Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Her name is Bitto, endearing term for Bitiya, as her parents must have called her when she was a little girl. I met her in New Delhi one evening when I was famished and wanted something good to eat after a whole day of rummaging through the books and shelves of libraries of Delhi. I was just walking aimlessly towards the Bengali Market when I saw her selling roasted corn cobs on the roadside.

It was a hot evening of June and Delhi walahs know how it is in June on the Delhi roads. And there she sat, in such a heat, vigorously airing the red hot coals. She had just opened her ‘shop’- if you may call the two brick makeshift stove and a wire mesh one. Under the tree that she sat, is the road that I have spent many an evening walking and smelling the great raat ki raani. It never fails to give me a nostalgic feeling for home. Coming back to Bitto, she sat there, in front of a house close to the road. I asked her to make me a fresh corn cob and after a stressful day, just sat there cross-legged, by her side, on a brick waiting for her to roast a good piece for me. In that W.H.Daviesian moment, I just stared at the cars going by, people passing by. And in their non Daviesian moment, people must have wondered what is this woman from an educated background doing sitting on the roadside with a corncob seller, apparently doing nothing. She asked me about my whereabouts, what I did, where I lived. She was suitably impressed with the kind of job I was in, and about the mission I was on in Delhi. When she came to know about my Punjab connection, she pointed out that I might be finding the corn cob too costly since we can get it almost free in Punjab. I laughed and said; no it’s no more like that. Though I myself come from a farming family, we no more grow it, so I pay roughly the same money for a feast like the one she was making for me. Meanwhile the cob was ready, she took extra care to apply more of lemon and less of salt as per my request, and I paid for it and moved on. I did not have to go eat junk.

Next day, around the same time, I was with her again. Today, she welcomed me with a smile of recognition. Today she was a bit different. She had her usual one eye on a perspective customer and another, very angry one, on a Delhi Police Cop who sat in a very small and tortuous beat-box close to her station. On asking she revealed that he had threatened her with destroying her “shop” because she had refused him a free snack of a corn cob. I jokingly said “de dena tha, bhikari samajh ke de deti”. She laughed and said, she had not done her “bohni” yet, “aise kaise de deti”. I laughed and said yeah then you did right. She was in a double mind. She talked to me more like she was talking to herself, “Kya fark padta, de deti, mera bhi toh dimag kharab ho gaya tha na.” I felt she wanted me to endorse her view. I said yeah, you are right, but now that you’ve done it, let it be. And then I asked her name. We became friends. She, by her own account, is in her early forties. Clad in an old sari, dark complexioned, she smiled, most of the times-except when she was reminded of her early evening rendezvous with the cop. She is already a granny, her grandson being of 3 years. And very understandably I was amazed. She said she had gotten married when she was all of 10, and she had had her elder son when she was about 14. And I was immediately reminded of my soon to be 10 Rasan, who still feeds from my hands.

She had been widowed at the age of 20. Her younger son was two when she lost her husband in an accident. I asked, “Did you or your parents not think of your remarriage?” She said, “Yes, my parents did pressurize me for a remarriage but then I refused.” I asked why. Throwing a few more black coal balls into the fire, she said, “What would I have gotten out of another marriage? A husband who would get drunk each night? And then beat me to pulp? I would have had to bear that and earn a living also. And feed him as well. I thought I was better off without a marriage. I had had children, and I did not want to have another owner.”

Then she told me about how she has been working as a cook and housekeeper for a very busy local gynecologist and her family. I asked her about her routine and she told that she moves from her house at Narela, a sub-urb, at 5:30 am, travels by train for the good part of an hour (or more perhaps) and comes to her employer, cooks their breakfast, then supervises cleaning and washing, then cooks lunch and dinner and moves out by 6 p.m. Then as an additional source of income, she has taken to selling these corn cobs. She sits here till 8: 30 p.m and makes good money. Right opposite to her, across the road, sits her “maami” in the same business. The Maami was about the same age, very quarrelsome and very suspicious. She did not like me sitting and chatting up with her rival-niece. Bitto told me this. While chatting up with me, she kept doing her brisk business too. I admit I did feel ignored at those moments. But of course, I was only a distraction to her.

