She was a lowly maid. And yet thirty years after she exited my life I often remember her when there is talk about duty and honour or when incense fills the air. As a fourth class employee in our hostel her job entailed sweeping and mopping our rooms. She would also wash our dishes and clothes for a paltry payment and run errands if we asked nicely. That day I asked her to take down my suitcase from its perch on the almirah so that I could take out a shawl. The suitcase was an ill aligned leather contraption that couldn’t be closed snugly despite oversized latches and a belt !! To add to its splendour it was clothed in a khaki cover for protection from the elements. I used it to store rarely used things. It will be hard for my young readers to imagine it but people who grew up in the pre- consumerist India will be able to visualise it instantly.
A certain degree of squalor is expected in a students hostel but this part of my narrative is not for the faint hearted. When I opened the suitcase the most horrific scene greeted me. Even now as I write this, the memory makes my skin crawl. A mouse had converted the suitcase into her boudoir, shredded my shawl for a soft lining and delivered babies in it. I cried out in disgust and told the maid to throw everything away. She tried to reason with me saying that a perfectly good suitcase shouldn’t be discarded like that, a case of throwing out the tub and bath water with the babies! I was so nauseous by the sight of the squirming, hairless baby mice that I told her that she could keep the suitcase herself if she wanted. I just couldn’t stand the sight of it.
She hurriedly picked up the suitcase and left. After a few days she came to my room and stood sheepishly in the doorway. She wanted to show me something and asked me to hear her out before reacting. Then she brought in the suitcase and opened it. A strange odour of phenyl mixed with incense sticks emanated from it. She told me that she had cleaned the suitcase with phenyl, kept it in sunlight to deodorise it and finally put incense sticks in it to give it a pleasant fragrance. She insisted that I should reconsider throwing it away. Needless to say I changed my stance and she helped me pack my belongings and seal it as securely as possible.
The mild scent of incense lingered in the suitcase for years and would hang on to anything that was kept in it. Initially I didn’t care for the cheap aroma but it slowly grew on me. It was the fragrance of kindness and honesty, of goodness of heart and humanity. I cherish this incident because these virtues came from unexpected quarters. To be honest and righteous when you can not afford it is next to godliness. Agreed, the suitcase wasn’t a Louis Vuitton, but she could still have kept it and put it to some use. She resisted the temptation and did what was morally right, convince a rash, young student not to be wasteful. Even today the scent of sandalwood incense sticks reminds me of the unassuming Parkashi and her selfless act which was above and beyond the call of duty. She is one of the many unsung heroes of my ordinary life.
( published on the Op-ed page of Hindustan Times on 25/4/2016)