Bangalore is an overgrown wanna-be western place unlike Chennai where we come from. It is still taking time to get into the groove of things here, but thanks to school and work, there isn’t a moment to think. I do have domestic help. Initially, much to my surprise, I found it extremely stressful to have someone hang around awaiting my bidding, but with the high level of dust and pollution in the city it is a necessary evil.
Hiring was a hilarious process. Word buzzed around that a wealthy “America return madam” was looking for help. The bell would ring. I would open the door. The prospective employee looking stunned, like a deer caught in the headlights, would blink for a minute. This was the Amma? I probably looked more like the oldest kid of some of the other ladies in the apartment! Streams of people came and went. Maids today are really spiffy—smartly outfitted in salwars or saris, wearing gold earrings and flowers, they show up like they are going out for a movie. I remembered I was supposed to ask for references, work experience, detail the jobs expected and for what pay … I had to set the rules and not let them push me around. Invariably, I would forget something. I always told them to show up again at a certain time and watched if they kept the appointment.
One day two young women rang the bell. Their cheery smiles greeted me.
“You are looking for help.”
“Yes,” I answered warily, having opened the door only a crack.
“We’ve come to fill the position.” Says one while the other cranes her neck to get a good look in.
“Do you need a cook?” The second one asks.
“Perhaps.” I wonder why I am so unenthusiastic. It might have something to do with a serious reluctance on my part to relinquish control over the kitchen. Friends had related jaw-dropping stories about cooks. I felt I had research material for a manual “Things a cook can carry away everyday.” I had wonderful things that I did not want to miss. I did not want the hassle of counting teaspoons and measuring salt everyday. I did hate doing dishes and cutting vegetables. “Perhaps.” It sounds right.
I let them in. The two swish into the living/dining room and survey the apartment.
“Three bedrooms. Do you have a washing machine?”
“It will come.” I reply almost meekly.
“We can do your clothes, sweep and wipe, and cook. That will be Rs.500 per month. We cannot come on Sundays.” Says the dominant one. Was she using the royal We? I wonder.
They buzz buzz to each other.
“I do not want two people,” I say.
“No, no, we have agreed that I will clean and she will cook. That will be another Rs. 500 for her.”
“Anything else?” I ask, amused.
“We can begin immediately.”
I herd them to the door thanking them. I heard my mouth say I will call them if they are needed, all the while thinking of their audacity.
The next candidate for cook accosted me on the street while I was walking my dogs. Daya and Dilip pulled restlessly while she rattled on. I kept smiling politely until Daya gave me an unceremonious reminder to do this on my time. I urged the woman to come to the apartment. She never came.
A third woman with a jolly face and well kept look wanted to cook for me. She claimed to cook veg, non-veg, Chinese, omelets, anything I wanted. The Amma she was working for right now was very mean. She would not give her a raise and cheated her of promised money. There are fights in the house everyday and their daughter … I sent her away wondering what she would say about me to other people.
The next wanted to cook for Rs. 1,000 but would not clean or do the dishes. Not a bad deal for her. Hell, I could do that myself!
Streams of hopeless characters came and went. One night, as we entered the building, a woman approached us with her two daughters. Their story was sad. The mother, a little smelly and unkempt was beautiful. The daughters, timid. They were in boarding school in Tamizh Nadu but were sent home because they could not afford the fees anymore. The father is a fruit-vendor without experience and the mother tries to earn a day wage at the market. They were new to the city, had no references and stayed around the corner in someone’s garage courtesy the caretaker. An experienced woman in the building advised me against this. “Do not fall for it. They will keep coming to you for money. Such people are better avoided. Here one day, gone the next, with all your things.”
I hired the girls. Elizabeth Rani (I call her Rani) and her sister came everyday.
“You are spoiling them by giving them Bournvita and jam.” I was told. “I give my maids tea and bread.”
I took another look at the girls. A bottle of Bournvita was not going to impoverish me, nor was two mugs full of milk and some jam. They were young. They were smart, sad to be removed from school, and polite. I enrolled them in a tailoring class, enabled them to pay for it themselves by giving them a “bonus.” Rani is a joy. She is playful, and teases Maithreya a lot. After her chores and her meal, I teach her math and English, make her read Tamizh literature and write short stories. She is ready for the next level of sewing classes. Like her mother, she is a beauty. She is shy and honest, and certainly not as old as her mother claimed. Child labor! Well, her mother had two choices—she could stay with me, learn, play, have access to Maithreya’s puzzles and paints, go to vocational school and be treated like a member of our family or she could be a servant (what an ugly word) in someone else’s house.
