Not hiring a maid is not an option in Mumbai. The watchman, the neighbor’s maid and the veteran maids in the building make it their onus to ensure you appoint a maid and that too soon! Just having landed in Mumbai, with scores of food options, I was in no rush to get one. (Also, when you come from abroad, contrary to the popular belief that “abroad” means a “comfortable” life, you are used to doing things on your own. A domestic help is a privilege that you’re not always blessed with (in fact the day I cannot live without one then I’ll know I’ve have become a true Mumbaikar)).
Day 1 : 9.00 a.m.
Husband leaves to work and asks me to remind the watchman to send the prospective maids. I procrastinate on the request for reasons that I’m not sure you will understand. But I shall try explaining. For one, I have no idea about the questions I must ask while interviewing the candidate and secondly, on what basis I must make a decision (they all look the same and sound more-or-less the same). On landing in the country, I was welcomed by the headline on “The Hindu” on the day which said, “A female caretaker referred to by the security, murdered 80 year old woman and 85 year old man in posh area of Mumbai- Bandra, Khar. ” This news was still fresh in my head and though I cannot boast of exceptional memory, this was something that had happened only a week ago.
But when you have lived together for more than fifteen years, you tend to know how much can be expected from your other half. An hour after husband left to work, the intercom rang. It was none other than the erstwhile watchman, fulfilling his duties based on a direct request from the man-of-the-house: sending up the shortlisted candidate for the interview and he wished to know from Madam if it was o.k. to do so. There was no escaping this one!
The bell rings…
Candidate 1: Wearing a salwar- kameez, glass bangles is at the door
Me: Open the door. “Come in.” She takes off her slippers and enters.
“What’s your name?”
“We need a full-day maid for cooking and cleaning the house from 7.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.” I say it straight-faced, mechanically covering up all signs of unpreparedness.
Laxmi nods but says, “7. 30 a.m. is not possible. I have little children. I can come at 9.00 a.m.”
“Umm…Oh ok! Do you know to cook? Maybe you can cook something the previous evening that they can pack for school the next day.”
Laxmi bobs her head up and down which as per the “Indian” mannerism implies a “Yes.”
“Ok then. How much do you charge?”
I repeat, “10,000,” to confirm I heard right.
“Do you have any references? Have you worked anywhere before?” This was something I was advised to ask by all my Mumbai friends from abroad.
“My sister works in 1104, the Secretary’s house and I worked earlier in flat 404 but that madam left for Dubai, so I’m looking for a job.”
Oh wow! One leaves to Dubai and one comes from there. What luck? She must be the perfect one, having worked for a person from Dubai.
“Ok then, give me your number, I will call you to let you know when you can start since there’s nothing at home now.”
“I don’t have a number because my phone got wet in the rain and it’s not working anymore but you can tell the watchman and he will tell my sister. She will let me know.”
I close the door behind Laxmi and smile victoriously.
“I had clinched the deal, and so quickly. ” Husband had said that the maid would charge 12K to 15K. I had got one for 10K! I was good!
My sis-in-law calls and I share my accomplishment with her. “Did you check what kind of food she cooks?” she asks calmly.
“Why in the world had that question never struck me?” I’m thinking but I do not tell her.
As the voice on the other end of the phone continues, “Did you check if she cooks non-vegetarian food as well? Where has she worked before?”
And I like a student who’s missed writing the key-terms in the exam paper, inform her all that I did know about Laxmi, hoping to score a few brownie points.
“It’s better you also get the secretary’s number and find out about the sister who works there. You know it’s better to be safe than sorry. Not that they’re not good but you never know. Trust is important. Also, you may want to take the telephone number of the owner of the apartment in whose house she worked earlier.”
“But she’s in Dubai now…” I interrupted.
“You can make a call and just check if she is reliable. Again, trust is the most important thing when you hire a maid, you agree?”
“Yes,” I said enlightened, feeling rather stupid and completely grateful for the guidance provided.
Checking on the maid’s reference was on the agenda now and I delegated it to husband dear on his return from work, in the evening. I had done the job that had been assigned to me. I had recruited the maid. He could do the reference check. Division of labor was what we had specialized in all our married life, which I wholeheartedly believe is the key to our successful marriage.
I open the door in the morning to pick the paper. The neighbor’s maid is out throwing the garbage and makes her way to me.
“Did you get a maid?”
“Yes,” I reply not wanting to carry on a conversation on the maid, first thing in the morning.
“If you don’t find one, let me know.”
“Sure,” I say closing the door. “My name Laxmi,” she says.
The bell rings again. There’s another woman at the door, in a sari and glass bangles.
