I opened the door to find a scrawny looking woman standing beside my mother. The skin of her face was mottled and clung to her bones. Sickly curls of hair danced about her weather-beaten face. She had a face that confuses you. Scarred but striking all the same. The only redeeming feature was her hawk-like nose.
I must’ve been staring because she smiled widely to reveal yellow stained teeth. I smiled back weakly. I let them in and watched her roll behind my mother. The stale smell of tobacco filled the room. She was not just unkempt, she smelt foul too like she had spent the night in a garbage disposal bin.
My mother introduced her nonchalantly, “Here’s Madina mausi.”My sister, who had been sitting on the couch nodded an acknowledgment and I could sense that she was just as taken aback as I was.We exchanged a nervous glance. “WHAT had mum brought along!?”
A few months before that day, my short trip to Mumbai had turned into an elaborate stay which basically consisted of twiddling my thumb all day and trying to decide between this or that. I took a sabbatical and planted myself in my sister’s home in the hope of having an epiphany. That never happened. However, I slowly found myself playing the role of a full-time maid. My sister lived in what I called a ‘Shit Hole’. A stressful corporate job afforded her little time to cater to her domestic needs and wasted as I was, I willingly morphed into a ‘Bai’.
Gradually but steadily I took over the daily chores. While my sister appreciated my inclination for menial labour, she despaired over my unemployed status. I dismissed her concerns by stating determinedly that I was doing ‘research’. Research simply meant spending hours browsing the internet. Over the months, I had comfortably settled into a routine and quite happily too. So, when mum announced one day that she had found a maid for my sister, I felt a bit cheated. It was time for me to leave and I had to pass on the baton to a real maid now.
Madina mausi was anything but shy. At first, we liked that she was so chatty but when nonstop chattering ensued, curiosity turned to tolerance and we continued to listen with thinly veiled irritation. After what seemed like an endless babble, we sent her for a bath and dragged mum into the room for explanations. “Who was she? Where was she from? Why was she so unkempt? Was she reliable?” An endless barrage of questions followed! We learned that she had been in an abusive marriage and was driven away by an alcoholic husband. She had two sons but wouldn’t live with them.
She wanted a family. We wanted a maid.Opportunity met Opportunity and here they were! We empathized but questioned the wisdom in appointing such a slovenly woman to take care of the house. “Nobody else would come. Mold her according to your needs!” Mum said with finality. My heart sank. I had a mammoth task to make a lady out of a slipshod. I didn’t know where to begin! The woman could talk and I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Getting her to listen would be my biggest challenge, as I was to find out later.
The next day, as mum boarded the train, the woman assured her that she’d take care of us. And THAT was what we feared. Her non-stop chatter drove us mad. Wasting no time, very strictly and swiftly I began to train her. The reinvention began. “Personal hygiene”, I told her, was the top priority. She responded by demanding new underwear and some decent sarees.As an afterthought, she added that she would need toiletry items too and finally a sewing kit was added to her increasing list of demands. I complied. I knew I had put my foot in my mouth and the only way out was in. And then I began the more serious task of tending to the business of running a home.
At first, it felt like I was banging my head against a wall. I tried teaching her the three most important tasks-locking the door, switching off the gas and geyser and feeding the cats. She argued for the open door tradition that most Indians practiced and managed to blow the fuse while switching on the geyser. The gas burned brightly by the side as she bonded with the morning maid over a cup of tea. Irritated by her callousness, I threw a fit while she looked on indignantly. After several hair-splitting attempts, I unleashed my wrath. And thus began my stint as Henry Higgins.
As I took her around the house, showing her various tasks, she behaved like a mischievous child, distracted by this and that while I gave her dirty glares. My patience wore thin. After a long and tiring day, while I was cooking, she announced with great aplomb, “Mujhay yeh khaanaa nahi banana aatha! Hum Musalman maas, macchi khatay hai!” I stopped in my tracks! God, this was more than I had bargained for. Teaching her to clean was no biggie but to teach her to cook vegetarian food and that too in a clean fashion, all in one week was too much for me to handle. I frantically dialed my mum for a way out. After calming me down, mum casually said, “She’ll manage. Don’t worry. She’ll learn.” Not convinced, I reluctantly hung up and stared blankly at the wall.
