Shanti came to us when the Covid lockdown was relaxed in Bangalore. She was this emaciated woman in desperate need of work. She had a wild, desperate look in her eyes even as her fingers twirled the end of her saree’s pallu nervously. We were in desperate need of domestic help because my grandparents are old and it was getting a bit much for my mother to manage all the household chores. Moreover, there was no need for her to overextend herself when hiring domestic help isn’t expensive in India.
So when Shanti asked us if she could help around the house, we assented. Contrary to the domestic help we’d had before her, Shanti was diligent, thorough, and most importantly, trustworthy. Our previous domestic help needed us to keep an eye on her all the time because she was given to stealing things while we weren’t looking. All sorts of things vanished, right from fallen coconuts from the coconut tree in the backyard to an iron shovel that was lying around unattended. Shanti seemed to be the exact opposite. Even the tiniest thing such as a pen or a safety pin would stay intact in its original place. She swept the house and scrubbed the floors as if they were the most important things in the world. My grandmother, a taskmaster that many a domestic help had run away from, had nothing but praise for Shanti’s work.
Impressive as her work was, Shanti had her own quirks that left us rather puzzled. For one, she was homeless and was camping out in the backyard of someone’s house. It seemed like she wasn’t getting enough to eat; she was rail thin. Seeing this, my mother offered her some hot upma for breakfast and a cup of coffee the first morning she came to work. She flat out refused! Her reason? She was Christian and we were Hindu; so she couldn’t accept food from a household like ours. This obviously got my grandmother all indignant, for, being a Hindu Brahmin, she thought her household was the purest of them all. My mother took a more understanding viewpoint. “Religious beliefs can be held quite strongly; sometimes to the detriment of a person’s well-being”, my mother said to me ruefully specifically addressing Shanti’s situation.
The other quirk which baffled and at the same time impressed us was her adamant stance that she would not accept money without working for it. Her plight was so heartbreaking that my mother offered her some extra cash and she flatly refused, remarking, “Do you think Jesus would approve of me taking money without working for it? No thank you, akka*”. While this quality was admirable, I couldn’t help but feel that she was shooting herself in the foot. Couldn’t it be that the very Jesus she worshiped was sending her help through others and she was turning it down?
Days passed and we couldn’t be happier with her work. She seemed to like us too, despite our ‘Hindu ways’. One day, she gave us a call in the middle of the day, saying that the family that had been allowing her to stay in their backyard had kicked her out. Could she please come to our house? My mother felt dubious knowing full well that my grandparents, especially grandfather, wouldn’t approve. Still, Shanti’s distraught voice went to her heart and she asked her to come over. Shanti opened up a little more about her situation. Her husband had deserted her, her brother was a raging alcoholic. She used to work at a church when Covid hit and all the workers had to scamper to find alternative accommodations. Their source of income had also suddenly been cut off, leaving them destitute.
She asked my mother, “Akka, can I sleep on your porch just for the next few days? I intend to go to Hyderabad as soon as I can. Until then, I really need a place to sleep. I have nowhere else to go”.
I could see that my mother was fighting an internal battle. On the one hand, she wanted to help Shanti however she could. On the other hand, my grandparents were adamantly against this. They did not want to house a stranger, however much they liked her work. They were also of the opinion that if something were to inadvertently happen to her, the blame would fall upon them. Overall, they felt it was way too risky to provide her shelter. After much debate, my mother informed her that we were really sorry; we wouldn’t be able to allow her to sleep here. She pressed one thousand rupees into Shanti’s hands, saying that she should use this to find accommodation for the next few days until she left for Hyderabad.
It was impossible to read Shanti’s expression. She half-heartedly refused the money. My mother insisted that she take it and think that Jesus himself had sent this as a gift. She took it.
It was raining that day and Shati sat on the porch until it stopped. Then, carrying the small bag that had all her worldly possessions, she walked out the gate. We haven’t seen or heard from her since.
*Akka – elder sister. A term used to address another woman in South India.