The Maid Brigade: from Nauvari Sari to Mod-Maid

I remember growing up with my dear maid Vinita. She was a Maharashtrian lady who wore her nauvari* sari and her bad-ass attitude with great aplomb. Like most Maharashtrian matriarchs from that socio-economic status, she had seen a lot and had a hard exterior (along with a voice that could whip you, if she wished) but was a softy. She chewed way too much pan (had rotten teeth) and took care of us: the Brady bunch. Ok- so not really, because we were three but it seems like a whole bunch with my modern sensibility.

After her came another one: Prema Bai, who was a clone of her. She was such a bad-ass that she could fire my mom up sometimes, leaving her feeling like an errant child. These women looked like they were fresh off the boat, but in reality, they were worldly wise enough to tackle any Mumbai Tapori* and set him straight. The three of us were good kids (nothing tapori-ish about us) but we were set straight in a momentary change of tone. Nothing else needed.

Hats off to my mom and her maid-of-the-moment: they handled three all by themselves. Nowadays, the rule in a lot of homes is very clear: want another grand-kid? Supply me with a maid per kid and I’ll make things happen. I have only one child, but a big part of the reason is that I can barely handle one maid, I can’t imagine managing two! And since my Marwari help-dependent blood calls out for staff, I can’t manage with less than one servant per house member- so a new baby MUST have a new maid.

The search for a maid is always interesting (and blood curdlingly stressful). The moment I found out I was pregnant, I asked my mother in law to have a swayamvar of the Bikaneri Japa bais so we could fix on one (even before I registered at the very busy Breach Candy Hospital). I soon found out that that’s not the way things worked. It was more like each Japa maid wanted to have a swayamvar (verbal, at least) where she would check me (and the other potential pregger clients) out and decide.

I remember, during the bun-still-in-my-oven days, as I forcibly (doctors orders) walked in the park, I would see a group of Nepalese girls. I saw them everyday: fit, dressed in Bebe tops and skinny jeans, Melissa (knock off?) flip flops gracing their feet. I naturally assumed that these were college students who had decided to come for a walk, until one day, they stopped to pick up a gaggle of Indian kids from the playground in the center of the park. That’s when it hit me that they were those kids’ maids.

After I popped BabyA out, my mother-in-law insisted that we had to have a lady who wore a sari (even salwar kameezes aren’t considered appropriate in the eyes of a discerning Marwari family-head). This was extremely hard to find because all the Nepalese nannies are wearing western clothes these days, sometimes even jumpsuits (often leaving people at parties wondering if the mum is the maid and the maid the mum; thankfully, racial features clearing up the mix-up) and the Maharashtrian 20-year old brigade dons kurtis with tights to distinguish themselves from their “oh-so-traditional” grannies in their (grand, I think) nauvaris. I realised soon enough that I would need to enlist someone from the Bengali biradri, who are among the few left not ashamed to be seen in a sari.

After much looking, I found someone that fit the bill. As BabyA gained age, she also gained an enviable social life, where she, my maid and I became the new “trois mousquetaires”. As we visited birthday parties, I soon realized that people were willing to pay their babies’ maids anything (the sky was the limit) and the latest trend was to have a nurse and a maid per child. Obviously my Marwari household was lagging far behind in our servant: family member ratio.

I’m not sure I would have known how to create work for 2 people (even though BabyA can create enough mess for 5) but I wasn’t presented with any such joyful confusion: there was no way my husband or mom-in-law would have indulged me by gifting me a nurse and a maid: “Oh well! I’ll have to play with this baby myself!”

So as I ventured out one evening, with BabyA and Didi-Me (because she was a mini-me in Didi* form) in tow, we stopped at the horsey-garden to let BabyA take a few rounds on her favourite Dhanno. That’s when I encountered a new form of help that I had never seen: a Nepalese lady with the demeanor of a maid, dressed in an ill-fitting nurse’s uniform (pants way too short). Now I’m not trying to say that Nepalese women can’t be nurses (I’m sure there are thousands of them in Nepal) but you don’t usually encounter them here: more often seeing the Kerala Christian nurses or the Maharashtrian ones in Mumbai. But the biggest giveaway was that the poor lady looked so awkward in her outfit, minus the air of confidence that comes with years of nursing school to fill out her outfit.

