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Encounter is a story about trust and respect. It describes how emotions come into play between women – the mistress of a home and her domestic helps.
Khushi prided herself on being neat and orderly in her physical surroundings as well as relationships. She folded her duppata precisely and kept it in the wardrobe. She felt refreshed after washing her face, hands and feet – all that dust. Ugh! She had worked for two hours under the hot sun in Dera and having done her bit, she was content. It was a good thing that she decided to come back home because Yug’s car had developed a problem. He had to ask the mechanic to take it. He needed her car. Luckily she had just switched off the ignition near their gate when Yug called her and his problem was solved.
She took out her mat. She would sit and meditate. She closed her eyes. The running tap water and clink of utensils being washed impinged on her consciousness. Then the maids Sheela and Suneeta started chatting. Khushi couldn’t control her wandering mind especially when they started discussing her.
‘Bai is always bothered about cleanliness. I wash the clothes with such care, use such a lot of soap, she still finds fault. Yesterday she said that the laundrywala had sent Sahib’s shirt back because there was a stain on it. So, he did not iron it,’ this was Suneeta. ‘You tell me Sheela, don’t our hands get tired? I didn’t put that stain, did I? Bai just needs a reason to scold – without any excuse. All these Bais are same. Khushi bai is really mad.’
Khushi was stunned. She couldn’t believe her ears! Sheela also chimed in, ‘Haan rey, I am sick of her dusters. Every time she uses a new duster to wipe the utensils. One in the morning, one in the afternoon and one at night. Now, who has to wash the dusters? Me. One duster is sufficient for one day, no? But she needs three. There is something really wrong with Khushi bai – waidi (mad) ahai.’ Sheela’s job was to wash utensils.
Khushi couldn’t sit anymore. She got up and opened the door into the backyard where both the maids were working. Now it was their turn to be shocked. They were not aware of the fact that she had come back. “Just get up and go. Leave the clothes and utensils as they are and go. Tomorrow you can come and take your money. Go, go away.”
Both of them looked startled – a moment ago they were enjoying gossiping and bitching, and now this. Still they tried to brazen it out, ‘No, no Bai, what happened? What have we done? We are simply working.’
“I am crazy, isn’t it? So, I am being crazy. Leave my house, immediately.”
“No, no Bai. Shaant ho, don’t get angry.”
‘The shirt had come back from the laundry and it had the stain. Hadn’t I shown you that stain? And if I prefer cleanliness, if I use more dishtowels, who are you to question me?” By now they realised that Khushi had overheard their conversation. They didn’t know that she was back from Dera. They hadn’t heard her car. They were under the impression that Sahib was working in his study. When did she arrive? And cannot two co-workers chat? But she was a good mistress. She paid them well. She treated them well – far better than some of the others in whose houses they’ve worked before. She never counts their cups of tea or the amount of milk or sugar they use.
Suneeta tried to pat Khushi on her arm, “Bai, we were talking in Marathi, and you must have misunderstood us.”
Khushi flinched, “Don’t touch me. I have been born and brought up here. I don’t speak Marathi, but I can understand it fully. Just go.”
By now Khushi was crying earnestly though she had tried to control herself. Her face was all red. Even the maids got frightened. They were used to the soft-spoken Khushi, who was a tough taskmaster, but who never raised her voice. Both of them looked at each other, then picked up their pishwees (bags) and left.
She started washing the clothes and utensils. All the time she wondered over the vagaries of human nature. Even as a young student, she had hated the elite, bourgeoisie domination and wanted to remain away from class bias. She believed in equality. Going against her mother’s teachings, even against her own hygiene mania, she allowed the maids to eat in the same utensils which the family used. She allowed them to sit on chairs. She hated hypocrisy. She always thought of them with kindness and considered their comfort. She never asked any service from them, which she herself would not perform were she in their place.
This Sheela – she had joined her household just ten months ago and had asked her for an advance of ten thousand rupees because she was constructing her house. Yug had warned her, but Khushi had scoffed, “Where will she go – to HDFC for housing loan? It’s our duty to help. One’s own roof over their head is everybody’s dream.”
She believed in being a rainbow in other’s cloud. And Suneeta – so ungrateful! Last year when Khushi had gone abroad, she had given Suneeta the salary for those four months. It was decided that she would give Suneeta a call on her mobile the day she would land so that before her reaching the doorstep Suneeta would have had the time to get the home cleaned. When on her arrival Khushi called Suneeta she did not turn up. Rather she excused herself, “Bai, I am sitting in the parlour, getting my facial done. My brother is getting married tomorrow” and had turned up after two days. Khushi had controlled her irritation and rationalised that Suneeta’s family cannot run their life to suit Khushi’s programmes. And Suneeta is young. It is natural she wanted to shine on her brother’s wedding. Yug had laughed at Khushi’s reasoning.
Did the maids take her to be a fool? Did her humane attitude, her generosity, her fair-mindedness have no value for them? In front of her they always sang the ‘you-are-a-good-boss’ refrain. In her absence, the malice they bore to her or the general envy they had for her status came up to the surface. Yug was right – ungratefulness forms a great part of human nature. How many times she had been let down and yet she refused to learn the lesson?
Her red eyes alerted Yug, when he came back home in the evening, that something was wrong. He tried to cheer her up. From three decades of togetherness he knew the decision, which his kind-hearted wife would take, so he steered her towards it. ‘Terminate their services. We will find new maids. Till then I’ll ask Hari Singh’s wife to come and help you.’ Hari Sigh was the watchman at their factory.
‘Oh Yug, how could they talk like this – so meanly. And the new maids will bring new problems. Meanness is a part of human nature, it seems. These maids are uneducated; they have limited understanding. I cannot stoop to their level. I am helping their children with English. I am really hurt’ and Khushi continued in this vein as Yug knew she would. So far she had never sacked a maid.
Next day both the maids presented themselves with a contrite demeanour. Khushi allowed them to continue with a warning, but the friendliness was gone from her behaviour. It has been a year since and she is prepared to be disappointed again.
Image of a lady working via Shutterstock
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