An Afternoon with the Maid’s kids

To those who know me for a while, my struggle to find some affordable help with the home and Nisarga is no news. For the most part, the options are either too expensive, too disrespectful of kids to be acceptable to me, or unavailable.

Then, last month, my maid had a health problem and wanted to decrease her workload without losing too much income. She knew I was looking for help with Nisarga, and since the two of them get along very well, she knew I would be interested in her spending time with him. However, I couldn’t afford the money she wanted, and she needed that much money to run her home at any cost, including working harder.

Her husband is a carpenter’s assistant and they have two kids and between the two of them, barely manage to make ends meet, even with kids studying in a Municipal school and getting free food, uniform and study materials in addition to free education. With the recession, he wasn’t able to earn as much as he used to, and things were getting expensive.

Two of us… in a similar fix and speaking candidly with each other, we hit a solution. She has started spending an extra hour at my home everyday, doing whatever help I need. Be it with laundry, tidying up, playing with Nisarga, cutting vegetables, getting something from the shop… whatever. One hour.

I am in the habit of offering food or tea or whatever is on hand to guests in the house and I offered them to her as well. After initial hesitations, she was accepting almost daily, unless she was in a hurry. Didn’t refuse a single time because she wasn’t hungry. Soon, as a part of tidying the kitchen, she often asked me if she could take some left overs – since knowing us, we would be unlikely to eat them later. I had no problem with that, of course. I even sometimes made or ordered a little extra, so that there would be something for her when she came. Is that a waste? Maybe. I did it anyway.

She reminded me of my own days transporting constructing materials on horses, when we really hoped that at the end of a hard morning’s work, the client would feed us, because otherwise, it meant another hour at least of getting home, unsaddling, feeding horses, cooking and finally eating in a hurry before letting horses out to graze. While we never asked to be fed, it is no secret that every horseman we knew appreciated it. It was also the money saved for one meal.

Reminded me of when I used to work with Sushma Sharma in Resonate Consulting, where I often ended up leaving the home in a rush without eating, and it was really nice that she often invited me to join her for lunch. I will never forget the caring with which her husband, Raji ALWAYS asked me if I wanted tea and made it and brought it to where I was working. I was family. I felt cared for.

I also remembered Sainath’s lecture on hunger, where he speaks of school teachers asking him to use any influence he has to double the size of Monday’s school meal, because for many kids, that is their first meal since Saturday in school, and the children are not manageable till they get fed. My maid has made no secret of how good it is that her children get fed well in school.

It is no secret that my marriage is going through a rough patch and many have heard my side of the story, but what is my husband’s greatest anger with me? Food. He doesn’t give me money at home, and I make no special efforts to provide food for him – particularly at night. It is petty and spiteful of me, but I justify it because he doesn’t give me money to buy it in the first place. Leaving aside the right and wrong of it, and simply noting the fact for what it is, in the fracture of our marriage, the largest wedge from his side is his wife not feeding him.

How intimately linked food is with well being.

But all these links became a chain in my interaction with the maid. I made sure to store left-overs carefully, even heating them if needed, so that they would stay good for her. She, on the other hand, tried to spend as much spare time as she could with me, so that I could have some company as well as help in the home.

Today, she asked me if she could get her kids to our place and leave them there while she went to another place and worked before coming to spend her time at our place. I was delighted. Nisarga would have company. And remembering Sainath’s story, I made sure the kids had a glass of milk and an omlette and bread snack. The stray thought hit my mind that today was Saturday. The maid said they both had just had lunch and the girls certainly didn’t ask or act over eager, but they had perked up at the idea. They finished every crumb and accepted second helpings after I offered and finished those clean too.

A friend I shared this with was concerned that I would “spoil” them by raising expectations too far. That I was taking on an unaffordable burden by setting precedents of cooking specially for “the maid’s kids”. I don’t think so. In the money I save from ordering out because I simply am not able to cook and do all my fifty things… with the maid’s help, I think I can afford the amount I am paying her and the occasional added food expenses for us all.

When the maid finished the work and came back, she washed the dishes quietly. She cleaned an extra super dirty area in the kitchen, and told me that we would be cleaning the fungus infested dead fridge soon. I was quite glad she was taking the initiative, because frankly, I suck at housework.

When she tried to rope in her elder daughter to help get more work done, I told her it could be done tomorrow, and that I was paying her and not her daughter, and it was unfair to make the child work. She protested that it was a matter of being at home, being family. I told her that when her daughter volunteered, then it would be like that.

Then I made it clear that I don’t believe any sane child would volunteer for housework unless it caught their interest – and that as a people watcher, I can spot that very easily and to not bother to tutor them at home to volunteer. She was a child. If something needed two people, the two of us could do it. And frankly, considering the messes I nurtured, the slow improvement is a plus. The whole world didn’t need to change in a day.

I realized much later that that was her way of trying to do more for me in return, and went back to tell her that what she was already doing was precious and important and no less than what I was doing for her. She told me very quietly, very soberly that I was a very good person. Just before she left for the day. I think she’s pretty damn special too.

Have I created false expectations that will ruin the relationship? I don’t know. I’d rather have this good time for both of us for however long it lasts and find out when we do, rather than begin with an assumption that kindness should be avoided. Will there be problems? Of course. Just wait till the mother-in-law comes to stay and finds a low caste woman acting like our home is her home too! Obviously, for the sake of everyone’s dignity and sanity, we’ll have to take a break on those days.

But otherwise? I think I’ll see her kids more often on weekends. Nisarga will grow to know and like them like he knows and likes the maid.. Maybe we’ll try ice cream next.

Why am I sharing this on the blog? Because I think many of my readers have maids.

Note: I am calling her “the maid” and her kids “kids” instead of their names, because I have not asked them if I may share this and I don’t think she would want her name shared. Not because I call her the maid.