The second day was a drag. I stressed the importance of personal hygiene, basic manners and went over the daily motions of cleaning and cooking, I was beginning to get tired of repeating myself while she dared to do things differently. It was her way or the highway most of the time. By night I was obsessed with this creature. “What do I do!?” I planned and schemed, devised strategies, complained, stood upside down, sulked and groaned and went through an orchestra of emotions trying to figure out what and how.
On the third, day, a ray of hope! The woman was a quick learner and sure as hell, smart! Maybe that was the problem! Maybe I just needed to give her a free hand! Maybe things would be better if I showed a little faith! That decided I let her take over the house. Yes, she was filthy. No, she didn’t take instructions well but she started to talk less and listen more. I don’t know what brought about the change and I didn’t dare ask. So long as she talked less, I thought it best to leave well alone. Later that day, still reveling in my success, I bravely asked her to go ahead and cook potatoes.
An hour later, I walked into the living room, to see her struggling with the peeler and potato peels scattered all over the floor. I died! The rest of the evening was spent teaching her how to cut vegetables like a human being. Come to think of it, most of my talks with her were monologues on evolution and civilization.Unperturbed, the woman justified her shabby ways by regaling me with stories of her days in the ‘KHETH’. All her life she had been working on the farms. It was unfair of me to expect her to change in one day.
Her chattering resumed and I forced myself to shut her out by pretending to be busy. However, bits and pieces of her life floated into my ears and as I heard her story, I softened a little. The following day, I decided to take her out and we went to the market together. It was a colourful outing. She was gregarious and mingled freely with the vendors, both men, and women alike. As the evening wore on, my cheeks were flushed with the embarrassment of her sassy demeanour. Slightly miffed, I aborted our outing and we headed back home, loaded with samosas and sweets. On reaching home, we sat down to a feast and some tea. A lot can happen over samosas and tea. In a short span of an hour or so, she told me that she had rechristened herself as Maida mausi because she didn’t like the sound of Madina. I was puzzled.
To me, it sounded pretty much the same. She went on to talk of her family. Her parents had died when she was very young. How she grew up, remains a mystery because she recounted her life story in Marathi, a language as foreign to me as Greek. She took great pride in her sons. Both were “hoshiar”, to quote her. One was settled and the other did odd jobs. He was also a computer wizard. To her, a computer wizard was someone who had done the MS-CIT course. I was amused but in a nice sort of way. She talked of her sons, the 5-acre zameen she owned and her days in the mess. Not an ounce of regret in her tone, rather, an exciting account of her life as she perceived it. That night we continued our talks over a midnight feast and my sister looked on with a bemused expression on her face.
The following days were smooth. She was beginning to get into the groove and one Sunday, she surprised us with a meal fit for a King. I gasped and asked, “But you said you didn’t know how to cook!” She responded, “I said I didn’t know what you ate. I do know how to cook what I eat” Halleluiah! The woman could cook! A bundle of surprises, this creature! I relaxed a bit as the week progressed and when the time came for me to leave, she asked if I’d miss her. The question left me nonplussed. I grinned and said, “I don’t miss anybody.”
Seconds later I saw tears rolling down her cheeks. Over the days an unlikely amity had been established. My mind raced back to the several afternoons we had spent watching TV, bickering over channels, the times we had spent playing cook and cleaner, our evening jaunts at the bazaar, giggling through the night, cracking silly jokes, while the world slumbered. I thought about all the other little things we had unwittingly shared with each other and my heart grew heavy at the thought of leaving her behind. She had grown used to me. Hell, I had grown used to her! Between sobs and tears, she did what she did best-T.A.L.K. and for once, I didn’t stop her.
That night, while she slept peacefully, I watched her skeletal frame, all bones and rags and wondered, “Did she have a dream?” Life pits us against all kinds of people. We see and judge them through our eyes. Just for a moment, what if we perceived them through our hearts? What would we see? At first, I had seen a shabby, tiresome blabbermouth, but that night, I saw a spirited vagabond with hopes and dreams. A rag doll, I had set out to reinvent. Was it she who had changed or was it me? And in that sweet, silent moment, I mumbled, “Goodbye, My Fair Lady”