My maid saw the nurse and went up to her, “Sarita, tu yahan kaise? Aur yeh sister ka kapda kyon pehni hai?” (“Sarita, how come you’re here? And why are you in a nurse’s uniform?”) The poor women squirmed, while darting a quick look from side to side to gauge where her ‘Madam’ was. “Arre, Bhabhi ne yeh uniform zabardasti pehenaya hai!” (“Madam has forcefully made me wear this uniform?”)

Sigh! South Bombay can get pretty competitive, especially, when you’re trying to keep up with the Malhotras (now that’s a rich surname from every KJo movie). From 1 maid= 3 children, we have come to the times of at least 1 maid + 1 nurse = 1 child. To each his own: I guess whatever keeps you sane enough to continue your gene pool. The only mommy I can’t get over is Ms. Madam-Bhabhi, whose disguising her maid to look like a nurse, so she in turn, looks fancy enough. What can I say? These situations are completely tailor-‘maid’ in India!
*nauvari saree- a saree worn by Maharashtrian women made of nine yards of cloth.
Tapori- a Mumbai outlaw
Didi- means sister, but also used by children for their nannies.

An Offended Nation: From Bachpan to Beefdom

As I look at that gorgeous baroque structure and I walk through those arches, it all comes back to me. I haven’t walked through these long corridors since twenty years, but everything seems familiar. My school jungle gym remains exactly where it was- garishly wonderful in its bright primary colours. The slide remains intact and I touch the scar on my chin, remembering when I had descended wrongly and managed to hurt my chin.

This was before the time when everything was child-proof. We didn’t have seat belts (forget car seats) and playgrounds had metal equipment that lasted eons. When you hit the ground, you hit the ground: gravel et al; no fluffy, cloud-like foam floors to protect you. It was refreshing to see that my school was the same. The kids were learning that they had to rely on their intuition and experience to know how far they could stretch their gravity-defying antics on play equipment before they got injured.

I remember the day my chin had split open: I was given some ice and First Aid and mom was called. She took me to the doctor. No lengthy investigation called for in my school, and no fury unleashed onto “negligent teachers” and “indifferent principals”. Even if my mom had been a crazy mom (and there were some), the school wouldn’t have entertained her nonsense. Sister Doreen would have just turned her nose up, a glint of disgust reflected in her glassy eyes, and told my mom that neither she nor her teachers had the time to entertain such an interrogation.

Maybe being overly approachable is a problem with our schools today. Children play. Sometimes they fall. They get hurt, even get scars. But the scars heal. Pain builds character. Why deprive them of that experience?

I walk into our classes. Our old desks are still marked with signatures scratched onto the wooden surface, hoping to make our school days and our childhood immortal, etched into the space we worked on. Those school days were wonderful! Not a care in the world: our biggest worry being whether mamma would send bhindi* again today in our lunch dabba* or whether Mrs. A would make us enunciate “v” (bite your lip) and “w” (round your lips) for hours- and if it wasn’t rendered perfectly, we would get an ear-shattering shouting which was equivalent to a slap on the face.

My school wasn’t washed with Lysol from top to bottom, we survived the summers in fanned classrooms (and non-fanned playgrounds in the afternoon). Mrs.A was our singing teacher who turned up in a kameez* sometimes having forgotten the salwar*, and we all hated her. I told my mom often about how much I disliked her, but she didn’t intervene and ask for me to removed from her class because Mrs.A was mean. As long as no one was physically beating us, our parents let us learn how to deal with reality: everyone wasn’t the same and everyone wasn’t going to think that the sun rose every morning from our behinds. Some teachers probably secretly wished they could plaster a black and blue mark every morning on my behind but didn’t because then my mom would have been knocking down the principal’s door.

