Velu and I were about the same age. Although I couldn’t really tell how old he was.
Our servants would be sent to us from villages some distance away from the city. Mostly adolescents, they were small, skinny, malnourished, and generally looked a lot younger than they actually were. They were sent into the city to earn a living by families too poor to feed, school and clothe them. Slight fifteen year olds who looked eleven or twelve. Velu’s hair was very closely cropped, head almost shaved.
I first saw him when he arrived at my grandmother’s house with his father.
He stood at the front door looking overdressed and uncomfortable. He wore a freshly ironed, ridiculously purple, short-sleeved shirt. A green striped sarong hid his legs.
I stood behind the door of the front room. Peeking timidly, trying to catch a glimpse of our new arrival.
He stood meekly next to his father, eyes looking at the floor, hands clasped subserviently behind his back. A simple village kid. In the big city for the first time.
His big brown eyes would suddenly dart around the room from time to time, taking in his new home, catching a flash of me before darting back to the patch of red polished cement floor in front of him. He looked a bit like me, I thought. Big ears, narrow face, skinny ankles. Not ugly. Not handsome. But pleasant enough to look at I suppose, if you ignored the ears.
“Look at him standing there” my grandmother noted with condescension, talking to no one in particular. “They should be thankful that we take them in and give them a home.”
“I hope he hasn’t got lice,” she said, glaring at his close-cropped head. “They cut their hair short when they have a lice infestation” she said, looking in the direction of my sister who was also standing around, looking embarrassed and staring uncomfortably at the floor. “Oh well.” “At least he looks clean” she went on.
“Show him to his room”. She turned to Alice, an older woman who had been my grandmother’s cook for years. She gave all her servants English names. Alice’s real name was Seelawathy. “Ask him to change and get to work. Tell him to unblock the drain and then get some leaves from the Murunga tree”.
She turned her attention to me as Alice took Velu to the storeroom at the back of the house. “I asked you to pick some this morning for Alice” she scolded.“Your father likes his crab curry with Murunga leaves. You know that.
Anyway, Velu had better do it now that he’s arrived. Might as well get him started.”
Velu’s life with us had started that Saturday morning. Straight into it. Eighteen hour days, sweeping, cleaning, running to the shop and being bullied by my grandmother and I’m ashamed to say even by me.
I didn’t know any better in those days.