'A healthy breakfast!' (accompanied by an ugly pic of a half eaten bowl of cornflakes)
And my irritating FB update for today?
I have always been a reserved person. Insular might be a better way to describe it. I'm not someone that reaches out easily to people, or has lots of friends. And if it is difficult for me to get close with colleagues and other people in my social circle, then any such thing with the household help is even more out of the question, given the added reason that I have always been in jobs and hardly find the time. I have never managed, or even tried, to break the ice with any of them.
All this was true at least, till I took a break of some months between jobs. For the first time in many years, I found myself at home the whole day. It coincided with us moving to a new locality and that's when I met Aparna, our new Bengali cook.
I remember the first day she came to meet me. I opened the door and found a dark, thin, short lady in a sari standing outside. She seemed nervous and giggly; in fact I thought her a little mad then. But she had come highly recommended from a co-habitant in our apartment complex, so I decided to give her a try. But first and foremost came the tricky question of salary. My past experience with maids in Bangalore had taught me that they were pretty tough negotiators, so I braced myself for a tough haggling session. But when I proposed the salary I had in mind, she thought for a bit and said "Ok, see my work, then give whatever you want". It was unprecedented! I reeled for sometime, then asked her to start coming from the next day.
After that, the surprises never ceased. In the three years that we had been married we had tried three different cooks, all bad. In fact, I had come to the conclusion that there was no such thing as a good cook on hire. All the good ones chose to sit at home and cook for themselves. But Aparna was a revelation. She cooked very well, in as little oil as I had instructed her to use, and treated us with piping hot breakfast and tea in the mornings. Not only that, she would even clean the dishes and sweep the floor when our other maid failed to turn up. I could tell that even though she was poor, the quality of her work and her employer's comfort mattered much more than money. She would fret when her dish turned out bad, and I'd have to practically push her out of the door to stop her starting from scratch again. I began to admire her work ethic and soon we had developed a good rapport.
One day she had to take home a stove that I had given to her, and a bunch of newspapers to sell to the raddiwalla. She was wondering how to carry so much, so I offered to drive her in my car since she lived very close by. Her eyes went wide with astonishment and happiness, and she could only manage one word, "Thankoo!". Soon she, her daughter and I were driving to her house. On the way, she stopped and sold the paper to the raddiwalla. She took the 100 rupee note that she had earned from it, and promptly tried to push it into my palm. "But why?" I asked in exasperation. "Bhabhi, it is your newspaper that I sold, and you are spending your fuel to take us home." I realized all over again that she was quite something, this lady. She had five children to support, and I know what Rs 100 meant to her. After much persuasion she kept it and we drove on.
Soon we stopped in front of her home and her little boy ran out, delighted at seeing his mother and sister get out of a car. Before I could drive back, Aparna pounced on me "Bhabhi, you have come to my home for the first time. You cannot go away like that. What will you eat and drink? I'll get it from the shop." I was a little taken aback. I am mortally scared of situations where I have to sit and make small talk with people I hardly know. I tried to wriggle away, but she would hear nothing of it. Finally I asked her to get a Frooti and a small packet of snacks. She first settled me inside her small one-room home, which accomodated five of them. I looked around in wonder. How? How could so many people live in such a small room and have so little money and eat so little and yet smile all the time, like she and her children did? There was a slab in one corner which obviously served as a makeshift kitchen, and her husband was about to serve himself a meal of rice and some stew. Seeing me he quickly abandoned it, and came to stand by while his wife and daughter went to buy the eats. I sat down on one mattress and we waited in uncomfortable silence. I felt a little guilty invading his space, because I knew he worked in a hotel some distance away and only came home for two days in a week. Just when we had managed to start some awkward conversation about his workplace and the weather, she came back with two bottles of juice and two packets of namkeen. I think she had spent most of the 100/- on that. After pushing as much of it as I could to her children, I gulped down some while she looked on with almost maternal satisfaction.
Finally I got up and started saying my thanks and goodbyes. Her little boy jumped up and started pleading with his mother in bangla. I could guess what he was saying. "Does he want a ride?" "Yes, yes!" He clapped before his mother could answer. "Well then, hop on." He got into the front seat and made his mother and sister also sit in the car. Now, I have three little nieces who have rewarded me with delighted faces many a time. But never, never have I seen a child so utterly ecstatic. I could see that this ride was an impossible dream come true for him. He sat back quietly and grinned in complete contentment. His eyes twinkled with curiosity and excitement, but he didn't try to touch anything. I played the radio for him, and his grin widened. When we reached the parking, he got off and gave the car a longing look. Then the family thanked me and walked back, chattering loudly and happily about their experience. That day was one of the best in my life. And to think that I had almost come back without spending any time with them.
Some days later, I had to make a trip abroad. Before I left I told Aparna that I was leaving for a month, and she was to take care of bhaiya, as she called my husband. She was highly vexed at that "I know you cook nice dishes for him at times. I don't know how to do any of that. How will I know what to cook when?" I quelled her fears as best as I could and left.
When I came back after my trip and opened the door for her in the morning, I was unprepared for what came. She started scolding me in her accented Hindi: "Toom keedhar gaya tha? (Where had you gone?) Eeetna deen? (So many days?) Hom socha, kya hua? (I thought, what had happened?)" It seems she had not really grasped that I was going away for one month, and had begun to worry about me, more so when there was a story in the paper about some murders in the city. One victim's photograph looked like me, and she had started pestering my husband everyday to know when I was coming back. She had even tried to make him call me and let her talk. To top it all, she had showed the newspaper to a lady in another flat she was working in, who had assured her that the name was not mine. "So who had murdered that woman?" I asked, already anticipating the answer "Ooska to hujband kiya tha (Her husband had killed her)" I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "So you thought bhaiya had killed me?" "Bhabhi, aajkal aadmi ko dekh ke thodi na somojh aata hai! (Nowadays you can’t tell how a man is just from looking at him)"
Later on, when I had managed to digest the shock and make her understand that she was never to suspect my poor husband again, I found the situation rather amusing. It was an ideal plot for an Utpal Dutt movie: Aparna spying on him from behind the door. Aparna searching the kitchen cabinets for "incriminating evidence". Aparna ladling out food to him thinking "Khao khao, khaoge nahin to polees ki maar kaise khaoge? (This I don't feel like translating)"
Though I felt sorry for him, I was deeply touched by her concern. God knows she has enough troubles of her own. She works so hard that she doesn't even have time to eat properly. And how much does she see of me? Just 2 hours in a day? Even then she cared and worried for me like I was family!
Thank God for people like Aparna. They make me feel like my life is worthwhile. Knowing her has made me a better, more open person. I know now that it is important to reach out and explore, because love, loyalty and humor can be found in the unlikeliest nooks and crannies.