It may have hurt my mom to see me sad- that a friend or teacher didn’t like me, but she let me learn that lesson: the lesson that I wasn’t God’s gift to mankind (which anyone growing up in a loving joint family may have been led to believe). And when that happened, she didn’t feel like she needed to remove me from that unpleasant situation, by airlifting me out of my momentary sorrow into her comforting arms.

Recently, I heard of a case where a mom asked her kid’s school to excuse her daughter permanently from attending a PE class where the child felt the teacher was partial and thought she was being picked on. It wasn’t a grave situation; just one of those all of us experience while growing up, but the school did it. I understand this happening if the child is being mentally or physically abused/ tortured, in which case the teacher needs to leave, but excusing a student from a class because they don’t feel liked by their teacher feels a bit extreme.

There are more than enough moms who get involved in their kid’s petty fights: I remember even when I was a kid, a friend’s mom would stop talking to my mom every time we had a fight. My brother had an ‘Aunty’ who would actually call him up and try to solve any scrap that he had with her son. Ok- so the crazies have always been around but the difference is that with new schools cropping up, they are willing to perform backflips to please the parents. Their Open Door policy may comfort us at first, but it’s also rattling! To know that every paranoid mother (with our ‘Hum Do Humara Ek‘* brigade) can go and demand whatever she thinks best for her-and YOUR kid!

Recently, my friend told me about a Jain mother in their school who demanded that on days when vada-pav is given to the kids, it should be switched to kela vada for all the kids. She had already been allowed to send her own tiffin on days when a Jain* option was not going to be provided by the school. Her rationale was that her child will be tempted while seeing other kids eat. It’s a valid point since kids want to do what their peers are doing, but this is the problem with India today! Just because I’m Marwari, vegetarian and a majority in Mumbai, should I want that everyone else should live like me?

We are so easily offended: by meat-eaters, by metal playgrounds, by immature toddlers who hit, by jokes, by opinions, by anyone that represents ‘the other’. We want to bring our children up in a safe environment- protected from any dangers, ‘the other’ representing the greatest danger!

So let’s all wait around while our schools and our government accommodate the majority’s opinion (hyper moms are the majority nowadays), and then we can live in our manicured gardens (balconies for Mumbai), with our saffron-washed walls, consuming milky chai and cucumber-chutney sandwiches (because a chicken junglee sandwich is just that- so junglee*) in the promise that “Achche Din Aanewale hain“.*
*Bhindi- Okra
Dabba- Lunch box
Salwar Kameez- an Indian outfit, where the kameez is the top and the salwar is a loose pyjama below.
Jain- People who follow Jainism, and do not consume any vegetables that grow underground.
“Hum Do Humara Ek”-“We Two Have One (Kid)”
Junglee- Primitive, Animal-like.
“Achche Din Aanewale Hain”- “Good days will be here soon!”

Baby Season: Priviliged Winter Babies

As soon as October rolls in, it seems like BabyA’s calendar gets packed up with so many birthday parties that she becomes a Goa hippie, party hopping from one shindig to another. And by any chance, if BabyA’s working Bhua attempts to see her on a Saturday (otherwise known as Bhua-Bhatiji day in my house) between October and March, the only way she can get a time slot is if she begs me to beg the host to let her accompany BabyA to a party. 

I’ve always wondered what it is with people having babies during this period. Even when I was registering at Breach Candy Hospital to deliver, everyone kept talking about the fact that I was lucky mine was an off-season (April) baby, so I would be able to secure one of those coveted sea-facing, SINGLE occupancy rooms. 

So how did these moms manage to create a baby season? And why did they choose October to March? Yes: the weather is great for birthday parties as well as, it’s a good time to be “very” pregnant but people like me find it hard to understand how so many women are able to set their body alarms so efficiently that they start family planning in February, and *RINGRING* out pops the baby in October. For fertility-challenged women like me, this is a mystery. 

