Rumination amidst solitude

To Do Nothing at All

Published by purplepinkbliss under on 2:05 AM

To Do Nothing At All

Is it dawn already? Did I or did I not wake up to the alarm? Let me check on Sitan’s mobile. Of my three offspring, it is she who takes care of these subtle things for me. My first born Suman does love me as a daughter should love her mother, but she never noticed these things. She was the one who got my total attention. When I bathed her I did nothing but abandon all other thoughts than bathing her. As I cooked, as I cleaned she was all over me. I was expecting Sitan when Suman was six months old. She was such a sober and considerate infant. When ever her condescending sister threw a fit, Sitan was quiet. She was perceptive to my feelings as an infant. Suman was a handful and coming to think of it, I can hardly recall a single instant when she let me carry her younger sister. If I did, she would ask me to put her down and demand to be carried herself. But Sitan never complained or even cried. When Sitan was 8 months old, I was expecting Omkar, my most challenging child. Of my three children, he was doted on the most for being the youngest and for being the son. He is so oblivious to everybody else’s needs that I suppose he is not even aware that I must be up at four A.M to draw water from the only pipe in our slum. It is such an irony that Sitan whom I have not doted or paid much attention to is the one who happens to care for me.

Every morning I have to grope for that phone as the alarm rings. Sitan has taught me which button is to be pushed to end that most hated ruckus of a noise.

A good whole ten minutes to go before it is time for me to get up. Ten minutes of absolutely nothing at all. I fear very few things in this world. One of them is to succumb to my desire to do nothing at all. It is a tall order for a maid like me. At the age of 7, when I came from my village to Mumbai with my Aunt to find work, I remember that afternoon when she took me to a house to lend a hand during a wedding. I was asked to grate coconuts but I simply wanted to do nothing at all. My loving Aunt asked me once. Then she commanded me a second time and before she could force me to do anything, a fat middle aged Gujarati woman told my Aunt,

“Do you think you can get money out of me by bringing another good for nothing girl who is here just to have food after the function is done? You said you will bring help…”

My aunt silenced her and the commotion by splashing hot water onto my face. I was the darker shade of Indian brown. But after the awakening, I was maroon which happens to be Sitan’s favorite color. Before I could bawl, my aunt asked me to shut up and didn’t look much in my direction. Later that day after gorging on the leftovers of Gujarati kadi, ondeu, theplas and rotis, my Aunt told me,

“We don’t have the luxury to do nothing. If we make serving a part of our being this job will be much easier.”

Thus that evening I learned my first lesson, thanks to that fat middle aged Gujarati lady. Now who am I calling middle aged? I must be above 50 now myself. I doubt if anyone around me in the slum or back in my hometown knows their date of birth. I did note down those of my offspring.

But I still remember the agony, hurt, embarrassment, and pain. I made it a part of me to serve since that day. The comfort that came over me as I ate food on that difficult day is deep within. That day initiated my passion for food. In short, I seek comfort in food.

He must have gone to work, the bastard.

To make a home, both man and wife are equally responsible. What a fool I was to yield to his attention. To me back then attention was love. No one ever paid me any attention before him and I was eager to be loved. He was our neighbor Shama’s nephew who came from the village to find work. I was 16 then and he was 20. Within a week he had learned driving. He became a driver within a month which was the most respected work to my kind. He had a white uniform. He was thin and he had a long nose and now even his nose is puffy.

The bastard stopped to see me at dusk one evening after I finished with baby-sitting Soham. Soham is an engineer now and I take care of his child and the timings are the same, three in the afternoon to six in the evening. I had to wait for Soham’s mother to come back from work and it was such a delight to see her clasp her baby in her arms and rock him gently to make up for the time she was away. But Soham’s wife gives a fake smile to her daughter and goes straight to the bathroom to wash up and then about the housework a maid cannot do. Her house is neat alright but her daughter like her furniture is an accessory who happens to talk. The little girl is always tidied up but sadly the mother never gives her time to the daughter. Tomorrow when this daughter grows, she won’t give her time to her parents as how can one give something one has not received?

