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Letter from India

October 2006
Letter from India

Of Memsahibs and Multitasking

Musing on the relative merits of hired help versus do-it-yourself; in other words, the Indian versus the American way.

Angelina Jolie and I have something in common! We both chose to have our babies outside the US. Given the instant citizenship and superior medical facilities, it is rather unusual to head east with a pea in the pod. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Jolie declared her motive: "to prove it can be done." My agenda was rather simple. To seek prenatal care from the doctor who delivered my first child.

I have nothing against American doctors. In fact I've have had two surgeries at the hands of competent scalpel wielders in Washington. I even like my staid, experienced ob/gyn in Atlanta. But I wanted that something special in my oversized condition. I wanted Dr. Soonawala in Mumbai. He takes my call at 3 a.m. without routing me through an impersonal answering service. At every visit he hugs me like a long lost friend and chats about all and sundry while cautiously monitoring vitals. I like the personalized attention.

After numerous hours of labor and many milligrams of epidural my baby girl arrived on August 16th. Everybody was delighted—especially the hospital staff! As soon as I was wheeled into my room, the orderlies seeped in seeking baksheesh (tips). They came in single file, with large sheepish grins. The first chap entered with the pretext of surveying the air-conditioning, another came to inspect the TV, a third inquired if I needed another blanket?. By the tenth person my mother's wallet and my husband's patience had both run dry. This would never have happened at Piedmont Hospital!

Over the next two days, when I wasn't examining my daughter's face for the minutest resemblance to mommy (there is none), I observed the division of labor among the attendants. Every individual performed a task within a task. If one "mausi" was responsible for serving meals, another took care of beverages. One sweeper "mama" mopped rooms, while another only cleaned bathrooms.

Perhaps that is why womenfolk are amazed at my reluctance to employ a maid. If I wipe my baby's bottom, why then, I must have someone to wash and dry nappies. And not all maids consent to doing laundry—I may have to find another to do just that.

The abundance of inexpensive domestic help is often an attraction for desis to return to India. Aha, the luxury of being served morning chai in bed?. But here's the twist: America has taught me to multitask beautifully—think goddess Shakti with eight arms. I've worked on writing assignments, cooked, cleaned, and shopped, all with child in tow. My appearance may have been bedraggled but I am proud of my DIY (do-it-yourself) parenting and housekeeping skills.

The West is often viewed as a decadent, self-centered society where overachieving parents leave their kids in random day cares. On the contrary, I've seen Americans invest a great deal in their children. Interestingly, I see many housefraus in Mumbai rely excessively on live-in ayahs. Sometimes there is one for every child! It is a full house, where maids are the new mother-in-laws. I hear constant bickering about them!

By design, "servants" are indispensable in Indian homes. I used to have a team of hired help when I lived in Delhi. As the quintessential memshahib who didn't know how to boil water, I simply delegated and supervised. But it stopped being fun rather quickly. Micromanaging is exhausting. Besides, the incessant ringing of the doorbell—the milkman, the washerwoman, the sweeper—drove me crazy. There was no privacy, no peace. Worse still, I became utterly lazy.

Children are quick to follow suit. Yesterday I went to fetch my son from the cr�che in my apartment building. As my four-year-old attempted to wear his shoes, the women in charge rushed to his side to do the task for him. Sure enough, he stuck his foot out willingly! So much for fostering independence.

I want my son to continue folding the laundry and unloading the dishwasher with me, as we did in Atlanta. To that end I have decided to be as self-sufficient as possible, keeping hired help to a bare minimum. I wonder how long I will resist temptation. After all, it would be nice to go Diwali shopping while somebody cares for the children—day and night!

By Reetika Khanna Nijhawan

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