My numerous ‘wives’


maids

 

I had never, ever imagined in my life that one day I’d be writing a piece on domestic helps. The ubiquitous and yet elusive maid. The subject of endless angst, animated discussions and innumerable internet memes and videos.

It is very common for Indian homes to have domestic helps—mostly part-time workers, but sometimes also full-time ones, in the form of live-in maids, whose services are generally utilised by working mothers like myself.

Lately, I’ve realised that the relationship between a woman and her help is uncannily like the relationship between the man of the house and his woman, as in the days of yore. In fact, the manner in which most women, including me, speak of our domestic helps is almost exactly the way that patriarchy-infested males speak of women such as me.

Let me explain.

You feel they are upstarts, they are getting too big for their boots, and demanding too many privileges. That they have forgotten their place. That no matter how good you are to them, it is never enough.

Yes it is true that there are domestic workers who swindle and cheat and take advantage of their employers, just as there are women who, when they assume a position of power, become more Evil Queen than good witch Glinda of the South.

And yet, these maids belong to that category of people who’ve been exploited, underpaid, trampled over for centuries. They have not had even a semblance of rights. They’ve been at the mercy of the maai-baap. And now, when they have some bargaining rights, when they have the audacity to demand and talk back to power, the maai baap resents the usurping of centuries-old privilege.

So I have to pay my maid a lot more, accept most of her demands, and complain to my friends how these maids are a necessary evil. You wish you didn’t have to tolerate them, but what can you do, you poor thing, you need them to run your life smoothly. Much like the husband that declares how his wife is a necessary evil, how he wished he hadn’t married her but then she is the one who keeps his household running smoothly.

So yes, while this may feel like an ‘inconvenience’ for us—tolerating demands, paying higher prices—it is definitely a good thing for humanity in general, especially as far as human dignity is concerned. Nobody is a maai baap anymore. It’s a straightforward employer-employee equation.

Now if only I could get some loyalty. Sigh.

Oops, there I go again!

Conditioning takes such a long time to be overcome.

——————

Postscript : This blog post was originally written several months ago. In the time that passed I realised that I have actually had several loyal domestic helps, but had to lose them when they relocated to the villages they had come from, for personal reasons. So I’ve had plenty of loyalty as well. And I’ve absolutely no reason to complain.

There are good people in this world and there are mean ones. There are good maids, and there are mean maids. Lord bless the good ones, for they literally keep our lives from collapsing!

Importantly, they also show us the mirror, giving us a glimpse of what we’d do when we’re in a position of power. As the best parameter for evaluating people is to see what they do with power once they have it.

Old school love


A fortnight ago, I was pottering around the house rifling through my book collection, scrolling through Amazon Prime, looking for something to read, something to watch. Something that came with a whiff of old-school, slow-breathing love.

I’m a romance addict. Anyone who knows me knows that. I could make do with very little food but I couldn’t make do with very little romance. I’d been cranky and angsty all week, for no apparent reason, and I was looking for the one thing that would calm me down.

And then, late at night in the darkness of the bedroom I read on my phone Natasha Badhwar’s Mint Lounge column for that week. Suddenly, there it was: a slice of romantic nirvana.

Small intimacies.

The tiny, mostly unnoticeable details in a marriage that carry a subtle, soft undercurrent of romance. Like the tucking back of torn-off buttons. Natasha used this example from old Hindi movies to illustrate her point: “From Hindi movies, I had internalized other aspirations of domestic togetherness. Like the scene in which it is discovered that the man has a button missing in his shirt just when he is ready to leave for work. The woman steps in to deftly sew on a button while he is still wearing his shirt. She moves her face close to his chest to cut off the thread with her teeth, because real women don’t use scissors.

Unmoved by my romantic yearnings, my husband’s shirt buttons have remained steadfast and immotile over the years.

As soon as I read this line I blushed a furious red.

Despite not possessing the qualities of the sanskari sewing-darning woman in the least, I have to confess that it is with quite a degree of fondness that I stitch together my husband’s kurtas that begin to come apart at the seams. And no, not when he’s wearing them. Merely the act of having this mundane piece of white cloth—his kurta— in my hand and putting the quick four-five stitches to mend it, or tuck the odd button that has fallen off, evokes a deep, familiar sort of affection, a feeling akin to sitting face to face at the dining table and talking long past the food is gone.

This whole love-through-sewing thing was probably internalised by me through the very cinema that Natasha speaks about. Drat those movies!

