During my childhood I found that many people in my community lived on the edge of penury. Affording an education was beyond most families; the number of children was usually above six and at times reached a dozen. Surviving under such circumstances was a struggle and quite often than not, the parents sent their children to do odd jobs to contribute to the kitchen fires. My family was slightly better off as my grandfather was a law graduate and could easily find a government job.
We had a young girl as our cook. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to school, so she came to be employed in our household at a monthly salary of `10. Her duties began at 6am; she had to assist my grandmother in cooking—cut vegetables, scrape coconuts and grind spices on the stone, light the coal stoves, fill kerosene in the stoves, wash utensils and do many such tasks.
She ate and slept during the day at our house and left only by 7pm. She soon became a member of our family and participated in all discussions and functions. Years later we could find her a suitable match and her marriage was performed at our house—it was as if a girl of our house was being married off. All my relatives from afar also attended it.
Another person who lives in my memory was an old widow who undertook the tiresome job of grinding the batter at several houses daily. There were no fridges then and so the batter had to be ground every day. This woman came to our house in the afternoon and started grinding soaked rice and dal in the grinding stone at our backyard. I remember one day she had not come and so I volunteered to do the job; it was a strenuous and boring chore. The woman’s wages were a princely 25 paise per grind!
A young lad from Chennai named Veerappan came to our house one morning as a substitute paper boy and stayed with us for 10 years for odd jobs—a carrier of midday meals to schools and colleges for the children—and finally became almost a family member. He was one of 10 children born to poor parents who eked out a living running a pen repair shop in the neighbourhood. He had an infectious smile and his heavy Tamil-laden Malayalam evoked mirth in us. He did all sorts of work—heating the water in the copper cauldron, running errands to stores for provisions, buying rice from the ration shop, teaching the youngsters cycling and even babysitting. He booked cinema tickets, stood in queue at the station for reserving train tickets, saw off relatives at odd hours at the bus station, escorted women to temples and accompanied sick members the hospital or dispensary. When one of my uncles fell on the stairs and broke his hip, it was Veerappan who stayed with him as an attendant in the hospital for nearly a month; during the day he would be back doing usual duties at the house.
Do we anymore have such people, who toiled unselfishly so that a family that adopted them prospered? I salute all of them.