Thursday, September 27, 2007

Trolls and trouble

One fine day, I woke up and decided that I would open my blog to a wider commenting population. Thus far, the privilege to comment was limited to those with Blogger log-ins. I just liked it that way because the incompleteness of a comment without a name attached to it bothered me.

But then, I thought it would be interesting to get more diverse points of view. Also, the voices of real life friends and family who do happen to read my blog, regularly and irregularly, never get heard because most of them are either too lazy to get themselves a Blogger login or incapable of keeping it going.

I have been blogging for over a year and a half now and I have never got a single comment that was less than polite and supportive, even when the commenter was disagreeing with what I had written. I knew there were trolls out there, unleashing their random bitterness on some of the bloggers I read but given my experience, I misguidedly thought that I would be spared from that. I even thought the post that I was opening up to these comments was a fairly innocuous one, unlikely to get passions high and nasty – how can a post about my maids do that, I naively thought. Hah! Could I have been more mistaken? In a nutshell, I have been accused of being an employer of child labour, user of archaic, demeaning words like ‘maid’, author of a bourgeois account of my servant management skills and overall a shameless inhuman. I kid you not, read the comments if you don’t believe me.

My first reaction was to laugh at them – these silly, rude people, who knew nothing about my life and circumstances coming by only to hurl ridiculous accusations at me – but then as I lived with these comments in my head for the last one week, something about them bothered me. I felt that these people were coming in from some completely different universe and trying to judge me, my choices and my words based on benchmarks that are completely irrelevant in my world. So, this doesn’t come from a need to defend myself (for what?) but an attempt to provide a context to my choices, with respect to my maids.

Here are some of the broad themes that people expressed their disagreements on and my take on each of them:

Cultural differences

I think a couple of people politely put it down to cultural differences. I agree there are differences, not all of them cultural and here’s why I think having domestic help is a much more common phenomenon here in India:

  • I think the biggest reason is that in India, maids are available and affordable. Maybe the idea seems so alien to Westerners because it is not even a possibility in their world.
  • Most of us have grown up either in joint families or with live-in help and are much less protective of our personal space and privacy.
  • Keeping a house in running order is much tougher here. India is a pretty dusty country and we don’t have sealed houses with central cooling/ heating and a thorough daily cleaning is required to keep the house liveable and hygienic rather than the fortnightly cleaning that is adequate in the West.
  • Working life can be harder in India, especially for working mothers. Our concept of work-life balance is still not very evolved and working hours can often be undisciplined. With this as a background, it becomes that much tougher to run a house single-handedly, while holding down a full-time job.
  • Indian men are not as helpful around the house as their Western counterparts and most of the responsibility falls on the already over-loaded shoulders of the wife and mother. Combine this with the previous point about working hours and it’s a nearly impossible task to manage without maids.
  • I have not come across too many good day care options. Also, I personally prefer that my son is cared for in a loving, consistent way by familiar people in the comfort of my own home rather than some institutionalised setting of a day care, especially since I can afford it. And I think most Indian mothers feel that way.

Edit: Dotmom disagrees and makes some excellent points on how it is just as hard in the U.S. I agree with most of what she says - life as a working mom is not easy anywhere, esecially without help.

Accusations on using child labour

Some of the anonymous commenters accuse me of using child labour. Here are some things these people should know before they throw around such accusations:

  • The law in India puts the age for child labour to be under fourteen. I live in India and Jamuna is way above 14 years of age so I am not breaking any laws.
  • You may wonder why I am being so vague about revealing Jamuna’s actual age. Here’s the thing, I don’t know. She is definitely looks over 16, might even be 18 but nobody knows – neither she nor her family know her date of birth or even remember the year she was born, which might give you some insight into what kind of life she has had back in her village.
  • It’s all very well to climb onto a high horse and say that a person below 18 years should not be employed as a maid. But let me paint you a picture of what her life in the village would be – she would have to wake up at the crack of dawn and her days would be full of backbreaking, hard work including tending to the cattle, helping her mother in the kitchen and fetching water from the village well. As a girl child, her nutrition is not a priority and seeing her as a burden, her parents would seek the first opportunity to marry her off. Now compare that to her life in my home: her workload consists of playing with Ayaan, keeping the house clean and washing the few clothes that don’t get dumped in the washing machine; she gets to sleep for nine hours in the night and also gets the chance to grab an afternoon nap on most days; she gets wholesome, nutritious food; she is getting a little slice of her childhood back when she plays with Ayaan – she enjoys his toys and games as much as he does….and most importantly, since we take care of all her needs and pay her a salary, her parents are in no tearing hurry to marry her off. Will someone please tell me what is so inhuman about this situation?
  • Someone mentioned that I should be taking care of her education. That was what I had in mind initially but it didn’t work out. To start with, she has not attended a single day of school in her entire life and has not even been taught simple things like how to tell the time. Secondly, I have been unable to find any institution that offers adult education in my area – if someone has any information on this, please let me know. Thirdly, she is likely to be with me for just a couple of years before her parents marry her off – in that short a time-frame, there is not much that she can learn but Shashikala has been teaching her the Hindi alphabet and she atleast knows how to write her name.

Political incorrectness

It seemed to bother quite a few people that I use, according to them, archaic and derogatory terms like ‘maid’ and ‘nanny’. In my humble opinion, political correctness for the sake of it is just silly and a waste of everyone’s time and breath. I know of a company where the receptionist has a visiting card that says ‘First Impressions Manager’ – not only is it ridiculous and changes nothing of the nature of her job, the person at the receiving end of the title found it pretty embarrassing too!

Would it make any difference to anyone except these self-appointed governors of political correctness if I called them ‘child care service providers’ or ‘personnel in-charge of underage homo-sapiens’ (thanks for those witty options, Anita)? The only thing that should matter is whether the person herself/ himself is offended and I can assure you that my maids have absolutely no problem or negative associations with the abovementioned words. There are words like ‘bai’ and naukrani’ from Hindi that some of them do find a little demeaning, but I don’t use words like that… what is rude, offensive or archaic is somewhat culture specific, isn’t it?

Not trusting other working moms

It was pointed out that I was being a bit of a fraud by not considering women with small children for the job, given that I am working mom with a young child myself, expecting to be treated as equally as my male or child-free colleagues. I completely agree with this logical and polite commenter that I am being unfair but whether we like it or not, life is still not very fair for working mothers, no matter what their socio-economic circumstances.

Even in the most professional and evolved of organisations, you do lose some of your value and employability once you have a kid. Ability and commitment being equal, most bosses would still prefer a man or a woman without kids – and at some level, I accept that. Ever since Ayaan was born, he always comes first for me and that puts me at a disadvantage with people who are willing to put work above all else.

The same thing applies when I am looking for someone who will care for my kid – I want someone for whom this will be priority. Like any other parent, I want what’s best for Ayaan. And I am not going to sacrifice the quality and consistency of his care to prove a point about what a just and fair person I am… I’d rather suffer the tag of ‘hypocrite’ than worry constantly about whether the maid will make it to work and stay all day while I am work.

Edit: Kodi's Mom added: 'It is the nature of the maid/ nanny's job to be physically present at a cerain location from hour x to hour x. It is not a job that can be accomplished over the phone and internet. Hence, it does make sense that you ensure her punctuality & attendance.' I feel silly for not thinking of that. :-)

The Content of my Post

There were some complaints about the fact that this was from my perspective and the aim of the post was to prove what a brilliant manager of domestic help I am. It seems I would have done better to write a post that was a thank you note to them or talked about the kind of lives they live. I think people who leave comments like that don’t really understand what writing a blog all is about. Here are some tips:

  • This is my blog, so obviously I write about what I feel like writing about and more importantly from my perspective. While I do write for an audience (otherwise I’d just keep an offline journal), I don’t believe in writing stuff just to satisfy someone else’s idea of what I should be writing. So Yes, I could have done a tribute to my maidst, but it’s not what I felt like writing the other day. And it’s definitely not because I don’t appreciate them, but because I can think of thousands of better ways to show my appreciation than write a post in English (which they can’t read) on the internet (where they’ll never see it).
  • When I write about something, I am not aiming to cover all possible aspects of the issue at hand. So don’t make assumptions based on stuff I haven’t written - for e.g. that my maids are underpaid or that I treat them with anything less than respect and dignity, because nothing in my post should lead you to jump to those unfair conclusions.
  • This is an unabashedly all-out mommy blog, where I write about my life as a mother and about my son. So that is the perspective you will see here. If you want a sociological perspective on the lives of the less privileged, you’ve come to the wrong place.

