Village Sketch—21 Seetha And Maggie Take Different Paths
Posted on June 22nd, 2012

By Arcadius

How Seetha made her first appearance at our Maha Gedera (ancestral home) was rather strange. It was many years ago in the World War II era, when I was only a little kid growing up in the village surroundings of Pathegama.

She, a young adult, was standing near the siyambala (tamarind) tree in our backyard. She looked very unclean. Her jacket was very dirty. The piece of cloth she wore was hardly a dress. It was so small. Theconfused look on her face was unmistakable. Apparently, she was not sure whether she should turn back or stay there. She was probably standing near the siyambala tree for some time.

When Mother inquired why she was waiting there, she started sobbing. When she gathered herself together, she said she was a miserable person with no livelihood. Her husband had deserted her, leaving her to look after three small children. It was not her intention to beg. But could the kind lady give her some work?

I suppose that Mother felt quite sorry for the wretch. She asked her whether she could pound paddy at our place. The woman was delighted to start work the following day. When the woman turned to go away, she was evidently blushing. The piece of cloth she wore was such a scanty dress that she could not walk without exposing her thighs even though she was clutching it all the time. A young woman of her age certainly had reason toblush.

Seetha came to work the next day. Mother gave her six kuruni (gallon measures) of paddy for pounding. Seetha could not have handled a bigger quantity in her state of physical fitness.

Seetha unrolled a large mat in the backyard and spread the paddy over it to warm it up in the sun. Mother had explained to me that the warming of the paddy was necessary to prevent the excessive crushing of grains when pounding. Then Seetha sat by the side of the mat and, from time to time, shuffled the grains with her feet.

After a couple hours, Seetha removed the warmed paddy to the shed behind our kitchen, where the pounding was to be done. This shed was equipped with a large mortar, a number of pestles, a winnowing fan, and a stagskin. Seetha scattered the paddy over the stagskin and started pounding with a pestle.

It was a hard day’s work. She was thoroughlyexhausted. Out of the six gallon measures of paddy, she had produced eight measures of rice. Mother gave Seetha a measure of rice and one-half of hunusal (crushed rice) as her due. Mother also gave her a coconut and a slice of jakfruit. When I later studied economics at the Peradeniya campus, I recalled this tranasaction as a perfect example of barter widely practiced in the rural communities. My mother was the buyer, and Seetha was the seller of aservice. They exchanged no money, and both parties were pleased with the outcome.

Thereafter, Seetha came to our place every day for work. On certain days, she brought her children, too. The oldest was a five-year-old girl. The other two were boys, one three years old and the other only several months.

Though Seetha was living at a place called Lamayinnewatte in Pitiduwa, nobody in our household had seen her before she made her unusual appearance. Later, we came to know that Hinni Hamine of Habaradugewatte directed her to our place for a job. Seetha was an honest woman, and Mother was quite liberal in helping her to bring up her children. Every day after work, she took food for the kids from our place.

Though normally Seetha came for work fairlyearly in the morning, she came quite late on certain days. When Mother asked the reason for this one day, she had a very distressing story to tell. She had only one cloth to wear, and when her infant spoilt it during the night, she had no alternative but to wrap herself up in a sack and wash the cloth in the morning. She could not come for work until the cloth was dry.

I knew that Seetha’s  confession struck a chord in Mother’s heart. Mother embraced the unfortunate woman and said, “Seetha, this is your karma. Now, you need not despair. I will try to help you as much ss I can.”

“Thank you, kind lady. May the blessings of the Triple Gem be always with you,” Seeetha said kneeling before Mother.

Mother gave Seetha  a few old saris that she had discarded. Mother also donated some old clothes that my sister and I had discarded for the use of Seetha‘s children.

Thereafter, Mother paid special attention  to Seetha’s moods. On days when there was a downcast sky, Seetha would feel very unhappy. She would sit by the side of the large mat and start crying, thinking that nobody was observing her, unaware that Mother was watching her on several occasions. Mother used to peep through a keyhole and watch how the poor wretch was crying.

When Mother came out and asked why she was in a sorrowful mood, Seetha made another surprising confession.  Hurriedly wiping her tears, she said:

“My kind lady, without sunshine, I cannot warm up the paddy.  And without warming the paddy, I cannot  do my work.”

“But why have you  been crying?”

“Well, I have been only praying to gods to clear the sky. I have to earn a living and feed my children. Should the weather stand in my way?[CN1] “

As she regained her strength as time went on, Seetha used to pound about fourteen gallon measures of paddy a day. That was quite a big quantity for a single person to handle. But Seetha was a hard worker. She did not grumble over her work.

