Archive for the ‘Kolkata’ Category


Obligatory Domestic Help Post

As we make our way into our first solid month in India, almost two straight weeks in Kolkata, I found myself struggling against the urge to write about my experiences with the domestic help. It seemed so banal. A couple of years ago, I reviewed this movie, Lakshmi and Me, that played in the San Francisco 3rd i Film Festival. It is a beautiful documentary that details the filmmaker’s relationship with the young woman who works in her apartment and building, and though I appreciated it, I remember also criticizing it. I remember thinking at the time: How bourgeois to make a film about one’s hired help in order to ease one’s guilt for paying someone a pittance to sweep the floors. I’m not sure how different I feel now, sitting here at my dining table, while Sobitha — my hired cook and cleaning person — sings to herself in the kitchen. The criticisms still stand: bourgeois? check. guilty? check.  I am a highly privileged person, no matter if I am in the First World or the Third, but the concept seems less weighty and twisted here.

Class privilege and difference in India isn’t so wrapped up in national identity and race discourse. Here, there are lots of people who are poor, then lots of people who are middle class who employ the poor people, and a few people who are very rich, who employ even more poor people. I’m not sure I’ve ever met any rich people in India who pretend that they are poor, at least not the way you see this charade at expensive private liberal arts colleges in America. The myth of class mobility that America is built on — that elusive dream — doesn’t seem to exist here. [Of course, Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger was all about this and I think about the book constantly while I'm here and have been trying to goad Robin into reading it, so we can discuss it. Speaking of Adiga, read his wonderful essay about desire and writing and Delhi here.]

India runs on it’s service sector — with hired help in the fanciest  to the most-broken down elevators, pushing the buttons for a few rupees an hour. When leaving the airport in Delhi, there was even someone employed to lift the parking garage gate manually as each car exited. Here, you can get your clothes ironed and your food delivered and of course, your floors swept and washed. My father’s family had a long line of retainers. In those days they were men. These men ran the household and made sure things got done. My father and grandmother had endless stories about Mathura, their retainer, who was described as the most loyal and giving man in the world. My grandmother employed many poor people from her village, but also schooled them and employed them and helped them turn their mud and straw huts into brick and mortar homes. It was a fine balance of treating them like a different species, but also humanizing them with education and opportunity.

I mean, is it really so different in America? I was raised by a series of “housekeepers”, while my parents were at work. In my case, in Southwestern Ohio, they were older white ladies, quite poor, who worked for cash and took care of me from the time I came down for breakfast in the morning to when my mother came home from work at 5:30 p.m. There was Mrs. Miller,  a small woman with a pouf of white hair. My mother recently told me she fired her after she found out that Mrs. Miller had taken me to go pick up her wayward granddaughter without my mother’s permission. But mostly there was Edith Burris, a thick, hard-working older woman, whose people were from Kentucky, who lived alone and had a granddaughter named Janelle, who I remember had a rabbit fur coat and I thought was terribly glamorous. Edith watched soap operas while she ironed and pronounced the p in pneumonia, as in “You’re going to catch Pee-neumonia if you don’t wear socks.” She baked us the most delicious pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving and Christmas and her skin felt like dusty paper and she smelled like mothballs. She was there until I was in the fifth or sixth grade and then one day, we never saw her again.

Here, we’ve hired Sobitha, who cooked and cleaned for my grandmother in the last year of her life. She lives in the country, or as she calls it the “desh”, outside Kolkata. I asked her yesterday and we figured out she was about my age, maybe a year or two older. She calculated her age by saying that she was married at age 15, and that she has been married some 18 years. Her husband can’t work because a labor injury has left him with spondylitis in his neck. She also has been blessed with three daughters, whom she says will cost her one lakh (100,000) rupees each to get married off. She travels by train to Kolkata, leaving her home at 3:45 a.m., to come to work in several homes and an office before coming to our flat around 12:30 p.m. each day. She was close with my grandmother and says that my grandmother had promised to give her money to finish building her home, which she says will cost about 3000 rupees – for the bricks and labor.

She is funny and sharp-tongued and while I sit at the kitchen table and write, she sometimes squats on the floor at the boti (large stationary knife) and talks to me about her family and her village and her life. She has a younger sister who works in one of the buildings next door and sometimes she comes over to talk as well – the two of them sweet and funny. The second day they came, the sister peeked her head around the corner of the laundry room where I was soaking the clothes to say, “Didi, we like you very much,” and then ran off giggling like a little girl and not a 25-year-old mother of three. They think me strange and lonely, sitting here in front of this machine all day.

