I have a maid whose name is Chinnamma. I know that these days many refuse to admit that they have maids. We no longer call them servants - some of us have improved upon that. Most of us, especially if we are working, do have outside assistance with our household chores.
My nieces in the US say domestic help is a blessing, that we in India cannot imagine how great a boon it is. Yet, we are a tad ashamed to say we have maids, especially if we call ourselves modern, a bit educated and upper middleclass.
There are families who don't have maids. We have friends, a Chettiar couple working for central government. They have brought up three children, all married now, and built a huge house. The lady holds a director-level post. She goes to work at 9.30 a.m., having cooked the morning meal. The family washes its own dishes.
The husband washes clothes every morning, using a washing machine. He does it meticulously every day though, without any battle, and hangs the clothes out before going to work.
Between the two, they also manage to sweep the house despite being in their 60s. Every Sunday they mop the floor, clean the vehicle. He also drops her to work every morning and picks her up from office every evening. They do not have any servants.
Neighbours often wonder why I pay Chinnamma Rs.400 every month?
She gives the dog fresh water daily and stays home when everyone is out. She is 67 years old and comes every day, rain or sunshine, to my house. She makes me tea when she makes tea for herself. She tells me the neighbourhood news, draws beautiful 'kolams' (rangoli) every morning before my house. When she is tired, she switches on the fan in my bedroom and snoozes on the mat.
She was a tea garden worker in the Nilgiris once. "I could carry huge bundles of tea leaves on my head when I was young," she tells me.
Slender and ramrod straight, she has borne eight children, "without going to the hospital ever". So why did she come to live in the sultry plains of Chennai?
The tea company paid them bonus and gratuity, but the husband died within a few years of retirement. With the money, Chinnamma and her sons came to Chennai and bought some land on the outskirts and built a little house.
Then the elder son drove her and the younger children out, occupying the entire house. "My son now tells me, is there any paper to prove I gave him the money for the land and the house?"
"I have not spoken to him for eight years," she says. "I am glad I can work still and live in dignity." Now she lives in a rented house with two other sons and their families.
On hot afternoons, she stands in a line, collects ration from a PDS (public distribution System) shop. She takes the grandchildren to school and gets them back. She washes the dishes at her home and cleans the house. She also works fulltime as a maid for her sons.
Often she grumbles, plonks down tired at my place and complains of the heat. "You don't know what all one has to do if one is on one's own, without a husband," she tells the flower vendor woman, who comes to the house two days a week, with a yard of jasmine garland.
I know Chinnamma will be happy if I just make her some lemonade. She draws lovely kolams. I like her jabbering away, and for that, sharing just a tiny bit out of my earnings is really very little.
Today she made a profound observation. "At least daughters will offer you a glass of water. It is better to have daughters than sons." Perhaps, India is beginning to think differently today?