Note: This interview was conducted in a mixture of Hindi, Telugu, and English. If you are reading this post and would like to share it with someone who does not speak English, please listen to the recording.
Bharti Banavatu is an abundant woman—one who overflows with laughter, generosity, character, and poise. She is the kind of women who you naturally defer your questions to. The sort of woman who carries an implicit gravitational pull.
Can’t find your class on the first day? Ask Bharti. Air conditioning not working? Ask Bharti. Nervous before a big presentation? Bharti will somehow find you and offer an encouraging smile. Need another interview for your Four India Femme Perspectives Project?
I approached Bharti on a sweltering day in mid-April. She was resting in her favorite spot—a well-shaded staircase in the rear of the building.
I smiled. She smiled. Sonali translated my nervous request:
Would you be comfortable answering a few questions for us? It will be an interview.
At first, Bharti was hesitant. She told me that she had not studied much in life and did not want to be quizzed. We assured her that this was not a quiz, just a few questions about her life. She immediately smiled and relaxed.
Bharti gently ushered us into an air-conditioned room and seated herself against a wall, expectant.
Are you happy? What makes you happy?
“I am happy with everything. What else? Everything. I am happy with my kids. I have two children– one boy and one girl. The girl’s name is Hemavathi and the boy’s name is Rajender Naik. Rajender is 25 years old and Rajender’s sister is 26.”
Do they stay in Hyderabad with you?
“Hyderabad? Yes. They live in Hyderabad with me and the girl got married. It’s been 2 years since she got married. The boy is staying with me. “
What has the girl studied?
Are both of your kids married?
“My girl has been married for 2 years.” I smiled. She had clearly spoken intentionally the first time.
Do you call yourself anything? Do you have any labels or tags that you like to refer to yourself as? (mother, sister, etc.)
“Yes. People call me mother. My sisters have kids. My sisters’ kids also call me mother. I have my sister. People call me didi and mother.”
But what do you call yourself?
“My kids call me Amma” she said this frowning as if the answer was obvious. But, my translator and I were unsure whether Bharti understood the question. The translator only spoke Hindi, a language which Bharti understands but does not speak. In the face of this ambiguity, we posed our question again:
Other people call you by that name, [Amma]. What do you call yourself?
“What would I call myself? And what does it mean?” At that moment, another employee entered the room. He paid us little attention until Bharti asked,
“Sir, what do my kids call me? That is the question she was asking me. They call me mother in English or else Amma in Telugu. What else?”
The man briefly glanced up from his task—connecting a laptop to the overhead projector, “They call you Amma” he said, frowned, and returned to his work. Everyone in the room laughed. It was clear that Bharti took on labels willingly but assigned herself none. She was a woman so comfortable in her existence that she evidently felt no need to ground it in anything else.
Who has inspired you in your life?
“We don’t have such things. I don’t have such things.” She bobbled her head and grinned, visibly amused by my questions.
The door creaked open again and a young, female employee entered the room. Bharti smiled and eagerly began to explain the nature of our discussion. Tickled, her friend leaned against the wall, clearly intent on participating in the conversation.
Do you have a role model? Or inspiration from anything?
“No. I don’t have any and I don’t think on those grounds. No, no one. Yes, Yes, I understand.”
What have you done to become the woman you are today? What events have made you the person you are today? To alleviate confusion, Sonali translated my question as: So far you have said that you are not inspired and you do not have any models in your family. What have you done till now to come here?
Bharti turned to ask her friend what we meant. Her friend reminded her of the story that Bharti had told her in the past. Tossing up her hands, Bharti exclaimed:
“Yes, I wanted a job! What should I do staying at home? I wanted to go out and do something. I wanted to do whatever job I could. So, I came [here] like that.” Pushing away from the wall, her friend added that Bharti came to know about the vacancy from a colleague. Bharti traveled to the university for an interview and was selected
The interviewee continued, “My kids are grown up. What would I do staying at home? It’s a small job, but I came. I do not want an office job. So I came just to pass the time. My mind will be fresh if I come out like this. If I stay at home, even if some problem comes, it is good to come out.”
Who all is at home? One girl, one boy. Who else?
It was a prodding question. I’d noticed that Bharti had made no mention of a spouse. Cocking her head to the side she replied, “Who else would be there? No one else.”
I smiled down at my notebook. I felt foolish for asking.
Do you have any stories that you feel comfortable sharing?
Her friend, now an integral part of the interview translated, “They are asking you to tell them what has happened in your life.”
Leaning back in her chair, the back of her head pressed against the wall, Bharti replied, “No, no, no. I don’t want to share. Please don’t ask about my life. I plead you. It’s all good. My life went well. I am small but my life is good. I am good. My life is also good.”
The translator and I were confused. How could a woman, a woman so overflowing, not have any stories to share?
Are there any good memories that you’d like to share?
“No, no. I don’t have any good memories.” She softened her tone and she began to chuckle, “Even if there are any, from my mind they will vanish. The more I think they will go. I do have any. Not all people are the same. Why do you need all this?”
Suddenly, the interviewer had become the interviewee. I told Bharti that this discussion was important because it gave me the opportunity to portray her on her own terms. I reminded her that whatever she said, I would write down. At the end of our interview, I wanted her to be comfortable with the way she was pictured.
She seemed to relax as her friend translated. This time, my words touched her ears in Telugu—her native tongue.
Do you have anything else to share with anyone? Her friend added, “You came out of the house to work here. Do you want to tell them anything about this? Is there anything else apart from this?”
“What else is there apart from this? It’s good to come out of the house to work. It’s refreshing. Even if you have small husband and wife quarrels at home, it is good to come out and seek some knowledge. It is relaxing, too. That is it. I don’t want to do many big things in life but I want to be relaxed. That’s what I think. The more we stay at home because of a dispute between a husband and wife you keep arguing. If you just come out, like this, there will be nothing more. This is my thinking. It is not like you should or should not fight. I feel I have done well by coming out. First I thought of not getting a job, then later I decided to come out. My father was a school teacher. Even then I want to work, so I came out. He told me that I could stay at home happily, but I wanted to come out and work. So I came. I even want to tell other children: “Do good work without any mistakes by working hard. Live happily, and keep a good name.” That’s what I tell them. That’s what my ideology is… You should go out to get your mind diverted and feel good.”
Do you want to earn more money?
“I don’t have such thoughts. I just want to be happy and relaxed. Also, it is good for my children because my knowledge has grown and I can share it with them. I can tell them what is right and wrong. Also, people say, “Auntie is going for work. That is good.”’
You have an identity.