I tried to get her into a school here. Ground reality for a girl like her…the family cannot afford her boarding school in Tamizh Nadu anymore. Karnataka does not have Tamizh medium public schools after grade 7 and she is shy of the challenge of starting from scratch with Kannada and English.
Aravind hired a chauffeur. We bought a cumbersome Tata Safari. It is supposed to be an SUV. I think they mean Simply Unreliable Vehicle. Since we bought it, the vehicle has gone for servicing at least twice every month. Unfortunately, we needed the size for the dogs. Every time I think of the Lexus RX300 we had, I feel like someone is twisting a knife through my gut. We sold it before we came. This monstrous, noisy, inefficient, rusting hulk we have now cost us almost as much as what we sold the Lexus for. We left that gem behind because the moving agent informed us that there would be a 150% duty on the vehicle. We arrive here to find out that it could have been easily cleared for Rs. 2 Lakhs. Aarrrggghhh!
Our chauffeur drives, runs errands to the store, and bank and helps with small things around the house. He is paid well and responds to his responsibilities. After being behind the wheel, it does feel weird to be driven around. I have to pinch myself occasionally to remind myself that I am really in India for a long haul. Encapsulated in the air-conditioned car, I look out at the passing scenes and feel disconnected from them. It is like watching a silent movie in broad daylight. When the sound of the motor stops, the a/c will go off and I will return to a different reality. I never do. Instead my door is opened by a chauffeur, smartly dressed in an unusual blue safari suit, and I step into my silent film turning into a role for another vehicle voyeur.
I realize that people here are terribly dependent on help for everything. I have to remind myself to be independent and not wait for someone to show up to fix things and get things done. Of course I do not have Keith and Marty, my trusted neighbors, around next door to advice me on my fix-it projects. That is a handicap. Also, things are different here. For one thing, I need muscles to drill through concrete just to put up a few (ahem!) pictures! I have changed garage doors and toilets in Santa Clara. Here one needs to break concrete and mess with foul cement. Nothing is modular.
India is amazing in many hidden ways. There is not one thing you cannot get. If something breaks, there is someone to fix it. If there are no parts, there is someone who will custom manufacture it. Products like Nutella come here from the Middle East distributors, and we if we now get mozzarella cheese, perhaps Gruyere is not too far away.
I have managed to get my fridge and washer hooked up here. Just seeing that enormous refrigerator again made our apartment feel like home. My range needs a special adapter fabricated to fit a LPG pipe and my dryer would not get in the door (American sized!). Getting a gas connection is really easy these days. No one cares if you have a ration card or other ID. All they need is your contact information. There are several outlets like Shaktigas or Bharath gas that sign you on as a customer for an initial deposit. They give you the cylinders almost immediately and even sell you a countertop range if you need. BPL and other companies now manufacture four burner ranges with a built in oven.
The electricity board sends its bills four days before due date here and you are expected to pay it on time. The phone linemen play with your lines and ask for a handout with an attitude! Most people are sincere but very unprofessional. The new way is to drop a lot of “sir” and “ma’am” to customers to appear sophisticated. I could tell many of these people a thing or two about their business, especially characters who come to service the computers. For better or worse, married to Aravind, I have unplugged, unscrewed, removed, and reinstalled hardware and software.
We all miss home, but we do not have time to think about it. Every once in a while, Maithreya will express his feelings. He wishes we could have brought our house here. We all miss a garden and outside space. We live in an apartment temporarily (we hope) and plan (still planning after firing one architect and hiring another) our dream home. Maithreya once said that it would be great if he could go through his bathroom door and step into Santa Clara. Such a Narnia experience would be awesome for all of us if possible. Aravind and I are trying to stay focused on the end goal and are plugging along hoping it would happen sooner than later.
Soumya Sitaraman returned to India after living in the San Francisco Bay Area for 10 years. She writes an ongoing column about adjusting to her new home.