My daughter opens the door and she lets herself in.
“Bhabhi, the lady who came to you earlier cannot come because she does not cook.” (Bhabhi in Hindi literally means brother’s wife which means husband is now ‘this lady’s brother’ but non-literally, it only means she is referring to me with respect).
“Oh! But she had nodded.”
“Yes, but she called me and said she couldn’t.”
“Ok. Who are you?”
“I work in the Secretary’s house.”
“So you’re her sister…but she agreed…” I said, my voice trailing.
“Now leave that Bhabhi. When you said cooking, she told me. We work for you. We want you to be happy. We have to do our duty. It is not right that you later find out that she cannot cook. Don’t worry now. I have another person. My Bua (father’s sister literally). Her daughter-in-law is just married. No kids. So she can work well. She will come to you.”
Well, a maid without kids did sound like an exciting proposition. There will be no school holidays or any other children-related issues.
“Does she make vegetarian and non-vegetarian food?”
“Yes, yes, of-course.”
“What cuisine does she make?”
“Bhabhi what cuisine do you want. She makes Sindhi, Punjabi, Marathi, Dosa, Idli…”
“Dosa, Idli…that would make husband and dad happy…” I think in my head.
“How much will she charge?”
“10,000 for cooking and cleaning”
“Ok. Sounds good. You mean sweeping, mopping and cleaning the bathrooms?” I clarify, now a little more acquainted with the recruitment procedure.
“No Bhabhi,” she looks at me shocked for even proposing it.
“She will do the kitchen-work, cooking and cleaning the kitchen.”
“All day!” now I’m shocked.
“Of-course Bhabhi. You have no idea how much work there is in the kitchen. I work in the kitchen. I know. There is the dish washing, cutting the vegetables, making salads, cleaning the containers, the store room. And you can ask her to make what you please. When your guests come, she will immediately serve tea and snacks. You just need to sit back and relax.”
“But we don’t even have friends here in the city. We’re new. And we really want to get fit. So snacks is out of question. Maybe smoothies…” I hear the words loud and clear in my head but somehow am unable to tell the Secretary’s maid. It seems shameful that we wouldn’t be having guests and equally down-market to tell her that I have been handling the kitchen prior to her entrance. “People well-placed in society must necessarily be dining and entertaining.”
“But don’t worry Bhabhi, I will send someone for the cleaning and the mopping,” the Secretary’s maid smiled generously.
“How much are the charges for that?”
“You can pay Rs. 2000.00 for that initially and then if you’re happy, you can always raise it later. I work in 604 also, and they pay me 5,000, to be honest”
Happy it was still within Husband’s initial proposal of Rs.15K, I agreed.
“What is your number?”
“Bhabhi you give me your number. I will give you a missed call.”
The children who have been sitting silently on the only piece of furniture in the living room, a rented couch, come to the rescue. One says the first 5 digits of the number and the other says the next 5 digits. They know when their mom’s stressed, remembering 10 digits can throw their mom off-balance. God bless them.
“What’s your name?” I ask while she’s leaving the house
Goddess Laxmi is Lord Vishnu’s (creator of the Universe as per Hinduism) wife’s name, the Goddess of wealth; I guess it isn’t surprising that most people in the Indian sub-continent would name their daughter that and hope that some of the Goddesses qualities were bestowed on their children. But for both the sisters to be named that! It wasn’t like we had a concept of adding a prefix to the names- ” Laxmi junior” and “Laxmi Senior.”
A few more interactions and you soon realize that “Bahen (sister)”, “Bhai (brother)”, “Bhabhi”, “Beta (child)” must not be understood in the literal sense. They are ways of addressing, showing a mark of respect based on status or age. It also shows camaraderie, affinity and togetherness. But must be left at that.
My mobile rings. There’s a woman’s voice on the other end and it’s not Laxmi.
“Madam, you wanted a maid for cooking”
“Yes I replied but I have already got one. Laxmi arranged one for me.”
“Madam I am Laxmi’s Bua (the maid’s mother). She is twenty-two. Just married. She has not cooked for the last 3 to 4 years but she is a very fast learner. You just need to teach her for 3 to 4 days and she will then cook everything.”
Without an ounce of doubt in my mind, I answer, “I will not teach anybody anything. I want a maid who knows to cook. I am not going to be teaching her cooking. So if she can’t, I do not need her. Thank you.”
“Thank you Madam,” the phone’s disconnected.
The mobile phone rings again. It’s none other than Laxmi herself.
“Bhabhi I’m so sorry. I thought she knew to cook. I got so tensed when she said she did not. But do not worry. I will immediately arrange somebody. You please do not worry. I don’t want you to get tensed.”
