Two Rivers: Bhagirathi and Jamuna

I’m going to continue talking about the women in my life.
On this post, I’m going to talk about the way women touch me…have touched me. This is the third episode: I named it Rivertalk.
If you’re interested about the first two episodes — Foretalk and Flowertalk — just click on these links. You’ll get a more comprehensive picture of my relationship with my women in my life. I hope to write a couple of more episodes in the coming days. I hope that you come back to read more. In fact, I implore that you do.
Bhagirathi, Jamuna and Saraswati are three major rivers in the Hindu holy land that descended from the Himalayas, flew through the North Indian heartland, met at a confluence called Prayag near the bustling city of Allahabad, and then flew their own separate ways all the way through Bihar, West Bengal, Bangladesh and Assam before dissolving into the Bay of Bengal. Incidentally, Saraswati is now non-existent: there are underground traces of that once-mighty river at the Lord Krishna-glorified Prayag confluence. Bhagirathi is also known as the mighty, holy river Ganga or Ganges. The Hindu pilgrimage of Varanasi or Benaras is of course famous for its temples and picturesque steps on its riverbanks.
Bhagirathi, Jamuna and Saraswati, in my present story, are three women who worked as domestic helpers at my Calcutta household for eons. In Bengal and in India, domestic helpers are often part of the family; for pittance, they work for the family almost for their entire lives, and practically consider the employer family as their own. I don’t know how they actually do it, considering they have their own families to take care of, and often those families are so poor and helpless that these women’s paltry wages are their only source of income. Often, they are refugees of war, partition and communal riots or other such disasters: in India and Bengal, we don’t have any lack of them.
Plus, they do manual labor for both families, killing themselves. Yet, they never forget to smile, never forget to greet you, and never ask for more than what they’re given. More often than not, they are grossly underpaid and grossly overworked.
Bengal and India’s urban middle-class households — all one billion of them — are run on their shoulders and by their overworked palms. Bhagirathi and Jamuna, as you can see in the picture above, are still working for my family back there in Calcutta. As you can see, Jamuna the woman doing dishes on the dingy kitchen floor now has a granddaughter who is happily accompanying her grandma to our place. There is every likelihood that in course of time, she will take her grandma’s place in our family.
They are somewhat lucky, in spite of their lifelong misfortune, that they’re working for us — an employer family with some humanity and kindness. In times of emergencies and major disasters, we try to do our best to help them. There are many other — in fact, numerous — maids who are not so lucky: poor young girls have a high risk of being sexually violated (at least constantly looked down upon as sexual objects), and young boy servants have even a greater risk of being verbally and physically abused. In the event of any possible theft in the family — small or big — the young boy servant would take the initial brutal beating, both by members of the household and also by the police. In India, it’s commonplace. Nobody even talks about it.
In case of our Bhagirathi and our Jamuna, they flow relentlessly, smoothly, and without saying a word. They wake up at the crack of dawn, walk in the dark over to our house, and start doing their chores without waiting for any instructions. Jamuna does the dishes piled up from the night before; Bhagirathi makes tea, goes to the local market to do daily groceries and pick up the rationed milk bottles. Then, she starts cooking. Jamuna meanwhile sweeps and mops the living room and bedroom floors.
They leave when they’re finished with their morning chores, return to their own families, and perhaps replicate all of the above — of course, in a scaled-down way for they simply could not afford it like we do. Then they come back again to do an afternoon and evening version of the morning routine, only to leave at eight or nine at night, after we’re finished with our dinner and ready to go to bed with our favorite novel or music. Facebook enthusiasts would lift their legs on the chair against the computer table while the boy or the maid keeps sweeping the floor underneath. The fun online discussions and chats would not disturb the worlds of either parties.
Saraswati worked with us for a few years when my mother died. It was a time when our home was more disorganized than a refugee colony. We didn’t know who’d cook, who’d clean, and whether or not there would be food on the table the way it did uninterrupted when my mother was around. It was a very difficult time — both physically and emotionally. Saraswati came to help us at that time; we also had a young boy named Kanai who was a skilled cook at the age of thirteen. He came from some drought-stricken village in south Bengal, and we became good friends. Saraswati, meanwhile, disappeared just like the once-active river. One could find her trace only deep underground — if you know how to dig deep into your memory.
Surprisingly, these domestic helpers somehow always had a lot of affection for me. For that reason only, I can never forget them. I’ll come back and talk about them a bit more. I hope you come back too.
Sincerely Writing,
Brooklyn, New York