My cell phone sprang to shrill life, startling me and the dentist whose gloved hand was deep in my mouth. He lifted his hand and asked
‘Do you want to answer the phone? You will have to wait till the plaster has dried.’
I was being measured for a cap for one of my molars,
I took the phone from him. It was my wife.
As soon as the work was over I rang my wife. She had tried to reach me a couple of times during the interval.
‘What is it?’
She said ‘This woman Baby is shouting here. She is creating so much noise that the neighbors are probably listening and she is abusing me, Perhaps she thinks that she can shame me and scare me in this manner. She says she was being underpaid and exploited. She says she has been coming here at 7 and leaving at 12.45. How she lies!’
‘OK. I will be there soon. Then we’ll talk.
By the time I reached home, my wife had dismissed the maid who had been working for us during the past two months while our regular maid was on leave attending her daughter‘s confinement. My wife had also called up the agency which had supplied this maid Baby to us and had complained to them. They offered a substitute but she refused.
My wife was very upset. She recounted the whole incident to me. She had asked the maid to go with her to the terrace to spread the laundered clothes on the clothesline. She carried a bucket of clothes from the washing machine and her maid another. My wife had already washed her blouses and inner wear by hand. Baby completed spreading out the clothes from the bucket she carried and started putting the clothespins on them.
My wife who was busy putting clothes on the line said said, “There are more clothes.’
Baby kept silent. My wife said that this is her regular practice. When she is asked to do something, she plays deaf and my wife repeats till she acknowledges the instruction. She had made up her mind to be patient. She was trying to learn Orthodox Christianity and she had learned that all persons that you encounter are images of God; Baby included. They may have come into your life to teach you about dark areas in your own character. So one must be awake and listen to the presence of God in each person
Baby answered “I have not run off. I am clipping the clothes.’
My wife noted this deviation from Baby’s regular behavior of silent insolence. ‘She is now openly insolent’, she concluded, ‘but I shall ignore it.
As they were coming down the stairs, my wife noticed areas of accumulated dust on the landing and told Baby, pointing to the spot.
‘Today, when you do the cleaning, please wipe this area’.
Baby was two steps down and refused to look where my wife was pointing and said “ I always clean this area’.
My wife pointed to the dust again, but Baby repeated her stand.
My wife said, ‘Why don’t you come up and look at the dust accumulated here?’
She was getting irritated and waged a war within. ‘Should I keep silent or should I speak out? If I allow her to be insolent every time, I would lose my authority.’ She also remembered that this was the first time Baby was in the house when her husband was not there. Baby judged her to be a meek and easily scared person.
She must establish her position or throw her out. She asked Baby ‘Why do you answer me with insolence each time?’
It was as if a dam had burst. “How was I insolent? Tell me that! “ Baby started shouting at the top of her voice. “This happens every time. When people have paid for a couple of months they do not want to pay anymore. No one will work with you. You are abusive. You take 200 rupees work and pay 150. only.’
She said ‘I am paying a Hundred and sixty a day. ‘ And in addition the Agency takes ten rupees every day from Baby and twenty from me as commission. She thought.
‘I do not know what you pay. You may be paying the agency. You are paying me only hundred and fifty. I come at 7 every day and there are days when you have made me work till 12.45, though I am only hired for 4 hours’.
My wife was astonished. The woman would come any time between 7.45 and 8.15.AM She would work for around three hours and then would become restive and would become sullen. My wife would give her some odd job, which would keep her for another ten or fifteen minutes and then she would rush off. Here she was shouting to the world that she worked for nearly six hours for the wage of four hours when she hardly worked for three. If she can lie so shamelessly, tomorrow she may even accuse us of harassment and we would be in a fix.
‘You have never come at seven and you know it. Under the circumstances, I do not want your services from tomorrow.’ She said.
She called up the Agency in the presence of Baby. The Agency tried to evade her, but she rang them repeatedly and expressed her anger at their sending such an unsuitable person to her. Baby was meanwhile shouting’ I may starve from tomorrow, but we will survive even eating our own feces. Call yourself a Christian, do you? No wonder you cannot keep servants’.
‘I am sure that now the rains have stopped, you will have work with the rubber tappers’. My wife could only find this reason for Baby’s sudden outburst. She wanted an excuse to leave for work near her home.
‘It is none of your business. It is none of your business where I work and what I earn, I may get paid in lakhs but it is none of your business’. She raved on in this manner
In between she heard Baby say “I do not have your education. I do not know to talk like you. I know only this way.’
My wife realized that there was no point in arguing with this abusive woman, she was from another world and had a different set of rules. She had ample evidence indicating that Baby hid fruits to carry home and also shook talcum from the dressing table into bits of paper and hid it in her person. She had once followed Baby into the bedroom to be greeted by the strong smell of newly shaken our Cuticura Original, She had also seen that the Chakli in the bottle was suddenly reduced. But Baby had told her that she had two teenage daughters at home. She was motivated by pity at Baby’s penury and kept giving gifts of nail polish and chikki for the girls. She even allowed Baby to pack the vegetable thoran and Rava Upma with ghee and groundnuts that she had cooked on that day to give to Baby’s daughters. She always took care that Baby’s breakfast was cooked fresh and placed in a casserole to be kept warm as was her tea in a small flask. Baby should never feel that we considered her inferior and she should get as much nourishment as possible. She gave Baby a mid morning snack with fresh lime juice.
Baby had qualities which my wife would not have tolerated in others. She chewed pan and would come into the house with her mouth full of the red juice.
‘Please do not spit in my bathrooms’. She would admonish. “I have a toothache ‘ Baby said and my wife had given her some cloves to bite on to dull the pain. She would advise Baby to have her teeth checked even though she knew that Baby would not have the money to do so. She wanted to lend her something, but felt that immediately it would be diverted to meet other urgent needs.
My wife was also careful to hide the grocery she purchased in bulk as she felt guilty each time she became aware of Baby’s abject poverty. She really wanted to help her out and was even thinking about giving her daughters some money for their education. But they would also get government grants for backward classes. She was also scared of being put upon.
Baby had a cooking gas connection but could not buy gas as now she had to pay the full amount without subsidy. She could not raise the sum and she had come to know that the subsidy would be credited much later and some amount would be deducted towards conveyance and other expenses. She also went to swell the ranks of the crowds when Sonia Gandhi visited the city. She liked VS better, but she got paid for attending political meetings. The party workers had to show impressive crowds and the same lot attended each public meeting for a pay
Why did Baby react with so much hate? She had once, in the past, awakened herself from her sullen stillness to say “How much arrogance in spite of so much illnesses!”
My wife had brooded a bit on the feelings which had evoked this exclamation from Baby. ‘Does she think me arrogant? I am half scared of her and I am so patient with her sullenness’ , she told me. Now I could see that she was wondering again. Why did Baby hate her? She had tried her best to be generous and gave her gifts of food, household items and clothes almost every day. Could it be that what she took for insolence was just Baby trying to joke? Or could it be that Baby really hated her for her fairer skin, her house, her abundance and her authority to dispense charity to herself, who was dark, low caste, in abject poverty and bound to work for the affluent to make enough for her most basic needs?