So that’s all I have to say on the subject for now. If there was a silver lining to this whole thing, it’s the support from the blogger friends who rushed to my defence even before I had a chance to read the brickbats. Hugs and a big thank you to Sue, Artnavy, Just Like That, Ceekay and Megha. I am touched beyond words. Maybe I'll do a thank you post for you guys ;-)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Maid in Mumbai

I just realised that I have been blogging for over one and a half years about my life as a working mom and I have never done a detailed post on the support system that allows me to even consider such a life without having a nervous breakdown – I am talking about my maids.

Given my penchant for order, what better place to start than the very beginning – which is actually a lot before Ayaan was even a possibility – it was the time we decided to get a dog. And like with a baby, this decision too came with its accompanying lifestyle changes – the biggest one being breaching our precious privacy and letting a full time maid into our home. My mom managed to get hold of an elderly widow called Hitkari from Bihar, who given her quiet and undemanding nature, fitted into our home and our lives seamlessly.

When I got pregnant couple of years down the line, I felt pretty smug about the fact that I had atleast one maid figured out. But you know what they say about counting your chickens before they hatch. What happened in my seventh month of pregnancy has pretty much become the urban legend of maid stories amongst my friends. One day, completely out of the blue, I came home to find my supposedly mild-mannered and respectable maid sprawled out on my bean bag, drunk out of her mind! She apologised to me the next day but it was pretty half-hearted as apologies go and it was diluted even further when same behaviour was repeated the following evening! The lady in question was sent home with a one-way ticket – forget about the baby, there was no way I was okay with leaving my dogs in the care of this woman, who suddenly seemed to have suddenly discovered a partiality for alcohol with a vengeance.

So the nanny hunt began with a vengeance. I began with offering the job to Surekha, the lady who had been cooking for us for the last four years – we liked her and trusted her but she has young kids of her own to cook and clean for, so she regretfully declined our offer of increased salary and increased hours. She continues to be our morning maid though. In retrospect, it was a good thing because she is quite unreliable with respect to time, something I never noticed before but in the current situation would seriously hamper my peace of mind.

Then I tried the agency route. A mix of characters came my way – some good, some not so much. But most of them failed to match up on one or more of my endless list of requirements:

  • She had to be a woman. To start with, the thought of having a strange man hanging around the house was beyond weird. Secondly, I don’t think that men have the necessary sensibilities to be care-givers, especially to children who are not their own. And lastly and most importantly, most of the stories I have heard about kids being abused involve men.
  • She had to be middle-aged, ideally should have had kids of her own or should have worked as a nanny for atleast 3-4 years. I see a lot of very young maids, barely out of their teens, with their young charges in the park. Now, I have one such girl who lives with me and she is great playmate for Ayaan, but it stops at that. I can never imagine leaving Ayaan in the sole care of someone who has no experience with caring for children and is barely done with being one herself…
  • Moreover, her work experience should have included a stint with a working mom because helping out a SAHM and handling a child solo while the mother is away are two very different things.
  • She should not have had any addictive habits. Many a prospective nanny was ruled out simply because she had orange/ stained teeth – a sure sign of a tobacco chewing habit.
  • She could not have be too fat. Somehow, I just felt that a seriously overweight woman would not be able to keep up with a hyperactive toddler. On the flipside, she should not have been too thin/ weak-looking either.
  • She had to be willing to either stay with me or work the number of hours that covered my office timings and be willing to stay late or spend the night in case of emergencies.
  • If a day maid, then I didn’t want one who lived very far away because that makes for a lot of no-shows, especially during the monsoons.
  • I wanted to avoid taking on someone with very young kids as they tend to take a lot of sick days and school days off, which while understandable can be highly disruptive to the life of a working mom.
  • Above all else, I had to like her. This one is just about that indefinable something that the person either had or didn’t have – something that just clicked within moments of meeting them. It’s kind of like falling in love ;-)