Or maybe it’s all about New Year’s and people trying to sync everything with the start of a new year: “I’ll give up all fattening food on 1st January”  or “I’ll give up alcohol for a year on 1st January” or “I’ll give up condom usage on 1st January”. Maybe family planning is tied to that idea of “one last time”. Our YOLO* generation likes to make shopping lists, bucket lists and “one last time before I have a baby” lists… because today, with our short attention spans and our hectic lives, having a baby is equivalent to a social death. That’s why people plan ‘babymoons’: a holiday timed in your second (and best) trimester because the assumption is that after the baby comes, travel will be less frequent and much less fun!

Since we only live once, we might as well live it up during our last pre-pregnant Diwali, followed by Christmas and New Year’s parties, at this point, always merged with one amazing holiday where we shall drink till we puke in the river at Darling Harbour, Sydney. Then, as the aircraft doors open and the Bombay humidity hits us, so does reality. We realize that now we have no more excuses, and the responsibility towards the family of producing more dysfunctional products to complete the unit has dawned upon us. Out go the birth control pills, and soon enough, there’s a bun in the oven, ready to come out in the lovely winter months of Bombay. And I guess if you factor the ones who take a little time to conceive too, even they are ready with a filled up oven by May/June.

This planning has fabulous results: because you must suffer through one boring Holiday Time (December) and then reap the benefits of lovely parties held outdoors! 

Everyone knows what an outdoor party means to pigeon-holed Bombay children who are used to calling a patch of astro-turf in their buildings a garden. I remember taking BabyA to a party in one of those complex buildings in Parel, and as we entered the huge garden, she screamed an excited, deafening  scream. It was my realization that she had never seen so much empty space before. And then she ran, like an unbridled horse! That’s the day I understood why people times their baby’s births: because at least on their birthday, they want their kids to be able to run like the wind, and taste a spoonful of freedom! In Bombay, even if that means only for a moment, in the great outdoors.

*YOLO- “You only live once”

New Age Diwali: Holy Days to Holidays

Diwali is at our threshold and I’m not sure that any of us even realize! It’s not like it was when we were kids: Loud, smoky, glittering and fabulous- spotted a month before, coming round the corner.

Diwali would seep into every sense of yours. The sounds of Diwali- hearing the explosive firecrackers, the laughter of people screaming and fighting while playing cards during unending card parties, the aartis* sung as soon as the final countdown towards D-day would begin, with the onset of Dhanteras.

You could smell it everywhere: marigolds being strewn into garlands and being sold on the roadside, the fragrance of mithais* and experimental snacks that moms would come up with to outdo each other when people would come visiting on New Year’s Day, the lung-throttling smells of anars* showering sparks all around glorious Marine Drive; and all that dust flying, as you sneezed incessantly, while you helped your mom with Diwali cleaning.

Diwali was tangible: not just a concept like a lot of holidays in other religions are. You could feel it in the smooth powders that streamed down from your fingers as you designed a different rangoli* for each day; you felt it in the heat that burnt your fingers as you tried to get the wick’s placement and the ghee’s proportion just right in order to have a long-lasting diya*; or in the manhandling of your chubby cheeks as each relative came and told you, “Mujhe pehenchante ho?” (“Do you recognize me?”) knowing fully well you hadn’t a clue; you touched Diwali in the crispness of your grandma’s new organza sarees that magically didn’t move no matter how much work she did, and in the gathering of food, money and your old possessions which you would hand away to those more needy.

The visuals of Diwali: oh so grand! There was colour everywhere, diyas lit outside houses and gates bedecked with flowers, families (from the poor to the wealthiest) out and about in their fanciest, newest buys- so sparkly you thought you were looking through a kaleidoscope into a jumble of colours that were Diwali!

And last but not the least: the tastes of the festival. The oily splendour of the first bite of the dal ka pakoras* that were your Pali Hillwali Bhuaji’s* Diwali specialty (which you had waited a year to sink your teeth into); the chalky sweetness of the cheap prasad* ka pedas* picked up by the pandit on the way to the Office Pooja; the taste of the ‘kadak* notes’ as you used your spit to aid you in counting all the money ‘gaddis‘* your dad had gotten home to make envelopes for his sisters and you for Bhai Dooj.*

Diwali was fabulous! Lakshmiji* came in, the elephants trumpeting her arrival so loudly that you couldn’t bear to think of anything else. From a month prior, your life was single-mindedly focused on the preparation of its onset.