Anyway, that dusk the bastard stood there looking at me. As happy it made me I asked him, “Haven’t you seen a girl before?”

“This is the first time I’m looking at the girl who is going to be mine.”

So it is not that the bastard doesn’t know a nice word or two. It is so surprising that now the very sight of me just makes him want to complain. Off late he shouts at our children. In short he doesn’t talk at home. He shouts and complains. I feel sad as our children are indifferent to him and we keep out of his way. The moment he is home all of us find a reason to be out. After 9 when he is asleep we all get home. The best thing about him is he will help himself when it comes to food. So all I do is keep his plate, an empty glass and water in the jug Soham’s wife recently discarded. He will help himself to fill his plate with food that has been cooked.

He is a nice man but how unreasonable can a man get? Suman is 23 years old and she is seeing someone. He happens to be a watchman in the army. Since he has expressed his desire to marry our daughter then why can’t the bastard just speak to his people? They have come forward and shown the green flag but why won’t he? Oh god! She has been seeing him for the past two years and with all those hormones the almighty alone would know in which park or beach or other public place would my daughter and her lover be having fun. To imagine one of my own hugging and smooching and what not like one of those numerous lovers around Mumbai!

Oh that siren of an alarm. I must be off. I think I should wear the pink sari today. The slum is so quiet and clean now. Once the children are awake it would be impossible to believe that this is the same quiet slum. Kids running around in their uniform, playing cricket in these thin lanes, mothers chasing kids to have food and people rushing to and fro for work. I like the natural hullabaloo here. It is full of life.

The government is kind to us. They have set up the tap and what not. No leader of any ruling party ignores us. We used to have a well here around fifteen years back. But it was always a suicide point and it was sealed. It was better with a well. Even if we fought around it, it was better than the pipe. Moreover, those educated people complain that our slums are unhygienic and dirty. They have set a large garbage bin in our slum. But no one is patient enough to go dump waste there.

The public toilets are another big step. But trust me, I like it outdoors just like I am used to it since I was a little girl. These public toilets are very clean but old habits just die hard. Ha! I am sure the policeman licensed to beat anyone answering natures call outdoors would have done his business out as well. These are things villagers like us cannot change in a day.

But I was told the other day by those social workers who lecture us often about the disease that can spread with all that spitting, coughing shitting and urinating in our yard. What do those people know? We have lived like this all our lives and what right do they have to tell us that our ways are not good enough? Anyway, if it helps in some way or the other, then I am going to change. Let the younger children learn if they will from people like me. They ask us to wash ourselves thoroughly after work and what not. But don’t they know that water is not always available?

The other thing is we don’t use the facilities provided in the right way. The other day two women were at the tap and the bucket placed under it was overflowing. From the glint in each others eye and the intense energy I guessed that they were narrating how they were wronged by their in-laws and the like. I triumph when I bad mouth the bastard myself. I rather keep my delight to myself and share misery instead as it pleases me more. Never the less, they should have had the presence of mind to turn off the tap and then continue with the yap.

Being provided is one thing and making proper use of it is an entirely different thing. The two must go hand in hand. Bah! Useless thoughts! If I open my mouth, I’ll end up alone. But I will teach my children how to live well. I do not mind scrubbing, sweeping, swabbing, dusting, cooking and what not at numerous houses if it helps with educating my children so that they could be office goers unlike a driver like their father or a domestic help like their mother.

They are grown up now and my second born is a graduate. Suman earns 4000 a month and Sitan would rather pursue her painting or teach something creative. But the bastard asked her to throw away her colors and pencils as they don’t help put food on the table. Then Omkar! He plays cricket all day! He dropped out of school without even a matriculation and won’t find work.

What was I thinking, just because I slog it for them, they’d pursue my dreams? I know I have done everything a mother can. The rest is up to them and their destiny.

Now I don’t have to usher them to school or feed them. I leave pav and halwa covered on the table for the bastard to have in the morning. Sitan takes care of the rest.

So off late I just walk out of the home when it is time for work.