“Thank you Laxmi. Please arrange someone who knows cooking and I do not want to teach anybody cooking,” I clarify and hang up.
Cooking has never been my forte. My culinary skills are not something I can boast about. I cook a few dishes that I have now gained some expertise on through constant repetition. I have never experimented because that’s something a working woman abroad without a maid does not have the time to indulge in. And it does not come naturally to me.
Day 2: 5 p.m.
Mobile rings. Laxmi has kept her word. She is the Secretary’s maid which has made her a secretary herself. A “Secretary of the Maids Association!”
Laxmi has identified the candidate who supposedly meets all the requirements. I have no patience to go through this again. I agree with Laxmi that the maid be sent first for 2 hours only to cook and then after a week, she begins working full-time. Laxmi agrees to send the new maid on Sunday when the whole family is at home so that Husband can decide as well. Husband has lived in the city for a year now and is more acquainted with management of domestic staff. He has attained the skills of a gem-smith. O.k. maybe that’s an exaggeration but it’s just safer that the new recruit is seen and judged by at-least two people in the management.
The door-bell rings.
There is a woman at the door, in a sari, glass bangles and big gold top ear-rings.
“Did Laxmi send you?”
“Yes, I know Laxmi. The night watchman sent me.”
“Do you know cooking?”
“Do you cook vegetarian and non-vegetarian?”
“Will you clean the house and cook food?”
“You mean you will sweep, mop, dust, iron, clean the kitchen, the bathrooms and cook?”
“Yes. I have the full day. I can do it all. “
“Where were you working earlier?”
“In 503. I left because they wanted me to work till mid-night. Cooking all day. Had so many boys. All the time I had to cook and put in glass bowls and serve. My husband said it’s too late to come home at mid-night, so I left.”
“So she knew presentation too…” I’m thinking. That’s an additional qualification. But the past few interviews had taught me that a display of excitement must be curtailed. They are all definitely good at presentation…marketing themselves.
I look in the direction of husband who is on the couch, watching on as I carry on the interview; for assistance.
“You will have to be here at 9.00 a.m. and you can leave before 7.00 p.m. after making tea,” husband adds in a know-it-all manner which she does not mind; in-fact it looks like she respects it.
“How much do you want?” he continued.
“13000 for the full day.”
“How many holidays do you take in a month?”
“As per the policy, 2 in a month.”
“Ok. We will let you know. What is your number?”
Suman, the new candidate gives the number.
Then on her way out, she asks Husband to give her a missed call. Husband does. And she looks at me and says,” What name should I store it with?”
I mentally debate on the repercussions of giving her my name and I voice out aloud husband’s name.
“Why not your name?” she raises her eye-brows, grinning, leaving me dumbfounded when all I could have said was “Store the number with our apartment number. You don’t need a name!”
With the door closed behind me, husband made the judgment, “She looks like she can handle it.” Happy for him to take the decision, I couldn’t get her questioning smile out of my head. “She’d definitely be a handful to manage.”
Before accepting husband’s decision, I had to check with Laxmi, the Secretary of Maids, if this was the maid she had sent. I could not afford to anger Laxmi and the entire maid’s association due to a mis-understanding.
“Laxmi, did you send your maid today?”
“Well, someone came today and said their name was Suman and that you had sent them.”
“Oh really Bhabhi! Ok. Maybe Mausi (literally means mother’s sister) sent her. You can keep her.”
Obviously Laxmi knew nothing about Suman. But being the Secretary’s maid and having taken responsibility, she was only too happy to end the ordeal of finding a maid who suited our requirement. “Mausi” was obviously a figment of Laxmi’s imagination and if I had to keep a maid based on Laxmi’s confirmation, then I would be a fool. The Police had said that domestic help had to be registered with the police and should be hired only after a police verification.
Now that Husband and Laxmi had given their go-ahead on Suman, the final step in the recruitment process involved making a quick call to Suman to confirm the appointment and to tell her to bring the copy of the Aadhar card (I.D. card).
“Yes Didi (means elder sister),” Suman sounds sweeter than when I saw her at the interview, erasing all memories of the questioning smile she had given me at that first meeting. First impressions are not always right, I decide and inform Suman that she must be at work at 9.00 a.m. from tomorrow and must bring a copy of the I.D. card.
“And 2 photos Didi”
“Yes,” I say relaxed that Suman knows the rules.
As the rains lash the city, Suman has reported to work, on time. Over the last few days I have learnt to reserve my judgement so I am not going to say anything more on the recruit. Just happy to say the vacancy has been filled and there will be no more interviews hopefully for some time now.
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