She then goes on to narrate an anecdote from her aunt and uncle’s life, of them doing their daily puja (prayer) together. “When she is pouring oil into the lamp, she needs his presence to prepare the wick. He holds the prayer book open as she reads out the verses. From a distance, one can see them instructing each other to do what is so routine for them, you wonder why they are speaking at all. They close their eyes together and go silent, probably praying for the same thing. Their temple room is full of images of deities but they seem like they are in communion with each other.”

The image seemed to fill my room as well. Fill my heart, lighting it up like a diya for the puja.

For the past few days or so, ever so slightly, I’d been feeling a wave of restlessness, a wave of irritation at myself.

My husband and I come from diametrically opposite backgrounds. East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet, said Rudyard Kipling. But he only needed to see us together to know how the twain doth meet. All these years, my guy and I have been constantly juggling his intensely traditional background and my decidedly modern one, keeping it together by sheer will power and force of love—and umpteen recalibrations.

Sometimes it overwhelms us.

Sometimes I end up asking myself why I got into this at all. How could I have dumped myself in this mess? For that entire week, I’d been reeling under one of these spells of unexplained restlessness.

And then along comes this. This little paragraph about a couple that lights a diya together and prays side by side.

Takes me back a decade in a swish.

Prayer.

When Sajjad and I were still waiting to get married, one of the most romantic things I imagined with him—much longed for and anticipated—was prayer. Together. With this man who brought immense peace and spirituality to my life.

We would imagine the time when we’d be together in one room—our room—offering our namaz with our prayer mats spread out before us.

Joined in prayer. Joined in soul.

“In communion with each other.”

Suddenly, just like that, I remembered precisely why both of us had dumped ourselves into this ‘mess’.

It’s what we had wanted.

We married each other because we had wanted exactly what our other half brings to the table.

I had wanted him, a deeply spiritual man, a calm man. A man who possessed the capacity to listen. A man I could trust. And I, I was what he wanted. A thinking woman, a woman with a mind and a voice. To quote him verbatim, “A woman whose brain is the most attractive part of her body.”

Had he wanted a more traditional woman to match his traditional background, he could have had his pick from the dozens around him. Had I wanted a more modern man to match my modern background, I could have chosen from the dozens that tried to woo me. The reason we were here, together, wading through these frequently-turbulent waters, cutting through the foliage and battling it out together, was because we had both wanted it.

There are times in every couple’s togetherness, when we begin to wonder how did we ever come to be here? The present, the future and the world around gets too much for us. We resent the sacrifices we made, the life we had to give up in order to live this one. Was it even worth it?

In times like these, it makes sense to close our eyes and remember what it was that we’d wanted in the first place. Why was it that we made those sacrifices at all?

That might, perhaps, bring back the answers we already know, but often forget. The answers that sometimes hide within the smallest of things–the things that make up the essence of old school love.

 

 

 

 

The cabbie and me: love in a ride


You never know what can happen in a two-hour-long cab ride, do you?

Love in a ride

Yesterday, on my way to Gurgaon, I overheard the cab driver talking on the phone. I was nervous at first about him talking while driving, because for one I’m paranoid about safety and for another, if a traffic policeman caught us and gave him a ticket, I’d be late for my meeting.

I requested him to put the phone on hands-free mode, both for his sake and mine. And that’s how something he said on the call snagged my attention.

“Arre na, na bhabhi. Isey to main divorce doonga bas. Divorce. Beta ho gaya mera, ab kya fikar hai?”

(Don’t worry, sis-in-law, I’ll divorce this woman for sure. Now that I have a son, what’s there to worry about?)

I was shocked and saddened to hear these words, and thought of saying something to him. But then I reminded myself that I have to stop making everyone’s business my own, and learn to keep my mouth shut at times.

However, fate decided it wanted me to intervene. So within 10 minutes, the guy made another call. I realised from the tone of his voice that he had called his wife. He spoke very gruffly, in a voice one uses to reprimand someone severely and assert one’s superiority over them.

“Kahan hai tu? Phone kyun band kar rakha hai? Kab se mila raha hun phone!” Where the heck are you?Why is your phone swtiched off? I’ve been trying to call you since ages!

I couldn’t hear what the wife said. But apparently her reply calmed him somewhat.

“Hmm.” he said, still gruff but not rebuking her. “Beta kaisa hai?” How’s our son?

