Love Thy Neighbour

When i was growing up, there came a point in time when i wished there was no neighbour around me - they were so pesky and annoying. Their current affairs was so up-to-date - what rank you got, what food you ate, how thick and healthy was your hair on the head,how many new dresses and pairs of shoes you had, which guy you were seen with and yada-yada. They also resorted to amusing tactics of isolating you out if you didn't accept their seniority and supremacy- they will steal your plants, break your planters or steal clips from the clothes-line and the occasional but cowardly pelting of stones and breaking of windows..Mind you, this has nothing to do with what culture they belong to or their economic standards.Whatever the case, neighbours were the least important in my scheme of things.I preferred friends and family.

And when you settle away from home in a new city, your roomies and colleagues at work who become friends become your lifeline. You have similar fears and strengths before going your own ways. The occasional filtering also happens when you realise a certain roomie and his/her priorities don't gel with yours and you have a choice of letting go, nastily or gracefully. There will be moments when you will feel betrayed,cheated and disgusted - the sense of closure is nowhere. There are no neighbours to run to - you run out of something, or you're in the middle of a mess - you turn to your roomie/friend/colleague to bail you out! They are your actual neighbours within a house or system, if you may. There is clearly no marked space.

When i moved to the US after our wedding, we were in a nice gated community, half of whose occupants i never saw or met.In such a lovely neighbourhood, making friends is tough.I made friends at the bank, the library and the bakery-cum-bistro down Castro Street. Most true-blue Americans that i've come across will work Mon-Fri - work defines their identity. Small talk happens over a drink on a Friday evening and mostly before 9pm. Weekends are fiercely guarded to catch up on sleep, bicycling, trekking in one of the national parks or as mundane as picking up groceries or mall-hopping. Even pot-luck lunches are so timed!Yes, you do say the clipped 'Hi there!' when you're at the pool or taking a walk down the park. But there are no conversations beyond that. I stopped feeling strange - in the US, time is a huge premium.Oh yes, you do have plenty of friends but they live miles away.

Back in India, we lived in a bungalow where you had no choice of a neighbour but your landlord. However well-meaning and sincere our efforts, the visits were formal and the exchange of pleasantries, few and far between. No fret. We had neighbours but the insulated kinds.So, friends were the saviours again.

Here in the new city, we have neighbours within inches and meters. The first day, when we moved in and were monitoring the movers and packers with the unpacking, our next-door neighbour was walking to the lift for her dental appointment. They knocked our door in the evening - offered us potable water for the kid's milk and also, asked us to look them up for any help. That was really sweet! I tried to hide my cynicism - i am usually the cynical types.The next day, i knocked for old newspapers to line the shelves.

Within days, her 4-year old daughter and our son have become best buddies - he eats half his meals there and we have stopped keeping track of whose toys and slippers are lying in which house.It's a new feeling - i actually have a neighbour! I told my husband - hey, we actually have a neighbour who talks and keeps tab about your well-being. They helped us with practically everything - milk, newspaper, bottled water, maids, cooks, car-cleaning, internet, phone - you name it. Both the husband and the wife are thorough responsible professionals at a very reputed MNC. Their daughter is sent to daycare after school. So the kids get to play only after 6 or 7 in the evening for an hour but it's the most awaited ritual in the whole day. And, we, mothers, laugh our stresses away over a cup of tea.

We've shared meals and every festival until now is incomplete if we have not sent a home-made sweetdish across.I have gone out shopping and felt a soul-connect while bargaining deals or choosing an outfit.She's become a good friend, more than a neighbour - we do complain to each other about our respective husband's pet peeves over food or socks and stand by each other in sickness too. 

They didn't get a chance to bond with the previous tenant for whatever reasons - apparently, both the husband and the wife were working professionals. But i would not take that as the reason, working people are not that bad and stay-at-home moms are not that boring.

But yeah, a good neighbour is a blessing. When i will be away, they volunteered to look after my plants. They are already sad they won't see Arjun for such a long time. We had a lovely dinner last evening - a happy send-off for me!


Of maids and cooks - Part 2

Within a week of Kavitha assuming duties in my house, i asked her to keep an eye for a decent cook. She got Savitha - a shrewd Kannada girl from Mysore, who minced no words about how much premium she commanded in terms of time and money. She refused to come at my preferred timing and the yada-yada. I had little to no options - our little community of families had grown up kids and working mothers - so all the other cooks are engaged. Kavitha also gently cautioned me that Savitha has a history of not lasting beyond a month. I kept a brave face and told myself, if Savitha does not get along with me, she possibly won't find a better employer. Savitha is technically a great cook but will not do anything on her own - she will cook as instructed, she is also lightning fast No, you can't engage in any small talk with her - she finds that micro-management and she gets nervous.But within a week, she started nosing around Kavitha if yours truly will gift her anything for Onam. Heck, what? I just gave her new bangles and sweets for Ganesh Chaturthi.And within a week, she bunked work without informing me. A week later, she wanted leave for 3 days - i didn't ask her why but i green-signalled. She didn't show up for an entire week - no calls, no SMS. I made up my mind to let her go. I put pressure on Kavitha to ask her dear friend to get in touch with me.

