The help

Growing up in India, all of us have become accustomed to having someone like a maid or a nurse/caretaker as part of our everyday life. I have had my own share of experiences as well - some of them definitely worth writing about some other day. Right from learning about social faux pas and the political correctness of terms, to being in their position and seeing what it feels like to be treated as one. From almost motherly figures to the stereotypical villains  - tales will be told as the time comes. For now, though, I wish to tell you about one particular incident.

As with most housemaids, it takes a while to build trust and rapport and to not notice a little "shortage" of stuff around the house. From the time she joined our household, we never noticed anything significantly missing. I use the word "significantly" here because we suspected there might be some amount of human error in calculations on our part - the tin of rice which used to last 20 days maybe was sustaining us now for 18 days: nothing to bother about. As per our household rules, we would always cook food for her as well in our daily lunch and dinner, and she would dutifully take it home every day to share with her family. My mother used to always save something extra for her, since she knew it was not just her mouth we were feeding every day.

Then after a couple of months, the "shortage of stuff" kept getting significantly higher. There was a hurried tone in the maid's voice and she always seemed to be leaving the house in a hurry at night. We found some spilled turmeric on the shelves some day, or a few missing eggs from the fridge the other. There was only one suspect, and of course she denied all charges when she was confronted by my mother.

One night, when my parents were away, I went to the kitchen to fetch some water to drink, when I walked in on something I didn't intend to. There she was, sitting on the floor with a newspaper spread out and pouring some Bournvita on it. When I walked in, it took her exactly three seconds to undo the pouring,  put it back in the container, close the container lid, shove it under the nearest shelf, and fold the newspaper into a wreck and "appear" to be caressing/examining it with great detail. Her face, though, was wrought with fear. I could not confront her then, so we both pretended that nothing had happened. I got my water and went back to my study desk.

I told my mother about this when she came back, and then the next morning my mother had a fresh conversation with her. This time, however, she broke down. It turned out that her husband had lost work recently, and she was the only source of sustenance for the family. And somehow, like most under-educated or illiterate poor families, by family I mean they had 5-6 children (and still going). The Bournvita she was taking that day was the only evening meal/snack she had for her children. I cannot tell you how deeply guilty I felt of being privileged at that time, and how helpless I felt. My mother shared my feeling at that time, and gave her a new container of Bournvita and also said that she can take some spices etc. from our household for a month until her husband finds a job as long as she tells in advance.

But the stealing continued. And after a while I think all of us got tired of this cat and mouse game. As far as I remember, her husband probably found work at some other town and they moved out. I haven't heard of them since.

The reason I brought up this post is because I cannot forget the face I saw that day in the kitchen. It was the desperate act of a poor mother trying to provide for her children by all means possible.And it was the face of shame written all over her at the same time, knowing that I had seen it all. I still do drink Bournvita at times (or just chew it down raw), but sometimes when I am buying it at the store or mixing it in my milk, sitting here in the US, I tend to remember that face in the kitchen from 15 years ago.

Comments

  1. Very touchy!! Generall small kids are also helpless for 2 times meal a day that they tend to steal stuffs....

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  2. But the stealing continued. And after a while I think all of us got tired of this cat and mouse game. As far as I remember, her husband probably found work at some other town and they moved out. I haven't heard of them since.

    This is where I lose my sympathies with the help. There is absolutely no reason on Earth why any decent individual should continue stealing even after such consideration shown. I could understand the stealing before it was discovered because of the circumstances. But why continue stealing afterwards when you have given so much consideration?

    Yes, there are a lot of very decent poor people around who wouldn't dream of stealing in the first place. I think we should realize that character is something different from economic status. While economic status can contribute to a particular behaviour as in this case, in the main, it doesn't affect the basic character of the person. That's also why a lot of rich people who can afford to be generous and charitable are so mean and stingy. It boils down to character.

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  3. Logic, unfortunately, Hari, is not the best place to fall back on, when trying to explain why certain things people do or don't do. While economic status can contribute to a particular behaviour as in this case, in the main, it doesn't affect the basic character of the person. - how do you know? It would be extremely difficult to believe that poverty - or wealth, for that matter - perverts character itself.

    If you can lay your hands on a translation, read "Pather Panchali" by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. You will find this poor girl Durga stealing from her neighbour for no reason whatsoever - her poverty has got nothing to do with it.

    It's all right to take a stand from a high point - or an aloof point. Nothing wrong with that. But I don't think there is a defined should-be and shouldn't-be here.

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  4. @all - my apologies for not replying for so long - some HTML error in my posting.

    Bubblegum, I know. It is hard to draw the line at times.

    Hari, the only reason I can offer is the shame that goes with asking. Perhaps she had become inured to stealing that it didn't bite her conscience any more. But again, the subsequent bouts of stealing were probably going to get her fired anyway.

    Arunava, you have a point there. But in this particular case, the lady was perhaps more used to just getting stuff by stealing than actually asking for it. Like I mentioned to Hari above - she was going to be laid off pretty soon anyway.

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  5. Logic, unfortunately, Hari, is not the best place to fall back on, when trying to explain why certain things people do or don't do. While economic status can contribute to a particular behaviour as in this case, in the main, it doesn't affect the basic character of the person. - how do you know? It would be extremely difficult to believe that poverty - or wealth, for that matter - perverts character itself.

    Exactly. I am not sure if you understood the point of my post as I don't know what you are disagreeing with.

    I was not taking a high point. Rather I was trying to state that poverty or wealth MAY influence behaviour in some ways which might be excusable under certain circumstances, but I don't believe that we can judge people from purely that aspect.

    Character counts for a lot. A mean, deceitful or untruthful person does not become good in my view just for the reason that they are poor or rich or otherwise.

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  6. When your kids are sleeping hungry night after night, you beg you steal you borrow! She could only beg and borrow to a certain extent (beyond which it was no longer entertained by any employer). So, she decided to steal and sustain her family as long as she was not (caught) fired!!
    For all of us here, it is perhaps 'a bit' difficult to relate to that lady in her situation! We may find it gauche! But the real question is - whether it was an act of kleptomania or 'desperate times call for desperate measures'??
    5-6 kids? How much reproductive right did she ever enjoy??
    Husband's job?? (let us assume he was not into drugs or alcohol)... Another daily wage laborer?? Their rights and privileges??
    Never mind, but the domestic helps (in India) are unimaginably under-paid (probably that is not the case in a lot of other countries since here in the U.S. very few people can afford to have a domestic help).

    Sudipto... Well-written man!

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  7. Hari,

    What I'm disagreeing with is this: While economic status can contribute to a particular behaviour as in this case, in the main, it doesn't affect the basic character of the person.

    What I am saying is, economic status can affect the basic character of a person. It can pervert, to no end, the best of people. That applies to the best and worst of the rich and the poor.

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  8. What I am saying is, economic status can affect the basic character of a person. It can pervert, to no end, the best of people. That applies to the best and worst of the rich and the poor.


    We have to agree to disagree. That's all.

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  9. Hari and Arunava, agreeing to disagree sounds like a good idea at this point. :)

    Anonymous, thanks and in case you haven't visited before, welcome to the blog, man! :) I know you are trying to point out the many other things that might be affecting her situation, and I agree - there isn't a short answer to those.

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  10. awesome post

    Vaibhav

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