Mallikamma, came to me one afternoon, when the monsoon clouds darkened the skies, forcing upon it a late evening like quality; much like a lady, whose youthful looks have been jaded by a sudden illness. I was looking at engaging someone younger, as a domestic help. I must have shown my surprise when she stated why she was there, for she took my hands in her rough, calloused hands and asked me to ‘try’ her for a week. Later, I would wonder what was it about her, which made me say ‘Yes’. Was it the look in her eyes, that spoke without hesitation what her mouth refused to say; that she desperately needed this job? Was it the way she smiled, eyes crinkling, with a touch of affection combined with a hint of mischief, suggesting that I needed her just as much?
“Colours have always spoken to me, from as long as I remember and I have always loved them,” she remarks, fingering the pile of clothes that she is helping me put away. “… probably because my life has been devoid of them; even the flower I’m named after, Mallika (jasmine) is leached of all colour” she continues, talking more to herself than me. “I should not have been taken in by the honeyed whisperings of the crimson silk sari, the colour of ripe pomegranates, with enchanting zari lines running across it. It was what my aunt and mother tempted me with, to get married at 13.” Seeing my shocked expression, she added, “there were gold jhumkas and silver anklets too”, conveying to me that she was powerless, against the lure of such temptations.
We become good friends, she and I, laughing at my terrible Tamil and her incorrigible Malayalam. She tells me little snippets from her life now and then, without any self-pity or malice, for life hasn’t been kind to her, but stating them simply as facts, as if it could have happened to anybody. Married at 13 and widowed at 19 with four daughters, her life had morphed into a race for survival before she was even out of her teens. “The day my husband died, he took with him my right to live. I was expected to merely exist. They took away my saris, my one indulgence. Deep coloured ones -aubergine purple with pale gold bhuttas, sunset orange, parrot green, red, the colour of freshly applied sindoor. I can close my eyes and picture them; they were the colours of my ephemeral youth. My pretty silver anklets and jewellery were replaced by a pale saree, the colour of watery bile. I mourned the death of my youth, as well as my husband for a week and then I put away my grief, along with my colourful clothes and accessories, like winter clothes are packed away in boxes at the beginning of summer and embarked upon the long journey of survival, for the sake of my daughters.”
“For the past 30 years, I have worked until the skin peeled off my back, to educate my daughters and ensure that they all have jobs and are financially independent before getting them married. My spirit has been crushed many, many times; the death of my beloved daughter whose children I’m now raising, being thrown out of my husband’s home and being left penniless, battling illness, I’ve seen it all. But life must go on; we must rise each time and will our spirit to rise again, like a phoenix. Now I have given myself the permission to live again, to be happy and not simply exist. I surround myself with colours and the tinkling reminder of my carefree youth” she hitched up her sari with a mischievous glint in her eyes, to reveal silver anklets which tinkled as she moved.
It was hard for me to believe that this woman who broke into fits of giggles for no reason and was one of the most cheerful people I know, had dealt with so much of grief and heartbreak and that she was bringing up and educating her grandkids singlehandedly. Maybe super heroes don’t always come with capes and masks, some come with colourful sarees, cheeky smiles and tinkling anklets.