These days you can’t feel Diwali till it’s actually here, on your doorstep, desperately knocking so that someone answers the door. The holy days seem to have become simply holidays, with parents looking for the best deals to fly abroad once their kids break from school: no flying for family (Diwali reunions with parents and/or in-laws). Dhanteras is spent dispersing of dhan* by buying designer wear at Dubai Mall, and kids are happy having known Diwali through the one token sports club Diwali party they are taken to before they jetset off to an exotic destination.

Schools and parents must be lauded for their efforts at reducing the usage of firecrackers and such pollutants but in our increasing practicality, have we forgotten our own culture? We seem to lay out elaborate Christmas Eve plans with cookies and milk left out for Santa, stuffing the bottoms of our plastic Christmas trees with gifts but have we forgotten to teach the kids about the gifts Lakshmiji brings when she too, silently, comes into our houses every Diwali? Have we forgotten that we need to keep our houses clean and light them up with diyas and flowers, so that as she passes on such a hectic day, blessing each person’s house, she does not miss seeing ours from the sky? After all, we must attempt to make them gradually understand the abstract value of blessings too.

Food porn used to be the dishes that you saw lined up at Diwali parties rather than Instagrammed pics of Thai Sticky Rice with Mango while people holiday. Nowadays there’s more concentration on securing Halloween costumes than buying our tots new clothes for Diwali. I’m not a gazillion years old and against playing along with Western traditions, but I feel like our own traditions must be instilled as well, with more vigour, because they are as resplendent and attractive, if only we expose our children to them.

Diwali isn’t tangible any more: I don’t feel the heat in my Chinese-made electronic diyas, and I can’t privately chuckle at my tone-deaf brother’s voice when I listen to the You-Tubed aartis. My house, after our pooja, is filled with the ringing of mobiles where we call in-town relatives and what’s app friends Happy Diwali messages, rather than indulge in cheerful banter with each other like we used to. In fact, we no longer attempt to visit my Pali Hillwali Bhuaji (“So much traffic in Bombay you know!”), but I hear her dal ka pakoras don’t taste the same anymore, either (“Aaj kal, koi fried nahin khaata. Yeh maine air-fryer main banaye hain.” Nowadays, no one eats fried food. I have made these in the air-fryer)

New Year days are empty, with most of our cousins having flown off (their Marwari families managing to have kept them local at least till Diwali night), and Bhai Dooj even more boring, because plans are postponed to weekends weeks after, to be celebrated at impersonal restaurants.

It’s just us (all the members of my household) trying to figure out how we should celebrate Diwali? The African saying goes, “You need a village to bring up a child”; just the same way, you need a village to celebrate Diwali (and teach your child customs and tradition). Otherwise, it’s just you holding your child’s hand in your sparkly little house, weaving a tale about the importance of Diwali, wondering if Lakshmi even bothers to leave Vishnu’s* side and come on her rounds, to see who bothered to stick around in your ghost town to be blessed by her non-material gifts.

*anars- firecrackers
aartis- prayer songs
Dhanteras-is the first day of the five-day Diwali Festival. It is usually considered auspicious to buy metal on this day.
mithais- Indian sweets
rangoli- a motif made on the floor, outside houses, with colored powders
diya- a small oil-lamp
dal ka pakoras- a fried snack made of lentils
Bhuaji- father’s sister (or grand father’s sister, in this case)
prasad- food that is a religious offering
pedas- Indian sweet
kadak- crisp
gaddi- wad of notes
Bhai Dooj- On this day, sisters pray for a long and happy life for their brothers, by performing the tika ceremony.
Lakshmi- Goddess of Wealth
Vishnu- is a central God in Hinduism and is Lakshmi’s husband.

dhan- wealth