The food has been amazing! How nourishing to have someone bring you fresh vegetables and cook you warm food each day. True Bengali cooking: masoor dal and moog daal, okra with poppy seeds, white radish curry, cauliflower and potatoes, roasted eggplant with tomatoes and onions. And all kinds of greens: spinach and radish greens and lau (kind of green squash) greens and red greens. All of it cooked in mustard oil! I always complain that when you come to India you have to eat too much rice, and I just wasn’t feeling the rice we ate over the last few years, but rice here has a delicious flavor and I can’t get enough! I don’t know what it is, Sobita says it’s the water, but whatever it is – it’s amazing. She keeps asking for us to buy some fish, because to a pakka of genuine Bengali, a meal is just not a meal without some fish. Today, I scandalized her to no end when I told her for my predilection for sushi.

When Sobitha’s not cooking and gossiping with me, she tells me about home remedies like heated mustard oil on my temples and the bottom of my feet to get rid of a cold or explains idioms, like when a cat is pushed, it climbs a tree — to refer to doing something you don’t want to do but you have to. Or another one about how a bird-eaten Jackfruit will be bought by the poor people, as an analogy to why her father married her off to an uneducated man. She’s invited me to come and visit her home and I am going to buy her an alarm clock and a cloth bag — basic things she doesn’t have.

Meanwhile, our building also has a darwan, or security guard — an older man, maybe in his 50s. He lives in in a little nook on the ground floor of our building, a space that is also shared by a car repair shop. It’s just enough room for a bed and a television. Sometimes he cooks for himself on a little stove on the ground. Mostly, though, he watches his television at alarming volumes – or listens to the radio. Since his little alcove falls just two floors below our bedroom, it is very much as though the television and radio is being piped into our bedroom. In terms of security, he doesn’t make me or Robin feel very safe, in fact, it’s a bit of the opposite.

One of the first days I was here, he came up and rang the doorbell and asked me for money, 100 rupees. When I asked him for what, he said: “I just need it.” I wasn’t quite sure what I was to do in this situation, but it felt wrong. I know in the same situation, my grandmother would have been furious. But I felt helpless because I didn’t know how much he gets paid and how we have contributed to that. I knew  that we’d paid all our building fees, which must cover his salary, but I had no idea what kind of living wage that was. But I also didn’t want him to take advantage of me as an unsuspecting NRI.

At night, our dreams are infected with his hacking cough, which has worsened as the nights here get colder – but not made any better by his constant bidi habit. The kicker came last Friday night though, when Robin and I went out to Salt Lake – a Kolkata extension – where we met two of my cousins for a drink and some food. With traffic and all, the car ride alone took us over an hour, so after hanging out and drinking and eating, by the time we came home it was about 11:30 p.m. (Not an abnormal time to LEAVE the house for a night out back in the states). We found our gate locked and the lights off. We rang the doorbell and knocked, to no avail. After knocking and calling out for some time, we aroused the security man from his slumber, but also aroused his great ire and he began a vitriolic tirade against us in slurred angry Bengali that I could barely understand. What I did get is that he thought it was ridiculously late, and that next time such a thing happened he wouldn’t open the gate for us and other angry words. The tirade continued and we could hear it going on as we went upstairs to our bedroom. What we learned, after the fact, was that we should have given him a lock and key and let him know if we were going to be after 10 pm, which is when he officially goes to sleep.

Just yesterday we met our neighbor, a nice young woman named Aishwarya who works in market research for AC Nielsen, and has rented the apartment downstairs for some two years. She had all the same experiences with the guard: that he asks for money, that he blasts his television and radio all day, that he coughs up his lung all night, etc. She even told us that once she was coming home late from work and he had already locked the gate and went to sleep. She rang the bell and woke him up, but he refused to open the door. But she said he even got spiteful, he turned the light on, and smoked a bidi, but wouldn’t open the door and even turned off the bell so she wouldn’t keep ringing it. Luckily, she knew another renter upstairs who came down and convinced him to let her in. She said she complained to her landlord about this until they finally gave her an extra key for one of the gates – but before that, she said she would be out with friends and would have to run home early just so she wasn’t locked out by the doorman! How crazy is that??

