The Peasant Girl – Jayanthi Sankar, Singapore

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Momo showed her slender porcelain smooth arms forward to show her swollen red wrists. In low sad voice with welled up eyes she bewailed, “Only once I can use the washing machine. Most of the clothes I must only hand wash.” Her employer’s siblings and their families stayed in walkable distance. About eight children of various ages and eleven adults came over to dump their laundry daily and to have their meals. “They said only two adults and two children in the family.”

“Does your agent know?”

“I don’t know. They always come one by one or in pairs and I can’t cook a lot at one go but only the required quantity upon seeing them. Last month, I didn’t wash one t shirt and they cut ten dollars from my salary. I work past mid night but I can’t sleep without showering, they insist. I’m woken up very early in morning.”

Petite that she was she certainly looked drained compared to the bright, naive and fresh faced she had arrived months back, Bina remembered. Clipping her laundry in the common corridor, Momo paused to look beyond to view the wall hanging in the living room.

“Oh, that’s Ganpati Bappa [1].”

“In our culture, the King of Brahmas is called Arsi. He lost in a war with Śakra, the King of Devas. Arsi’s head was severed but as mutually agreed head of an elephant was put onto his body who then became Ganesha.”

“What an interesting variation!”

With various intricate expressions she continued, “Arsi was so powerful that if the head were thrown into the sea it would dry up immediately, if thrown onto land it would scorch and if thrown up into the air the sky, it would turn into flames. So, Sakra ordained the head to be carried by one princess devi after another taking turns for a year each.”

Momo suddenly switched to, “My father says, stay for two years, we must pay off the debts. But it is very difficult here. This madam is fierce.” Though aware of the pugnacity of the lady, Bina could not respond to that except to casually say, “Try some other agent for change of employer.”

“I don’t know any. Can you please help?”

Later in the day, Bina browzed the net to find the contact details of many agents. “I don’t know lah, if calling them can help but no harm trying.”

“Please help me post these two letters.” Except ‘Myanmar’ everything else was written in curves like some charming classic motifs. “This one is for my family and the other is for Zaw,” she said shyly. Bina took them refusing the two dollars she tried to give for the postage.

Though the locals very easily switched to Myanmar, English speakers preferred to refer as Burma to mean ‘Be upstairs ready my angel’, Momo said. The idea of calling Myanmar meant being a little softer on the military regime faded soon. About eleven kilometers from the town of Putao, her village stood serene with scattered houses. The three wheeled tuk tuks helped the villagers commute to town. The thatched huts made out of bamboo sheaths and wood were surrounded by lush paddy, corn and vegetable fields. Some households had large bamboo chute that transported water from the creeks up above the green mountains, beyond which stood vaguely visible the ice caped lower eastern Himalayan range in contrast to the clear blue sky.

As the eldest child in the family, Momo used to manage mainly the two buffaloes, a dozen chickens and all the household chores. After dropping out of high school, she started helping her parents in their patch of land tilling, sowing, weeding, watering or harvesting.

“Momo, don’t forget to include Thanaka while packing. Singapore is hot they say,” her mother had reminded. Believed to remove acne the yellowish paste of a perennial tree bark ground on a slate slab, it has a fragrance similar to sandalwood. Since childhood, she has always applied it on her cheeks, the bridge of her nose, fingers.

The day she was sent with her maternal uncle to Yangon to board the flight to Singapore, Zaw had planned to meet her in the outskirts of the village. They ambled along the small common pond with natant lilies and leaves among the dried and rotten twigs and roots. The cool morning breeze carried the fragrance of blooms. “They may be the descendants of a family that owned two elephants to serve the British timber traders those days. But all those are past. Their honour has not even the slightest trace left now. Singapore is a good country. Garuhcite hkyinnnhaint kaunggsaw hpyit [2],” her uncle repeated whatever her father had said many times.

She was in hand loomed navy blue longyi and plain but frilled sky blue blouse. Upon seeing her uncle from afar, Zaw spontaneously pulled the large bamboo hat down to cover his face, as he cycled away without stopping, in a flash thrust a letter in her hand.

My dearest Momo, it started and had all his usual romantic out pours that also touched on how he would miss her and contained the essence of ‘I will be in Singapore at the earliest. I’m prepared to work as a construction worker’. Preciously Momo kept safe the letter in her purse. Although she knew pretty well that he was only dreaming of leaving his family, his words made her happy.

Momo was washing the Honda Mobilio, the six seater and the Nissan Sylphy. Placed in between to dry in the Sun were the Chicco Bravo Stroller and the baby seat that were already washed. As if waiting to see her, she smiled. “Can I talk with you?” Halting, Bina looked at her.