I think she must have said he’s crying, because the man replied, “To chup kara na usko pehle!” So soothe him first, idiot!

Slowly, as the husband and wife talked, I saw a change come over the man. His voice softened, his tone mellowed, he began to smile and talk in an intimate manner that is typical of young lovers. “I’ll come to take you back tomorrow… you can go shopping tonight, there’s this place which has nice clothes..” It seemed like he was trying to woo her, like young husbands will often do when their wife is mock-fighting with them.

I was surprised. This does not sound like a couple on the brink of divorce! Not at all. Why then…?

The man disconnected the call. I couldn’t stop myself.

“Bhaiyya…” I addressed him as ‘brother’ (which is generally how we address  strangers in India.) “Aap bura to nahi manege, ek baat puchun?” You won’t mind if I ask you something?

“Kya hua madam?” What happened?

“Why do you want to divorce your wife? I’m sorry I couldn’t help but overhear…”

“Arrey madam! Bohot pareshan karti hai. Dimagh kharab kar rakha hai!” She is such a nuisance, a huge trouble. She’s become a headache for me!

“Why? What does she do?”

“She keeps asking to go to her parents’ house and then doesn’t want to come back from there. I let her go when she wants but when it’s time for me to get her back she does all kinds of drama!”

“Bhaiyya,” I said in a sympathetic tone. “Everyone misses their parents, that’s why we want to visit them frequently. But yeah, she shouldn’t create a fuss about coming back. After all she married you…”

“Arrey madam, what shall I tell you, I have a love marriage! Love marriage! I love her so much! I left my family for her! I came here to Delhi to earn money and left my family in the village! And now she doesn’t want to come back from her parents home!” He had launched headlong into his tale now. I suspect he’d been wanting to talk about it for some time. “I haven’t met my parents since two years now!”

“Oh,” I said, sympathetically. “That’s sad! You should go and meet your parents once in a while, even if you’re working here. Maybe not very frequently, but don’t desert them altogether. You can speak with your wife and try to make her understand, try to find a middle ground…”

“Madam what should I tell you! I left everything for her. I give her all the money I earn. I bring her expensive gifts. Still she is not happy!”

“Why? Did you ask her why she is not happy?” I was genuinely concerned.

“I don’t know Madam! She keeps asking stupid things. Now she doesn’t want me to be a cab driver, says there are too many accidents happening on the road. Well, I am not so educated. I am barely a high school pass-out. I won’t be able to earn as much from a job as I can earn from this cab. And she says these things despite being more educated than me! She is a graduate! She has a bachelor’s degree in science!”

“So you please drive carefully, and you reason with her that even in a job you’d still have to get out on the road, and accidents can happen anywhere. But please be careful in your driving as well. She will see reason, I’m sure. But please don’t break up your family. That’s a very sad thing to happen.” I smiled inwardly at how easily he praised his wife and openly accepted that she had a higher degree in education than him. He did love her in his heart. He only had to be reminded of it.

So on and so forth we went, him detailing his problems with his wife, and me trying to help him see that these were not issues that couldn’t be resolved. At one point he spoke about the ‘bhabhi’ (sis in law, though not necessarily. In India, even neighbours are addressed fondly as brother and sister in law) whom he had just spoken to, and revealed that his wife didn’t get on well with her. She had major fights with the woman. And I had understood, from the beginning, that the bhabhi had issues with this man’s wife.

“Do you all live together?” I asked him.

“No, we live next door to her. But bhabhi comes over to help my wife with the baby, and also because I am at work all day and then Radha is alone.” Radha being his wife.

“Hmm. Well, if they don’t get on well together, maybe you should limit bhabhi’s visits to your home. Ask your wife to minimise contact with that woman.” And then I added, “Bhaiyya, lots of people in this world will try to poison your mind–or your wife’s. They will provoke you into doing something that you will regret later. If you break your home now, who gets affected? Your wife, your son, and you. Bhabhi will go on living her life as she was earlier. Her life won’t be spoilt, yours will be. So beware of people who urge you to break your home. These are but trivial issues.” I said somberly.

The man grew thoughtful now. “Yes… there will be nobody to give me food even.” He mused. But his mind rebelled. “But she is such a nagger. I can’t live with her,” he insisted. And then added, “But I will surely take my boy away from her. Larka to main nahi dunga usko.” He spoke menacingly.

