‘Storyteller … tell us the story about their stay in India’
We had just come back to Boston after spending almost two years in India. The twenty two month long roller coaster ride flashed across my eyes. Family, friends, pets, fruit trees, absconding drivers, hilarious house helps, traveling from border to border – the forty plus places we visited, the crowded congregations, the peaceful ashrams ..
But how could I fit in 22 months in one story? There were hundreds of stories. Several for each of the individuals who touched our lives. And even if I tell these stories, it won’t reflect even a fraction of the experience we really had.
But I had to try.
‘Do you have time?’ I asked.
‘Tsssk’, ‘Tsssssk’, ‘Tsssssssssssssssk’ , the shrill notes got longer and longer as the sound became louder and louder
It happened every morning. Sharp at 5:30 AM. The sound of broom scrubbing the patio bricks. ‘Tsssk’, ‘Tsssssk’, ‘Tsssssssssssssssk’.
There was an explosion of activity, anointed with abundant hissing and tssssking just outside the bedroom window. It sounded like a bunch of rattlesnakes dancing after taking a shot of redbull and vodka.
I opened my eyes and squinted. Got into my slippers to spare my feet from the touch of the cold granite floor. ‘ Oh no ! not again !’ , my wife was also awake now. I managed a nod – my eyes still trying to get a hang of the new surrounding in our relatively new habitat in India. I trudged across the hallway to the main door and then around the house to the patio adjacent to the bedroom.
There was the source of the rukkus. Kaniappa our gardener. He was furiously cleaning up the gulmohor leaves that had fallen on the patio with a noisy broom. Wearing khaki shorts, an old gray shirt and a surprisingly new denim jacket, he was chasing the small brown leaves into a neat pile with a fury that would put Bruce Lee to shame. His head was wrapped in a scarf – which probably explained why he was oblivious to the noise he was making.
My head went into a spin trying to prepare itself for the upcoming conversation. Kaniaappa knew two Indian languages and I could follow five– but unfortunately none of them were common between the two of us. So our usual mode of conversation was a homegrown sign language and a slew of Pictionary poses.
I thought I had mastered the gestures for ‘Water palms’ , ‘ Cut these shurbs’ , ‘ Clean the gulmohor leaves’, ‘cleanup the rotten mango fruits’ .. and such mundane gardening tips.
The conversation also included gestures for “Give me the salary” , “Give me a raise” , from Kaniappa that he had mastered quickly.
But these conversations were not that I was apprehensive about. The challenge was to convey to Kaniappa that he should NOT ‘broom’ the patio next to the bedroom window at 5:30 AM. I had tried to suggest him alternatives in my sign language that would translate (in my head) to something like this –
‘Kaniappa, I understand that you have to start the work at 5:30 AM but can you start with watering the palms in the back of the house and picking up the rotten fruits under the over fruiting mango tree there and THEN clean the patio next to the bedroom ..? please?, Hoping that it would give us another 30 minutes of comfortable snoozing so that we could get up at a respectable time of 6 AM.
Kaniappa would nod his head in vigorous agreement, smiling ear to ear, saying something enthusiastically that I could not comprehend. And would turn up promptly next day at 5:30 with his noisy broom – stirring ups imaginary rattlesnakes outside our bedroom window.
As I walked towards the noise of fighting snakes, Kaniappa broke away from his trance of chasing the gulmohor leaves and looked at me. His expression changed from furious concentration to feigned reverence. He flashed a smile.
I was impatient today. I must admit that it was not entirely because of the noise Kaniappa’s created. We had a wild Holi Party yesterday – which had ended with the merry partygoers – about 30 of them, throwing color at each other, dousing each other with water and eventually rolling each other in the muddy lawn.
The lawn and patio were reeling from shock of frenzied color fights. Beer and wine added to an already intoxicated festive fervor created a heady mix that had left me with a hangover. And in this merriment, I had lost my favorite camera. It was not the camera that I missed than much – but the treasures captured in it. I had spent more than an hour combing the house and lawn after the party but the camera was not found.
Before I could start my Pictionary poses, I realized that Kaniappa had cleaned up the premises from all traces of the party. Everything was spotlessly clean! Kaniappa’s eyes twinkled as he reached into the pockets of his kakhi shorts and pulled out my favorite automatic camera.
‘Found it the neighbor’s yard, must have fallen from the compound wall’, he signaled masterfully using sign language.
‘Lot of work’, he explained using vigorous gestures, ‘Give me a raise’, the sixty year old gardener signaled after a pause, his teeth gleaming in the morning sun.
As I turned back to get prepared for my morning yoga routine, I saw that my driver Mani had already reported for duty and was starting to clean up the car.
Mani used to run the laundry shack in our gated community. A twenty year old young man with a perpetual smile was the first one to show up when I had put up a notice in the club house that I was looking to hire a driver. My old driver, my henchman, had started to ply an Airport taxi which was more lucrative than the $250/month salary of a full time driver.
‘How much experience do you have? ’, I had asked Mani.
‘I have a driving license, sir’, he had replied with a shy smile, ‘ I can do it , sir .. I don’t want to be a laundry guy throughout my life .. I want to be a driver’. At least he was truthful.
So Mani was hired. He wanted $150/ month –justifying for his lack of experience. ‘Are you crazy to hire a driver without experience? ’ my friends finally had the confirmation of the fact that I had gone crazy. ‘First the scooter … now this driver …’, a dear friend had exclaimed.
The 10 mile ride to office that would be about one hour in Bangalore traffic , took about two hours for Mani. Mostly because of the 30km/hr speed – even without traffic. But also because of the number of times the car stopped after speed breakers due to the lack of diver’s skills to coordinate between the clutch and accelerator a low speeds.
