“But you have to get a maid, you can’t survive without one!” This was the refrain I heard many times on moving to Delhi last time and one which I realised was very, very true. I was promptly found Flopsy by my landlady who was ultimately usurped by Kalpana – for that debacle,read
and that’s who this story is all about, Kalpana. You see, I am now back in Delhi, and as everyone will tell you, finding a good maid, reliable, honest and who has integrity isn’t easy. Kalpana had two of these qualities, reliability wasn’t her strong point.
It’s a fine line you have to play with maids as a westerner. It is easy to be taken for a ride by clever maids who are far more used to the system thanwe unsuspecting foreigners are. One has to learn to be quite strict and numb oneself, to a degree, to their plight, but then there is the human quality that we have that wants to believe the goodness in everyone and take into account the sometimes impossible conditions under which they have to survive.
Kalpana, having won the Battle of the Flipflop, was determined to prove her worth and was a far better maid than Flopsy. She whizzed around the house, dusting, polishing and washing clothes. Soon she started preparing my meals, buying my food, fiercely bargaining with the local vendors; in short, making herself invaluable to me. She was petite and incredibly beautiful, with a smile which she was quick to flash and which lit up her whole face.
Gradually, through various Hindi speaking friends who came to stay, I discovered her story.
She was twenty six, from Nepal and had been married off by her mother when she was just thirteen. She had four children, three girls aged eleven, eight and three and a boy of eighteen months. In-between giving birth, she had had three miscarriages due to being beaten by her husband for not producing a son. Her husband was often drunk and therefore out of work. She lived in the slum opposite where I lived, and where, if children weren’t supervised, they could easily be taken for the sex trade. It is easy to see how reliability was an issue.
Her mission was not just to survive, which was hard enough, but to ensure her children were educated and would therefore hopefully have a better life than the one she had. One Christmas I asked if she would like me to buy toys for the children but she insisted that paper and pens were more important.
Did I mention she was always quick to smile? She had a remarkable disposition. Maybe she was just happy that I was paying her slightly over the odds and ensuring as far as I could, without causing uproar in the community, that she was taken care of in terms of buying her children warm clothes for the winter, extra blankets and a cool box for the summer months to help her food last a little longer.
One morning she arrived in a terrible state, crying and shaking, there was no consoling her. She had had a dream that I was leaving. The thing is, I was, only I hadn’t told her that. I had got a new job and with it a new flat and had to move to a different area of Delhi, one that was two bus rides and a walk away from where she lived. She insisted on coming with me, not just for the couple of hours each morning she was currently doing for me, but as a full time maid. I pointed out the logistical issue, and the fact that she found it hard enough to turn up 6 days a week when she lived just a 5 minute walk away but she was adamant. I relented. I said we would give it a go and then quadrupled her salary. It still wasn’t a lot.
Things went ok for around six weeks, she averaged five days a week. When she didn’t turn up for a couple of days, I didn’t think too much about it but two days turned into two weeks and then three. Advice from locals was that she would have got another job closer to home, that maids were fickle like that and had no integrity when it came to leaving and finding a new job. I was traveling a lot and went with their advice, I didn’t know how to find her anyway. I found a new maid who was hopeless. Then, one day five weeks after she had disappeared, on Saturday afternoon, the doorbell rang and an emaciated Kalpana fell in through the door. She was on her knees, crying, touching my feet and begging me to help (even if I hadn’t had a Hindi speaking friend staying with me, I might have figured this out). We determined that her husband had lost his job again, two of the children had been in and out of hospital as had Kalpana herself. I instructed Dhiraj, my trusted and incredibly reliable driver who disliked Kalpana’s lack of reliability intensely, to take her home, collect the entire family and bring them back to the house. He insisted she wasn’t worth it, a sharply raised eyebrow convinced him she was. I then phoned my doctor, who worked on the Indian equivalent of Harley Street, and asked him for a group appointment. Incredibly, he agreed.
Kalpana had been telling me the truth, she turned up with all the medical records; in India you keep hold of your own. Her youngest daughter had epilepsy, the middle one had had typhoid, the boy was malnourished and her husband had a sexually transmitted disease which he had passed onto Kalpana. Medicines were purchased, along with a large sack of rice, vegetables, vitamins etc and I sent her home, instructing her that I would keep her job for her but she had to get herself and her family better before she came back to work. A pay as you go mobile phone was also purchased and given to her. She turned up for work the very next day, I sent her home. She cried. The same thing happened the next. I got someone to translate again and tell her that her job was safe but that she had to get well. She turned up again the next day, she had never been so reliable. I gave in but insisted that she only work mornings. Things gradually returned to normal with the exception of Dhiraj chuntering more than usual. Her reliability also started slipping again. We carried on as before.
I then had an accident and damaged my back, severely. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t bear anyone near me, eventually morphine injections were administered and when I came to, it was the middle of the night. Kalpana was at the side of my bed performing a night long puja (prayer ceremony), she had refused to leave me and go home.
A few months later I noticed that her belly was growing. I asked her if she was pregnant, she insisted she wasn’t. Four weeks later she admitted that she was. She asked me to help. I sought advice and was told by everyone I consulted that under no uncertain terms was I to get involved. In a country rife with female infanticide and where abortion is illegal, I had no choice but not to get involved. I felt helpless. Then, two days before my friends arrived from the UK for a 10 day trip, she disappeared again one day, two days wasn’t unusual by any stretch of the imagination and so I set off traveling with my friends without too much concern.
I returned 10 days later and once again, Kalpana fell through my door emaciated, feverish and very unusually, smelling incredibly bad. She had been to a back street abortionist who had done a very dubious job on her. I picked her up, she weighed nothing, put her in the car and took her to the local hospital and held her hand whilst they performed a D&C. I took her home, gave her a room, gave her medicine and took the next day off work to care for her.
The following day, when I returned from work, she had gone. I despaired. She reappeared two hours later and instructed me to go and pay the tuk tuk driver whilst Dhiraj and I stood and watched the entire family (minus husband) move in, bags and all! It wasn’t safe to leave them unsupervised (under the care of her husband was the same thing) and she needed to recover, coming to me was the only way. I drank wine!
Ground rules were established. They could stay until she recovered. Her husband phoned, from the tone of my voice he understood not to come anywhere near. She instructed the oldest two girls to start cleaning and to fetch me a glass of water. We had an argument. I won, I was not having her children working in my house and waiting on me. She recovered. They went home. Things returned to normal only within a few weeks her reliability became even worse, sometimes only turning up two days a week. In the end I had no option but to tell her that for each day she didn’t turn up I would deduct x amount of rupees from her salary. The following month she only worked 14 days. I paid her what I owed her less deductions. I felt dreadful, here she was bringing up a family of six on next to nothing. I put the remaining balance to top it up to full salary on the table when I left for work, it was still there when I got home from work and the next day. She refused to take it. We had a deal she said. More than that, having saved her life twice, or so she insisted, she pledged that she would work for me even if she wasn’t paid at all. A tad dramatic? Who knows, I certainly wasn’t going to put her to the test.
I then left Delhi, moved to Jaipur and then back to the UK and regrettably lost touch with her. Embarrassingly typical foreigner behaviour. But now I am back, and despite not having her phone number any longer, or knowing where she lives exactly, my mission this week is to try and find her. I will keep you updated.