At the center of the room, which was dimly lit by the street light percolating through the window, Putna Bai laid shivering on her bed trying to procure some sleep. Her bouts of fever have come back. She had Chikungunya three months back, and still after her relief she gets these bouts of fever with shivering once in a while. She would now have to visit the government hospital once again, for the free medicine that is distributed there to alleviate the symptoms. The doctor had earlier said it would take time and the only therapy would be to treat the symptoms of fever and weakness. She would require to ask for a day’s leave from the houses where she works as a maid. The hospital has to entertain many people belonging to the economically backward section of the society from across Pune and its neighboring villages. Often patients and parties would flock to occupy the footpaths near the hospital gate early in the morning, to get a chance for health check-up in the outdoor patient department or for admission. There is no other option if one wanted good health care paying only a meager amount. Other government hospitals in the city either lacked in number of doctors, or the infrastructure and medicines. It was the only hospital that really aided someone belonging to their financial class.
She wrapped up her covering sheet and turned on her left side. The window had been kept open due to summer heat. The asbestos roof and the tin walls of the small room heat up and make it feel like an oven by the end of the day. Without any ventilation, like the window or the small gap between the roof and the walls, the shelter would have been agonizing to dwell in. The room was twelve feet by thirteen feet, habitable for a single person. The contents of the room included an earthen pot to hold water, a bamboo structure to hold clothes, a trunk used to store important stuff and cookware that lay in one corner of the room. She had CNG (compressed natural gas) cylinder and stove, but today she had to skip her dinner. After work when she returned in the evening to her abode she found that the cylinder was almost empty. The little amount of fuel left would not be sufficient to cook a meal but make two batches of tea. She made her evening tea and decided to skip her dinner, in order to preserve enough fuel to make the morning tea. The evening chai (tea) quite magically brushed away all her fatigue from the day’s extensive labor, and the morning chai was essential for her to persevere throughout the day. She had taken a few biscuits before bedtime to curb down her hunger.
A mild cool breeze drifted in through the open window carrying with it the fragrance of the jasmine. A handful of flowers blossomed in the shrub just outside, below her window. They now fanned their perfume with the slightest provocation of the fickle breeze. Putna Bai took a deep breath and the jasmine’s fragrance made her remember her past; her childhood, her youth, her marriage and her motherhood.
She had not been a native of Maharahstra but she was from a small village in Andhra Pradesh. She had come to Pune only when she was in her teenage years. Her parents had both died in a bus accident on their way to pilgrimage, to the Srisailam Mallikarjuna Jyotirlinga temple. She was only five years of age when this mishap had happened. It was ironical that the reason for their pilgrimage was for the sake of their family’s safekeeping. Orphaned at a tender age she was taken in by her maternal grandparents and raised as their own daughter. Her paternal relatives did not like the idea of undertaking the upbringing of a girl child, as it would not provide any economic return but a burden instead when she would be required to be married off. Her maternal grandparents having lost their only daughter were willing to take the liability even at their old age, since they found they could find bliss looking at the resemblance she bore to her mother. In fact she was raised to call them mother and father instead of calling them grandparents.
Her grandfather worked as a labourer in the fields of a land owner. He would bring in little money and produce that would provide them just enough for two square meals. Her grandmother would mostly remain home caring for her household except during the season of harvesting of the grains when she like many more would be temporarily employed as a harvester and thresher, by the same land owner where her grandfather used to work. She often helped her after she was seven both in the household chores as well as the harvesting work. There was no chance for her to go to school. During her childhood only boys were meant to be sent to school for the prospect of better income, while the girls were taught household chores and necessary skills to maintain the household so that they could be married off easily. The marriages were still organized early though seldom below 15 because of the Child Marriage Act threatening prosecution and jail. However rarely a girl would remain unmarried till her attaining of the age of 18. She was also married off to a distant cousin as was the custom of their village, and this young boy of age twenty-one used to work in Pune as a contracted labourer in construction firms. He went to visit his relatives in the village who were common in relation also to Putna Bai, and then both the parties decided on the marriage, Putna being roughly sixteen years old at that time.
She remembers the rituals that they had to perform including the early morning bath, and applying turmeric on skin to bring good luck and prosperity. The groom had lost his parents, so the common relatives themselves had taken the guardianship during the ceremony. She remembers the modest ceremony where the bride and the groom welcomed each guest accepting the humble presents offered. Everyone’s mood was elated and the music of the Shehnai (flute like musical instrument) played with the bride and the groom’s emotions. Whenever their hands touched or their bodies brushed each other’s they would look into each other’s eyes and blush. They did not know if this was love but there was a force that made them realise how empty they were without each other’s company even for a moment.
