reprints of articles published in magazines

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Our Paals, the strongest!

Come March 8th and it is a time-honoured tradition that we celebrate the International Women’s Day by singing the praises of some Great Woman who has achieved Something Truly Great. Let me toe that conventional line and sing the glories of my Favourite Woman Achiever.

Her name was Shantha, but not a single soul in all of the Post Graduate Medical Students’ Ladies Hostel knew her real name. She was better known as Paals, short for Paalkaramma.

Paals was that typical village belle, that precise symmetry of her well toned body, that charming chocolate complexion, those natural steaks of bleached hair on her otherwise black alli mudinja kondai, those fine-as-porcelain delicate white teeth….a little more effort and she would have been a real beauty. But then Paals was a widow who believed that a self-respecting widow should make an attempt to look as unsightly as possible. And so we always found her dressed in faded blouses and thread bare kandaangi sarees. She was frankly indifferent to her appearance.

She was a thorough bred illiterate who hailed from a long line of illiterates from a tiny village near Madurai. As was the custom in her village she had been married off to her cousin immediately after she became a big girl. Which must have been when she was fourteen years old or so. This husband of hers turned out to be a daytime gambler, a nighttime drunkard and a part time wife beater. Yet he had been an expert in all other aspects of husbandry and soon after marriage Paals had become pregnant.

Illiterate, young, pregnant and naïve as Paals had been, she expected her husband to change into a good man one fine day…but that fine day never came. Every day was as unfine as the other with her husband regularly battering her for money. Paals had had no one to turn to. She came from a family which considered women burdens, so much so that killing the baby girls as soon as they were born was an everyday non-incident in her village.

Going back to her parents for help was unthinkable….yet putting up with her cruel husband was unbearable too. Not knowing what to do, but very sure that she did not want to continue suffering her marriage Paals walked away. I mean just walked away…. all the way from her village to the next town. With whatever little money she had she boarded a bus to Madurai.

Impulsive, rash, unplanned though her decision had been, she was clear on one thing….never again would she contemplate living with her husband. Enough was enough! Or so she thought when she reached Madurai, the strange city of which she had only heard. She knew no one there. She had no money on her. She was weak with hunger and the fatigue of the long journey. And to make matters worse as soon as she landed there she started having labour pains.

Some kind passers-by rushed her to the government hospital. The doctors there examined her and told her it was only false labour pains…she still had three months to go before her delivery. Three months to go…and there Paals was with nowhere to go. She ambled out of the labour ward wondering what she would do next…when she noticed all the mothers-to-be calling out in pain and gasping out for “something to drink” with their mouths parched sand-paper-dry, what with their hoarse labour- yellings. Immediately Paals seized on the idea and spoke to the ayahs in the ward. She told them her sad story and pleaded for some money. With the money that she thus collected she purchased a bulk quantity of milk and went around the labour ward selling it to the mouth-dry-mothers-to-be.

She must have been quite a sight to behold. A fifteen-year-old wisp of a girl, with her fully pregnant tummy walking around the wards selling milk! The very sight of her would have melted the hearts of the women therein…it is no surprise then that Paals new business picked up fast. So fast that Paals ran into trouble with the established male vendors of the hospital, who found their clientele getting quickly siphoned off by this upstart female entrepreneur. They ganged up together and told her that selling milk - not only milk, peanuts, eggs, rose murrukku and sundal – for by this time, Paals had diversified her modest business, without a license in a government hospital was a big crime. If she did not stop it immediately she would be sent to prison, or so she was told.

But then Paals was a never-say-die-kind-of-person who could swing her greatest weapons – her well endowed lachrymal glands – into action anytime she had a problem. The prison threat brought on a Great Deluge of tears and a big wail of Oppari. Her loud oppari made the doctors rush out to see what was so wrong in the labour ward. One look at her brimming eyes and the brimmier tummy…. all the doctors joined together to shoo away the men who were harassing the poor little pregnant girl. From then on, Paals became the doctors’ pet and was given unspoken unlimited access into the hospital premises. She and she alone was permitted to sell anything, anywhere, anytime. With the entire Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology backing her so strongly, Paals soon became the unrivalled Paalkaramma of Government Rajaji Hospital, Madurai.

It was then that she had her real labour pains and gave birth to a little one. On seeing the post card that announced the news (written by a benevolent nurse), Paals’ mother rushed to her daughter’s bedside. But when she noticed that the newborn was only a female, the grandmother was very concerned. “Did we need another burden now of all the times! You better feed her some paddy kernels…. she’ll be gone in a minute. No one needs to know that you ever had her. Let me see if I can get you remarried…”

But Paals did not find the courage to feed her daughter with the paddy kernels. Nor she thought, did she have the courage to raise the kid single handedly. Not knowing what to do, she just let the child be, without feeding it…hoping it would die on its own.

But die the child did not…it cried so loudly, so continuously that the whole ward turned to look at Paals…the girl who provided milk to the entire hospital but refused to do the same to her own child. The nurse noticed the commotion and commanded that Paals feed the infant. Unable to stick to her resolve, Paals finally relented and began to feed her baby.

The moment she started feeding the baby, Paals said she felt everything change inside her. She began to realise that without her daughter her life would have no meaning…. her sudden insight gave her a new strength. “For you I’ll live,” she had told her baby daughter and the very words filled her mind with a new sense of purpose.

