How we changed ourselves for our domestic help

Painting: Johannes Vermeer

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

She came from a neighbouring town, taking the trouble to travel a long distance to work for us and we should be grateful to her for that. An opportunist would have read it differently: she was undergoing a long, tiresome commute every day because she was desperately in need of income. He would have fancied himself as a benevolent employer who paid her more than what she deserved – much above the prevalent household standards.

We made it clear to her that we valued her work. We thought praise was good to inspire. Unfortunately, she interpreted it as our weakness. She thought we flattered her because we were insecure about her leaving us soon. Her growing confidence egged her to throw tantrums after a few months of joining us. Before her arrival every morning, we were supposed to wash the vegetables, slice onions, peel potatoes, and keep the bottles lined up for refilling in front of the water filter. Simply put, she wanted to test our words, to help her out by doing some kitchen work before she reached our place.

Her face retained the traces of fragrant talcum powder, trapped below the chin and in the folds of tanned flesh on her long neck, refusing to get washed away by the steady trickle of perspiration down her pale skin even during the prickly summer heat. When she appeared at our doorstep and pressed the doorbell hard, it was a mild attempt to vent her frustration. We could feel the difference because she was soft and gentle while pressing the doorbell during the weekend days – when the buses were not overcrowded with officegoers.

Remember the first day she was late for work. She went on to explain how she missed the bus. We had to cut her short, to make her feel less apologetic about the delay. Consider the reversal in her behaviour now. Five days a week she is late, and she never bothers to offer any reason or excuse for the delay. Reporting late for work is not intentional, just an outcome of situations beyond her control. She is always there for the bus on time and if the bus gets a flat tyre mid-way or comes to a grinding halt in a traffic jam, she does not need to apologise. Ever since she has been granted the freedom to walk in any time, we have adjusted ourselves to a delay of an hour.

We hate unpleasant surprises, but she has the habit of taking a couple of days off without bothering to inform us. She simply goes missing. We have to contact her to find out when she is expected to resume. She does not give a categorical reply. Most of the time, her absence is on medical grounds. That does not leave with any scope to question her. We do not seek any prescriptions to believe her. We have made it clear to her that we are ready to grant sick leave, but it is better to keep us informed and updated. Despite repeated reminders, she does not understand the need to inform the employer. So this time we lost patience and had to use strong words. She said she does not use a phone. We felt bad when she raised her voice to say she does not have a phone. We decided to give her a used smartphone lying in the drawer along with the charger. We thought she would readily and happily accept a hand-me-down as she did earlier – we gave her a microwave and a sandwich maker a few years ago. But she kept the smartphone down and said her son offered her a brand new smartphone on her last birthday but she did not take it. It was a clear message for us that used items were no longer acceptable to her. We were expected to spend anxious mornings, hoping for her to turn up for work.

We never flaunted our new acquisitions, but she began to observe the changes in our house. A new vase on the dining table made her react. We tried to sound modest about the price. She immediately asked us to get her a similar one and she would pay us the price. Sometimes she spoke about rejecting a similar buy because she did not like the colour or the shape. Comparisons are always bad, and we did not quite understand when we encouraged her to do that. We never boasted about anything in front of her. We never made her realise the value or worth of anything we got – the painting on the wall, the mantelpiece, or the carpet. But her curiosity was high about the price factor. Maybe she was trying to make us realise we were spending more on objects and so we needed to revise her salary. Assailed with guilt, we announced a pay hike to make her feel better and less bitter. Even after doing so, we did not find any improvement in her behaviour.

We had educated ourselves to add dignity to labour and behave less like medieval lords over the years. We spoke politely and used the best words to show her respect. Our attempts to do that made her spin stories of self-importance. One day she narrated how a big merchant in her locality came to know of her services and immediately offered her a 9-5 job. She explained a full-time engagement was not what she was looking at now and rejected the job with a heavy heart. We chose to ignore her story. But she came up with a new one soon. This time she said a fine gentleman who met her at the bus stop every morning asked her to join his household in the lane right behind ours. We chose to congratulate her and showed no nervousness of being deprived of her services this time.

We were ready to let her go if she found a better job. She said she needed some time to work out the details as she was willing to continue with our household and adjust the timings. Managing two homes would keep her in a tearing hurry so we preferred to give her the option of working at the new house first and then visit us. She agreed after a little persuasion. Now she was ready with stories of how kind the new employer and his wife were. We understood this was a mere disclosure of a new job she had taken up at least some months ago as there were many details of the new household one cannot acquire within a couple of days of employment. Maybe she feared detection and therefore chose to let us know.

According to her, they did more than half the job for her, and she was delighted to get blessed employers like that. If she were so lucky indeed, we wondered why she was late in reporting to our household. The truth was that the new household was making her do a lot more while she expected us to finish off some more chores for her. We stretched ourselves a bit more and cancelled a couple of more tasks from her job list. She was not grateful for the relief we provided to her. She showered praise on herself, saying her ability to multitask was her biggest asset. We did not prick her by saying she often forgot the milk was boiling and spilling over and the sandwich in the pop-up toaster burnt black while she operated the juicer grinder loaded with oranges.

We improved ourselves as human beings and showed sensitivity towards domestic help. We were considered weak and dependent who cannot live without assistance. We had the option of firing her from the job or telling her in clear words that she needed to match our qualities and reciprocate accordingly. It was perhaps too much to expect balance and refinement. For us, it was a personal journey to change the mindset, and treat her with respect. We believed goodness begets goodness. We had to tolerate her unpredictable ways or simply let her go.

One fine day, we finally asked her how important this job was to her. She said her son was grown up now and employed. Her husband was doing business. She was earning for her pocket expenses, saving for the rainy day. Her honesty was an attempt to make us realise her kitchen fires were not burning because of this job. We asked her what if she got to know we were leaving this place forever – shifting 500 kms away. She said there was nothing she could do to stop us from leaving in search of a better future.

It was quite like the clichéd statement most employers give to the employees when they leave. In our case, our domestic help set us free. We did not want to deprive her of the livelihood. After her proud declaration, we knew she was financially stable with a strengthened family that was weak when she had joined us years ago. We never tracked the changes happening in her life and the family. She was quietly rewriting her fate based on this job. We had the consolation we were a source of help to enable her to rebuild her future. The turnaround happened because she worked for us for ten long years. She stepped out of her home to work when her husband lost his job, and her son was at school. As her life came back on the right track, she became less careful about losing her job.

We have left the place and live elsewhere now. Sometimes we do think of her and the family. Sometimes we feel we should find out about her and then we decide to let go of the past. We are happy we were good to her, and she has one good reason to remember us. Just as we have one good reason to remember her. We became better human beings because of her.

Devraj Singh Kalsi writes a monthly column in Borderless Journal and works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata.


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