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Musings V : Of Maids and their Mistresses

The other day I was struck with horror when my son with the characteristically brutal candour of a child referred to his “Gitamashi”, the girl who has lived with and worked at my parents’ home for the past seventeen years, as a servant after all. I assured him that she was my sister and my mother who has a strangely tormented relationship with her Woman Friday of seventeen years reiterated her quasi-umbilical bonding with equal alacrity. The truth, however, is that it has taken Gita close to two decades to achieve this dubious status and the perks that go with it: family trips to South City Mall, a lump sum towards the plot of land she bought recently in Sonarpur, a pair of gold earrings, emergency medical expenses, a divan to sleep on, and the freedom to sulk and have mood swings. She still doesn’t eat at the same table with us, nor does she sit on the living room sofa. We have yet to visit her village home in East Midnapore. And the sisterhood that I magnanimously conferred on her to safeguard my own self-esteem and my son’s not so tender sensibilities is quickly changed into an honour in abeyance when she snaps back unprovoked or retires in glum silence to the four walls of her only private niche, the kitchen where she cooks for us and the rear balcony that houses her wardrobe (used but fresh hand-downs from me and my sister-in-law), her toiletry and her sewing machine.

The consternation I felt at my son’s bold statement of a fact, my zealous denial of it, and also my anxiety here to poise this flat fact with the larger truth of this service relationship of long standing points to an area of darkness rooted deep within Indian domesticity. No wonder the Indian government has reacted so viciously to the alleged maltreatment of Devyani Khobragade. No wonder an article in Outlook that set out presenting the maid’s side of the story had to concede ultimately the fuzzy irreducibility of it all. Like other aspects of the enigma that India continues to be, the many-stranded relationship between domestic helping hands alias “maid-servants” or “kaajer lok” or the now obsolete “jhee” and their mistresses remains part of India’s confused tangle of carefully preserved secrets, its partly feudal, partly socialist moorings at crossroads with its overnight metamorphosis into a globalised oikos of washing machines, microwave ovens and dishwashers. I remember how acutely embarrassed I was during a study visit to Germany when a Hungarian girl quipped, “So servants are actually cheaper in India than washing machines?”

My helping hand of some years’ standing, a very dependable Muslim lady, recently deflated my residual faith in my own virtues as a domestic employer by quitting her well-paid and respectable working relationship in my establishment citing backpain and other chronic physical complaints. Her quiet, unforeseen withdrawal after receiving her scheduled monthly pay unleashed, as usual, a flurry of speculation, often of a moral slant, between me and my cook, who owes her own position to that lady. A slew of bad appointments over recent months had managed to turn my cultivated idealism into bitterness first and then resignation. Like all mistresses I was impelled to share my sense of betrayal with the recently appointed cook. She was worldly wise enough to pamper my ego with high-minded assurances of how Lailadi should have had the decency to tell me that she was quitting for higher pay. I had given away so many of my household articles to her! Hadn’t I treated her differently? Hadn’t I always used the honorific second person singular “aapni” with her, much to the discomfiture of senior, more seasoned mistresses in the family? Hadn’t I promised her monetary assistance towards a pucca house?

Afterwards I found myself cathartically seeking reassurance from my mother and others by turn. As always, such exchanges, which constitute a larger share of household conversations and altercations than Indians acknowledge in public discourse, end on a note of rehearsed class prejudice: “That’s how they always are, you know. Inveterately ungrateful, impossible to please, inherently disloyal … They are made that way. No use doing them a good turn. Don’t waste your thoughts on them.”

My mother-in-law uses identically polarised pronouns to underline her aloofness towards the maid who has served and sulked at her establishment for nearly a decade. Curiously or otherwise, neither my mother nor my mother-in-law would willingly part with their respective service-providers on account of the latters’ occasional gestures, words and acts of insubordination. The adage that does the rounds in such contexts goes “A known devil is better than an unknown saint.”

As a young, self-consciously enlightened liberal I used to cast looks of disdain whenever I discovered my mother speaking about the travails of finding, administering and retaining maids, now with Mukti-kakima over the phone, now with Anjali-jethima on her way to the grocer’s, sometimes even from her window with ‘Window Auntie” standing at hers. Utter inanity! Why doesn’t she use those precious minutes reading a book or listening to music?

Mistress of a ten-year-old household myself, I smile at the ironies of life. Here I am making the same kind of conversation with my new neighbour across the corridor, my mother over the phone, even the tablaaccompanist who accompanies my singing. I must swallow my pride and ask around for a replacement when the latest recruit deserts me to my devices. I shake my head and lament the undeservedly bad name I have made for myself. Maybe everyone thinks I am parsimonious with pay, despite being a working woman. Maybe everyone has seen through my reserve and overheard my stern voice of instruction and reprimand. What a mean taskmaster people must have taken me for! Had I not overheard my maids mimicking me behind my back? Didn’t I threaten my cook with a pay-cut for dereliction of duty on one occasion?

Soon, however, I found my sense of injured merit peter away into a silent stoical admission that nothing in our recently terminated professional relationship, founded more on unwritten convention and a shaky understanding forged with the spoken word than on law, consanguinity or time could have guaranteed a lasting bond of faith and loyalty. I mulled over rare moments of tension over her unpunctuality and irregularity lately and wondered if I had hurt her self-respect.