I don't know how these conversations happen but Savitha showed up that very evening, dressed in jeans and a smart kurta. She said, she was ready to cook. Something in her tone put me off so badly that i asked her if she was really interested in carrying on in my house. She bluntly blurted out, it was my choice and she is ok with any decision i take. I told her i don't want to eat food cooked in such a grudging manner and that she may come settle her dues immediately the next day. She, of course, went and fought with Kavitha, who in turn was very scared that i might fire her as well  for getting an inefficient person. I told her to relax and to redeem herself, i asked her to get another cook and that's how Bhagyalakshmi happened.

Bhagyalakshmi is a Mudalair Tamil, about 35 years old with 3 grown-up sons. Yes, she also married very young. She has a penchant for 'designer' blouses, speaks broken Hindi and is a very loving person.She's very invested about what she wants to feed you with, loves a little extra salt in all her preparations. So, everyday, she has a nervous time passing the 'salt' test with me. She is very forgetful to a fault and can't fry potatoes to save her life.But, Arjun likes her and they have a fun-session everyday counting granules of pomegranates and she sings to him.But she feeds our entire family and feels rewarded. '

And life goes on.

Of maids and cooks - part 1

I've been meaning to write about these two people who i am very grateful to for embracing me in this new city with all my pet peeves and all that baggage. To the rest of the world, they are not even visible. One is my help - Kavitha and the other is my cook - Bhagyalakhsmi. Both are migrants and not locals. Not like, i had difficulty getting anyone here - instinctively, the frequency should match.

I waited out a month or so, waiting for the reasonable one to come along. I had to endure door-rings, desperate pleas to be hired and all the heart-wrenching games that follow. There were some interesting ones that came along. One of them was an elderly but very street smart woman by the name Salma. She had betel-nut stained teeth and of course, very calloused lips - she walked up to my door and with almost certain divine birthright asked me to 'retain' her as the cook - i usually have a very intense interview with every prospective case. So i asked her why should i hire her? She answered very confidently - because the previous tenant trusted her with the kitchen and she is very comfortable working in my kitchen - she told me she knows more about my kitchen than even i would. She even went to the extent of bullying the younger ones who knocked at my door. That cheesed me off, very badly. I made up mind to ensure she does not enter my house. Fair play, woman. I pulled out my trump card  - when she came with that betel-nut smile to be hired - i told her i am not hiring her and the reason is, she ruined the gas stove burner while in her previous employment and that, i had to shell out quite some dough to get it back to some respectable shape. She never showed her face again.  

My kind neighbour offered me her help and cook and i was really relieved. One, i don't have to worry about security and trust, given the fact the mother-daughter duo were working in her house for the last 8 months.The only rider being - the mother will work if the daughter is hired. My neighbour's reasonable caution being - the daughter's husband is dying from his drinking adventures and she takes off unannounced but the mother always covered for the day - so no pay deductions and it worked well for both parties. So, the mother cooked and the daughter took care of the cleaning and they come two times a day, seven days a week. What luck, i thought! We had that friendly negotiation that i would stop looking around and they will start from today. That today never came. Because young and perky Pramila would not turn up, elderly Rama would not start cooking. This drama went on for a week, see how patient i have become. I got bizarre reasons when i asked about Pramila's absence - she forgot to come because she slept through and blah.I gave her exactly a week plus 3 days bonus for her to show up. She didn't show up and trust my bizarre luck, i had no options - all knocks and enquiries stopped (thanks to old and wily Salma's bullying of the younger lot).The day Pramila showed up, my husband opened the door - she instructed him to summon Didi (that's me). The summoning bit irked me.My husband was visibly amused. I went to meet her. She was like yeah, she's supposed to start work. I looked at her and told her i am not hiring her. She was stunned - why? because i don't want to hire you -you slept through the day when the deal was made 10 days ago. I will hire anyone but you. She asked me if someone has replaced her - i said, already. She asked me - who? None of your business. 

So, i was without a help, and without a cook as well. I was resisting hiring a cook for sentimentally silly reasons. But with a hyperactive toddler and another on the way and, our bigger mission to eat healthy, home-cooked food at work, my energies and resources were getting poorly divided. And, i am not a champion in cooking, i am reasonably good.So, we had those really volatile days.Oh!eating out? forget it - this part of the city is poorly blessed with quality and service in the culinary department. Flashy joints and sub-standard food -we had very disappointing trips.

