I grew up in a single unit home and my mother had some kind of help at home for the cooking etc.. After marriage, the first time I got a ‘servant’, as they were called then, was when Mukta was born. Radha, was a Chattisgarhi woman of rather imposing proportions, who came to work for our neighbor, who was from Bhilai. Since she had already found local help, Radha came to us and brought Mukta up for the first 4 years of her life. When I went to US for a fellowship, and Mukta was to stay with my parents in Delhi, she opted to move too, as she did not want to leave her.
When we returned to Chandigarh briefly in the 80’s we had an old, beedi smoking, Himachali woman. The move to Mumbai in the early 80s was traumatic in many ways as I was used to the more spacious housing of Delhi and Chandigarh. Our house in the KEM campus, was located strategically close to the Dadar bus stop, where all the night buses from Goa stopped (in the pre-Konkar Railway era). And since Subhash and I worked in a major public sector hospital and my brothers-in-law in Goa knew everybody and their neighbor, we were the logical stopover for any Goan with a medical problem. The ‘God sent’ during those years was Manda, a young woman from a Konkan village, who came to us through a friend and became a part of the family. She and Mukta were constant companions and they still retains a warm relationship. That was the only period that we had a live-in help with us in the house.
The move to Lucknow, once again gave us the luxury of a spacious bungalow with a separate accomodation for the help. Initially Amma and her daughter Gian and later Sumitra and her children lived in this accomodation and helped in the house. They all became an integral part of our life. Gian was of Mukta’s age and she spent most of her time inside the house with Mukta, struggling with homework which was often beyond her!! But, was she good at rote learning. (She later went on to do her graduation). Sumitra was a woman with a lot of dignity and brought up her children with that same dignity, all the while dealing with an alcoholic husband and then the aftermath of his death. My relationships with the ‘help’ was always an easy going one and my natural leniency gave me much in return. However, they recognized and drew certain boundaries that I accepted without much questioning.
After moving to Gurgaon (exactly 3 years ago) I was without a full time help after many decades. But, I enjoyed cooking for myself and sometimes for the rest of the family, who lived close by. My mother has been spending a few weeks with me every summer for many years, and it was never a problem in the Lucknow days. However, in Gurgaon, it became a matter of concern when she was alone in the house for long periods. Now she is older, and after her hip fracture a year ago, not as confident as before. She will also be here on a more permanent basis, which meant that I needed someone to be with her in my absence.
Full time stay in help is becoming a rarity in large cities – except probably, among those with strong ‘rural’ connections. I dont know many such people, and I wonder if the modern equivalents of the ‘Ramu’s and ‘Chotu’s exist!! It was with some effort that I wasable to find a full time help, a young woman from Jharkand, near Ranchi. So we have come full circle – she is a tribal from probably not very far from where Radha came to us more than 3 decades ago!! But how times have changed and even more – I realize how much I have changed. I am not fully comfortable with a full time help, not only because I have not had one for a long time. The part timers come and go, you know vaguely about the kind of life (and it is a damn tough one!) they lead. But, the contact is minimal!! But with someone who is in the house all the time, I am finding it difficult to treat her as this some “other’. But she is so quiet and self effacing and seems to have drawn her own boundaries. I wonder how it must be for a 20ish, young woman to be a more than 1000 km from your home, talking to no one, not meeting anyone she knows, catering to the strange needs of 2 elderly women, eating strange foods, watching TV in a strange language (my mother watches only the Tamil channels)…… My attempts at conversations have only brought out monosyllables…..
I cannot really assess whether she is comfortable or ‘not unhappy’ – I don’t expect her to be happy, of course. Its been more than 3 weeks since she came to us, and I am hoping that with time she may relax a little, talk a little more, smile more spontaneously ……. but, by any criteria this must be one of the most terrible ways to earn a living!