Same business, ayya, same business!” bemoaned Kuppamma to my friend (Ayya is a respectful form of address). A dark, stocky woman in her early sixties, Kuppamma spoke in a peculiar vernacular—a mixture of Chettinad Tamil (a dialect of Tamil) and broken English. As the caretaker of my friend’s octogenarian mother, she was complaining about Auntie’s refusal to take medicines and her generally insolent attitude towards Kuppamma’s directions.
When I first met her, Kuppamma made an instant impression with her jet-black skin and bright shiny teeth that formed a rhombus of sorts with her square jaw when she smiled. Her penchant for an-opinion-a-minute commentary on every matter small and large and her unique style—a round-necked blouse over stretch pants and a thick gold chain around her neck—stood out.
Over the many weekend trips we took to visit Auntie, painful as they were, watching this beautiful, smart, Washington Post-reading lady’s deteriorating condition, one redeeming factor was Kuppamma’s humor and good cheer. Her pithy aphorisms became part of our vocabulary. All of us appreciated her sincerity towards nursing Auntie.
Slowly, I learnt Kuppamma’s story.
Kuppamma landed in United States in the late eighties as a household help for a family.
Originally from interior Tamil Nadu, she had split from her alcoholic husband and was struggling with debts incurred for her daughters’ weddings. Loan sharks were knocking on her door when an opportunity to come to the United States presented itself.
Kuppamma saw it as a way out of her misery and before she knew it, she was in this entirely foreign land. Illiterate as she was, all her travel documents were signed solely with her thumb prints. Little did she know that her sojourn to this land would last more than two decades and counting.
Over the years she worked as a household help, babysitter and staff at a senior living facility where she learned a good bit about nursing the elderly. Many previous employers, primarily Indians, mistreated her, took advantage of her financially and left her to fend for herself when she was no longer of use to them. She needed the money, so she bore it all.
Imagine the sheer grit it takes to board three buses to reach her place of work, come hell or high water, in biting cold and in sweltering heat, with nary a word of spoken English! All she had were bits of paper with the bus numbers and destinations. And then work for eight to ten hours only to retrace the entire trip back, every day of the year, for a score or more years.
All the while she continued living alone here with only an occasional phone call to India. At some point, her visas had expired. She had no legal standing to stay and she came to be an undocumented immigrant.
Even when unimaginable tragedies struck, Kuppamma never returned to India. A daughter committed suicide postpartum and another went missing during the Boxing Day Tsunami, never to be found. Kuppamma saved and sent enough money to India for her sons to build a house there.
Kuppamma’s only support system here was a couple of friends, Malayali nurses, one of whom moved in to share her apartment with her.
Kuppamma’s indomitable spirit amazed me each time I met her. She smiled broadly, laughed heartily and was not embittered in the least bit. My problems seemed miniscule compared to her life’s travails and I was deeply embarrassed of all the whining that I indulged in on a daily basis.
I asked Kuppamma where she finds the will to go on like this. Her inimitable Kuppamma-style repartee was, “Amma, oru shot pirandy ille whisukey, nightly dose.” (One shot of brandy or whiskey, nightly dose) It took a couple of minutes to dawn on me that she was referring to the alcoholic spirits that kept her spirit afloat.
Kuppamma has never returned to India out of fear of not being able to come back. Now this is the only life she has and she would like to live out the rest of her life here.
I worry about what will befall Kuppamma when she can no longer work. She is a diabetic. A kind Indian doctor treats her once in a while.
Indian Americans are constantly bombarded with news about the high-fliers amongst us—from the surgeon general to the governor of a state to the CEO of the biggest software company of the world. As gratifying as it is to see the many successes of our community, the reality is there are many Kuppammas among our midst too. Who will give them a voice?
Who will take up their cause for a fair immigration trial and a path to citizenship? Don’t they deserve our community’s support too?
Rajee Padmanabhan is a perennial wannabe—wannabe writer, wannabe musician, wannabe technologist. She lives with her iPad and iPod in Exton, PA, occasionally bumping into her husband and son while either of her iPals is out of charge.