The Private Lives of Domestic Help

My mother used to say, “Never get involved in the private lives of domestic help.”

My first domestic help was  a cook. Shaheena was a young muslim girl, tall, slim, pleasant looking, cheerful and clean. Also honest – I never noticed the slightest suspicious dwindling of kitchen supplies. Shaheena could read Hindi and Urdu, and a bit of English as well. She was keen on improving her spoken English and very soon I started speaking to her only in English – much to the amazement of visitors and guests. Initially she was regular as clockwork; then she got married. Almost at once, the trouble started. She was unwell; her husband didn’t want her to work; at least he didn’t want her to work late; she needed money (hitherto she had never asked for an advance and it wasn’t a habit I was keen to encourage); and eventually, of course, she was pregnant. She sent her sister in her stead and I saw little of her after that.

Her sister, Noor Jehan, was much older and had three boys from 9 to 16 years of age. She was less educated than Shaheena, and with fewer aspirations, but just as clean and just as honest; and she was an easier employee, more obedient in the kitchen, and the food she dished up was less bad and sometimes even good. But Noor Jehan was not as regular and very soon Amit was up in arms against her. At last I took matters in hand and over a period of several months took to cutting her pay for unplanned days of absence exceeding a day a month. Over the last year or so, this strategy greatly paid off. She learned to announce leave in advance, and offered to cook extra in advance or make up by working Sundays, rather than having her pay docked.

I usually don’t make too much trivial conversation with my servants. Not for any other reason but only because I’m usually too busy with something else, such as reading, writing, working, or watching TV. But every so often Noor Jehan decides to talk to me. She doesn’t gossip, but usually talks about herself, her sons, and occasionally her husband. When she decided to send the two younger sons to a religious educational institute outside Bangalore, she was very sad. “But they don’t study,” she explained to me earnestly. “I have to send them away.” When they came to visit, she would be quietly pleased; when they went back, bereft. The youngest son hated going away from her, and would howl every time. It broke her heart, but she was convinced it was the right thing to do.

When her eldest son took to coming home late and after long, unexplained absences, she was worried. “He gets into bad company,” she said sadly. She had recently heard of a bunch of teenagers who went to a picnic spot outside Bangalore and drowned while playing in the water.

Sometimes, she talked of her health – backache, fever. She asked for medicine, but added that she never felt comfortable swallowing pills. Once she confided in me that she had a searing pain in her abdomen. Someone had told her that it could be kidney stones. I told her to drink lots of water. She added, unasked, that she had pain while passing urine and also during intercourse, which, she said, was not very often. A little taken aback at this unsought confidence, I advised her to see a doctor. She did, but nothing came of it apart from a BP check.

Meanwhile, she kept me up to date on Shaheena’s life. The first baby had died soon after birth. There had been some minor birth defect and a minor bout of fever. More worryingly, Shaheena had developed a psychosis – complete with visual hallucinations and a total disconnect from reality – shortly after giving birth. Their mother had had a similar psychosis after Shaheena’s birth, and had never recovered. She was on medication even today. Shaheena’s psychosis lasted several weeks. She was sometimes violent, always irrational, ignored the child altogether, and often did not recognize family members. After several episodes when she ran away from home, the family was compelled to admit her to NIMHANS, where they treated her with sedatives, anti-convulsants, and electric shock.

Several months later, I met Shaheena in passing. She was healthy, happy, and pregnant again. And a couple of months later, I heard from Noor Jehan again: another boy, healthy and normal this time, but more psychotic episodes and hospitalization for Shaheena.

One day, Noor Jehan asked me about a loan she was considering taking. It was a sort of collaborative loan, from a loan shark, not a bank, and the rate of interest was quite high. She didn’t really want to take the loan, but the terms were such that ten families needed to take the loan together, and she was under pressure from the other nine.

Another time, she showed me a piece of paper saying that she had won a week-long holiday at a resort, all expenses paid for two adults and two children. She was already planning where and when to go – when she realized that there were several things (meals and suchlike) that were not included. It would work out too expensive – so she was forced to drop the idea.

Then, one day, her husband fell ill. He had aggravated his piles and was in excruciating pain. “He drinks,” she said to me despairingly. “Even when he’s so unwell, he just doesn’t stop.” He stayed home for several days, in intense pain, and she did the rounds of the hospitals again. The symptoms she described had sounded more like ulcers or appendicitis to me, but apparently the doctors agreed that it was just piles. According to a brief search on the Internet, there’s no interaction between alcohol and piles, but Noor Jehan didn’t want to hear this. She had tears in her eyes one day. It was a Sunday, and she had spent the entire day at home. Usually she worked at another house on Sundays, but this Sunday they had given her off and she’d had to be home. This alone had driven her to distraction. She couldn’t stand the company of her husband, and Sunday was his day off, and so he spent the entire day drinking, instead of just the evening.  “In sixteen years of marriage, we have been to a movie hall just once,” she said. “We never go out together. He was sober only for a year or two after marriage. After that, he’s just been drinking and drinking. I can’t leave him, I can only wait for death to end this marriage, but I have got a really worthless man.”

I might have suspected a con if she had laid it on too thick. I might have suspected a con if the tears had been followed by a demand, spoken or otherwise, for money. But Noor Jehan is not the self-pitying type and when she does discuss her troubles with me, it is with no great excess of emotion. And as for money, she does not hesitate to ask for what is her due, but has almost never asked for any extra or any advance. One day I offered her a piece of sweet that I had just made in her presence. She refused it steadfastly. “I only want my earnings, I don’t want anything extra, not even a cup of tea, not at any of the places I work,” she said. Yet, she said it with a smile, so that it was not offensive.

I see her life, I see her troubles, I see her small joys and how much they mean to her and how easily they are taken away; and I see her keeping on going, mostly smiling, mostly strong. She’s an unlikely heroine, but – in my opinion – she really is a Woman of Substance.

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