Nona And Her Madam

Dies slowly he who does not travel,
who does not read, 
who does not listen to music,
who finds no charm in himself.
 Dies slowly he who transforms himself to a slave of habit,
repeating every day on the same path,
who does not change routine,
who does not risk to wear a new color,
or who does not talk to strangers.

 

Inspired by Neruda’s poem, we introduce you to the beautiful story of Jelena Jorgačević – a memory from her journey to the distant and unreal island of Sri Lanka. By telling us about her bus ride adventure, she reminds us of how wonderful this world of ours is, with all the simplicity and diversity of life we find in every corner of it.

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The air is moist and dense; our skin is becoming so sticky, as if we smeared our arms with marmalade. Buses, cars, tuk-tuks, motorcycles and pedestrians are all around – it looks like they will crash into each other any moment now, right there, in front of us… but they still go, drive, horn, shout…

We wait for the bus to Candy. „When is the bus coming?“, I ask the man standing near us. „The bus will come“, he answers calmly. „Yes, yes, but when exactly? “, I try again. „It will come“, he repeats. We smile politely to each other and the conversation ends.

And yes, soon the bus does come. It is overcrowded and all the seats are occupied. We stand so close one to another that I can fell the breath of other people. The interior of the bus is bright green with gigantic roses; there is a random pop concert going on on the tv. We would even sway (because the driver overtakes like he had experienced enough of life), if we were not too close to each other. After a few minutes, the young man with a gentle smile gives me his seat.

At that moment, my conversation with Nona, the companion sitting on the adjacent seat, begins. The older native Sri Lanka women offers me an unknown fruit which I started chewing unpeeled, with the skin still on, which she laughingly explains I mustn’t do. She speaks English well, her face somehow lights up; her eyes are tired but vivid…

Nona was born in a very poor Buddhist family. She has never attended school. As soon as she was old enough, her parents arranged a marriage for her. („How did you get married“, she asks me. „You chose by yourself?! That is very good“).

She has three kids, but her husband was very violent toward her. Somehow she managed to run away from him and to stay alone with her children. „It is ugly“, she continues, „but it is finished. And when you finish something, and it was bad, the only thing that really matters is that you succeeded, that it is gone. “

Poor, alone and with three kids, Nona decided to go to Lebanon to work as a maid in a rich Lebanon family. She left the children with her mother and for the next twenty years, she was sending money to them and visiting them whenever she could. They all finished high school, they all have jobs, marriages, kids…

“Education is the most important – it is possible to have nothing when you are educated, but without education, you surely have nothing”, she says.

At one moment, Nona starts talking about her Lebanon madam – how she called her – in whose house she used to work for years. Her face radiates with visible tenderness and gratitude. There, in Lebanon, Nona – who has never attended school – learned Arabian and English. “They ask me how I learned Arabian. Well, you listen, listen, and listen.” And Nona obviously knows how to listen.

The Lebanon family moved to USA and they wanted Nona to come with them but her kids were against it. She came back to Sri Lanka. Now, she cultivates vegetables in the village, she lives in poverty but her telephone rings every day: “My madam calls me from America. She asks me, I ask her – what she is doing, if she ate, if she is happy”.

We talk about Sri Lanka – its beauties, the bloody war and religion (she will pray for me and for my husband, she says), journalism, politics and how it’s easier to work no matter what, then to wait (”The man who sits is always tired”, she says). We say goodbye once we reach Candy, she continues her journey for four more hours and tells me to take care. .

I am passing through, it seems to me, the most intensive green color of this planet which enchants me! Tea plantations, women in saris, white uniforms of the students, umbrellas and vegetables of all colors and tastes sticking out from the bags…

I am thinking about Nona and other women all around the world that are struggling with poverty and violence. Women that have reconciled with life but whose sparkling energy is palpable. Women that were beaten but were strong enough not to be broken. Survivors. As the gift for others and for the world. As the example that one can and must fight against evil… and as the reminder of the gratitude and importance of all small gesture of tenderness.

Nona says: “Do you know how kind my madam was? If I got tired from work and told her that, she would tell me to go and rest. And then, she would switch off the television in order not to bother me while I was sleeping. She was that kind”.

Jelena Jorgacevic

published in “Vreme” 20.04.2017.

 

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The simple woman with philosophical thoughts – Nona – would most surely enjoy in reading Neruda, and probably in listening to Dvorak, as well. It is not by accident that his symphony “From the New World” is a musical illustration of this story because it represents every kind of change and search for the new – from the concrete journey to another country (which a journey to America represented for a composer), flying to the Moon (this music Neil Armstrong took with him during the Apollo 11 mission), changing our lives with a leap into the unknown and finally to all the precious wanderings that happen when we listen to music, watch movies, read books or talk to strangers.

 

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