The first house I go to everyday is Soham’s and I will continue to do so until they ask me not to or till age gets the better of me. His was the first place I started work. His parents are no more. They were very good to me and so is Soham but since his wife and I were never part of our growing years, we don’t exchange much small talk. She is the boss and me her help. It hurt me around 4 years ago when they were recently married as she did not show me the courtesy one would show a husbands aunt for he considered me one. She is unabashed yet courteous when pointing out a gap in between the furniture to get rid of hair and dust balls. But she is unapologetic when she has been late for more than an hour in the evening. I go there every morn at 8 AM to sweep, swab and do the dishes. After 9 the house is empty and the lady of the house leaves right after me.

Then I go to Varsha society. This housing colony is around 30 years old. It has long lost its novelty but when I saw this place for the first time in its glory, I beheld a place I would never belong to no matter how hard I tried. Not that the people are rich and flashy. These were what they refer to as middle class. How I envied the women, the housewives who had a nice home to stay without having to worry about the shortage of water or electricity being cut. They had simple and nice clothes to wear unlike me who had to wait for old ones to be discarded. They had a look of content and hope unlike the rich people in fancy cars I saw at the weddings I worked at. The rich women had skin that shone like boiled and peeled eggs. They wore such flashy saris and lehangas like a Sridevi or a Hema Malini did in the movies. But their high pitched fervent and insensitive talk made them sound all the more miserable. Servants like me do not have the freedom to express ourselves through speech. But there is nothing we do not see, feel or hear. A few of these women spoke as if the only reason to speak was to put others down. When one outdid the other there was this queer sense of importance derived from such sadism. Despite their glamour I did not want to be like them.

There was something about these simple middle class women as they slog it from dawn to dusk. When I came to Mumbai all those years ago there were very few working women. Today it is rare to find a home maker especially a young one.

But these women had hope in their eyes and their wants seemed likely to materialize within a few years and heaven seemed something that could be attained.

Until I saw those rich women I believed that having money solved everything. But those women derived their pleasure from hurting each other. Happiness is something else and money doesn’t ensure it. Even if these simple nice people have to wait for the dates and shuffle their finances before spending, happiness is just there.

The first house I go over at the Varsha society is to the Wad’s and how do I describe what it is like to work for them? This house belongs to Sai who must be around 32 years old. She is in her last month of pregnancy. She has to share her house with an aged father-in-law. He must take his medication at exactly 9:45. So I must make rotis for breakfast exactly 15 minutes earlier. A minute here and a second there can create havoc. That old crone needs to check his attitude to recover from whatever is bothering him. No medicine will help his nature as he cannot control or fathom anything beyond his fret. No matter how hard I try to come on time it is just not possible when things depend on Soham’s wife who says, there is this to do here and that to do there.

Sai will have immense difficulty to feign sorrow when the old man dies. I think his heart’s deepest desire is to be highly respected by all. He gets into the preacher mode at the slightest hint of incompetency around him. Sai likes it easy. She wants to wake up at her convenience, take time off to read the paper at leisure, have breakfast she likes and then gradually begin work. He wakes up at 5:30 am and takes a bath and then prays and meditates. By 6:15 he is ready for his tea. Since it is not right in a household for a father to wake his daughter in law, he rings the pooja bell extra loud to wake her up. How she must curse him. He would then preach the importance of waking up early and doing ones chores. Her husband works in Dubai and he is scheduled to arrive in a week or so I hear. I did mention to Sai that I have great experience in bathing new mothers and newborns and she has hired me to do the job after her delivery. That means another 2500 every month.

The old man thinks he will attain Moksha in this life through his devotion to the deities and his knowledge. I heard him say this over the phone. But first he needs to give the people round him a Moksha from his irksome presence. He can start working towards a good life by being self reliant. These men have no idea what it is like to live without a woman to depend on. No wonder he never let Sai find work.


Oh God. Now I have to go that Madrassy’s house.

