Tag Archives: #japa

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.

Oh My Japa Bai: Old Wives’ Tales & Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo

I did it old-school style and got a Bikaneri Japa* maid from Calcutta (the most preferred combination of culture that one could get in Japa maids), and I was given glowing recommendations about her. The only thing I didn’t factor in was that my cousins who had employed her, had done so eons ago. When she arrived, I was a bit set back (to say the least) to find an extremely overweight lady with the manners of a village “gaonti”**(occupying most of my 8 people occupancy lift with her left hand resting against one end and her huge hips resting against the other, leaving no more place for me, or anyone else) and serious flatulence problems (which she repeatedly blamed on my newborn since newborns are capable of explosive farts).

I could imagine that at some point this lady may have been efficient but it was hard to see about the person I met since she could sleep on call (to the point where my mother was seriously frightened that she was narcoleptic, because she would often fall asleep with my newborn in her arms, dangling, while sitting on a chair). Luckily, my mom and I were always on the watch.

I do realise that these are problems that come with a demanding job, but the funny thing is, that for the safety of my baby, we let the Japa sleep more than 10 hours a day. The only people burning the candle at both ends were my mom and me.

I also realize that such things may occur due to age, and I may, soon, turn into an overweight, sleepy, mannerless fart-bomb in time (all of which I have been at some point in my life or the other; just haven’t matured to the lethal combination yet) too so I shouldn’t make fun of older people, but it was just too much to bear.

This was only the tip of the iceberg. Then there were the regular problems that come with the Japa maids- constant advice regardless of whether I showed interest. The pediatrician had strictly advised against doing ‘uptan’ but she would stealthily take besan with malai (gram flour with cream) and try rubbing the body hair (and colour) off my baby. She was appalled when I told her to leave my baby alone as I loved her skin the way it was. How could any self-respecting Marwari not be coveting a whiter skin-tone for her child? She looked at me with disgust, and went on.

She wanted to put oil in BabyA’s nose, ears and every orifice she could find. She complained to the family elders that I didn’t do my massage properly, when in reality, I had to sit up and do uncomfortable acrobatics every morning in order for her to massage me. If she stretched too much, she would puff and pant like she was about to have a heart attack, so out of pity for her size, I sat up and went through the torture. And then there was constant squealing about what I ate and what I didn’t eat. Aah! The list goes on…

I started regretting getting a Japa maid instead of a nurse. My mom had been against the idea of getting a nurse because she pointed out that they didn’t do any work around the baby or the mother, like washing clothes, making the mother’s food, etc. but I’m not sure that my Japa was managing much either!

I employed the lady for six months due to the lack of any other option, but in retrospect, I think a nurse would have been a better choice. I noticed during my sister-in-law’s delivery, that albeit way more expensive, nurses are relatively non-interfering, usually giving advice softly but retreating when you politely let them know you don’t need it. Of course, each person’s personality differs, but nurses are also more in sync with the baby care instructions given by your pediatrician .

You can’t really blame the Japa maids for being so suffocating because they are relics of a time gone-by. Nowadays, urban mothers blindly trust the doctor and disregard what the Japa says as old wives’ tales. Traditionally, these ladies have been valued greatly for their infinite knowledge and experience regarding new moms and their babies. They are used to being treated like knowledgeable foster mothers who come in to guide you through your first forty days, rather than as ordinary maids.

As BabyA has grown older, I have discovered that there is a lot of wisdom in the old ways. From a doctor-bhakt, I have now started realizing that there is as much truth in the old knowledge as there is in medical science. Both are imperfect, and suggestions from both avenues must be weighed or cautiously tested before accepting.

When I look at my little hairy bear, I regret not trying ‘uptan’ with her because I know that it had helped my siblings and me when we were babies. Also BabyA’s severe colic was not cured by all the Colic Aids and Neopeptines of the world, but finally, listening to the Japa and my mother-in-law, I started giving BabyA a paste made by rubbing natural herbs on a stone with milk (a.k.a. ghaasa/ghasara), and finally found that she got better.

Allopathy only has immediate fixes for us (packed in with lots of side effects), but long term cures are only possible through alternative methods. Thus, to completely disregard what our mothers, mothers-in-law or Japas say is also unfair. Sometimes their ways maybe obsolete (like don’t cut nails after sunset, which no longer makes sense as we now have electricity) or they may not know the real reason behind things (not making babies wear new clothes when they are born as new fabric has a lot of chemicals and can cause allergies), but that doesn’t mean that their knowledge should be dismissed as mere superstition.

In a postmodern world, we have seen the downfall of the ‘faultless logic and understanding of science’. There are no longer any absolutes, and thus, its more about what works for you. Since we reverently hang onto every word the doctor says, we could also give our formally-uneducated but experientially-gifted Japas a chance sometimes.  Our moms couldn’t have been so grossly misguided when they were treating them as baby whisperers when we were tiny tots. After all, we turned out ok, didn’t we?
*Japa Maid- New mom and baby care specialist maids

**gaonti- village simpleton