A new law has recently been approved by the Cabinet in the UAE, aimed at improving the life of domestic workers in the country. The law ensures them a weekly day off, 30 day paid leave, right to retain passport and a daily rest of at least 12 hours. Although most of us in the Gulf do not have the luxury of having maids, several families do employ them and the law is absolutely necessary and welcome news for the thousands of mostly expats who work in the country as full-time maids, nannies or cleaners and some of whom are subjected to extreme physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers.
Back in India too, the Government had been toying with some such idea to regularize the domestic scene some years ago, but nothing seems to have come off it to the best of my knowledge. However, employing a maid in India seems to be a necessity rather than a luxury, and so the entire scenario is kind of different. Aware of their ‘in demand’ status, most Indian maids rule the roost and call the shots. Some maids have clearly marked work boundaries [ what in local parlance is called their ‘adda’] and woe betide any other female who dares to encroach! When first setting up house, if one is able to catch hold of a decent maid, then one is kind of ‘set for life’, until her highness ups and leaves, mostly without giving notice! The ultimate test of a good Indian house-wife seems to be not only if she can hire a maid, but also if she can retain that maid without losing her to that nasty woman down the street, who’s been overtly wooing her! ‘Maids and their whims and fancies’ are generally the focal point of social conversations, and neighbours, normally hostile with each other, appear like BFFs while lamenting the woes of a mutual maid.
During our growing years in Goa, for a long time we didn’t have a maid, with mother doing all the chores herself; and, remember those were the days before the washing machine, dish-washer or the vacuum cleaner! But ultimately she succumbed to social pressures and got onto the bandwagon. Thus began a succession of females who held sway at our kitchen sink. Among the earlier ones, I remember, was a pretty young girl, who would report for duty with matching hair clips, sandals, hand bag and the works. In fact on her first day dad thought she was a friend of mine, if you please!! Needless to say such comely attributes could not have gone unnoticed for long; and very soon the PYT announced her impending nuptials and we bade goodbye to her dainty back.
Another time we had this comfortable motherly woman who came to us with her hair in a tiny bun and a large gap in her front teeth. She would croon gently to the vessels and hissed menacingly at the bucket of clothes. And while she pottered around the house with the broomstick, mom followed her doing most of the heavy duty work herself. We weren’t too sure who was supposed to be helping whom! Then one day our toothless nightingale decided it was time she retired and she left for her native village, no doubt to croon to the pigs and cows, that she claimed were waiting for her.
For some months we children helped around the house, until one day when a friend called up to say she was sending over a prospective maid and could mom interview her?….. and by the way, the woman was a bit of a dragon, so could we … er…behave? Since it was the reputation of mom’s friend at stake, mom went the whole way to ensure that we didn’t let the friend down. So at the appointed hour the next day, there we were – the three of us – my brother with his hair neatly combed and shirt tucked in; my sister and I in matching frocks, our hair oiled and braided. When she arrived, the maid turned out to be a tall, strapping female with a voice with inbuilt high-frequency speakers; and the interview was conducted on the portals of our humble abode. If you’re under the impression that mom interviewed her, then you’re so so wrong and I pity you! It was the maid aspirant who interviewed mom and how! She demanded to know how many rooms we had, whether we had a colour TV and whether it was just us three children or there were more lurking around. She spoke of casual leave and half-yearly gifts and breakfast with tea and no cuts in wages whatsoever. She then wanted to give the house a once over and I overheard a very nervous mother ‘thanking god that she had cleaned the house just that morning’. The femme fatale made it quite clear that she didn’t like the colour of our walls, she looked down upon our carpet and was frankly disgusted with our poor taste in furniture! She then announced that, despite the drawbacks, she would give us a trial period and would be starting work the next day. I can still picture the look of relief mixed with triumph on my mother’s face…. almost as if she had won a dream job! Did Sundar Pichai feel the same on being appointed CEO of Google Inc…. I wonder!!!
Our new maid was a fire-spewing dragon just as her CV had stated and we were terrified of her. For the couple of hours she was in the house, the three of us would be huddled, trembling, on the sofa, while the tornado of brooms and mops, pots and pans raged around us. Our greatest fear – if we put one wrong foot in the wrong place she would soak us in detergent, wring us out and put us out to dry! I assure you however, that it never happened, probably because we kept our feet close to our heart, literally! But surprisingly her reign lasted a good few years, the longest of all actually, and I guess we emerged stronger for it. In fact, just between you and me, the fact that we three are so soft-spoken, docile and well behaved even today, is probably thanks to the strong and lasting influence of our domestic Iron lady!
Well, Well ! Now is there such a thing as ‘A maid maketh a man’??