The boss here is the daughter-in-law. A typical Madrassy household and how can I not mention the Hindi spoken with the Madrassy lilt and tone. Oh! It drives me mad when the mother and daughter in law talk in their mother tongue. How fast they speak. I think the daughter in law has a decent price tag for the mother to put up with the boss. The thing is you cannot take the boss for a ride. She uses every part of her huge eyes. The corners are used to watch every spot I miss while swabbing their floor and she always points out the space underneath the sofas. There is nothing wrong in it and she has paid for good and proper service.

The boss takes tuitions. From the books I see something that looks like numbers. She teaches Maths I suppose. I have heard from my daughters that a student pays 1000 a month for tuitions. The boss has 8 students at 10:30 am and another 6 at around 7:00 pm. All her students are about 15 or 16 yrs of age. What money!

But it’s the Mother in law that I can’t tolerate. She is the most talkative person I know. I pretend to listen but when she keeps asking me, ‘Am I right, isn’t it’ and the like I am caught. She takes so much relish in having to recite the same thing again. She follows me around when I work and the boss has a tough time concealing her annoyance. The mother also chats with the students and when they sneer at her amongst themselves the boss has fiery eyes that shoot embarrassment. Maybe the aging Mother-in-law is very lonely and she needs someone to talk to.

I oil massage the boss’s 4 month old son. Since she has students around her, it’s the Mother in law that powders and dresses the infant after I give him a bath. She is the one who has to feed the son with semi solids. The Boss uses her huge rather beautiful eyes to monitor even the ritual of the bathing from her desk. And once she gives tuition work to her students she takes a round to check on her son. With an air of authority, the boss questions and cross questions the Mother in law to find out if she applied powder, cream and a pinch of Ayurvedic powder right above his forehead. The boss will then go to her students and after a while she will come back to check how many spoons of food did the baby have. She repeats her question several times and each time the Mother in law would sound different. The first time she was confident, the second time she was irritated and the third time she would sound shaken and the fourth time she would be meek. But over the months I have been working for them, I can see why the Boss is boss and why she didn’t find satisfaction in anything the mother did. The mother would bring home a kilo of say, okra. A quarter kilo or a little more would suffice for the three grown ups there. The remaining wouldn’t see the light of day and would rot at the bottom of the refrigerator. The other day, while on the phone, the baby had moved to the edge of the bed and there was no pillow on the side. The Boss noticed from the inner room and rushed to put a pillow there. When it comes to spending money, she simply did not have the right sense of judgment and she brought saris she never wore. She was aloof when the boss’s family was around but she made omelets with extra ghee for the watchman who helped with errands whenever necessary.

But it is nice to see the compliant, yielding side of the Boss when her husband is around.

Once the man of the house is home, they are a lovely family. The Mother is quiet and the Daughter in law is busy with the chores.

Then it is time for Rajalakshmi.

Her husband calls her Raju. Off all the people I work for I hate her the most. How I hate her!

This Rajalakshmi is Madrassy but a Madrassy quite unlike the Boss. The boss has thick, black hair that extends to her waist. Her hair is always plaited and she wears vermilion in the center partition of her hair. I have seen her dress up in jeans with the same hairstyle and vermilion. The Boss is always wearing her mangalsutra and in short, no matter what she wore, a look at the Boss would tell you that she was belonged to the sect we refer to as Madrassy. She asserted and ordered others about to see to it she is not taken for a ride. But Rajalakshmi opens the door to her apartment, with a welcoming smile on her face as if I were her husbands maternal aunt. She is respectful and entreating. I do not fathom why she should be cordial to a maid when she pays me to do my job and why is she soft instead of exacting. Why doesn’t she keep an eye on me and pinpoint what goes wrong?

Initially, I thought she was stupid. She did nothing but watched TV or read a book. When I stepped into the kitchen to do the dishes, it looked like she had cooked. In this era when anyone with a drive can find jobs, she stayed at home doing nothing at all. I remember her having a glimpse at her wedding CD through the corner of my eye. She had such immense gold on her and I realized that she had an enormous price tag. Moreover my envy soothed itself assuming that she was a stupid, rich, incompetent girl who was married to a well earning, good looking bloke who was lured into marriage for the wealth she would bring in.

