I am going home on Wednesday. Over the last four months, my concept of home has become both more fraught and more simplified. In this case, home means the east coast of America. And yes, that certainly is my home in the sense that I will slip back into my American accent easily, that I can take my car and go, that I’ll be able to eat a bagel for breakfast and have a drink with my friends. But I will miss the red carrots doused in lime and cilantro that I’ve here almost every day. I will miss my shared brown-ness with all the others. I will miss the political screaming matches that my grandmother and I watch on the television every evening. I will miss the Worli Seaface and vada pav and the impossibly intricate (and hilarious) politics of the colony. And most importantly, I will miss the people I see everyday.
In India, hiring domestic servants is common in the middle class. The average household will have a maid, a cook, and a driver. The population is extremely high, so instead of buying an appliance, you hire someone. Sometimes this tendency borders on parody. You will see three people crowding a toll booth- one is there to count and collect money, the second is there to pass the money from the driver to the toll collector, and the third (from what I’ve gathered) is there for moral support. Once, I went to a restaurant where a man had been hired to hold a tray of paan. Anyway, the lengths that people take to create jobs is striking. The relationship between the working class and the middle class is complex. It is a world away from the professionalism of comparable relationships in the U.S. It is so much more than an exchange of money for a service. I can only describe it as personal. Maids will cook the child’s favorite meal. They will go fetch eggs and laundry. Gardeners will fix the dent in your car. (True story: The bottom corner of the car door had been bent upward in an incident a few days earlier. I woke up one morning to a loud thudding noise. One of the gardener’s assistants was fixing the nick with his rusty old tools. And then he ran away when my grandmother tried to pay him for his troubles.) Drivers will come in the middle of the night to drop you off at the airport. These acts of goodwill are paid in kind. The maid’s child’s school tuition will be paid. A loan will be given to the driver for a down payment on a new flat. The gardener will be admitted to the hospital on the employer’s dime. They are invited to each other’s weddings. The exchange is silent. It is an attempt to silently bridge the yawning, un-bridgeable gap of class.
I wanted to dedicate this last post to the people I spoke to every day (whether in my limited Tamil or my broken Hindi). So here is the cast of characters:
Prema: Prema works as a maid in Padmalaya. She is whip-smart. I will always remember being part of her assembly line, parceling sweets and fruits for the various festivals that were held in the house.
Ruben: Ruben is the official driver at Padmalaya. He is originally from Assam, a north-eastern state in India. He immigrated to Chennai five years ago looking for better job opportunities. He is loyal and exceptionally sweet. He was the one who taught me the roads in Chennai. I will always remember lighting really huge, really dangerous firecrackers with him during my first official Diwali. And also him laughing at me when I was too chicken to light the 5000-walla.
Kasturi: Kasturi is my great-aunt Renuka’s longtime cook and maid. She was sporting a new, short haircut when I went this time. I honestly can’t believe that she remembers me, considering that I go to Pondicherry so infrequently, but she did, and she was thrilled that I remembered her too.
Nirmala baiyee: Baiyee means “lady” in Marathi, the local language of Mumbai. Nirmala sweeps, cuts vegetables, makes rotis and does odd jobs for my grandmother. When we first interacted, she thought I was a complete idiot and would exaggeratedly mime things to make up for my lack of Hindi. I thought this was hilarious. She has been a fixture in my time in Mumbai. Just as she marvels at my laziness, I marvel at how hard she works for her family. All four of her children are in school or college.
Pratibha baiyee: Nirmala has mostly taken over for Pratibha baiyee, who is getting on in years, but Pratibha still comes and cleans the kitchen. She is a very sharp lady who loves dressing well and looking polished. I still remember when she came and saw me off at night the last time I left Mumbai.
Nirmala baiyee (the maalish waali): Maalish means massage in Hindi. That’s right, someone will come home and give you a deep tissue massage here. Nirmala comes home about once a week for massages. She also has a business on the side selling nightgowns. I think she secretly comes to our house more often than others because she loves the south Indian food my grandmother cooks. She always leaves with a request for the next meal. I would describe her as a foodie. She and my grandmother have a great rapport. She is always a fun guest for a cup of tea and gossip.
Laxman: Laxman runs a small car-washing business in the colony. He has a full-time job as a driver for another family in the colony and he drives sometimes for us. He has maybe taken two days off the whole time I’ve been here (he works seven days a week like all these people). He’s a frenetic character who constantly seeks to amuse. He stole my phone and took a picture of me.
I took it back and took this picture of him:
Mandokar: Mandokar is the colony gardener. He does odd jobs for my grandmother and maintains her little garden. He’s always game to help rearrange furniture or climb up into the mini-attic above the bathroom to fetch something. I will always remember vacuum-sealing all of my grandmother’s cushions and blankets with Mandokar. They’re weirdly flattened and lying in one of the high cupboards in her bedroom. She’ll probably make me climb up on the high stool and get them down the next time I come…