The aristocratic and fashionably slim lady at the door of an elite ground-floor apartment looked warily at the twenty-six-year old before her who had introduced herself as Kanta. Clad in a faded salwar kameez with a cotton dupatta demurely covering her oiled head and a look of abject humility, Kanta clutched an Adhaar card as proof of her village identity and sought to strike a chord of familiarity with this embodiment of the socially privileged as she enumerated the neighbouring domiciles she had worked in.
Kanika, whose brown locks, sleek figure and glowing complexion belied her age and bore testimony to the hours she spent in the gym and local parlour, eagerly searched for indications that Kanta would be the suitable cook cum domestic companion yet warned herself to be cautious and not let her hopes soar too high. She had been through several similar rituals, each time starting with hope that was subsequently betrayed due to any of a million reasons related to human nature, such as the prospect’s inexperience, lack of culinary skills, sharp-tongued responses, tendency to pilfer, propensity for idleness or gossip, tardiness, avarice, lack of cleanliness, stubbornness, ill health, arrogance, a sudden death in the village, a family issue and arrogant behaviour.
As each experiment with a domestic retainer failed to achieve the tenure of one year that she aimed at, she was overcome by doubt and self-recrimination. Was she too inflexible or difficult to please? Did she give them adequate rest time? How did that inaugural aspect of humility transform irrevocably into defiance and mockery that challenged her, ‘Ha! Got you! Try and do something about my insolence!’
For the past six years, Ravi’s manufacturing business had been doing well and she could afford to keep a full-time cook, but where did one find the right one? A similarly afflicted friend had told her to summon a newbie from a village and train him to cook while a sympathetic aunt had told her to contact an agency that provided household help and pay commission for the procurement after a suitable period of experimentation.
However, both trials had ended in dismal failure. The newbie had crashed an expensive ceramic vase into smithereens and could not be taught to switch on the gas stove while the profligate maid from an agency had run away as soon as the agency had received the commission and vanished into untraceable oblivion.
Morning time was specifically a period of bedlam, what with providing early morning breakfast for the children and packing their tiffin, then laying out Ravi’s breakfast and packing his lunch. Kanika was careful about their calorie intake and ensuring low-oil and fibre-rich diets with an abundance of fruits and salad. But, it was hard work. Their breakfast was followed by her own, then a late lunch with the children after they returned from school and the family dinner at night. In fact, there was enough work for a full-time cook to be really busy.
These six years had seen many so-called sous-chefs (none deserving the nomenclature of a chef) come and go due to the vagaries mentioned above. There had been the 23-year old Manoj, who had confided on the third day that he had only done cleaning work so far and was yet to learn cooking, and Maniben, who had swiped money from Ravi’s wallet and wailed in repentance when she was caught.
In fact, Kanika could write a book on the horrific scenarios she had encountered during her search. Ravi had titled the chair in the hallway her Interview Chair and analyzed the turnover of domestic staff to identify the trends, peaks and record highs achieved each year. He had noted with alacrity that in the current year, the turnover of cooks was higher than usual; and Kanika had attributed it to the worsening scenario for domestic retainers all over the country. Her children would groan with an expression of ‘Not again!’ at each upheaval.
But, as they say, hope triumphs over experience and for the umpteenth time, Kanika prayed that a new domestic venture would defy past statistics and prove successful.
“Who sent you for the job?” she ventured to ask Kanta.
“The Madam who stays in A205. She said she was a friend of yours.”
“You mean Romi Vashisht?”
“Yes, that’s her name.”
“How well does she know you?”
“I worked in the house next door to her till they shifted to the U.S.”
From past experience, Kanika knew that the claim of shifting abroad was to prevent her from asking Romi Vashist for a reference. She had probably left under adverse circumstances: a demand for higher wages or a tiff over any sundry issue such as allocation of leaves, duration of work, absence from work without intimation or a disagreement with other domestic staff.
“Do you know how to cook?”
“Every house has a different style of cooking. You will have to explain the way you want your food to be cooked,” came the seasoned response, one that Kanika had heard countless times.
She felt this was a sure sign that Kanta was an amateur seeking to be trained as a cook. A trained cook always claimed that his or her expertise extended to ‘ordinary, South Indian, Chinese and baked’, though the variation in these types of dishes often made them unrecognizable in terms of their original genre.
“How many years have you been working?”
