March 3, 2010

(First, there’s a long post I wrote about a month ago and forgot to post. Following it, is the most recent update on our domestic help situation.)

All of January we had no household help and we drove ourselves to exhaustion just getting on from day to day. Then February came and things got better… sort of.

One day when I had nothing much to do at work, I posted a requirement for a maid/cook on a website just before I left office. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, especially because I was supposed to enter a verification code on the website which I couldn’t do because I hadn’t received it half an hour later when I left office. Strangely enough, though, I got a call from the website asking if my requirement was genuine and promising to pass on my requirement to various agencies. Even more surprising was that before the end of the day I’d got a call from two agencies following up on my requirement. It was a Friday, and one agency said they’d bring somebody the next morning. (The other agency said they didn’t have anybody to work evenings.)

The next morning Amit took the girls up to the terrace for breakfast. We were all coming down and entering the house via the front door (one of two ways to reach the terrace is through the front door; the other is through the study) when a couple of women wandered tentatively in our direction. I knew what they wanted: they wanted work. It was the same women I’d had a garbled discussion with earlier. Garbled, because they spoke only Tamil and I spoke rudimentary Kannada and fluent but useless Hindi. A similarly garbled discussion ensued as Amit and the kids looked on. I wanted to know what work the women could do, and where they had worked so far and whether I could get any references. Amit felt they looked particularly dirty and uncivilized and didn’t like the idea of having them in the house. I saw the next door neighbours – one vacant plot removed – standing outside so I went to ask them if they could act as interpreters. It turned out that their household help was also standing there and she spoke Kannada. She also looked a lot cleaner and more civilized than the women I was speaking to. And she worked in that house, so was to some extent vouched-for by the neighbours. So what with that and the language barrier, I ended up negotiating a deal with her, with the neighbor acting as interpreter, and cutting out the two Tamil-speaking women altogether. This woman, P, agreed to come in the evening, cook, clean, and wash dishes, all for a rate that was less than I was mentally prepared to shell out. It sounded too good to be true.

So that afternoon the agency chap turned up with the other woman. This woman, K, spoke Hindi and bits of English, had a very decent and honest appearance, and I intuitively had a good feeling about her. She, however, was no replacement for P. She would cook, but not clean, and would only wash those dishes she used for cooking. She was, of course, somewhat more expensive than P. Plus, her agency wanted a cool 3k just for introducing her to us. They had told me their fee up front and – desperate as I was – I had agreed.

So after a quick “interview” I told K that I had another option and I’d get back to her in a couple of days.

A couple of days was all it took for me to assess P. It became evident right away that she had a complete disregard for punctuality of any kind, and that she was a total “kaam chor” (shirker, not hard working) to boot. She came late, worked slowly and inefficiently, accomplished little, and then was surprised at how late it was and said she had to go! Her cooking was edible, though not great, but overall she was just too slow. The way she wasted water was just unbelievable, and when she took to throwing dirty water down the toilet (and risking clogging it right away) I completely lost it with her.

So after I’d given her a couple of days, I called the agency and told them to send K along. They came, punctually, at the appointed hour, I discussed a few things with K, then we got down to nitty-gritties with the agency fellow. We’d already got a reference name and number out of K, along with photo ID and residence proof. Now, Amit wanted to know, what service would the agency provide for the cool 3 k they were charging us? If K absconded, would they replace her? If she stole our valuables (such as they are), would they reimburse us the value? No? Then of what exact use were they? He offered to pay the 3 k staggered at monthly intervals; the agency fellow got on the phone with some bigger agency fellow, who got on the phone with Amit. At the end of ten minutes’ talk, they were at a stalemate. The agency fellow took K in tow and stormed out!

This was terrible, because by now I’d grown very fond of K. She looked to me, purely on instinct, as a potential replacement for Shaba-Aunty. I thought she could eventually become a long term, faithful family retainer. She appeared to be somewhat literate, a bit cultured, clean, respectable, spoke a smattering of English, and generally seemed like the sort of person I wouldn’t entirely mind leaving my kids in charge of. She was – going by her CV – 6 years older than me and had grandchildren Mrini and Tara’s age. What’s more, she’d been in the employ of some Canadian Chinese doctor woman for the past nine years, so she might even have picked up some halfway decent cooking skills, I hoped. She seemed just about right – we even had two languages in common. What more could anyone ask for?

We eyed each other sadly as the agency fellow stormed out. We conveyed to each other, silently, that we had met with each other’s approval and that this would not be the end of the line for us.

The next day, I called up the agency and re-opened negotiations as if Amit’s interlude with the big boss had never happened. I agreed to pay half their fee up front and the balance after 5 days. Five! It could so easily be a con – just turn up, get someone to do some cooking for five days, pocket 3 k and disappear. Of course, zero days was better than five days from the conman’s perspective, but five days was basically nothing. If they disappeared with our cash, I’d be left with a big, fat, stinky egg all over my face, especially since Amit was not very convinced about the deal at all. I reposed all my trust in K’s open and honest face and paid up.