But even the seemingly good ones who made it through all these criteria didn’t work because the one thing that I was absolutely insistent on was that they furnish me with references and none of them were willing/ able to do so – either the previous employers had allegedly moved abroad or they had not parted on good terms. The idea of leaving my son with a person whose background I knew nothing of just didn’t appeal to me. So I kept looking but since I was unwilling to relax any of the abovementioned criteria, I soon found myself four months into my six-month maternity leave with no nanny in sight.

And then suddenly, lady luck seemed to favour me. First, I managed to trace a lady called Mary who had worked for a distant relative who had moved cities. I met her and really liked her. We agreed that she would start a week later but on the D-day, she didn’t show and when I called, her son picked up and said that she had been hospitalised – they never said for what – and would call back when she was better. She never did.

Just days after the Mary option fell through, I got another lead. A friend of a friend was moving to Singapore and despite her best efforts, she had not been able to arrange a visa for her nanny and was leaving without her. So I asked them to send her over for an interview. Shashikala walked into my house and I took an instant dislike to her – she came across as a demanding, know-it-all person with an enormous chip on her shoulder. But the friend she had worked for (also a full time working mom) had praised her highly and said that she was excellent with her baby girl. Having run out of time and options, I decided to try Shashikala out for a couple of weeks before taking a final decision.

In the end, I am glad that I listened to reason rather than go by my instantaneous dislike for something as silly as her attitude in her dealings with me. Because she has turned out to be an excellent nanny to Ayaan – he adores her to bits, she manages his feeding and napping brilliantly (sometimes better than me), and above all, she is a responsible, mature woman who cares for Ayaan with the right mix of affection and discipline. We have had our ups and downs and she is still not my favourite person, but I have come to realise that that is the least important thing.

In addition to Shashikala the Nanny cum Cook, I have two other maids. Surekha is my old cook and I didn’t want to fire her so she fills in the three-hour gap in the morning before Shashikala arrives at ten. Shashikala leaves as early or late as I get home from work and is not averse to spending the occasional night. I also have a girl called Jamuna, who lives with me and is responsible for keeping things clean and being Ayaan’s playmate. It’s quite an ideal mix because Jamuna has the energy and enthusiasm to play with Ayaan endlessly, while the others are good at feeding and comforting him.

While the set-up is pretty comfortable right now and I hope it stays that way (fingers crossed, knock on wood), I am too much of a control freak to let go completely so I leave no doubt in their minds on how I like things done. The rules are simple:

  • Ayaan eats only in his high chair and sleeps only in his cot and unless there is a very good reason, all this happens as per his regular schedule.
  • One of the maids has to be in viewing distance of him at all times.
  • Absolutely no TV is to be watched by anyone while he is awake.
  • I make a weekly meal plan that spells out what he is to eat for every meal. Moreover, there is to be no junk food and no eating between meals. The meal plan is a recent thing because I found that if I left it entirely up to them, Ayaan’s menu had become pretty boring and repetitive.
  • If I am not back by six and it is not raining, Ayaan should be taken to the park for atleast an hour in the evening.
  • He is never to be left in the unsupervised care of Jamuna.
  • Under no circumstances shall anyone raise a hand on him.