But the very first time I saw her, I wanted to keep looking to find out what was different. She had ordinary features that had a unique charm about them. She wore a bindi with a churidar or sari and she looked very ethnic in them. When she wore a jeans or skirt she looked pleasantly different. What ever she wore, she could make heads turn and I wonder how she manages to do that. She did not look middle class or as shiny as the boiled and peeled eggs. But she certainly was one that could walk into any group and make a niche with any strata of society.

She has a sweet voice and what I hate with every ounce of envy is that she knows the art of conversation. Her husband can pop like a mustard seed in oil. He can shred a persons self worth in seconds with his aggressive baritone and fierce body language. Her husband is the kind of man who would chop a persons self confidence and prick the most sensitive issue in another if he is offended. He reminds me of the bastard. Once I saw that he was in his fierce lion mode and he was ferociously roaring at his wife for a reason I couldn’t fathom as he spoke in their Madrassy language. She looked sad but fixed her gaze upon his like a poised kitten. After he was done roaring he went to the living room and switched on the television. For around 10 minutes he reminded mute and then he called out to his Raju in English saying something that could be asking her to watch something interesting with him.

He sat on the sofa and she down on the floor. It simply doesn’t suit her to sit on the floor or do the dishes. She simply is not meant to be menial. But she sat down on the floor next to his feet and while sweeping the hall way I heard them having a hearty laugh. Through the corner of my eye I saw that she rested her elbow on his knees and in Hindi, she asked him loud enough for me to hear in her voice I so envy, “Was it necessary to say those things?” I just had to see what would happen next and started sweeping the TV room with my gaze indirectly fixed at them.

He didn’t say much but I saw the aggression in his eyes ooze away.

I assert that in marriage a sweet, expressive tongue can fix a lot of things. She could have argued back and fought him like a lioness. She chose silence and then after a while soothed the uneasiness with a single sentence.

Once I heard her speak over the phone in English. Not that I speak or fathom much English. But after around 45 years of servitude in a nation of Anglophiles I certainly can pinpoint good, classy English from a bad one. She spoke English with the least effort as if it was part of her being. She also knew how to use the computer and do work over the net. The net is a hit with my children a well. They watch DVDs on the computer. How spoilt my children are! In my childhood we did not have water to drink. These kids drink water only out of the fridge. As a child when I was lured by the sound of a TV in the houses I worked in it was often indicated that I should not be there by the owners. How I would stop work and stare! The bastard and I have managed second hand stuff for children so that they grow up with all the amenities of well off kids.

But one look at Rajalakshmi reminds me that no matter what I do for myself or my children we will never be like her. Her class, her language, her clothes, her disposition, her very being! I hate her!

She is lazy. There are times when I see the stove top very filthy. Neither will she ask me to clean it nor will she do it herself. Her house can be disorderly at times. How I sweep and swab is totally my department. She trusts me and respects me. Sometimes I wonder if I am a maid to her at all. I am supposed to make dinner for them at 7 in the evening. Oh after all that work in the day there are times when I shirk from my work in the evening. To avoid doing nothing at all, I go near the railway station and buy vegetables. When I go to work the next day she will open the door with a welcoming smile and when I tell her that I had to go out, she’d say, “I knew something held you back. That is ok.”

That is power, in choosing not to say or do anything when she actually can.

It is not that she is dumb and stupid. She simply respects humans irrespective of her paying them.

It feels nice to be respected. But I hate her from within my heart. Never once has she raised her voice at me and she treats me like I have never been treated before. But a sight of her and everything she has puts her as boss and me her servant. She has everything! Jewels, a big car, every appliance one could want, beauty, a nice husband and wealth. But I have never known people as humble as her husband and herself. They do not flaunt themselves and in short they don’t have to.

Rajalakshmi doesn’t have to assert herself or boss around. She does not have to be on guard and offend others to have her way. She is naturally talented and her being can tell us what she is and put others in their place.

I do not mind wanting to be her or my daughters to be like her. But we will never be. I hate her for I want to be like her.

