The Globalized Sheila
by Geetashree Chatterjee
We are living in very different times. Sooner we realize it the better. Gone are the days of those submissive maids who stuck to their jobs diligently. The other day my maid walked in murmuring happily to herself and gesticulating wildly in the air! I was about to ask her whether everything was okay with her, when I saw the sleek mobile phone precariously positioned between her right ear and shoulder. Soon it became a regular affair. Sometimes the chatting continued as she dusted and mopped with wavering attention. I objected to the incessant chirp once or twice. She turned around and told me that mobile phones were meant for that. One should be reachable whenever required. That sealed my mouth.
While my aunt in Kolkata has this habit of attributing every noticeable digression-from-the-routine to the liberal policies of the Government, I sometimes wonder whether she is not absolutely wrong in her sweeping surmises.
I remember those olden days when a middle aged Phoolmati willingly handed over her daughter Sunita to my mother's tutelage saying, "Bibiji isse kucch sikhaaiye. Kal ko shaadi ho jaayegi aur aisi harkatein karegi to kaise chalega?"
(Madam! Please teach her some manners. Soon she'll be married off to another family. If she behaves like this at her in law's what will they think?). Sunita, to say the least, was an unkempt child of seven or eight years age. Shabbily dressed, she had a bush of dirty, lice ridden hair which she refused to clean and oil. My mother took her in as our regular housemaid taking pity on her mother and confident that she would be able to groom her daughter.
Mostly the younger housemaids were our play mates too. But not Sunita! It was difficult to accept her as a play mate because one never knew what she would do next. Unpredictable as the weather, she would enter our room with the broom in hand and suddenly break into a jig throwing the broom to the other end of the room. Her favourite entry line was "Main aa gayee"
(I have come). And then would follow a raunchy dance number with matching facial expressions till my mother caught her by the arm and taught her how to behave in front of people. From where she picked up these habits was a wonder because in those days television with limited channels and censored programmes was a luxury.
My mother was a strict disciplinarian and famous for her royal rage. It wouldn't take two minutes for her to box Sunita's ears when she went out of control. I often found Sunita making faces at my mother's back after a bout of corporal punishment. But I think she was secretly fond of my mother too and also a little afraid of her rebukes. It was a Herculean task to get Sunita's tangled masses in order. It was my mother's constant chiding that finally she agreed to wash, comb and properly braid her hair thrice a week.
Sunita never went to school. Not because she couldn't but because she was too much of a handful for the teachers who failed to channelize her restless energy. But she did learn to sign her name in the long run - a result of my mother's constant prodding again. Surprisingly, Sunita grew up to be a shy, soft spoken girl. She continued to work in our house till she was married off at the age of thirteen or fourteen. It was an emotional send off when she came to see my mother, touch her feet and take her blessings before setting off for her new home.
My present maid (incidentally her name is not Sheila) is the product of the age she belongs to. She compares her washing machine with mine and informs me in no ambiguous terms that hers is bigger and smoother running. Her favourite excuse for not being on time to work is watching a late night serial on her newly purchased colour TV. Her refrigerator is sleek, her stereo system is the envy of her neighbours and her children thankfully go to school. Is class disparity finally blurring? I ponder. But it is when I hear her washing the utensils to the rhythm of 'Sheila kii jawani' or her own version of 'Saa mina mina'
I cannot help but smile- we do live in a "globalized" world. Don't we?