“Arrey bhaiyya kaisi baatein kar rahe ho! Ye to bohot bara paap hooga, chhote se bachhe ko maa se alag karna!” This will be such a grave sin, I said, a crime to separate a small boy from his mother. “You are a grown man, and yet, tell me can anyone love you more than your mother? Do you think anyone would be able to take care of your boy and love him like his mother?”

The man smiled guiltily and said, “You’re right madam. Baat to aap sahi kar rahe ho…”

“How old is your son?”

“One. He is one year old.”

“What! Just a year old! He must still be drinking his mother’s milk!” I was distraught at the very idea.

“Yes ma’m, he does drink his mother’s milk…” he said slowly, thoughtfully, as if he had never considered this fact.

“Then? How big a sin will it be to separate a suckling boy from his mother?” I pleaded with him.

“Par main kya karu madam, mujhe bhi to koi chahiye hoga jiske sahare zindagi guzaroon!” He was adamant. What can I do madam, I would also need someone (the son) in my life for happiness!

“Arrey baba, you keep both of them, na! Why do you want to break up your home? All three of you need each other!” I insisted. “Bhaiyya when you’ll be old and weak, nobody will look after you more than your wife! I have seen this with my grandfather. His two kids took good care of him when he was ill, but no one served him day and night tirelessly like his wife. She stood by him till the very end. Patni se zyada pati ki seva kaun kar sakta hai?” I added pleadingly.

“That’s true madam…” he was thoughtful now.

“Aur aapki to love marriage hai bhaiya!” I turned a bit filmy here, “Sachha pyaar agar mil jaaye life mein to usey chhorna nahi chahiye!” You had a love marriage, and when a person finds true love in life, one mustn’t let it go.

“Madam, college time se!” He impressed upon me, smiling. “I began seeing her when she was in college!” He was reminiscing about the good things now, which was a good sign.

“You know mine is also a love marriage?” I told him. ” 7 years Masha Allah. It’s been 7 years now. It’s not like we never fought. We had major ups and downs. Major fights. But we didn’t break up our home. We did our best to resolve our problems because we both knew that we loved each other.”

“Madam, love to karti hai woh mujhe…” Now he was softening. My wife loves me, he said. “When I told her I will divorce you she burst into tears and cried and cried and cried.” He said softly, with a little smile of love.

“See? She doesn’t want to leave you. You talk to her, reason with her. Ask her does she want to break up her home? She wouldn’t want that, would she? The way you tell me, she doesn’t seem like a bad person. Just immature. Childish. That can be sorted.”

“Arrey, madam. She IS immature. She is 18 years old.”

“What!!” I was honestly astonished. Only 18 and a mom!

“And how old are you?” I questioned.

“I am 21, madam.”

“Oh, Good heavens! You are so young! I am 10 years older than you!” I blurted out. ” Oh my goodness, now I can see why this is all happening! You both are so young and already have such responsibilities upon you!”

And then I literally begged him, “Bhaiyya main aapse vinti kar rahi hun, please, please don’t break up your home! You both are so, so young! You need to give your marriage a chance! For God’s sake please, just think of me as your elder sister! I am 10 years older than you and I have more experience in this department, and I’m literally pleading with you. Give your marriage a chance!”

I continued, “I heard you talking to your wife. You were talking sweetly with her! It doesn’t seem at all that the situation between you two is so terrible that it can’t be salvaged. You two are still in a good place, you can sort it out.”

He smiled when I mentioned him talking sweetly to her. “Arrey madam, I buy her expensive gifts! She asked me for a phone, I just asked her to name the brand! I give her whatever she wants!”

“That’s sweet,” I said, happy because he was smiling now.

“Well, you know what,” he said sheepishly, “I just threaten her with divorce. I…. I love her. I don’t really want to leave her.” He spoke with emotion, and what he said next lifted my spirits. “Madam, apni JAAN hai woh!” She is my life!

I grinned at him. We had reached our destination, both physically and metaphorically. I took out cash from my purse and paid him.

“Okay bhaiyya, thank you for the ride–and remember, whenever you begin to think of divorce, just remember that there is a sister of yours whom you met in this cab, and you remember her words–if you have found love, don’t let it go.”

He smiled at me, and I smiled at him. And got out of the cab.

I’ve no clue whether this divorce will actually be averted or not. But I can say at least this much: he began to remember the good things about his marriage and his wife. Began to remember how much he loves her and how much she loves him.

Sometimes, that’s all we need–to talk, to try and fix what’s broken and not just throw it out. Sometimes all we need is to remember the love.