Then one day, Kavitha came by. She is tiny, wiry and frail - left me wondering how will she work? Some routine police-kind of questions and the more important, background check. I had grown paranoid reading reports of daylight murders and robberies in the city - i feel vulnerable at all levels, especially with a toddler who can't even speak a word for himself except his endearing babble. With loads of cynicism i told her of my rules - that i would not be monitoring her at any point but one fine day if i discover a missing spoon (symbolic),that will be her last day in the house. Also, she should not cut corners - do less work but do it well. And, she would not demand hikes,gifts, money and the jazz unreasonably. I told her, she will never get an occasion to ask - because,i am generally mindful of such occasions. Her face braved all of that - and she shot back, very politely - stealing a spoon or anything for that matter won't send her to the grave rich. Ok, you're hired. 

So, Kavitha is not literate. She is about 28 years. She eloped when she was 13.She has 2 daughters, one 14 and another 9.Both of them attend a private 'English-medium' school.She is a Chennai-based Telugu.She works in 4 homes to pay for her kids' fees and to keep the kitchen hearth going. Her husband's contribution is zero - he is the personal driver for some big-shot and, is a perennial drunk and chicken-consumer. She told me her story on my asking - I usually dismiss this as a routine sob-story that all maids use to milk some guilt and sympathy. She is fond of Arjun and is caring towards him. She is not fussy, keeps to her work and there are days, when we share breakfast and some tea.She's scared of taking leaves, lest her pay gets cut.

Of late, she is not keeping well - every third day, she has 'fever' (any sickness is fever). Today, we had a long chat over breakfast - the actual reason of her 'fever'. Her daughter is in class 8 in a private school.The fees are getting higher - she opted to send her to a, the daughter refused to shift, saying all her friends are in this school. Her husband asked her to discontinue the daughter's education from the next academic session. Kavitha does not know how to cope with this tension.I heard her out, I told her worrying so much won't solve the problem as much as working her gut off in so many homes.She does not want any charity but she wants her girls to have some legacy of being educated at least, until the 10th standard.Her husband is callous. Her girls, however innocent, are unaware of the travails she has to go through to keep the house functional. She tells me their demands are endless. They want new dresses for every festival, they also want similar crayons and all that blah. She obviously, cannot afford every desire of theirs. She has stopped feeling guilty. She does not blame them.

Back in the day, i thought, we were such tolerant kids - if our mother told us, she could get just a dress each for a certain festival, we were ok. And, father assured us, that we would look very beautiful in that one dress even if we wore it for 5 consecutive days, we believed him. There were also many festivals, where we gave up small luxuries of buying a new dress or toy because the computer fees had to be paid.Such innocent times!I don't remember feeling threatened or small if my neighbour had more dresses and toys - i feel hugely blessed to have had such a secure childhood of contentment with whatever we had. I wish to pass that to our children even if we are economically slightly better off. 

The rate at which kids evolve these days is frightening at times.And, if we are not able to give them a feeling of security (not to be read as wants and desires) in such highly-paced consumerist times, what are we leaving them with? I know of two 3-yr old kids in the block who refuse to read books, they would read it from the Kindle.Okay, point taken. Their parents beam with pride at their gadget-savvy behaviour but i really don't know.

Okay so back to Kavitha. I calmed her down and told her to keep faith and, that help will come in some or the other form. No problem in this world goes unattended.And, it's time she asserted herself a little more firmly.Instead of discontinuing the education of the girls in private schools, she may choose the option of sending them to a govt-aided school. Her girls will benefit from a lot of schemes and scholarships. Of course, the veneer of a is not all that appealing with the kind of facilities outside education, that public, private and international schools provide.At the end of the day, she has to make up her mind. 

All I could tell her is, she should operate within her means and not promise the moon to her girls. Disappointment is a bigger problem to deal with than reality. The reality is, by the time the girls turn 18, they would have to be married off and given their economic and social strata, too much of a flashy lifestyle or education can be a disadvantage at times in terms of adjustment. And, they have no assets in terms of gold, silver or even some plot of land. Kavitha was in for a rude shock. I told her to start saving up some of her earnings - like try and make ends meet by not claiming her pay from one house out of the four for a period of six months. See how difficult and manageable it is. With that corpus, she could invest in silver anklets for both her girls and lock them away in the bank. 

I have not told her but I plan to open a savings account for her this coming New Year.At the end of the day, I realised both of us are no different. We  all work our souls off to care for our families.