Maidservants have been a part and parcel of my life from childhood I have seen them evolve from dedicated house help to quasi relatives. Their skill and devotion have amazed me, because most of them came from very impoverished backgrounds, broken families and had other problems.
Their determination to wake up every day and go about the business of life besides bringing up families in cramped houses is indeed a tribute to their thrift and foresight.
In my childhood in Delhi, I remember Parvathi, a Nepali woman with eight children whose husband worked as a chowkidar or watch man in the university campus where we lived. She worked as a part time maid in a professor’s house opposite our own. They were a rather stingy lot even though the professor’s wife was employed and their grown children were earning. Parvathi got her salary(a mere Rs.45 in those days) only after the tenth of every month. Often her mistress would debit money from it if Parvathi used extra oil, matchsticks and other groceries while cooking. The heartless family would lock themselves up, while she would shout and bang their doors asking for payment. Her curses and pleas would wake us at night and I often cried into my pillow.
Finally my mother took pity and asked her to stay in our servants’ quarters, that had been recently vacated by one of Daddy’s (my father was an Arabic professor) protégé. She was so grateful to have the small cul de sac of one bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette, that she was available whenever my parents called. Once when I returned early from school to find our house locked, she gave me a delicious lunch of bhaji and chappathis. I think Daddy also helped pay her children’s fees and she worked two more houses to supplement income.
Unfortunately, within a year, Daddy also got a job abroad, and we had to shift to our native Tamil Nadu. A tearful Parvathi, cursed her fates and helped us pack our stuff. Later I believe she survived the setback and managed to educate her children and get them good jobs.
In my boarding school in Coonoor, Appu, the canteen cook, who had manned it for 15 years, was a skilled gourmet. His delicious snacks, particularly coconut barfi and puffs, were sold out within seconds. Besides this he also cooked our lunch and dinner, which were excellent Kerala items mostly banana and rice based. The nuns had a separate menu, whose smells made our mouth water.
After my marriage, it would have been a nightmare without the in house ayah, who was more of a mother-in-law than my own, as she gave subtle hints on how to cook, clean and feed about 25 members of the joint family plus 20 factory workers. These were separate menus and it was mind-boggling for a 19-year-old to balance the groceries and rationing of food. Mahboobi ayah was also an expert in getting work out the able bodied helpers like the dhobi and watchman, who would often ignore my orders. She was a childless widow, who did a stint in Bombay now Mumbai and saved enough to buy a five-sovereign gold necklace. Later she boldly sold it to help out her sister’s sons.
Our dhobi Kamala, a fair girl, who took over from her drunken father, was a meticulous worker. We had to soak our clothes in iron buckets, which she could heft up with one hand. Beating them to an inch of their lives on a raised stone platform, wringing them and hanging them out, Kamala was an expert and very punctual in her duties. In later years, she saved enough from her salary to conduct her sisters’ marriages, buy a small plot of land, some jewellery and also do the traditional ceremonies for her nephews and nieces. As is common in these cases, her husband was a drunk who abandoned her for childlessness and remarried. However she adopted her sisters’ families and today continues to earn by ironing clothes at a few houses.
Alamelu, a maid I employed, had three daughters and a son. She and her husband worked about a dozen jobs to educate their son for an engineering course. The jobs covered drawing water from wells, sweeping, mopping, bathing newborns, escorting children to school and ayah work in schools. However her daughters were school dropouts and she put them to work at silver anklet making units and other factories. The son lived up to the parents’ expectations and got a good job in Coimbatore. She immediately quit the job, when I scolded her for something. A few years later she came to meet us saying that all her children were married and settled. However the son’s wife, a girl from a higher income family, had alienated Alamelu and her husband. She now lived alone with her husband. The couple sold bajra gruel and other country delicacies from their doorstep.
I could go on like this, but it would be too long a read. Suffice it to say, that maids have evolved from being skilled workers to multi-tasking individuals who prefer to rush back home after about an hour’s duty in each house. Their loyalty to their families is immense but their adjustment to the vagaries of their employers is a lesson in social behaviour. They will move heaven and earth and even sell their souls to finance their children’s lives. The same applies to their husbands but a disturbing trend now is that some will even prostitute for income, while others will have extra-marital affairs for emotional relief from their troubled marriages.
Whatever their incomes throughout the decades, the single stand alone objective is saving so that today all maids have at least a sovereign of gold (Rs. 25,000), some land or a house. It is this parallel economy that has allowed India to survive through multiple global economic depressions. Long live maids and their contribution to our society.