Laxmi is pint sized, not even four feet tall and is thin as a stick. She barely speaks. She's very shy and nervous and yet, paradoxically, she works in a quietly self-assured sort of way. She came to work for me about two years ago and I wasn't sure she was old enough to be working but was told that she was 18 years old and that everyone in her family was extra petite. The man who brought her to me was her cousin brother-in-law and he said she'd done a stint at the Ansal's club, here, in Palam Vihar. I figured they must have got their paper work in order to put her on their rolls, so it was all right to take her on. Not having been to school there was no way to verify and I don’t think that in the villages they bother with things like a birth certificate, so I had no choice but to just take his word for it. .She was raw from the point of experience of working in a home. Training her was Mahipal's job because she was really green and I couldn't have done it. She basically cleans the apartment and other chores like washing clothes and dishes that don't really require her to be educated.
For the better part of two years, I have really had very little to say to her and vice versa. Gradually, I noted, every time Mahipal was on leave, she had really picked up quite a lot of other chores and was doing them quite adequately. She's learned to make the beds, dust and even lay the table for lunch. She doesn't speak much, not even in response to questions. She has this terrified posture all the time that I've often wanted to (but I don't) take hold of her tiny frame and shake her up - everything is so tightly held within that she just can't speak.
She's a decent enough worker. Although sometimes a bit of a shirker, quite unpredictable and she does things is a maddening way without using her brain. A shelf was wobbling in my meditation room so the music player had been left on the bed. A carpenter willing to undo and re-install the shelf took a while to find as Ansal's, the builders, have built very kaccha walls. So it sat on the bed for over a year. Last month the shelf was repaired and I put the music player back on it. For a week, I found that when she went to clean the room each morning, she'd remove it from the shelf to put it back on the bed. I'd put it on the shelf in the evening and she'd do it again the next day. It went on for a full week because each day I'd forget until I saw it removed from the shelf in the eveing, and by then she had left for the day. I had to make special note tell her that its rightful place was on the shelf and not on the bed! It's something I took for granted that she'd have understood, since the shelf was repaired in her presence; common sense? But she didn't figure that out. That's how limited is her capacity to think. And adding to this, her lack of communication skills also really irks. She's totally illiterate. She cannot read numbers or even count change accurately.
These past two months Mahipal has been away so I have been very short staffed and had to do a lot of housekeeping chores I would not otherwise deal with. The persistent doorbells with delivery of stores and supplies are very disturbing, not to mention the numerous phone calls that I have to make to order them. So, each day I make an effort to teach her to a to tell the vendors who do the deliveries at home that she cannot read and ask them to show her what they have brought - “क्या लाये हो” and where is the item mentioned in the bill and how much do they have to be paid – “बिल में कहाँ लिखा है और कितने पैसे देने है” and somehow we've come to a point that she has understood the merit of doing this and tells them she's अन्पड़ [illiterate] so please do the needful. They don't really have a choice, so when she does ask, they take her through each item in the bag and thankfully we've figured it out such that I don't have to open the front door with every doorbell and she's now learning to take on this responsibility - more relevant is that in talking to the vendors, she's more confident about dealing with them. It's quite sweet how they oblige and show her. I actually watched the sabziwala [vegetable vendor] do it the other day, taking out one thing at a time and pointing it out to her on the bill. Today, she actually came with a vitamin I normally take, to check if it was the right one, because the packaging was different and she didn’t recognise it. So, it works. I am not certain that she does follow this process of checking all the time, but at least some of the time I have proof of her conscientiousness in this regard.
But, despite all the strides we've taken, the lack of language skills and her innate reservation about speaking is intimidating. I'm scared to leave her alone in the apartment because if there's a mishap she cannot even call the guard on the intercom as she doesn't know how to use the phone and can't read numbers. And I don't like her leaving the front door open when no-one else's around because however safe the condominium may be, she's still a young girl who just can't stand up for herself well enough.
However, there are times when this near-mute, unlettered, intense, well-intentioned girl surprises me. She'll remember to make my tea on time every afternoon and bring it on the dot at 4 pm sharp, on a tray that's perfectly laid. She'll show the new staff the ropes even when I'm not reassured that she knows them herself. And yesterday was the icing on the cake.