“My father called last week in this landline from town. The debtors are pressurizing him. Three months’ salary I’m keeping with me. They don’t want to help me send it.”

“Why?”

“Last night she said go tomorrow. But with so many chores to complete, today morning she says I can’t go.”

“It is their responsibility to help you send the money.”

“She says she is too busy.”

“…”

“One brother stopped schooling to help my father in the land. I am very sad. I want to go back to my country.” Her face looked more like a ten year old rather than a twenty two year old. “Mam scolded and scolded till mid night. She thinks I am always talking in the landline when alone. I don’t know anyone here. Sir said, ‘Come on lah, you have a daughter too, why do you keep scolding her?’ She fought back more fiercely with him. ‘Don’t curse my baby, okay? Nee shou shamma? Aren’t you ashamed, isn’t she your daughter?’ I ran away to the kitchen,” She looked as if she was about to cry.

Suddenly Momo digressed to ask plaintively, “Madam, can you please help?”

“Help?”

“To send the money home.”

“But,..”

“Please ma’m. I’m scared to go out in Singapore. I want to remit the money fast to my family.” She gave the thousand dollars.

“I must ask my husband first.”

Anil raised several questions. “Kyun is bekar kaam me padthi ho Bina? And how do you know if it’s her money? What if her employer does not like us helping her? Their domestic helpers may come and go every few months but they are always our neighbour. Though not too friendly, we cannot afford to antagonize them.”

“Just this once, poor thing is pleading.”

“If it is her salary, why is she so scared to ask them?” Anil asked as he left for office.

Bina took the piece of paper in which Momo had written the peninsular plaza address and her mother’s a/c number. When she was wearing her sandals, Momo through the gate said, “You please take a cab, mam.”

“I can go by train. No worries, I can afford the time.”

“Whether you take the cab or not, you please take 50 dollars, and send only 900 to my family.”

Bina laughed at that. “No, no. I will send the whole amount.”

“All banks are closed in our country for the next two weeks.”

“Two weeks?”

“Ya, new year is coming,” She beamed. “Our’s is in mid April.”

“Sonkran?”

“In other Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand and Laos they call it Sokran. For us it is Thingyan.”

Thingyan, she explained, is celebrated toward the end of the hot and dry season lasts three to five days. Standing on the bamboo stages erected along the streets, people splashed water on passersby. Powerful water pipes douse people driving by in bikes, jeeps and trucks. Children use water pistols to drench their friends, relatives, and anyone else in range. Only monks and the elderly are left undisturbed. The water symbolized the washing away of the previous year’s bad luck and sins. Releasing of captive fish and birds as an act of merit and special feasts are held for monks.

“Our new year signifies the changing of hands of the Brahma’s head,” she concluded with an innocent natural smile.

At peninsular plaza, the golden crown shop was closed. There was a phone number stuck out side on the wavy tin shutter door. Whether to wait or to go, Bina wondered for a few minutes. “If I go back, when can I come again?” she thought. She asked in the nearby beauty parlor whose owner said the shop usually opens by eleven. Therefore, she decided to wait outside the shop, standing and looking around.

The shop owner, a friendly lady in her forties came. Greeting with a smile and a nod she opened the shop and offered Bina a seat. Before she could talk the telephone rang. Twice the lady smiled at her politely but went on jabbering in Burmese. After having finished with the call she took the paper with the details, “Sorry about that. Oh this girl had called me yesterday! She said an Indian lady would come.”

“So, you know her.”

“I have never seen her. Her friend also doesn’t come these days. I thought she started sending money through someone else because for the past two or three months she never sent money through us.”

“This looks like a sundry shop, do you really transfer money?”

“The next door shop money transfer service is my friend’s.”

“Do you give a receipt?”

“Of course, don’t worry.”

“I don’t know how the helper trusts me so much.”

“Because you look pretty,” she said wide eyed in an attempt to please.

“Good looking people are all trust worthy?”

“No, no. I didn’t mean that, ha ha,..”

Zaw’a was the wooden house that had a storey above and the only big house of its kind in the village. He was the youngest of the three sons. When he was past his teenage, his eldest brother, about ten years older, was getting married to a girl from the next village. The astrologer had given a date in the month of May which was just a fortnight away. Arrangements went on full swing.

Festoons and simple decorations brought about a significant change to the surrounding. Women were clad in their traditional best. A few of them had a single large flower adorning behind the ear, inserted at the base of their elegant chignons.