After a month of their marriage Putna Bai and her husband Shivaraju travelled to Pune. The railway travel was a new experience and like every young couple the new-found love made the travel yet more valuable. The way her husband would secretly touch her hand in the train compartment among several co-passengers and the things he bought for her from the hawkers made her feel like a pampered child, and she made sure she wanted more such gestures from him. On arriving to Shiva’s quarter (this was what she would call him) in Pune she settled in at once employing all the skills she developed under the guidance of her grandmother. She and Shiva both found that her skill to maintain the household were incredible. His quarter was a shack, a two room matted construction with thatched roof. But there was enough space in front of the shack and at the sides. The next shack was quite few feet away, unlike the densely populated slum she now lives in. However the shack of the bachelor now transformed into a comfortable home with arranged items. The outer room was used as a kitchen and dining, as well as for welcoming guests, while the inner one was the bed room where they would share their private moments. During those times she had to cook in earthen stove using coal. The utensils were of cheap steel, aluminium. The bed was just the mattresses on floor with bed sheets on them. Even in present her bed is just a mattress on the floor with a bed sheet, where she now lay shivering and wondering how it is like to sleep in the beds of wood or iron she finds at the houses she works in.
The slum where they lived had a common washroom which had water supply at specified times during the day, and it was the duty of Putna Bai to fill up the vessels during these scheduled timings. She also made herself a small garden at the front and sides of their shack, where she grew her favourite jasmine shrubs and tulsi (holy basil). She also planted papaya, lemon, and the hibiscus, the latter’s flowers she gave as offerings to her deities during her morning and evening pujas. Love was in the air and jasmine plants around the house would whiff up the passion in both of them when after day’s labour they would rest in each other’s arms. Sometimes it hovered inside the bedroom as they closed the windows shut and made love in the darkness fulfilling each other’s desire. The odour of the Jasmine would mix with their perspiring bodies and infused into their skin and mind. After they were exhausted they would reopen the windows and doze off.
Her first child was born after eleven months of marriage and since it was a boy Shiva had celebrated it with as much pomp as was possible for them. The child was named Shyameswar or Shyam as she would call him. However, this was not her only pregnancy. Like the jasmine shrubs flourishing outside in her small garden their family flourished, and Shiva’s love or desires (whatever the reader would like to call it) brought forth another two sons (Kaashi and Balu) and a daughter (Lacchmi). She endured the violence of Shiva’s lust and the dreadful agony of child delivery again and again. After the birth of the daughter she became wary, the fragrance of jasmine would not fan the flames of her passion and in the pretext of caring for the young children she continued to sleep in separate room. Her husband felt neglected as she would no more fulfil his longings and often he tried to force her into making love. Putna Bai resisted all his advances and fought aggressively to escape his arms when he would force her. Thus, though she had to suffer physical abuse in the name of excess love she still remained resilient not to undergo another pregnancy. She knew it would not only be harmful for her health as the doctor had suggested during her last child-birth, but also it was economically not viable in their position to raise another child. After a few months this forceful advances from Shiva stopped. She found her husband lacking sexual interest in her anymore. She found him returning home late and drunk most nights. She tried to ask him once, but was beaten up severely and her elderly neighbours (aged ladies) suggested her to let her husband be, like they allow their husbands to follow their whims and fancies. They had told her that it was the wives’ duty to serve her husband without question.
The smell of jasmine would linger in his clothes now and then. After a month it was every night that she found her husband returning late drunk and with jasmine fragrance around him. She would be physically abused again and again on asking any question and at last she stopped asking him about his whereabouts. He started to provide less for the family. Putna Bai had to borrow from the neighbours to maintain household expenses. He started evading coming to his home at night and after only four months of his late night ventures he brought in his new love Revati. There was an argument, where the neighbours played the role of a muted audience. Even when Shivaraju declared Revati as his only wife and denied any relation henceforth with Putna no one supported her. He evicted her and their children from his shack and Putna found her world crumbling and darkening with each moment. She made a last effort to ensure proper upbringing of her children and she found support from a few neighbours. She did not know of the laws or the customs, she knew her man was gone forever. All she now wanted was a means to raise their children whom he nearly disowned. The neighbours after consultation were able to bring Shivaraju to terms that he would provide for the primary education of his sons, a pocket-money for his wife to raise the children, and a small funding for marriage of their daughter in future. She was told to find herself a place and she received little help regarding job. That is when she shifted from the known neighbourhood of Laxmi road to a new slum in Hadapsar. It was far away from her real marital household, where she was no longer the Lady of the House. However it was near her work place. She found a job as well, as contracted labourer in a construction firm. Though she was promised the monthly allowances by her estranged husband to raise their children she could not trust on a man who nearly disowned his family for another woman. She was right too, for after a few months neither the allowances for the boys’ schooling nor her household allowances arrived anymore. The promise of funding for their daughter’s marriage in future was now just an extravagant dream.
