She is your mother's confidante. The only person who can still understand what your mother is saying when she suddenly drops her volume by a decibel or two. Volume fluctuations are subject to conversation topics. The more scandalous the topic, the more hushed the voices.
She is carrier of both good news (“Memsahib, cheaper vegetables from the afternoon vegetable vendor”) and the bad (“Memsahib, yet another bus strike next week”). And occasionally if time and mood permits, she is the domestic goddess. If you still haven’t figured out who this rather important person is, it is none other than the Indian maid.
Agony Aunt to the bored housewife. Saviour of the time-starved working mother. She wields her magic with her broom in hand, and sari pleats deftly tucked an inch below her knees. She is there to lend an ear to your arthritis complaints and to shake her head sympathetically as you ramble on the details of YET another sleepless night. She is there to fill you in on the details of the saas-bahu serial episode you missed last night. And to gasp with shock at the atrocities that your daughter-in-law/ mother-in-law / sister-in-law are subjecting you to.
Because she knows that a well-timed gasp or a cluck of the tongue will always earn her extra brownie points.
What's that you say? What? Oh, work? Well of course. We're just coming to that. Because a smart maid knows that a good woman-to woman talk is any day more worthy than a clean house. Well the employer might not necessarily share her views on this sometimes, but the maid has her ways of ensuring it.
She gives the customary flick of her broom along the floors and court-yard, avoiding any corners and under the furniture sweeping. She loves her work dearly. Because she wipes the floors with as much delicacy and care as handling a new-born.
Now to the bathrooms. Well here any maid (even the not-so-smart-ones) knows that customer satisfaction has nothing do with sparkling clean tiles.
So she drops in a well-timed question to the employer.
“How is your son? Is the family coming down for Diwali?”
The bait has been thrown in. She sneaks a look at the employer as she scoops a generous amount of Surf and liberally sprinkles it on the bathroom tiles. (Indian maid’s formula for clean bathroom: Amount of detergent/soap and water used is directly proportional to the bathroom cleanliness).
The employer lets out a deep sigh. Yes, the bait has been taken!
"Oh! Don’t ask"…And she launches into a repertoire of jobs which keeps her sons away, or evil daughter-in-laws who do the same, and of relatives who drop in unannounced.
The maid makes all the conversational ‘Oh!’s and ‘Mmmm’s as required. She performs her feather-touch caress of the bathroom tiles while working the Surf into a good lather. Again corners are avoided like the plague. She turns to look at the employer when the decibels decrease in the narration and nods her head knowingly when the sentences are marked by eye rolls and head jerks.
And just as the employer ends her rant-session with another sigh, the maid finishes up with the bathroom and expertly closes the door behind her, wiping off imaginary sweat from her eyebrows.
Next the duo head to the kitchen for tea and Tiger biscuits. Also referred to as the 'Tables have turned’ time.
Here it’s the maid’s chance to rant. And rant she does. It starts with the abusive/alcoholic husband; the recurring cough of her youngest; the long queues at the Government hospital and finally ends with the tale of her eldest daughter who is of the marriageable age and doesn’t even have a gold chain.
Now depending on the mood of the employer that week and depending on the distance of the disapproving husband from the kitchen, the maid gets a little extra for the week. It may be an extra serving of tea or biscuits or sometimes a piece of halwa. Lovingly prepared for the son who is not coming for Diwali. Or sometimes, even cash carefully retrieved from a creaky-doored Godrej almirah and gratefully received and tucked into a blouse.
And with that little exchange, both employer and employee part ways. Both lightened and happier by the visit.
So we leave them there in this wonderful display of friendship and harmony. The maid eager to get home after yet another day of ‘hard work’. And the employer looking at the unwashed plates in the kitchen sink and wondering "Wait, wasn’t she supposed to do these?"