“Grrr.. grrr . Thud” , the car would stop with a grunt followed by re-ignition and an excruciating sound of high revolution of the engine caused by simultaneous pressure on the clutch and accelerator. I tried to go in to a yogic trance not to think about the situation that would arise if Mani released the clutch abruptly.
‘There is no hurry’, I tried to coach him ‘Just don’t bang the car in front of you …’
And then one fine day Mani disappeared. Not for a day. Not for two days. But for whole two weeks.
I began to get worried when after about a week, his family members started to show up at our home trying to get tips about his whereabouts.
‘He left the house without warning .. sir .. do you know where he is .. he respects you ..’, they would talk to me with Kaniappa our gardener as the translator. Kaniappa was getting good at the Pictionary gestures.
‘Of course I don’t … he is not even picking up his phone …’ I had replied. Followed by a long steam of translatory jargon from Kaniappa. Mani’s sister had left with tears in her eyes.
Mani had shown up yesterday, with a sweet looking girl in tow. ‘I ran away from home for her … we got married sir … can I start on my driver job again ?’
So Mani was reinstated in his job but only after a solid dosage of work ethics dumb charade. Mani kept on nodding his head throughout my discourse. Even his wife would join the nodding in interesting sections. They would nod individually, look at each other and nod again.
‘One more thing .. sir …’ .Mani had added shyly after I had concluded, ‘ My expenses have gone up after marriage .. I will need a raise …’
The morning had burst into flurry of activity and it was time for my morning yoga practice, before I headed out to office.
I settled down on a yoga mat in a quiet corner of the terrace. This corner is shaded by the coconut tree growing in the backyard. Beautiful, southern-California-style-sunny Bangalore morning. Deep blue skies and a perfect 72 degree temperature.
‘Peaceful … ’ , I thought as I lay down on the mat looking up at the sky through the coconut leaves.
I suddenly heard a rustling sound behind me that makes me jump up. Precariously perched on the coconut tree was our cook, Kamal. He was trying to cut out a bunch of coconuts with his kitchen knife.
‘Mashima (a respectable address for my Mother) has asked me to use fresh coconuts in the curry’, he mumbled half apologetically.
‘So you made our cook climb up the coconut tree!’, I confronted my mother.
She looked up from the TV which was ecstatically wild with a stadium full of people doing kapaalbhati pranayam under the guidance of Swami Ramdev. Since the day we had arrived in India, my mother had taken up the serious responsibility of sparing her NRI child from the harsh reality of dealing with house help workforce.
Kamal was generally acclaimed as the best cook in the area. He also ran a catering company on the side. He had delighted hundreds of satisfied patrons with his culinary skills – including myself. But had unfortunately failed to impress my mother.
It started with her ‘fixing’ all the dishes that Kamal cooked. Dash of salt here, garnish of spice there. Then it graduated in detailed instructions that needed to be followed – right to the specification of the how small onions needed to be chopped or how large potatoes needed to be cubed.
‘Mom – we are lucky that we were able to hire this Cook, I mumbled under my breath … if he quits .. ‘ , I would implore, putting up the best of my take pity on me face.
‘It is your home … your life … ‘, she would say in a hurt tone,’ I will never EVER talk to that cook again ..’ But her resolve would last for exactly thirty microseconds.
Even before I could heave a sigh of relief, I heard my mother giving instructions to our cook Kamal about how small onions needed to be chopped and how large potatoes needed to be cubed. Kamal listened with feigned patience still panting from his exertion of climbing up the coconut tree.
As I was about to get out of the house for my office, Kamal came to me with a glass of watermelon juice. ‘Dada, your forgot to drink this …’
‘Also Dada, I won’t be able to handle this anymore …’, he mumbled.
I stared at him with alarm …
‘How about a raise ?’ I mumbled.
When the expats think about life in India one of the first things that comes to mind is the luxury of house helps. In a modest budget of $350 a month, one could hire a driver, two house helps and one gardener in Bangalore!
But managing the home staff is a full time job in itself. Overenthusiastic gardeners, missing drivers and depressed cooks are just a small part of the fun in store.
The bigger challenge, especially for folks who have spent considerable time in the West, is the perception gap regarding dignity of labor. If you have a cup of coffee with Ed, your landscaper who mows your lawn in Chelmsford, it is just another day in life. If you do that with Kaniappa, your gardener in Kasavanahalli, Bangalore, you will be noticed.
Also, I feel that the way that we deal with house staff in India is not just dependent on individual idiosyncrasies. It is a social pattern.
As a contrast to my darling fiery perfectionist mother who featured in this story (and I am prepared for the thirty microseconds that she is not going to talk to me for this public disclosure), my other darling, soft spoken and gentle mother in law (who is also my Yoga guru) also disliked our cook. And I think it was nothing to do with individual preference or the skills of the cook. It is societal conditioning.
I call it the “The Maali Syndrome”.
Maali or the gardener gets paid for maintaining the lawn. All the beautiful flowers, the lush green grass, the manicured hedges – he got paid for that, right? So the credit goes to you for all the good stuff – the person who paid for it.
And if the Maali misses on something: a spot of mud on the patio, a crop of dead leaf, a splash of water on the window. It is his mistake and the Maali owns that mistake.
So Maali gets reprimanded everyday for the mistakes he makes. The blooming flowers are overlooked as being part of his contribution. The focus is on mistakes. And this pattern becomes so natural that it may also manifest itself in our professional life as we forget that creativity (and creation) comes at the expense of mistakes.
I need to conclude the blog now … time to help the wife to fix up dinner!
Thanks for reading.
Miss you Kamal !!
Story By : Prithvi Banerjee. The first short story in our short story series – based on real life incident, the author shares his experience from an expat’s point of view during his brief stay of few years in India. This story has also appeared on the author’s personal blog – http://pbnerge.blogspot.com