The usual question that people ask me when I tell them all this is how do I know that they are following my rules. I have my ways:

  • Even though we don’t need to, Jai and I always carry our house keys and enter without ringing the bell so that they don’t have any advance notice of our arrival and we can know exactly what they were up to at that particular moment.
  • We try and come back at unexpected times. Jai is able to do this more often than I am since his office is just 10 minutes away. So he randomly drops in for lunch or just to say hi when he is passing by. This keeps them on their toes.
  • I make sure that they stick to even the smallest and least important of my diktats. I don’t believe, as far as they are concerned, in picking my battles because it’s important to drive home the point that I am the last word on everything, no matter how insignificant, to do with Ayaan.
  • And finally, I know that most of my rules are being followed because Ayaan is not particularly interested in watching TV and creates no fuss whatsoever for eating in his high chair and sleeping in his cot. As for the junk food, we’ve pretty much stopped stocking that at home.

So that, in a very large nutshell, is the backbone of my life as a working mom. My maids are all important pillars but the one who is truly indispensable is Shashikala. If she leaves, for whatever reason, I will either have to quit my job or beg the grandmothers to step in while I begin the long, painful search all over again…

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Week’s Worth of Reasons to Stay at Home

It’s been one of those weeks! If you are a SAHM thinking about going back to work, you might want to read this before you take any drastic decisions…

Monday

Why is it that no matter how well you pace yourself before an impending trip, the last day always ends up being crazy? And this time was no different. Time flew by in its usual fashion and before I knew it, it was 5 o’clock in the evening and I still hadn’t set up my out-of-office auto-reply or booked a car for the airport drop the next day, amongst other pending to-dos. Knowing that it would be my only opportunity to hang out at the park with Ayaan this week, I just dropped everything anyway and rushed home to do just that.

Now, if that was all there was to Monday, it would be a pretty relaxed day in my world. But it also happened to be the eve of Rakhi and after what seems like years, three of my cousins were in town at the same time, so I invited them over for dinner. It was good fun and thankfully the maid did all the cooking but by the time we wrapped up, it was well past midnight.

Tuesday

After just 6 hours of sleep, I kick-started the day with the realisation that I had less than four hours to pack, get dressed, send a couple of mails and set that damned auto-reply, all while nursing a hangover and entertaining a toddler whose idea of fun for the day was to fling things out of Mama’s suitcase. I finally managed to stagger into the airport with just over an hour to spare, dragged my exhausted bones into the plane and collapsed into a slumber that lasted halfway into the flight to London. The rest of the flight was spent watching the end of Guru and reading Prisoner of Azkaban (yes, I am re-reading Harry Potter).

The flight to Frankfurt was delayed by almost an hour and instead of catching some R&R at the airport lounge, I invested the time in curing the remnants of my hangover with a spot of duty-free retail therapy (a pair of shoes from Clarks, stocking up from Boots and lots of pleasurable window shopping). Finally got into Frankfurt by midnight and it was well past one by the time I hit the sack.

Interesting side story – the taxi driver who drove me to the hotel was a Pakistani and he was hugely excited that he had a real life Indian passenger. He kept up a steady banter all the way, and since he was speeding along at a robust 180 kmph, this made me understandably nervous. He wanted to know all about where I lived, what I was doing in Frankfurt, what languages I spoke… but the icing on the cake was his parting request of ‘India ko Mera Salaam Dena’… So dear Indian readers of this blog, since you happen to be the only Indian audience that I have any access to, consider yourself salaamed!

Wednesday

Thanks to the completely screwed up body clock, I was up bright and early at 6. I killed time by starting off with Goblet of Fire (finished Prisoner of Azkaban on the Frankfurt flight). Then there was a long, endless meeting by the end of which I was positively droopy. There was a dinner outing planned after an hour’s break but do you think I had the sense to use that to get some much needed shuteye – well, if you did think that, you obviously haven't been paying attention so far, have you?

Anyway, I joined a couple of other women in the group to walk around the shopping area. This is the first time that I went shopping with women who weren’t my friends and I have to say it was really odd and deeply unsatisfying – I felt like I was imposing on them if I suggested a shop to go into and spent too much time there, because I wasn’t sure whether they were interested in the same stuff... So finally, I ended up buying nothing and before we knew it, it was time to join the others for dinner. We ate at a German steakhouse, where I got my first taste of wiener schnitzel, which I have to say was pretty disappointing and bland. Actually, that’s pretty much what I thought about Frankfurt as well…

Thursday

Darned body clock refused to settle down and woke me up at 6 again, like clockwork. Somehow got through another long day and dinner before finally getting a chance to get to bed relatively early (eleven) – managed to finally get the recommended dose of eight hours of sleep for the first time in days.