After three years of her separation with Shivaraju, when she was in her early thirties, she was approached by another man to start her life afresh with him. This individual called Shahu was a fellow worker in the construction agency and had taken a liking to Putna Bai. Her friendly behaviour made him feel attracted to this lonely woman suffering the loss of her beloved. He found courage and slowly became a family friend to Putna Bai and her children. One day when the children were out to school and she was resting in her room having taken a day off from work. Her fatigue due to hard work and lack of proper nutrition made her dizzy. She heard a soft knock on the tin door. Her name was being called. She answered in a feeble voice. Shahu came in and enquired about her health. On noticing her exhaustion he suggested her to go to the health clinic with him for a check-up. She however refused as she knew this would be asking for monetary help from Shahu which she did not like. To this Shahu became emotional and through a continuous dialogue he at last let out the secrets of his heart how he had loved her and wanted to take care of her. He held out his hands boldly, grasped her body pulling her towards him and planted a kiss on her lips. She was spellbound at first being unable to accept the reason another man can have feeling for her despite her age, past and her children. She however did not resist. The lips did not move apart and as she looked into his eyes which were full of passion she felt an urge to throw away her burdens and duties and the sense of purity that society imposed on her as a married woman. She wanted to take in the fragrance of the lost jasmine flowers of the front garden and immerse herself into the wild desire that now dominated the environment of the room. She was losing herself in his arms when her eyes went to the door and she gasped in fear and shame, for there stood her eldest son surprised to find his mother in the arms of another man. Shahu scrambled up and went toward Shyam and gave him a loud slap, shouting at him for coming in without knocking. The second time he raised his hand to hit him with a punch Putna was in between the two and her eyes were firmly rejecting the idea of their union. She shouted at Shahu for his actions and made sure he was gone forever from their life. She also changed her work place to avoid his further advances. Putna had made up her mind to live up to the society’s imposed boundaries raising her children so that they can end her suffering by being successfully settled. She could never look up to Shyam again though, for she knew she lost her respect in his eyes irrespective of the fact that no one tried to look it from her point of view where she underwent an endless suffering for raising her children all by herself.
Her dreams of establishing her children were meant to be opposed by her ill fate. No one of the three boys were able to complete the schooling, and each in their teens took up jobs as labourers in the market and shops. Her daughter was also not able to complete her primary education and soon she fell in love and eloped with a young vegetable seller. Later she came back with her husband bearing the signs of a married lady. To save disgrace Putna had to socially arrange the marriage with the little savings she had, also giving away the dowry which she had been compiling in small amounts over the years. Her daughter nevertheless had been happy in her family, now a mother of two, and her husband now a successful businessman owning his own grocery store. However now they do not find reasons to visit her in her lonely abode. She remains alone working in the houses fending for herself. Her boys had started to drink and smoke early enough and started to ignore her bidding. Someone had suggested her to marry off the boys to discipline them and with whatever she could earn she slowly built up a three room brick quarter and married off the boys soon after. However she herself was again evicted from the luxury of a brick house within two years of marrying her sons, and was forced to move to the tin shelter as her two daughter-in-laws found excuse to quarrel with her every moment as long as she stayed together with them. Though her youngest son and daughter-in-law were unlike the other two, yet she found she had a strong dignity and would be better to live in solitude keeping the relation with the children from a few feet of distance (her shelter being in same compound). Since her age of forty-five she could no longer perform heavy construction labour and hence took up the work of being a maid in houses.
There was a loud knock on the tin door and Shyam was calling her name out loud. She felt like ignoring him and laid still in her place, but the knock came louder and then abuses showered upon her which made her shout back curses at him. She got up from her bed and went slowly to the door and opened it. Shyam was drunk and was faltering in his steps. He stepped in pushing her aside forcefully and looked around the room in a daze. Crawling in the semi darkness he entered the bed pulled up the covering sheet and fell asleep snoring and muttering abuses. He would often come like this when his own wife would not let him enter in his drunken stupor.
She slapped her head with her hands in vexation and closed the tin door all the while cursing her ill fate. Then she went and laid down in one corner on the cemented floor pulling up another covering sheet. Her mind wondered what kind of life had been led by Revati and her husband. She had never been contacted by Shivaraju again, though she knew that they had remained in the old place. Neither had she tried to contact her husband. The sweet fragrance of jasmine had faded away and the breeze had died off. She closed her eyes once again trying to get some sleep, her frail old body shivering now and then.