31st December, 2016. I’m lucky enough to share my birthday with a wonderful person. My sister-in-law, Padmini. She’s just 2 years younger to me and we hit it off right from the moment I stepped into the Ranganathan household. Today, her daughter and my son are in a celebratory mood and want to eat out. To humour them, we give in to the demand for what’s a censored item on our menu, relegated to a once-in-a-month treat.
We troop into Dominos Pizza and make our way to one of the tables. There’s one woman I notice at once. She’s dressed in a black saree and green blouse, with a black kitchen apron secured at the back of her neck and waist, a plastic cover over her hair that’s drawn into a bun, with a black cap perched on her head.
She’s just one of the staff in this bustling fast food joint and yet, she stands out for the sheer incongruity of her presence. An OLD woman scrubbing the table clean of food that youngsters half her age are having fun preparing or serving or eating.
She shuffles slowly around the tables, carefully collecting all the crumbs of food leftover into one large carton box. She moves to another part of the room to dump it all into a dustbin. Then she crosses her arms across her chest and stands quietly in the area marked as “Handwash” for the next table to become unoccupied so that she can clean it.
I watch her for a while and the realization dawns on me that I’m going to write about this. But then, there’s also this overpowering thought of wanting to know how and why she is there because I sense there’s a lesson hidden in this chance encounter.
As she stands waiting for the next table to empty out, I walk up to her and gently say, “If you don’t mind, can I ask you something?” The dour expression on her face gives way to something like wonder and she says, “Of course, what do you want to know?” I ask how she came to be working here despite the fact that she looks quite frail.
In the next 5 minutes, she narrates her life story – of losing her husband who had a government job. Of having a son who, despite being qualified, did not wish to find any job but instead, insisted on waiting for the father’s government job that had been promised to him. Of not wanting to knock on the doors of either her parents or her in-laws. Of working as a domestic help in four houses from 8 am to noon and then in the pizza outlet and dental clinic above till 9 pm. Of being saddled with illnesses like typhoid and having had surgery for hernia that had sapped at her almost non-existent strength.
And yet, this woman says calmly to me, “I have lots of difficulties, but I know God is there with me. He will take care of me always.”
As I bid her goodbye, she smiles and says, “Thank you for listening to me,” and walks slowly to yet another table. Indeed, as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa said, “A tree laden with fruits always bends low.”