For Robin and I, the doorman has really become to represent more and more the way we are dealing with the inconsistencies and maddening parts of India. If Sobitha is the warm and fuzzy part of the service sector — the way she clucks over us like a mother hen, taking special care to make sure she comes every day since we are new to India, the doorman is bitter — and rightly so — with his lot in life and his shitty job. More than anything, I want to have compassion for this man. He is obviously poor – he lives on a cot in the garage of my building for goodness sake. The neighbor told me he only gets paid like $2500 rupees a month ($55), for a 24 hour a day job. That comes to barely $4 rupees an hour. When he locked me out of my own building, my first impulse was to get him fired. I mean, he’s doing his job poorly and making my life inconvenient, yet — at the end of the day — he works for me. What our neighbor told us, is that if we were to replace him, a new 24-hour security guard like him would be closer to $5000 rupees ($100) a month and that the other condo owners don’t want to pay more, (even though we would pay more in a heartbeat.) We basically aren’t going to pay him more — so he is unhappy, or pay anyone else more to do a better job, so we’re stuck with a sort of bad situation all around. In the meantime, I have brought him down a thick blanket, aspirin for his fever, inquired after his needs.

At the end of the day, all I can do is set an intention to be kind to him and continue to try and process carefully, as always, the disparity and power dynamics around me.


Haunted Wife

My first few days as a traditional Bengali housewife in Kolkata have made me understand ritual in a whole new way. I could spend the whole day opening and closing windows — stretching to reach the rusty latches. (In Bengali: chitkini.) Or perhaps, locking and unlocking cabinets in the large standing armoires, or almaris. I want to choreograph an art installation around these movements, a dance piece. But I am also fighting the impulse to do these things obsessively, to define my own movements in this place.

When we first reached the flat in South Kolkata, the rooms looked bleached and empty, as I knew they would. It was dark already and I went directly to my grandmother’s room where her prayer shrine was in disarray. The pictures and statues of god replaced by a large framed picture of her, scattered incense ashes. The apartment was clean but musty, as any place will be after being locked up with the curtains drawn for four months. The elevator is broken so the drivers carried our bags up the stairs and we piled them into my grandmother’s room. The young man who used to help my grandmother was there and he showed us how to make the slip knots for the mosquito net, and we made sure the refrigerator was on. There was much more to ask: how to connect the gas to the stove, how to run the manual washing machine, where the plates and glasses were, but my head was mired in the gaping hole my grandmother left behind.

We went to get some food with my uncle and when we came back, again the apartment seemed askew. I felt like child who had been left home alone and a thick panic began to tighten around my neck. What the hell was I doing here?

The last time I spoke to my grandmother on the phone was early January. She was recuperating for a second knee surgery. She scolded me for not calling and then we spoke a long time, both about serious issues and laughing about not so serious ones — as was our manner. I told her that I would be there very soon. For years I had said I was going to come and live in India, that we could take care of each other. She joked that she wouldn’t last that long. I told her that she didn’t have a choice.

The universe had other plans.

I was in Mexico when she fell ill with pneumonia, celebrating a wedding that honored the dead in the same breath it honored the living. The exquisite sorrow of mourning is leached into nothing over the phone. Spared the details, you go on living with the living, leaving the dead hovering somewhere behind your heart. All of my grandparents, my ancestors, dead and after I put down the phone the idea seems preposterous. The image of a funeral pyre impossible to conjure.

In the apartment, I yelled at Robin for leaving his wallet on the front table, for scattering electronics across the floor. Under my grandmother’s rule, you locked everything of value up to keep from tempting the servants. It was your own fault, she told me, if they stole something. He said, “But there is no one here but us.” And that was the real issue wasn’t it? The distance finally seemed to unravel and the truth of her absence finally seemed to sink into my flesh and bones.

I sat down in her straight-backed chair then and tried to think of some way to mourn her properly, some way to choke through the panic and gloom. But then it all drained out of me. The sturdy back of the chair, the orange rug she used to pray on, it grounded me — something shifted and the apartment seemed to open in my mind. This was our space to take in a new direction, to take care of and fill with life. I would respect the hundreds of keys she left, but I would also unlock the cabinets and fill them with books and clothes and media.

Since that night, I’ve been sitting in her chair for a few minutes each day. For years, I’ve been looking for something that would spark the beginning of a meditation practice. It seems to be one last gift my grandmother left for me.

Otherwise, Kolkata is as charming and disheveled as ever. At night, the sounds of the neighbors late-night dinners fade into silence and then the colony of crows in the trees outside our veranda wakes us up early. On our morning constitutional walk around the lake, there would suddenly be a menagerie of brightly colored gods and goddesses under a tree. Rash Behari Avenue is bustling with people and food stands and vegetable sellers. Papaya and guava and a type of water apple are in season.

Tomorrow we leave for Ahmedabad for 10 days. Then we return to truly make this place our home.