By Deborah Grey
At first, I thought nothing when I didn’t find Lalita at her usual spot at the stairwell. For the last many years, I’ve returned from my morning jog at 7 am to greet her before we enter the house together. While I get busy nosing through the newspapers, Lalita begins her daily ministrations of my home and hearth.
But today there was no sign of her. With a slight dread, I showered, got dressed, and started preparing breakfast. There was still no sign of her. Finally, as I left home I ran into our watchman Ganesh who told me, “Bai no come. Gone village. Girl have baby.” (For some reason Ganesh and all other watchmen insist on speaking only in English with me.)
To be fair, Lalita had told me that her daughter was pregnant and that she would be taking a month-long break to go assist her. She’d also promised to set me up with a temporary replacement. However, Lalita’s grandchild arrived three weeks in advance and the replacement maid had not returned from her annual vacation yet.
But the word “bai” is what caught my attention. Years ago, I discovered that the word does not mean maid or domestic help. It is actually a respectful Marathi appellation for a woman – the way Sansa Stark might be addressed as Winterfell ki Sansa Bai.
Lalita isn’t my bai. She is my bae, with a penchant for Bollywood music. She is the first person I see every morning as she merrily sings Hindi movie songs from the ’90s while chopping vegetables. Once I saw her comically wave a kitchen knife at a pigeon at the window even while delivering a pitch-perfect rendition of “Kabootar ja ja ja!” Another time I opened the door looking visibly hungover, and she broke into a spontaneous “Party all night, party all night, didi party all night!” She then proceeded to make me strong black tea with ginger and a generous dash of lemon juice, a concoction she swears is an instant hangover killer. It worked like a charm, of course.
I might employ Lalita, but I owe her my job. That might seem like an exaggeration, but for hundreds of working women like me, women like Lalita are our enablers. Much more than our parents or partners, these are the women that empower privileged women like us – they are the wind beneath our wings, the anchors to our floating lives. By taking over domestic “feminine” responsibilities, by cutting out all the scutwork I should be doing, Lalita allows me to accumulate air miles covering riots, funerals, droughts, and scams across the country.
Despite the inequality in our social statuses, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Lalita and I are part of a sisterhood.
For the last ten years, I’ve had one partner or another. Before Lalita, there was our delightful retired nursing assistant Geeta Maushi, who would headbang to religious chants of “Vitthala Vitthala” as she made chapattis every morning. Despite the inequality in our social statuses, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that we are part of a sisterhood.
So I obviously broke into a cold sweat when I realised I’d have to figure out a way to operate without Lalita. Three weeks went by. The replacement maid did not turn up and I struggled to juggle my assignments, even as I tried to make sure my house did not end up looking like a cross between the decrepit tomb of a long-forgotten queen and a bombed-out bunker in a war-torn country.
In the intervening days, I started searching for Lalita’s temporary replacement, endured many misadventures, and finally started doing my own chores. But juggling home and work tired me out so much that I might have started to slip into a temporary depression. I lost the will to leave my bed in the morning. The cobwebs started taking over the walls, even as cat fur stuck to pretty much every surface in my house. Books and newspapers lay strewn around me. Things finally came to a head when I heard “Goriya, chura na mera jiya” on the radio and started sobbing. I missed Lalita too much and was unable to function.
And then after an interminable three months, Lalita magically reappeared at my doorstep once again. I did not complain, didn’t ask her why she went away for so long. I was just so grateful to have her back that I could have hugged her.
Now, I could go back to long-term investigative journalism projects that I had put on hold. Now, I would have my tiffin every day and not be forced to eat out. Now, I’d come back to a cobweb-free house every night. And even now, in my self-absorption, I failed to notice that something was seriously amiss – that Lalita’s husband had passed and shortly after, her sons had met with road accidents. All I saw was my saviour.
For the first time, I realised how selfish I had been in presuming I could call dibs on Lalita’s time. I had failed to see that she had a life and family of her own that needed her. It reminded me of the family that had locked up their maid in Noida, leading to a riot by all the domestic helps in the neighbourhood. For all my “woke” proclamations of recognising my privilege, I too was guilty of thinking of Lalita as someone who “belonged” to me. I was guilty of the same “upstairs-downstairs” mentality that made me critical of shows like Downton Abbey.
Lalita is back to her sanguine self, looking forward to the birth of yet another grandchild, singing “Oonchi hai building” as she scrubs the dishes. But I, honestly, don’t know how to make amends. For being my biggest enabler, I don’t know if saying “thank you” when she leaves every day, is enough.
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