The Changing of Seasons
I looked at her, hoping that my misgivings were not showing on my face. She must have sensed my hesitation, for she patted the other woman on the shoulder and insisted, “Didi, trust me, she is a very efficient worker.”
The highly recommended woman did not seem too ecstatic about this appraisal, and rather wore a sulky expression as she stared at the limp philodendron plant next to me.
I gave in. I was desperate because my home was bursting at its seams with the mountain load of laundry and dishes. It was summer in February, because it is Gurgaon, and Jilpi was shedding her fur like the fervent coins dropping from Mahalakshmi’s benevolent palm in the Thanjavur painting on my foyer wall.
“Okay,” I croaked, and then cleared my throat, willing my features to form a neutral countenance. “What did you say your name was?”
“…mi,” she mumbled.
She finally glanced up and met my eye.
“Mo-ha-su-mi,” she enunciated.
She was willing to oblige my questions. I could manage with this, I told myself.
* * *
A filter was removed from my field of vision, the brown-yellow one that they use to portray graphic aridity and drought of physical and emotional media in cinema. I felt hydrated and fresh just walking from room to room. I had no idea that my house could actually be and look this kind of surgical clean. It assumed the appearance of having been thoroughly washed and scrubbed down; a naughty child donning an angelic avatar at the end of her ablutions. This was Day Two. And Mohasumi was a domestic goddess.
Millions of low wage and daily wage workers migrate to Delhi NCR from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal, every year in search of sunshine and dreams. Men, women, whole families journey here in the hope of being able to build something with their lives, to be able to survive just above the surface with as much dignity as they are allowed. Every day, skilled and unskilled labourers move through the matrix of an ever expanding city, many times the size of their villages and hometowns, searching for and finding employment where their needs and the specific demand of their patrons meet.
Mohasumi was from a tiny village in Malda, a district about 300 and odd kilometres north of Kolkata, and nestled on the shoulder of Bangladesh from where it is less than an hour’s bus journey away. Malda is most famous for its eponymous mango, and jute and silk. Later, when decently communicative, Mohasumi would say that it is a four day journey to her village, from Gurgaon; three days by train and the fourth by bus. Mohasumi and many like her, exchange their subsistence there for a verve in the city, in order to provide a better life for their children, and for themselves.
Meanwhile, a routine had set for us both in the first week. She would take about three hours to finish her work from start to finish, chores that my previous house-help used to finish in a matter of an hour. I was not complaining. My home was looking its prettiest in months. My offers of tea, and thereby conversations, had been refused so far, with polite firmness. And since, I had no grievances about her work as well, there was no script for a tête-à-tête.
So, I toned my excitement, only spoke to her when it was absolutely necessary. Like if the sky looked cloudy, I would plan to ask her to bring the laundry drying rack inside. But it is Gurgaon. And it rains here only when the rest of India is finished with their precipitation quota.
Jilpi also had a routine; of being progressively shifted from room to room as Mohasumi did her tasks. An exuberant golden retriever, Jilpi is that dog which the women in domestic service in my apartment complex warn each other about. Impish and a people person, she can never resist giving these women the shock of their lives as she tries to snuggle in around their feet while they work. Overtly aware of the consequences of Jilpi’s enthusiasm, I always make sure she keeps her distance from them, at least until they get used to her size and manners.
One day, bored, whiny, and eager to meet the new help, Mohasumi, Jilpi had sneaked out from behind an ajar door. The second I heard a scream, I flew to the kitchen, heart in mouth, expecting the worst.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” I gasped, my apology an automatic appeal, having done this many times before. Usually after this, I am either extricating the lady from Jilpi’s bipedal hug, or helping her out of a quadrupedal one on the floor.
Miraculously, Mohasumi, who was stroking Jilpi’s ears, looked up and gave a ghost of a smile. A tranquil Jilpi cocked her head and then turned back to Mohasumi, indicating that she continue her ministrations. I stood staring at them, my pulse ringing in my ears.
“She is a good dog,” said Mohasumi.
Jilpi agreed, and they became fast friends.
* * *
“You know, you shouldn’t give it so much water,” said a flat voice from behind me, as I lifted a wan leaf suffering from gravity, and uttered a wheeze of horror when it came off its stalk and fell down.
Brushing me aside, she stuck a finger in the pot, and pulled it out. A sodden heap of mud was sticking to her finger. I caught a whiff of fungal pungency.
“This one here doesn’t drink much,” she stated, and scraped the mud off her hand.
Her deadpan expression urged me to believe her. I was even impressed.
I found myself asking, “So, how often—”
“It will ask.”
It looks like there is such a thing as killing by too much love, for after that, the philodendron plant let go of all its leaves in a day or two due to overwatering. It was too late to let the soil dry up. I was heartbroken. It was the fourth plant in a row, which had died on my watch.
I was removing the contents of the pot, when she stopped me.
“I’ll do it,” offered Mohasumi. “You have to tug quickly, otherwise it’d be painful.”
A week later, she came clutching a voluminous bag to her chest. The leaves sticking out belonged to what I recognized as shoot cuttings of pothos plant, of a variegated category. Not unlike the person who learned to swim on the floor of their house, I was a gardener who would get a 105 marks for a 100 mark theory paper. Both this theoretical swimmer and my plants were doomed to drown in practical water anyway.
“They were chopping off the excess creepers over the compound wall outside,” clarified Mohasumi, all brisk and business-like. “Now I just need to do this…”
Removing a plastic fork out from a knot at the end of her dupatta, she raked it through the soil in the pot. She was ploughing it, I realized. Such mini innovativeness.
She yanked the cuttings out from the satchel, and stuck them in the mud, at calculated distances, allowing space for the individual stalk-saplings. Some of them drooped fashionably over the rim of the pot, dramatically changing its morose demeanour.
I stared at her. What was this insouciant girl’s mysterious past? Was she a designer gardener?
“In our village, I used to work in the fields,” she said, a shy spark in her eyes. “So, I know a little about plants.”
And then, she smiled her first real smile. I slowly grinned back, lush admiration cleaving its way out through a million other questions in my mind.
Mohasumi was a farmer.
To be continued…