My interaction with her lasted for three days. She and I became good friends. I felt a little guilty the last two days when I could not go to see her because coming back from the JNU, I would be too late and tired to venture out for the cob. She was winding up when I reached there one day before leaving. She said reproachfully, “I had been waiting for you.” I told her I was leaving for Punjab the next morning. We talked about my children, my family, her sons, and her extended family. And we parted, saying something like, nice meeting you, see you again soon.

What struck me about her was her attitude towards life, marriage, and woman’s status. A total illiterate person, with no scholarly consciousness, and yet so liberated, self dependent, aware of her rights, bold enough to lead a single life. Her will to struggle, to give an even better life to her family-all single handedly- is a thing I would never forget. Never once did she complain of poverty which was so obvious. The worries, the tiredness that comes with the state of deprivation were all too visible on her face, but she kept a cheerful demeanor. I took this picture with her permission and she was blushing when I clicked it in my mobile. Only the blush did not show through the dark evening that surrounded us!


Taran said...

Its a very touching story...the strength of Indian women is absolutely blessings to Bitto.

Taran Grewal

Sidhusaaheb said...

Knowing Delhi, I doubt any one would have bothered too much about what could be "this woman from an educated background doing sitting on the roadside with a corncob seller, apparently doing nothing."

People tend to be rather too self-absorbed, in the metropolis.


BTW, Nice pen portrait!

Sidhusaaheb said...

Or, perhaps, I should say keyboard portrait...


Anonymous said...

I am amazed by the flow of the narrative. You have definitely matured as a writer. u r totally different as a writer, thumbs up.. good work again. And now a word about Bitto. She is a strong character, but I feel a man and a woman can seldom be complete without each other. May be I have felt the warmth, closeness of my partner,which Bitto never got a chance to feel. I have no doubt about it when I say that woman are stronger beings then men mentally.

Anonymous said...

very eloquently put. i was feeling down, and this just put a smile to my face. sometimes we learn so much about life from strangers, isn't it? keep up the great writing!!!


Anonymous said...

weel 1st of all nicely done......good wrok can't call it one of your best buh amongst the good ones............bitto is more aware then an educated gurl in todays time.we have peer pressuer society,parents,relative,like and the list goes on.but the most ironic thing is we are educated ot be independent and think and speak for ourselves but we dont becoz we are too tangled up in what is the right thing to do that we forget what is the roght thing to do for ourself n on the other hand peopl like bitto who are taught to work earn and have kids is bold enough not to care about whats the right thing but what she wants to be right.........a lesson well lernt here bitto is happy even in sellin corn but an excutive cnt be dis haapy leadinda hip life becuase the decisions she took were right but not what she wanted......mybe its time we learn somthinfrom them and not be so into " whts is right " or " what will people say" coz wer a part of this society but waht good would it give us if we lived for it

p.s lub ju

Asha said...

Hi Manpreet, I saw your comment about LASIK. I have posted my experience in detail at Aroma.Check out when you can.Hope it helps!:)

I bet there are lot of Bittos in India and in US too.Survival is tough but whatever it takes.

nishtha said...

very influential work...
hats off to the great enduring power of indian women..

Raza Rumi said...

this is such a good piece - a very significant portrait of what some would consider an unimportant character. Indeed, her independence and wisdom to deal with life is just too amazing..

I am amazed your ability to connect with people - thanks for writing on Bito.

Antara Banerjee said...

The read was healing:) Thank you for sharing it.

Manpreet said...

I do feel like going and seeing her again. And see I will.
THanks for all your comments. I m glad I met her.

She definitely is worth writing. She-and many others, as all have reiterated. Salaam to their spirit.
Taran, Mahesh, Avneet, Asha, Raza, Antara, Sukh, Nishtha - THanks for encouraging me. When I wrote it, I never thought she would be everybody's darling. I would like to go meet her and tell her about what you all have to say about her.

Pinku said...

A big hug coming your way, for befriending a 'corn cob woman', not many do that anymore...and kudos to Bitto...she is a real WOMAN.

Mampi said...

Yes, Pinku, I miss her. Many-a-time I have wanted to go back and see how she is doing.