Two monks, clad in rich maroon robes, had been invited to bless the couple and recite the protective paritta[3]. Almsgiving feast was arranged in the morning. Several dishes of vegetables were cooked and displayed along with rice on a small table. As if it were a giant single dish, the table was so carefully and respectfully lifted by the members of the family including the couple. One of the monks just touched the table to signify his acceptance. There was laughter around when the other gestured to receive it from him. Subsequently, like watching the feeding time at the zoo, everyone with joined palms in reverence, witnessed the two monks eating. Momo could only get glimpses of the event. She caught Zaw intently looking at her instead. With a smile she gestured him to observe the ritual.

Later, a Brahmin, the master of ceremonies who was hired from the town began the wedding by blowing the conch shell. He joined the palms of the couple, wrapping them in white cloth, dipped in a silver bowl. The bride and groom were seated on cushions next to each other. Their palms remained joined together. After chanting a few Sanskrit mantras, the Brahmin took the couple’s joined palms out of the bowl and blew the conch shell once again to end the ceremony. After the village entertainers’ simple traditional songs the wedding ended with a speech by the head of the village.

During the feast the couple ate from the same plate. That’s when the ambience suddenly turned astir. The police came to arrest Zaw’s father’s younger brother, who at the top of his voice shouted at the officials, “Why don’t you arrest all the two million farmers cultivating opium in more than half a million hectares. Why arrest only me?”

Zaw’s uncle had farming tractors, two healthy horses that pulled large cart and herds of pigs and a several well yielding cows. Seldom, he visited the village. When he does, he used to go into the wilds up the hills during the dry months to hunt for meat and also to pluck some herbs, which were his hobbies.

After that incidence, Zaw’s family was affected both financially and otherwise. Momo was not allowed to see him or meet him. “You can choose anyone else but him,” her parents kept insisting.

There were minor tiffs between the two families because Zaw would not stop looking for opportunities to meet her. That’s when her parents decided to send her away to Singapore to work as a domestic helper. For a year, every day she visited the town with an escort most of the time, to complete the crash course on spoken English.

When Bina walked past their house, Momo looked through the widow, pulling the curtain aside. The common corridor was wet after the rains. Gesturing thumps up, she showed the receipt. Momo joined her palms in gratitude and hurried in moving her lips ‘later’.

Next day morning, when Bina gave her the receipt, “So, I owe you 5 dollars?” Momo asked.

“No lah. I sent only 995 after the five dollars towards the remittance.”

“Thanks.”

“Next time, I cannot help you, ok? Please don’t ask me.”

“I won’t ask. Which brand tea do you use, madam?”

“Why?”

“What is your brand name?” Momo smiled hesitantly.

“My brand is from India.”

“Can I get it in ntuc super market?”

“No.”

“I thought of buying for you.” After a few seconds, “I want to go back home,” she started crying.

“You will be happy with your family.” Bina tried to sound neutral.

“Mam called my agent and shouted. She wants me to stay.” Remembering Anil’s warnings Bina managed to remain unaffected. Hearing the family exiting the lift, Momo, face full of fear, impetuously rushed back inside the house. Bina greeted with a courteous smile, the sisters who arrived grandly with their Charlotte Olympia, Valentino, Kipling and Vera Bradley.

In the wee hours that night, there was a loud commotion next door that woke Bina up. She got up to drink water. Before going back to bed, she looked through the peephole. Their living room window was not shut completely. Imperturbably with vehemence the lady shouted, “Always want to go home want go home. You know, she had a long list of agents. I don’t know where from she got them. She is not as innocent as she seems. Its best to send her back.” Her husband said nothing and yet she said, “You don’t interfere. Momo, open your bags. I need to check. You can repack again. We have more than enough time for your boarding.”

Feeling a little guilty Bina described everything to Anil at the breakfast table as he was getting ready to leave for work. “It might be a blessing in disguise for the girl but may not be for her family. But it’s a lesson for you.” She could not but agree with his aphorism.

After he had left for work, she caught up with some sleep and woke up suddenly upon hearing someone knock on the neighbour’s door. After ignoring it for a few minutes, she got up and went to the door to look through the peephole.

With unkempt hair and a tired, tanned face and a confused expression, a medium height and build man with a baggage and a luggage with the Air Asia airline tag, stood there in front of the next door. He looked about twenty five.

Opening the door, through the locked gate, Bina asked, “I don’t think anyone is inside. Are you looking for someone?” Not looking into her eyes for more than a second, he turned his gaze down to the floor. “Momo,” he said hesitantly.

“Zaw?”

 

 

[1] Ganpati Bappa – Elephant faced Hindu deity

[2] Garuhcite hkyinnnhaint kaunggsaw hpyit –  take care and be good

[3] paritta  – refers to the Buddhist practice of reciting certain verses and scriptures in order to ward off evil fortune or dangerous conditions

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