Friday

That’s the worst thing about the body clock on these short trips. Just when it accustoms itself to the new time zone, it’s time to head back and unsettle the damn thing again. After a half-day meeting, I found myself with an hour to kill before heading for the airport. So I headed back to the shopping area to buy some stuff, mostly to dispel the nagging feeling of discontent that the shopping trip on Wednesday had left me with. Most of the stuff was pretty boring – lots and lots of formal shirts, woollen pants and sensible shoes but managed to pick up a top each from Zero and Mexx.

This time around, I was driven to the airport by a Turkish taxi driver who spent the drive reminiscing about his life in Turkey and regretting his decision to make his home in Germany, a place that he can't call home after 15 years of living there because he still feels like an outsider. He seemed deeply unhappy and my heart went out to him...

Saturday

The flight was over an hour late getting into Mumbai so I barely got time to catch my breath before Ayaan made it clear that no one but me was to be allowed to feed him or put him down for a nap. I used the small window of me-time I got while he was napping to unpack, visit the salon for some much overdue waxing and have a quick bath. When he got up, we headed out to stock up on the groceries, which were running at dangerously low levels. Back home, it was dinner and bath time for Ayaan after which I finally got some time to vegetate in front of the TV for a while before calling it a day.

Sunday

I really do know how to make life difficult for myself because not only did I have friends coming over for lunch, a news channel came over to interview me for some show they are doing on parenting and pets. For those of you wondering why, it was because of this.

Also, on Sundays the nanny leaves after lunch so that was one less helping hand…so I was pretty pooped by the end of the day. But jet lag, funnily enough, caught up with me a day later and though I was all bleary-eyed and achy, I couldn’t convince my body to actually follow through and fall asleep. I finally passed out around two - I guess that would have been a reasonable enough bed time in Germany where it was still 10.30 p.m., but not so much in India.

Monday

I had to leave early for a meeting at the other end of town and my morning maid decided to land up half an hour late. I wasted precious time and breath screaming at her in my most shrewish manner. She gave me some cock-and-bull story (or so I thought at the time, since I get one of these every time she’s late – about once a week) about the neighbour’s son having gone missing. Well, as it turns out the story was true and she was even pictured in the corner of one of the pics of the grieving family… I feel bad about not believing her, but you know what they say about crying wolf…

It was a long day and I got home just in time to give Ayaan his dinner. He was a little grumpy and had the beginnings of a cough. I felt bad about getting home late, especially after having been away the previous week. And since he had the next day off from playschool, I decided that it was the perfect day to put into action my plan for working from home one day a week.

Tuesday

Well, my plan for a fun and relaxing day with Ayaan was shot to hell right from the start – he woke up with a hacking cough and a temperature of 100.7oF. He was coughing so badly that he even threw up a couple of times. So the whole day went into trying to make the poor baby feel better. And as it always is when he is feeling less than peachy, he wanted noone but Mama. I was not even allowed to go the loo without braving a complete meltdown. He wouldn’t even sleep unless it was in my bed, with me next to him… so I finally had a bath at 6 in the evening when I thought the maids had managed to distract him but halfway through, he noticed that I was gone so I had to finish my bath to the accompaniment of some pretty violent crying.

We took him to the doctor in the evening, who prescribed a cough syrup to ease his discomfort. He thankfully kept his dinner down and slept at his usual bedtime and in his own room, so I got some time to catch up on work and e-mails. And now instead of sleeping, I am here writing on the blog… somebody stop me, seriously!

What a week (or nine days for the nitpickers amongst us who counted)! Anyway, I am staying home tomorrow as well – because Ayaan is unlikely to be well tomorrow since I have not pulled out the big guns (the antibiotics) yet. And plus I think I need a break - though if tomorrow is anything like today, going into office might actually be a more relaxing option…