The Helping Hand
EYE - February 12 - February 18, 2012
The changing paradigm of a domestic help in a changing world.
AFTER BEING used to Mumbai's sophisticated domestic help, it always is a jolt back to earth to meet the ones that float in and out of my mother's house in a smaller city. It is probably not just the city demographic but also my mother's age and feistiness that has something to do with it. Yellamma, the latest, is a 50-year-old former construction worker with negotiating skills of a good sales manager and a learning curve that puts all my erudite theories about the necessity of high school education to shame. When she came, she was like a bull in a china shop in a modern kitchen with gadgets and now, with the same shraddha of preparing a pooja thali, she readies the washing machine, and invites my mother to come and press the button. My mother says that she feels like a VIP cutting the ribbon, every day of her life, and is pleased with this arrangement.
Unlike her Bombay counterparts, Yellamma doesn't worry too much about job descriptions. Her paradigm is different. She offers head massages to all my mother's visitors, some of whom accept and tip well. After my initial splutter at this, I thought she had managed what retailers in malls struggle to do - monetise footfall! She offered me an oil massage too, and suggested moving into a room at the far end of the house to relax better. I thought happily about a conversation that I had with the chairman of an MNC making premium beauty products, who said that they had to recalibrate their notion of luxury and pampering for India; customized massages to home are available only to the very affluent in America, but easily accessible to middle-class India. My happiness was rudely interrupted by Yellamma using the opportunity to tell me to recommend a salary raise for her, in exchange of which, I could leave worrying about my mother's well-being to her.
I asked my mother how on earth she came to hire her, and was told that she sent a decoy first - her daughter-in-law was interviewed and hired, and then every few days, Yellamma would be sent as a substitute and slowly, through a slow breaking-in-process, the daughter-in-law disappeared.
Jungamma was the official massage lady for the women in my mother's neighbourhood. She was clear about a lot of things, including the problems of women going to the "joommi" (gym). She talked of how one lady had a knot on some part of the body because she went to the joommi and then decided to go to the "byank" to get an operation done for it. When I corrected her and said people go to hospitals to get operations, she informed me that because hospitals were so expensive, most people had to go and get a "byank" loan first. She finished the story by saying that had they not complained about giving her more money, she would have massaged regularly, and the problem would never have happened. Her speciality was philosophy. She would say, "And when the man dies, does his family cry…oh where have you gone, who will feed you, do you have a soft bed to sleep on? No, we say instead, where will I go, who will feed me, will I have a soft bed to sleep on?" It was a whole new take on grief, and one that still makes me cringe!
Seeta was the younger one who worked with my mother before her family got her engaged to a school teacher. He was adamant about marrying an educated girl because he wanted her to be able to teach their children well. Seeta, of course, had not passed Class 5, but she was passed off as a student who cleared Class 10. Unable to deal with the intellectual expectations of her fiancé, she told him that her parents had stretched the truth a little bit, and actually she had finished Class 7. He said that was not a major problem, and asked her for her Class 7 certificate, so that he could enroll her for a private coaching for class 10. In a bind, she came to my mother and asked her to figure out some scheme to save her. My mother went to the principal of a nearby school and asked him if she could be tested for two subjects (Seeta could tell her husband she had forgotten the rest, since she had been sitting at home for a while) and given a certificate that she was "up to the standard of Class 7". The poor man, unable to say no to an 81-year-old with an outrageous request, agreed. On last count, my mother was explaining in English textbook in Telugu to her, and we shudder to think about all the things that the new Indian desperation for education is doing to the marriage market.
But the best one was Leelavati, who was my nanny and my mother's "man Friday" for decades. Her English was confident and her malapropisms terrifying. As my father shouted about there being no ice in the fridge on a summer evening in Delhi, she informed him that it was because there was too much temper outside. And when my little cousin told her that she spoke "butler English", she drew herself up to her full height and said to him "and you speak cook English".