There was nothing unusual in the responses. Kanta had been working for eight years, her husband worked as a guard in a residence nearby, and her two children, aged 15 months and seven years, were with her mother in a village near Patna. In addition to cooking, she was ready to dust the furniture and run errands to the market. She could provide all the testimonials required, such as her Aadhar card and proof of residence.
When Kanika confirmed that there was another retainer for cleaning, Kanta found her duties acceptable since she claimed she had stopped sweeping and mopping four years before when she had started cooking and risen in the echelons of retainer hierarchy.
Kanika stated that barring exceptional changes in schedule, Kanta had to come each day at 6 A.M. and leave at 9 P.M. after serving dinner.
“What is the salary you want?”
“You tell me your offer first.”
‘So that you can turn it down and demand a higher pay!’ thought Kanika sardonically, her previous day’s experience still disconcerting her. When she had offered the applicant for cooking what she considered a princely sum, the not-so-simple village bumpkin had haughtily sneered at her and turned on her heels.
“I was thinking of double that sum,” she had called out as she left.
After a heated negotiation that listed all the pluses and minuses on each side, Kanika bought herself peace by agreeing to pay Kanta what she wanted and hiring her from the next day. After outlining Kanta’s duties with great clarity and specifying the consequences of any neglect, she looked forward to the family being served well-organized meals and resuming a relaxed schedule with time for herself.
The placidity of her life had derailed when her previous cook had suddenly left after claiming he had received an urgent telegram from home that his mother was seriously ill. Of course, there had been no evidence of the mysterious telegram and it could have been a mere concoction of his imagination. But, there was no refuting such an urgent demand for release, and Kanika had bemoaned her fate. She hoped Kanta would help her put her life back on track. However, if peace could be bought so easily, how would we achieve the strength to combat vicissitudes and stay strong in adversity?
Contrary to Kanika’s expectations based on Kanta’s customary response, Kanta turned out to be a superlative cook and could rustle up a nutritious and delicious meal in record time. She endeared herself to the household with her scrumptious meals and willing smile. The children reduced their orders for home-delivered pizzas and burgers, their frequency being determined by the quality of the home-cooked meals. Relishing the dietary intake, Ravi started planning fewer dinner outings. In the next few weeks, a comfortable complacency enveloped the household as their bodies were nourished and strengthened for their daily routine.
Three weeks later, Ravi remarked skeptically, “Somehow, she’s too good to be true. No tantrums, no requests for advance, perfect cooking, comes on time! I’m sure there’s some bad news coming soon!”
Kanika pooh-poohed his dire prediction and claimed they were lucky to have found the perfect choice. Her mind had relaxed into a secure knowledge that her children would be well-fed even when she visited friends and enjoyed her leisure time purchasing trivia at the mall. With Kanta’s advent, she could resume her personal hobbies and fitness regime, such as her gym classes that she had had to put on hold.
Kanta’s ideal behaviour continued, and Kanika increasingly relinquished her sway in the kitchen and widened her social circle. She was satisfied with giving fewer and fewer verbal instructions to Kanta, sure that they would be executed even better than expected. She prayed that the idyllic situation would prove an exception to the norm and continue for a lifetime. After all, her mother’s maid Shanti had stayed with her for twenty-five years and proved to be an invaluable support in her old age.
Ravi blessed the advent of Kanta as his popularity in office grew and his associates complimented him on and clamoured to share his delicious meals. His return home was no longer greeted with a list of sour complaints but a relaxed and friendly greeting, and dinner time truly became quality time for the family with excited tales from the children, sharing of events during the day and reactions from a loving spouse.
After three months, as if to fulfill Ravi’s forecast, Kanta arrived straddling an infant about 15 months old. She said her husband had brought their young son from the village because her mother with whom they had left him had injured herself and could not cope with child-rearing. There was no-one to mind him at home and she had no place to leave him, so could the child sit in the kitchen while she worked? Kanika agreed.
But, within ten minutes, the child wailed aloud in despair when he saw no one devoting time to him. Kanta straddled him and rushed him out to the garden where she sweet-talked him into noticing the beauty of the flowers adorning the flower beds.
Momentarily lured by the bright colours of calla lilies arranged in abundant rows, the child forgot his grief and reached out to savour the touch of delicate petals. Yanked back from his foolhardy enterprise, he was about to emit another loud wail when he was stunned into silence by a slap across his face.
Kanta had lost patience. How was she to complete her cooking and cleaning when this troublesome babe would not let her go despite six months of separation and disciplining by his grandmother?
