This story is by Neela Sukhatme-Sheth and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
You showed up as household help at my father’s doorstep in a crowded city of millions with a letter in hand from a friend of a friend of a friend. Neither of my parents recognized that name on the letter, but your innocent look and charming smile made them take you in. Thus you stayed in our house in Pune, India for twenty some years. You wore an old-style, nine-yards, threadbare sari and covered your hair with the end of the sari palloo. Coming from a poor farming village of, maybe, two hundred small houses with no toilets and no running water, city taps and crowds were new to you. The more affluent amongst you owned, perhaps, a family cow that was housed in the small courtyard behind the hut and which gave enough milk for the family. You told us you were a widow with a five-year-old son, that you lived with your in-laws. It was a custom as in many villages in the region that demanded you cover your hair. When you came to work for my parents, my mother told you there was no need, but you did it anyway. A habit and also, your way of respecting my parents, so you said. It was your simplicity and constant smile that endeared you to my family.
You seemed about the same age as I, but I was away at college. When I asked you your age that many years ago, you smiled and said you didn’t know. Just as you didn’t know what day of the month it was, or how you should sign your name on a check. You did not even know the alphabet in your native language. You had never sat in a private car.
My parents lived in a two-story large, stone house with a small front porch and a green backyard with rose bushes. The flowers surrounded a concrete courtyard that housed a water well, and a coconut, a mango and a papaya tree.
Years later, I still see the image of you sitting on the edge of the well, practicing knitting, stitch by stitch, a new skill my mother taught you, the same as she had taught me years ago. Often though, because we were visiting from America, you had extra work. You always hurried around, ran up the stone spiral staircase inside the house to fetch someone’s eye glasses, or bring a sweater down for my little girl. You smiled and did your chores, ready to please my mother, and us, the family that lived far away. I never saw you venture outside the fence that surrounded our house, except when you visited your village. It seemed you never had the urge.
I had two young children and a husband in tow by now, all three of them were visiting India, the country of my birth, for the first time. My daughter knows your name is Hira, which means “Diamante or Diamond,” so immediately she calls you Diamond Lady.
“Will you read to me?” my little girl demands as she runs up to you with her picture book. There is a language barrier between you but together you turn pages and talk, each to your own.
“Are you learning to read and write?” I ask Hira.
“Why to?” you ask, quite simply. “No need.”
“So you can earn more money. So you can buy more clothes for your little boy,” I say.
“Why to?” you ask again. “My boy tends cows. He works on the farm. He helps his grandfather. He is happy.”
You seem content within the world you live in. “Why to change?” you say innocently. Why do you need to change? To be hungry for the music of the universe?
I talk to my mother about this at night as we sit in the living room relaxing with a cup of tea. You have retired for the night. My mother sends you to your room early after supper. A part-time helper comes to do the dishes.
Once a month, you go to your village on the public bus. You have been shown by which poster board to stand to catch the bus and where to get down when you return. You visit your in-laws and your son, and bring them the money you have earned. You are now the bread-earner after your husband died. When asked, you say they are okay even though they miss their son. He drank too much…that sentence escapes you just one time. The other servant who comes to the house to dust and mop the floor lets out that your father-in-law gambles your money away, but you never complain.
My mother says she has tried to teach you to write the alphabet. My mother’s mission is for you to learn to read the newspaper headlines. My father, too, says you must know what is going on in the world. “Why to?” I think to myself. And you show no thirst to learn.
“Why to?” I ponder again and again. “Why to?” Because I studied, I have degrees and I practice in the United States? Because I have a comfortable home and a nice family.
“Because she must better herself,” I tell my husband, “to understand the business of living.” When I turn around to look at him, he is already asleep.
We go to a bookstore one day that week. My little girl wants a new picture book. So I let her pick one. I notice it is in the Hindi language but pictures need no language. On impulse I buy two of the same, and we come home. My daughter shows her shopping to Grandma. Then she runs along with the two books and shows them to Hira. I see you both looking at your own books. Neither can read the few words below. My girl is reading the pictures but I see you intently trying to read the words under the pictures.
“I’ll ask Mommy to read to us,” my daughter says and runs to me. Then back to you and she repeats the word over and over until you say it. She makes more than ten such trips.
My mother says to you, “Can I teach you to read this book? You will like it?”
You nod and smile.
* * *
I return to India often to visit my family but my parents are deceased. Now I go for shorter visits to see my extended family, the roots of my very being. You come to visit when I am in Pune and bring your young granddaughter along.
“One day, I’ll make her go to college,” you tell me with great pride. “My son says, why to? Lets get her married and you can give her money for a good dowry. Then her mother-in-law will treat her well. But I will not do that. Your mother gave me plenty extra money for her college. I will keep my promise and not touch it. I sign my own checks from the bank, you know.”
You have a lovely smile and some mature confidence in how you carry herself.
I give your granddaughter books I have brought from America.
If you had been educated, you could have lived independently and brought up your own son. He studied until the sixth standard under duress. He works nights as a private security guard for a business man’s family home.
You look older but are still very attractive. Your huge smile and the sparkle in your eyes make me feel you might have had a cozy life; except I know better. You now live in a small apartment with your grown son and his wife and their young daughter. You tell me the girl goes to school regularly and likes to read and sings many songs.
I am so pleased with what my parents have arranged for Hira and her family. Yet, I half expect myself to utter the words, why to? Our two different worlds! I had the tools for education, you did not have the opportunity.
Rodin, the sculpture artist, is said to have commented on Camille Claudet, his muse, “I showed her where she would find gold, but the gold she finds is her very own.”
You, Hira found your diamond in the pages of a little girl’s simple picture book.
The glitter is your very own.