Her person, soft voice and her mere presence would make others give her consequence.

She can cook as well! She makes me taste everything from the hard cakes she makes to the wonderful Biryani. She has immense time to do nothing at all.

Then I have to go to Neelam Nagar. I like to take time and walk within the lush green Varsha society. It stretches about 2 acres and houses around 300 families in 15 buildings and is free from the hustle-bustle of Mumbai. It is peaceful and quiet.

This is an elegant society, with cultured, educated folk that has been around here for about 25 years or more. They have huge walls that wall them away from the filth, traffic, noise pollution and hawkers. They have around 6 security guards. I live in the slum right behind the society. The thugs from our slum broke down the wall that walls us out. This broken wall is of great convenience to me as I work for around three houses in two different shifts here. People from our slum use this road to commute royally in and out of the slum. Every year the committee of the Varsha society rebuilds the wall with the help of the police who keep the local goons at bay. For the first three days the place is all the more serene. We can use goon force or break down their walls and believe that we have an address like this one. BUT we will never be one of them. It is our pathetic need to destroy things that we can never identify with or belong to.

Once I cross the gate, Mumbai is in her full vigor. There is a throng of rickshaws to the right side of the gate. There are two large stinking garbage bins overflowing with waste. A fraction of people walk quickly past those bins and another sect block their nostrils when they pass that way. Then there are those like me who don’t give a fig as we grew up in dirt.

On the way to Sameer Shanbag’s I have to pass the Trust English Medium School. Once, I saw a boy in the Trust uniform defecating while squatting in the front of the school gate. After he was done, his mother used the water from his water bottle to clean him. I wonder how Rajalakshmi would react to this sight.

Anyways, this Sameer is a middle aged bachelor who works on the computer. I have a set of keys with me and I do the dishes, sweep, swab and clean the toilet. I see him over the weekend and he is working on the kind of computer which looks like a book and can be placed on one’s lap. I help with payment of his electricity bill and with a magnet he puts the cash and bill on the refrigerator for me. His place is quiet and clean. I wonder if his solitude ever becomes loneliness.

Then I am free for a while and I go home for lunch and a little TV. Sitan has made rice with dal curry and okra for a side dish. But I have some Dosa batter which the Boss’ mother-in-law gave me. I can make at least 4 Dosas out of them. The 3 rotis which Sai has given me will go to the bastard for his dinner. I don’t think I love him enough to serve him steaming, hot Dosas straight from the pan to his plate.

I hope Omkar is home watching some new Hindi movie. I like to watch TV while I eat.

I wonder what is it about motherhood that makes us attentive to our children when we have been separated for a few hours. In the afternoon I am ready to listen to the stories they have to tell. It could be anything from the useless cricket match scores by Omkar or the anecdotes by Sitan about her friends. Suman is in her own world and opens up when she chooses.

I have to be at Soham’s at 3 pm to 5:30. I do not enjoy baby sitting much as I find it very difficult to pay attention and answer curious questions. The girl is too naughty and I often fight back the urge to hit her. Oh! I simply do not want to take care of a child now. But I cannot ignore the money. I can pretend to listen and give mock answers to the child for that amount. There were times when I felt the same with my children when they were young and I chose not to work back then because, if I a mother who is programmed to be unconditional towards her children find that instinct vague and inconsistent, how will another treat my children?

And at 6, I must be at Sameer’s to make his dinner. Yesterday he had called home to say he was going to eat out. He eats out at least thrice a week and pays me for cooking as well. I secretly hope I get a similar call today. It is awfully difficult to work in deadening silence and in my own kitchen, it gives me a headache as I plan what to make every single day. But when you cook and plan meals for money and get paid to keep another persons home, it is very tedious and boring. No matter how hard I try, it’s very difficult for me to treat another’s home as my own even if I am paid well.

But I do not have a choice. I rather work in an empty house and pretend to listen that doing nothing at all. I fear that need within me the most.

Now I have two hours to myself. I love my afternoon siesta, a chance to do nothing at all.