An Ode To Ganga

On International Women’s Day, I dedicate this post to one of the most empowered women I know. 70-year-old Ganga has worked for my father, the late Daddykins, for several years. This morning, she strode into the house with a smile staining her betel-soaked teeth: “Hullo, Amma!”

I believe women like Ganga remain a threat to men because they can smell a man’s BS from Mars, a fact that also explained my Daddykins' valet's tendency to taunt her.

“Old Woman, you look like you were born into the English language," he said, "the way you’re addressing my boss in English and all?”

“Sweetheart, you may not know this,” Ganga said, placing her red and black wire bag on the kitchen floor. “But I was born very well.”

“Really?” Vinayagam asked. His scorn went ignored by both the women in the room.

Ganga moseyed up to where I sat cutting up a winter melon. “Like my cousin brother used to be a writer in a bank.”

Vinayagam shut the door of the fridge and turned to her. “You mean he was a peon, Old Woman.”

Ganga didn’t know to read or write. She didn’t know to count the days between March 17 and April 10. But she could speak her mind. She had the right to express herself in the late Daddykins’ home.

“And, you know, my uncle was an attorney,” she said. “A rather big one in the village.”

The young man laughed. “That’s why you’re in and out of a court all the time?” His scornful reference to her litigious streak fazed her the least. “What say, Old Woman?”

Ganga ignored him. A wan smile lifted her cheek. “You know, even though I was born well, I’ve ended up having to wash dishes. But I’m proud about what I do. I do it well. Like…no one dares walk up to Ganga and complain about her poor work ethic.”

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Laundry Lines

Our old maid, Ganga, walked into the balcony, a bucket of wet clothes in hand. Standing on tiptoe, she hauled a wet towel over the laundry line and cursed as she missed. She yelled out to Vinayagam. My late father’s Man Friday was by the woman’s side in minutes. 

“What?” he barked.

“Sweetheart, I’ve been telling you to lower these lines," she said. "I’ve been telling you for a while now."

“Those lines are not low!’ he said. “Besides, you could have gone up to the terrace to hang them on those lines, you know.”

Ganga said she didn’t see the need to go upstairs. “Not for a couple of odds and ends."

“Then you’re lazy, Old Woman. Go to the terrace. Or put up with it."

Ganga proceeded to fix clips on the clothes. Then she pulled shut the door leading to the balcony as the young man continued to watch her, an imperious eyebrow raised and ready to snuff out a rising repartee. But Ganga slipped away from the room in silence.

“Old Woman, that line’s just fine,” Vinayagam said towards her back. “Next time, wear high heels."

Fly Like A Kite

Vinayagam has been on talking terms with Ganga since early July and so this morning he offered Ganga some Marie biscuits to eat while she drank her morning cup of coffee.

“No way, sweetheart, I cannot afford it,” she said, waving it away. “I’ll put on weight.” Ganga said “weight” in English, the way my friends and I did when we bantered about our extra pounds.

Vinayagam raised an eyebrow and stared at the skinny old hag. “Weight? You? You going to compete in Miss Universal or something?”

Ganga cackled between taking sips of her coffee while Vinayagam went about the kitchen muttering unkind things about her.

“Give it to him, Ganga,” I said. “He’s a jealous creature.”

“Right,” he said coming back into the kitchen after shutting the fridge. “I’m really jealous.” He shot Ganga a look. “Of this old hag.”

“Vinayagam’s jealous,” I repeated, “because he’s putting on weight in the middle—”

“—yes, and the old thing’s worried about putting on weight because she’s going to be competing in Miss Universal.” He walked off in pretend disgust to his place on the living room floor.Ganga laughed, her betel-stained lips opening to her red-brown teeth.

She told me how when she had injured her leg, the late Daddykins offered to have Vinayagam pick her up from her home and drop her back whenever she came to work. “But I refused. Not as long as I have legs. I never ever want to be like this, you know.” She let her hands circle the air as if she had a beer belly. Then she popped betel nut into her mouth and began chewing. “You should see me walk here every morning. I fly to this home. Like a kite, I fly like a kite.”

Language Does Double Duty

Sometimes, language does double duty. The way Vinayagam and Ganga wield Tamil, it does quadruple duty. It burns like Shiva’s third eye. It will melt diamond.

Today Ganga complained that the sari she was washing in our bathroom was bleeding color. She wanted more detergent powder. Vinayagam, whose ordained duty it is to supply everything in the house, handed her a box, saying, “Here, Old Woman. Kottiko.”

As I hinted earlier about the vagaries of language, the word “kottiko” may have several meanings, depending on the situation. In this instance, he was merely telling the old woman to sprinkle as much powder as she needed for the washing. But Ganga took offense. She decided to go to the caustic edge and look down at life from there. Kottiko can also mean “eat.”

“Sweetheart, now why would you tell me to eat this?” she asked. “Do you want me to leave this world?” Vinayagam cackled, assuring her, in his most impertinent manner, that she was free to interpret the situation however she wanted but that he never once meant it that way.

Hearing the commotion in the kitchen, I ran up to her and assured her that I could never ever live a day without her and that it wasn’t the time for her to go. Ganga laughed. She stalked off proudly in the direction of the bathroom, detergent box in hand.

Money In The Bank

The young man was talking animatedly. He raised his right arm to point something out to me when Ganga walked in right behind him with her mop, its scraggly head up. His arm could have slashed her face.

“Ayyo, Old Lady!" Vinayagam yelled out to the maid. "Next time, warn me when you’re walking up behind me! I could have killed you, see? And then, if you go, I’d have to call your son to take care of your cremation and we’d have to arrange for this and that.”

Unfazed, Ganga grinned, baring the jagged edges of her betel-stained teeth. “Sweetheart, don’t fret. Just call my son and take him to State Bank of Mysore where I’ve stashed away money for my cremation expenses.”

I told Ganga to give me her hand. I held it in mine for a few minutes.  Cackling, Ganga said she never ever wants to be indebted to any of her children when she leaves the world. She waved five fingers in the air. “I’ve left 50, 000 Rupees for when I go.”

From right across the room, Vinayagam, who can never appreciate this most empowered woman because she has the balls and the bearing to cuss him right back, told her that it wasn’t enough. “Old Woman, money alone is pointless. You have to tell the bank that your son must have access to it.” 

Then, the two of them—a young man who’s savvy about banks and paperwork, and an old woman who cannot read or write—began hashing out the nitty-gritty about notaries and banks and stamp papers, in a most civil fashion, and for the first time in a long time. There I sat, in the meanwhile, watching, listening to their debate, reflecting on how the subject of Ganga’s final journey out of this world seemed to give the late Daddykins’ man Friday an unusually high degree of satisfaction.