The villa stood at the end of a shabby street, where, along the street’s sides, crooked shanties cropped up like overgrown grass. The street was usually quiet, but there were times when it wasn’t. Like when the boys played cricket in the evenings, when the sun was starting to set. Even then, if not for the times that the trees creeping through the crooked shanties made strange whizzy sounds, the boys said they heard even the sneakiest tap of the ball against the wicket. At other times, there was the rickety roar of the tractors, driven by burnt, bare-chested men with cheap cotton sarongs tightly fastened against their flattened stomachs, either on their way to plough the fields or heading home after work. And most times, when the sun set and the street turned quiet, and dim lights dangled off crooked roofs, these men set aside their tractors to play cards, or enjoy some strong arrack.
It was the same stuff they did at the villa, like playing cards and sipping arrack under dim light.
Of the row of houses along the street, it was Sagarika’s that was closest to the villa. When word first got around about the villa being built, the street people wondered in awe what that meant.
Sagarika’s first question was if there’ll be jobs. ‘I’m good at cleaning,’ is what she told the official-looking man from the villa, dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, black ironed pants, and a blue- dotted tie, with dark glasses on his head, who walked up and down the street one day, as if studying the mud patterns.
‘Yes, there will be some jobs,’ the man had told her.
Years after the war had ended, tourism in the north central part of Sri Lanka was booming. And why wouldn’t it? The town stood quietly, not too far from centuries old architecture, wildlife, and a once prosperous irrigation network. These were tourist hotspots.
Sagarika and the village people had only being able to get sly peaks into the construction of the villa since then. Some of the street’s men got jobs as construction workers and later, as painters, and they all had stories to say, some of which Sagarika found strange. The villa was a set of mud huts with thatched roofs. But the straw of the roof was neatly placed and picturesquely cropped, unlike in the street houses. The rooms smelt minty, and mosquito nets dangled over plump beds.
Even the grass seemed fatter on the side of the villa.
Being so close to the villa meant that whatever leaflet or announcement came from that side reached Sagarika first. So, it was only natural that she was the first to fill in the application for job openings for cleaning staff. The application wasn’t hard to fill. It was just one-sided. There were the basic questions like name, age, gender, address, and occupation. Sagarika proudly wrote there, ‘widow’. Then, there were a few specific questions about experience in the tourism industry, how many years, and the work done. It wasn’t necessary to fill in this part of the application, the other official-looking man, again in an ironed shirt, pants and tie, who came to hand out applications, had called out. Just the first part was enough.
They’ll all have the chance to tell more at the interview at the villa.
Sagarika’s eyes shot up, ‘interview?’ That was about a month ago. They were later informed about the interviews, and the day came by faster than Sagarika had expected.
Sagarika was already 45, with a dead husband, and two children; a son, 12 and daughter, 14. She became a servant at 16, working in a house in Colombo. But the Madam and Sir were kind to her, so she didn’t mind. She left the job when she turned 20, and married Gunasekera. He was like the other tractor men, working in the field, and playing cards and drinking arrack in the night. He died two years ago. When Sagarika told people she was a widow, they usually asked if her husband died in the war. After all, they lived so close to the Northern border, where the war brewed for nearly three decades, killings were rampant, and people joined the army. ‘No, he just drank too much,’ was her response. The reason didn’t seem weighty enough.
The interviews were to take place at 4.30 in the afternoon of the next day. Sagarika had made some notes about her work in the city hotel and her work cleaning homes.
Some other women from the street were also informed about the interviews. But each one had something different to say. Some said it wouldn’t be too hard, ’we will all be selected, they want a lot of people.’
An older woman told them, ‘wear your best saree,’ and Sagarika nodded. Then, there were a couple of the younger ones who thought it was necessary to prepare a speech about their previous work experiences, especially in hotels, and how they will balance work and family life. Again, Sagarika nodded.
