by Gauri Trivedi
There is one side of the world where woman empowerment is within reach and there is this other side where a woman is either still completely unaware of her right to choose or does not possess the means to do so. But the other side does exist, there is no denying that.
I must have been twelve or thirteen when Radha first started paying us visits. She was probably born only five or six years before me but looked a lot older in her married attire of a sari and the sparse yet customary jewellery of a nose ring and thin gold bangles.
She had a schedule of sorts and till date I don’t know how my mother had knowledge of those unscheduled appointments. On a couple of random days during our summer vacations, mom would take her nap in the living room on the couch instead of the bedroom so that she didn’t miss the knock. Radha always knocked, she never rang the bell. And if you paid attention, you could hear the sound of her heavy footsteps climbing the stairs to our second floor apartment even before she knocked.
The first thing she did on reaching flat ground was to take the load off her head and set it on the floor. She would then plant herself next to it and breathe a sigh of relief that came distinctly from being unburdened. If you looked at how much she carried on her, you would think she wouldn’t be able to walk even half a mile, but she was young and strong and some days she claimed to have covered a couple of miles on foot with all that. It always amazed me that she could appear happy even after working so hard. Mom would fetch a glass of water for her, and it was only after she finished drinking would the barter begin. Mom would go inside and bring out a bunch of used clothes and put them in front of Radha to assess. Radha would arrange them neatly in three piles; the gently used and like new, the old but usable, and the rags. The ‘no longer wearable’ pile was a donation and the bigger that pile, the happier she was. For the clothes that still had some life in them, she would offer to trade a couple of small or medium sized utensils. This part of the deal usually went down without a haggle. The ‘just like new’ commanded a utensil bigger and thicker than what was being offered, according to Mom. Radha would in turn find ways to convince otherwise. Mom would go through the dishes and serving spoons and pots and pans arranged efficiently in a space-saving pattern in a huge concave steel container and make a counter offer. An amicable agreement would soon be reached and with both sides content, the traded goods would be put away, lest either of them changed their mind! Radha would then linger on and small talk would ensue. Occasionally, Mom would ask me to make tea and they would have a longer conversation than usual.
Radha’s visits continued for the next ten years or so. We would see her twice or thrice a year and it was hard not to notice the change that overcame her with every visit. The smile weakened and her steps got slower. She gave birth to three girls and a boy in that period and it was quite a disgusting sight to see her pregnant body climbing our stairs with the huge container on the head supported by a hand, a bag of clothes hanging from a shoulder and a tiny hand clasping that free hand, while another pair of feet tagged along holding on to the corner of Radha’s sari. I thought it was horrible that she would expose her existing children and her unborn child to such risk and put her own body through grave danger with every step she took.
Mom, being a mother, knew better than to judge. If anything, she was nicer and kinder. She would let Radha’s kids sit on our chairs or couch or wherever they wanted to and always give them a glass of milk or something to eat. It wasn’t until so many years later when I saw all those unused utensils gathering dust in the loft that it struck me that mom never needed to trade old clothes for pots and pans. In a small way she was trying to make a difference.
I remember, as a teenager, I was irked somewhat by the way Radha had handled her life and more than once I had said out loud “Why does she keep on having babies if she can’t feed them?” To me, it seemed that all of Radha’s problems originated from her womb.
“Because she doesn’t have the freedom of choice. You are too young to understand what it means, but consider yourself lucky that you have been granted the power to make your own decisions,” Mom would say.
Coming to our place a couple of times in a year probably helped Radha on a different level too. She bartered for clothes but got much more. In a way those visits gave her hope, especially when she brought her kids along. It meant a lot her to have her children treated kindly and at par with the other children in somebody’s house. She gleamed when her kids got to sit higher, up on the chair. Radha herself would however, always sit on the floor. The image of this mother’s happy face, sitting cross legged on the floor at the entrance of our house, tired, but full of love and pride for her girls sharing a chair in our living room is a memory that stayed. Maybe she dreamed of a different life for them some day or maybe she just lived in the moment. It was hard to tell.
Gauri Trivedi is a former business law professional who makes the law at home these days. A Mom to two lovely daughters, her days are filled with constant learning and non- stop fun. All of her “mommy time” goes into writing and finds itself on her blog pages http://messyhomelovelykids.blogspot.com/ and http://pastaandparatha.blogspot.com/ and if she is not writing she is definitely reading something!