An important position paper with policy recommendations on India’s tribal citizens is currently under consideration with Government. Its outcome interests me because though they don’t make them more ‘mainstream’ than I, my life as an urban gipsy startles friends who have lived in one house for decades or held their family homes for centuries. But that’s how the murukku crumbles sometimes and while ‘we’ get by, I don’t know how Sarita goes on.
Sarita worked for me in Delhi for many years and someone always seemed to put ‘nazar’ on it. “You still have her!” they’d say and I’d furtively cross my fingers because there are some situations you can’t throw money at. You can buy levels of service from people but not a naturally good nature. Sarita was an Oraon from Jashpur in the Chota Nagpur plateau, Chattisgarh; a long way for a young, unlettered girl to come in search of food, shelter and wages. Her family had converted to Christianity, so her greeting to fellow-Oraons was “Jaisu” (Jai Yesu) and she also honoured her ancestral affiliation to ‘Dharmes’ (Shiva).
Sarita went to a South Delhi church on Sunday mornings where she met other young people who had tied up a bundle, got on to a north-bound train and schooled themselves not to cry with homesickness.
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Sarita went home one year and came back stick-thin with huge hollows in her face. I managed to avoid comment. She taught me songs in her language about ‘handiya daru’, the celebratory drink shared equally by men and women back home and about taking a taxi to visit fruiting lemon groves.
She found me sadly wanting as a proper memsahib in my jeans and tees, her ideal was the young Hindu housewife who wore the full complement of sari, bindi, bangles, chains and ear-rings and had her hair in a nice, long plait, looking like ‘saaksharth Mahalakshmi’ as we’d say, at Dipavali.
Sarita innocently asked me why I did not dress like that and was not wholly convinced when I said that I thought it was very pretty indeed but, as she could see for herself, my responsibilities at that time did not support a high-maintenance look.
Sarita fell in love with a young Oraon man at church, suffered a drastic personality change and eloped. I heard later that he’d begun to drink a lot and she had two children. I moved house and lost touch with those who might have known something about her. But I’m frequently reminded of Sarita. It’s common in our cities to see plump, prosperous mainstream families at malls and restaurants with an Adivasi maid in tow, carrying the baby or a mountain of shopping.
Comes the coda, “At least she gets food, shelter, medicine and money.” But she had no choice. it was get on the train or starve.
While our policy-makers think things over, I wonder if it will be possible one day soon for other Saritas to find schooling, work, food and dignity at home without feeling inadequate compared to the urban mainstream and having to slave for it like aphids for ants.