With renewed enthusiasm she resumed her one-woman-milk-business. The other little woman tucked into her mother’s saree, won so much admiration and sympathy that soon, Paals was offered a job at the Ladies Hostel.

In the beginning Paals job at the hostel had been about ayyahing around only…. but by the time I joined the hostel as a post graduate student, Paals had risen in her ranks and was the unofficial Dean cum presiding deity of the Ladies Hostel. Her daughter had by then become a beautiful sixteen-year-old.

Soon after my arrival in that hostel, Paals and I became close pals. As the hostel secretary cum resident psychiatrist, my room became her first port of call whenever she was in distress. And by definition, distress to Paals would be any move made by anyone that could potentially weaken Paals hold over the hostel. A new mess man who refused to let her sell her Sunday special delicacies, because it made his business pale; a cable TV guy who volunteered to get pots from the market to store cool water; the paper boy who wanted to buy old papers from the hostel….. wherever there was money to be made, Paals made sure no one entered her territory.

And needless to say, she had a magical way with money….a pot that normally cost ten rupees in the market would become twenty rupees apiece when Paals got it for us. Sunday special chicken made by the mess man would cost twenty rupees and it was made in God Knows What Kind Of Oil. But if you asked Paals to cook it for you, she would do it right in front of you, with the best oil and what’s more, it would cost only fifteen rupees per person.

It was not that we were blind to her guiles…but we let Paals be because, we liked her too much. She was money-sharp and word-blunt, but if one of us fell sick Paals would be the first person to rush to our aid, give us a dose of native treatment and straighten us out for our next day’s non stop stint in the wards…. all this was for free.

Her end of the day relaxation routine was to sit beside me during my solitary meals and share her life’s little dreams with me. Dream One was to get her daughter married. Dream Two was to get her daughter married well. Dream Three was to get her daughter married so well that no one would deride the bride for not having a father. Paals life was all about getting her daughter married. Period.

One day she announced to us that her dreams were finally going to turn true…. she had found a suitable boy for her darling daughter. The boy was a relative of hers who worked somewhere in the Gulf Countries. The wedding was to be held in her village. She would arrange a bus for all the doctors in the hostel to go to the wedding…and no, we could not arrange or pay for our own bus. It was her daughter’s wedding and she and she only would arrange for the bus. We only had to board the bus and go to the wedding.

We decided to humour her and the whole lot of us boarded the special bus. At the outskirts of her village we were made to get down, Paals told us cheerfully that we could walk our way into the village. “But it is one kilometre away. The road is good, why can’t we go by bus?” we were curious to know.

“No ma, I’m telling you, this is better. We’ll walk” so saying she led us on a merry procession, showing us off to her dumbstruck villagers who just could not believe that so many doctors were coming from the city just to attend Paals’ daughter’s wedding. Ah, but then, Paals and her shrewdness never surprised us!

We also realised that we the doctors were officially filling the gap of the long dead bride’s father. Paals always had worried that people in her village would take her and her daughter for a ride because she had no one to back her, no men to ward off dangers…. we were her pseudomen, the powerful city doctors who would protect Paals to posterity.

Once we realised our role, we played it to the full. We met up with the mother-in-law-character, who looked like she needed some veiled threats anyway. We gave her an earful on how powerfully connected we city doctors were, and how we would do anything for Paals and her daughter.

That done, with a grateful smile Paals took us around to show all the seer items that she had given her daughter. The poor woman with her modest means could have given off only some simple seers…. but we did not want to hurt her and so went along to see the seer…and lo! Crammed in the room was the grandest seer I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Iron, steel, brass, bronze, copper, terracotta, plastic, aluminium, wood, glass…. you name it and it was there. From big cupboards to small hooks- she had bought everything under the sun. It was like the bridal shower of a princess, no less! And Paals was only a lowly servant. How much she must have worked and saved, to give her daughter this great bonanza.

“How is it ma? Is it ok? What do you think?” Paals was eager for some appreciation. Poor Paals…this had been her life’s dream. We were only too happy to shower praises on her, “Well done Paals. It’s all so terrific. We’re sure the entire village is astonished to see all this. How come we never realised you were so rich!”

Paals beamed with pride. After all it was the day her dreams had come true. All three of them.

Her dreams might have been small time and simple. But considering that she started out with practically nothing, not even an education or the support of her own family, Paals’ success to me seems truly great. Just a milk-seller and an ayyah, she might have been, but to me, she has always been a Role Model on How Women Should Be. Our Paals the strongest!


geetha said...

Often we find such so called downtrodden women much stronger and determined than most of the so called educated working women.

rekha said...

oh my God..this is really fabulous.A kind of courage paals have was unimaginable.Educated women should learn from her.Thanks for posting this...Paals u deserve so much...

PARIMALA said...

Her end of the day relaxation routine was to sit beside me during my solitary meals and share her life’s little dreams with me.--- Dr. I may live for another 25 to 30 years (if suddenly something abrupt didn't happen to me).I'll oneday love to be as Paals was to you earlier in your life. Blogs like these from you are quite heartening to read and learn.You're very frank in expressing ur views. Hats off Dr.!!!!

PARIMALA said...

Thanx for publishing this comment Dr. I mean it... I value that kind of relation more than anything/anyone else.Hope it comes true oneday...