17 Nov 2018: My widowed father’s new household is filled with abandoned women (incidentally, all from Bangladesh and all residing in Dattapukur). They numbered three at one point. Now there are two. One cooks, the other cleans, and both double up as night-nurses at different places.
They could never have been here if my mother was alive. She never allowed any cook for all the 44 years of her married life; and though she was certainly open to domestic help, when the local ones could not be relied on, she downright refused to hire “from the centre” because of their high hourly rates. Even with a daughter earning in dollars and dying to contribute and make them live comfortably, Ma resolutely stuck to the lifestyle that a pensioner’s wife could afford.

After Ma passed away in August 2016, D and S (right & left in the photo, can’t use their full names) entered Baba’s life – ostensibly to take care of him and his empty home, but also ended up partially filling the void in it by making him their ‘meshomoshai’ (uncle – maternal aunt’s husband). Ever since, as with everyone else who comes within his orbit, he has been full of unsolicited advice for their health and wellbeing (“Drink a cup of Women’s Horlicks every morning”) and the future of their sons (“Why is your son not enrolling for college? Ask him to contact me… I want to talk to him”).They partly indulge this incorrigible ‘teacher’ in him (who simply can’t ‘retire’), partly (privately) scoff at him. They are also clearly irritated by his fussiness about vegetables (which he doesn’t allow to be cooked if they don’t have the right look size color and texture), and his all-new obsession with cleanliness (a small fortune is spent every month on Nimyl& Dettol, with some variety of the latter gracing the house at every point that there is a basin – bathroom, kitchen, back balcony – so that he can wash his hands wherever he is for any number of insane reasons). But they were the ones who were most distraught when he was in the ICU of a private hospital for four weeks earlier in the year with a kidney problem.

Baba’s habitual compassion for the needy and poor is a tad bit extra for them. It stems from the fact that they are abandoned single mothers. They had briefly – at different times – shared the story of their struggle with him; and later, in more detail with my sister and me.

Their trajectory as poor working women is not a unique one, but inspiring nevertheless: for D, it involved leaving a child on the other side of the border with her parents for a long time; for S, it was having to frequently go without food for days and bear the responsibility and pain of not being able to allay her children’s hunger; for both, providing the child (D)/children (S) a rudimentary education while doing violently exploitative and contingent work for years. But theirs is also an enabling journey — from abysmal pays to good rates, from sheer penury to being financially solvent, from living in the stinky corridor of a distant relative’s house to a spacious rented room of one’s own with a proper designated area for a kitchen and a separate bath, from being inexperienced and shy/afraid/anxious/ young women to emerging as self-confident and self-sufficient individuals.

Hearing their stories, I have realized that just as love has many hues, so has abandonment. Despite all that she has faced, D retains a tenderness for the husband who had once loved her and nursed her during a major illness. She says she understands why he betrayed her; and then goes on to give an irrational explanation (irrational for me, very rational for her) for it: blaming it all on family intrigue and an oh-so helpless husband marrying again (without the knowledge of his first wife and child) against his choice. S has faced the worst kind of physical abuse by her perpetually drunk and irresponsible husband (and eternally absent father of her sons). She is enormously relieved to have got rid of him… which was not at all easy to accomplish, as he kept coming back to claim his rights. Hence in her case, the term ‘abandoned’ needs to be qualified: she was abandoned by her husband during their marriage, from which she actively sought to be liberate herself. She is enormously and unashamedly relieved to be alone, and to return home only to her boys. It is enough for her to love them and live for them.

They both insist on returning home every day to their children who are now adults – even when being full-time domestic help would have actually helped them earn more and spared them a lot of time and energy. So why did they not do that, I’d once asked. “To keep a watchful eye”, I was told – youngsters going astray being too common in their milieu.

And so they commute every day on the Bonga local to get about 3 precious hours with their sons in the late afternoon. In the evening, they commute reverse against the tide of the floating population of Kolkata. While millions leave the city to return home in far-flung towns and villages, they come to the metropolis to start their working day in the evening as night-nurses. They are both always dressed impeccably – sari pinned and pleated to perfection, hair tied up in a bun, an always bursting handbag on their shoulder. And – vermillion on their hair-parting, bindi on their forehead, sakha-pala on their wrists. I never asked them why they did that. Baba had told that part to me much before I became familiar with them & I would have guessed anyway. They retain the marital signs of Hindu (Bengali) women to protect themselves. It is the easiest armor they can carry to shield themselves from unwanted male attention and unwarranted queries on trains during daily commutes.

It makes me wonder about the nature of their liberation and self-sufficiency. Years of lonely toil, trauma, courageous confrontation with fate…. only to end up masking it with the external trappings of marriage. It is a daily lie/important survival strategy in their lives that their teacher-‘meshomoshai’ can do nothing to change.