Unusual occupations - The Janitor
On a cool and calm morning in the year 1994, a young bride arrived by train at the Whitefield railway station with a suitcase and huge bag piled up with her belongings from Hassan with eyes filled with wonder and a heart filled with trepidation and hope. She trailed behind her newly wed husband and walked a couple of miles along the coconut groves, mango and tamarind orchards till they reached the Out-house of colonel’s farmhouse. Her husband worked as the caretaker of the lovely farmhouse adjoining the 25 acre farm that surrounded the house. On weekdays it was a quiet existence for Varalakshmi and her husband, as they worked on the farm, caring for the tamarind trees and coconut groves, watering the money plants, crotons, and numerous species of exotic flowers that she had never seen at her parent’s home in Hassan. The flowers were picture perfect and bloomed consistently and brightly in various colours, sizes and shapes throughout the year.
The colonel and his wife often threw weekend parties for their friends at the farmhouse. That is when the farmhouse came alive. It was not long before Varalakshmi, the young bride got into the groove and took over the day to day tasks at the farmhouse. Along with her husband she tended to the flowers, plants, creepers and weeded out the unsightly plants and managed the garden in an impeccable manner. She quickly learnt what to cook for the parties, how to serve the dishes, especially for all those sophisticated people who ate their starters with forks and knives. She learnt how to un-intrusively clear up the left over plates or when to ask for a refill when the party was in full swing.
There were quieter weekends when colonel came along with his wife and they spent the time idling at the hammock in the coconut grove. Colonel and his wife, loved the farm house and tended to it with love and care. Over the week days they headed back to Bangalore, where life kept them busy. They were kind and generous to their caretaker, such that when he announced his engagement, they built him up a separate room, calling it the outhouse, where he and his wife could live.
At Hassan, when the proposal for marriage came for Varalakshmi, from their neighbour’s family for their distant relative who worked in Whitefield, Varalakshmi’s father immediately agreed. Men with stable jobs were difficult to find and he was not prepared to lose out on this proposal. She was taken off school the next month and before she knew what was happening , she arrived in Whitefield chaperoned by a stranger who was now her husband . He was neither kind nor grumpy. He was not a wife beater but neither a romantic lover. He was just matter of factly. Between them, they shared the upkeep of the farm house. Life kept them busy and within an year, their daughter was born.
The day a full-term pregnant, Varalakshmi along with her husband walked the length to Satya Sai hospital in kadugodi , before her water broke, she noticed ambassador cars with red lights screeching past the dusty mud roads of Whitefield towards the Immidihalli village temple. While cars were not an unusual sight in Whitefield, what with all the farm house owners from Bangalore heading over for the weekends, the traffic was never so frenzied and noisy as it was on that day.
When she returned home with their baby girl, she heard the news that the 28 hectare farm land, adjoining their farmhouse was now owned by the government and plans were on to build a technology park that would have multistoried offices and buildings. She always wondered, who would come and work in them, but she let the thought pass.
In the adjacent village of Immidihalli and Pattandur Agrahara the land prices had gone up in anticipation. When her second daughter was born, two years later, construction at the tech park was in full swing. Huge cranes had arrived and within months two glass buildings 11 storeys each had sprung up. A lot of construction labourers migrated and lived around the area.
The visits by Colonel and their friends were by now far less frequent than before. Colonel and his wife often spent time with their now grown up children in Australia or England where they holidayed. The weekend parties with friends became a thing of the past. They were getting old and all their friends from their younger days had moved away. On rare occasions when they came down to the farm house, it was to seek solitude. Speaking of solitude, it was not something that they found easily at the farm house. The incessant construction work, the noise of the concrete mixers during the day and the sharp lights in the night from the huge cranes set up at the tech park made solitude and peace a thing of the past at the Colonel’s farm house.
Varalakshmi, her husband and the two girls found themselves among increasing frenzy of activities around their farmhouse. A couple of years down the line Colonel came visiting along with some people. They did not stay back that night to party or anything. Two weeks later he came again with a bunch of well-dressed people who were clearly not his friends or business acquaintances.
In the evening after the visitors left, colonel called them into the study and told them that he was going to sell the farmhouse and settle in Australia. Kind hearted and generous that he was, he promised to buy them a plot of land in immidihalli once the sale was firmed up, so that they could set up their own house. He said, that with so much development going on, it was a gold mine that they were sitting on and that in a few years a lot of jobs would come into this area.
Varalakshmi’s jewelley was sold to pool in a lakh of rupees. With about another couple of lakhs that came as a gift from Colonel, after the sale of the farmhouse they built their house on a small plot of land and were now residents of the Immidihalli.
When technology companies set up shop at the tech park , everyone in the village was approached by the contractors for working in the offices. That is how Varalakshmi and her husband landed jobs with MDS, a house keeping staff supplier to the offices at the tech park.
Her jobs involved, cleaning and restocking bathrooms, sinks and Toilets. It also involved clearing the garbage bins, restocking the restroom with adequate toilet tissues, keeping the mirrors clean. Cleaning the tables in cubicles and meeting rooms. Sweeping and vaccum cleaning the carpets at the air-conditioned offices at the tech park.
