I met her at a friend’s house. She was the maid, sweet smiling and efficient. I remember shopping for a Diwali sari for her. I chose a sober print in browns and greens. I thought it complemented her shy personality. Her employer, who knew her better, opted for a sunny yellow one with streaks of magenta and green.
“Sushma has not had much reason to celebrate. Now that she’s found love and a place to call her own, I try to fill her life with happy and bright colours,” shemy friend explained.
I was intrigued. I wanted to know more. Sushma was married off at 15. On her wedding night, she discovered that her husband was mentally imbalanced and her in-laws were mean. After months of backbreaking work from dawn to dusk and frequent beatings, she boarded a bus to Mumbai.
She brought with her nothing except the dream of having a home of her own some day. A distant aunt brought her to my friend and begged her to give her a job.
Sushma was too young to be hired as the household help then. But my friend’s mother was seriously ill, so she took the waif in. She helped the live-in nurse to care for the and soon became a part of the family, sleeping in on most nights.
Two years after a losing battle with cancer, my friend’s mother passed away. The nurse left.. Sushma stayed on. Since my friend had a high-pressure job, she handed over the house keys to Sushma. Life was running smoothly. And then Sushma fell in love.
He was a cook, almost 20 years older than her. They met when he was called to dish up some Gujarati delicacies for the gatherings, which my friend hosted occasionally.
Over the next six months Sushma, spent several nights away from my friend’s house. One morning, when she returned, my friend asked her why she didn’t just marry her cook and make the relationship official.
“Woh pehle se hi shaadi shudha hai. He has two grown-up sons and a daughter,” Sushma explained quietly. “Shaadi to nahin hogi but we’ve decided to live in together.”
That evening, Sushma moved out with her few belongings. She still came to work every day. And as time went by, she grew happier. Six months later, she got pregnant.
My friend was seriously alarmed. “Is it wise to have a baby when you are not legally married?” she asked her. Sushma smiled serenely, “It’s my baby, I don’t even expect my lover to provide for it.”
It was a boy. Both parents doted on him.
Then tragedy struck. Sushma’s husband left home early one morning. But didn’t return that evening. Sushma wasn’t worried. She thought perhaps he had gone out for drinks with some friends.
It was morning but he still hadn’t returned. Now, Sushma was worried. Prompted by some sixth sense, she dragged a friend along and visited the hospitals in the vicinity. They found him in the third hospital, a victim of a hit-and-run accident.
Sushma didn’t even have the luxury of mourning his death. Her baby, only a few months old, needed her. She was still a mother.. and no longer alone in the world.
Within a few days she was back at work, with the baby. “My man is gone but at least he’s left me with a home and a baby,” she would smile bravely.
Then one day she turned up at my friend’s doorstep looking frazzled. “I’ve heard that his wife who lives in Rajasthan has learnt about the kholi he had in Mumbai. His sons are on the way. What if they turn me out of my home?” she wailed, clutching her baby closer.
“Don’t worry, you can always move in here again,” my friend assured her. Days.. weeks.. months passed. Her sauten’s sons still haven’t turned up.
Sushma still has her home. “It may go one day,” she says stoically, “but at least no one can take my baby away from me. He’s mine, and mine alone.”