Bombay Letters: Servant Talk

May, 1998

Hello from Bombay,

We employ two servants, but it is hard to communicate what all that means if you don’t live with them and interact with them on a day-to-day basis.  I will share a few examples. This past Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m. the doorbell rings.  It is our driver, Hasmukh.  We had not asked for his services that evening even though we were going out.   He works 8‑6 Monday through Saturday and after that we pay him 40 rupees an hour ($1) overtime.  This past week we utilized his after-hours services a few times, partly because it is difficult to find parking once we arrive at our destination, and partly because it is his son’s birthday and we thought the extra income would help him purchase a gift.  That we thought the second one begins to get at what I mean by day-to-day living with and employing a servant.

So Hasmukh is at the door asking if we are going out that night.  Odd, I thought, but he is very nice, very polite, very trustworthy, so I wasn’t bothered or suspicious and told him, “Yes, as a matter of fact, we are.  We need to be somewhere at 8 o’clock.”  It bothered me a little, knowing that it bothers him when I drive.  Don’t misunderstand me.  He is not bothered because he is missing out on overtime, or because he is not tooling along in our lovely(?), luxury(?!), 1987 Toyota Van.  Oh no!  He’s bothered because Sahib (pronounced saab, like the car) is driving, something Sahibs or Memsahibs (Sahib’s wife) do not do.  In my typical American disregard for my proper station (which I am certain neither Hasmukh nor Patsy begrudge), I am doing something outside my calling and worse, doing something that is within his.

Forgive the digression, but here’s a great example of this mentality.   Many mornings, Eric likes me to take him to school (one minute from my office) early so he can study a bit before class.  The first morning I did that, Hasmukh was already on our office grounds, having driven his co‑employer, a colleague of mine, in early.  Hasmukh was standing on the sidewalk outside the open gates of the office’s compound and when he saw me make the right turn (across an opposing lane of traffic; remember we drive on the left here) he ran out into the street wanting to hop in to take over.  My first impulse was to get out and let him do it.  Then I thought, what on earth, I’m in the middle of traffic.  I smiled and motioned to Hasmukh that I would drive on in.  But he was very apologetic and anxious for me to GET OUT FROM BEHIND THE DRIVER’S SEAT so for goodness sake he could at least park it.

Back to last Saturday, Hasmukh told me with his modest English that he and his brother (a motor pool driver where I work) were going to the airport to pick up a dog that had been flown in from Karachi, Pakistan (owned by a colleague stationed there, I know Heather helped obtain the dog, but I don’t know the whole story).  He could take a taxi, he explained, but it would be a long, difficult trip, so could he use our van?  It takes a good hour to drive to the airport, possibly longer on a Saturday evening (at least going), and it would be worse in a cab.  So we arranged that if he could drive us to the Yacht Club (we were going to a Scottish Dance; not to watch, but to do), around 8 and pick us up between 10:30 and 11:00, then no problem.  And it solved our parking problem.  So we went.  And we danced.  And at 10:45 when we left the yacht Club and went downstairs, no Hasmukh.  As I mentioned, he is very trustworthy and he treats the car as if it were his own, if not better.  So I didn’t worry.  Until 11:15.  And 11:30.  Here we were, wife, 10 year-old daughter (who by now was exhausted) and me at the un‑air conditioned (straight out of the British era) Yacht Club of Bombay.  We were sweaty, uncomfortable, and wondering what was up.  We worried there had been a problem at the airport, or perhaps a breakdown or an accident.  By 11:45, we got a ride with some of the last departing folks from the dance.  I checked in the garage back at our place about 12:15.  Still no car!  I was exhausted, but I hated to go to sleep before I had heard what had happened, convinced by this time that whatever had happened was no doubt bad.  Just as I was dozing off on the couch, the doorbell rang.  It was 12:50.  I opened it and there stood Hasmukh, his brother Anil, and a cute little mutt of a dog on a leash.  They were very apologetic, said that the customs process had taken long, but finally, here they were.  I was just glad that everybody and the car were o.k.  And we got a thorough car cleaning out of the deal.  On the one hand, we worried some that evening but on the other, we have a grateful employee who feels even more loyal to us and who will continue to give us good service and help us care for our car.

Here’s another servant story:  This past week‑end, Patsy said goodbye to her daughter and husband.  They will not see each other again for a year.  Hubby and daughter are going back to his home place in the far north of India where he will have some job opportunities with the family and the girl, Preeah, will be able to go to a good school.  We asked Patsy why she is not moving, too.  Because she has a good job.  It especially makes Nita cringe to think that WE are that good job, and the $100 a month she makes with us is worth the separation.  I asked if Preeah cried when they left.  Not really, Patsy said, but her husband was concerned about leaving his wife in the big city.  Patsy assured him that her Sir and Madam (that’s what she calls us), would take good care of her.  Another heavy thing for us.  And though she will still have Sundays off, she will not be going back to her home, but will simply live in the tiny quarters we provide her next to our flat.  Along these lines, Hasmukh has a wife and two sons who live an overnight train trip north in Gujurat, a state in India.  Since he works six days a week, how often can he, too, see his family?  It is typical for many workers to be separated from their families for extended times for economic necessities.

Two  more servant quickies:  Katie and I made fig jam this evening.  I rinsed the pots a bit but didn’t wash a thing, knowing that Patsy will be glad to do it tomorrow.  Also, they sell both sweet and (one of my favorite fruits) sour cherries here.  I intend to get sour cherries for pies, and preserves.  And guess who will do the odious job of pitting the cherries?  Not Sahib or his wife, that’s for sure.

Things here are fine.  Many thanks for the e‑mail, regular mail, and, yes, even the few phone calls we’ve gotten.  If you’re feeling adventuresome, a great time to call is Friday night U.S. time, which is Saturday morning our time.

Much love, Gary Sahib, Nita Memsahib, the two Sahiblings and the Memsahiblette

About literarylee

I sling words for a living. Always have, always will. Some have been interesting and fun; most not. These days, I write the fun words early in the morning before the adults are up and make me eat my Cream of Wheat.
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