The transition from the farm house to Immidihalli and from being a care-taker of a quiet inn to being a salaried employee supervised by heartless vultures had not gone well with Varalakshmi’s husband. She noticed that he increasingly began to come home late. It was not long before she discovered that he had turned into an alcoholic.
Immidihalli was full of neo rich villagers who had come into money with the sudden spurt of growth and mushrooming of innumerable technology parks between 2000 and 2010. The cost of living shot up northwards but so did their incomes. With frequent bouts of alcohol abuse, Varalakshmi’s husband lost his job as the sweeper at the tech park. With two growing up daughters, Varalakshmi was now the sole bread winner of the family.
I chanced upon Varalakshmi as a pleasant surprise.
Every morning when I arrived at work and went to the rest room to brush my hair or straighten up my clothes she would be around cleaning up a toilet or wiping the wash basin dry with a smiling face that did not give away all the years of hard work and drudgery. But I never gave her a second thought and returned her matter of factly smile with the due courtesy required.
Until that day when I found this flower arrangement at my table that simply brought a smile on my face and made me look out for the soul that arranged it thus. It was a simple work of art. Three leaves plucked out from the potted money plant, three wild yellow flowers and a magenta calendula inserted in the middle of a glass tumbler. It was very different from the mechanical flower bouquet arrangement wrapped in plastic cover that donned our office spaces everyday. There was something different about it. It was not just me. It also brought a smile and brightened the day of many a soul who walked into my office that day.
As I made my enquiries, the head of Administration redirected me to the Supervisor of House keeping contract staff. He rushed in and was already apologetic without even knowing what the issue was. I asked him who it was, that arranged these flowers in my room that morning. He looked up his register and that is how a tensed Varalakshmi was summoned in . All I had was a chocolate to offer her and I let her know that this little act of sweetness had made my day.
As her tensed face relaxed , she was overwhelmed and started shedding tears. It was then that I realized the magnitude of the situation, I had inadvertently created for her. The insecurity of the contract staff and their livelihood’s fragile dependence on the fickle feedback from customers like me !!!
I complimented her for her good work and as the supervisor of the contract staff left the room, got her to sit down on the couch and chatted up with her.
Varalakshmi has been working in our office for seven years now. Every two years the procurement department is obliged to change contractors inorder to avoid any conflict of interest situation. The contractors change, but it hardly makes any difference to Varalakshmi and her colleagues. Their uniforms have changed from MDS to RTS services every two years. But they pretty much work at the same work places and do the same jobs .
She earns about Rs.7,200 a month from the housekeeping job that she does for six days a week. Her job includes sweeping and vaccum cleaning the carpets every workday morning, keeping the glass doors, tables and chairs dust free and clean, emptying the dust bins and cleaning the lavatories at regular intervals . On days when there are foreign visitors she gets assigned a single task like remaining on duty at the rest room and ensure its cleanliness after every usage. I have noticed her at the rest room from the mirror, when she stands there impatiently, if it is occupied to ensure that the hourly clean up routine is completed. I have exchanged a smile or two on days when I have not been very busy or grumpy .
It was only after this delicate flower arrangement manifested at my table one morning, that I really took notice of all the hidden work that goes behind keeping an office premises clean, tidy and professional.
An hour after she described her job to me, she relaxed and opened up. It was then that she narrated the farmhouses from an erstwhile whitefield of the nineties. A lot of that came alive in her description to a relatively new immigrant into whitefield.
That morning when the florist’s housekeeping guy failed to arrive and Varalakshmi was assigned this extra task by the supervisor, she relived her days as the young bride at the colonel’s farmhouse tending to the crotons and ornamental flower beds that she and her husband tended to, with love and care. These were the flower arrangements she would make by gathering up the flowers from the farmhouse’s garden and arrange them for the evening party thrown by Colonel’s wife.
Those were the best days of her life. Her days as a young bride in a quiet and quaint farmhouse in Whitefield.
Those were the days before the builders came in and erected those blue tin boulders.
Those were the days before the huge trees were chopped down behind blue tin boulders.
Those were the days before the huge cranes and the glass buildings took shape beneath the blue boulders.
Those were the days before the migrant workers of the IT industry swarmed into multistoreyed apartment complexes like bees in a beehive.
Those were the days when they lived a carefree existence under the benevolence of the Colonel and enjoyed his trust and reciprocated it with unflinching loyalty.
It was no wonder that she poured out her soul nostalgically into that flower arrangement.
I instinctively knew that the person who had expressed herself had done that as a genuine outpour of her heart.
Strange are the ways of destiny to connect things.
Anyway ..I digress.
Varalakshmi, the Janitor is the mother of two teenage daughters now aged 18 and 16. The younger one dropped out of school and does household chores at the apartments to make a living. On Sundays Varalakshmi joins her and does additional work by dusting rooms and upholstery and windows to earn a few extra rupees.
She pins all her hopes on her elder daughter. She studies BBM (Bachelors in Business management) at a local college. Varalakshmi wants her to work in an office like ours.
Not the kind of job that she does, but the kind of job that I do !!!
I told her that for all her hard work and dedication, it was only a matter of time and her wishes would definitely come true.