People of Bharat: Pushpa
Walking through a small village in rural Telengana I find a woman sitting on a mud verandah outside a house, leaning against the wall. As I approach her, a cat napping by her side, jumps up and runs away surprised by the apparent stranger. I ask her for directions to the post office and she points towards the west. ‘It’s closed Madam’ she says. Curious, she starts asking me questions and I sit opposite to her answering and asking some of my own. The house where Pushpa lives is made of mud and bricks. The roof is tiled and held up at the front with stout, wooden poles. An old sari is hung instead of a door. There is no electricity connection and no gas cylinder. The house has three rooms, a kitchen and an attached bathroom. Each of the three rooms are rented out to different families. Pushpa lives in one of the rooms with her two sons aged 24 and 26 and a daughter aged 12. She tells me her elder daughter is married and lives in the next village. Her eldest son is no more. Pushpa is 35 but is thin and stretched; a bent shoulder makes her appear older than her actual age. I ask her to tell me her story and interject with a few questions from time to time. Pushpa was born and raised in a village near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Her parents were daily wage earners –majdoor — she says, who made a living working at construction sites. She remembers her mother as working, digging and carrying mud and sand — her father was an alcoholic and didn’t do much. Pushpa didn’t go to school and was married to her husband who worked as a mechanic in Telengana. Her husband’s family were migrants — Pushpa’s father-in-law had left his village in Maharashtra to work as a laborer in the Air Force Camp, in what is now the state of Telengana. Pushpa tells me her husband passed away four months ago from complications exacerbated due to mental illness. I learn Pushpa’s life story is full of tragedies. About ten years ago, her husband’s mechanic shop caught fire during the night and was burnt to ashes. The family suspected foul play but were helpless. Her husband fell into depression, from which he never recovered. He was admitted to a mental health hospital in Hyderabad where he stayed for a few years and came home only a few months before his death. She recalls there was no significant improvement in his condition. After his death, their ancestral home in the village was sold by her brother-in-law who didn’t give them anything as their share. As if that was not enough Pushpa lost her eldest son to a tragic incident. Six years ago, one of Pushpa’s sons who worked as a painter went to a nearby lake with friends. He drowned in the water and Pushpa is unsure if his death was an accident. Her other two sons also work as painters. Pushpa works as a house help and her daughter sometimes accompanies her to work. None of her children have completed their primary education, dropping out at various grades. Pushpa works as a house help in one of the bungalows close by. She starts her day at 6 AM. She makes some breakfast and leaves for work at 10 AM. After her work is over, she returns home gathering some firewood on the way back. Her daughter cooks food for everyone over a mud stove. Pushpa earns Rs. 2000 every month for sweeping the house and courtyard, mopping and washing utensils. Her sons earn Rs. 10,000 between them every month and manage the household expenses. These include the rent of Rs. 2200, groceries for Rs. 3–5000 and another Rs. 500 on utilities. ‘They give me Rs. 200–300 at the beginning of the month but then ask for it under some pretext or the other.’ ‘Dono ladke drink lete hain’ (Both my sons drink alcohol) she says softly. I learn both her sons spend on alcohol daily as well as additional accompaniments like egg and chicken dishes to go with their drinks. Pushpa is aware she is eligible for a state government pension scheme but does not receive it as she has no bank account. Neither she nor her sons are aware of how to open an account. ‘Hamko gaun waale koi khata kholne me madad nahi karta yahan’ (These villagers are not helping us open a bank account) she laments. The family has access to government fair priced monthly rations — these include 30 kilos of rice at Rs. 1 per kilo, one liter of oil, one packet of detergent, tea-leaves, a soap, and a salt packet. Sometimes, they buy a few grocery items for Rs. 40–50 rupees from local shopkeepers on credit and pay later. A few days ago she noticed a strange smell in the water provided from the municipality. ‘We stopped drinking it, fearing we would fall sick. We now buy drinking water pouches and it costs 3–5 rupees daily’ she says.
Pushpa has no savings and does not own a smartphone. Her sons own a smartphone but she does not know what they use it for. Pushpa wants to see her sons get married and settled. She hopes that this will help them quit drinking as well.
Pushpa’s husband’s family has cut all ties with them. ‘They discarded us from their lives as soon as my husband died’ she says. Bereft of relationship support and far from her native village, Pushpa is lonely and in little control of her finances. She has no plans for her old age and tells me she will continue working till she can. As I prepare to leave, her daughter comes out and they both pose for a photograph.