BANGALORE: This story began four decades ago. I would dream of becoming a teacher and would wrap myself in mom’s old saree and mimic my teachers. I would write on the walls in my room and pretend to scold my imaginary students. I wished to have a student in flesh and blood and before long, my prayers were answered. Mom got a new domestic help, Hanumi. Her story was not uncommon. She had a husband who would beat her up often and she had five children- four daughters and a son. The eldest of her daughters was Laxmi. She was about eight with four protruding teeth and bright eyes. Everyday, she would arrive, carrying her little brother who was not even a year old. When I returned from school, her little brother would still be sleeping and she would be freely roaming around the house touching things, gazing at newspapers, opening books and generally admiring new surroundings. Her favorite place was my room. She would hang around while I diligently finished my home work. I recognised a potential candidate in Laxmi who would fulfill my dream of being a teacher. My wall became the black board and Laxmi my first student! Everyday I would tempt her with my share of snacks and torture her with my teaching. Whatever I had learnt at school would be enacted. It was fun. To my surprise I found her really ‘learning’ and soon she became literate! Her word power increased at an amazing pace. Our classes got more focussed on language and arithmetic. She loved numbers. So did I. Soon we became friends. She looked forward to my return from school and was ever ready to learn.
But all good things must come to an end. One fine day, Hanumi and Laxmi just disappeared from my life! All our efforts to learn about them were futile. Later we got the news that Hanumi had left Laxmi as a ‘bonded maid’ in someone’s house! After few months of sadness I forgot all about Laxmi. I got on with my studies, completed my graduation, got married and settled in distant Gujarat. Another three decades passed. During one of my annual visits to Bangalore, I was at the bank when I spotted this saree clad lady with four protruding teeth. Yes, unmistakably, this was my Laxmi! With tearful eyes she narrated her story.
To end her bonded labour, her mother got her married to a guy who was physically challenged, sick and four times older than Laxmi,when she was barely 15. She got her quota of beatings everyday. Eventually he died leaving all his financial liabilities on this little girl’s shoulders! After going through hell, Laxmi decided to stand up for herself. She learnt to cook simple staple food preferred by daily wage workers and every afternoon would sell lunch.
She slowly built up her business. Today she had come to deposit her savings in the bank! Wiping her tears, she looked
at me gratefully and said that whatever I had taught her for fun, had helped her to bring her life back on track. No one could cheat her, as she could read and write, count money, keep accounts-just enough to avoid exploitation. She was ‘empowered’ she said! She did not know that by saying this she had empowered me too.
This story first appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul-Indian Women