While she worked at our place, her oldest child looked after the two young ones at home. One day, Seetha told us that her second child was ill and she had instructed her oldest child to attend on him because she (Seetha) had to come for work. (Imagine a five-year-old girl attending on a three-year-old patient, in addition to looking after an infant.)

After several days, she told us that she took the sick child for treatment to an Ayurvedic (traditional medicine) practitioner in the town popularly known as Aandi Veda. What we heard next was that the child was dead.

Her misery did not end there. She had no money to buy a coffin to bury the dead child. Like a madwoman, Seetha rushed to ourplace and begged for help. She said she only wanted to dig a shallow pit and bury her dead little one somehow. Her misery was nothing but karma.

Mother gave her money to buy a cheap coffin. The child was buried without even drawing the notice of the neighbors. Unlike Kisa Gotami, who went berserk upon the death of her child until the Buddha asked her to bring a mustard seed from a household where no one had died, Seetha knew the futility of trying to revive the dead. Because Seetha grew up in the Buddhist culture of the village, she probably was aware of the Kisa Gotami story, the source of the popular aphorism, “The living are few, but the dead are many.”

At this time, Naamba, the well-built tree climber, was doing odd jobs at our place. When he joined the imperial army during the war, his diminutive wife, Maggie, used to call on us for various favors. Eventually, she regularly came to work as a kitchen maid.

Maggie was a dark, frail woman. She was a good cook and, like Seetha, the mother of three children. She had a son named Garuhamy, whom I delighted in calling Guruhamy (the nasty monster who abducts kids). For some unknown reason, the youngestchild was called Dostara (doctor). Her eldest child was a girl called Kamala.

In his heyday in the army, Naamba had sent a tidy share of his monthly pay by post to his wife Maggie, who, far from spending it, safely deposited all of it in the Post Office Savings Bank.

<Place VS-21 Seetha and Maggie.jpg about here>

Maggie often helped Seetha in her job of pounding paddy. They took a pestle each and did the pounding jointly in quick turns. They used two options for pounding: placing the paddy in the mortar or spreading the paddy over the stagskin.

I sympathized a lot with Seetha. I knew she did not get a cent from anybody as a regular income. I had an enexplicable notion that Maggie should have shared her money with Seetha. I was rather angry with Maggie for not doing so.

When I went into the shed where the two women wereworking together, I would often frankly express my sentiments on this matter. I would promise to buy some good saris for Seetha when I grew up. I would give her money, too. Seetha would stop winnowing the grains and obligingly say, “That’s very kind of you. I hope you would.”

“Won’t you give anything to my mother?” Garuhamy would innocently ask.

“Nothing at all. Your mother gets enough money, Guruhamy. She is stingy.”

Maggie would only laugh.

As time went on, Seetha one day brought thegood tidings that her husband had returned. He had been doing well in a colony in the Eastern Province. Now after a long spell of time, he had returned home to stay with her and the two children.

We thought a good time had dawned for Seetha. Gradually, she ceased to come to our place to work. When I sometimes met her on the road, I noticed she was well dressed, as were her children. She was happy, too.

But her happiness did not last long. Some months later, we heard that her husband had deserted her again. As we expected, Seetha again started coming to our place for work. She was back with her soiled clothes on. She never told us what happened to the saris and sandals that her husband had brought. She would never trust a man, she said.

In due course, when the war was over, Naamba returned to the village. Quite conscious of his newly acquired status, he was in no mood to come to our place for odd jobs though his better half continued to come for work.

Apparently, Naamba wanted to continue the extravagance that he had affected while in the army. Gradually, he got Maggie to draw all her savings and spent the money as his fancy suited. Once the savings were gone, Naamba conveniently forgot his status and resumedclimbing trees and doing odd jobs. In addition, he started beating his wife.

From then onwards, Maggie became a sick woman. But Seetha‘s prospects were improving. Her son, now a blooming lad, had secured a job in a faraway town. He was regularly sending her money every month. As he prospered, he came to the village and took his mother and sister away to where he was living.

When Maggie became too ill, she was admitted to the local hospital, where she died of tuberculosis after a period of long suffering. Naamba was not bothered. He never went to see her in the hospital.

Though Seetha and her two children once visited the village, they did not come to see us. Villagers said they came in a car.

Now, I have no reason to sympathise with Seetha. Rather I regret the ill feeling I had toward Maggie when I was a child. I think of the dead woman with sympathy and compassion. When I meet Garuhamy once in a way, I do not fail to give him some money and ask him to give a dana (almsgiving) and offer merit to Maggie. I do not call him Guruhamy any longer.


 [CN1]

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