It wasn’t until her death in 2011 that we realised Amma was mortal. She was just as human as the rest of us, waiting for her turn to show up at the gates of heaven and demand to see her loved ones.
She was hired the week I was born, when my grandfather finally gave into my mother’s persistent pleas that she needed a little help running the house, with a new baby in tow. And so, Amma came to work the very next day, taking charge of the household and becoming a part of our lives for 23 years.
Born Ram Devi, Amma was always called Amma. She seemed like the kind of person who had been old all her life, her face weathered with time and the name just stuck. It wasn’t just us, though. Every house down the street, where she worked, knew her as Amma. This was the time when house-maids were part of a hierarchical system and since Amma was the oldest and had come to B-Block Janakpuri first, she got to pick the houses she wanted and everyone else had to fight for the left-overs. So, the time she began working for us, she was also working ten other houses in the neighbourhood, hopping from one to the next till she took the bus home in the evening.
Amma had lost her husband very early in life, leaving her with three sons and not a penny in hand. She barely had time to grieve and got to work immediately, scouring housing colonies in Uttam Nagar near Kali Basti where she lived, marketing her skills door to door, even begging for work. She had a good reputation as far as her work was concerned, which earned her more houses in the area and soon, one of her sons was graduating from school. This was one of the happiest moments of her life, but it was short-lived. The boy died in a road accident, which should have knocked her down emotionally, like when children die before parents, but not her. Amma was back at work the next day, striving to do better with her remaining kids. So, she left Uttam Nagar and decided to hit Janakpuri, an upcoming locality in the 80s and took over 3/4th’s of our block.
Amma’s voice fluctuated between a shrill croak and a low, gurgling rumble that could both scare the living day-lights out of us. Because of her small, skinny frame, we’d miss her comings and goings and sometimes, she’d creep up behind us, when we were engrossed in a book or mugging a lesson, her evening tea in hand and begin humming a tune, something that always made us jump and fall off our chair in shock. This was often amusing to her and she’d laugh out loud, clapping her hands, her toothless mouth in its fullest glory. I can still hear the ring of her laughter at the back of my mind somewhere.
Draped in her pink or purple floral saree, she’d trudge to work every day without fail. Her younger sons were married and she entrusted the care of the house to their wives. She had never wanted her daughters-in-law to work, not unless they were faced with challenging circumstances and she made sure of it. All she needed was a hot cup of tea every morning before she set off to work and a meal when she returned.
Every time Amma saw good days, they were inadvertently followed by bad days. By the time I was on my way out of school, she had developed a cataract in her eye, the milky glaze keeping her from performing the simplest tasks. That year, families that had employed her for years and years, gave up on her and she lost a lot of jobs all at once. Her family, as a result, gave her trouble because suddenly she wasn’t earning as much money and was, therefore, “useless”. Those days, Amma came to work either angry or sad. She’d sometimes break down while discussing her problems with my mother or reprimand her imaginary sons in our kitchen while washing the utensils. She was afraid she’d lose all her work and be forced to sit at home and deal with them all day. But, we weren’t done with Amma yet. Yes, she wasn’t as good with work anymore, unable to see food stains on plates, her swabbing in patches across the floor and she couldn’t hear properly either. Her hilarious exchanges with my deaf grandfather would result in them screaming at each other but in vain, with the rest of us screaming louder to get through to both of them. But, in any case, we weren’t ready to let go of her.
I saw her less and less when I went to college, but when I did, she’d greet me with so much love and excitement. She was older now, reduced to a shadow of her former self, a shadow that sat in odd corners and talked to herself in broken, incomprehensible grunts and murmurs. You could watch her endlessly without her realising it because she had lost about 80% of her vision by then. The only thing she made clear was that she was prepared to die and that was that. Despite the eye operations, the cataract kept coming back until she was done trying to fix it. It was only when she was hit by a car crossing the road that she finally realised she had to stop. My father asked her to stay put at home and promised to pay her whatever we could afford (then) as a monthly stipend. She was supposed to come back the following month to collect her salary, but she never made it. Amma died in 2011, shortly after my grandfather and one part of the house, which they usually occupied, each of them lost in their own heads, fell incredibly silent. You can still sometimes hear their screechy banter, if you sit still and listen.
Amma will always hold a special place in our hearts, where reside all the loved one’s we’ve lost over the years. Our Amma.