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“We felt truly sorry for the nanny-children,” writes M. M. Kaye in The Sun In The Morning, a memoir of her magical childhood in India. While Mollie Kaye was cared for by native ayahs, most of her English friends were supervised by governesses or nannies.
“The nanny-children envied our greater freedom and our ability to chatter to any Indian we met in the Bazaar or the Mall, in our own or other people’s houses,” she writes, describing how ayahs let their charges run wild in a way that no British nanny would have permitted in a post-Victorian era. “Ayah” describes this category of native maids employed by Europeans living in India during the time of empire. The word had its origins in the Portuguese aia which meant nurse or governess. A cryptography expert in the army stationed in India, Kaye’s father was a polyglot who could speak seven or eight languages, including Hindustani (a melange of Hindi and Urdu). He wanted his children to grow up loving India. Learning the local language was one route to making sense of the country and its people. Thus Kaye’s memoir details the warmth of the native helpers, the beauty of the Indian countryside and, most of all, her love for India, especially for Simla, her birthplace.
While reading Kaye’s affectionate accounts of Teeta-ayah and Punj-ayah, I was reminded of the staff in my parents’ employ. One of my longest associations was with an ayah named Kannamma. A one-eyed woman, Kannamma had hollow cheeks and a bird-like gait. The skinny, dark-skinned woman came into our lives when I was about four years of age. When I was little, Kannamma would bring lunch every afternoon, walking a mile and a half to and from Vidhyodaya, my school, in the heat of Chennai without a pair of sandals to shield her callused feet. In the lunch room, she cajoled me to finish all my food. Sometimes she told me stories to help me along, just like Kaye’s ayahs who “would tell us enthralling tales about the doings of gods and heroes. We learned early why Ganesh has the body of a man and the head of an elephant …”
Unlike Kaye’s maid, Kannamma was more than just an ayah. Her presence in our bungalow preserved my mother’s sanity. From 5 a.m. until sundown, Kannamma made everything gleam. She swept and washed our courtyard. She dusted and mopped the length and breadth of our home. No one told her that she had missed a spot—although my mother tried to, on occasion. She ate most of her meals in our home. In monsoon and in heat, Kannamma, the human dishwasher, stood by, awaiting the arrival of dirty dishes so she could begin the washing. In the early afternoon, she would be at the clothes’ stone, slapping our soaked, soaped clothes on the rock in the backyard, until she rid them of ground-in dirt. Then she rinsed and wrung them dry and hung them over the clothes line. When my mother was reduced to tears for any reason at all, Kannamma was at her feet, commiserating and consoling, the divisions of caste and class melting at the universality of frustration and grief.
Kannamma was part of our extended family and as far as I was concerned we would never part ways. As M. M. Kaye observes in her discussions about being close to servants and their families, the notion of caste was something children acquired later on, in adulthood “together with prejudice and intolerance.”
When I was in my late teens, Kannamma fussed over my hair and grooming. She ground up the leaves of hibiscus to make a thick paste that she applied weekly to my hair. No shampoo could make my hair shine and bounce like Kannamma’s dextrous fingers.
For two decades, Kannamma was a familiar face in our bungalow from dawn to sunset until one day in 1982 when she did not show up for work. We found out—when we ran to knock on her door—that she had left for her village in the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu. Later, my mother discovered that Kannamma had stolen some money and that her son, a drunkard, had pushed her to steal. In shame and remorse, Kannamma must have stopped working altogether. Despite her only transgression, Kannamma epitomized loyalty and perfection.
For years after, her memory lit up a corner of our lives, her work ethic and compassion making her a legend in our circle of family and friends.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.