Friday, February 18, 2005

Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady

"Don't bother Savitri while she's working!!!” These words were uttered at different decibels at different times of the day, throughout my childhood. My Mom laughingly explained to friends and relatives "If my daughter gets mad, she'll be off on her bicycle but only to return in an hour or two...but if Savitri gets mad, where will I find a maid like her??” She would sometimes pose this rhetorical question with genuine concern, in a tone used when expecting an actual answer. People would laugh and agree, confirming in my eight year old mind that I was indeed here to stay while Savitri was the one that had to be won over, to be spoiled but, she would never be one of our world. My Mom was always clear about the 'other' caste system that resides in every nook and cranny of every labor-loving developing nation. They are the working class. They have to be kept in their place. Never let them forget who the feeding hand belongs to. We all followed these simple sounding but extremely complex rules as best as we could. I call them complex because for a eight year old it seemed like the woman who helped my mom in the kitchen all day chopping up vegetables, sieving flour, making me my Bournvita when my Mom wasn't home, making my bed and, to a high degree, controlling my mother's moods (hey, hell hath no fury like my Mom when Savitri did not show on any godforsaken day) should of course be right next to me on the living room sofa when I'm watching TV, correct? Well no, very early on I learned that the maids sat on the floor by your feet...something my 4 year old niece has easily picked up during her visits to India. We were all intimately aware of every member of Savitri's family. Her husband who drank away all his life's earnings, her "Useless Fellow" of a son as my parents used to refer to him, and the daughters who flew the nest as soon as possible only to return with sob-stories of their own. Savitri on the other hand also knew us all well. She referred to my sister as the Good girl (No doubt she picked that up from my Mom) who helped around in the house and who was no doubt, the obedient one. My brother she held in a god-like reverence. He was the one who everyone in the community wanted their sons to be like. He was abroad and doing so well. She was as proud of him as we were (almost!). I was called "Baby"...well, north of Andhra Pradesh pretty much every girl below 15 is referred to as "Baby" so I guess she wasn't in reality calling me a babe...but nevertheless, the name stuck well into my teens and my early twenties. Savitri knew about every family quarrel, every back-biting incident (complaints about siblings were made to my mom in the back end of the kitchen to which Savitri was very privy), every celebration, and every failure. She knew my mom's opinions about my Father's 'side' and my Mom’s views on her own 'side' and she could I think very accurately guess our opinions on all relatives in general. It had to happen as my Mom and she chatted amicably most days and both women loved to talk.

A day came as it does in every story involving a maid when something went missing. I don't recall what it was, try as I might now. It was a watch I think or maybe it was some money. I am not sure but everybody was in a frenzy looking for it. There was some hushed talk between my parents where there was a reference to "Her" which my inquisitive ears picked up. My friend Sumona's maid had made off with her Mom's earrings. I could totally put this together. Off I marched to the back door of the kitchen where Savitri was washing dishes with soap and soot (the mempry of that awful gray mixture rubbing against steel can still send creeps down my back) and I asked her outright if she took it. There was black anger on her face but she said nothing. I reported back that her silence must mean something. I hardly completed my narration when I felt a sharp smack on my head. My Mom was livid. Her number 1 rule had been broken. Not only had I bothered Savitri while she was working but I might have just screwed up the smooth functioning of this household indefinitely. Savitri would leave, how would my Mom get a maid as reliable as her, what would we do! I was aghast at the damage I had just caused. Things were getting very ugly. My sister found the missing item while I was dissolving in tears which brought around a fresh round of ribcage-shattering sobs. I was told to apologize. I had no problems with that. I walked over and stood in silence for a few minutes and returned. It wasn't that I meant to skip the deed completely or dupe my I walked up there I realized I had no clue how to say I was sorry in Hindi. Being a South Indian no matter where you are raised, you are born with a genetic makeup that makes speaking Hindi (not to mention writing essays and life stories called "Jeevinis") an almost insurmountable task. It's nothing that tutors, "kunji's" and sufficient cramming cannot solve but at 8 I had not yet mastered the basic know-how. So I stood there racking my brain trying to think of the Hindi word for "Sorry". I failed but I did look at her with my tearstained face for about 30 seconds. On my return I was patted on the back by every member in the family for doing the right thing. I never told them that I had not really apologized. I avoided crossing paths with Savitri for the rest of the week.

Many days later I heard my Mom and Savitri talking and Savitri made a reference to how I had paid her the second visit on that fateful day. I held my breath waiting to hear what she said. She said nothing and the moment passed. I walked over to the kitchen to make sure the black anger had left her face and she smiled a toothless smile and peeled an apple for me. We never talked about it again; I was after all a "Baby" and she, a Lady.


Blogger FunnyCide said...

Finally I can post a comment.. It is such a sweet post.. I can totally see the little kid with eyes like saucers marching upto the maid and demanding her!! LOL!!

The mish mash of reactions as a kid and retrospection as an adult was brought out pretty nicely..

This reminds of an incident involving a maid in my childhood.. Hmmm maybe I should blog about it.. :))

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey lovely post. It was nicely done with apt humor and a sentimental touch. Good going.

5:02 PM  
Blogger The Reporter said...

Amazing stuff :) Way to go! :)

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came thru Alpha's blog. Really curious about "kunji's" - what is it - rice soup?


7:15 AM  
Blogger GratisGab said...

Aaar, kunji's are these cheap and wonderful publications that post all the answers to every question in the back of the school-recommended text-book..!! Sweet! They sold out like hot buns I remember...

Thanks for the comments people..!

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

came to your blog through a chain of blogs which i cannot trace back, but the last link was alpha's. nice writing and wonderful post. makes me remember an equally nice maid we had at our house. keep on writing.

12:31 PM  
Blogger GratisGab said...

Thanks Anon...

3:57 PM  
Blogger tilotamma said...

You must have been quite brave to write that. Reminds of Sujatha Rangarajan's 'Scar'. That is what my mother translated the title as - I don't remember the Tamil word.
Something about being South Indian and growing up elsewhere which ensures you will never know your mother tongue very well either. I am even a stupid word like scar. I cried over that story even.

4:58 PM  
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10:17 PM  

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