Friday, 11 October 2013

Parvatibai Khale-The End Of An Era

Yesterday my mother called me up from Pune and gave me the sad news that Parvatibai Khale had passed away. Who was Parvatibai Khale, that she merited an international phone call? Was she our close blood relation, or was she a dear neighbour or a good friend? Oh no, she was none of these and yet she, in her time, had more than fulfilled all these roles. She was our house help and had been since the early 1970s until a few years ago, when she grew too old to work anymore.
Parvatibai (bai is a sobriquet that is often used for house help is all parts of India) or 'Parubai' as she was first conveniently and later fondly called, came to work for my grandparents when my paternal grandfather retired from the Indian Army in the early seventies, constructed a bungalow in Pune and settled there. Our housing society had only a handful of bungalows then and Parubai rushed in and out of each house like a whirlwind -sweeping, swabbing, washing clothes and utensils by hand (and all for a pittance), for this was an era when dishwashers, washing machines and vacuum cleaners were unknown in India. And she did not have a choice- she had ten children to feed and a drunken husband to boot. But in every single house the vessels gleamed like brand new mirrors, the clothes were spotless, the broom swept every corner of every room- such was her dedication to what some might term 'menial work'. She took pride in what she did, a rare quality nowadays! Once, when I was in high school, I had spotted her entering a bedroom but when I came in, she was nowhere to be seen! As I looked around in astonishment, she crawled out from under the bed! She had gone there to clean this unreachable area.I mentally doffed my hat to her...
A diminutive, spry figure, clad in the traditional Maharashtrian nine yards saree, she found that she had a new skill when the children of the seventies began being born in those bungalows. She was a skilled masseuse of new mothers and newborns, this being a traditional requirement of Indian society! The baby, it is felt, will not achieve it's full growth potential till it has been rubbed and scrubbed with oil every single day followed by a hot bath and then snugly swaddled in a cotton cloth. And so Parubai found a welcome second occupation and it added to her sparse kitty, besides giving her joy, for she truly felt connected to those babies as she tenderly ministered to them...
I was one of those babies she oiled and bathed and going by the Indian theory her skills certainly seemed to have worked on me, given that I have surely reached my 'full growth potential' as I am 5 feet 8 inches tall, rare among Indian girls of my generation!
My mother and Parubai formed a bond that only two mothers can when one of them shows special consideration for the others child. Parubai had no choice but to get her tenth baby, who was born at the same time as I was, to work with her and she kept the new born child under a tree in our garden when she came in to work, just a few days after she had given birth. She, of course, could not afford the luxury of a lying-in period. My mother, the minute she noticed this, made her get the child inside, made up a little bed in a corner for the baby boy and gave Parubai enough time and privacy to feed the child at regular intervals.
When my grandmother's younger brother met with a fatal accident in the mid seventies, she had to close the house at a minute's notice and fly to Delhi. When the day for paying salaries came around, she despite her terrible grief (her brother had young, school going children), made it a point to phone my mother from there, and asked her to go and pay Parubai, for she knew how much this poor lady needed every paisa she earned. At this time, my Dad was doing a course in the Army Engineering College on the outskirts of Pune and we were staying there, a good many kilometers away from my grandparents bungalow. I was a toddler, my mother was expecting another baby and yet she did not hesitate for a minute after that phone call. She and I got into an autorickshaw and came all the way to the other end of town, left a message for Parubai with the neighbour asking her to visit our house, and settled down to await her.
The minute Parubai saw my mother, she guessed why she had come and promptly burst into tears.She said 'How could I think of money at a time like this, I feel as if my own brother has passed away, why did you come?' Such were the emotions of a lady who eked out a hand to mouth existence..My mother had to finally force the money in her hand but neither of them forgot that day, so long ago.
 The years flew by. My Dad was posted all over India but we came home to my grandparents house during every vacation. When it was time for us to leave, Parubai made it a point to prepare a snack for us in her own house, pack it, get it to our house and put it in our hands.'To eat on the train' she always said...
 Parubai continued bathing babies, though by then, she had grown too old to do the more strenuous household work in other people's houses. My Dad retired, came to Pune and she continued working for my parents, even as my grandmother passed away. I still remember her admonishing me for eating too many mangoes during the last months of my pregnancy, as she felt it would be harmful for the unborn baby! When my daughter was born it was, of course, Parubai who bathed her! I had put my foot down where vigorous massage for the baby was concerned and she endlessly grumbled at me for the same but took it in her stride. She contented herself by complaining to my new born daughter who hung onto every word and stared at her with huge eyes! Such was the magic that her voice had where new borns were concerned. I was the first person in Parubai's history of bathing babies where she had bathed the mother and then, more than two decades later, the daughter! She was so happy when my husband and I gifted her a pair of pure gold earrings to mark this momentous occasion! Gradually, of course, she catered to the second generation babies in all the bungalows which had been built in the seventies but we were the first!
Five years later, when my son was born, it was time to call her again. How can I ever forget the gentle way in which she lifted his many chins (he was a chubby newborn!) and cleaned underneath them? And this time it was she, who with her very generous heart, gifted him a gold finger ring, when it was time for me to leave for Tanzania with the children.
I have photos and videos of her cooing to my children and such lovely memories too! Her passing marks the end of an era, when feelings mattered and people were not ruled by money, no matter how great their financial need and how dire their straits.
I take solace in the fact that the day she passed away was also the day of my paternal grandmother's sixteenth death anniversary. There surely is an eternal connection and as we remember my grandmother on this day every year, we will remember Parubai too, whose willing, glass bangle clad hands served us for so many years and who will always have a very special place in our hearts!

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