WORK WITHOUT END
 
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- by meera nair | maung kyaw sein
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I visit my family's farm in Kerala in southern India once a year and without fail Kunji walks across the fields to see me. She is the mother-in-law of one of our farmhands, and though I can barely understand her thick village accent, there is no mistaking her affection, the way her rheumy eyes linger on my face. She once worked for my great-grandmother and in me she sees a likeness to her long-dead mistress. “You've grown fairer” she says every year, convinced that being in America has lightened my skin. The first time I bring my new-born daughter to the farm, she brings an apple for the baby as a gift and I take it from her guiltily.  Refusing her would be a worse insult – she is a proud woman who declines the money I sometimes try to slip into her hand. “You don't work in America,” she says and I wonder if that is why she won't take my money. I struggle to make her understand how the university I work for gives me three months off in the year. She listens politely, but I wonder if she believes me. I imagine how improbable the summer break might sound to people who have worked every single day of their lives. 

Then one year she doesn't come and Saro, the farmhand, tells me that the old lady has lost the use of her legs.  “Ma is a pest, carrying on about how she’s useless, a burden!” she complains, her expression both affectionate and exasperated. A month later we are out in the courtyard watching Saro unload sacks of fertilizer when her son dashes in through the gate. 

Kunji has dragged herself to the well behind their hut and somehow managed to throw herself in.

 “Aiyyo! What has the old woman done now?” Saro's palm slaps her chest.  A tall woman with sun-scorched skin pulled tight over her bones, she wears a man’s long-sleeved shirt over her threadbare sari, as if to protect it from falling apart further. She stands without speaking a long moment, and then says, “There are only four days left for the harvest!” 

To me her reaction sounds callous and inappropriate and I turn away, appalled. 

Then I remember Saro's story. Her husband, a worthless drunk, died six years ago and since then she has provided for her three children and mother-in-law by working any job she can find –whitewashing walls, building thorn fences, laying bricks – in addition to toiling in the fields. After working dawn to dusk seven days a week, Saro makes about two dollars a day. 

Still, Saro believes the depredations she suffers daily are worth it. While other farmhands put their children to work in the fields or local matchbox factories, Saro manages to keep her son Satish and his two sisters in school. Her goal is to see them graduate high school, she confesses to me shyly, when I ask. 

On the day following Kunji's suicide I watch the wailing mourners pick their way across the paddies to Saro’s thatched hut. Saro is an Ezhava, a so-called lower caste. In my American brashness, I want to go to the funeral but my mother says it would only embarrass Saro – the rigid lines of caste and tradition are best not breached.  

There are other ways to help my mother says.   

I learn that custom forbids Saro and her children from working for eleven days after the funeral. If she disregards the edict, her community will ostracize her. With three mouths to feed, Saro can hardly afford to jeopardize what little help she gets from her neighbors.

“Ma must have thought she was helping me!” Saro laments when she comes by to borrow utensils for the funeral feast. “But without the harvest what are we going to eat next year?” 

In Saro’s world, to go even one day without work is dire. But to be idle during the harvest is a catastrophe. Farmhands like her earn much more than their daily-hire wage during the harvest.  For the week or so of the harvest, farmers let farmhands keep a portion of the crop in addition to their wages. It's a bonus, a bribe to make them work more efficiently. Saro is one of the fastest workers and takes home enough rice in the harvest season to feed her family for many months. She sells the grain that doesn't get eaten for cash to tide the family over during the rainy season, when farm work is scarce. 

Without Saro’s harvest earnings to depend on, her family will find it even harder get by. 

Saro’s poverty, I realize, means the work never stops. Even a beloved relative’s death is secondary to the effort to make ends meet; mourning is an extravagance she can't afford. 

Saro’s mother-in-law had taken her own life to be less of a drain on Saro’s meager resources. But in her despair the old woman hadn’t thought of the consequences, and now her sacrifice had upset Saro’s precarious foothold in the world. 

A month after the suicide Saro snatches a moment from the fields to come by.  “Satish found work in an oil mill. He stopped going to class.” Saro sounds resigned.  And his sisters, I ask. The oldest was pumping gas – she too had forgone her education for the sake of the family. “The younger girl will stay in school,” Saro says. “For now.” A few days later as we are leaving for New York I urge money on Saro. I know it’s not enough. It is never enough. 

But for me it's the easy thing to do. 

 
 
was published in November 2016
 
 
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