The ones with the best of smiles are also the ones with the worst of sorrows.
Smiling beauty, that’s how I address Mukesh. Ever ready to impress with hard work and ever so willing to flash a hundred watt smile, Mukesh worked as a maid for me for close to two years. She was epitome of diligence. Her honesty and integrity defined her impeccable character. I still remember how her reply to even a simplest of query preceded a massive smile that not only lit her face but also travelled to those around her. Even her crinkled eyes laughed along with her girlish giggle every time I asked her about her life. Often I wondered how anyone could remember so much pain with such genuine smiles.
Married at a tender age of thirteen, she was a mother of three, two sons and a daughter.
Mukesh’s mother, like her, was abandoned by her husband immediately after her birth. She couldn’t bear the burden of raising a daughter all by herself at the tender age of 16 and took to bed with uterus cancer. She died after four years of extreme pain, of which Mukesh was the only witness. Her mother’s illness matured her beyond her age. She started supporting her mother by picking up odd but back breaking jobs either as a labourer at construction sites or working as a dishwasher at roadside motels and kiosks. Her circumstances seemed to be taking incomprehensible revenge from her still.
After her mother’s death she was left at the mercy of her insensitive and greedy relatives who conspired to exploit her ability to put in hours of hard labour. They made her hand over every penny that her little hands earned. One fine evening, a squabble with her uncle’s daughter invited the wrath of her Uncle’s wife who avenged herself by marrying Mukesh off with her drunkard brother. He was 38 and she was 13.
She once told me how scared she was of his merciless eyes and even tried running away from home a day before the wedding.
Within a week of her marriage Mukesh had three fractured fingers and 13 stitches on her head. The cruelty that those eyes reflected was far less than the actual ruthlessness of his deeds. Returning home dead drunk, he found some perverse pleasure in her pain. Pain, that caused much more damage to her emotional health than her physical being. By the time she turned 17 her frail body had mothered three healthy children in quick succession.
Name a vice and her husband possessed it. From being a drunkard, to a gambler to a petty thief, he was quite accomplished in all the three. Many a times Police would summon her in lieu of her husband to know his whereabouts. He sold off whatever little jewelry that formed a part of her trousseau, even her double bed that was her most prized possession. Her mother in law for some curious reason scolded her even more whenever she saw her blue and black body. She accused her of not being a good wife and blamed her wrong grooming entirely for inviting the wrath of her ‘poor and unfortunate’ son. She turned 23 amidst this virtual hell. How would she differ between hell and heaven? Heaven was meant for only the chosen few!
An orphan, helpless and hapless, all she could depend upon was HIM. She started praying fervently to get rid of a life that was made up of nothing but only pains and sorrows. Strange are His ways and even stranger is his sense of justice! Who knows how and why and what HE decides for us. Life took another ‘seemingly’ dreadful turn for her when she was shunted out of her “home” at midnight on the day her husband brought home the loot from his gambling – a woman.
She was kicked out along with her daughter. A son is born because of the grace of the father and the unwanted daughter is a disgrace whose birth is to be credited to the wife alone. Hence, Mukesh was to bear the burden of raising her daughter all by herself and her sons were to stay with their father. In the sweltering heat of the month of June, she spent close to twenty days on a pavement next to a temple. She begged to sustain lives. She had been reduced to a skeleton when a kind soul took mercy on her and her daughter and referred her to a home for the destitute. She quickly recovered from the abyss of bottomless pit and sprang back to life again. Her indomitable will and grit for self-sustenance despite all odds motivated her to pick up the job she was best at, the job of a house-help.
With her honesty and diligence Mukesh not only became endearing but also the most sought after person in her profession. Things started looking up and she even admitted her daughter to a school, a longtime dream that she realized finally. She made decent money and started saving for her daughter’s education. Her greedy relatives who had once disowned her, flocked back at regular intervals, each time with tales of poverty, sorrow and helplessness to extract as much as they could from kindhearted Mukesh.
Did she think about her husband ever? Yes, she did. She often wondered why he had left her for a woman much older than her. She also wondered why God had chosen such a monster for her. Did he treat the other woman better than her? She thought of these every day before going to bed. The questions only lulled her to sleep at night, if not anything else.
Some questions have no answers. And some sorrows have no antidote. One day her daughter, the apple of her eye, her sole reason for living, eloped with a car mechanic. She remained traceless for fifteen days. Mukesh was forced to give away her only daughter to an undeserving man through a proper wedding ceremony, spending all the money she had saved for her education. Destiny can be so stubborn sometimes and refuses to budge despite best possible efforts. Mukhesh wanted to change it but her daughter put a full stop with her childish whims.
The daughter, who she dreamt would become a teacher someday, who she wanted to have a beautiful home and a loving husband, came back with tears in her eyes and black and blue imprints on her body. History repeated itself, the only difference this time was that her daughter had a mother whom she could bank upon whereas Mukesh had none to even wash away her tears of struggles, pains and abuses. She was amazed at her own confidence when she threatened her daughter’s in-laws with dire consequences if they raised as much a finger at her.
18 years had elapsed since life took a turn. Was it for good? It surely was for her betterment. She made the best of whatever little the life offered. Her employers were her genuine relatives and their home was hers too. She was not at all surprised when ‘the other woman’ in her husband’s life came looking for her. She had the audacity to tell her that she could and should take her ailing husband away, the burden of whom she was unable to bear. Despite everything, she rushed to the hospital only to see an AIDS inflicted man reduced to the size of a child. His own family and friends had abandoned him. He lay on the bed staring into nothingness and upon seeing Mukesh, his stoicism was rewarded with tears from his own eyes.
Mukesh didn’t utter a word. She was overcome with both extreme hatred and unimaginable sympathy. She took care of all the expenses for close to a year and a half, the time he lived, but never saw his face again. Did God grant her justice? If yes, she didn’t like it even a wee bit. Isn’t there a way to question HIM? Like everyone else, even Mukesh had no means to find it out.
Her two sons, who stayed with her mother-in-law, neither bothered about their father, nor Mukesh. They were as ruthless towards her as their father was. They would call her up quite frequently not to ask her about her well-being but to threaten her with dire consequences if at all she refused to give them money.
Nobody can remain untouched by time. Mukhesh too had changed and for good. The threats lost their effect on her eventually. She marched on with life most gracefully. The crow’s feet and grey streaks in her hair lend her grace and maturity. She needed no man to feel complete. Her work gave her strength and sanity. It had also given her unquestionable respect from the society.
Her only sore point today is her daughter who could have led a much better life had she not given in to her wicked heart’s desire. These days before going to bed she often wonders about the cruel societal norms that bind her daughter to her abusive husband.