VILLAGE SKETCH—19 -REDI NENDA: THE WASHERWOMAN
Posted on June 3rd, 2012

Arcadius

Toting a big round bundle of laundry on her back, she trudges along the path leading to our house.  The load, apparently, is ponderous.  She has hunched a little to accommodate the weight because she is fairly old and frail.

I can spy her through the bamboo-grove as she comes.  I am impatient to wait for her.  So I run forward to greet her, shouting “Redi Nenda, Redi Nenda!”

In fact everybody called her Redi Nenda.  Though we called her Nenda (aunt), she was no relation of ours.  That was the polite term the villagers used to address a washerwoman.

Discerning my excitement, Redi Nenda responds with a smile showing her mottled teeth””‚the result of excessive betel chewing.  Because she had never attended school, she probably could not have known that the proper amount of fluoridation would have prevented tooth decay.

“Your mouth is like a spittoon,” I insult her, but genuinely thinking of my expression as a capital joke. “Will you lend it for me to spit?”

She takes it as a capital joke, which deserves a hearty chuckle.  Nobody recognizes the wit in my jokes though, in my view, they ought to evoke laughter.  Only Redi Nenda does.  So I like her the more.

“You shouldn’t be so naughty, young master,” she retorts.  “When you grow old, your mouth won’t be any better.  This is what you call samsara (wheel of existence).”

When I tell her that, in any case, I do not wish to grow old, she starts laughing again as if that too were a capital joke. I am puzzled because I cannot see any drollery in my observation.

“The laundry must be very heavy,” I remark punching the huge bundle resting on her back.

As I keep on punching, like a boxer, she pleads me not to be naughty.  But she never gets angry even when I ignore her pleading.

When we reach the row of steps facing our verandah, I start shoving her from behind with my head plugged to the bundle, till she reaches the top.  Exhaustion is stamped on her diminutive figure.  Her jacket is wet with sweat.  She wipes off the sweat pearling down her brow.

I dash into the house to announce the arrival of Redi Nenda.  Susila immediately emerges from the kitchen to inquire whether Redi Nenda remembered to bring back her frock; for the frock she is wearing is too dirty.  Sister snarls that Redi Nenda should first sort the clothes of “her royal highness” (in the lower case), a modest allusion she often uses to refer to herself.

Redi Nenda walks into our bedroom and keeps the bundle on the floor.  Mother takes out her notebook from the top of the almirah for checking the clothes.  As the woman (of the washerman caste) opens the bundle, and mother starts the checking, sister and I jump onto the bed, often presaging a tussle, to watch the proceedings.  Susila unobtrusively peeks from the void between the door and the doorframe lest mother would chase her away.

Mother has a lot of complaints to make as the checking takes place: the clothes have not been properly starched; the colors of two gowns have been mingled; the dirt has not been completely removed; so on.

Redi Nenda never tries to remonstrate.  She concedes the faults, and tells mother that she can no longer handle the laundry as she used to when she was in fine fettle.

Susila picks her laundered frock and runs away.  A while later, she returns smartly dressed with a cup of tea for Redi Nenda, who prefers to drink it at her own leisure.

Sister feels uneasy whenever she sees Susila in a smart dress.  On such occasions she prefers to call her Goraki, an insulting epithet.  Sister snarls superciliously, “Goraki, get away!”

A safe distance away, Susila starts making grimaces at sister, who jumps out of the bed like a thunderbolt imparting the highest velocity to her legs, giving the impression that she would not stop short of throttling her adversary.  But Susila is fleet of foot.

Mother pulls out the curtains, coverlets and other soiled linen to make another stock of laundry for Redi Nenda to take away.  Mother methodically enters every item in her notebook; and she issues instructions: Grandfather’s tweed cloth should be brought before the week-end because he has to attend the Courts; father’s white suit should be starched well; care should be taken to prevent the fading of colours.

Redi Nenda then bundles the soiled clothes and gets up to go away.  She lifts the bundle on to her back, benignly smiles at me and goes out of the room.  I follow her up to the row of steps trying to be funny as best as I can.  I watch her till she passes the bamboo-grove, and then shout at the top of my voice, “Redi Nenda, Redi Nenda!”

