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Our domestic help

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By: K S S Pillai

Getting a good domestic servant has become so difficult that some of my neighbours, believers in scriptures that ask you not to ‘covet thy neighbour’s maidservant’, had no qualm to try to do so, offering her better pay and other benefits. Luckily, they were not successful.

In some parts of the country, it is either too difficult to find a domestic servant or too expensive to keep one. A friend told me that his servant was paid according to the number of works she did. Cleaning the house, washing clothes, cooking, cleaning utensils, and other such works entailed her getting paid for each item. Once, I saw his servant speaking on her mobile phone, tucked on her shoulder, frequently while she swept the floor at lightning speed. “She works in several houses and is already late today. That’s why so many calls,” I was told. Asking her to keep the phone away while working was out of the question, as no one in the house could dream of displeasing her.

Years ago, a relative of mine, who had delivered a baby many years after her marriage, had to pay dearly when she hired a beautiful woman as a live-in domestic help. The servant became pregnant after some time, and the husband had to marry her.

Domestic servants have become so indispensable that when our servant Nayana remained absent for two days recently, the womenfolk at home became panicky and rushed to her home. As she was ill, they got her admitted to a good hospital and were relieved only when she presented herself a few days later.

A lame leg and illiteracy had prevented her from working in the fields of the nearby agriculture college like her neighbours and earning more. Over time, she has become like another member of the family. She knows the habits of each of us and adjusts herself accordingly. She also knows about our possessions and finds them quickly if any of them are misplaced.

She is intelligent and an acute observer. She understands our likes and dislikes just by looking at our faces. When some of us burst out at times in Malayalam, she would understand the cause and comply promptly. She is known to all our relatives who have visited us at different times and enquire about her in their telephone conversations.

My daughter-in-law gives her not-so-old dresses to Nayana. Likewise, most of the dresses of her brothers had once belonged to my sons. When we purchase new furniture, the old ones are given to her.

We realised her value during the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic. People were dying in large numbers. There used to be long queues at crematoria and burial grounds. The medicines prescribed for the disease were in short supply, creating a black market and even the appearance of fake ones in the market.

My son and his wife tested positive and were hospitalised. They were told to be prepared for a stay of about a fortnight. My grandson and granddaughter were left in my care. I, like them, am of no use in the kitchen. Nayana was the only one familiar with the kitchen and our food habits. As people were forced not to venture out, our neighbours were not bold enough to come to our aid.

We were concerned about how long she would avoid the virus. Her elder brother plied an auto-rickshaw, coming into contact with different types of people. Even though Nayana assured my son that she would take care of us, we could not imagine what would happen if she did not come even for a day. Every morning I would be tense till I heard sounds from the kitchen, and she knocked on my door with a steaming cup of tea. She would then follow telephonic instructions from my daughter-in-law, leaving me to thank God for sending Naina to us.

I felt relieved only when my son and his wife came home. The strange part was that although Nayana and her family had all the chances of catching the virus, they remained healthy throughout the period.

The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to ‘The Kashmir Vision’, his articles and short stories have appeared in several domestic and international publications)

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