Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Oh boy, oh boy, oh Bai!

A few weeks ago a visiting aunt who’s been living in the US for over the last twenty years dropped in for tea. As we chatted over some hot ginger chai and crisp samosas, my cook ventured into the living room to enquire if we’d like some more tea.

“Ah what a blessing it is to have domestic help!” my aunt sighed wistfully “Back home in Seattle we have to do everything ourselves and even getting someone to make a cup of tea for you is a luxury! You’re so lucky!”

I glanced warily at my cook who shot back a pleased smile and trotted off to the kitchen looking mighty chuffed. She had finally showed up for work that day after nearly a fortnight’s absence during the course of which she had been systematically dispatching members of her extended family to join the heavenly choir in the sky and subsequently taking leave as a result of the multiple illnesses, deaths and funerals in her family. The month before that it had been a mysterious illness that had afflicted her, before that she’d had a wedding in the family and before that the roof of her rented room had suddenly collapsed one fine night necessitating a week’s leave. Just that very morning, fed up with her litany of excuses (impressed as I admittedly was with her creativity at storytelling) I had threatened to give her the boot and she had miraculously chosen to turn up for work instead of attending her chachi’s mami’s first cousin’s husband’s funeral.

As my aunt went on about the luxury of having domestic help in India I found myself thinking about my unending bai woes over the last couple of years. Back when I was footloose and fancy free, or for that matter even after I had settled for matrimonial bliss and set up my own home, bais had never really figured on my list of worries. A spot of cooking and a dash of cleaning were good enough to fit the bill and on the many days that the bai didn’t show up for work I was only too happy to experiment with some cooking or try out the hip new eatery in town while adeptly ignoring the dust bunnies and the mountainous stack of laundry at home. We existed in blissful oblivion, the bai and I.

All that changed when my baby came into the picture and I began spending significantly longer stretches of time at home with her. All of a sudden managing the home front and ensuring that the domestic machinery was ship shape assumed utmost importance. Grabbing a masala chai and a brun maska on the go was no longer a viable option for breakfast when you had a baby demanding to be fed. Dust bunnies needed to be banished into oblivion and the pile of laundry (now multiplied manifold with baby in the picture) screamed for immediate attention. The bai suddenly became the fulcrum on which the domestic chakra needed to whir without a hitch. And not just any bai would do, it had to be one who was clean, sincere and efficient. And one who showed up for work.

I found myself floundering in the Bai Market as I desperately searched for such a domestic diva. It all began with the Great Bai Hunt, which required you to keep your eyes peeled and be on watchful alert when you were out and about. I found myself carefully assessing the various bais on display in my society. I drew up a list of parameters and must-haves against which I ranked them based on their appearance. Finally, satisfied that I had perfected the Great Bai Hunt to a finely honed art, I approached the top choice on my list of prospective bais with what I thought was a suitable job offer.

“I’m not a bai, I live here!” barked the lady in question turning a delicate shade of green and shooting me a poisonous look that turned my intestines into jelly. She marched off to another group of ladies nearby and began speaking to them in an aggrieved tone while simultaneously throwing more poisonous looks my way.

“Please find me a bai!” I whispered in desperation to the watchman as I sped to the safety of my apartment, deciding to abandon any further plans of the Great Bai Hunt.

The watchman rose to the occasion rather admirably and I soon found myself facing round two in acquiring a bai; the Bai Interview. Prospective candidates began streaming into my house in response to the job vacancy. The interview process itself was mercifully short. I would open the door to find myself being given the once over by a pair (or sometimes two) of beady, knowing eyes.

“What is the work? How much time? How many people? How much money?” the bai at the door would bark out the questions in a series of staccato bursts before shaking her head disdainfully and marching off.
Many bais came and went but no one seemed remotely interested in taking up the job. My confidence sank to an all time low and I began seriously doubting my ability to hire, let alone retain any help, when one fine day in response to my meek answers to the standard interview questions, a bai actually acquiesced to take up my offer.

“I will only work for two hours, accept X amount of money, take Sunday off and have two cups of tea with four teaspoons of sugar each, if you want me to work here” she declared walking in and looking around with an air of detached contempt.

“Fine, as long as you do the job well” I said meekly, too dispirited to negotiate.
“When can you start?”

And so began my tryst with round three, the most complicated round of them all: Hold On To Your Bai For Dear Life! For after months of painstaking training, supervising and offering a variety of retention incentives, just when you thought that things had finally fallen into place and when you least expected it, the bai would quit for the flimsiest of reasons and vanish into Bai Oblivion, setting into motion yet again the Great Bai Hunt for a new bai.

After many years of handling the process of searching for, hiring, training and losing bais, I have finally reached a happy place where it really doesn’t bother me anymore. Unlike old times when I would go through a despairing cycle of shock, anger, regret and what-ifs, the disappearance of a bai now merely gives me cause to shake my head with a reproachful tut-tut and with steely determination I venture forth yet again into the Bai Market. Of course there are stories (not mine, I seem to have been blessed with more than my fair share of bad maid karma) of the faithful retainer who’s been loyal to the same family for years at a stretch and I live in constant hope that I too will one day find such a domestic goddess. Until then though, I make do with what I have and keep a watchful eye on the clock every morning as I pass through the dreaded hour between 7.00 and 8.00am during which the course of my day will get decided; will the doorbell ring heralding the arrival of my bai or will it be the phone call instead informing me that Sopu Kaka’s maushi’s brother has had a heart attack and there will be no bai in the foreseeable future.
And when the bell does chime and the bai walks in and later as I sink with gratitude into my first cup of tea for the day, I realize that for better or for worse I am stuck with my bai, and all said and done having her around does take the bite out of daily domestic drudgery a fair bit. Here’s to all the bais (or the lack of them) in our lives then, all those formidable ladies who are a daily and integral part of our households and who still have the capability to make all the visitors from abroad go green with envy!

Originally written for "The Punekar"

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Manasi Vaidya, Author of "No Deadline For Love"
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