 

I am told that Redi Nenda was working as our fuller for a long time.  She resided at Bogaha-gedera (House by the Bo Tree) in the area predominantly occupied by the people of the washer caste.  The main gravel road, which snaked down Batawala kanda to our village, had to pass through this area, bordered by a canal and a vast stretch of a rice paddy across which ran an embankment, which was generally known as Mahavella. Dhobis used the canal for fulling and beating their laundry, never suspecting their extinction by the Laundromat.

The dhobis of the era worked hard for their living fitting into the “small is beautiful” scheme. In spite of the hard work that Redi Nenda did, she originally charged us a mere Rs. 1.50 per annum for her services!  But as the cost of living interfered with the desire of the people to live and let live, the annual fee for her services gradually rose to Rs. 50.

During the two harvest seasons, my mother gave her about six gallon measures of paddy as the village custom demanded.  Moreover, she was at liberty to take away a coconut or a jackfruit whenever she pleased.  Often she would drag away a dry coconut frond or two either for kindling the hearth or for weaving.

Even after the setting up of the co-operative retail shop, Redi Nenda preferred to remain a loyal customer of our control-shop.  At that time I had a plan to open a shop of my own by the side of the road.  When I gave expression to this, mother vetoed it and asked me, if I so wished, to help in the work connected with the control-shop.  Thereafter, I was entrusted with the job of cutting the weekly coupons of the customers’ ration books and entering their names in a logbook.  In due course, on my visits to the town after school, I bought several bars of Sunlight soap, a few tins of cigarettes and a number of boxes of matches for selling at a higher price in the control-shop.

When Redi Nenda came to buy her rice ration, I would insist that she purchase a bar of Sunlight soap for her washing.  The good woman that she was, whenever she had money she bought something from me always insisting that I would turn out to be a very successful trader.  (My connections with the control-shop came to an abrupt end when I took it into my head to smoke a cigarette and got caught to mother.)

On the first anniversary of the death of Punchi Amma, there was a Sanghika-dana (almsgiving for monks) at our place.  Following the dana, mother gave Redi Nenda a large stock of laundry, comprising two big bundles, for washing.  She had put the two bundles in a shack at her place, when she found, a few days later, that thieves had stolen both bundles.

Redi Nenda reported the theft to mother, who was very much shaken by the news.  She said that though she did not have the means to pay for the loss in a lump sum, she would try her best to indemnify in installments.  Nobody doubted her integrity.  Mother had no harsh words for her.  Then onwards, for one long year, Redi Nenda laundered our clothes free of charge.

Our Redi Nenda was not like other washerwomen.  When we wanted some clothes on a day’s notice, she rarely failed to bring them in time.  She ignored reproof.  She never grumbled.  She was pleasing.

As I walk along Mahavella on my daily 3- kilometer trudge to the town English school, I can see several washerwomen fulling and beating their laundry in the canal.  They have tucked up their clothes above their knees.  A young girl is hanging the washed clothes on the lines. It is not difficult for me to make out our Redi Nenda.  When I draw her attention, she would raise her frail voice and warn me to be careful of traffic when I reach the town.

In turn, I would tell her to bring a well-washed shirt and a trouser for me to wear for school on the following day because most of my clothes were dirty.

Even that sounded like a capital joke for Redi Nenda! She would respond with a faint laugh.

Many years have gone by.  Redi Nenda was no longer our fuller.  She could not full at all.  She had gout.

On my occasional visits to the village, I sometimes met Redi Nenda by the side of the road near Bogaha-gedera.  In spite of her weak eyesight, she could still recognize me well.

“Your mouth is like a spittoon,” I would fool her.  “Will you lend it for me to spit?”

Redi Nenda still thought it a capital joke.  She would try to laugh.  But she had lost the ability say anything in reply.

[Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 20 Nov. 1965. Arcadius revised it in 2012. All 28 articles in this series will be released this year in a book titled VILLAGE LIFE IN THE “ƒ”¹…”FORTIES: MEMORIES OF A LANKAN EXPATRIATE (Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse).]

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