Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Minu is my house maid. She is about 26 or 27 years old but she does'nt know how old/young she is. Wiry thin, very dark, tallish, and agile....! When she came to me for a job, I was in dire need of some one to cook, as I had just taken up a new job. In India you always have a maid servant, a cleaning lady and a car driver no matter what. So whenever I have travelled for longer durations to US (which has been very often) this was one thing I missed most....being waited upon - a sheer luxury. Minu walked in at a time when my earlier maid had walked out on me without a hint. she negotiated a fat salary, and I accepted. (at that point in time I would have paid her a lot more had she asked for it). Minu had come riding a bicycle, which I thought was smart. I have the weirdest dislike of dumb females even as servants because I find it impossible to impart even simple instructions to them. (my folks at home tell me I must not have smart servants from honesty/ security point of view; besides they insist that smart ones are hard to come by - would'nt they get better paid jobs if they were smarter ?) Anyways, I hired Minu instantly.
She had told me she had about 4 year's experience in cooking vegetarian food. I thought it was good enough. we anyways didn't eat too much meat. Plus I could always train her up to cook chicken and fish which are about the only non vegetarian items on my menu. With my 10-11 hour job routine, she was doing pretty good. All I had to do was to write out a whole week's daily meal menu from Monday-Sunday next (and leave it stuck on the frige door), and make sure that all grocery items, veggies, etc were available in the kitchen.
After a few days Minu asked for advance salary. I paid her when she told me that her husband was out of job during rainy season etc. Normally I don't encourage advance salary system.
Minu has a family of her own. A husband who, I discovered much later, has no permanent job but an ego of the size of a King. she has a toddler son - who smiles all the time like his dark, thin mom. Her husband's parents live with her, but are too old to work for their living or to help her in household chores. Minu thinks it is more out of convenience than because of their age.
A couple of months later I quit my job, due to personal reasons....!
Minu works continuously in my house, without breaks, leave, or absenteeism. And she always has a smile for me. She mentioned to me once that her husband is very surprised that Minu doesn't take a single leave in this job, whereas most of her earlier jobs were lost due to her absenteeism without notice.
Minu's typical day begins at 6.00 am. when she first finishes her personal morning chores. ( she lives in a 'place' which is 10' x 8 ' and has walls of tin sheets but doesn't have a toilet) they have to use the public toilet which is way out. They have no water supply inside the house either.
She has a shower (read bath in a tin sheet enclosure within her 10' x 8' place. She washes her own clothes, her husband's clothes and her son's clothes. Most occasions she has to wash her parent's in laws' clothes too. She cooks morning & afternoon meals for her baby boy, husband and his parents. She also bathes her son, feeds him breakfast and is ready to leave for work at 8.45 am. She rides her bike as fast as she can and manages to reach work by 9.30 am. On the days that her son is unwell she brings him along to work, as her family will not take care of him. At work, he is restless and she is pre occupied with him...! I understand how she is trying to balance everything. But I get into problems if her son gets ill for many days in a row. She is apologetic, but has no other way to deal with the issue. It surprises me no end to know that the child's grand mother is not willing to care for him at home or to help the daughter in law, who is the sole bread earner of the family.
At home she has no cooking gas. So she has to go stand in a long queue (during work) at the ration shop to procure kerosene oil, which serves as part of her cooking medium. The other half is done on wood, which she buys from her salary. Her salary buys grocery, baby food, provisions and everything else for a family of 5. There is no electricity in her house . Her husband has purchased an old run down car battery and has just connected a wire to it. The wire holds a single bulb which is the only light they have during evenings.
On certain days, when I have people over for dinner/party, she gets delayed going home. Her husband creates regular scenes on these days, though I escort her home in my car with a huge tip, and food enough for the entire family. On a couple of occasions I sent her in the car with the driver, and that was enough excuse for her husband to beat her up. He insisted that she was having an affair with my driver. At such times Minu's demeanour on the following morning is glum and the smile on her face is replaced by dark circles around the eyes. She has no hesitation in telling me the happenings of previous night with full details. I ponder and suggest to her...'why don't you go to your mother's for a break...?' It will be good for her I feel. But Minu has no where to go. Her father had walked out on the family (consisting of Minu's mother and her 2 older sisters) when she was barely 8 years old. A year later her mother had remarried and moved to another town leaving her 3 daughters to fend for themselves. She had her own children from this marriage. Minu's eldest sister (15 yrs) worked as a live-in maid for a catholic family and later left for Dubai as a maid for an Indian family to care for their new born baby. Minu and her other sister lived with their grand mother for a few years. That life came to an end when the grandmother died. The 2 sisters were then employed as domestic helpers in the kitchen of a girl's hostel by a woman caterer. That way Minu had a safe place to live in. 2 years later the catering contract was discontinued as the hostel itself closed down. But Minu had already met a man (currently her husband), who was a casual labourer doing some maintenance work for the hostel. She married him without much ado. So she has a home and family now. But she slogs 18 hours daily to keep it going.
One day, within 2 weeks of starting work Minu came upto me and said....'madam I need to tell you some thing very important...but promise me, you will not be annoyed'. I was thinking she may have broken one of my crystal pieces; that really makes me very angry. So I told her...'if you did'nt break any crockery I will not be annoyed I promise'....she told me she was pregnant, but does'nt want the baby. it was a mistake. I was shocked, coz i had my job to go to....who would cook my husbands meals. He only eats home made freshly cooked food. So I took 2 days off from work, and one sunday made it 3 days. Minu was back to work on the 4 th day, but very weak. With healthy afternoon meals, and milk to drink she progressed healthwise.
She worked all 4-5 months of the long rainy season, earned money for family meals, gave the husband pocket money for smoking cigarettes, cooked at home, washed, cleaned, helped with festivals, by working at home and taking holiday from work. On normal days she returns home by 6.00 pm. Cooks dinner for her son, feeds him, and then cooks dinner for the rest of the family. She does the dishes, cleaning, and fills water from a nearby public tap. On some days when there is not enough water supply she carries home a 10 litre can of water from my house on her bike. She hits the bed not earlier than midnight, she says.
After the rainy season, the husband complained of back pain, leg pain etc. I am not sure it was pain from lack of nutrition, or real pain or no pain at all. After all Minu was already providing for every one for almost 7 months, and the habit would have caused a virtual illness . He remained unemployed for several more months.
Minu has a heart of gold. she loves to cook new dishes for a party, and to show her skills in salad display and dessert servings. When a particular dish gets appreciated by the guests she flashes smiles with pleasure. But I worry for Minu: she doesn't get enough sleep, rest, and food (at home). Only in my house she enjoys having a cup of tea and afternoon meals. She winds up work by 5.00 pm, and is gone riding, riding, riding her red bike. By now the entire neighbourhood knows who my cook is. Not by her name but by her bike. The bike by the way, belongs to her ex employer who lent it to her, but Minu just quit the job, and has not returned the bike yet. She says she will give it back, one day.
Minu thinks her life is really good - much better than many other women who live around her. For one, her husband is not an alcoholic; secondly he wants to look after the family, (that he actually hardly ever looks after, is quite another matter) and he is a macho male. She has a son she dotes on. She is quite in charity with her parents in laws inspite of all odds being against her.
Minu's relationships are of another nature. Her equation with her husband is of one type, the relationship with her in-laws is another type; her bonds with the little son are quite on another level; and the connection that she has with me - her employer, is way out of ordinary. She does n't ponder too much over any of them and sashayes from one day into another day blissfully unaware of the complexities of life in general and relationships in particular.