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.