It’s not been five days yet, but K is the kind of worker I can deal with. Yesterday I told her to make cauliflower. She did what I asked her to the way I asked her to, then, on her own initiative, kept apart some of it and made it in a different style, so that I could taste her style of cooking. It was good – but even if it hadn’t been, I’d have been impressed with this eagerness to take the initiative. She is not a particularly fast worker, but she’s not slow in an inefficient, lazy way – she’s slow in a systematic and careful way, which is a different thing altogether. She’s neat and cleans up nicely when she’s done and – most importantly – she’s punctual. So far she has exhibited a slight tendency to involve me in the details of her personal life, but at least she has not – unlike P – asked me for any monetary handouts yet. Much to my irritation, P asked me for a hundred bucks before she’d been at work for three days! And I had to give it to her, because I didn’t know how to say “manage your expenses and wait for your salary” in Kannada! And that irritated me no end!

The trouble is, K is not willing to sweep and swab. P is – in fact, I sensed that she was more willing to sweep and swab than she was eager to cook. So logically I should employ both of them and then the work gets nicely divided up between them. Trouble is that I don’t like P for a number of reasons already enumerated, and I also don’t like her because she stands in the kitchen and brews trouble with K, who can’t escape because her work confines her to the kitchen. As a result, both of them hang around and chat and none of the work gets done. And since P does a lousy job anyway and is always waiting to be scolded by me before doing something, naturally she’s the one I’m itching to get rid of. That I can do a better – though less frequent – job of cleaning the house myself is something I don’t doubt in the least.

But then… I’m not too eager to go back to sweeping and swabbing right now, so I suppose I’ll keep her for as long as I can.

It Gets Better

Three weeks on I can venture to say that our cook, K, has turned out to be a gem. She’s punctual, polite, speaks enough of a cocktail of English and Hindi so we can usually get by, and… she’s a good cook! I might even go so far as to say she’s a great cook! She does fairly unconventional cooking, from sambhar with cauliflower, to chicken stew, to Chinese-style steamed vegetables and prawn fried rice. She makes rajma the way I like it, without masala and with lots of tomato; she leaves veggies slightly undercooked and crunchy; and she uses permissible quantities of salt and oil even by Amit’s impossible stringent standards. I disapprove of her using ketchup in her cooking, but I must admit she does it to good effect. Her only flaw is that her rotis are about as perfectly round as Australia. Some even look a bit like Africa. But what the heck – they are soft and thin and I’m not too particular about the shape if everything else is perfect.

The best part is that she’s cheerful and willing – she doesn’t make a grumpy face if you ask her for a little extra, like a spur-of-the-moment omelette or dosa or custard. She takes initiative in suggesting the menu and deviating from plan. She even takes stock of stuff that is running low and tells us to get replenishments. She is matter-of-fact in a nice way with the kids. She’s – dare I say it – the answer to a prayer! I just hope that this is the start of a long and beautiful relationship.

I must also say, of course, that everything that she is, is what I had suspected from my first glance at her. Only the excellence of her culinary skill took me by surprise – but I instinctively guessed she would be a nice person and that seems to have been a correct assessment. I only hope she doesn’t do something nasty now and prove all my crowing wrong.

It’s another story with P, whom we had employed at the start of Feb to come and clean for us. From the start, it was clear that P was not the kind of person I could tolerate for long. She did as little work as she could, as imperfectly as possible. She came at arbitrary hours – once she said she’d come at 10 a.m. on a Saturday and finally turned up at 8 p.m.! – willfully disregarded my instructions, gossiped with K (which I wouldn’t have minded, except K did – ‘what is your salary?’ on day one! ), and generally was more trouble than she was worth. I sacked her after suffering her for two weeks, but she told me – using K as interpreter – that she’d do a better job, that she’d clean the house as if it were her own. Of course, nothing changed, so a few days later I sacked her again and she went off without fussing. I paid her, of course, so hopefully she will not return with a knife on some dark and lonely night.

K promptly said she knew someone who would do the work. A walk-in interview was conducted yesterday. L is plump and cheerful. She looks like she might or might not be much better at her work than P, but might be less irritating about it. She understands bits of Hindi, so hopefully I can at least attempt to have a direct conversation with her whenever required. L of course demanded way more by way of salary than I was expecting to pay. I reluctantly agreed, but the next day K came extra early to catch me before L turned up and to tell me that I didn’t know what I was doing. “L really needs the work,” she said, “and you are paying way more than you should be. You tell her you will not pay so much, I already told her, that Sir (Amit) will discuss terms with her, not you.” What!? Did she just undermine my authority with my new recruit? Did she just go above my head to middle management!? And would L even believe that I – I! – was not capable of negotiating terms with her? That I needed to get approval from “Sir”?

L was opportunistic and I didn’t grudge her that, but that K should be so involved on my behalf was… unexpectedly sweet. So we played it that way and when Amit took the “Sir” role with her, L meekly agreed to a slightly lower salary.

Between the two of them, as of yesterday, cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, and laundry management is taken care of. Phew! If they both settle down to this work and I can depend on them to get it done without having to watch over them and instruct them every day – and K is past that stage already – then my life really will be back on track. And not a moment too soon. January was one of the toughest months in recent memory – I don’t want to go back to that situation anytime soon. Or ever.

%d bloggers like this: