Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Hidden Kamat

Kesari. That's her name. She has a surname too - Canconkar - but saying it out loud always felt weird. She started working as a maid in my home in 1995, a month after my younger brother was born. I was around 4 at the time. She was probably around 14. I can't say for sure because, as is often the case in her community, she doesn't have an official birth date; just guesses. Yes, she was a mere child then. But like so many others around her, the poverty at home and lack of resources had pushed her to work at a very young age to aid the household income.

Little did any of us know then, that she would become an integral part of my family for the next 20 years. Since 1995, almost every single day, she came to our house at 10am each morning and went home at 6pm. In between, she took care of every chore that needs to be done to keep a house functioning. After both my parents left for work in the morning, it was her that made sure me and my brother had our breakfasts and lunches, got us ready for school and everything else in between. I have vivid memories of her going around my neighborhood, scouting my brother from wherever he was playing and dragging him home to get him ready for school.

Any guest who has visited my place enough number of times over the years have bonded with her as much as any of us. So many of them said they wanted to take her along. I always suspected they would, if they could. And it wasn't hard to see why. She had learned every quirk of every guest who frequented our place. So when my grandma's car would arrive outside the house, she would promptly start heating the drinking water for my grandma without being told. She knew which guest wanted their tea without sugar. She knew which dish, cooked by my mom in the morning, would not sit well with me or my brother and what alternatives she could serve us for lunch instead. When my grandparents were bed-ridden and in pain in the last few days of their lives, she took as much care of them as any of us, always making sure they had their medicines on time and so on. These were things that went far beyond her call of duty. And that made her rather endearing.

 Over the years, the relationship between her family and mine grew a lot closer than a typical employee-employer relationship. As someone who comes from a seedy locality, being at my place for a better part of the day translated into a secure workplace. My mother nurtured her as one nurtures their daughter. As a result, in spite of receiving offers to work from other families in the locality, she stayed with us. This also led to some rather curious changes. When you've spent a major chunk of your day for 20 long years at somebody's house, you can't help but pick up some of the peculiar characteristics of that family. Over the years, her mother complained that she did not like fish anymore, an hangover of the vegetarian lunches she had at my place. Her cooking habits and taste pallets were shaped as much by my mother as her own. She almost became an extended part of my family. So when her house collapsed on a rainy night, it was my parents that helped her rebuild it back. For my brother's thread ceremony, she felt obliged to present him with a small gold ring like a family member would, if only as a token of love.  When I went home after 1.5 years in the US, she came running to the car to receive me, trying hard to contain her excitement.

She got married a few days back, after a rather long search for a groom and a series of setbacks. My brother was her official wedding photographer. When talks of her marriage started, my relatives congratulated my mother for getting a son-in-law. They were only half joking. 20 years! We all were so used to having her in our house that the idea of not having her around sent us all into thoughts about how we would cope up. How would we deal with all the relatives? Who will take care of everything? Will my parents be able to find everything in the house that only she seemed to know so well? On her last day of work a few weeks back, I spoke to her on FaceTime to wish her good bye. It was an eerie conversation. To think, she spent her entire teenage years and youth in my house. For us privileged lot, these are some of the best years of our lives and we hardly value the opportunities we get. She spent those years working in my house. Yes, we did provide her with a means of subsistence, an environment of security and helped her in times of distress. But I'm not sure if we could ever pay her back enough. Its a thought that's both humbling and depressing.

I know my family will be forever grateful to her. Wherever we may reach in life, I and my brother know she has played an important role in shaping our lives, perhaps next to only our parents. Whenever my parents receive praise for raising a family well, they know a part of the credit also goes to her. Not many in our social circle, apart from my close relatives, probably know she exists. But behind the scenes, she has played a major part in making the Kamat family what it is. Although the name will never be formally attached to her name, she will always remain a Kamat.