[This is the third part of a three-part story. Click here to start from the beginning.]
Where we left off in the last installment, I had somehow been found by Sureka when I was just about to find her. She called my hotel while I was out and said she would meet me there in morning. All three or four of you regular readers must have been in agony to find out what was going to result, and on Saturday morning so was I.
My mother instructed over the phone to show her a very nice time and to offer gifts for her children in exchange for the trouble of taking time off work and traveling from to another Mahableshwar to Panchgani. Right after waking up on Saturday morning I walked into town on a gift mission. It wasn’t long until I realized that I had nowhere nearly enough information on her kids to be able to choose any appropriate gifts, so I gave up and decided to wait for her at the bus station. After waiting for awhile, I realized that given the other ways into town she might have already arrived and evaded me, I then practically ran back to the hotel. She wasn’t there so I settled into some breakfast in the dining room. Halfway through a bowl of corn flakes, I saw in the corner of my eye a bright orange figure hesitantly approach the main entrance to the hotel.
I noticed by the face in my shoulder when we hugged that she had somehow shrank since I last saw her. I wasn’t sure if she already knew this, but since she was already pretty emotional I didn’t feel it was the right time to tell her. She twisted a purple hanky in her fingers as we sat in the lobby and I passed on the love of the Rushdys and my family and used it to capture the tears that were just small enough to escape.She heard about me from the husband of Mrs. Kate Irani, Russi. His wife told him about the unusual visitor while he happened to be in Mahableshawar on business and decided to stop into the sari shop where Sureka works. She told me that based on his description she knew that it had to be her “Sammy” and guessed I would be at Prospect Hotel to make her call that night. She was indeed skipping off work to come see me, she knew that her employers would not have listened or understood so she just didn’t show up. As my mother would say: it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Sureka wanted to make a visit to the Irani’s and on the way we stopped at Lucky’s Snacks to show off the find.
Her choice for lunch was Paradise Hotel across from Lucky’s, she remembered having chinese food there once with Marjan and Ramona, a year of service youth from Winnipeg who was at the school at the time. It was closed, and I later heard that several restaurants had opened and closed there since. I was worried about getting her back to work but as time went on she decided she wasn’t going to make it.
We bussed to Mahableshwar and after having lunch at her husband’s hotel I went to their one room home and she collected her five children to meet me and for a photo.
All the while we filled each other in on the past ten years, me telling her about my parents, my brother-in-law and my giant pregnant sister, and her telling me about her husband and all her children. She told me that she remembered everything from the period my family was there like the requests for potato salad, the menu my father typed for her entitled “Sureka’s Menu”, our dog named Flip which she is still calling Philip, and Duke – the dog that died before his time that Ramona so loved. She remembered the commitment I made the day my mother and I left to return in six years, and she remembered that my father cried with her when we left.
Back when we passed through the convent school to see Kate Irani, I caught her making a cross when we passed by an idol of the Virgin Mary, then in her home I noticed a platform bearing images of a number of Hindu gods. I was confused because I remembered her as a Baha’i. As she walked me back to the bus stand I had to ask. She told me that her and whole family was totally Baha’i and that the Hindu symbols were simply for the benefit of their landlord. Mahableshwar doesn’t have a Baha’i community like Panchgani, and it’s one of the things she misses from being there. Despite this, she is ensuring that her children are growing up with Baha’i prayers. The next morning I made arrangements for her three youngest and unoccupied children to attend the winter school in Panchgani in the stead of those of us who have to work. I then went back to Mahableshwar to pick up the studio photos we took, to drop of some well-researched gifts on behalf of my family and to tell Sureka about the winter school. This morning as I was getting ready to go to the office I got a text message from Masoud, the Baha’i youth who helped me make arrangements for the winter school. I smiled as I read that Sureka had just arrived with her children.
Memoirs of an Aya
At the age of eight, Sureka Dhotre Yadav moved with her parents and brother from Mumbai to Bossay village near Panchgani. Because her father was blind it was necessary for Sureka to quit school at fourth standard and enter the work force at ten years old. Her next ten years were spent as a cleaning maid at the Irani home. Sureka told me how when she started she knew nothing about cleaning but was taught by Mrs. Irani herself. She also remembered how when she was totally exhausted and would begin to fall asleep in the evening, Mrs. Irani would not let her go to bed before eating. After a brief down time, Sureka was employed by the Rushdys for what would become 7 years. It was during this time that Terri Rushdy and another friend taught her cooking. It must have also been during this period as well that she married her husband Balu and had her first three children, Ajit, Ashvini and Anjana. She told me that it was while she was with both the Rushdys and my family that she learned her English. She remembers me correcting her: “Sureka! It’s ‘garbage‘ not ‘grabage‘!” You should note here the early interest in solid waste management issues.
In the year after my family left her ailing mother finally died and Surka subsequently bowed to societal pressure placed on her for being alone and reunited with her husband after bieng estranged for five years. She had two more daughters Akangsh, who is now seven and in first standard, and the five year old Sonu.
Going back to her oldest three; Ajit – her first child and only son, made it to tenth standard and is now 21 years old and working at the Grapevine Hotel restaurant. Ashvini also made tenth standard and is now 18 and working in the second biggest clothing shop in Mahableshwar, after Sureka’s of course. Anjana is 16 and is going to a small English secondary school. It seems that Anjana’s education is the most promising, her school fees have being among the expenses keeping her parents and elder siblings working seven days a week.
Six months ago Sureka landed the job at the sari shop and her husband is working as a cook at a Muslim hotel. Her brother has been working at an office in Mumbai for a few years, and hasn’t been back to visit in two years. She has never lived in Bhilar, the village I spent an afternoon in looking for her – and does not plan to.