“Tutu, this is Meena. She is going to stay with us” Ma said, pointing to someone making chai in the kitchen. Meena looked down at me and smiled.
“Hi Meena” I said, smiling as I laid my lunchbox on the kitchen floor.
“Meena?!” Ma pretended to be horrified. “Who do you think you are? Call her Meena chechi”.
Meena chechi had a long thick braid that swayed with her as she walked. The sound of her anklets following closely behind, subtly announcing her arrival to any room she ventured into. She smelled like a pleasant mix of jasmine and lemony dishwashing liquid.
She was 18 at the time, which felt very old and learned to me, as a 5th grader. “I stopped studying so I could come to work in the city” she said matter-of-factly. “But you better keep studying so you can be a big woman someday” she said, waving her finger at me. “Then you’ll stop calling me chechi and I’ll have to call you Krshna Madam.”
Both of us giggled.
Looking back, that casual comment she made is a painful reminder of how we’d both never questioned that we were not equal. How despite living under the same roof, we had taken for granted that only one of us would grow, and the other would not. That we could even find humour in it.
As I got older, things that I’d never questioned before seemed to establish a social hierarchy.
She ate after we did. She never sat on the living room furniture and she slept on a mattress on the floor. She would use a different plate and glass. Ma would give her clothes she didn’t want any more, and she was grateful to have them. She loved stories, but never read books.
We simply accepted the subtle injustice of it all. Never thinking of what it might have felt like for someone who never went to school, to iron my uniform every morning. To run after me with a lunchbox so I wouldn’t miss the bus. To wrap my shiny, new textbooks in brown paper at the start of every year. Or help drape my saree for graduation.
“Talk to me only in English from now on” she said to me once, while kneading chapati dough. “I want to learn”.
“Okay” I said, “How come?”
“I would like to answer in English when I pick up phone calls here.”, she replied.
I looked back at her, stunned by the simplicity of her answer.
I realised that a language I don’t even remember learning, was a powerful reminder of privilege to those who didn’t have it. I enthusiastically obliged.
Meena chechi was a fast learner. And in just a few months of conversations, she had learnt basic English. “You’re able to speak pretty well now” I said to her one evening.
“Not yet” she said. “I want to sound like you do”.
One day as I was reading in the living room, the intercom rang and Meena chechi rushed to answer it. “Yes please let him in” she said confidently in English. I looked up from my book in surprise. She sounded just like Ma.
She laid the phone down gingerly and looked back at me, gleaming.
“You wont believe this” she chuckled. “The watchman just called me Madam”.