After the initial shock of the physical blow wore off, the infant wailed at twice the volume with justified aggravation. Meanwhile, the children, who were awaiting their breakfast, started calling out to Kanta, who rushed indoors to complete her chores in accompaniment to howls of rising decibels. Kanika, startled by the clamour as she emerged from her bath, called out to Kanta in alarm while Ravi, sitting in an armchair and perturbed while reading the newspaper, looked askance as if to say ‘I told you so; this spell was too good to last.’
As Kanta prepared and served breakfast, the infant’s unceasing wails reverberated in the house till Kanika, in exasperation, went to the kitchen, lifted the baby from the chair in which her mother had deposited him and carried him to the dining room.
“Mom, he is drooling. Look at the spit falling from his mouth!”
“So much noise, mom. And we are really late with breakfast. What if we miss the school bus?”
Her husband’s voice rang out from the verandah, “Kanika darling, I really want to read my newspaper in peace. I have a tough day ahead.”
Meanwhile, the infant simultaneously started urinating due to bowel pressure and yowling again to show his displeasure with the unknown Homo sapien who was carrying him. Kanika held him at arms’ length till she could thrust him into Kanta’s arms, who rushed off to the toilet to clean him up.
Swearing under her breath, Kanika took over the serving of breakfast to the children and then her husband with guided help from the bearer-cum-cleaner, Santoshi. It can be well understood that the crucial morning routine received inadequate attention due to the disruptive visitor and cast a shadow on Kanta’s suitability for the job, which had hitherto been unquestioned. In one stroke, it destroyed her reputation as the perfect choice of a cook for the household.
When the chaos had subsided after the departure of the children and Ravi, Kanika addressed Kanta, “Can you arrange to leave the infant with someone when you come to work?”
“There is no one to leave him with. My husband is on duty as well. I can ask my neighbour to take care of him for an hour or two, not more.”
Seeing the idyllic situation at home dissipating, Kanika offered another suggestion, “Let him get used to being on his own. Don’t pick him up when he cries. In a day or two, he’ll get used to you working. Only feed him lunch, and give him toilet training. In a year, I’ll help you put him in a nursery for the morning.”
Kanta signified her assent to Kanika’s proposal, and the experiment was tried out the next day. Her son had to leave an hour earlier that day as he had football coaching, and her daughter had also been warned by the teacher in charge of the school bus not to be late. Both stressed the importance of being served breakfast on time. Ravi, who had been working on an important presentation, said he would not brook any disruption of the morning schedule. Kanika nervously prayed for the co-operation and good sense of the uninvited guest to prevail.
However, the infant, which had been constantly ministered to by Kanta’s mother, wailed at the uncalled for neglect, which melted Kanta’s heart, and she rushed to tend to it. Straddled on Kanta’s hip, he grabbed at utensils, food ingredients and anything inviting to his senses till Kanta despaired of doing any work and the household erupted in turmoil again.
Santoshi was roped in to assist Kanta in the kitchen and do sundry tasks such as chopping vegetables. Claiming unfamiliarity with these chores, Santoshi begrudgingly severed brinjals and her thumbnail too and had to be rushed to the medicine cabinet for bandaging the injured thumb.
Having witnessed the pandemonium caused by the young visitor and after a disgruntled family had left for their morning routine, Kanika decided to be adequately prepared for its visit on the third day. The baby high chair last used by her daughter eleven years ago was ferreted out from the attic, dusted and cleaned by Santoshi, festooned with colourful baby toys suspended from its top rail and placed in the kitchen in preparedness for the young guest. A pack of diapers was purchased, and Santoshi’s duties were extended to looking after the infant while Kanta worked in the kitchen during the critical morning hours.
Unaware of and contrary to the preparations mounted for its arrival, the infant arrived in a somnolent state on the third day. Kanta explained that it had got fever the previous evening probably due to a startling change in its environment and caretaker.
So, instead of enjoying the colours and sounds of the hanging toys on its high chair, it numbly looked around it with half-closed eyes till Kanta announced she was leaving early to take him to the doctor. She stated she had just come to see the children off to school and saheb off to work.
The following day, Kanika received a call from Kanta that she would not be able to come to work as her son had most probably contracted malaria, to be confirmed by the blood test, and there was no one else to tend to him. She also asked Kanika to search for another cook as she wanted to take on only parttime work for two hours from 11 A.M. to 1 P.M. when she could leave the infant with her neighbor.
Kanika groaned in despair and Ravi looked at her with the expression of ‘I told you so!’ as she sat in the Interview Chair and met a new applicant for the job.