Oh’ he is still the same. Many times he tried to dissuade Kumari but she can be very adamant. She was a good student too. Hardworking”.
Achema briskly served me idlis and rushed off. I felt overjoyed to know that Kumari had excelled herself.
In the evening when I heard somebody wanted to meet me, I did not expect it to be Kumari. Neither did I recognize her immediately.
Gone was the Kumari of long plaits and dirty long skirts. Here stood a neat young lady in a sari, hair tied back in a bun and a dimunitive smile which broke into excited laughter when she saw me.
I stared unbelievingly when she said “Saumya Kutti”, I gasped and rushed to her. She clasped my hand tightly and her eyes filled with tears. And unashamedly I also wept. My father reclining in the easy chair cleared his throat.
“Well done Kumari, I am proud of you” he said,
“ and this time don’t give your jewellery to Kombi to waste on drinks”.
Sure enough her ears and neck were no longer bare. Gold sparkled there, but when she showed me- her pre-degree certificate and called it her true jewellery – I knew my Mother’s guidance had always been for the best.