I like my morning tea light and it needs precisely four minutes to brew. When she looks at the clock in the kitchen, each day, it ends up an approximation of the necessary 4 minutes, so it's a different shade of brew with too much flavour or too little. So, I got her, what I thought would be, a foolproof kitchen timer. You had to turn it anti-clockwise to wind it up and then clockwise to 4, and it would ring an alarm in 4 minutes. On Sunday, I'd taken to using it myself. A pale blue, plastic teddy bear shape with a nice round tummy it was a cute toy in the kitchen and I always smiled when I set it up. This Sunday, the one just gone by, I found something was not quite right with the timer. The alarm didn't go off. The next day I asked Laxmi what had happened why the timer wasn't working. Had she broken it? She said something in her usual muffled incomprehensible nothingness. I got a bit stern and repeated myself. Sometimes that's the only way to get her to open her mouth and get the words out coherently. What I heard stopped me in my tracks.
This unlettered, village girl, who frustrated me with her unfathomable ways, confounded me with her irrational fear and more said to me: “मैंने तो इसे use ही नहीं कियाI” I was stunned. I wasn't sure I'd heard right, so I asked her to repeat what she had said. And she said it again: “मैंने तो इसे use ही नहीं कियाI” [I haven’t even used it] Uneducated as she was she’d somehow picked up and used an English word, constructing a sentence using two languages, perfectly. How was that possible? I was flabbergasted. It really made me think about the idea of intelligence versus education.
How does it work that someone so unlettered, who didn’t know the meaning of words could use them with such accuracy? And then, what causes her to feel so much fear despite this innate intelligence that enables language skills in the absence of any formal education? It says a lot for our capacity to be present and channel the flow of our natural intelligence. Of how, when we want to learn things we pick them up with ease and when the same things become a chore, then we plod and make the stupidest of mistakes. I’ve observed this even with myself that when something comes from the heart, where there is passion, it not only flows but comes forth in the most brilliant ways, which I know that I could not have managed had I used my mind and its limited knowing.
I do realise the value of education in whatever field one pursues for this engenders confidence to enable the higher intelligence to come into play, especially in challenging scenarios. I find it particularly true with spiritual principles which most of us do not study and where most of it is innate. But when you hear people talk about it, because you may not have analysed it for yourself in quite the same way, confusion reigns and the urge to study and figure it out through observation of oneself and correlation with what the masters say becomes a must, just to enable a conscious understanding of what actually comes very naturally to all us. There are other benefits, but this facility to correlate is crucial to one’s confidence levels, even though the actual process is innate. And illiterate Laxmi with her competent usage of language in saying “मैंने तो इसे use ही नहीं किया”, provides a perfect example of how the absence of formal learning does not preclude intelligent comprehension and use of complex dual language skills through observation and application.
How she learned to use this word in this way, where and when, is something that I will probably never know because asking her would be expecting the impossible – because even if, even if she understood my question, which was highly unlikely, but even if she did understand, she would, more than likely, silently walk away because articulating was always such an effort.Soon after she'd joined, I found she that was an अँगूठा छाप। So I asked her if she'd like to learn to sign/write her name. In her predictably unpredictable way, she'd hesitated and then agreed and so I requested Mahipal to teach her. The next month, when it came to pay day, instead of the stamp pad to put her thumbprint on the receipt, Laxmi came with a ballpoint pen in her hand. I was impressed. I waited patiently - she took aeons to sign. I finally left her alone to do it as she was shaking with nervousness. When I got back to my desk, I found that she'd signed LAXMI in bold capitals, in English, across the page. Trembling letters that didn't stand up straight in a line. And, some two years later, they shake and wobble as much, even though she's more confident about signing and does it as quick or slow as anyone else.
But “मैंने तो इसे use ही नहीं किया” is something else, isn't it? I still cannot fathom how she manages to get some things right and sometimes does the craziest things that defy the possibility that she can use her mind intelligently. Not unlike the rest of us who may be highly educated and lettered, this seems a perfect reminder that education does not necessarily facilitate intelligence and neither is a degree in any subject a prerequisite for intelligent enquiry into it. It’s innate; if only we have the confidence to channel it.