Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Educating The Maid Servant" by Nuggehalli Pankaja

"Educating the Maid Servant" by Nuggehalli Pankaja (3 pages, 2010)

A Powerful Story About Maids in Bangalore

In India, just as is in the Philippines, there are millions and millions of women from rural backgrounds without the skills to participate in a technology based boom. Many of these women become full time maids, either live in or out. Country maids are a figure of fun throughout much of Asia. This is probably also true in much of Africa and Latin America also. There was even a TV show here in the Philippines making fun of a Yaya (a maid for a young child).

"Educating the Maid Servant" by Nuggehalli Pankaja is a very moving and eyeopening story about what happens when a woman tried to help one of her maids.
Pankaja (1929-Bangalore) writes in both English and Kannada. Kannada is the language of 50 million people in southern India. It has been designated as a classical language by the Indian government. Pankaja has written several novels, two of which have been made into movies. Her short stories have also been collected. She has written numerous articles about the lives and rights of women and children. She has received numerous awards.

"Educating the Maid Servant" gives us in three pages a vivid look at the perpetual cycle of poverty in the lives and families of maid servants. As the story opens we listen into a conversation with the lady of the house and her maid.

"You should have been in the films, not sweeping-swapping,” I thought aloud soon after engaging her - the new maidservant. Her name was also modern, behaviour not that crude. How come she came to this field?

“I can scrimp and manage somehow within my husband’s income if only he stops drinking.” She sighed. “But he won’t stop however much I beseech. There are young mouths to feed, amma. How then can I help not working? And what other work can I get when I don’t know even the basic letters of our Kannada?”

When she asks she maid why she never went to school, we learn it because her father took any money that might have gone to pay for her schooling to fund his drinking. He ended up losing everything he owned including land he had inherited from his family. "Finally he sold us, the sisters to worthless fellows … my sisters are even more good looking…” I am not quite sure what "sold us" means here but I am assuming it means sold them as brides. It is not mentioned here but we know attractive maids are subject to all sorts of harassment.

The maid works for a few years for the household. Her health and situation are made worse by a constant stream of babies. Her husband abuses her in front of the children and may near-rape her in front of them also (they have no privacy at home). If the wife complains, her husband tells her he will, as supported by law and custom, marry another woman and make her his main wife. In time the maid has to be replaced when she dies in childbirth. We did learn what will happen to the maid's children in these heartbreaking words from the maid: "“And your children? Aren’t they going to school?”
“No, amma, they are not interested; can’t afford the fees also…if only their father had a little sense of responsibility…”

The unfinished words hung in the air…I could understand. The miserable atmosphere was slowly perverting their personalities. The insidious frustration would make them also drunkards - shady characters in the long run, resulting as bane of future generation …What a vicious circle!"

One day one of the new maids tells the householder that there is a free educational program that might allow her to break her family out of the cycle of poverty. Her boss in a kind gesture tells her maid to go to the classes and she can get her full pay even though she will not be able to come to work until noon. (spoiler alert) In a few months she notices the maid (who still comes in late) is using the book bag the school gave her for a shopping bag. The boss is mad over what seems to be happening as she still pays the maid for her time when she is supposed to be in school. Sadly we learn what has happened:

"I noticed the schoolbag (given by teacher) turned into a market-bag. Suspicious, I confronted her. Evasive at first, she admitted, “I no longer attend classes, amma… can’t find time…”
“Why? I gave you half-day off with full-pay! What do you do then? Gossip?”
“No, amma. I work in another flat…they pay me well. I need the extra money, amma.
He…he drinks more now…,” tumbled out the faltering words."

I know there are vast treatises written on the cycles of poverty but none of them will teach us more than Pankaja does in "Educating The Maid Servant".

Frank Connor in his classic study of the short story, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, says that the best short stories are about what he calls "submerged groups or people", people outside the main stream of society. Maids and Dalit people in India for sure are parts of a submerged group of people. As I mentioned before I really respected the honesty and high intelligence of the very Irish Frank O'Connor when he said (in 1961) that the Indian short story was starting to surpass current Irish short stories in quality. I will post on O'Connor's brilliant wonderful book (OK I like it!) soon. Once I do I will look at future short stories I post on to see if the best of them are in accord with O'Connor's conclusions.

I liked this story, I think Frank O'Connor would also and I recommend it to all.

You can read it online at Muse India.

The author has her own web page that lists her writings and awards.

Mel u

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