My maid is on leave this week.
Her absence is becoming noticeable day by day. Apart from executing her designated duties, she also acts as a worst-case-alarm for me every morning. That’s why she is not allowed to come on weekends.
She must be over 60. The previous resident of the house was a friend of mine and she told me that the bai (maid) can’t see properly but is very honest and her Hindi is strong enough to carry on commonly occurring work related conversations (e.g. Kapda kal karna). She called her Amma and so do I, with no urge of being original in matters which have been taking care of themselves with harmony.
But there was a period when this harmony was threatened. Let me begin with telling the morning routine on days when I am not inspired enough to wake up before 7, thereby allowing Amma to be my worst-case-alarm at 8. Usually 4 out of 5 days, she gets to discharge this additional duty. I never wake up between 7 and 8. (Never knew that this post would become so rich in numbers).
On such uninspired days, Amma rings up the bell and then she tries to peep through the translucent window-glass. I open the door and then go flat once again on the bed savoring my last 20 minutes on the bed guiltlessly (You can’t get ready for office with a maid roaming around in your house). It’s understood that she must broom and sweep, wash utensils if there are any, and then ask whether clothes should be washed today or tomorrow. I take that decision whimsically, with my eyes closed.
Four years ago, when my mom visited Bangalore for a week, she made me buy 6 big and small plates,6 spoons,6 katoris (bowls),6 glasses,5 jars, a pressure cooker, 2 frying pans, a mixer-grinder, a chakla-belan and all that is needed for a family of four to cook and eat. I even have a sandwich-toaster. The salt, spices, sugar and other such things brought four years ago survive till this day.
All that Amma gets to wash are 2 glasses, 2 spoons, a bowl and sometimes a tapela (bigger bowl) in which I store milk. That’s because I eat corn-flakes for breakfast. Once in a while, maggi is cooked which contributes a plate and one more tapela for washing. All other utensils just lay there, untouched. Or so I thought about a year ago.
It all began that night when I was slightly hungry and stepped into the kitchen to have a snack. There were just two chocolate biscuits, one less that expected. Though friends drop in sometimes, I attributed the missing biscuit to a slip in memory. Then a spoon went missing. I grew suspicious. I counted the katories. Only four. I felt bad for my mom.
I could still be not so sure that Amma was the culprit. After all, her honesty was sworn by the previous resident. May be I lost some utensils during shifting from the previous place. But the seed of doubt was planted. This played havoc with my guiltless sleep of 20 minutes during Amma’s stay. I paid surprise visits to the kitchen when she would be working. On lazier days, I would just slap the floor with hands, while still on bed, to create an illusion that I was coming.
The day of reckoning came. I remember that it was a Monday. Three empty cans of beer were sitting pretty on the kitchen stand. Amma rang the bell and then entered the kitchen. I heard her clearing the cans and putting them in polythene with other bottles and containers. She used to do that once or twice in a month : taking away empty containers of food, beer, cold drinks, honey etc.
Then she began cleaning the floor and came into the room in which I sleep. I had a slight hangover and weakness, and so I thought of having some water and honey. So I got up and went to the kitchen. There I saw all the cans and containers stuffed into a large black polythene. I looked for the bottle of honey. I couldn’t find it. I remembered that there wasn’t more than 2-3 spoonfuls of honey left in it and so Amma might have mistakenly put that bottle with other empty containers. But I was quite keen on honey and so I opened up the polythene.
A discovery, or solving of a puzzle that has been troubling you for days, usually brings joy and fulfillment to the heart. But my heart sank when I saw a glass and a spoon carefully hidden in the containers. Amma was still in another room. I was enraged, though not much. I quickly got over the shock and having absorbed the passion in it, I began thinking about solving the problem at hand.
“Should I confront her right now? Maybe I should put the glass and spoon back in the polythene and catch her red-handed when she is leaving with it. But what should I say?”
I lacked the courage to accuse someone (even if rightly) who is over 60 and on top of that, a woman. There was just too much shame involved from both sides in it. So I began manipulating myself.
“What good would come of humiliating and then firing her? The only reason to keep her employed despite sloppy work was that she had received high marks on honesty. If she steals, then why won’t her replacement do so? My 20 minutes of guiltless sleep is doomed. But what do I do now with this glass and spoon?”
Then, with a stroke of genius, I kept the glass and the spoon right beside the polythene, tied the polythene back and went back to my bed. After a minute, Amma entered the kitchen. My heart was beating fast. She continued with her work and then left with the polythene. I got up, went into the kitchen, and saw the two tokens of love from my mom still lying where I left them.
It’s been a year now since that incident. Nothing has gone missing after that. Not even the biscuits. Amma has stopped taking stuff in polythene. I have to throw the mountain of containers after every three months or so. But I get to blissfully sleep for those 20 minutes.
Not a word spoken, but a soul reformed.
You need to step into the other’s shoes to understand the reasons why Amma was perceived to be honest. She never stole money. For her, a hundred rupee note is a rarer thing than utensils and she thought that it wouldn’t matter to me if a couple of spoons and katoris went missing. Reverse was the truth. I wouldn’t notice if someone removed a hundred rupee note from my wallet. For Amma, utensils are daily things she deals with in abundance. But I still remember the day mom bought those 6 glasses and spoon from CMH road. The equations didn’t favor Amma.
I shouldn’t be perceived as too soft-hearted towards maids in general. In fact, while staying with four of my friends in Gurgaon, I was the one designated to scold and , at times, fire the house-helps. Hard-talk was my department.
My other responsibility was to get rid of cockroaches in the house. There were too many and they came back every week. I would go into the kitchen with HIT, and then shoot in all the corners. I felt like a ranger. The weak roaches were dead on the spot while the stronger ones would get out of their den and run hither-thither. Then Piyush and me would run with slippers in our hands and nail each one of them down. It was an excellent outlet to the hunter instincts suppressed for centuries within a man’s heart. Oh, the raw joys mankind has given up for this timid civilized life.