Some people have the knack for repeating things that knock us off.
‘Oh, here is she!’ is my reaction every time she knocks on my door. 9:30 pm. Sometimes 1000 pm. If I don’t answer, my son ends up answering. He whimpers,’ Dad, why her?’
She sells flowers on our apartment campus, freshly braided into small garlands. These garlands adorn our deities as part of our prayer ritual in the mornings. It goes without saying that the flowers will have to be fresh. By the time the flowers are delivered by this lady – an old woman, in fact – they look tired. So we sprinkle some water and put them into the door side of the fridge so that they look fresher in the morning.
This late-night flower delivery has a story behind it, though.
The entire campus is controlled by a ‘gated-community’ application. Only two vendors are allowed inside as per the ‘app settings’. The primary vendor for flowers is a couple, who also bring in fresh vegetables. But since there is an apartment store, they sell both flowers and vegetables. Apparently, there is a deal between the security and this couple that allows them to operate during daylight hours.
‘I cannot enter the campus during the day, Sir.’ She told me once when asked. She could come only after sunset, and only for 2 hours because our campus locks out vendors (except food and medicine delivery).
She is seventy-five years old and walks five kilometers (more than 3 miles) to two apartments.
‘I have a grandchild to support, Sir.’ She says. ‘My daughter committed suicide and her husband vanished, leaving a young child with me. All I know is this – buy a lot of flowers from the neighborhood main market, braid and weave them into garlands and sell it to the devotees of the neighborhood temple, and the two apartments I am allowed. It consumes my entire day.’
But the apartments have their rules and cartels – like the couple I have mentioned before.
‘In the temple, the priest takes a cut for letting me set up my flower stall during the evenings.’ She tells me, as I collect the flowers one day.
Tamilselvi is a stocky woman. I see her ambling towards the elevator of our block in our sprawling apartment campus. She is our housekeeper. She tells me that her husband drops her off at the apartment gate in the mornings if he is on the afternoon shift. He is an electrician and has rotating shifts.
Chennai is a hot and humid city, and somebody like me goes out for client meetings, shopping or runs only in late afternoons or mornings. On the bad days, Tamilselvi’s walk from her home to our campus can be an arduous exercise. It is almost a four-mile walk for her.
She could not study in high school and went to work as a maid during her teens. She was married off early, so education was out of the question.
She now has two pre-teen sons, who are oblivious to her.
‘How are your sons?’ I ask her with a smile as we wait for the elevator. ‘How is your husband?’ This question is an afterthought.
She speaks less, but today she is in a chatty mood.
‘My husband has just bought a bike, Sir. I have paid some money in advance, which I had saved, and have taken a jewel loan to pay for the balance.’
She leaves the point in the air, as we enter our apartment. She goes about her work, and I dive into my Mac.
During our late evening walks, I bring up this topic with my wife.
‘I know. That is why I am buying flowers from that old woman. The flowers are not fresh, but still…’ She replies to my question about the old woman who sells flowers.
My wife does not know her name, but she along with a few residents has resisted the pressure from the couple to continue and buy flowers from this old woman, just to support her.
I listen and nod, but keep quiet.
‘I have offered Tamilselvi to dust and cook too, from next week.’ My wife drops a for-your-information (FYI) one day, again during our evening walks. For-your-information is a clear message that the decision has been taken and beyond question or review.
‘I see.’ I reply to that FYI, as we stroll around the campus. I look around – life seems pretty normal. Joggers and walkers run past us, puffing and panting. Kids are playing – a few kicking soccer balls, a few in playpens, and a boisterous bunch playing cricket on the basketball ground.
Old men gather to gossip and question the merits of the Russian invasion. I feel weird listening to them. I feel that Putin and Zelensky should be part of this meeting- all the wisdom in the gossip else would be for nothing.
My silence does not escape my wife’s attention. ‘These are women we don’t see.’ She says, looking at the bunch of cleaning women in uniform leaving for the day after an end-of-the-huddle in the administration office.
I do not join the conversation, as I get to thinking about the words she just has spoken.
Two days later, I ask her about the ‘women we don’t see.’
‘Oh, that.’ She replies in her stride, looking at her fitness band. She is avoiding a direct reply, I sense. But I persist, now having gathered my thoughts around this niggling topic.
‘Tell me, why do you call them ‘the women we don’t see’?’ I stay on course.
‘Do you ever notice them beyond their presence?’ She counters me with a question. I nod in the negative.
‘The old woman has no other source, except us. So while we are around, it is upon us to support her. You know her story. But what can we do to her?’ She drops another question.
I respond with silence.
‘I think we should help her as much as we can.’ I let out a half-hearted reply, not knowing if I was on her right side.
She ignores my best response. ‘I have talked to a like-minded few, and the old woman will deliver the flowers as long as she can. That is the help we can do for her. Being a customer to her is not about getting good flowers for our worship, but supporting her with the few rupees that she needs. Flower-braiding and selling are all that she knows. We don’t see her beyond that moment when we collect flowers at our door from her.’
I nod my head. Silence is the best garb to wear in these FYI situations.
‘Tamilselvi has now a loan burden. Her husband’s electrician’s job supports their daily expenses and education fees. But this loan – she just mentioned it to me. So I offered her an additional salary for additional work at our home. This way, she need not go to other houses, but work in our house. She has accepted the offer and starts tomorrow.’ Silence again, from my side.
My wife does not expect a response from me. We walk together in silence.
I see her sleeping in peace. My night lamp and Mac are on, as I read and write, past my dinner time.
I sit back as the words ring suddenly in my mind. ‘The women we don’t see.’
Both the old flower seller and Tamilselvi are women that I encounter on a daily basis. Yet, I do not ‘see’ them. They come and go, and for me, life has gone on. But my wife has ‘seen’ them, as humans, for what they are. Their struggles have drawn her attention, and she had gone and acted on supporting them within her powers. She has not diluted her relationship with them – customer-vendor, employee-employer, but in fact, used that relationship to support them more.
I remember my non-response, while my maid had indicated that she was paying a loan, in front of the elevator. I blush in shame.
Then, I smile at this thought. ‘Acts of empathy’, I think. A lesson here, definitely.
If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
― Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary
We don’t see many people in our lives beyond that moment of transaction. But if we add a drop of empathy in our transactions, we get a different ‘eye’. Eyes that see people better, and relate to them. Empathy gives us that eye, to see the humans that we don’t see, otherwise.
So, here’s to the women we don’t see. Let us start ‘looking out’ for them.