When her eldest turned five, Sagarika had gone to work in the Middle East, first in Kuwait and then in Lebanon, where she worked in a small hotel. She thought of telling them about this work at the interview. People told her she was lucky that she came back in one piece. Not everyone knew of the horror stories. Sagarika had heard about some, like the workers not being given proper food, and being beaten. But the hotel work was ok, and she got paid on time. She sent this money home every two months. With the money that was left, she bought a new fridge and a television from the duty-free when she came home after five years. She also brought some bangles for her daughter, toys for her son, and some clothes and books for both of them. A few months after that, she remembers someone telling her about the poor woman who came from Saudi where the doctors removed nails hammered into her body. Then of course, there was the case of the young girl from Sri Lanka’s east who never returned home after she was accused of killing an infant she was caring for. No fair trial. No knowledge of what was happening. The girl was only 17 at the time. Killed, while still a child.
When she got back, Sagarika worked in a hotel in the city.
Sagarika knew the work at the villa wouldn’t be like previous work; this was a proper job.
She had picked out her saree and blouse with care, for the interview. It was her second good saree. The other is what she usually wore for weddings and important events. This had orange lotus patterns on the red cotton. She pleated her saree. The blouse was plain red. She kept out her gold chain and bangles; her wedding jewellery.
That night, after the children went to sleep, Sagarika sat up in bed. She went through the notes she had made, reading the answers aloud, rehearsing how she would say it; the pauses, the tone of her voice. She would say things like, she knows there are standards to meet in hotels, she knows how to greet customers, and she knows about hygiene practices. She learnt her answers till she knew them by heart and there was nothing more she could think of.
She hardly slept that night.
The day crawled by slowly. Sagarika’s hands trembled when she poured boiling water over the tea for her children and herself that morning. She couldn’t eat.
Sagarika left plenty of time to dress for the interview. She re-pleated her saree, making sure every fold stood neat. She had oiled her hair earlier, and now she powdered her face. She slipped her bangles on. They were now slightly tight and discoloured. It had been a cheap pair.
Making her way to the villa, the guard at the gate already knew why she was there, and marked her name on a list. She was led along a narrow path, where mud huts stood on either side, not so different to what she had seen and lived in all her life. It was just that these were a neater type of mud.
At the end of the path, she was led to an open space. Soon, a crowd emerged, men and women, including some women from the village, and the tractor men. They weren’t in the sarongs that afternoon. The space was filled with nervous whispers, some hissing ‘interview’. Sagarika wondered how they would be called in, and how long she would have to wait for her turn to be interviewed.
An official-looking man appeared, with dark glasses on his head. It was a different man than the one who had handed over the application forms. The men and women stood up straight. Sagarika caressed the pleats of her saree, her toes wobbled slightly. She glanced slyly at the women around her to gather their reactions. On her left, a woman nibbled at her fingernails, and on her right, another kept turning her bangles, gold, like Sagarika’s.
The man bellowed into a microphone, his voice slightly ruffled, welcoming and thanking everyone. He spoke for about five minutes, reading out some duties expected of the cleaning staff. Sagarika heard him mentioning some benefits for employees and their families. Then he welcomed and thanked everyone again, and left.
The crowd felt silent.
Minutes later, another official-looking man and woman appeared, reading out names from a list. Sagarika’s name was in the list that the woman read out. Once all the names had been read, Sagarika joined the group of women crowding around the official-looking woman. The woman explained to the group that she would be their manager and that they would work under her, starting next Monday, nine o’clock in the morning. A uniform and training would be provided during the first week. For the moment, there were only some forms to fill in, they could take the forms home, fill them in and bring them the following week.
Then the official-looking man and woman left.
Slowly, the crowd started leaving too, and the buzz died away.
Stepping out, clutching her form, Sagarika let her rehearsed answers play in her head.
As she made her way back, the fold of her saree danced slightly in the quick breeze that swept against her face. She looked up. The thatched roofs didn’t make a sound, unlike those in the street.
The sun was beginning to set. In the distance, she heard the boys appeal an out, and the tractors fall silent. Outside a mud hut, a man and woman sat, clasping their glasses, nodding at Sagarika as she walked past.
About the author
Madhushala Senaratne is an Editorial Assistant, with the Open Knowledge and Digital Services team at the Institute of Development Studies, where she is also pursuing her PhD, focusing on humanitarian narratives.