My life in the UK, like many, consisted of a minutely planned routine, only broken by special occasions, a long weekend or in extreme cases, death! Even weddings are held on the weekend, to avoid disruption to the working week! We did everything ourselves. My husband and I were a successful tag team; we raised the children, did the housework, worked and even managed a movie or a restaurant once in a while. The decision to move to India was made in part, with the knowledge that life would be easier, more relaxed. I was promised a maid! How could I not be excited? What would I do with all my spare time? Did I really need a maid if I wasn’t working?
Well, today, I have two maids and a driver! Bitika cooks and cleans and Kajol handles my 2 year old and sometimes my 6 year old, when she lets her. Both of these women work extremely hard and, so far, have proved very loyal. Bitika travels 1 ½ hours everyday on a CTC bus, to and from work (3 hours in total). Kajol is relatively new and is still a little unsure of her place in our small household.
Kolkata, to many of my relatives who live outside it, is the big bad city with people out to cheat you at every opportunity. I haven’t found that yet, ‘touch wood’. I was told to be extremely wary of the women who come in and work in our household. The general attitude held, even by my maids is, “someone, one day, will steal all your cash and run off with it” or “these people are not trustworthy and will do anything to get out of work.” As I have never, in my life had to manage a maid, I kept these suspicions in the back of my mind as Bitika came for her first day at work.
My first impressions of her were mixed. She was very quietly spoken, which I liked, as another maid we interviewed seemed to think that everything we asked her would be an inconvenience. Her face was wide and pleasant and she was tastefully clad in muted browns and beige but she had narrow green eyes that seemed a little perturbing. She would work from 7am until 6pm and her duties would be to cook and clean and occasionally she would be asked to pop to the shops, but generally cooking and cleaning was her main role. Initially, Bitika would ask to leave at 5pm, instead of 6pm, as she didn’t like crossing the field that was sometimes littered with alcoholics and men of bad repute. I agreed as she assured me that after a few days she would get used to the area and be able to leave at 6pm. That never happened but I didn’t actually mind as she always got the job done.
We didn’t speak much in the way of conversation in the beginning but eventually we opened up to each other. She was the only other person in my life I saw on a daily basis. The other residents of the block of flats we were staying in kept their distance and I kept mine, knowing that I wouldn’t actually be there very long. However, I still needed to unload occasionally. Our conversations were never of a very deep nature; the scandalous price I was paying for vegetables, in her opinion or how cold it was in the morning. To my amusement, she used to turn up to work in a shawl, while I was cursing the Kolkata heat.
Eventually she told me about her family. She has two sons. Both live in a village in the Sundarbans region of Bengal. The eldest is married, with a 5 year old son and does not work, much to the ire of his parents. Her youngest son is the apple of his mother’s eye, works extremely hard and had the potential to study after the 10th standard if they could have afforded it. She told me how a few years ago a great flood destroyed their crops, their home and washed away all of their belongings. This forced her husband to seek work as a labourer in the Andamans, and her sons to seek full time employment anywhere they could. Bitika would also have to leave the familiarity of the village and find work as a maid in someone else’s household in Kolkata. They had to start from scratch. What makes things worse is that Bitika’s eldest son is an ardent gambler and has been known to pawn their possessions for the sake of a card game or two.
I marvelled at this woman, as she hitched the end of her sari tightly around her waist and proceeded to sweep the floor. She wasn’t complaining; she was just making conversation.