(Women in a rice paddy field in India. Photo Credit: Farshid Ahrestani)
Her name was Manju and she’d come to us on a rainy afternoon from an employment agency that specialized in hiring out domestic help.
She wore a faded orange ‘salwar-kameez,’ the baggy pants and tunic that are the everyday dress of scores of women across India, and she’d covered her head to protect it from the spattering rain with an even more faded ‘dupatta,’ or scarf. She wore chunky-heeled sandals, her toenails were painted red, and although she looked tired, she smiled, her eyes sparkling.
It was the summer of 2006 and I was over the moon about moving to India, the country of my birth, to spend two years during which my husband conducted his doctoral research.
But I was also terrified.
I had visited India many times, but I’d never stayed there for more than six weeks at a stretch, I’d never run my own household or managed — dare I use the common Indian term —“servants.”
The word itself made me cringe, but in India, servants are part and parcel of most households. By and large, their presence isn’t acknowledged, it’s ignored. But their chopping, cooking, cleaning, stirring, scrubbing and serving are what keep the wheels of a household turning.
Manju was going to be my live-in servant, doing all the chores I usually did myself. We’d be together 24/7 for the duration of my stay in India, living in extremely close quarters, sharing common spaces.
I would have to somehow break through the invisible barrier that existed in India between a servant and her household manager.
It was a scary thought, and that day, I had no idea of how things would turn out. As much as Manju’s humble background moved me, I’d also heard horror stories of people whose servants weren’t trustworthy, had stolen from them or had even murdered.
Seeing how she cowered in the far backseat corner of the car, and how her hand shook as she pulled her faded scarf tighter over her head, I realized she was as frightened of me as I was of her. I also realized that if the relationship was to work, if I was to feel happy and at ease in my own home, I would have to somehow break through the invisible barrier that existed in India between a servant and her household manager. Barriers that seem absurd and shocking to the Western world, such as the very idea of having servant to begin with. A servant with whom I was to have no personal relationship with whatsoever, which is exactly what I did not want.
I was convinced that that was possible for Manju and I to become friends — or at the very least, to be cordial with each other, and I was willing to go the length required to make it happen.
But this wasn’t something I could reveal to people around me. Knowing my complete lack of experience in the art of properly “managing” a servant, people didn’t hesitate to share the numerous rules from “The Unwritten Guide to Properly Managing Servants in India.” They meant well, of course, but I was still uncomfortable with the items on this list, which included:
“Keep her on her toes constantly so she doesn’t get lazy.”
“Feed her just once a day.”
“Only buy poor quality rice for her, otherwise she’ll think she’s entitled to the better stuff.”
The whole point of sticking to the rules was to ensure that a servant remained a servant and didn’t break rank, thereby making things unmanageable for future employers.
I’ll confess that the thought of having someone prepare my meals, wash my clothes and clean my house was enticing. But I also had a different perspective from many people in India. I respected the kind of work Manju did because I’d always done those chores myself. It would be impossible for me to just expect her to do things in my home without making her a part of my household. Without giving her the respect I would give any human being, in particular someone far less fortunate than myself.
And so I broke all the “rules” in the book.
I got Manju a bed, something she’d never had before. (At one point she had slept on a plastic shower curtain that her employer had thrown down on a kitchen floor).
I set up a TV in her room, gave her clothes and books in her mother tongue, Tulu, since she told me she’d been to school until grade five and could read and write. I taught her how to form letters in English (which she spoke quite decently). I taught her how to make pasta and French toast and how to bake a chocolate cake.
In a place where both of us were newcomers and didn’t really know anyone else, we spent a lot of time together. I’d peel and chop vegetables for a curry that she’d cook and we’d talk. She told me about her village, a place of abject poverty, impossible for someone like myself to even imagine. I told her about New York and my hometown of Geneva, Switzerland — places far beyond the realm of her imagination. We polished silverware together and spoke about our families, about the people we missed. She told me how hard it was to always work in new homes, never sure how she’d be treated. Manju missed her family just as I missed mine. She dreamed of getting married one day and I hoped that she would.
When I fell seriously ill with a raging stomach infection, Manju nursed me back to health with a special concoction of ginger and lemon juice. And when she sprained her wrist, I took her to the hospital.
The doctor examining Manju was rough and rude. When he grabbed her hurt wrist and she winced in pain, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Please don’t treat her that way,” I said. He was taken aback.
“Why Madam,” he gasped, “she’s just your servant.”
“No, she isn’t,” I retorted. “She’s my friend.”
That was the truth.
In the two years we spent together, we became very close. We’d become comfortable and at ease with each other, and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. It wasn’t a space that could be explained to others living where we did, but it was our space.
Which made leaving India all the more difficult. When the time finally came for me to move back to Europe, I knew that every day in my kitchen there, I would remember how hard Manju had worked. I’d remember her songs and her smile, her laughter and her tears.
On the final afternoon we spent together, while we both packed up the last of our luggage, Manju came up to me.
“Thank you,” she said, “for everything you have done for me and everything you have given me. No one has been this nice to me in my entire life.”
Her words were too much for me, because I knew that once Manju disappeared into the teeming multitudes of nameless, faceless entities that make up India, I would probably never see her again.
I was the one who should have been expressing my gratitude to Manju, for helping me disprove all the rules in the book. And for helping me prove that while two people may be oceans apart in education, experience and economics, they can nevertheless form a bond that is unbreakable.