We first met her a quarter century ago, when she interviewed with us for the job of ayah. We were seeking someone experienced to help us look after our first child. (We were pretty inexperienced ourselves.) “Talk to Mrs Das,” someone told us, and arranged an interview. She was already a grandmother twice over, and had cared for a friend’s babies. We hired her.
Over the years, she helped us raise our kids and run our home. She moved with us from Delhi to Bombay to the US. Eventually she retired on a pension, but when she could, she visited us. And when I could, I visited her, living in a DDA apartment with her son and daughter-in-law and grandchild. By then, her health was indifferent, but she proudly showed me around her neat, clean and well-kept flat she’d bought with her savings.
Her life was a success story. I don’t know all of it; but over the years, she shared some of her memories. She was born in a small impoverished village in Bengal. She was an intelligent and curious child. But when she got home from her first day in school, her grandmother beat her and told her school was not for girls. Instead, she was kept home and married young to a much older man. He gave her two living sons and wandered out of her life. She heard, later, that he had gone to Bangladesh. The boys were her responsibility.
Nothing daunted, she decided to go to the city – Kolkata – and earn a living. She bought her first footwear, and again met opposition from the elders of her village. She was getting above herself. Footwear? Bare feet were good enough for her.
By this time, she was strong enough for them. “Very well,” she told them, “I’ll stay here barefoot. You support me and my children.” Somehow, that proposition didn’t appeal to them at all. So she made her way to the city, and eventually found a job as an aide in a nursing home.
It was excellent training; she learned modern hygiene, best practice in caring for patients, cleanliness, discipline. But it didn’t pay much, and when she was hired by a well-to-do professional family to care for their babies, she went. Eventually, a couple of jobs later, she moved to Delhi and found us.
That was what she truly loved to do: care for little ones. She spoiled our children in the sweetest possible way, hand feeding them at mealtimes, keeping them from harm, giving in to most of their demands… when she left me with my young children, she told me with tears in her eyes that I must be sure to hand-feed them or how would I know they were eating properly? (The kids were actually quite capable of feeding themselves, and did. They just liked their “Bana” to feed them.)
She earned enough to send both her sons to school so they got a high-school education. She helped find them wives and jobs. (Sadly one son predeceased her.) She learned how to sign her name so she could open a bank account, and read her bank passbook so she could manage her own finances. Her wisdom, her independence and her worldly experience made her highly respected member of her family.
When I went to Delhi, I visited her. She always wanted to see photographs of our children -now adults – and hear what they were doing. The last we heard from her before her final illness was a response to my letter telling her one of the kids she helped raise was getting married. She sent her joy and congratulations.
Only a few months later, she’s gone. She started life a poor and illiterate village girl with little or no support. But the life she made for herself was a tribute to her own intelligence and tenacity and mettle.
Rest in Peace, Mrs Basna Das.