I realized one of the visceral truths about the relationship between the domestic maid and her female employer. All our talk is essentially prevarication and pretence, a systematic, practised concealment of deep-seated mutual contempt, if not hatred. Both the latent attitude and the verbal codes (my mother picked up from my grandmother the practice of conferring English  pseudonyms – say “Holy Book” for Gita and “Goddess of Learning” for Saraswati) used to cover it are imbibed historically from our domestic environments. India has until now been able to withstand the floodgates of Western living largely through its selective assimilation of Western values and habits. The great Indian middle class has always lived parallel lives, donning Western outfits, speaking English, working in Western-style offices, without giving up altogether on sundry economical home-delivered services: the washerman, the barber, the waste collector, the sweeper, and of course, maids.

What two centuries of Western education failed to uproot, two decades of free market and prosperity have certainly breached irrevocably. Maids in Kolkata, I am told, demand the good offices of a washing machine these days. Outside the metropolis, the 100 days’ work scheme rolled out by the government has made full-timers a rarity and added to part-timers’ attrition statistics. Elders hold out the apocalyptic vision of a maid-divested society. We wail at the enervating tropical climate which deters us from doing our own chores the way the Indian fraternity manages to do in the West. Some of us even speculate with a snigger how our maids will soon arrive in sedans like nannies and maids in America. And I tell myself, how can I blame Lailadi for choosing a few hundred rupees more? Perhaps a thousand? It is for the best perhaps. I should not nurse a grudge.

My cook finds me an able substitute (not without pocketing a fat commission, my husband assures me), and I settle into a new routine. I listen to her trials and tribulations with the empathy of a fellow female sufferer and I forgive Lailadi for yielding to a rival mistress. Even as I commiserate, another part of me keeps an eye out for unusually rapid depletion of provisions in the kitchen and silently rehearses a stock answer to requests for hefty advances. It has taken only half a year and a quick change of hands to turn me into a veteran ginni.

Unlike in the West, our mostly illiterate or semi-literate household employees do not come to us armed with written testimonials from earlier employers. It is a matter of no mean marvel how much we as employers andthey as prospective employees rely on first impressions, hearsay and perhaps pure chance or destiny in our mutual selection. Is it not an extraordinary gamble that I would leave my son in the care of a woman I did not know until two days ago, praying all the time that I did not make a mistake in reading her looks, relying on her human feelings, on her fear of law and on her dependence on me for her bread and butter! What an extraordinarily human relationship it ultimately is, even as it constantly insults and shames itself with its inhuman denial of itself! It wrenches, wrings out of the core of our socially, culturally conditioned being the rawest truths of human bonding.

A friend of mine, software engineer and mother of two, once remarked how she would probably be more shocked if Gayatri, her children’s nanny left her than if her husband were to file a divorce. My relationship with my son’s nanny had been marked by a primal, almost Oedipal, jealousy and possessiveness. How much more human can it get? I can’t recall ever being jealous of my husband monopolising my son’s attention! And yet, barring one occasion, I never asked her to be seated on the sofa!

That’s where the bewildering complexity of this fundamentally feudal relationship lies. Societies that have left their own feudal pasts long behind understandably see only the inhumanity of it all. I for one continue to be exercised by the paradox: the profound humanity notwithstanding the monumental inhumanity, and vice versa. Having said that, I am reminded of a film like Gosford Park and its sensitive, subtle portrayal of the interlocked lives and destinies of aristocratic families and their brood of serving men and women. Britain has its rich share of feudal secrets. This may well be the reason why I haven’t encountered any discussion on this aspect of Indian life in the many twentieth-century British travelogues that I happen to have read.

Not that I, a representative member of my class – and I am deliberately using class parameters here – have not felt pangs of guilt about the demeaning nature of this relationship: the daily friction, disrespect, subterfuge, haggling and hypocrisy. I have often wanted to ask Gita to sit with us at meals. Indeed, at ceremonial meals, particularly those at which food happens to be served on the floor, I and other family members happily play gracious host to Gita and the other maids, either serving them food or being served food next to them. Clearly, such departures are perceived as admissible gestures of temporary and reversible egalitarianism, something of a controlled Bakhtinian carnival. On ordinary days, however, we slip back into our old ways of being waited upon. How interesting that my once Marxist father, known for many youthful gestures of empathy and solidarity with the indigent and downtrodden, had eventually acquiesced in this arrangement without ado!

The nagging apprehension that deters some of us from turning our tokenism into a healthy, everyday reality is that it will erode the hierarchical gap without which authority is difficult to wield. Ultimately, our purported fatalism about the questionable benefits of granting undeserved privileges is an age-old strategy of political repression, not unlike the protestations of Shakespeare’s plain-speaking classist, Coriolanus.

The alternative would be something I often mull over in moments of indignation: doing away with intransigent helping hands altogether and investing instead in machines. God forbid! Whom will my son call “Mashi”? Who will endearingly call my son “Babu”? Someday, when my son grows up, there’ll probably be robots helping around the house. Robots will take the place of maids, and then androids will take the place of robots. Who knows? My grandson will probably call an android “Mashi”, just for fun, just for that human touch. What was that film starring Robin Williams?

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