Just like the mother there is usually another omnipresent being in an Indian home. However, unlike a mother her presence becomes apparent only because her absence is the subject of periodic agitated deliberation. “Ungrateful. Irresponsible. No consideration for others. Habitual liar. She always does this especially when she knows there will be guests in the house.” The maid is an essential feature – but not necessarily considered a member – of the average middle-class household in India.
Day after day she hovers in the background as an unobtrusive and silent shadow fetching glasses of water or cups of tea on order, cooking meals suited to the taste of each family member on demand, cleaning up after them; the list goes on. She could be any one of several maids each entrusted with a specific task like cooking, sweeping and mopping floors, washing clothes or caring for the children. Or, it could be a single person who manages all of these roles. In a large home or when sent out to run errands she is summoned or receives instructions through her cellphone. Her day starts before the first member of the household awakes and ends well after the last person retires for the night.
While being driven around the city I am amazed by the patience, tenacity and stoic temperament of the “driver.” Theirs is a tough, extremely stressful life on the overcrowded, chaotic roads where everyone chooses to abide by their own rules. A driver must not only find elusive parking spots in the overflowing city but also stay connected by cellphone with clients to reach them within minutes of being summoned and avoid being berated, or sometimes even being verbally and physically abused. At the end of a hectic day, the driver retires to a single room shared with 4 or 5 individuals usually from his birthplace. By rotation, each cooks a meal for the others.
As I travel in air-conditioned comfort of a popular SUV, my eyes are drawn to a family of five on a two-wheeler scooter precariously negotiating the city traffic. A man is sitting erect with his hands on the crossbar handles, feet resting on the platform on which a young girl is standing, almost blocking his line of vision. His wife is riding pillion, draped in a sari and therefore sitting sideways with both her feet on the side rest. Her left hand holds a cellphone to the ear while clasping a toddler to her chest and the right hand is draped around her husband’s waist for support. Sitting behind her are a boy and girl each around five or six years old, their feet dangling on either side of the scooter as they tightly latch on to the passenger in front of them while also managing a packed bag on their back! There is less than six inches of space on either side, through which the head of the family dextrously negotiates his way between fumes-churning buses, auto-rickshaws, cyclists, cars and other vehicles fighting every inch of the way, raucously blowing their horns to warn others to clear a path.
Through the windows of an overcrowded bus, I espy a prematurely greyed lady stretching her left hand to hang on to a dangling strap from the handrail above while her other hand clutches a bag and some books. Drops of sweat find their way through her eyebrow and into her left eye; taking advantage of the brief moment when the bus stops at a traffic light, she lets go of the support strap and uses the pallu (loose end of the sari) to quickly dab the sweat out of her eye before re-grasping the strap to steady herself as the bus suddenly lurches forward. Where is she headed? How long will it take her to get home? Does she have a family? Will she go home and cook for them? At what time does her day start and when will it end? Her cellphone suddenly rings and startles her but while fellow passengers look in her direction, she chooses to ignore the caller because her hands are not free.
Later that evening I meet a young man who introduces himself as a “serial start-up innovator/entrepreneur.” He tells me that India is being transformed and now “there is little poverty in the country.” I am incredulous when he tells me that if someone owns a cellphone, they can’t possibly be poor! I suggest that perhaps it is not a luxury but a necessity, a cost for doing business, earning a livelihood. Like the drivers, the local corner stores delivering groceries through their young mobile store staff, the neighborhood fruit and vegetable seller hawking his wares from a handcart while taking orders from housewives or the local press-wallah providing an update on the status of clothes delivered for ironing. Even bank staff use their personal cellphones rather than office phones to service customers. He counters that everyone now has a bank account and a “bank balance” and provides all types of statistics to support his pronouncements. There are others like him including some who have in their employ drivers, maalis (gardeners) and other staff whose names they are unable to recall, referring to them by the task they perform!
Shah Hussain, the 16th century Sufi poet recited
Ni saiyyon aseen nainaan de aakhey lagge …
[O my (girl)friends I have succumbed to what my eyes show me ..]
Perhaps this is who we have become. The world over whether in Delhi, Toronto, Winnipeg or elsewhere it is comforting to remain in our cocoons and notice only what we choose to see because it appeals to us. And so, more gated communities continue to spring up to keep the nouveau rich secure. I only wish I knew which side of the wall they stay.